An Italian court convicted a Polish man Monday of kidnapping a 20-year-old British model for ransom, rejecting the defendant's claim that the abduction was staged to boost the victim's career.
The court sentenced Lukasz Herba to 16 years and nine months in prison — a month longer than prosecutors requested. Herba denied guilt throughout the trial, even as his story shifted, and left the courtroom in handcuffs without comment.
The lawyer for British model Chloe Ayling, Francesco Pesce, called it "quite an important verdict." He said he planned now to seek half a million euros ($590,000) in compensation for Ayling, though conceded it was unlikely Herba would be able to pay.
Defense lawyer Katia Kolakowska, expressed disappointment that the court did not take into account that Ayling emerged from the ordeal physically unharmed. Kolakowska said that would have limited the sentence to between one and eight years. She said she would appeal.
In his closing arguments, prosecutor Paolo Storari cited the possibility that Ayling could have died during the July 11-17, 2017 kidnapping in seeking a lengthy prison sentence for Herba.
The six-day kidnapping and Ayling's release garnered global attention, in part because of the model's professional life and in part because of the case's details.
Herba at first claimed to be working with a group that auctioned young women off on encrypted internet sites. He also said he had extensive experience with international secret services, including the Mossad and CIA.
During the trial, prosecutor Storari said the kidnapping started with the promise of a modeling job. After being lured to Milan, Ayling was knocked out with a drug, zipped inside a canvas bag and transported to a farmhouse, where she was handcuffed to the furniture for at least the first night, he said.
In a declaration that defendants are allowed to have in an Italian court, Herba said he had been in love with Ayling and they concocted the kidnap plot to help her overcome financial difficulties after the birth of her son.
"I never hurt the girl. I was not violent with her," Herba said. "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.
Previous testimony showed the two had met on Facebook and saw each other in person at least once before her pregnancy.
Herba was arrested when he released Ayling at the Milan consulate. In his initial statement to police, he said he did so out of sympathy for her role as a mother.
Ayling told investigators she never tried to escape, even when she accompanied Herba into a store to buy shoes, because she was terrified, believing his threats that he was part of a bigger Romanian criminal gang that had eyes on her constantly.
She said she was told she would be auctioned off online since she was not able to come up with 300,000 euros ($355,000) that the criminal "Black Death" group was seeking. She said Herba showed her photos of other girls who were reportedly being sold over the deep web.
But in his shifting story line, Herba also testified previously that he concocted the alleged criminal group and that his brother — not a Romanian criminal group — helped him in the scheme agreed to by Ayling.
Italian prosecutors are seeking the brother's extradition from Britain.
Herba said he didn't tell police that Ayling was in on the deception initially because he believed she would come forward to defend him.
Storari, in his closing arguments, noted that Herba had invested at least 10,000 euros (nearly $11,800) in the kidnapping, taking into account real estate rentals and travel. He said it was unrealistic that Herba would have done so only to get ransom money through a young woman without any means.
The prosecutor also cited Herba's purchase of two ski masks, which Chloe said she saw kidnappers wearing when she was freed from the canvas bag, and the exchange of notes with his brother about cleaning the car trunk well to make sure there were no traces of her hair.
During closing arguments, Herba's lawyer cited an email she received from a film producer, who pointed out that Ayling's story closely matches the plot of an American movie titled "By Any Means," released about eight weeks before the 2017 kidnapping.
Ayling's lawyer, Pesce, dismissed the attempt to discredit his client, saying "there have been films made about every crime in the world."
He also said Ayling was considering possible civil action in British courts against media that accused her of lying about being a victim to become famous.
"There were many cases in which she was publicly shamed about this," Pesce said.