A British model named Chloe Ayling was dropped off at the consulate in Milan last month by a Polish citizen named Lukasz Pawel Herba, both claiming she had been kidnapped to be sold into sex slavery. Herba told authorities that he had discovered Ayling was a mother and thus was unsuited to auction. He was promptly arrested, but now details of the story are being questioned.
The Independent reports that police have said Herba appears to be a “fantasist and said that he exhibits signs of mythomania.” Herba has claimed he is a member of a gang called the Black Death and urged Ayling to spread their name after she was free. Europol does have one mention of a gang of that name on record, but that doesn’t mean they’re real or Herba is a member. It also doesn’t mean he’s not a real criminal:
Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, Milan deputy prosecutor Paolo Storari said: “Fantasist or not, what is clear is that he is a very dangerous man who drugged his victim as soon as she was kidnapped and put her inside a large travel bag in the boot of a car.
“His version of events is barely credible but clearly he does not deny that he was with her for the time she was missing.”
Detractors have begun to suggest that Ayling is lying about her part in her ordeal. She was seen going grocery- and shoe-shopping with Herba during her alleged confinement, which has been attributed alternately to knowing he would soon release her, and also being told she was constantly surveilled and would be killed if she tried to escape. She and Herba may also have gone to get breakfast on the day she was dropped at the consulate.
She has only given one brief public statement, saying she cannot talk more due to the ongoing investigation. However, her lawyer, Francesco Pesce, told the Guardian that Ayling’s recounting of events has been supported by the police:
“There were legitimate doubts [about her story] at the start, which were surpassed,” Pesce told the Guardian. “What Chloe told police during 10 hours, it wasn’t easy on her. If the police were convinced [of the story] after that, then I am convinced. What also would be his [the abductor’s] motive [to collaborate]? Twenty years in jail?”
“I heard people doubting her and implying that she was somehow involved in this case, that she was somehow involved in this because it was too easy an escape and that I really can’t believe, that people think that about Chloe Ayling,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, describing the suggestions as evil. “She was subjected to a tremendous ordeal and she suffered so much.”
Ayling’s appearance of compliance with Herba is not a definitive answer to the question of whether or not she was a party to her own kidnapping. It’s common among kidnapping victims to fall into “learned helplessness,” as an article in Time on the phenomenon explains:
“Instead of being tortured, you [receive] kindness,” says Walch.”You are given a drop of water, you’re not beaten. You begin to develop feelings of gratitude. Over time it wears on even the strongest person.” The human need for affiliation asserts itself too. Being in the physical company of someone—anyone—is better than being utterly alone. “If this is your only contact, you come to value that contact, so that even when given the opportunity to run away or get help, you don’t.”
Even so, some publications are pushing the narrative that Ayling has a questionable history, like in this paragraph in the Independent outlining her past grabs for media publicity:
Ms Ayling was little known before the kidnap. Google searches for her name reveal a string of appearances on The Sun’s page three, a story about her having been present during a terror attack in Paris, and her participation in a YouTube prank video in which she pretended to be a vlogger’s boyfriend.
There have been reports that Ayling’s passport was confiscated, but police have refused to confirm that they are investigating her potential involvement. It may simply be that she was captured by a delusional man rather than a network of criminal enterprise, but that wouldn’t make her experience any less harrowing.