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The spy who loved her

An American woman falls for a dashing Englishman claiming to be MI-5. But the couple suddenly vanishes and the spy game turns into one of survival. Dennis Murphy reports.

Spies and secret agents thrive in the shadows, playing a sometimes lethal game of intrigue. So what’s a young woman from Iowa to do when you’ve tumbled hard for a spy and not even one of your own?

Dennis Murphy, Dateline Correspondent: You’d fallen in love with him?Kim Adams: I had.

The man schoolteacher Kim Adams fell for was a British agent — like 007, made famous by movies like “Goldfinger.”

And like the Bond girls on screen, she became embroiled in an international spy story involving Russian submarines, Irish terrorism, and an al Qaeda plot to blow up a passenger jet.

But after Kim herself was abducted, it would take a gutsy secret mission by her own mother to save the day.

Ann Hodgins, Kim Adams' mother: Nobody messes with my kids. In order get my daughter back, I had to do it.

The story begins in 2001. Kim was a single mom, a school counselor, living in Minneapolis. After her teenage son moved in with his father to attend a better school, Kim, now empty-nested, could finally scratch her itch for wanderlust.

Kim Adams: I’d always wanted to live abroad. It was just great.

London was her destination. With her Ph.D. credentials, Kim arranged for a job there as a trained psychologist—counseling special ed kids in a school district out in the far-flung burbs.

Murphy: So if you worked at six or eight schools, you needed to get around?Adams: I needed a car to get back and forth to work. So I went to my local car dealership.

Who’d guess that your life could change in a used car lot and that the debonnaire 30-year-old salesman there named Robert Freegard would turn out to be "the one"?

Adams: Robert sort of swooped in and shook my hand and introduced himself.  When I first met him, I remember thinking, “He’s got the most honest eyes.”

Robert sold Kim a car and his after-sales service calls soon became personal heart-to-hearts.

After a few months, he asked Kim out on a date— dinner in London’s exclusive Park Lane.

Adams: He was very attentive. He enjoyed the finer things in life.

And more dates followed, and the couple shared drives through the English countryside.

But as suave as he was, Kim says there was still something nagging about Robert—something secretive. Like his cellphones. Though he had four or five of them, she often found it hard to reach him. It was frustrating.

And there was funny business about cameras: he didn’t like having his picture taken. And jobs? This new man in her life changed them as often as the fast cars he drove. He had top-of-the-line BMWs and Audis with Duran Duran thumping through the speakers.

Kim began probing Robert’s quirks.

Murphy: When did he start confiding in you, Kim, that he wasn’t just a used car salesman—but that he was a secret agent?Adams: He started telling me, in little bits and pieces, about undercover- investigative police work for the government.Murphy: James Bond-type stuff? Adams: Some of it was terrorism.  Some of it was crime rings. It’s not like he sat me down and said, “Oh, by the way.  I’m a spy.” It seemed like very difficult, gritty, unpleasant work.

Kim grew closer to Robert despite her promise to herself that she wasn’t going to get involved in a heavy relationship - not right then.

Murphy: So when did all of this change?Adams: I really started to realize that I was falling in love with him.Murphy: Against all of your rational wishes?Adams: Absolutely.

Robert moved in with Kim.

Hodgins: He was charming.  Absolutely charming.  Very complimentary to my daughter. 

Kim’s mom, Ann, a teacher back in Phoenix, wanted to meet her daughter’s interesting new boyfriend, so she flew over to London.

Murphy:You could see the attraction?Hodgins: I could, yes. He seemed to know how to talk to each person so that they felt very, very special.

Six months after their first date, a year after Kim bought that car from Robert - the couple cruised to sun-kissed Marbella, Spain, where Robert proposed.

Murphy: You, who were not looking for a husband. You said, in response to, “Will you marry me?”Adams: Yes.Murphy: So, “Will you marry me” and “Yes” is a huge step.Adams: It was a huge step.

But there was an even bigger one ahead. Robert told Kim he’d been offered an important and lucrative position in the global spy game.

Adams: He talked about a job at a lighthouse, which was some sort of communications station really.

