It was a police raid that seemed designed to make headlines around the world – and it didn’t disappoint. Georgia Wawman, an angel-faced blonde from Britain, was still in bed when a dozen masked Argentine officers arrested her at gunpoint.
The privately educated young mother from the Home Counties was, they claimed, the ‘Barbie Bandit’, a ‘Raffles’ mastermind behind a string of violent robberies in the prosperous suburbs of Buenos Aires.
Or as the local press preferred to put it, a female Fagin.
But, as Georgia exclusively reveals today to The Mail on Sunday, there was one problem with this dramatic story. It wasn’t true.
Georgia exclusively reveals today to The Mail on Sunday, there was one problem with this dramatic story. It wasn’t true
Today, back in the safety of her father’s home in Berkshire, she finally feels free to put into words her anger and sheer bafflement at a vicious turn of events that has not only wrecked her reputation but has, for the moment at least, destroyed her young life
Not that it stopped police ransacking her home, from swearing at her, calling her a whore, taunting her for being British or singing songs about Las Malvinas – Argentina’s name for the Falkland Islands.
While she was locked up, terrified and handcuffed, in a grim holding cell, the same officers triumphantly paraded a seemingly damning collection of evidence – including police uniforms, guns and ammunition, laptops, cash, jewellery and watches – while briefing the press about the importance of their arrest.
Today, back in the safety of her father’s home in Berkshire, she finally feels free to put into words her anger and sheer bafflement at a vicious turn of events that has not only wrecked her reputation but has, for the moment at least, destroyed her young life.
Georgia, 26, is neither a glamour-obsessed ‘Barbie’ nor a ruthless bandit, but an ordinary, if adventurous, nursery school teacher and mother of a two-year-old son, Milo.
There never were any charges against her, nor boyfriend Jose, the father of Milo. In fact, by the time the Buenos Aires press were describing her as the female Fagin, she and Jose had already been released. Neither was ever on bail or under investigation.
‘My life has been ripped apart,’ she says, her eyes welling with tears. ‘I have packed up my life in Argentina and cannot imagine ever being able to live there again. It was only when I sat on the plane and the wheels left the tarmac that I began to relax.
‘You never know what will happen to you if you get on the wrong side of the police in Argentina – it is a very lawless country and when I was arrested I thought I was going to be raped and murdered.’
It is little wonder that while she was still in Buenos Aires after her ordeal, Georgia was careful with her words, too frightened to speak in detail for fear of antagonising the police. Even now The Mail on Sunday has flown her home to Ascot, she is still plainly in a state of shock, cautious when she leaves the house, bruised by a nightmare for which there is still no explanation.
While she was locked up, terrified and handcuffed, in a grim holding cell, the same officers triumphantly paraded a seemingly damning collection of evidence – including police uniforms, guns and ammunition, laptops, cash, jewellery and watches – while briefing the press about the importance of their arrest
She plans to sue the Argentine police for wrongful arrest, although for the moment, with her relationship with Jose now in tatters, she is concentrating on her son. ‘I have two priorities – to make sure Milo is protected from the furore, and keep him out of the public eye, and to have some counselling to cope with my feelings,’ she says.
Wearing jeans and a jumper, her voice cracks as she recalls the moment when armed police swarmed into the home she shared with Jose at 6am on January 14.
‘I heard an almighty bang and sat bolt upright – I actually thought the gazebo had fallen down.
‘But when I looked out of the window I saw a dozen armed men in black suits and black masks. I was absolutely terrified. I thought they were going to kill me.
‘My immediate instinct was to grab Milo, roll him in the duvet like a sausage and lie on top of him to protect him if they shot me. Within moments they were upstairs, thrusting guns in my face and screaming at me to get on the ground.
‘After a while they lowered their guns and an officer grabbed me – I had Milo in my arms. He was saying, “Who are you? Where are you from?” They obviously weren’t expecting me to be in the house.
‘The officer told me they wanted to search my home.
‘I still thought they were going to kill me, so I told them they could go anywhere they wanted.
‘I tried to distract Milo, saying, “Isn’t this funny?”
‘I was taken downstairs and sat at the kitchen table. All I could hear was banging and things flying around. They were grabbing drawers and chucking everything on the floor, saying, “Nothing. Clean. Nothing. Clean.”
‘Finally they asked me where Jose was and I said, “He’s gone to work.” He drives tankers for one of Argentina’s largest petroleum firms.
‘They then read me a search warrant saying they were looking for stolen goods – jewels, money, plasma TVs and other electrical appliances. I froze. “Don’t go outside,” they warned me. “There are vans of officers there and they might think you are trying to escape.”
‘They asked my name and where I was from. When I told them I was British, one officer said sarcastically, “Who do the Falklands belong to?” Without thinking I replied, “They are British.” Immediately I realised I had made a big mistake. I was in a total state of panic and went to the bathroom twice to vomit.’
Georgia was thrown into a cell with a handcuffed Paraguayan woman, also alleged to be part of the robbery gang
An hour later, the police told Georgia they were taking her to the station to sign a statement. Milo was taken to stay with friends. ‘I thought, “OK. I just have to hold it together for a little longer and then I can go home with my child.”’
But instead of driving to the local station, she was taken along the motorway in a police convoy to another building.
‘The doors were locked, it was boiling, no windows were open and I was feeling extremely unwell.
‘Nobody knew where I was and I thought I was going to be raped, killed and chucked away like hundreds of other girls in Argentina. That’s it. There’s no way out. I’m dead.’
