By James Law
It's a story that has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood thriller.
A blonde beauty is lured to Italy with the promise of being featured in a glamorous photo shoot. But the offer is actually an elaborate plot. She is abducted by two masked men, drugged, stuffed in a suitcase and placed in a car boot. And why? So she can be sold as a sex slave on the Dark Web by a mysterious organisation known as "Black Death".
Yet before the horrific plan can be carried out, she is released, unscathed.
This is the harrowing ordeal that British model Chloe Ayling says she endured over six days last month.
Questions have been raised about whether the story was an elaborate fake kidnapping after it emerged that she went shopping for groceries and shoes with her alleged captor the day before her release. Even her lawyer admits her ordeal "seemed incredible".
So is this a story too harrowing to be true?
South London woman Chloe Ayling, 20, was little known before her abduction story, except for having appeared a few times as a Page 3 model in UK tabloid The Sun.
On July 10, she was sent to Milan, Italy, by her UK agent to take part in a photo shoot. She says she turned up to what she thought was a studio near the city's central railway station the next day, but discovered the studio was a fake.
"The door to the studio was closed and before I entered a person from behind put a hand on my neck and one on my mouth stopping me from screaming," she said in her statement to police. "The second man had a balaclava on, so I could only see his eyes through two holes and his mouth.
"The man behind me continued to restrain me, forcing me to lift my face (up), while the one in front gave me an injection in my right arm."
The abductors drugged with horse tranquilliser ketamine, handcuffed her, taped her mouth shut and stuffed her into a large suitcase. The case was placed into a car boot and she was then driven two and a half hours west to Borgial, a village near Turin. When she woke, she was wearing only a pink leotard, her underwear and socks.
She said the two men took her from the car and handcuffed her hands and feet to furniture inside a small two-storey farmhouse.
A few hours later, another man, who went by the names Andre and MD, arrived at the house and released her from the handcuffs, saying she had been kidnapped by mistake.
The men, Ms Ayling said, were members of an international syndicate called Black Death that sold woman as sex slaves over the Dark Web.
She said MD then stayed with her in the house day and night for the next six days. They even ended up sharing a bed.
"MD never molested me sexually, or asked for sexual favours, because Black Death prohibited or severely punished members who touched kidnapped girls," she told police. "MD let me move around the apartment freely but always (only) on the first floor, preventing me from going outside.
"Yesterday he allowed me to go (out) onto the balcony and (he) assured me that he was personally trying to have me freed and that he had contacted my modelling agency to pay a US$300,000 (NZ$409,864) ransom.
"MD asked me to provide three names of people I know who could provide the ransom money, which I did."
On July 17, six days after her abduction, MD told her that she would be released on four strict conditions: that the police not investigate her kidnapping, that she and her family not speak badly of Black Death, that she and her family promote the organisation through interviews, and that US$500,000 (NZ$683,108) be paid to Black Death.
MD drove Ms Ayling to the British consulate in Milan on July 17 and released her. Police soon swooped on the man who accompanied her.
MD, or Andre, turned out to be a Polish man who lives in Britain named Lukasz Pawel Herba.
Italian police have arrested the 30-year-old, who they described as a dangerous fantasist, on suspicion of kidnapping and extortion.
Milan police said Mr Herba claimed to be a "paid killer" for Black Death, but suggested some of his claims may have been made up.
Italian media said officers described the kidnapper as a "dangerous person with traces of mythomania".
He told police that he carried out the kidnapping in order to pay for leukaemia treatment, but could not provide evidence that he in fact had the disease.
While Ms Ayling said as many as five people were involved in her abduction, police are only hunting for one accomplice, believed to be Mr Herba's brother Mikail.
Mr Herba claimed that he was forced to become involved with the kidnapping by the shadowy Black Death, which he said was based in Birmingham, in England's West Midlands.
Images emerged this week of an advertisement appearing to show Ms Ayling in a pink leotard encouraging potential buyers to bid upwards of $300,000 for her. The woman is pictured wearing a pink leotard, lying on her back on a tiled floor with a pamphlet on her stomach encouraged followers to bid for her.
The photos are believed to have been taken inside the farmhouse in which she was held captive.