In a remote part of Scotland there was a lighthouse. And Robert told Kim that’s where they would be gathering intelligence together, monitoring Russian submarines as they skulked by. They’d send their dispatches to spymasters in London.

Murphy: So you were gonna be Mr. and Mrs. James Bond living in a lighthouse someplace?Adams: We were gonna be living in a lighthouse.

Kim’s parents had divorced and now both were remarried. She called her dad in Sioux City, Iowa, to tell him about her serious live-in boyfriend.

John Adams, Kim's father: I told everybody my daughter was marrying James Bond.

Kim was shaken, but not stirred by the prospect of keeping vigil in a desolate lighthouse. Still, she told her dad, the money was good -- $170,000 a year. He was skeptical.

John Adams: I said, “I may be a farm boy from Iowa that’s got ‘stupid’ tattooed on his forehead, but they don’t pay anybody thousands of dollars to turn a light on a lighthouse.” I said, “Do I have Stupid tattooed up here?”

But after he happened to see a documentary about Russian submarines, and talked with his daughter on the phone, he came around.  

John Adams (recorded on the phone): Hey I’m kind proud of you. I’ve never had a spy in the family.Kim Adams: Oh shush.

Kim thought it quite natural when Robert told her she would have to go through some strenuous training. First, forget about being called Kim Adams. She’d be issued a new identity at spy school, assuming, that is, British authorities didn’t uncover any skeletons in rigorous background checks. Kim was about to be married to both a spy and the British secret services that employed him.

So the couple set a date and found an idyllic spot for the wedding. Kim’s mom and dad would be coming over. But about a week before the ceremony, just a year after 9/11,  Kim’s father, john, got an urgent call from his prospective son-in-law.

Robert Freegard (on the phone): Hi John, how you doing?John Adams: Hello, Robert!John Adams: He called and said, “We’re gonna postpone the wedding.”

Robert said intelligence analysts had picked up some disturbing terrorist “chatter.”

John Adams: He says, “I know that there’s gonna be another 9/11 take place, gonna be another airplane go down or attempt to be shot down and I don’t want that to happen to Kim’s family.

Days later the chatter seemed to be confirmed in a story on the news: Terrorists armed with shoulder-fired missiles had narrowly missed bringing down an Israeli passenger jet on take-off in Africa—and just two days before Kim’s wedding date.

Robert had been right after all...maybe it was too risky for Kim’s family to fly to London.

Then, before the couple could set a new wedding date, those detailed background checks on Kim turned up a road block to happily-ever-after, living as spies in a top-secret lighthouse.

Adams: I had some student loans that needed to be paid off, but Robert had told me that because of the security clearance that he had, he couldn’t carry unsecured debt.  Nor could anyone in his immediate household, because it would put him at risk for bribery. 

Robert was strapped for the kind of cash they needed to retire the loan, so Kim called her parents in the States.

Murphy: And you starting hitting on them for $35,000?Adams: That seemed like an unbelievable amount of money to me. I have never borrowed money from my parents.

Her parents wired $35,000 to London. Robert told Kim the money would be deposited in a secret agents’ account and the student loan paid off.

But not long after the cash transfer, something totally unexpected happened: Kim Adams mysteriously vanished— gone without a trace from her home, and her school counseling job. 

Hodgins: I was almost panic stricken.  I didn’t know what to do.  We didn’t know where Kim was. We didn’t know if she was okay. We couldn’t get an answer.

American school psychologist Kim Adams had dropped off the map after handing a $35,000 gift from her parents for spy school to her fiance, British Agent Robert Freegard.

News of the American’s disappearance reached London-based FBI special agent Jackie Zappacosta. A British police colleague was on the line.

Jackie Zappacosta: “What I’m going to tell you will be impossible to believe,” he said, “but you have to believe it.”

Even for a 20 year veteran of the FBI, the spy story the British policeman told her about Kim Adams and her fiance stretched her imagination. 

Jackie Zappacosta: The two were training to man a lighthouse in Scotland and be on the lookout for enemy submarines.Murphy: James Bond work?Zappacosta: James Bond work.  Absolutely.

But the agency that employs the real James Bond—the British secret service—had never heard of a Robert Freegard.

The story didn’t check out. And British cops soon suspected the missing American had been kidnapped by Freegard.

