The man who faked his own death
Seven years ago, Waikato businessman Harry Gordon faked his death, shed all his problems and started a new life. The scam might have worked if he hadn't fallen in love along the way. Shelley Gare meets him in Sydney after his release from jail - and discovers you can't keep a good conman down.
The trouble with Harry Gordon's carefully constructed new life was that it kept bumping into his old one. Strolling happily along the walking track at Mt Maunganui in Tauranga in May 2005, the one-time millionaire ran smack-bang into his older brother Michael.
Michael, as Harry well knew, believed he had drowned in a boating accident north of Sydney five years earlier. Worse, Harry was walking hand-in-hand with the woman who had agreed to marry him, Auckland social worker Kristine Newsome. Meanwhile, Michael had been helping Sheila, Harry's real wife back in Sydney, get over her supposed grief.
The two men passed each other and then Michael doubled back to confront his brother's ghost. "Hello," he said. "Is that really you?"
Harry, mindful of the woman at his side, didn't blink. "Of course," he said easily. "But look, it's not convenient to talk now. I'll call you in a few days." A few steps on, he explained to Kristine, "That was just an old friend."
If you're going to fake your own death, the one quality you're going to need is nerve. Fifty-seven-year-old Harry Gordon has it in bucket-loads. The New-Zealand-born businessman, who became the object of a special Australian police investigation, Strike Force Rebellion, comes across as the most sanguine of men. He's upbeat and cheerful, with the mild-mannered, eager helpfulness of an old-fashioned public servant.
Never mind that six months after that encounter with his brother, Harry Gordon was in prison where he stayed for nearly 12 months. That was then and this is now.
Today, sitting in a warm Sydney bistro, on one of the city's iciest days in 20 years, Gordon, a conservatively dressed man in a dark suit with button-brown eyes and youthfully dark hair, could not be happier. He waves aside the last several years of pretence, adventures, court cases and jail as if they were so many annoyances. It's like talking to a cross between Mr Bean, Walter Mitty and the reckless Toad of Toad Hall.
The five years he spent pretending to be someone else saw him hiding out in a private seaside hotel in Sydney, then sampling life near the Spanish coast before moving to England to work in a potato crisp warehouse. He then flew to New Zealand in late 2002, the homeland he had left for Australia in the mid-70s, and settled in Auckland selling garages and project homes.
Along the way, he got himself a false passport and a new identity as Rob Motzel, with the aid of $25,000, blue contact lenses and an unsuspecting justice of the peace in Sydney.
Unfortunately, in Auckland, he also acquired an extra wife. That was his undoing. If it hadn't been for meeting red-headed Kristine, or "Pixie Dust" as he calls her for the magical effect she had upon his heart, Gordon mightn't have come such a memorable cropper. Love led him into a bigamous marriage in September, 2005, and an unwise honeymoon in the Cook Islands.
Meanwhile, his astounded brother, to whom Gordon had finally confided, was encouraging Gordon's real wife in Sydney to go to the police.
By the time the honeymooners were due to fly home, Australian police had been tipped off about Harry Gordon's new identity, airlines had been alerted, and "Rob" was refused permission to board his plane on the grounds he had a stolen passport.
Kristine had to fly back to Auckland on her own. That, admits a shamed Harry, was her first inkling that her new husband, the man she'd met in 2004 when she went looking for a little house to go on the front of a property she owned on the North Shore, might have brought her not a little heartache.
Gordon had explained the gaps in his life by telling Kristine his real name but saying he was now in a witness protection programme. He says he told his daughter Josaphine the same thing. The reality was more outlandish. Kristine - and Gordon's new friends in Auckland, contractors and clients from his house sales work - were about to learn that the funny, self-deprecating man who had become part of their lives and with whom they'd had dinner or gone to the Classic Comedy Club, was wanted for a massive life insurance scam.
A month after that honeymoon trip, having cajoled and lied his way back into New Zealand via Fiji, Gordon flew into Sydney on his real passport, stoutly determined, he says, to see his lawyer and sort out his life. It was too late. Once through immigration, police arrested and charged him with false representation and conspiracy to defraud the AMP insurance company of $A3.5 million.
He remembers ringing Kristine from the police station. "She was cross," he says with understatement.
Sheila and Josaphine were later charged with conspiracy, too. Sheila served five months of home detention; one set of charges against Josaphine was dropped; a decision is pending on new charges. Gordon pleaded guilty to all charges, and ended up in a low security prison farm.
Now, he's back in business, dividing time between property development in Auckland and New South Wales where he has three company directorships. Kristine travels with him and they stay at either her North Shore home, or at a rented house on NSW's central coast. A divorce from Sheila seems to have cost him a fortune but he says lightly, "I've never been short of money in my life. It's too inconvenient. Once I lean into the harness, it's not hard to make a few thousand a week."
Indeed, he says his biggest problem right now, is getting Kristine to marry him for real. The moment he got out of jail, in November 2006, she put him on a year's probation.
