A true nightmare can have as many false endings as a Hollywood film. Just ask Germany’s wealthiest woman, Susanne Klatten, who owns a good chunk of Bavarian Motor Works. A sociopathic Swiss Lothario named Helg Sgarbi targeted the billionaire heiress of the Quandt family, researched her habits and manipulated her into an extramarital affair. He then deceived her into “lending” him millions of dollars and tried to blackmail her for tens of millions more by threatening to distribute a 38-minute sex-laced DVD of one of their hotel room encounters. The discreet, attractive, 47-year-old mother of three told her husband and went to the police. She might well have thought the nightmare had ended in March, when Sgarbi, 44, was sentenced to six years in jail.
Not in the digital age. This spring, a German truck driver contacted Klatten and demanded €75,000 for the same tape, which he claimed to have obtained through Sgarbi after they met in prison. Police nabbed the truck driver at a bakery in the German city of Bochum, where he had set up a drop for the extortion money.
Now that she has been filmed in compromising positions, there is almost no way for Klatten to be sure that the evil genie is back in the bottle.
But Klatten’s nightmare didn’t end there, either: In mid-July, two Germans and a Serbian man were arrested in Duisburg, Germany, on suspicion of blackmail after they allegedly sent a letter demanding €800,000 and—get this—a BMW X5 off-road vehicle from Klatten, who owns 12 percent of the car company. They threatened to sell the sex tape to the Italian media. Police, posing as Klatten’s representatives, arranged a payoff in Duisburg, then arrested the blackmailers as they argued over who would drive.
Authorities have since scoured the new gang’s computers and apartments, but have found no sign of the infamous sex video. Nor have they found any link to Sgarbi.
Authorities now believe that this third caper was an opportunistic blackmail based on the belief that there is a free-floating video out there somewhere. "There is nothing to suggest they ever were in possession of such a sex video," state prosecutor Thomas Steinkaus-Koch told journalists.
At this point, most of the impact of such a video would seem to be gone. Klatten’s once-discreet existence in Germany was destroyed once she reported Sgarbi’s initial blackmail attempt. Perhaps that is why the blackmail price has fallen from tens of millions of euros to hundreds or even tens of thousands. Or perhaps the price reduction reflects the fact that these follow-up blackmailers have never even seen the footage.
But this gets at Klatten’s very modern digital nightmare. Now that she has been filmed in compromising positions, there is almost no way for her to be sure that the evil genie is back in the bottle, especially given the ambiguous character of the man who uncorked it.
Sgarbi’s victims describe him as an impressive storyteller and a good listener, a handsome, bespectacled former banker who honed his skills on three other wealthy, older women before stalking Klatten. His modus operandi was to research a woman’s habits, then arrange to be introduced to them at an exclusive health spa, and begin his seduction. Later, he would offer up elaborate deceptions to get money—he often pretended that he had to pay off the Mafia after a car accident in the U.S. in which he ran over the baby of a mobster. (One such story spurred Klatten to meet him in a Holiday Inn underground garage in Munich and “lend” him €7 million—made up of 14,000 €500 bills, packed into a cardboard box.)
In all, authorities say that Sgarbi took the four (known) women for around €10 million. He even proposed to one of the women, while another took out a large loan on his behalf. But Sgarbi’s biggest cash cow was Klatten, which apparently made him hungry for more. Sgarbi met her at a posh health resort in Innsbruck in mid-2007 and pursued her to southern France. But he failed to persuade her to leave her husband or to put €290 million into a trust that they could live on together, and she began to ignore his text messages. He then sent threatening letters demanding €49 million (nearly $70 million)–later lowered to €14 million—and enclosed still images from a video of their romantic moments in Room 629 of the Holiday Inn in Munich, filmed from room 630.
Klatten went to the police, and they arrested Sgarbi at a gas station in the Austrian Alps. Prosecutors wanted a nine-year prison sentence, but Sgarbi got just six years after pleading guilty—which spared his victims from testifying—and apologizing in court. "I deeply regret what has happened and apologize to the aggrieved ladies in this public hearing," Sgarbi said in gentlemanly fashion. But he never identified his alleged accomplice or explained what had happened to the €7 million Klatten “lent” him. And he refused to say what had become of the now infamous, but never-seen video.
When Klatten spoke about the ordeal with the Financial Times Deutschland last year, she explained how she came to turn in her former lover. “There was a moment of clarity,” she said. “You are a victim now and you have to defend yourself. Otherwise it will never end.” Unfortunately for her, in the digital age, it may never end, regardless.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.