'Leader' of Italian religious group in court accused of helping Swiss gigolo

Rome, Italy - Investigators believe Ernani Barretta, 64, holds the key to where Swiss con man Helg Sgarbi hid the fortune he swindled out of a succession of ultra-rich society women and industrialists' wives.

The Italian businessman called himself the "Instrument of God", according to police, and told his 30 followers that he had special faith healing powers, could walk on water and was capable of being in two places at the same time.

He will face court in Pescara, on Italy's Adriatic coast, where the regional Flying Squad called its investigation "Operation Sect".

Mr Barretta, who carried business cards describing himself as a "medium", has been charged with fraud, criminal association and extortion.

The preliminary hearing is to decide whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to a full trial later this year.

Investigators claim it was Mr Barretta who secretly filmed Swiss playboy Helg Sgarbi having sex in hotel rooms with the women he seduced, producing tapes which the pair then used to blackmail their prey.

Sgarbi's attempt to extort 49 million euros from Germany's richest woman, BMW heiress Susanne Klatten, 46, landed him a six year jail sentence from a court in Munich this month.

But he had already managed to con 7.5 million euros out of the married mother-of-three in Sept 2007, after claiming he would be killed by an American mafia don unless he paid him off.

Sgarbi, 44, who was nicknamed "James Bond" by the women he ensnared with his suave manner and stories of working as a Swiss government special agent, squeezed another two million euros out of three other wealthy socialites.

Now that Sgarbi has been imprisoned, the focus of the case has switched to Mr Barretta and his alleged role in what the Italian press has gleefully described as a "sexy intrigo".

Italian police claim the money, and possibly the sexually explicit video material, was buried in secret stashes by Mr Barretta around the luxury country retreat he runs 25 miles from Pescara, on Italy's Adriatic coast.

The 'agriturismo', 'Rifugio Valle Grande', which is described on its website as an "oasis of hospitality", is a favoured haunt of local politicians, policemen and magistrates.

Police have already discovered around two million euros hidden in the grounds of the hotel, in the village of Pescosansonesco, but believe more lies buried in metal cans.

Sgarbi claimed in court that Mr Barretta had nothing to do with the scam, but Italian police believe the former investment banker is protecting the Italian in the hope that on his release from prison he will be able to claim his share of the missing millions.

Mr Barretta denies that the discovery of money hidden around his upmarket retreat is evidence of any wrongdoing.

He claims that his father always told him not to put money in the bank but to bury it and that the cash that police have dug up is the result of "40 years of hard work".

"I'm 100 per cent innocent. I've been behind bars for eight months and I've done nothing wrong, while politicians who are accused of much more serious crimes are let out after a month," he said on being released from jail last month.

When asked about the group he allegedly ran Mr Barretta said: "I've saved dozens of teenagers from drugs and from taking the wrong road. They come to me for help."