A Polish man was convicted this week of kidnapping a then-20-year-old U.K. model last summer, holding her for ransom for several days after luring her to Italy and drugging her in an obsessive plot, according to the Associated Press, the BBC and The Guardian.
All the while the woman, Chloe Ayling, believed she might die or be sold as a sex slave for hundreds of thousands of dollars, she later said.
She said she was told her captor, 30-year-old Lukasz Herba, was a member of a gang and that she had been targeted for trafficking by the “Black Death Group.”
Eventually, however, Herba admitted to being the sole kidnapper with alleged aid from his brother, who Italian authorities are also seeking to prosecute. (The brother has said he was not involved, the BBC reports.)
Ayling’s ordeal began when she traveled from south London to Milan believing she had been booked for a photoshoot. Instead she was drugged with the tranquilizer ketamine, handcuffed and zipped into a bag before being driven in the trunk of a car to a farmhouse outside Turin, more than 100 miles away.
In total Ayling was a captive for six days in July before she was released at a British consulate in Italy. Herba later told investigators she was freed because she had a child.
The case’s unusual details made international headlines — further fueled by Herba’s claim that his crimes were actually an elaborate ruse meant, with Ayling’s consent, to help her financially and professionally. He contented he was “in love” and has continually protested his innocence.
Authorities disagreed and Herba was sentenced to 16 years and nine months in prison after being found guilty on Monday of abducting Ayling for ransom. He was also convicted on charges of attempted extortion and carrying false documents.
According to the BBC, the court found that Ayling had no role in her abduction.
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“This has been an incredible burden on her shoulders for the last year, in the face of media criticism of her motivation, and this is vindication,” Ayling’s agent, Adrian Sington, said after the guilty verdict was announced, according to the Guardian.
“Her story is true.”
“It means now she can get on with her life,” Sington said. “It’s hard if you’re being painted in the press as a liar, and now she’s able to say, ‘I know it’s a bizarre story but it’s a true one.’ ”
Neither Herba’s attorney nor Ayling’s representatives immediately returned PEOPLE’s requests for comment on Tuesday. Efforts to reach prosecutors in Milan were unsuccessful.
“I’ve been through a terrifying experience,” Ayling told reporters last summer, after returning to the London area, the BBC reports. “I’ve feared for my life, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour.”
“I’m incredibly grateful to the Italian and U.K. authorities for all they have done to secure my safe release,” Ayling said then. “I have just arrived home after four weeks of being in Italy and I haven’t had time to gather my thoughts. I am not at liberty to say anything further until I have been debriefed by the UK police.”
Herba’s attorney said this week she intends to appeal and that the court should have taken into account that Ayling was not physically hurt by her kidnapping, which should have reduced Herba’s sentence, according to the AP.
However, prosecutors said at trial that Ayling could have been killed during her abduction, from the mix of her drugging and captivity.
Police also testified that she was physically and mentally abused.
“I never hurt the girl. I was not violent with her,” Herba claimed in court. “If she felt forced verbally in any way, I am very sorry. But it certainly was not as Chloe has described.”
“I was in love, and I was hoping that once her fame took off that she would repay me with feelings and we would share the money,” he said.
Sington, Ayling’s agent, had other words to describe Herba: “psychopath and a narcissist.”
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According to the BBC, Sington said, “Let’s not forget she was bundled into a suitcase, injected with ketamine in the boot of a car and thought she was going to die.”
In August, Ayling reportedly said that while she understood “why people have questions,” she also wanted others to “to understand that everything I did was so I could survive.”
“I was in a crazy situation and I was terrified every minute,” she said in an interview with the British press. “I thought I was never going to get home. It has been so frustrating and hurtful to have people not believe me and to cast doubt on what I have been through.”