The World’s Greatest Con Man: Helg Sgarbi

Seducing, swindling, and blackmailing European matrons, Helg Sgarbi perfected a scam that made him a fortune. Then one day he met the billionaire BMW heiress

(Details, October 2009. Photo: Miguel Villagran/Getty Images Europe)

THE GIGOLO IS NOT an attractive man. Thin-lipped and angular, Helg Sgarbi appears more bookish than rakish, and his blue eyes seem to telegraph a constant message: vulnerability and need. When I enter the visiting room at Munich’s Stadelheim prison, he is slouched behind a long wooden table, sandwiched between two other inmates. A little girl plays on the floor while two brothers argue in low tones. Dressed in blue prison jeans and a collared jersey, arms folded high, Sgarbi looks bored, accustomed as he is to the salons of Monte Carlo, the spa resorts of Austria, and the company of sad, doting rich women.

When he sees me approach, followed by a translator, he appears startled. Sgarbi is expecting his lawyer, not a complete stranger. Perhaps I am a hit man, sent by a cuckolded husband. A former Credit Suisse banker, the 44-year-old Sgarbi used to make his living preying on lonely women of means, seducing them, videotaping them having sex with him, and blackmailing them. That is, until the summer of 2007, when he took on three for-profit affairs simultaneously, including the one with his prize catch—Susanne Klatten, the married heiress to the BMW fortune and the richest woman in Germany, worth $12 billion—who became his downfall. Tabloids called him the “Swiss Gigolo,” and he ranks as the most notorious con-man Lothario in the world today, a grifter accused of swindling a half-dozen women (though one eventually dropped the charges) out of more than $38 million in the course of his career.

I assure Sgarbi I am not here to hurt him, that I have met with his lawyer. He cuts me off: “You spoke to my lawyer about my case?” he says in English. “I did not give permission.” In fact, Sgarbi’s attorney offered to broker an interview—for a few hundred euros—and is looking to cut a deal for the film rights to Sgarbi’s life story. You can see Sgarbi struggling to keep up with who is selling what to whom. “I am sorry you have come all this way,” he says, sounding quite genteel, as he stands. “But there is nothing that I can tell you.”

There is plenty Sgarbi could say but hasn’t. In March, he averted what would surely have been a long and sensational trial by delivering a bombshell five-line confession on his first day in court. It conveniently saved him and the powerful Klatten, or “Lady BMW,” as the press calls her, from having to air in public the lurid details of their affair—which included a videotaped sex romp at a Holiday Inn. Although prosecutors asked that Sgarbi serve nine years in prison for fraud and blackmail, the judges sentenced him to only six after he confessed. Sgarbi, who is fluent in six languages, got to keep his mouth shut—and his ill-gotten millions hidden.

But now comes a noisy sideshow that could threaten Sgarbi’s fortune. This month, Italian prosecutors will put Sgarbi’s alleged puppet-master, a 64-year-old former mechanic, on trial for “criminal association.” Police say Ernano Barretta, an Italian religious-sect leader who claims to be a faith healer and allegedly has used female followers for sex, controlled Sgarbi, helping him target women, videotape them, and spend their money—conveniently enough, by buying resort properties in Egypt and splurging on Ferraris and Lamborghinis. What Barretta couldn’t spend, Italian prosecutors say, he buried on his estate, near a 13th-century village close to the Adriatic coast.

When police raided the compound after Sgarbi’s arrest in early 2008, they found €1.5 million in cash stuffed in vases, a suit of armor, and moldy tin cans buried in the yard. Among seven people arrested that day were Barretta’s wife, his adult son and daughter, several waitresses from a wedding hall Barretta runs, and Sgarbi’s wife, Franziska, who lives in the village with their 3-year-old daughter.

With his wife and friends charged as co-conspirators, Sgarbi receives no visitors. Out of loneliness or curiosity, or perhaps just to practice his gamesmanship, he finally invites me to sit, but he remains suspicious. “There are two stories,” Sgarbi says, “the lies they tell about me and my family and the person who I am. I feel very sorry for me and my friends involved in this case.” The legendary ladies’ man, who bragged he could “read women like a map” and noted that in the female “everything is signposted,” is absorbed in self-pity.

Soon, though, he is peppering me with personal queries (how long have I been a journalist? How was my flight? Do I read the Economist?). He shows interest in my responses, what appears to be genuine empathy—a trait that must have helped him gain victims’ trust. “He seemed,” one woman told investigators, “very unthreatening.”

