A life of lies

Last updated 05:00 15/09/2012

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His $200,000, 13 metre motor cruiser Vagabond bobs on the sunny water of beautiful Manly Boat Harbour, Brisbane.

His home, only a stroll from the picturesque Cleveland coastline, is spacious and comfortable. A late-model white Mercedes shares the double garage with his wife's Citroen.

He works for a multinational engineering firm and has his own office in the firm's impressive building near the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. He is a husband, father, grandfather and respected professional, still working in his mid-60s.

Not bad for someone who secretly has a serious fraud conviction and a stolen identity.

But life is about to change dramatically for Wellington-born Gerald Shirtcliff. The past is about to catch up.

The event that begins the unravelling of Gerald Shirtcliff's lies came on February 22, 2011, when an earthquake ripped through Christchurch. It damaged a multitude of commercial buildings in the central city, but toppled only two. One was the six-storey Canterbury Television building at 249 Madras St.

Built in 1986-87, the building collapsed, killing 115 people and injuring scores of others. Some victims lost their limbs, others survived the initial collapse, but perished in a fire that broke out near the lift shaft and then spread.

It's not known if the collapse sent shivers down Gerald Shirtcliff's spine, but it should have.

He was the construction manager for the company that built the CTV building. Earlier this year, he appeared, somewhat reluctantly, before the Royal Commission to explain his role in the construction.

It wasn't much of a role, he claimed. But whatever his culpability, and to be fair it might be little, being thrust in the limelight was the last thing Shirtcliff needed.

The tower of lies he had built his successful life on was starting its own collapse.

In Brisbane, only his family appear to know him as Gerald Shirtcliff.

To others he is Will Fisher, a university-educated engineer with a CV that would make any professional man blush with pride. Late last month, he was working as a contractor for WorleyParsons, an international engineering consulting firm based in Brisbane, which specialises in mining and infrastructure.

He was born Gerald Morton Shirtcliff in 1945, the third-born and first son of a respected family in Wellington. His father Morton, a business executive, would end his career as the South Island manager for Shell Oil.

Gerald, who was a choir boy, was bright but did not thrive academically at Rongotai College and left school to work in a Wellington bank and then for an insurance company. Associates of the time say he had a proclivity for telling lies. He joined the Territorial Army as a bandsman, playing the cornet or trumpet.

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His early jobs did not work out and he left to train for his commercial pilot's licence at the then Wanganui Flying School.

His father, thinking some overseas experience might straighten out his wayward son, organised a job for him at a South African firm of consulting engineers in which his friend Piet van Zyl was a partner.

Shirtcliff landed in Pretoria in 1968 to work for Van Niekerk, Klein and Edwards, now VKE and part of the multinational Smec group.

According to his own version of events, he rose quickly through the ranks and was soon supervising construction projects and, with a new "airline transport" rating, flew staff to remote locations in the company aircraft.

An associate of the time, South African engineer Niek Diedericks, has a different recall. He says he and Shirtcliff were employed as technical assistants with no supervisory responsibilities.

Diedericks claims Shirtcliff told him he was escaping the Vietnam War draft in New Zealand (New Zealand did not have a draft for Vietnam) and he cannot remember Shirtcliff doing any flying. Although some partners had their own aircraft, the South African branch of the firm did not, he says.

The two also knocked around with young English engineer William Anthony Fisher, who had recently graduated from the University of Sheffield with a top Bachelor of Engineering. They went camping and drinking together and enjoyed the social life Pretoria had to offer.

Fisher, speaking from England where he has retired from his career as a civil and structural engineer, told The Press Shirtcliff was good company but he was disturbed by the lies Shirtcliff told, apparently to escape an arranged marriage in New Zealand.

"We flatted together for about eight months. He was good fun to be with. Lots of quips and jokes. He was very much his own man, doing what he wanted to do," Fisher says.

Shirtcliff was "pretty bright".

"He was always keen to learn how things were done."

Diedericks claims Shirtcliff left the firm under a cloud, due to an incident over Shirtcliff allegedly forging Piet van Zyl's signature on a cheque and cashing it.

Late in 1969, Shirtcliff left South Africa for Sydney, Australia, ready to start afresh. So fresh, in fact, he had a new name. It had a familiar ring. It was William Anthony Fisher.

Later, he would claim he changed his name to disassociate himself from his family name, due to abuse by his father, but the change was more than a shift in moniker.

He also took the real Will Fisher's birthdate, birthplace and engineering qualification. In 1971, he used the real Fisher's Bachelor of Engineering to gain entry to the masters programme at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and in 1972 to become a member of the Institute of Engineers in Australia.

For a man who wanted nothing to do with his family, especially his father, he was not averse to getting his father to help him with his masters project. Morton Shirtcliff, who was also a pilot and who taught Gerald to fly, was well versed in roading surfaces and bitumen from his stint as bitumen manager for Shell Oil in New Zealand.

In 1974, Gerald Shirtcliff was awarded a Masters of Engineering in highway engineering.

