Kidnapped and raped at a luxury villa, how Lauren dreamed up an ingenious SOS to save her life: She was a British girl working in Portugal. Now, as the monster who abducted her is jailed, she bravely tells her spine-chilling story
Ordeal: Lauren Caton
The scene could easily come from a dark Hollywood thriller. A busy shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon, where a waiter from a fast-food restaurant is taking a break outside. Suddenly a young woman walks past — she’s the same woman he saw earlier with an abusive customer who’d sworn and ranted at him over some minor issue with his order.
She makes eye contact, before suddenly dropping a screwed-up paper towel on the table, which then tumbles onto the floor and lands at his feet.
He opens it and reads the following disturbing words: ‘Don’t make a scene but I am a missing person. Please call police. Please act normal, don’t say anything, just call police.’
Is this a joke? He thinks back to the bully and the cowed, silent girl who’d been at his side. He makes the call.
No, this isn’t an imagined script, it actually happened.
And the young woman — Lauren Caton, a 19-year-old British girl, just weeks into a foreign adventure working in a bar in Portugal, was lucky to escape with her life after she was kidnapped, raped, beaten and held against her will in her attacker’s gated mountain home.
Lauren eventually got away after ten days by convincing her captor she wouldn’t try to flee — and accompanying him on a shopping trip, pretending to be his friend.
At a court in Portugal this month, Donald Fernandes, a dangerous, 37-year-old Canadian-Portuguese national with a previous conviction for manslaughter, was jailed — leaving Lauren, from South-East London, free to tell her astonishing story.
Her attacker, it transpired, had a long and disturbing criminal record going back decades.
Portuguese police eventually linked Lauren’s case to that of another woman, a Brazilian tourist, who had also been kidnapped by Fernandes and had escaped just a few days before the British girl’s ordeal began.
Despite going to police, the Brazilian woman wasn’t formally interviewed until June 2019, by which time Lauren had also become a victim.
When officers searched his villa, the passport of another young woman was also found among Fernandes’s possessions, along with a 9mm gun, an air pistol and a baseball bat in the boot of his Mercedes car.
In Canada, where he once ran his own construction company, he had spent seven years in jail for manslaughter after acting as a getaway driver in a bungled robbery, during which a 66-year-old man was shot dead in 2003.
Pictured: The Algarve villa
He escaped from jail in the middle of his sentence and spent six days on the run before surrendering during an armed stand-off with police.
In Portugal, where he ran a holiday letting business and worked as an Uber driver, Fernandes had previously been arrested for rape, making threats to kill, fraud and firearms offences.
Lauren has bravely waived her right to anonymity, determined to speak out about her ordeal so that others may understand the psychological complexity of rare and highly disturbing cases like hers, where women are abducted by sex attackers and kept in a state of paralysing fear by mental as well as physical violence.
‘You watch films and think you know what you’ll do in a situation like that,’ says Lauren, who is now 21 and works as a manager at world-renowned show-jumping stables in France.
‘The reality is totally different. I was terrified for my life and frightened to do anything that might tip him over the edge. He was clearly mentally unstable and I thought he would kill me.’
Her trip to Portugal was something thousands of teenagers undertake every year. Having left school at 16, horse-mad Lauren was looking to explore the world.
She and a friend had visited Luxembourg, Austria and the Czech Republic before arriving in Portugal in April 2019.
They found work at a bar in the Algarve resort of Vilamoura. It was there, on May 27, that Lauren first saw Fernandes, with a couple of male friends.
Born in Canada, and with fluent English, he told her he’d recently opened a bar. He invited Lauren and some of her female co-workers to visit his new business, with a view to offering them employment.
Gladly, the girls agreed to go. And to start with, it all seemed perfectly plausible.
‘We had a drink at a bar he claimed he was buying,’ she says. ‘It was very much a business chat. I was giving him ideas on how to make it appeal to British tourists. He was quite serious, almost sweet. There was nothing that made alarm bells ring. A girl I worked with knew him.’
When it was time to leave, Lauren realised she had no data left on her mobile phone and had no way to call a taxi. It was nearly 4am and her work friends had already left. When Fernandes offered her a lift home, she accepted.
‘Looking back, it was a stupid thing to have done,’ she says. ‘It’s the thing your mum always tells you not to do: accept a lift from a stranger. But I didn’t think I had anything to worry about.’