That’s when they turned to the F.B.I. for help. And once agent Zappacosta began to discover creepy details of Freegard’s past, the case became a matter of life and death.

Her investigative trail began almost 10 years before in 1993. Robert Freegard was a barman pulling pints at a pub near an agricultural college in rural England. He’d befriended three regulars there— college students— and confided to them that he was in fact an undercover investigator rooting out a cell of Irish terrorists on campus.

Murphy: So he was working as a barman and he’s telling them on the side, “You know I’m pulling a pint here, but I’m looking for IRA guys.”Zappacosta: “I’m looking for IRA guys at the agricultural college.”Murphy: This job as barman is simply cover.  Zappacosta: Exactly.Murphy: And they didn’t laugh him out of the pub?Zappacosta: Not these three students.

The agent discovered Freegard even enlisted one of the students to work on the undercover mission, and devised brutal training for him. He blindfolded his apprentice, took him into a basement and beat him up repeatedly.

Murphy: Saying, “Are you tough enough to be MI5?  To be a spy, huh?”Zappacosta: Precisely.

Then, quite suddenly, Freegard told the students his undercover unit had been made by the IRA—that they were all in grave danger. And they should immediately flee with him.

Zappacosta: They left college.  They never graduated. They went on the road with him to various, as he put them, safe houses where he could protect them.

Protect them... and control them.

Zappacosta: [He was] controlling where they slept, what they ate, what they did during the day, who they spoke with.

Robert told what were by now his captives that he needed cash to set up fake businesses and new identities for them.

Zappacosta: And these particular students came from wealthy farming families. Their parents had to pay to protect their children, because of their exposure to the IRA.

And pay they did. Weeks turned into months and then years as the students dutifully paid Robert Freegard more than a million dollars to hide them from the IRA. And while they were stashed away in small rooms, living on greasy fish and chips, Freegard was moving on up. He drove snazzy new cars, dressed in designer suits and jetted off to exotic destinations on vacation.

It was clear to the FBI agent hunting Kim Adams and Robert Freegard that the students who eventually escaped their captor had been bamboozled in most cruel fashion. Fleeing Irish terrorists, the miserable safe houses, the beatings, the vast sums of money— were all part of a big hoax. Robert Freegard was not an undercover cop, a spy or a secret agent.

He was a con man: A brilliant one.

Zappacosta: Freegard was someone that did not complete his secondary education.  Tried his hand at becoming a carpenter, a barman. Very little personal success in his life. 

And, the FBI agent discovered, the con man had used his velvety-charm on a string of other victims—all women—including a company executive, a lawyer, even a woman who’d been married just a few months. They were all accomplished women, and all ensnared. And now Kim Adams was caught in his web too.

Zappacosta: As he was with one woman, the other five women or so that he had secreted around the UK would still be funding his adventures by working menial jobs.Murphy: This guy had to have more than special cologne.  What did he wield over his female victims?Zappacosta: It was a combination of charm woven with threats of violence, threats of death. Murphy:They could have walked away?Zappacosta: By the time they got to that point, I don’t think they had the power to walk away.

But what did all those years of scams and sadistic cruelty at the hands of a phony secret agent spell for the missing American Kim Adams, a psychologist with a Ph.D.?

Murphy: You have to be thinking, “How could this woman have bought this package?”Zappacosta: He was a master.

So as Jackie Zappacosta tried to pick up Kim’s trail, where to even begin to look?

Zappacosta: All of the traditional means that the FBI would use or New Scotland Yard would use to track someone—all that proved fruitless.Murphy: No credit cards?Zappacosta: No credit cards. No hard line telephone.  No permanent address.  No mail drop.  Nothing.Murphy: So he’s a pretty clever guy? Zappacosta: He’s a very clever guy.  He was invisible to law enforcement.

So to catch Robert— and save Kim Adams— the FBI agent would have to outsmart him. She decided on a bold, ingenious scheme... a plan perhaps only a mother could carry out. The FBI would turn Kim’s own mom into a secret agent.

