Geraldine Winner, 81, was ambushed at her £4million Knightsbridge penthouse
During his decadent life, Michael Winner’s flamboyant attitude towards his many lovers, whom he seemed to delight in plying with attention before moving swiftly on to his next conquest, was matched only by his lavish attitude towards money, which he splashed about with abandon.
Even so, it is perhaps surprising that, more than six years after his death from liver disease in January 2013, the film director and notorious bon viveur’s behaviour is still causing something of a furore.
Quite how much of a furore, however, only became clear in Southwark Crown Court this week, where a drama unfolded that was infinitely more shocking than the 70s Death Wish series with which Winner made his name.
In court, Winner’s distraught widow Geraldine told how she had been ambushed by a thief at her £4million Knightsbridge penthouse. Having blindfolded Geraldine and bound her by her hands and feet, the robber beat her over the head, before taking off with jewellery, art and money worth up to £300,000.
Astonishingly, however, her assailant wasn’t a hardened criminal – but her deceased husband’s petite ex-girlfriend, elegant in high-heels, smart jacket, immaculate make-up and disguised with a wig.
The court heard that Gurgana Gueorguieva, who dated Winner between 1999 and 2002, attacked Geraldine in October 2015 as a twisted means of acquiring ‘compensation’ for a £100,000 inheritance she was expecting from the film director that never materialised.
Geraldine suffered head injuries and a broken finger during the three-hour ordeal where she was blindfolded and bound her hands and feet
During the violent attack Gueorguieva, 48, hit the pensioner over the head with a kettle, leaving Geraldine with deep head wounds requiring 30 stitches. She later told the police that Geraldine, now 81, was an ‘evil witch’ who ‘had voodoo dolls’.
Yesterday, speaking exclusively to the Mail in the pristine flat where she still lives – in the kitchen where the robbery took place – Geraldine admitted she is haunted to this day.
‘I do from time to time suddenly have a fear that someone might come in,’ she said. ‘Even now I get scared sometimes and shut my bedroom door.’
Film director Michael Winner with his ex-girlfriend Gurgana Gueorguieva, 48. Gueorguieva was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years at Southwark Crown Court today
She revealed it took nine months of therapy to recover from the assault, which she described as ‘traumatic’ and ‘terrible’. ‘I had to see a psychiatrist because of the stress,’ she added. It’s clear the emotional scars run deep.
But on refusing to move in the wake of the attack, she is resolute. ‘I’m not going to ruin my life just because of some crazy woman,’ she insisted, describing Bulgarian-born Gueorguieva, who Winner helped obtain British citizenship in 1999, as ‘mental’.
She added: ‘She should be sent back to Bulgaria where she came from. They could take her nationality away because what she did was horrendous.’
It wasn’t until this June that Gueorguieva’s barbaric behaviour caught up with her. After police found the stolen goods and clothing she wore during the attack, the personal trainer was arrested.
Michael Winner and actress Geraldine on their wedding day in 2011. Geraldine admitted she is haunted to this day
She admitted robbery but the case went to trial after she claimed the injuries Geraldine incurred were ‘accidental’ – a protestation Judge Peter Testar appeared unmoved by at Southwark Crown Court this week.
Sentencing her to nine and a half years in prison yesterday, the judge said that Gueorguieva had ‘developed a loathing of Geraldine Winner’ and that it was ‘no exaggeration to say her resentment of Mrs Winner became an obsession’.
He suggested the personal trainer’s motives were not purely financial; that in the run-up to the robbery she carefully researched her rival and sought to ‘cause her pain through the loss of objects which were precious to her’ through her association with Winner.
He said: ‘Plainly the defendant blamed Mrs Winner for not receiving the inheritance she expected and she decided she would teach her a lesson.’
As Gueorguieva begins her lengthy sentence, Geraldine – who first dated Michael in 1957 but didn’t marry him until 2011 – is left dealing with the repercussions of an attack that would have been terrifying for anyone, let alone a widow who was then 77. The fractured rib and broken finger the thrice-married mother of two adult sons sustained have healed, but a painful shoulder from where Gueorguieva stood on her with her high-heel remains.
Call her a victim at your peril, however. Dressed in a smart blue striped cardigan and grey trousers, she looks decidedly younger than her 81 years and talks defiantly as she relives her ordeal.
Clearly, she shares her late husband’s ability to invoke humour in even the darkest moments, offering a wry smile at the ‘unbelievable’ suggestion that she owned voodoo dolls and cast spells.
Pictures of Winner – who she met as a 16-year-old aspiring ballet dancer auditioning for his first film – are on display at every turn, and in the hallway is her late husband’s famous director’s chair, bearing his name in gold letters.
There are no signs of the violent struggle that took place here, save for a thick grey curtain she had installed over the kitchen door that Gueorguieva entered, as if to mask that aspect of her ordeal from her memory.
Curiously, although Gueorguieva said in court that she first met Geraldine outside a restaurant in 2001, Geraldine says she has barely any recollection of Winner’s ex-girlfriend, and certainly no knowledge of the rivalry Gueorguieva was consumed by. ‘I did not know she thought I was personally responsible for her miserable life,’ says Geraldine. ‘I have never seen her, ever. I don’t even know who she is.’
She then concedes, however, that she ‘knew she had been one of Michael’s girlfriends’. She said: ‘He didn’t talk about her, whereas his other girlfriends I used to meet them and he would bring them to Paris. Well, all the ones that obviously mattered like Vanessa (Perry) and Jenny Seagrove.’ Geraldine added: ‘She had nothing but kindness from him at the time but obviously he didn’t leave her anything in the will and maybe that is why she went berserk. She is dangerous, she has to be put away for a long time.’