Just a few minutes into the journey, Lauren realised her terrible mistake. Fernandes took a phone call and began shouting.
‘I could hear a woman on the other end crying,’ says Lauren.
‘He hung up and threw the phone on the floor of the car. I started to think I could be in trouble. But I didn’t say anything. I just went very quiet.’
Moments later, Fernandes stopped to pick up a woman — she was, it turned out, the woman he’d been shouting at on the phone.
Lauren was ordered to get in the back of the car, but when she tried to open the door to get out, he locked the doors, pulled her hair and pushed her into the back through the gap between the front seats.
‘My adrenaline was going through the roof,’ says Lauren.
‘Then the woman said something that made my blood run cold. She said: ‘What girl have you picked up this time’?’
Lauren became hysterical and begged Fernandes to take her home. ‘He screamed at me then and said he’d kill me and bury me,’ she says.
The woman in the car — later identified as Fernandes’s girlfriend — alternated between shouting and trying to calm her down.
‘I was petrified,’ adds Lauren. ‘I had no idea what he was capable of or if I’d see my family again. I thought about trying to jump out of the car but I was afraid that if I did, he’d kill me there and then.’
After a 20-minute journey, they arrived at Fernandes’s home in the village of Benfarras, entering the driveway via tall electric gates which shut behind them.
Inside the house, Fernandes and his girlfriend began shouting at each other, a verbal fight which soon became physical.
When he began to beat the other woman, Lauren tried to intervene, only to be beaten by Fernandes.
The woman appeared frightened, beholden and subservient to him. Like a captive herself. Theirs was a strange relationship, she quickly established. ‘I’ve blocked out a lot of what happened,’ Lauren says. ‘I remember curling up in a ball on the floor and him kicking me.’
After resuming their own fight, Fernandes stabbed his girlfriend in the arm.
‘It was bleeding really badly,’ says Lauren. ‘Then she ran out of the house and it was just him and me. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what was happening.’
Fernandes sexually assaulted Lauren, the first of such attacks and rapes he committed while she was held captive. Afterwards, he ordered her into the car and they set off looking for his girlfriend.
‘I tried to signal to the car behind without him seeing,’ says Lauren. ‘I was waving my hand really fast. The car followed for a while — I thought the driver had seen me — but then it turned off.’
After picking up the woman who had run away from the side of the road, Fernandes took Lauren back to his house and left her while he drove his girlfriend to hospital. Lauren seized this first opportunity to escape and climbed over the gates of the villa.
By now, it was light and she saw that she was up in the mountains overlooking Vilamoura. She ran towards a neighbouring property, banged on the front door and spoke in English to the woman who opened it.
‘I was hysterical,’ says Lauren, ‘I pointed to his house and begged her to call the police. She left me standing on the porch and picked up the phone and made a call.
‘I could see there were children inside, and I think she was nervous about letting me in.
‘All the time I was looking towards the road, terrified that he was going to come back and hurt me or her, or kill all of us.’ With hindsight, Lauren acknowledges that what she did next seems utterly illogical but, confused and terrified, she returned to Fernandes’s house, climbing back over the gates.
‘I thought that I’d wait there for the police to turn up,’ she says.
Why didn’t she just run? She was miles from anywhere, she explains. There was one road in and out. She’d easily be found and killed. It was best to sit tight, keep calm and wait for the police to arrive.
‘But they didn’t show.
‘And that was absolutely devastating for me.’
When Fernandes and his girlfriend returned, she says, his behaviour was more bizarre than ever.
‘He was completely calm and friendly,’ she says. ‘He acted as if I was there because I wanted to be.
‘He spoke as though we were friends. That scared me more than anything.’
But when Lauren asked her captor if she could go home, he exploded in fury. ‘He said if I ever asked again, he’d kill me. He said: ‘This is your home now.’
‘I was terrified. It was clear he was a psychopath.
‘He had a Jekyll and Hyde personality. I never knew if I was going to get his bad side or his nice side. It was frightening and very confusing.’
During her captivity, Lauren was able to move freely around the house — although not outside — and given access to food and water. Fernandes went out at night — she doesn’t know where — leaving his girlfriend to watch over her. He returned each morning.
Her phone had been taken and when he was out, she slept. She also tried to befriend the girlfriend. Today she feels immense pity for the woman, despite the fact that she ended up as defence witness at Fernandes’s trial in the Algarve capital of Faro, and effectively accused Lauren of lying.