Ann Hodgins, Kim Adams' mother: I knew that if this didn’t work, it was all over.  We’d never get her back.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: When the FBI called up her father the first time, he hung up on them?  Jackie Zappacosta: Mr. Freegard had instructed Kimberly’s father by saying, “You know you’re gonna be called one day by someone who claims to be the FBI.  And they’re going to tell you that I’m not a spy.  And that’s a test.” Murphy: Dad hangs up and he passes the test?Zappacosta: Yes. He reached out that far. He was that good.

As far as Kim’s parents knew their daughter was still about to marry Robert.

But after the FBI convinced them that Kim— and they too— were victims of a dangerous con artist they were only too eager to help find their daughter and get evidence that would put Freegard away.

Zappacosta: We discussed scenarios.  We planned scenarios.  We planned strategies.

Strategies stretching over a six week period that involved coaching Kim’s mom and dad in how to elicit information should their daughter or Robert call them.

Zappacosta: It had to be their words as they would talk to their daughter.  Questions that they were normally ask their daughter because Freegard was a formidable opponent.  He would sense if something was amiss.

The trap was set. Jackie just needed Kim to call home. Any calls would be secretly recorded by FBI agents in the U.S.

A few days later, Jackie got her lucky break. Freegard and Kim had run out of cash. The con man, with Kim under his control, placed a series of calls to Kim’s parents, concocting a story that the two needed still more money to pay for spy school.

John Adams, Kim's father (on wire tap): You have put up some of your money and some of Kim’s money to whoever it is that’s giving you these tests, right?Robert Freegard: I’ve, I’ve fronted 61,000, ‘cause that’s all I could put my hands on. I don’t have any more money than that, John.  That wiped me out.Murphy: So the reason they’re calling home to the States, her home, is to get money?Zappacosta: Yes. We knew if we didn’t capitalize on that break that we may not hear from Kimberly again for a long time.

After the FBI and British police determined that Freegard and Kim were, in fact, in France — out of their jurisdiction — they set up a plan that Kim’s schoolteacher mom would execute.

Murphy: You had to learn how to become something of a little spy yourself.Ann Hodgins: Well, I guess I did, yes. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Back home in Phoenix, Ann’s instructions were to use the sporadic phone calls to lure Robert and her daughter back to England.

Freegard: (On an FBI wire tap) Hi Ann, how you doing?

A plan was set with tempting bait: Kim’s mom would give them a check for $20,000 but only if she could deliver it herself in London.

She was even given a script by the FBI to deal with curve balls, as when Robert cleverly suggested that Kim’s mom fly to France with the money instead.

Hodgins: The FBI said, “You can’t do that, because we can’t go to France and arrest him.” “You’ve got to get him back to the UK.” Ann Hodgins:(On an FBI wiretape) Anyway, the reason I called is that I’ve never been to Heathrow before, so—Zappacosta: And while we were scripting against him, he had a script for Kimberly about how to get money from her parents.Kim Adams (on wire tape): I told you about the exam.Ann Hodgins: Yep.Kim Adams: Basically we have to tell them at the end of the day today that we have the money, because I have to give it to them tomorrow.Zappacosta: So it was about battle of wills and a battle of scripts.Hodgins: So they finally agreed that yes they would come to pick me up in the UK.  But we didn’t know if it would be just Robert, just Kim, Kim and Robert, a third party, or nobody.

And so it was a nervous and very uncertain Ann Hodgins who flew out of Phoenix on her own secret-agent-style mission.

Hodgins: I was almost physically sick. I was so afraid.  I was afraid for my daughter, I was afraid that if this didn’t work, it was all over.  We’d never get her back.Murphy: Were you worried about blowing this, not being able to pull it off? Hodgins: Oh yes.  Oh absolutely.

In London, Ann met FBI agent Jackie Zappacosta, who briefed her on a sting operation the British police had set up for the following morning back at the airport.

British undercover cops and FBI would be watching Ann’s every move as she pretended to enter the arrivals hall just off a flight from the states. Robert had suggested a coffee shop just past customs where they could meet.

Murphy: You guys have gotta be a little bit nervous backstage here, right?Zappacosta: You’re always nervous backstage.

The next day, Kim’s mom emerged in the arrivals area just as scripted. Robert was there. Her daughter wasn’t.