"She wants to make sure I'm trustworthy and there's nothing else hidden there," he says.
Maybe she can find out from reading his new book, The Harry Gordon Story: How I Faked My Own Death. The title is one of the few things that makes him flinch. "Oh, it's awful," he says. "I'm so embarrassed and ashamed. And it's so lurid to have me on the front in handcuffs."
Instead, he insists his book is about a journey - a cautionary tale about what happens when one lie leads to another. Forget the life insurance, he says. That was just an unfortunate by-product of the legal processes that saw him officially declared dead just a year after his disappearance. A family solicitor, settling his estate, dutifully filed the claim. What could Harry do? He was "dead".
No, no, the real reason he did what he did, he insists, lay in a melange of problems including a get-rich-quick scheme with Ukrainian gangster businessmen who turned violent; a fraying marriage; a love child from a teenage affair; and other untidinesses including a mishandled 20 tonnes of asbestos and a nasty workers' compensation case.
Some people might have gone to the authorities, especially about the Russians. Gordon chose to drive his speedboat into the shoreline of the Karuah estuary in the Hunter region, north of Sydney, on a chilly June evening in 2000. He then scarpered in a tiny rubber dinghy, leaving behind his wallet, mobile phone and empty champagne bottles.
Of course, he explains feelingly, the practicalities of disappearing to what he dreamed might be a new life, running a hotel in Spain, are tough in reality. In his first few hours of escape, he found himself perched in that dinghy in the open sea, wet through, shivering and wondering why, especially on a moon-less night, he hadn't thought to pack a chart to guide him back to land, and the spot near his lavish Port Stephens home where he had earlier planted a campervan for the getaway and a $100,000 stash.
"You really didn't think this through, did you?" he writes chidingly of himself. "You are a very, very foolish man."
That's not quite how the Australian police and courts saw it. When I mention the Ukrainians to the police and prosecution staff who were involved in Gordon's case, long pained sighs come down the phone line. The managing director of the company which employed him in New Zealand, Bruce Matheson of Spanbild Holdings, is polite but terse: "I'm not inclined to comment on Harry Gordon," he said. "He left a lot of things behind that cost us money to clean up. I've just wiped him from my memory."
Gordon remains ebullient. "Life is wonderful," he says, "Absolutely wonderful." His agent, Sydney's high profile and controversial Max Markson, having sold his story to a publisher, is now selling the film rights. Markson, who called his own memoirs Show Me The Money!, chortles, "It'll make a great movie."
Does he believe Harry's story?
"You couldn't make it up!" he replies.
Harry's tale, full of deadpan humour, is short, and the type in his book is huge, almost kiddie-sized. He doesn't waste words explaining tricky details, like why his schoolteacher daughter had a Swiss bank account. (In person, he says earnestly, she needed somewhere to keep her money safe after her little investment flat had been sold.) Nor why Josaphine, who lived with him overseas at times, was so incurious about her father's peripatetic journeyings. ("My daughter has some comprehension issues," Gordon confides over our pasta and veal.) Blonde and bellicose Sheila who, Gordon swears, knew nothing of his plans to disappear until he turned up in her laundry two months afterwards, comes across as slightly less charming than a meat-axe. Nevertheless, Gordon leaves it to her to sell and divide their considerable assets and is heart-broken when she announces, on a 2002 trip to visit him in Wigan in the north of England: "Harry. It's over! You are the one who f–-ed up our marriage with all the shit you brought to it."
The book makes it clear that, given a choice between truth and fudge, Gordon all too often can't resist the latter. He writes woefully, after yet another lie: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave."
Fortunately for his new romance, he opted for truth, he says, when Kristine finally flew to Sydney, almost five months after his arrest, and faced him in prison. She had carefully researched his real life and asked a series of questions to test his honesty. That, plus meeting his loyal Australian friends, seems to have convinced her to stick around.
Maybe there are some clues to all of this in Gordon's past. Growing up in the North Island town of Te Aroha, he was afflicted with severe acne when he was 14. It taught him he needed charm on his side if he was to get through life. "At dances," he says, "I'd walk across and see the girls shiver. I had 45 seconds to make my lumps disappear."
Eloquence and an easy, reassuring manner remain his trump cards. Harry concedes greed may have led him into the Russians' arms, but says his true flaws are vanity and ego.
There's more than a hint of both in his book, and in the fact he wrote it at all. Criminals are not allowed to benefit from the proceeds of their crimes. Gordon has a bright reply. If the police have always insisted his account is fiction, how can they now treat his book as non-fiction? (A police source drily hints the New South Wales police may prove to be less than impressed by this reasoning.)
But, for now, Gordon is looking towards the next horizon. As Markson points out, he's beginning a new life.
It's a vaguely unsettling thought.
How I Faked My Own Death - The Harry Gordon Story, New Holland, $29.99.
Sunday Star Times