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.
A Mafia or Sect-Like Group
Barretta's life began in poverty, as one of 10 children, but it also began in Pescosansonesco, a pilgrimage site. As a child, he saw the pilgrims flocking to the town, and the ardor with which they prayed to the Blessed Nunzio Sulprizio. The experience apparently taught him that the best way to avoid poverty in the future was to rely on the beneficial effects of deep religious faith. He moved to Switzerland to make money working as an auto mechanic, but in addition to working in his profession he appeared to have brought along a calling. He seemed to exude an aura, the purity of a simple man from the countryside, and he used hackneyed elements of Catholic popular belief to enhance his persona, and he quickly gathered supporters in Zürich. Academics were especially enchanted and enraptured when, after receiving Communion together, he would ask them to step into an adjacent room so that he could "heal" them.
According to some of his former followers, Barretta soon divided the most dedicated members of his group into departments: one to manage the car dealership he had built, one for member recruitment and one for advertising. The advertising department, through ads placed in newspapers, was to collect donations for alleged charitable purposes, while the "Product Sales" division marketed cheese and olive oil from Pescosansonesco. But the most important department was the one dealing with finances. That department, says a former member of the group, was headed by an optimistic law school graduate who had joined the group in the early 1990s: Helg Russak, who later changed his last name to Sgarbi after getting married.
To make sure that none of his disciples lost their belief that Barretta had a special connection to God, he performed miracle upon miracle. Blood miracles were especially popular. Former members told the Zürich Tages-Anzeiger newspaper that on some days, especially Fridays, Barretta bled from his hands and feet, just like Jesus on the cross. Barretta's explanation was that he was suffering for the sins of his disciples. At other times, the former members say, Barretta was found praying in a puddle of blood, and on one occasion a bloody cross supposedly appeared at the house door, as if put there by a divine hand. The constant blood loss was so substantial that the necessary raw material for Barretta's "miracles" had to be purchased local butchers, as former members claim.
Barretta was quick to grant himself absolution for the occasional act of trickery. But the earthly courts were not as forgiving, and in 1990 Barretta was given an 11-month suspended sentence for dealing in stolen cars, and in 2001 he was sentenced to almost three months in prison for violating a local zoning ordinance.
Former members also felt duped by Barretta, who proved to be hypocritical and only interested in their money. In 1994, the district prosecutor's office in Zürich investigated allegations that he had made his followers dependent on him and then persuaded them to give him money. The matter was dropped after Barretta returned to Abruzzo.
He constantly urged his disciples to give him money -- from their salaries and their retirement accounts. He used the money to gradually buy up a small empire in Pescosansonesco. Today, his family owns nine pieces of property there, including the lavish Hotel Rifugio Valle Grande.
At the time, Barretta was already particularly fond of Helg Russak, the later Helg Sgarbi. "In Italy, each of us was symbolically a disciple of Jesus," a former member told the Tages-Anzeiger. Russak was Peter, the favorite disciple, the rock on which Jesus wanted to build his church. It was because of this role that Russak was permitted to lay the cornerstone for the foundation of Barretta's hotel. "He felt great responsibility for the project. With brain-washing and the power of suggestion, Barretta had made him his right-hand man. Russak was no longer himself. He was Barretta," says the former member. He was already apparently working as a gigolo at the time. "Barretta," says another former member, "told him that money is sin, and that it was Russak's duty to cleanse rich women of their money and redirect it for good purposes." Russak married a Swiss woman in 2003. She too lived in Pescosansonesco as a disciple, and she was one of the people who are described in the following way in the files of the public prosecutor's office in Pescara, Italy: "They were psychologically conditioned and were used to perform work, like slaves, or as straw men in Barretta's illegal business dealings."
Sgarbi usually worked on the road. In 2003, after bilking the 83-year-old Monegasque Comtesse Verena du Pasquier-Geubels for at least seven million francs, the courts became aware of his connection to Barretta. He had attempted to blackmail Christina Weyer, a friend of the Comtesse, with compromising videos of sexual encounters they had had.
The wife of Hans-Hermann Weyer, a trader in nobility and academics titles nicknamed the "handsome consul," had spied on Sgarbi and, according to a verdict by a district court in Bülach, Switzerland, had reproached Barretta on his answering machine. Weyer claimed that Barretta was the reason Sgarbi had become mixed up with a Mafia-like or sect-like organization.
Weyer had attempted to peer behind Sgarbi's attractive mask, but he was undeterred. Like Barretta, he was a gifted and unforgiving illusionist, adept at calculating his effect on affluent women -- from older to ancient, and from rich to fabulously wealthy. Elegant, with a trace of sadness in his boyish face, Sgarbi aroused a long-dormant emotion in many women: the feeling of being needed, coveted and valuable -- not because of their money, but because of the people they once were, before they became wealthy, or because of the people they had always wanted to be, despite their wealth.
