ROME—It is not exactly hard to pinpoint why it is so difficult to believe Chloe Ayling, a 20-year-old British glamor model who claims she was kidnapped last August by a crazed Polish man who, she says, drugged her, stuffed her into a roller suitcase and kept her captive near the French-Italian border for a week. It is just hard to say out loud why she is not believable.
Her alleged kidnapper, Lukasz Herba, was arrested in August after dropping the young model off at the British Consulate in Milan. He is now standing trial for the kidnapping, and his brother, Michal Konrad Herba, whom police say worked with him to lay the trap that caught the model, is in jail in the United Kingdom, fighting extradition to Italy.
But despite the facts of the case being presented at the trial, many people view the story with a raised eyebrow. Even with corroborated testimony about Ketalar, a powerful anesthetic drug often used to sedate horses, found in Ayling’s system, the case is still viewed with skepticism.
It is likely that her Kardashian-style online scrapbook, which contained a healthy dose of slicked-up skin before she took it down, sowed bias about her believability. It was used as a picture gallery across the mainstream and tabloid press when the story broke last August, including on this website.
But that was before the #MeToo movement, which broke two months later and has served since as a wake-up call to the media about their collective and often not-so-subtle bias and innuendo when it comes to shaming victims through selective imagery.
Before the #MeToo movement, a picture was worth a thousand words and alleged victims like Ayling were doubted at first sight. Now, those who write about court cases outside the tabloid orbit are struggling through the minefield of trying to figure out how to talk about the model’s social media presence while avoiding the tropes of what she was wearing, and whether she was “too sexy” or “asking for it.”
That change in social consciousness is a very good thing, making easy victim-blaming much more difficult.
Of course not all media outlets adhere to the #MeToo message. Tabloid sites like the popular Daily Mail still have no qualms about running photos that imply Ayling is somehow complicit in her own kidnapping because of the way she is sitting in a bikini.
But generally speaking, now the facts have to speak for themselves and without the bombshell photos, Ayling’s story may actually seem more believable.
While she was captive, Herba claimed he was part of an underworld organization called Black Death, writing Ayling’s agent Phil Green, demanding a hefty ransom, threatening he would auction the young woman on the dark web to an Arab buyer with a bid price starting at around $300,000 worth of bitcoin.
As the original story goes, when Ayling’s agent refused to pay the ransom and contacted the police instead, Herba let Ayling go, claiming at the time that it was because he had come to sympathize with her and that the Black Death group’s rules prohibit the sale of mothers (Ayling has a young son), perhaps because they can’t be sold as virgins.
The Black Death group then allegedly issued a statement that was found among Herba’s possessions when he was arrested. “You are certainly aware of your value on the human slavery market and must make a note that this isn’t personal, this is business,” the note attributed to the Black Death group said. “A mistake was made by capturing you, especially considering you are a young mother that should have in no circumstances be lured into kidnapping. Second important factor you are very well aware of is your overall protection by one of our men and very well respected men who made a very clear and solid stance in your case.”
Herba’s defense has waffled several times since his arrest, and any mention of the Black Death is no longer part of his strategy. He now claims that he, his brother, and Ayling hatched the kidnapping plan and intended to divide the money they hoped to get for ransom. He has no paper or phone trail of such alleged negotiations. In court this week, when his lawyer cross-examined him about who helped him write the Black Death letter, he simply answered, “The girl.”
Ayling is not testifying in person at the trial, but video of her taking police through the house after she was released was played to the court earlier in the week. In it, she shows where she was handcuffed to furniture, and she explains how Herba made her sleep in the bed with him and hold his hand when they left the house so she wouldn’t run away. They were seen together many times during her captivity, shopping for essentials like food, toiletries, and shoes for Ayling, since her own were allegedly lost in the original kidnapping. Gianluca Simontacchi, the chief investigator who took Ayling back to the scene of the crime, testified in court that Ayling was clearly shaken by the trauma she endured.
Ayling’s lawyer Francesca Pesce says she didn’t run away when they were out together because she was in a remote village and had nowhere to go, and she didn’t know if people were watching them. “She was holding hands with Herba but she looked terrified,” Pesce told The Daily Beast by phone. He says Herba and his brother have concocted the story of her complicity as a defense strategy.
Herba’s testimony in the case continues to shift about just what happened. He claimed Ayling helped him write the letter and contact her agent for ransom, yet the letters, riddled with spelling and grammatical mistakes, were clearly not written by a native English speaker with a higher education degree like Ayling.
Still, in the minds of many, Ayling is somehow less believable. The damage to her reputation, it seems, has been done.
After Herba’s final testimony in the case this week, the prosecutor Paolo Storari made a surprise announcement and asked the court to consider a psychiatric test on Herba, whom he said did “not have all his wheels in place.” The court will decide on whether to allow the tests on March 14 when the trial resumes.