In Sydney, Shirtcliff worked for a short time as a project manager, including on a 33-storey building in Kings Cross, and also as a fleet manager for Streets Ice Cream. He also worked as a qualified engineer for the firm MacDonald, Wagner Priddle which became Connell Wagner and then came under the Aurecon umbrella in 2009. He met his wife Julie at the firm.

By the mid 80s, he and his family were on the move again, this time landing in Christchurch. The move, he would say later, was an attempt at a family reconciliation, but sources close to the family say that is misleading.

In any event , the family reverted to the name Shirtcliff. One day at Christchurch Airport he met Murray Cresswell, a commercial pilot with ideas of setting up a regional airline.

Shirtcliff expressed immediate interest, maintaining he had money to invest from a stint as a nuclear engineer in South Africa, Cresswell claims. Shirtcliff, he says, also asserted he was a top pilot. Shirtcliff took a management

role in the company, Goldfields Air, and convinced the other stakeholders his plans for the company, which operated a seven-seater Piper Navajo previously used by the Victorian state premier, would lead to success. The big plans seemed unrealistic to Cresswell and the two quickly fell out. Goldfields Air failed in 1986.

Cresswell wasn't impressed with Shirtcliff's ability as a pilot. He flew with him rarely but says on one occasion Shirtcliff was about to fly into a "reinforced cloud" before he corrected him. Cresswell claims the operation's chief pilot, Neil Abbott, told him after doing a run with him, he thought Shirtcliff was unteachable. ❏ ❏ ❏ In 1986, Shirtcliff was employed by Williams Construction, the company contracted to build the CTV building.

Williams was a public company founded by Wellingtonian Arthur Williams (later knighted) and had a solid financial history, making it attractive to the many entrepreneurs out to make hay in the heady mid-80s. The company had expanded rapidly and managing director Michael Brooks was keen to add someone with structural engineering experience.

When Shirtcliff gave evidence to the Royal Commission on the Canterbury Earthquakes by video link from Brisbane last month, he claimed he visited the construction site in Madras St only about once a month because it was a straightforward job and he was needed on other more difficult Williams projects.

However, in earlier emails to the commission, he denied any involvement with the project.

At the commission hearing, Brooks said he "wasn't up to the job" but was not asked to elaborate.

Tony Scott, a quantity surveyer for Williams, told The Press it was easy to scapegoat Shirtcliff, but if he had turned up regularly on the CTV site, he might have prevented some of the construction mistakes highlighted in evidence before the commission.

"If Gerry wasn't at the CTV site, what was he doing all that time?" Scott says.

 Shirtcliff continued as construction manager for a new company (Union Construction) set up by Scott and Brooks.

Union took over the CTV job and the building was finished towards the end of 1987.

After both Williams and Union failed, Scott and Shirtcliff set up their own construction company, with Shirtcliff looking after practical aspects on site and Scott "in charge of the office and finances".

Scott says the company did mainly design-and-build projects, including the huge Caxton Warehouse in Halswell and a five-storey apartment building in Park Tce.

"I have to say Gerry was generally capable and conscientious," Scott says.

"He was a hard driver and sometimes I would have to tell him this wasn't South Africa. He wasn't well liked.

"Although things turned sour at the end, we had a good partnership and didn't interfere with each others' jobs. I kept a tight control on the financial side of things."

Scott saw the need for the new company to promote itself and encouraged Shirtcliff to put together a CV, which he kept for 25 years, and provided to the commission into the CTV collapse. In it Shirtcliff claims to have: A B.Eng from the University of Sheffield.

Managed construction companies in New Zealand and overseas.

Experience managing an international company.

Four years corporate flying experience and management of "corporate flying division".

"He did try to pull a couple of swifties on me, but nothing I couldn't handle," says Scott, who also recalls some of Shirtcliff's interesting stories.

Shirtcliff, he claims, said his father was the legal representative for Shell in Britain and that was why he studied at the University of Sheffield.

Shirtcliff also claimed to be an old boy of Christs College. ❏ ❏ ❏ After Scott Shirtcliff Ltd foundered, Shirtcliff set out on another venture based on an idea the company had bought from an American entrepreneur in Rangiora.

"Gerry took the idea and came around boasting how much money he was going to make and how he had got one over on me. I didn't care. I had much more important things to worry about," said Scott.

The idea involved setting up hamburger outlets in service stations. Thus, in October 1992, Autoburger Ltd was born.

Autoburger Ltd changed its name to Langford Services and went into liquidation in 1999.

During the 90s, Shirtcliff also worked for March Construction as its in-house engineer.

Owner Edwin March told The Press Shirtcliff worked for the company for about eight months in the early 90s on a sewerage pipeline in Whanganui. March says by chance he found out Shirtcliff was not registered as an engineer in New Zealand and queried him.

"He told me was registered in Australia under the Fisher name. He just did levels for us, things like that. There was no problem with his work. He did a good job for us." But this is not what March told the police in March 2003 as evidenced by a statement released by the police under the Official Information Act.

In the statement, March said Shirtcliff had been the "house" engineer for March in 1993-4 and again in 1998 when he was employed "on and off" as a consultant.

Shirtcliff, March told the police, had signed off an engineer's design certification on a sheet pile wall at the Peterborough apartments in Christchurch using the name Shirtcliff and giving a registration number.