Georgia was thrown into a cell with a handcuffed Paraguayan woman, also alleged to be part of the robbery gang. ‘A female officer walked in and looked me up and down in an intimidating way, saying, “On your feet. Turn around. Hands behind your back.” I did as I was told and she put the cuffs on me very tightly, told me to be silent and stand up against the wall.’
After an hour she began to feel seriously ill. ‘My heart was out of control,’ says Georgia, who suffers from high blood pressure. ‘It was beating very strangely and I had palpitations. I asked to go to the loo but the female officer ignored me. After 20 minutes she took me there and I threw up again.’
By this time it was midday and the police had released a statement saying they had disbanded ‘a gang of delinquents led by a woman from Great Britain that carried out heists in gated communities and weekend homes in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires’.
Newspapers around the world named her boyfriend Jose as the ringleader and reported that he was a dangerous criminal who had served three-and-a-half years in the notorious Sierra Chica prison for armed robbery.
In fact, he had never even been in trouble with the police.
Georgia is convinced they fabricated much of the evidence – all they took from her home was a broken suitcase, her iPad and mobile phone – and leaked the allegations about her boyfriend to strengthen their case.
She says that after she was thrown into the cell she could hear the police laughing as they laid out their haul. ‘They kept whistling a song about the Malvinas. If it wasn’t so horrible, it would have been laughable.’ Hours later the female officer opened her cell door and screamed at her to get in a police van. She had no idea where they were going. ‘I said to her, “Is that it? Are you going to put me in jail?” She said, “That will be later.”’
In fact Georgia was being taken to be examined by a doctor to fulfil police regulations. ‘I asked the doctor to take my blood pressure and it was dangerously high. I was breathless and was shaking like a leaf. He gave me a cup of water and told me to sit down. Then he gave me a pill to lower my blood pressure.’
After returning to the station, still in handcuffs, Georgia was thrown back into the cell but not before getting a glimpse of Jose, who was also in handcuffs. ‘That was when I knew we were in trouble,’ she says.
Towards the end of the day, the British embassy was alerted. ‘From that moment things started to change,’ she says. ‘I was taken to the front desk and handed the telephone. This amazing woman said, “Hi Georgia. It’s Lucy. I’m from the British embassy. Are you OK?” I burst into tears. She asked whether I had anything to eat or drink. “No,” I told her. “Ok. I will make sure you do,” she said. “I’m not going to let you down.” And she didn’t.’ Lucy phoned twice more and Georgia was given a sandwich and a can of Sprite, which she shared with her cellmate. Then, out of the blue, she was released.
‘A police officer came in and said, “Done.” He took my cuffs off, opened the cell door and gave me a piece of paper recording the time I was released,’ she says. ‘Five minutes later, Jose also walked out of the station. He was as white as a sheet and he was just very confused. Argentine men are very macho and don’t show their feelings but I knew that underneath he was as upset as me.
‘The police never explained why they had arrested me. I only found out from the media once I had been released that I was supposed to be the “brains” of an armed gang.
‘In fact, neither of us have ever been in trouble with the police and, by the time we were in the headlines, Jose and I had both been released without even being questioned, let alone charged. None of the other six so-called gang members was charged.
‘I believe they set us up in order to make themselves look good for solving the robberies,’ she says.
‘I was back at home when the investigating officer popped up on television boasting at having such a big catch – even though, by then, he knew I was innocent.’
Nothing in Georgia’s early life had prepared her for such an ordeal. She was the daughter of film director Richard Wawman, 61, and his first wife Sophie, 52, and describes her childhood as idyllic.
Her parents separated when she was a toddler but both remarried and the divorce was amicable. Her father, who lives in Ascot, went on to marry her Argentinian stepmother, Laurence, when Georgia was seven. Her half-brother, Charlie, was born shortly afterwards.
She lived with her mother and stepfather in the village of Great Bedwyn, near Marlborough, and went to a private preparatory school.
A keen horsewoman, Georgia was then sent to an equestrian boarding school, but left in her first year and went to a comprehensive.
A keen horsewoman, Georgia was then sent to an equestrian boarding school, but left in her first year and went to a comprehensive
When Georgia left in 2005 after, as she admits, flunking her GCSEs, she stayed with her father, who had divorced for a second time.
It was there she had a chance reunion with Laurence, who had remarried an Argentinian polo player and was visiting to pick up her half-brother Charlie. ‘I wasn’t sure what to do, so she suggested I might like to go to Argentina with her and enjoy the sunshine and horses. I loved the lifestyle so ended up staying.’
She spent the next seven years living with Laurence and Charlie at a ranch in Manzanares, an hour from Buenos Aires. She learnt Spanish, did some nannying, and ended up running English classes for the local children. Four years ago she met Jose Miño, now 32, in a nightclub.
‘He came from a good family,’ Georgia says. ‘Both his brothers are polo players and he worked for a very well respected company.’ Within six months they had rented a house with a swimming pool. At the beginning of 2013, she discovered she was pregnant. ‘At first I was nervous but Jose was really happy when I told him that evening, and I felt ready to have kids.’
Milo was born that October and they were thrilled.
But now, thanks to the Argentine police, her adventure is at an end. ‘Jose and I had a wonderful life in Argentina, but sadly that day spelled the end of our relationship,’ she says.
‘I couldn’t face going back to the house again.
‘I never for a second thought he was guilty. But I didn’t feel safe in Argentina and I had to leave.’
Even if she does succeeds in holding the Buenos Aires police to account, it will be scant compensation, she says, not just for the slurs, but for the wanton destruction of a dream.