A ransom note has been sent by criminals claiming to be holding Georgina Gharsallah from Worthing hostage, the paper can reveal.
At 8.36am on Sunday, April 14, the Worthing Herald series and Sussex Police received an email from an account in the name of George Peters, who claimed to have the 31-year-old mother of two. She was last seen leaving the Clifton Food and Wine off licence store in Clifton Road, Worthing, at 9.30am on March 7.
The email said: “Hello, So after 12 Months Georgina has become useless to us. So we left with a problem.
“We can get rid of her or you can buy her back.
“If you would like Georgina Gharsallah back you need to follow the following instructions.
“You will transfer 16 Bitcoin to a bitcoin wallet.
“Bitcoin wallet-15BWY9t3YtiuiLYhUciUy32Z2 PZ668ovMv
“You have 72 hours to complete the transaction.
“Once done we will drop her off at a hospital and again you will be reunited. If you don’t follow the instructions you will lose her forever. Choice is yours. Please pass this mail onto the family.”
What happened next?
The emails sparked a police operation to find out if the alleged hostage-takers really had Georgina, 31, working with the newspaper.
They responded to Sussex Police negotiators, but could not give concrete proof they had her, such as passing the phone to her or taking her photograph.
The force’s IT specialists tracked down the server the email was sent from to South Africa, and after the three-day deadline was reached it was treated as fraud.
Georgina's mother hits back at 'nasty' criminals
According to Andrea Gharsallah, Georgina’s mother, police could not find those who sent the email.
The 57-year-old said: “It is very nasty. But people like that aren’t sensitive to other people’s feelings; they are trying to make some money.
“If they had contacted me directly in the very beginning, I could have fallen for that.”
She said that when police officers visited her home in Normandy Road, Worthing, to tell her about the email, she was ‘shocked’ – especially as their responses included personal details about Georgina’s life.
But it soon became clear they got that information from Georgina’s Facebook page.
Drug gang death rumours 'upsetting'
It is not the first time that Andrea has been subjected to spiteful messages.
She said she was regularly sent messages from people claiming to know Georgina was dead, with a recurring theme being that she had been killed by a drugs gang.
She said: “It is really upsetting and quite draining, because it goes on and on.”
The carer said she said she did not know whether it would be worse if she found out her daughter was dead or never knew what happened to her. But she said she ‘kept strong’ for Georgina’s two sons.
“They are still thinking mummy is going to come back,” she said.
“I told them, we never give up our hope.”
A police spokesman said: "Since the start of the investigation we have sought any information that may assist us in identifying where Georgina is and what happened to her back in March 2018.
"Sussex Police uses nationally accredited protocols to research, assess and investigate any potential leads. Following assessment, any information that is credible is followed up by the Investigations Team."
Senior investigating officer, Detective Chief Inspector Andy Wolstenholme, said: “The team continues to remain open-minded in our investigation in to Georgina’s disappearance last year.
"We have followed many leads from people purporting to have information on what happened but to date have not been able to substantiate anything that has been helpful in piecing together how Georgina came to go missing.
"We remain responsive to any information from the public that may assist us to find Georgina and discover what happened last year.
"We can be contacted online, by calling 101 and quoting Operation Pavo or you can report anonymously through the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”