Hodgins: I walked up to him and I said, “Robert!”  And he said, “Oh, how are you?”  We hugged.  And then I said, “Oh, where’s Kim?”  And he told me she was in the car park.Murphy: This is a wrinkle in the plan.Hodgins: So I made an excuse—a long trip, I need to use the restroom.  So I went into the restroom, pulled out the cell phone called the agents and said, “Kim is in the car park.” And they said, “Okay, go, go, go!”

Ann went with Robert to the parking lot, with no idea what would happen next.

Hodgins: So I got up to the car and Kim jumped out, we hugged, talked just a bit.  Robert put my suitcase in the back and from every corner of that parking ramp cars and agents pulled up. Once all the screeching tires stopped, the agent who was in charge of the investigation said, “Robert Hendy Freeguard: you are under arrest.”  Murphy: Kim of course, doesn’t know what’s going on. Hodgins: She burst into tears.

Kim Adams I was crying hysterically.  I just kept repeating, “I don’t understand.  I don’t understand what’s going on here.” 

Hodgins: And at that time I’m thinking, “What have I done?  Why is she crying?  Is he crying because we’ve saved her?  Is she crying because this whole thing may be isn’t really what it seems and I just destroyed this relationship?  Will she ever speak to me?”  I didn’t know.  I didn’t know. 

At a nearby London police station, British police and the FBI spelled out the whole extraordinary story of Robert’s crimes to a dazed Kim.

Murphy: Based on your investigation, how many people, how many years, how much money?Zappacosta: Eight victims.  Ten years.  Between one million and two million dollars.Murphy: And money was the game?Zappacosta: And money was the game and power was the game.

Freegard was in custody, facing charges that— if they proved him guilty— could send him to prison for life.

So now it was Kim’s turn to fill in critical details of her four-month abduction, information that would be used to prosecute Freegard. It was a harrowing story about the spy who not only conned her but threatened to kill her, too.

After Robert Freegard was arrested at Heathrow airport and Kim Adams reunited with her family, FBI special agent Jackie Zappacosta finally put the pieces together of Kim Adams’ horrific ordeal under Freegard’s spell.

Jackie Zappacosta, FBI special agent: Given that we all have vulnerabilities and we all have weaknesses, I think he was particularly adept at zeroing in on what they were.  Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Is that what we’ve come to learn as Stockholm Syndrome? Victims come totally under the sway of their abductor?Zappacosta: I would say it could be used as a case example.  Yes.

Kim had paid freegard $35,000 for spy school training, thinking she would marry him and join him in a life of international espionage— spying on russian submarines from a lighthouse. Freegard in turn pretended to conduct his own background checks on her, thereatening kim with brutal war stories from the spy game— all made up of course.

Kim Adams He said that he had witnessed a knee-capping.

Murphy: Where a suspect was shot through the knee cap?Kim Adams: Yes. He reported being present when two men held another man down and drilled a drill through his head.Murphy:  Did he tell you then that he’d killed people before?Kim Adams: He told me that somebody had discovered his identity, and it was either kill or be killed himself.  He told me that he put a nail gun to the guy’s head and killed him.

Kim didn’t know those were just stories. But then she discovered how terrifying Robert could be. It happened when he started grilling her with personal questions about her love life— information supposedly his superiors had to have before they could clear her for spying.

Kim Adams: Any skeletons in the closet? He said, “I don’t care what it is, it doesn’t matter to me.  I just don’t wanna go into that meeting and be surprised.”

Kim sheepishly confessed when she first started dating Robert, he wasn’t the only guy in her life.

Murphy: And how’d he take that news?Adams: Not well.  Not well at all.Murphy: Went ballistic on you?Adams: Uh-Hmm (Affirms).Murphy: Had you ever seen that side of him?Adams: Never.

Volcanically angry, Robert made a call, apparently to some secret operatives, with, he said, fatal results.

Adams: He told me that the man that I had been seeing—that his associates had picked him up and beaten him to death.Murphy: This man you allegedly had been cheating on him with...Adams: Yes.Murphy: And was now dead?Adams: Yes. And that it was my fault.

Even as a psychology Ph.D, Kim was unprepared for Robert’s psychotic behavior. And she was already in too deep.

