Banks, cheese, chocolate. The Swiss are famous for many things, but their prowess at sexual conquests usually isn't one of them. That makes the exploits of Helg Sgarbi, née Russak, even more exceptional. The 44-year-old former banker, handsome, tall and well mannered, has shown a remarkable talent in the field of effective affection. In the four cases that have become public, the "Swiss Gigolo," as Sgarbi is now known, managed to collect an impressive $11.8 million from women that fell for him.
But his luck ran out in a German court Monday, when Sgarbi was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud, attempted fraud and attempted blackmail. Sgarbi confessed that not only did he dine, bewitch and bed a number of married women, but tricked them into paying him to keep quiet. In two cases, he confessed, he used blackmail to extract money. (Read: "The Royal Blackmail Mystery")
Sgarbi's undoing was Germany's wealthiest woman, industrialist and philanthropist Susanne Klatten. Having already received $8.84 million from Klatten, who owns 12.5% of German carmaker BMW and a majority of chemical firm Altana, and is a married mother of three, Sgarbi tried to blackmail her with a secretly filmed video showing the couple in bed. But instead of sending him the negotiated $17.7 million (down from the $366 million police say he asked for), Klatten sent the police. (See pictures of BMW car art.)
It was one of the few times one of his victims had called him on his scam. Sgarbi's usual ploy, according to investigators, was to prowl hotel bars. Not just any hotel bars, though. The soft-spoken man booked himself into exclusive spas in Austria and Switzerland, places that invite well-paying clientele to leave their normal life behind, to unwind and open up. Selling himself as someone in need of rest as well, Sgarbi would strike up conversation when his victim's guard was down. For some of his victims, the handsome man must have seemed just like part of the therapy.
From the little they have said publicly, Sgarbi's victims were apparently tricked in similar ways. Once a relationship was established, he would feign an emergency and then ask for help. Susanne Klatten, for example, was presented with a wild story of a car accident in the U.S., followed by a mafia demand that Sgarbi pay compensation to the parents of a child that had been hurt. Business colleagues and German reporters have described Klatten as normally skeptical and the possessor of a highly analytical mind. Nevertheless, she handed over $8.84 million in cash in the underground parking lot of the Munich Holiday Inn, according to Italian newspapers. The money was a "loan" to help Sgarbi out of his troubles.
The same hotel was also the site of the blackmail set-up, German police say. On August 21, 2007, the couple met in room 629. Next door, Italian Ernano Barretta filmed the rendezvous. Barretta was arrested along with Sgarbi in January last year, as they sat in a car waiting for their next chunk of cash. On March 23, an Italian court in Pescara will decide whether Barretta, 63, has a case to answer. Barretta, the leader of a Christian sect in northern Italy of which Sgardi is a member, says he is "100% innocent".
For Klatten, whose fortune is estimated at some $12.6 billion, the episode has been a major public embarrassment. By stepping into the limelight, however, the reclusive billionaire has won the hearts of women conned by similar scam artists. In one of her rare statements on the case, Klatten declared that she had defended herself "in the name of all of the women of my family and in the name of many other women, too."