In late 2005, he met the 64-year-old wife of a furniture dealer from Lower Bavaria. Sgarbi told the woman that he was born in Rio, was an unwanted child and had been on his own since the age of 16. She took pity on him and, as she later told police, it felt good to commiserate with him. "He was so fascinating," the woman said.
He began by using his favorite story on the woman, telling her that he had been involved in a car accident in the United States, and had been found guilty and ordered to pay $1.2 million -- or go to jail. She gave him half the money, but before long he had come up with another story, claiming that someone had stolen his laptop in Rome, and that it contained intimate pictures he had taken of the two of them. Now, he said, the mafia was blackmailing him. The woman is believed to have paid Sgarbi a total of €2.1 million ($2.6 million).
Sgarbi skewered his next victim at the Hotel Lanserhof, a luxury spa near Innsbruck, Austria, which had become his preferred hunting ground. Between whole-grain fare and herbal tea, he bewitched 48-year-old Monika S., in the summer of 2007, capturing her heart and, according to the indictment, removing €294,000 ($368,000) from her bank account. He allegedly asked another woman, Elfriede R., to lend him €800,000 ($1 million), but she turned him down.
Then Klatten, 46, turned up at the Lanserhof. Sgarbi found her, caught her and took her hiking. At first, he told her about the seemingly ordinary details of his life, about attending law school and about his former job at a bank. Later on, he became more mysterious, hinting that he was a special envoy for the Swiss government, that he worked in crisis regions, had a diplomatic passport and was involved in discreet missions.
Of course, it was all made up, as was the sudden stroke of fate -- his usual story. One day, he called Klatten to tell her that he had just returned from the United States. He said that he had hit a child while driving and had to pay a mafia family €10 million ($12.5 million), and that he already had €3 million of his own money. Klatten, touched by the story, met him in the underground parking garage at the Munich Holiday Inn, where she gave him €7 million ($8.75 million) -- as a loan. But it apparently wasn't enough for Sgarbi. According to prosecutors, in room 629 at the Holiday Inn, at 4:12 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2007, he secretly videotaped at least 38 minutes of footage of him and Klatten in a compromising situation. According to the charges, Sgarbi threatened to mail the tape -- to Klatten's husband or perhaps to the press.
If that was the case, was Sgarbi acting alone? And what was Barretta doing in room 630, and what was he doing in the parking lot in Vomp, when Sgarbi was arrested? And who cashed in Klatten's €7 million? Sgarbi lived in a studio apartment in Switzerland for years and drove an old Mercedes, despite the many millions he had already extorted from women. The only things he had in abundance were images of Jesus and statues of the saints.
Barretta, on the other hand, lived in a villa, drove a Rolls-Royce, a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, and in one of his wiretapped conversations he said, referring to the Klatten case: "Do you know who this is? The richest woman in Germany. She has great power. I have made the biggest mistake of my life."
On March 24, the court in Pescara will rule on whether to allow the indictment against Barretta. He recently told an Italian newspaper that he is "100 percent innocent," that he knows nothing about extortion money and that he has earned every euro honestly. As a good Catholic, Barretta said, he never ran a sect. His attorney, Sabatino Ciprietti, added that Sgarbi was merely a friend of Barretta's, and that this was why the two men were both in Vomp and at the Munich Holiday Inn at the same time. He made no mention of dependency, but he did insist that his client has nothing to do with the Klatten case. The lawyer said that he had nothing to say about anything that may have transpired in Switzerland in the past, in the supposed Barretta group. Barretta himself was unwilling to speak to SPIEGEL.
But Public Prosecutor Gennaro Varone believes that Barretta was behind Sgarbi's actions. "Sgarbi is someone who allows himself to be manipulated by someone like Barretta. There is no doubt about it," says one of the investigators. But apparently none of this will play a particularly significant role in the Munich trial, although there is still one element of unpredictability: What is going on in Sgarbi's head. Otherwise, there is good reason to expect a confession, especially in a case involving seven criminal counts. According to court officials, the Klatten case alone could put Sgarbi behind bars for five years. First there is the large amount involved in the presumed fraud case -- €7 million. And then there is the matter of attempted blackmail.
Even if his attorneys try to fight the fraud charges, perhaps by questioning whether Klatten even expected Sgarbi to pay back her millions, there will be too many other charges left over. There are the other women, whose cases, when combined with Klatten's, could elevate the charges to suspected racketeering. An experienced criminal defense lawyer estimates that Sgarbi could get seven to eight years in prison, but only if he confesses right away. For this reason, a confession is the safest strategy for securing a reduced sentence -- for coming to his sentences, perhaps remorse, and for protecting the witnesses. And if he confesses, Sgarbi will also have achieved something else: That the name Barretta will not be mentioned once in Munich.