Murphy: Kim, this is an excellent time to say, “I’m outta here”. Adams: I thought I was to blame. I thought I was responsible.

Kim wanted to get the relationship back on track, undo whatever her perceived failure had been... anything to appease Robert.

Murphy: Kim, was that the moment do you think where you slipped into his control?Adams: Yes.Murphy: How did he get you? Adams: Certainly threats and fear and guilt and I was in love with him.Murphy: You were still in love with him at that point?Adams: I loved him as much as I hated him. Scared to death of him.

After Freegard went nuts on her, the wedding was off and that’s when Kim disappeared from friends and family. Freegard ordered her to leave her school counseling job, and moved her to a secluded rural cottage where she was now both trapped and terrified, bewildered by her exposure to the evil side of a man she’d fallen in love with.

Adams: My reality was making sure Robert wasn’t upset. I certainly thought about my family, thought about my friends, thought about the job that I had lost, but it was distant.  It wasn’t part of my world anymore.Murphy: He’s messed with your brain.Adams: Independent thought or free will was nearly gone.  And if I had left, I knew he would always be able to find me.  And that he would kill me.Murphy: Did he threaten you?Adams: Yes.Murphy: Said he’d kill you?Adams: Yes.

Robert even took a shovel and dug a hole he said might become Kim’s grave.

Adams: I was at the lowest depths of clinical depression. There was some days I couldn’t necessarily get out of bed.  I cried everyday.  Every single day.Murphy: Did you ever think about killing him?Adams: No.  I thought about killing myself.

And maybe that’s why Kim— reduced to a zombie-like trance— found herself trying to pry money from her parents and heading to the airport in London with Robert to pick up a $20,000 check from her mom.

Adams: And the next thing I remember, I saw handcuffs. It was just chaos.

Robert Freegard went to trial and a jury found him guilty of theft, kidnapping and making threats to kill. He’ll serve at least 9 years in prison.  

So the international man of mystery, the British conman who so cruelly exploited women, was finally brought to ground himself by American women: the mother who became a little bit 00s to save her daughter from the spy who didn’t love her. And the real agent Jackie Zappacosta.

Murphy: In the end was this winning one for the female side?Zappacosta: After it was all over, there was sweet satisfaction when we put all of the pieces of the puzzle together.Murphy: That women with resolve finally put him out of business? Zappacosta: Women with resolve took him out in six weeks.  Yes.

Kim Adams is still working as a school psychologist, but she's now back in Minnesota. And Robert Freegard has been moved to a new prison in England because, according to police, he was trying to con money out of fellow inmates in London.

Back in Minnesota, Kim Adams is trying to understand just what happened to her. 

Dennis Murphy: You are a doctor of psychology?Kim Adams: Yes.Dennis Murphy: You understand some of the intricacies of the brain.  Does the psychologist in you wonder what happened to you psychologically?Kim Adams: It's certainly been an experience that has brought home what you read about in textbooks.Dennis Murphy: Are you a textbook case example of something?Kim Adams: Yes.  Of-- you know-- brainwashing, the-- abused spouse--Dennis Murphy: Did you at one time wonder how people could put themselves in such awful circumstances?Kim Adams: No, but I can't say that I fully viscerally understood what it was like not to be able to leave.  And I do now.Kim Adams: I'm scared to death of him.

Scared to death, especially now because almost two years after Freegard's conviction, there is a creepy new twist of fate.  After the British appeals court decided there wasn't proof that Freegard’s victims were deprived of liberty or free will, Freegard won his appeal on the kidnapping charges. With time served, he could be released by the end of this year.

Dennis Murphy: Are you worried about your own safety?Kim Adams: Absolutely.  Yes, I am.Dennis Murphy: That even now he would come seek you out?Kim Adams: Yes.Dennis Murphy: Are you a different person now than you were before you took that plane to England back when?Kim Adams: Yeah.  I will never be the same.

Not after the spy who never loved her took her heart, her money and much more.

Dennis Murphy: What did he steal from you?Kim Adams: Me. He stole everything I am.

Prosecutors plan to challenge Freegard's successful appeal of his kidnapping conviction -- and that could delay his release from prison.