‘She was as much a victim as I was,’ insists Lauren. ‘She needed his help to get her official papers renewed. She was afraid she’d be deported. I think she had something like Stockholm syndrome.
‘I saw him inflict terrible assaults on her. He used to slap and punch her. She was covered in scars and bruises. It was terrible to see.’
Lauren was regularly sexually assaulted and raped three times, an ordeal she finds hard to speak about.
She says she tried to persuade the other woman to escape with her. But she was scared to go to the police, and defended Fernandes saying that steroids, cocaine and alcohol had turned him into a monster.
And she wouldn’t allow Lauren to leave either.
The young Briton’s first bid for freedom came when Fernandes took her to a shopping centre, a 15-minute drive away. It says much about the extent to which he controlled her that she felt unable to scream the place down, call for help — or simply run and keep running. It was as though she needed to be certain her bid for freedom would be successful before she even tried.
‘I felt dazed being outside with him,’ she says. Miraculously, she spotted a Polish friend, sitting in the cafe area where Fernandes had taken her. She asked if she could go and buy something to eat, and after Fernandes had given her a couple of euros, she walked past her friend’s table.
He was on the phone, but she caught his eye, signalling to him to call for help while keeping an eye on Fernandes to make sure he couldn’t see what she was doing.
‘He could see something was very wrong,’ she said.
‘I’d been missing for a few days by then, so I thought people might be looking for me.’
Soon after, Fernandes decided it was time to go.
‘I tried to delay things by stopping by shop windows and patting a dog, but in the end, we were in the car park.
‘I looked back and saw my friend making a scene with the security guards. I really thought they’d come and help me but they didn’t.
‘I felt utterly defeated.’ Again, why not run to them? Lauren assumed she wouldn’t be taken seriously and that Fernandes would fly into a rage.
Back at Fernandes’s home, Lauren tried to fool him into relaxing his guard. She expressed interest in working for him and acted as though she really was with him by choice.
On June 5, ten days into her ordeal, he took her and his girlfriend to another shopping centre, Forum Algarve.
Fernandes provided her with the idea which ultimately led to her escape after he screamed at a staff member at a fast-food restaurant because what he wanted wasn’t on the menu.
He led the women to another eating area and was obviously so convinced he could control Lauren that when she told him she needed the toilet, he allowed her to go alone.
On the way there, she spotted the staff member Fernandes had bawled out, sitting outside the front of the restaurant.
Again, such was Fernandes’s power over her, Lauren felt unable to ask directly for help or even to run away.
Instead, she borrowed a pen from a mobile phone kiosk, wrote an SOS message on a paper towel in the lavatory, screwed it up in a ball in her hand and dropped it in front of the staff member.
‘My heart was racing. I saw him go straight into the restaurant,’ she says. ‘I was really hopeful this time that he was going to help.’
Minutes later, she saw six police officers coming up the escalator.
‘I was sure they were coming to save me,’ she says.
Despite the high drama of her ordeal, its conclusion was strangely uneventful.
After reassuring her she was safe, officers questioned Fernandes and his girlfriend, who, after insisting that Lauren had been free to leave, were allowed to go.
Fernandes, she says, gave a little wave as he walked off and said a chilling: ‘I’ll see you later.’
‘My emotions were all over the place,’ she says. ‘I was so relieved but still so shocked about everything that had happened, and I felt guilty about leaving the girlfriend behind.’
Lauren was taken to the police station to give a full statement, but it was another agonising eight months before Fernandes was finally arrested, in January 2020.
The court case against him was delayed for months by the Covid-19 pandemic, but earlier this month, while at home with her relieved family, Lauren received news that he had been found guilty of kidnap, rape, aggravated threats and assault and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
He denied any wrongdoing and showed no remorse, shouting out in English ‘I don’t want to hear any more of this bulls**t’ as his sentence was read out.
He has also been ordered to pay Lauren €10,000 — around £8,500 — in compensation.
The money, says Lauren, is immaterial. All that matters is that he is behind bars.
‘What happened to me will haunt me for ever,’ she says. ‘But it helps to come to terms with it, knowing he has been punished and that he can’t hurt anyone else.’
As for the man who rescued her? She has no way of contacting him, but she knows that she owes him her life.
‘I will always be grateful to the guy in the restaurant for picking up my note and calling the police. I wish I could thank him.’
Additional reporting: GERARD COUZENS
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