Benefit fraudster Eileen Farquer is embarrassed that, at 83, she's become a hero to all the wrong kinds of people.
"You'd be amazed at the people who show up here," Farquer says, standing in the living area of her tiny rented bach in the Bay of Plenty seaside settlement of Little Waihi, where she is imprisoned on home detention.
"To some people, I'm a hero - 'you ripped off the Government, wow'. This is what's so bad, everybody feels it's OK to rip off the Government. If I'd ripped off a little old lady, I'd be stoned to death. But the Government? 'They've got plenty of money.' "
Farquer is serving a year's home detention after pleading guilty late last year to five counts of benefit fraud, in the Tauranga District Court.
Using the name Lee J Strauss, she gained an unemployment benefit in 1987, and continued to receive benefits in that name until June last year. She collected $215,000, which she is paying back at $10.50 a week.
"I find that an insult. Not to me, to the people I've ripped off," she says.
"Ten dollars a week - that's $40 a month. We all know I'm never gonna pay it, I won't live that long. Unless I win Lotto."
Her deception was discovered only when she drove into the path of a fully-laden fuel tanker near Te Puke last March.
"I had a broken shoulder, broken ribs, broken head, broken everything. I almost died. They were scraping me off the road - I vaguely remember somebody going through my wallet and saying 'Whose cards are these?' [I said] 'They're mine, of course.' So there, I've admitted I own the cards, and that's where they [police] went."
Why the name Strauss? "That was a guy I was married to. He's long dead, long gone. He was an alcoholic."
Down the road at the Bledisloe Caravan Park, where Farquer lived for many years, she is still known as "Lara". Owner Bubs Foden says she always paid her rent on time and was never any trouble.
"She's a very mysterious lady, very colourful."
Farquer has an international-sounding accent but claims not to know which country she was born in, as she doesn't know where her mother, who abandoned her, came from.
As an adult, she says she spent a lot of time travelling the world, and sailing on yachts, once appearing in a feature article in Playboy magazine. "They took some brilliant photos of me on a sloop."
Why the name Lara? "Lara Brown is the name I use - I had a brown dog named Lara."
She doesn't have much of an explanation for the benefit fraud. It was an accident, she reckons.
"We finished working, no jobs, everybody moaning and somebody said to me 'you can get a benefit'. I said 'no I can't' and [they said] ‘yes you can', because they knew me as Strauss.
"So I go in, no ID, no nothing, and get a benefit. I'm not going to say no."
She also had an unemployment benefit in her real name, and says she tried to stop the benefit when she gained the pension in 1993.
"I went to see them and said 'look, I don't really want this money any more. [They said] have you got a job?' 'No.' By the time I'd finished talking to this idiot I was getting more money, he convinced me I needed it. He increased the benefit and gave me more.
"What I did was wrong, I know it was wrong, but if somebody is going to keep giving me money, I'm going to keep taking it."
Farquer was fully prepared for jail, and was worried about her cancerous dog, Sam.
"When I thought I was going to get a government vacation - I don't like to use the word jail, it makes me think of a cage - I knew I was going to have to put him down, but the prosecuting attorney said 'no, I'll take him'."
The judge allowed Farquer to sit next to him during sentencing, because she is partially deaf.
"They'd given me headphones that didn't work ... I really couldn't hear anything. All I could hear was 'seven years'. I thought 'oh well, I'll die in jail'.
"Then I'm told to step down. I looked at the lawyer and she was smiling, I thought 'something must be good'. She said 'you got your home detention, now get in the car, quick'. We got in the car with reporters running after us and took off."
Farquer now wears a home detention anklet - what she calls her "diamond bracelet" - and is not allowed further than her front gate other than to go shopping, for which she must notify the authorities in advance and keep to a strict timetable.
"It's ridiculous, I'm not supposed to walk to the mailbox which is outside the fence, but let's say if I do, by the time they get the message up in Auckland ... then they call the police and the police come here, I'm back inside reading my book again and it's a wasted trip for everybody."
She spends her days gardening, reading, and writing a book.
"It's about my life, from the beginning to now. I've had fun, I've had a good life. I want it to be an interesting story and show people that mistakes can be made, but mistakes can be rectified."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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