Helg Sgarbi was born Helg Russak in Zurich, the son of the deputy director of a machine and diesel-engine factory in the Swiss industrial center of Winterthur. He spent several years of his childhood in Brazil, after his father got work there as an engineer. At 22, he joined the Swiss Army. He later attended law school in Zurich, graduating in 1992 and going to work at Credit Suisse. These are facts Sgarbi is willing to discuss. Other details are murkier.

Sgarbi liked to gain sympathy from women by spinning his middle-class upbringing into a hard-luck story of lost wealth—he had a falling-out with his father over an inheritance, he would tell them, and had raised himself since he was a teen. He would also claim he had the ears of prominent businessmen like Josef Ackermann, the head of Deutsche Bank. There were elements of truth in his tales. Ackermann had served as president of Credit Suisse’s executive board during the four years that Sgarbi worked at the bank, in mergers and acquisitions. “Afterwards,” admits Sgarbi’s lawyer, Egon Geis, “his life is not so well-known.” Sgarbi tells me, with great enthusiasm, that after leaving Credit Suisse he became a corporate consultant, “taking tech companies public.” But he refuses to name any of them. He also boasts of having opened a translation company with 300 employees worldwide, called Technology Business Development. “It no longer exists,” he says.

We’re now sitting across from each other. After 30 minutes, he is more relaxed—and voluble. “I always try to find a niche,” he tells me, “some new element to exploit.”

It’s unclear what Sgarbi was up to after leaving Credit Suisse in 1996, but much of what is known comes from court records. In 2001, he drew the attention of Swiss authorities when his new fiancée, 83-year-old Countess Verena du Pasquier-Guebels, reported that 20 million Swiss francs ($19 million) had gone missing from her bank accounts. Police arrested Sgarbi that September and charged him with extortion and theft. Sgarbi returned the 20 million francs to his dowager bride-to-be. Feeling sorry for him, the countess dropped the charges. She died the next year; by then Sgarbi had sponged from her or otherwise cost her 7 million francs, for which he was never charged.

How many more affairs he had over the next three or four years is unclear. But in 2005, he seduced the 64-year-old wife of a German furniture-maker. By this point his grift had evolved from simple transfers of money into a brilliant two-phase scam. In this case, he told the woman he had struck a child with his car in the United States; if he did not pay €1.2 million, he would face jail time. He persuaded her to put up half the money in cash. Then he turned the screw, saying he had secretly photographed the two of them having sex (“to have something to occupy myself with in between our rendezvous,” he told her) and that his laptop had been stolen. The Mafia had gotten hold of it and was threatening to make the images public unless he paid €1.2 million. The woman borrowed the money from a bank and brought it to Sgarbi, who simply took the bundle of cash from her hands and sped off in a van. She told police, “He didn’t even say thank you.”

But this was only a test run for the con he would work at one of Europe’s toniest spa resorts.

The Hotel Lanserhof is a luxury spa near the Habsburgs’ summer palace in Innsbruck, Austria, the type of retreat bored wealthy women seek out when they want to pay more than $300 for a “deep liver detox” and sip herbal tea in white robes while gazing out on the Alps. In short, it is the perfect hunting ground for a gigolo.

Sgarbi arrived, in the summer of 2007, with a sad story: His wife had run off with a Spaniard and he had come here to heal his soul. He quickly ingratiated himself with the well-heeled matrons: He displayed impeccable manners and an apparent pedigree. They loved that Sgarbi listened, he understood—unlike their busy husbands. He was an expert flirt, “more or less the ‘flame’ of women a certain age,” one of his victims that summer later told police. “Women absolutely wanted to know more about him.”

For his first big score, he seduced Monika Sandler, a 49-year-old German divorcée and owner of a textile empire. Within days of meeting her, Sgarbi was staying at her home in the Austrian ski resort of Kitzbühel. “I realized he had a rather spiritual vein,” Sandler told police. And a physical one—there was lots of sex, “in several hotels, several times, in various cities,” she said, “in Rome, Munich, and my home in Kitzbühel.”

On July 4, 12 days after they met, Sgarbi made his move. He called Sandler in a panic, telling her that his car had struck a motorcyclist in Bologna and had left a child injured. He turned up at her home later with a neck brace, scratches, and a harrowing tale: The Mafia was threatening him over the child and blackmailing him for nearly €3 million. He had been able to raise all but the last €300,000, he told Sandler. “He did not ask me directly for the money,” she said. “But I decided with hesitation to help him.”

