The chief suspect in the alleged kidnap of a British model in Milan has said he did not knowingly take part in any crime.
Lukasz Pawel Herba says his involvement stems from wanting to raise money to treat his leukaemia and that he was hired by a group of Romanians to rent properties around Europe to store garments they were selling, according to reports.
He is also said to have told investigators he posed as a photographer and met Chloe Ayling. He said he was paid £500,000, found out the Romanians intended to kidnap her, and backed out of the plan.
His side of the story has emerged as Ayling’s representatives dismissed doubts about the ordeal, saying it was real and terrifying.
Italian police said she was snatched last month by a group calling itself Black Death.
She is believed to have been drugged and transported in a bag to an isolated village near Turin, where she was held for six days as her captors tried to auction her online.
As more details emerged about the episode, including that she went shopping for shoes and groceries with her captor, her lawyer and an agent have spoken out to defend her.
Lawyer Francesco Pesce said it is “evil” to suggest she was involved while Phil Green, of Supermodel Agency, said what took place was “real and very frightening for all concerned”.
Ayling left her house in Coulsdon, south London, on Tuesday morning wearing black leggings and a gold-coloured jacket.
Pulling on a white helmet and black coat, she climbed on to the pillion seat of a motorbike before it set off in the direction of Purley.
Speaking previously, Ayling said she had feared for her life “second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour” during the incident and thanked the Italian and UK authorities “for all they have done to secure my safe release”.
A friend of Ayling’s said the young model said she was doing a Page Three photo shoot on Tuesday.
Carla Bellucci, who runs a modelling agency, told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme: “I wouldn’t say she’s the wisest of girls.
“She can be a little bit naive, she’s young. To us it’s new but for her she’s had a few weeks to get used to it.”
Bellucci said the decision to pose so soon after the incident was “maybe... her way of dealing with what’s happened to her, to get back out there”.
Ayling was informed she was going to be sold to somebody in the Middle East for sex and complied with her captor during the alleged kidnap because she was told she would be killed if she tried to flee, Pesce said.
He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “So she thought that the best idea was to go along with it and to be nice in a way to her captor because he told her that he wanted to release her somehow and sometime and she thought that the best thing to do was not to go in conflict with him.
“So she abided to his request, ‘let’s go and buy groceries’ and ‘you need shoes, let’s go buy shoes’, and she didn’t try to flee.
“But I believe she was terrified at the moment and even if she could’ve asked for help she didn’t because she was subjugated to this person, or people as she was given to understand.”
The Sun reported she told police she had developed a trusting relationship and even shared a bed with her kidnapper, who gave her chocolate and underwear, but she said he had not sexually assaulted her.
Green, of Supermodel Agency, said: “I can assure everybody that it was real and very frightening for all concerned.”
He also said, as reported by the Associated Press, that the person who made the booking for the photo shoot had “a website, previous pictures, details of his studio, details of what the shoot was going to be, times, locations, fee - everything”.
Green said Ayling was taken to the British Consulate in Milan after the alleged kidnap but was not allowed to return home for almost three weeks, arriving back in the UK on Sunday.
A Polish man who lives in Britain was arrested on July 18 on suspicion of kidnap and extortion, Italian state police said.
The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said it has been assisting with the investigation and that a house in the Oldbury area linked to Herba had been searched and computer equipment seized.
It is alleged the men tried to sell Ayling online for more than 300,000 dollars (£230,000) and demanded Green pay to secure her release.
She was kept handcuffed to furniture in the village of Borgial but was freed after six days and taken to the British Consulate in Milan, despite the ransom not being paid, police said.
It has been reported the captor demanded £50,000 on her release and threatened to kill her if she told police about the incident.
Milan police spokesman Lorenzo Bucossi told reporters the group the suspect was allegedly working for offered “mercenary services” on the dark web.