Indeed. Gueorguieva’s crime may never have happened had Winner’s much-disputed finances not been the source of so much rancour.
His home was a 47-bed Grade II-listed mansion in West London, replete with a swimming pool and a cinema.
He had been known to boast of having a fortune of up to £75million. He owned a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, rented helicopters and spent £90,000 on his annual holiday to celebrity-studded Sandy Lanes resort in Barbados.
Much of his fortune was spent on a string of ex-girlfriends, who included actress Jenny Seagrove, former Benny Hill girl Lorraine Doyle and actress Vanessa Perry. Some of them, including Catherine Nielson, who he nicknamed Sparkle, and his former secretary Paola Lombard – dubbed ‘The Princess’ – were bought houses.
Gueorguieva met Winner in 1995 after (unsuccessfully) applying for a receptionist’s job with the director. The couple struck up a friendship. After Gueorguieva fell pregnant by another man and rejected what she claims was Winner’s advice to terminate the pregnancy, they started dating in 1999. The relationship – which Gueorguieva admits was never consummated – transformed her from single mum on benefits to trusted confidante to Winner’s network of celebrity friends. Winner – who paid for her son Ryan to go to private school – took her to ‘the world’s best hotels,’ flew her on Concorde and introduced her to stars such as Shirley Bassey and Simon Cowell.
There was a dinner party with Madonna and her then husband Guy Ritchie and an invite to Bond actor Roger Moore’s wedding in Monte Carlo.
Unsurprisingly, she says, ‘life with Michael was never dull’.
Yet in an interview with a tabloid newspaper in 2013, Gueorguieva hinted that Winner, who regularly rewrote his will towards the end of his life to include and exclude his various exes, was struggling financially. ‘He said his wife would get a surprise when he died,’ she says. ‘I think that was a reference to the fact he doesn’t have as much money as people think.’
Accounts of the inheritance Winner left have varied, with some saying he died laden with debts that dented his considerable fortune.
Certainly, at one point after Winner’s death Geraldine reportedly couldn’t afford to heat the house, recalling that in 2015, after Winner passed away, ‘the bank accounts were frozen. Literally within five minutes of his death they had frozen everything.’ It must have been a shock to Gueorguieva to leave her lavish lifestyle behind after she and Winner broke up. But she insists she was never after her ex’s money. Speaking in 2013, she told the tabloid: ‘I’ve since been told he changed his will six months ago and all those girlfriends including me have been taken out. I’m not going to be getting anything. But so what? I had the time of my life and he made me smile so much.’
Clearly Gueorguieva – who claimed their relationship ended when Winner refused to take Ryan on holiday with them and believes she ‘must be the only woman ever brave enough to dump Michael’ – must have been more bothered than she let on.
She was captured entering Geraldine’s apartment block on CCTV at 7pm on the night of the raid on October 9, 2015, and forced her way into the home as Geraldine – dressed in pyjamas and with rollers in – was taking out her hair foils.
Geraldine says she had an unintelligible accent. She recalls: ‘I could not understand what she said and then eventually I heard her say “Fabrice and Julian (Geraldine’s sons through her marriage to second husband, publisher Edouard Weiss) have sent me to kill you.” I thought – how could you be so stupid as to say such a thing?’
She recalls it was hard to see Gueorguieva’s face. ‘She had one of those floppy hats on, a black wig, high heel shoes and a long black coat. I never saw her face properly.’
Her elegant appearance, Geraldine believes, facilitated her crime: ‘Of course she could come in [the building unchallenged] because she looked like she could have lived around here.’
At first, ‘terrified’, she thought the mugger must have mistaken her for her billionaire neighbours.
‘I remember at the beginning when she was talking gibberish I said, “You have got the wrong place. Why come to me – I’m not a millionaire?”’
Twice, she recalls, she attempted to defend herself: ‘I tried to hit her head against the wall and then I tried to grab that kettle, but of course she was much younger than me and much stronger.’
The attack and burglary combined are believed to have lasted hours, with Gueorguieva not leaving the apartment block until 1am. The only thing that helped Geraldine stay calm, she says, was yoga breathing techniques.
She recalled: ‘I just breathed. What else are you going to do? You just want her to go, get out, take anything, just get out.’
As she was about to scream for help to the security man she heard outside, Gueorguieva put her foot on Geraldine’s shoulder and said ‘shut up’ – one of the few words she spoke, save to tell Geraldine she was going to ‘knife’ her and that the children had sent Gueorguieva to kill her.
As her hands were bound she recalls ‘horrendous’ pain – prompting a bizarre rapport between the two women, which she likened to Stockholm Syndrome.
‘When I said to her I’m in such pain, she said how much do you weigh and it was as though she was going to try to put me on the settee or something,’ says Geraldine. ‘I said you can’t do that, you’ll hurt your back. I was worried that if she picked me up she would hurt herself.’
She adds, wryly, that Gueorguieva left her property pristine: ‘The only thing I did appreciate was that she did not leave a mess.’
Although she says her sons were ‘furious’, Geraldine harbours no long-term grudge towards her attacker. ‘I have forgiven her. I have more important things in my life then possessions and objects. I am so lucky to have wonderful children, wonderful friends, what else do you need in life? Let’s face it, she could not take that away from me.’