When police raided the compound after Sgarbi's arrest in early 2008, they found €1.5 million in cash stuffed in vases, a suit of armor, and moldy tin cans buried in the yard. Among seven people arrested that day were Barretta's wife, his adult son and daughter, several waitresses from a wedding hall Barretta runs, and Sgarbi's wife, Franziska, who lives in the village with their 3-year-old daughter.
With his wife and friends charged as co-conspirators, Sgarbi receives no visitors. Out of loneliness or curiosity, or perhaps just to practice his gamesmanship, he finally invites me to sit, but he remains suspicious. "There are two stories," Sgarbi says, "the lies they tell about me and my family and the person who I am. I feel very sorry for me and my friends involved in this case." The legendary ladies' man, who bragged he could "read women like a map" and noted that in the female "everything is signposted," is absorbed in self-pity.
Soon, though, he is peppering me with personal queries (how long have I been a journalist? How was my flight? Do I read the Economist?). He shows interest in my responses, what appears to be genuine empathy—a trait that must have helped him gain victims' trust. "He seemed," one woman told investigators, "very unthreatening."
Helg Sgarbi was born Helg Russak in Zurich, the son of the deputy director of a machine and diesel-engine factory in the Swiss industrial center of Winterthur. He spent several years of his childhood in Brazil, after his father got work there as an engineer. At 22, he joined the Swiss Army. He later attended law school in Zurich, graduating in 1992 and going to work at Credit Suisse. These are facts Sgarbi is willing to discuss. Other details are murkier.
Sgarbi liked to gain sympathy from women by spinning his middle-class upbringing into a hard-luck story of lost wealth—he had a falling-out with his father over an inheritance, he would tell them, and had raised himself since he was a teen. He would also claim he had the ears of prominent businessmen like Josef Ackermann, the head of Deutsche Bank. There were elements of truth in his tales. Ackermann had served as president of Credit Suisse's executive board during the four years that Sgarbi worked at the bank, in mergers and acquisitions. "Afterwards," admits Sgarbi's lawyer, Egon Geis, "his life is not so well-known." Sgarbi tells me, with great enthusiasm, that after leaving Credit Suisse he became a corporate consultant, "taking tech companies public." But he refuses to name any of them. He also boasts of having opened a translation company with 300 employees worldwide, called Technology Business Development. "It no longer exists," he says.
We're now sitting across from each other. After 30 minutes, he is more relaxed—and voluble. "I always try to find a niche," he tells me, "some new element to exploit."