Gigolo Trial Trial to Begin for Man Who Duped Germany's Richest Woman

A Swiss gigolo who allegedly charmed and then blackmailed Germany's richest woman for millions will go on trial next week. The titilating case has made headlines across Europe. Helg Sgarbi will be the only defendent in the case, but evidence suggests he did not act alone.

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Helg Sgarbi had expected Jan. 14, 2008 to be the most successful day of his life. He was sitting in his 300 Series Mercedes at a highway rest stop in Vomp, Austria, waiting for €14 million ($17.5 million) -- his loot, the money he expected to receive after blackmailing Germany's richest woman, Susanne Klatten. There was no doubt in his mind that she would pay up. Sgarbi is a gigolo, a master in the art of sizing up rich women, of gauging their desires, hopes and weaknesses, and he had hardly ever been wrong. At least not before Klatten and not until that day in January. Instead of sending money, Klatten sent the police.

As far as investigators were concerned, Sgarbi's arrest in a drab parking lot put an end to the criminal career of a gigolo who had charmed his way into the lonely hearts of wealthy women. Sgarbi was a man who traded in grand emotions, using them to create addiction and dependency in his female victims, until their ecstasy turned into a horror trip, complete with threats, blackmail and demands for money. Before Klatten, Sgarbi's modus operandi was to secretly videotape his amorous encounters with women and then blackmail them by threatening to release the images to the media.

Sgarbi will face the music for his misdeeds on March 9, when his criminal trial begins in a Munich district court. With more than 100 accredited journalists in attendance, it has been touted as the trial of the year. But when the 44-year-old Sgarbi, a Swiss citizen, appears in the dock, where he will undoubtedly be portrayed as an evil doer, one man will be missing in the courtroom: the presumed mastermind behind the crime -- 63-year-old Ernano Barretta.

Barretta, an Italian citizen, will not be an issue in the Munich court, and neither will the most important question, especially when it comes to the sentence. Was Sgarbi completely responsible for the seven counts of fraud, attempted fraud and attempted extortion with which he is being charged by prosecutors? Or was he merely something of a remote-controlled precision instrument for Barretta, a guru from Abruzzo, a town near Rome, who liked to tell people he could walk on water?

The prosecutor's 12-page indictment reads as if Barretta didn't exist. The name never appears. Sgarbi, too, has done everything possible to ensure that Barretta, who is under house arrest in Italy, will not play a role in his Munich trial. Sgarbi has made no statements or offered any information that could incriminate Barretta. As a result, the Munich trial is about the heartbreaker and not the manipulator, about outcomes instead of insights, and about passing judgment instead of uncovering the truth.

When police arrested Sgarbi in Vomp, he wasn't alone. Barretta, sitting in a new Audi Q7, was also waiting in the parking lot. When investigators searched Barretta's car, they found a piece of paper with the name "Klatten" written on it, as well as the names of three other women, who could also be called to testify in Munich -- as witnesses of Sgarbi's talent for capturing their hearts, and as evidence of the ways in which he sought to get hold of their money, as prosecutors argue.

But that's not all that incriminates Barretta. Investigators learned that he stayed in room 630 at the Holiday Inn in Munich on Aug. 21, 2007. Sgarbi and Klatten were staying next door, in room 629. It was on that day that the video was secretly made for which Klatten, a major shareholder in BMW and Altana, would later be blackmailed to the tune of €14 million ($17.5 million).

In Vomp, the Austrian Cobra special police unit arrested Sgarbi and Barretta. But then the Austrians extradited Sgarbi to Germany and allowed Barretta to return home to the mountain village of Pescosansonesco. Italian investigators bugged his telephone and his car and then waited for something to happen. In May, Barretta was arrested after investigators overheard a phone conversation in which Barretta's associates had discussed plans to smuggle €120,000 ($150,000) to Egypt. The police arrested Barretta, his son Marcello and his fiancée at the airport in Rome. When police searched Barretta's property after the arrest, they found €1.7 million ($2.1 million).

The Germans would have liked to have Barretta extradited, but the Italians refused. Since then, there have been two principal defendants in the matter, but only one is being targeted by Munich prosecutors: Sgarbi, the Swiss gigolo who bewitched and beguiled unsuspecting women.

Anton Winkler, a spokesman for the Munich public prosecutor's office, stresses that no deal has been reached with Sgarbi's attorneys. The maximum sentence is 15 years, and prosecutors were not expected to ask for a significantly lighter sentence.

The ball is now in the defense attorneys' court, and prosecutors are waiting to hear the opening remarks of Frankfurt attorney Egon Geis and his Swiss colleague Till Gontersweiler on March 9. Will their client make a confession, after all? "That would make things go a lot faster," says prosecution spokesman Winkler. And if he says nothing? Then the next step will be to hear the evidence. "Then the women will be called to testify," says Winkler. Klatten has agreed to testify, but only if there is no confession. If Sgarbi pleads guilty, she will be spared the embarrassment of having to testify in the trial.

This explains why so much attention is being focused on the opening of the trial, as if there were only two possibilities: a confession, which would shave off a few years of Sgarbi's sentence, or a lengthy trial, in which the defense could wear down the court, question the credibility of witnesses and wait for search for technicalities.

On the other hand, no one seems interested in a third possibility -- as obvious as it may be. So far, not even Sgarbi's attorneys have attempted to exonerate their client by shining the spotlight on his presumed accomplice Barretta. Is this because Sgarbi won't allow it? Past associates claim that he could never do anything that would harm Barretta. This, they say, is precisely the evidence of his dependency. Sgarbi's attorney, Geis, has made a point of no longer commenting on the case before the trial begins.

But even prosecutors have made no attempt to illuminate the relationship between the two men, at least not according to the indictment. Both the prosecution and the defense have declined to request a psychological evaluation of Sgarbi. Moreover, prosecution spokesman Winkler says that he does "not envision" an expert's report arising from the case. When asked why Barretta's name doesn't appear in the indictment, even though he was arrested at the same time and in the same place, Winkler says: "We assume that they were accomplices." This admission makes Barretta's omission from the indictment all the more bizarre.

Is it because he is far away in Italy? Or because it could be revealed that Sgarbi was dependent on Barretta, which could lead to a milder sentence? "The defendant in the case is Mr. Sgarbi, not Mr. Barretta," Winkler says plainly.

It now seems that whatever ties the two men together is seen as irrelevant, despite the fact that Sgarbi has been trapped in his mentor's magnetic field for almost 20 years and there are ample indications of dependency.

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