The pictures were emailed to UK newspapers The Sun and The Daily Mirror a few weeks ago but were not reported on at the time.
"Did you know chloe ayling has been kidnapped in italy and is now for sale by russian mafia ???" the email read. "See attachament" (sic).
"i been sending wit codes but ppl dunno how to open so i send unprotected now.
"it will be f***n hot mateeee."
The email also contained Ms Ayling's measurements and promoted a date for her "auction".
Attached to the email was additional information about the group, which refers to its female victims as "merchandise" and advertises its ability to kidnap a "specific target" upon request.
"The Polish citizen told detectives he organised several online auctions for the sale of abducted girls through advertisements describing prey and setting a starting figure, although it has not been established whether the man really kidnapped women in previous episodes or if he invented everything," Italian prosecutor Paolo Storari said during a press conference last weekend.
WHY WAS SHE RELEASED?
Ms Ayling said she was released because the gang learnt that she was a mother.
This explanation fits with the advertisement the gang sent to newspapers, which says that the women it sells are "pure".
The ad claims that the kidnappers "do not sell girls that are terminally ill, pregnant, have STDs or are young mothers". Ms Ayling has a two-year-old son.
Doubts have been raised about whether Ms Ayling's harrowing story is true.
The rabid UK media and local Italian press have been following every twist and turn in the story, and suggested that Ms Ayling may have been an accomplice in her own fake kidnapping.
Speculation that the story was a hoax reached its height this week when it was revealed Ms Ayling was seen shopping for shoes and groceries with her alleged abductor the day before she was released.
Ms Ayling initially told police that she did not leave the farmhouse at all during her six days in captivity, but a saleswoman told police that she sold shoes to the model on July 16, the day before she turned up at the consulate.
According to court documents, Ms Ayling burst into tears when police presented this evidence to her in an interview. She told investigators she couldn't give a "reasonable explanation" for why she failed to mention the shopping trip.
Her Italian lawyer Francesco Pesce suggested that she went along with the outing because she feared for her life. "She did testify that she went with her captor to buy shoes and buy groceries, and this does appear to be strange. I understand this and I will continue to respond to this," he said. "She was told by this man that there were many people of this 'Black Death' organisation around her, and even if she tried to flee, she was going to die."
Mr Herba told police that he asked Ms Ayling's modelling agent to pay a ransom to secure her release, which has given rise to a theory that it was all a ploy for money.
When she was first released, neither Mr Herba nor Ms Ayling would co-operate with police investigating the incident, according to The Daily Mail.
Police confiscated her passport and refused to allow her to return home to the UK for four weeks after she was freed in order to carry out their investigations.
It is unclear why Mr Herba accompanied her to the consulate, effectively giving himself up to police.
It has also been revealed that the pair shared breakfast together in Milan on the day of her release because the consulate hadn't yet opened when they arrived.
Ms Ayling also confirmed that she knew Mr Herba before the kidnapping, having met him about the time she was caught up in the terror attack on the Champs Elysees, where a gunman killed a police officer and seriously wounded two others.
Little was known about Ms Ayling before her ordeal, except that she had taken part a YouTube prank video series called "Frisky Friday", where she pretends to be vlogger Ben Phillips' boyfriend and strips down to her underwear to seduce his friend.
IS HER STORY TRUE?
Ms Ayling's Italian lawyer Francesco Pesce admitted her story "seemed incredible".
"There are some elements on which attorneys had some doubts, very understandably," he told UK TV in comments translated from Italian.
"The behaviour of the person that took and then released her, after detaining her many days, is strange.
"It is still necessary to clarify this.
"At first, it seemed incredible that a person, along with others, kidnapped a girl, and then after a week, because of particular reasons, carried her back to the consulate, which was heavily guarded by military forces for security reasons, effectively handing himself to the police.
"This was initially questioned by investigators, but the story was proved to be true."
He suggested, however, that implications that she had lied were "evil".
Her agent Phil Green also backed up her story. "I can assure everybody that it was real and very frightening for all concerned," he said.
Ms Ayling has not given a formal interview since returning to the UK, but she told reporters outside her home that she had "been through a terrifying experience".
"I've feared for my life, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour," she said.