Soon he had dropped out of sight, claiming he had been forced into hiding because the Mafia was still threatening him. In fact, he had returned to the Hotel Lanserhof and landed the biggest mark of his life.

Susanne Klatten is tall, shy, and discreet. At 47 years old, she has pretty blue eyes and the short blond hair favored by executive working moms. Despite her wealth, she has maintained a low public profile. For good reason. She is a member of the ultra-guarded and prudent Quandt dynasty, Germany’s wealthiest and most powerful family and one of its most controversial. Her great-grandfather, Gunther Quandt, made equipment for U-boats and for V2 rockets for the Nazis, reportedly with slave labor from concentration camps.

Klatten had been the target of a kidnapping plot when she was 16 years old. She is so protective of her identity that when she met her future husband, Jan, she did not tell him she was heir to an industrial fortune. As she built her career at places like Young & Rubicam, she worked under assumed names. She has an M.B.A., with an emphasis in advertising, and sits on the boards of BMW and the multi-billion-dollar chemical giant Altana, in which she owns an 88 percent stake.

Klatten arrived at the Lanserhof on July 9 for a two-week holiday. According to Sgarbi, he checked in three days later. He sidled up to her as she was reading The Alchemist, the inspirational tale of a young shepherd pursuing his dreams. “My favorite book,” he said. Soon they were taking walks in the mountains and having tea together. Klatten told police she found Sgarbi “charming, attentive, and at the same time kind of sad. That stirred a feeling in me that we had something in common.”

After they both left the Lanserhof, Sgarbi continued seducing her with a constant stream of text messages. In August, he turned up at her vacation home in the south of France, proclaiming his love for her. His words apparently touched a nerve: The pair consummated the affair a few days later, on August 21, in a Munich Holiday Inn. Sgarbi chose Room 629—a few steps from the elevator, which led directly to the underground garage—because it offered the most privacy.

But Klatten proved to be a tougher nut than his previous conquests. About a week later, he summoned her to an urgent meeting at a Munich airport hotel, where he told his now well-rehearsed accident story: a little girl left paraplegic. “I said, ‘Stop it now. The responsibility is yours. You have to confront this situation by yourself,'” Klatten told police. “I immediately had the feeling he would ask me for money.”

But Sgarbi did not ask—then or ever. No seasoned con man would be so direct; it made more sense to let Klatten come around on her own—and she did. “I thought he was asking for help from me in an emergency. I reflected again on these facts, feeling bad about how I had treated this man,” she said. “I refused to help a person that really needed it.” Sgarbi had appealed to her noblesse oblige as he surgically set his hook. “You see things much too materialistically,” he said to her. “At the basis of this we are dealing with love. It’s a matter of love.”

Sgarbi told Klatten he had raised €3 million but needed to come up with another €7 million, or $10 million—a third of the total each for the girl’s family, the lawyers, and a fund to help the girl in the future. This last gesture had been Sgarbi’s idea, he told Klatten, who was clearly touched. “I am helping somebody out,” she told an associate. And she came up with a phrase to use when discussing the €7 million. As it was going “for a higher cause,” helping the girl, they would call it “7-Up.”

On September 11, Klatten pulled into the Holiday Inn’s underground garage with a moving box stuffed with €7 million in plastic-wrapped €200 notes. It’s hard to imagine what was going through her mind. “She was in love,” says Thomas Steinkraus-Koch, a German prosecutor who interrogated Klatten. “And Sgarbi is a professional. This is not his first time in this.” Sgarbi checked that the money was inside the box and then drove off.

“After the exchange of money, he told me he wanted to have a fixed relationship with me,” Klatten told police, according to a transcript of her interrogation. Sgarbi had rented an apartment near the Holiday Inn. On September 29, Klatten met him there. It was in an ugly building, facing an office complex. “As soon as I entered I was scared, because one could see very well the workers in the offices,” Klatten said. Meaning the workers could see into the apartment too. Also, curiously, there was no furniture (Sgarbi had the gumption to tell Germany’s richest woman that he could pick some up at IKEA).

