To the young British model, the assignment probably seemed routine: Travel to Milan, pose for a few photographs.
Just another ad campaign, her agency told her.
But when she arrived at an address near Milan’s Central Station, any semblance of routine vanished.
The woman — whose identity is being protected by the Italian authorities — was grabbed by two men and jabbed in the arm with a syringe.
She fell unconscious, and was stripped, stuffed into a suitcase and thrown into the trunk of a car and driven across northern Italy to a farmhouse.
There, she was held as a handcuffed prisoner while her captors listed her for sale on the so-called dark web — available to the highest bidder.
The ad set the opening bid at $353,000 in bitcoin.
“The psychological pressure on the girl has been extreme,” a senior Milanese police investigator told the Telegraph.
“She was very afraid.”
The woman would only be driven back freed to Milan and set free six days later, after her employers at a UK-based agency — who’d themselves been tricked into thinking the photo shoot was legitimate — worked with police to negotiate a $60,000 ransom.
“The victim was doped with ketamine,” an Italian prosecutor said at Friday’s arraignment of one of her accused kidnappers, Polish national Lukasz Pawel Herba, 30.
Ketamine is a veterinary tranquilizer used on large animals such as horses and cattle.
“Then she was locked in a bag and carried for hours in a car,” said the prosecutor, Paolo Storari.
“Think what could have happened if she suffered from asthma?”
The woman had spent six days at a farmhouse in the town of Borgial, northwest of Turin, the BBC reported, handcuffed to a chest of drawers inside a bedroom.
The farmhouse had been rented using fake documents, authorities said.
Herba has since confessed to police that he was working for a shadowy organization called the “Black Death Group,” according to Italian press accounts.
Named for the plague that decimated populations throughout Europe in the 1300s, the Black Death uses the anonymous and often untraceable bowels of the of the Internet to trade in drugs, guns, explosives and human trafficking.
The Black Death does claim to have some ethics, though.
When the woman regained consciousness, she told her captors that she is the mother of a 2-year-old child.
It is at that point, authorities believe, that the woman’s captives changed strategy and began negotiating a ransom.
They reached out to her modeling agency, which is also being kept unnamed by Italian authorities to further protect the victim’s privacy.
The modeling agency immediately reached out to police, which helped behind the scenes in reaching an agreement with the captors.
From an original demand of $300,000, the captors reduced their demands to about $60,000, a sum that was never paid.
She was dropped off at the British Consulate in Milan on July 17, after six days of captivity.
Herba was arrested when he — unwisely — accompanied the victim to the consulate and police swooped in.
Herba’s accomplice or accomplices were still at large on Saturday.
“You are being released as a huge generosity from Black Death Group,” reads a letter addressed to the victim, recovered after her release, obtained by the Mail.
“You are certainly aware of your value on human slavery market and must make a note that this isn’t personal, this is business.”
The letter added, “A mistake was made by capturing you, especially considering you are a young mother that should have in no circumstances be lured into kidnapping.”
The letter concluded with the demand that the ransom be paid, in bitcoin, within a month — and the threat that going to the police “will result in your elimination.”
Herba, a gaunt, hollow-eyed man in his mug shots, had been stalking this victim in the UK for months. Italian authorities have told reporters that when they searched Herba’s computer and phone, they found a cache of photos of the woman, including some from a time when she lived in London.
He’d lived for several years in the central England town of Oldbury, where neighbors described him as quiet.
He’d come and go often, neighbors told British reporters, often speeding to and from in a banged up red Toyota.
He’d often wear a cheap suit. He had a pet rat that was frequently perched on his shoulder, neighbors said.
“He kept to himself a lot,” one neighbor, Sinead Boyce, a 23-year-old model, told the Daily Mail.
“I don’t think we ever got a word out of him.”
Herba’s rat was “quite a big thing,” she recalled.
As for Herba — he was “a strange, strange bloke,” she told the Telegraph.
Herba hadn’t been seen for about three weeks, neighbors said, timing that fits with the woman’s abduction.
At around the time the woman was freed, police kicked down Herba’s door — but he wasn’t home, neighbors said. “It was 2:30 in the morning,” one said.
The anonymous British model may not have been an isolated victim.
Authorities also said that in the course of their investigation, they discovered three additional cases of women being auctioned for sexual slavery on Herba’s computer, the Telegraph reported. Each included a description and an opening price.
It remained unclear whether these ads represented actual abduction victims, the BBC noted.
It was also unclear whether any of the women were ever actually going to be auctioned — or if, instead, the sick ads were just frightening ploys concocted to jack up the victim’s ransom amounts.