Another engineering firm queried the certification. When confronted, Shirtcliff said he used his Australian registration, which was under the name William Fisher.

"He told me the reason for using another name was because his father had hated him so he was brought up by his aunts in London and renamed," the statement says.

Shirtcliff's next business venture was a Nationwide Service Centre franchise, in St Asaph St. The business was busy but not profitable and by 1997 Shirtcliff was wanting out. But how to sell a failing business?

Successful Queenstown business couple Eric and Kay Zust had their children in boarding school in Christchurch and wanted to move closer. They had run a thriving souvenir business but knew nothing about the automotive trade.

The initial negotiations stalled over the franchise agreement, but Shirtcliff contacted the couple again about a year later saying the business had experienced phenomenal growth and produced the GST figures to prove it.

Zust thought he was on to a winner.

Shirtcliff stayed on for two weeks to show Zust the ropes and then left quickly for Australia, taking all the vehicle records with him.

Zust smelled a rat, checked the previous GST returns actually provided to IRD and found they were nothing like the ones provided by Shirtcliff.

"I realised immediately the business would fail, but I didn't know how to get out of it."

Zust, originally from Switzerland, hung on for a year, paid all the business creditors and virtually gave the business to its employees. He also pursued Shirtcliff and, in December 2000, the High Court awarded the Zusts $640,000 in damages and costs.

The Zusts also pressed the New Zealand police to act and wrote to MPs and the prime minister.

Shirtcliff was arrested in Brisbane in 2003 and was adamant he was not Gerald Shirtcliff, despite a car in his driveway registered in the name of his daughter Kate Shirtcliff.

After many twists and turns, Shirtcliff agreed to return to Christchurch to face charges. In 2005, he was found guilty of fraud and jailed for 20 months by Christchurch District Court Judge Murray Abbott, who said Shirtcliff was "grossly dishonest" and his actions displayed "patent criminality".

Zust's victim impact statement said Shirtcliff had made a mockery of the New Zealand justice system.

"I believe in his vocabulary the words honesty and compassion have the meaning of stupidity. He is intelligent but also devious, calculating and cunning. I and my family will never recover what we lost or heal the emotional damage he has done to us."

Shirtcliff was in jail for only two weeks before his lawyer got his sentence changed to home detention. Phil Stanley and Sue Lyons, who knew him from being fellow franchisees in the failed Nationwide network, agreed to take him in.

"None of his family wanted him and we felt sorry for the poor old bugger," says Stanley.

At the time, Stanley owned another autoservice business in Sydenham and Shirtcliff helped out with the paperwork to pay his way.

"He convinced us he was innocent. He had a lovely smile and came across as a kind grandfatherly type of guy. We could see he was a pretty sharp character but we sort of admired him," Stanley says.

The couple treated Shirtcliff like one of the family and Lyons cooked and cleaned for him. Stanley, who has worked with alternative fuel systems for most his life, had developed over the past 10 years a dual-fuel injection system for diesel engines.

He had a diesel generator set that could run on ethanol, methanol, LPG or diesel, running on a test bed in his workshop.

Normally he made interested parties sign a confidentiality agreement, but he trusted his friend Shirtcliff and spent a lot of time explaining the invention.

Lyons says Shirtcliff often talked about shouting them a holiday for being so kind to him.

"He would say, ‘as soon as I get out of here you guys are coming over. I'm shouting you a holiday. We will go out on the boat'.

"As soon as the bracelet was off, Julie [Shirtcliff's wife] was on the plane and boof [Shirtcliff was] off to the airport. No goodbye. No nothing."

Shirtcliff resumed his life as Will Fisher in Brisbane and told some wealthy investors he had an idea for a dual-fuel system.

Brisbane contractor Wayne Smith paid him $1000 a week to develop the idea and get it working. Only eight months after Shirtcliff left Christchurch, a company called DGC Industries, of which Shirtcliff's wife Julie Rook was a director and shareholder, filed a patent for a dual-fuel system for diesel engines.

The inventor on the document: Will Fisher.

Stanley did not know about the patent application until informed by The Press a few weeks ago. His initial reaction is not printable.

"He is a lifetime cheat," Stanley says in a calmer moment. "He's done it to everybody. He has no compunction." The patent documents filed by Shirtcliff had changed the invention slightly but not much, Stanley says.

Through his lawyer, Shirtcliff has denied all negative assertions contained in this story. He says he is a qualified engineer and has not done anything wrong. Although he refused to answer specific questions, he says he has worked hard and all he wants is to be left in peace to get on with his life.

With his lifetime of dishonesty now exposed, that seems unlikely as a number of organisations begin inquiries.

The Press has provided information to Engineers Australia and the University of New South Wales. The Royal Commission into the Canterbury Earthquakes is also aware about Shirtcliff's past. His present employer has sacked him.

There is no certainty this will prompt any new action against Shirtcliff, but his past has finally caught up with him.

None of it was necessary, says a close associate, who asked not to be named.

"He was bright enough and hard-working enough to have achieved it all honestly. It's such a waste and he has done so much damage to his family, to others and to himself.'

- The Press

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