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Saatchi 'threatened to destroy me'

Multimillionaire art dealer Charles Saatchi told a personal assistant accused of defrauding him and former wife Nigella Lawson that he would "destroy" her, a court has heard.

Francesca Grillo said Mr Saatchi had a "personal vendetta" against her and sister Elisabetta, who also faces a charge of fraud.

The sisters are alleged to have spent £685,000 on credit cards belonging to the celebrity couple, who were divorced earlier this year.

Francesca, 35, told Isleworth Crown Court, in west London, that Mr Saatchi asked to see her at his home in July after his financial director Rahul Gajjar confronted her and Elisabetta, 41, with credit card statements.

The court heard Mr Gajjar had asked the sisters to sign a letter the previous day, admitting dishonesty and promising to continue working for Mr Saatchi and Ms Lawson for a reduced salary for an unlimited period of time.

The Grillos had not signed the letter and asked for a copy of it while they considered their options, the jury heard.

After she took a cab to Mr Saatchi's house, Francesca said he told her she was "stupid" and asked her: "Why didn't you listen to Rahul?"

She said she was accused by her then-boss of buying a house on the credit card, which she denied.

Francesca, of Italian descent, told the court: "He was banging on the table... He said I would end up in handcuffs."

She said the situation became "quite scary" as Mr Saatchi told her: "Hide anywhere in Italy but I will find you and destroy you."

She added: "He said he was going to destroy me and hunt me down. That was his words.

"His voice was shouting and he was banging on the table and accusing me of various things that were not true.

"The more he got upset, the more I got frightened.

"You don't cross Charles Saatchi, everyone knows that."

Grillo said being accused of dishonesty left her feeling upset.

"I felt betrayed because I had been honest all throughout my employment," she said. "I had been honest about my expenditure so I didn't know where that was coming from.

"I don't get upset easily, but that upset me, and even until today."

Specifying what had upset her, she added: "The way he accused me, the things he said about me and the fact he went on a personal vendetta."

Francesca and her sister spent three hours locked in a cell after their eventual arrest, she told the jury.

"I felt let down by many people and the situation itself," she said. "I couldn't believe the people I cherished and loved put me in this situation.

"I still can't believe it."

The Grillos wrote a letter to Ms Lawson saying they were "reaching out" to her and asking for forgiveness, the jury was told.

"We never meant to be seen to be disloyal or seen like we took advantage of our positions," the court heard they had written.

She said the letter was not admitting "abuse of position", rather it was saying "sorry for losing your love and affection".

Francesca explained she wanted things to go back to normal, "if they thought we were disloyal and we didn't follow some rules they gave us".

She previously told the court she had been given a company credit card and was allowed to use it to buy items for herself, with the authorisation of her employees.

In the letter, the sisters said Ms Lawson and Mr Saatchi were their "English family", adding: "We saw you like mother and father figures."

She told the court, with emotion making her voice crack: "They were my family."

Grillo left in tears, telling Judge Robin Johnson she needed five minutes to compose herself before she could continue giving evidence.

The Grillos, of Kensington Gardens Square, Bayswater, west London, each deny a single count of committing fraud by using a company credit card for personal gain between January 1 2008 and December 31 last year.

Asked by defence counsel Karina Arden if she thought she had ever done anything dishonest in relation to the credit card or the company taxi account, Grillo replied: "No... Absolutely not."

Under cross-examination from prosecutor Jane Carpenter, Grillo described her former employer Ms Lawson as "extremely generous".

She said she had a wardrobe featuring around 10 dresses from the high-end fashion retailer Miu Miu, costing between £300 and "several thousand" pounds.

It was put to the witness that she was the best-dressed of all personal assistants employed by the couple - and she drew a few ripples of laughter from the courtroom when she replied: "I can't help that. It comes in my DNA - I'm Italian.

"Maybe I dressed a bit better. I think we all dressed well."