But Klatten had other reasons to worry. Her husband, Jan, had opened her phone bills and spotted the numerous calls to Sgarbi’s Swiss cell phone. When she told Sgarbi about the escalating tensions with Jan, rather than sympathy he offered an ultimatum: “You will have to tell your husband you are leaving him for me,” he said. Sgarbi admitted he had nothing to offer financially, but suggested she bring along €290 million, which he could invest in a fund to get them started.

It was then Klatten sensed things had turned ugly. “I had the impression this situation had become a real danger for all of the family,” she told police. A few days later, she called Sgarbi and ended the affair. Furious, he asked her, “Do you have a gun pointed to your head?”

At this point, Sgarbi could have slunk away with his €7 million in 7-Up money. Instead, he upped the ante: On October 16 Klatten received a letter from him that read, “Do you remember, my love, when we met in broad daylight in a Munich hotel room after your holidays?” It was signed, “Your gentle warrior.” Accompanying the letter were several video stills. It was clear to Klatten they were from a video that must have been taken the first time she and Sgarbi had had sex. “I realized,” she later told police, “Mr. Sgarbi had evidently met me only for this reason.”

Klatten broke the news of the affair to her husband and then brought the details of her indiscretion to the police. By then, Sgarbi had laid out his demands. Getting rid of him, he said, would cost “seven times 7-Up.” When Klatten refused to pay, he sent 38 minutes of video footage of them having sex to prove he meant business. He also dropped his demands to “two times 7-Up,” and gave her till January 15, 2008, to deliver the money.

On January 14, on his way to Munich and the biggest windfall of his criminal career, Sgarbi pulled his Mercedes 300SD into a highway rest stop in Austria. As he sat in his car, three Swiss detectives who had been following him appeared at his door and arrested him. That might have been it for the convoluted case of the Swiss gigolo. But Sgarbi wasn’t traveling alone.

One car over, in an Audi Q7 that Italian police say was purchased with €100,000 of Klatten’s money, sat the religious-sect leader Ernano Barretta, a 63-year-old former auto mechanic with dyed-black hair and a fashion sense that favored T-shirts, warm-up jackets, and distressed Diesel jeans. After the detectives approached him, Barretta reportedly persuaded them to let him finish his food before they took him in. Police, alerted to Sgarbi’s grift by Klatten, had been wiretapping Barretta and had recorded him talking about the BMW heiress; they believe he was directing Sgarbi’s frauds or, at the least, helping plot them. After three days, Barretta was released to return home to Italy.

Ernano Barretta had moved to Switzerland to work as a mechanic in the sixties. By the early nineties, he’d remade himself into a sensitivo, claiming he could help with spiritual troubles. (He was once convicted of dealing stolen cars.) As Barretta’s flock grew, so did his mythology, which took on an intensely Christian character. He would appear bearing stigmata and would perform faith healings, receiving in return generous offerings from devotees, allegedly their entire life savings in some cases.

Barretta needed someone to look after that money. He met Sgarbi just as the young law-school grad was entering the banking world. Sgarbi, former sect members say, became a devoted follower, playing the roles of accountant and right-hand apostle. Sgarbi often referred to Barretta as “the father who protecteth me” and considered him “the maestro of my life.”

Barretta and his followers became a family to Sgarbi, especially after his first wife left him in 1994, disturbed by his involvement in the sect. Through Barretta, he met Gabriele Franziska Sgarbi, whom he married in 2001 while romancing the Countess du Pasquier-Guebels. After his arrest for defrauding the countess, he took his new bride’s last name, presumably to cover his tracks.

Several of Barretta’s former followers have told the media that Barretta exerted sexual control over the women in his flock. One told the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger, “Whenever we had sex, he always told me it was to heal me. He said his sperm was the blood of Jesus Christ, it purifies the soul.” Barretta reportedly convinced Sgarbi that his cons also had the power to purify. “Ernano told Helg that money is a sin,” one former member tells me, “and it was Helg’s duty to relieve rich women of their fortunes and direct the money for good works.”

Sgarbi’s “good works,” say police, funded Barretta as he made a fiefdom of his native village, amassing up to 60 cars, the Rifugio Valle Grande banquet hall, and 40 houses, which he quietly put in the names of sect members. The money came in so fast, police say, Barretta had trouble spending it all. “A cubic meter of money!” he bragged in one wiretapped call after the Klatten score.

In March, 80 Italian police officers raided Barretta’s compound, blew up a safe, and found a hand-scrawled map listing the locations of “good wine” buried on the property. (In a wiretapped call, Barretta had complained that €300,000 buried in a tin can had become moldy.) Using the map, police turned up €1.5 million in crisp bills, at least €1 million of it believed to be money Klatten had given Sgarbi.

When I arrive at his compound in early summer, Barretta announces he is happy to discuss “my love for Helg Sgarbi.” According to police, when Sgarbi and Klatten were carrying on their affair in Room 629 of the Holiday Inn, Barretta was staying in Room 630 next door, possibly taping their liaisons. Barretta does not deny being in the hotel.

“Sgarbi is my friend and will always be my friend,” says Barretta, standing on a back porch overlooking the Gran Sasso mountains in central Italy’s Abruzzo region. “If I travel with him and he has a woman in his room, why am I supposed to know this?” Anyway, he adds, “what kind of woman is Klatten? If she was a real woman, she would be home with her children, not parading around with young men.” At that, Barretta does a pantomime, effeminately prancing across the floor.

Barretta, his wife, and his children face up to 20 years in prison each if convicted. So does Franziska Sgarbi. Gerardo Valone, the Italian prosecutor, maintains that she was integrally involved. After her husband’s arrest, she is heard on a wiretap saying, “If Klatten does not drop her accusations, we must send to the media all the pictures and video to make a problem for her.”

Barretta’s defense attorney, Sabatino Cipriette, says he plans to call Klatten, Monica Sandler, and the wife of the furniture-maker to the stand. “Mr. Sgarbi did not ask for money,” he tells me. “Mrs. Klatten offered it to him because she felt guilty.” Clearly he’s hoping for a plea bargain for his client. “I think Mrs. Klatten is a powerful woman, a strong woman, a nice woman,” he says. “Too much theater is not good for Klatten. Klatten has a story with one man, but too many questions about that story is not good.”

“If you want to know about me, my life is all over the Internet. I will never have another company,” Sgarbi tells me at the prison. As he speaks, he looks over at Cristine, the thirty-something German translator I’ve brought to facilitate dealings with the prison guards. Sgarbi starts to ask her mundane personal questions: She worked in Paris? At Microsoft—in what department? What languages does she speak? Where in Germany did she grow up? Oh, her elderly mother is ailing. That’s sad. Has she considered such and such treatment?

It’s striking to see how he works, how all con artists work—digging for information and for intimacy, creating a connection, genuine on one end and dead on the other. His methods are shrewd and calculated, and hardly limited to separating rich women from their fortunes. When Sgarbi and Egon Geis, his attorney, decided he should plead guilty on his first day in court, it was yet another bit of Sgarbi theater and manipulation, meant to elicit sympathy—and leniency.

“We discussed it and weighed it,” Geis tells me in his Frankfurt office. “The judge could have said ‘No, I will hear evidence and Mrs. Klatten will tell her story.’ But this was our strategy—that Mrs. Klatten would be happy not to testify and Mr. Sgarbi would get a lower judgment. He worked with me 100 percent on this. It was a risk, but we said to each other, ‘It just might work.'”

It worked so well that the sentencing panel of three judges and two jurors took only four hours to hand Sgarbi a lenient punishment that allowed him to keep the location of his millions secret. Also hidden are the Klatten sex videos. When I ask Sgarbi about the recordings, he offers a thin, tight smile and shrugs. It’s not inconceivable that, as Franziska indicated on the wiretap, they could surface in Barretta’s and Sgarbi’s wife’s cases.

But Sgarbi is more concerned with telling Cristine of his hardships in prison. “It’s difficult for me here,” he says. “I had business all over the world. I handled technology mergers and a 300-person translation company. Now I have nothing at all.”

Cristine notices Sgarbi playing with his wedding band. “I miss my 3-year-old daughter,” he tells her. “She does not know where I am and cannot see me for six years.” Sgarbi offers a pained wave to another visitor’s young daughter, who is playing on the floor nearby. As Cristine and I prepare to leave she asks Sgarbi if he needs anything. “A few magazines, maybe, and a newspaper,” he says. Cristine says that certainly, she will send him the subscriptions. When we say goodbye, he takes her by the hand and asks her to please write him.

Outside, it’s clear that Cristine is still struck by Sgarbi’s charms. In a sense, being in prison has been good for him—although he’s had to admit to working his con on Klatten, whose reputation has been irreparably tainted, confinement has made him even more unthreatening. “Yes, it’s strange, I know,” Cristine says. “I shouldn’t feel sorry for him, but I do.”