During what, at times, seemed like a heated exchange with the prosecutor, Grillo stated that she could not remember the precise nature of her wardrobe as it had been taken away when criminal proceedings began.

Grillo admitted she had designer dresses but said she also bought high street clothes from Topshop, adding: "There's a mix, like anyone else."

Grillo said she did not count how many pairs of designer sunglasses she had bought but it was no more than 10 pairs.

She kept her favourite shoes, including pairs by Christian Louboutin and Chanel, on display on the window ledge in her room and had also been given a Miu Miu pair by Ms Lawson.

She "probably" had more than 20 pairs of designer footwear, she told the court.

Designer handbags by Mulberry and Christian Dior, as well as high street chains Zara and H&M were also in her collection, the jury was told.

When Ms Carpenter asked if she owned more than 10 bags, Grillo replied: "Yes. Don't you?"

The prosecutor told the defendant: "I don't have to answer questions here in this court."

Grillo said she would always seek authorisation for personal expenditure "because that's polite".

Her clothes are now in the possession of Mr Saatchi's lawyers, the court heard.

The prosecutor pored over a list of credit card payments on Mr Saatchi's Conarco company account - alleging they were evidence of personal shopping trips for Grillo.

Details included hundreds of pounds spent on designer clothes and accessories.

Ms Carpenter also quizzed Grillo on a specific pharmaceutical transaction to which she replied: "It's fat- burning tablets."

Asked who they were for, the defendant replied with a smile: "I don't think they were for me."

The court heard of foreign trips to America and Europe, including one five-day holiday in New York in early December 2009, which Grillo said was with the children.

When it was pointed out the holiday fell during what is normally considered term time for most children, Grillo replied: "I don't really think they (Mr Saatchi and Ms Lawson) follow strict rules on school holidays."

Asked if Grillo was suggesting the couple allowed their children to miss school for this reason, the defendant replied: "Yes, I suggest so."

The court heard details of many overseas trips made by Grillo to destinations including Paris, New York and Amsterdam, staying at top hotels and shopping in designer stores.

In November 2010, she went to Berlin, spending thousands of pounds, but claimed all her spending had been authorised.

"I appreciate it's an expensive weekend away but it was my birthday and it was authorised," Grillo told the jury.

Ms Carpenter said Ms Lawson would never have authorised such huge sums being spent by her assistant on herself.

She said: "It is ridiculous to suggest Miss Lawson was letting you spend in this way. She didn't authorise such expenditure."

But Grillo replied: "She was extremely generous, not just generous. I am telling the truth."

On another excursion, Grillo was accused of spending around £8,000 on herself during a four-day trip to New York which was not authorised.

She told the prosecutor: "I have to disagree. You are not inside my mind."

Grillo also spoke of trips taken to her family home in Calabria, adding that Ms Lawson allowed her to buy presents for relatives in Italy with the company credit cards.

When the issue of travelling in school term time was raised again, Grillo said: "You don't know how the Saatchi-Lawson household lived."

She added: "It's like not drinking alcohol on school nights - but they do."

The prosecutor said Grillo took out £111,000 in cash between 2008 and 2012 and claimed it was not authorised by Mr Saatchi and Ms Lawson to pay other staff or give the children spending money.

"I didn't spend it on myself," said Grillo, adding she was "lucky enough" to be given gifts by her employers so she did not need to do so.

Ms Carpenter accused Grillo of abusing her position as a personal assistant, and said she had been "exaggerating throughout the evidence".

The prosecutor said: "You have tried to get this jury to believe Ms Lawson has authorised these payments. You want them to believe what you're saying."

But Grillo replied: "I want them to believe the truth. I have great faith in them.

"If you are innocent, you don't have to fear."

Ms Carpenter claimed Grillo wrote to Ms Lawson only to avoid being charged.

But Grillo said that court proceedings "bring things that perhaps some people don't want to say".

"I was trying to protect them, not to be headliners," she added.

Both sisters deny fraud.

The trial was adjourned until tomorrow morning.


From Belfast Telegraph