Rude but harmless - the real Mr Asia

Martin Johnstone did not deserve to die in the "horrific" way he did, Jim Shepherd says.

The flashy Auckland menswear store worker who graduated from cannabis to heroin dealing was not a violent man and would have disappeared if told to.

But he owed Terry Clark and "Chinese Jack" a lot of money.

Based in Singapore - which earned him the sobriquet Mr Asia - Johnstone had spent millions to grease the palms of Indonesian generals in a fruitless search for oil.

Then there was the $300,000 of Clark's money he lost when a drug deal turned sour in Thailand.

The former Takapuna Grammar boy was called over to England on the pretence of doing a drug deal when, on a layby off the A6, his best friend Andy Maher put a bullet through the back of his head.

According to court documents, Maher - who had worked with Johnstone in an Auckland menswear store - was so upset at the gurgling coming from Johnstone's body that he repeatedly stabbed it in the stomach. Then the hands were cut off and a hammer used to smash the face.

The corpse was dumped underwater in a quarry where two recreational divers, who thought it was a mannequin, found it.

Christopher Martin Johnstone was only 29 years old. Shepherd remembers him as always social and smiling, a little arrogant perhaps, but harmless.

Unlike Clark, he was not violent, though Shepherd recalls the pair laughing together over a large pile of cocaine as Clark recounted the brutal murders of Doug and Isabel Wilson.

Johnstone had a taste for three- piece tailored suits, French shirts and first-class travel - he flew on Concorde's inaugural flight to Singapore for the hell of it. Shepherd, who had seen how rude Johnstone could be to waiters, describes him as a bit too "nouveau riche".

Though Johnstone made out he was an international businessman and was always talking about his grand schemes - including running a fishing fleet in southern Asia - he lacked the basic organisational skills and patience to make it work.

"Marty just had no idea business- wise. When you're smoking pot and doing coke, your brain is not functioning as clearly as you think it is. No wonder he lost all his money.

"But for all his shortcomings, he didn't deserve to die like he did . . . it was horrific."

Shepherd says Johnstone would have been smart enough to walk away from the syndicate if given no other choice.

The irony was that it was Johnstone who started it. He had brought together a group of investors to buy the 18-metre yacht The Brigadoon and 450,000 cannabis "buddha sticks" in Thailand.

In 1975 the boat picked up its cargo and, despite a disastrous trip back to New Zealand that included some of the crew being arrested for shoplifting in Noumea, eventually made it home, months late.

But the delay turned out to be a stroke of good luck because the police had closed down their surveillance operation by then.

Clark, on the run for a failed heroin importation at the time, had his associates onsell the buddha sticks. One of these was Peter Fulcher, who survived the syndicate but was sentenced to 14 years in Paremoremo in the 1980s on drugs charges.

The sale of the buddha sticks, bought for 10 cents each in Asia, earned Clark and Johnstone about $3 million. The Mr Asia syndicate was born.

With Chinese Jack - who may be related to an opium warlord in the Golden Triangle - sourcing uncut heroin, it was passed through Johnstone in Singapore and couriered to Clark in Australia.

From there the drugs were sold on to wholesale buyers such as Shepherd in Australia, and Fulcher in New Zealand, then down the chain of dealers. Everybody took their cut.

According to Auckland Star reporter Pat Booth's book The Mr Asia File, by 1978 the heroin import bill for Auckland alone was more than $34m. The markup from importer to dealer was 400 per cent.

Johnstone's death, however disturbing, was not unexpected. Shepherd believes part of the reason Clark wanted him dead was to take over his heroin distribution network in Sydney.

Johnstone had also established a network in England. "By taking Johnstone out, Clark automatically took over. It's what he had done most of his career. People would set up markets, he'd kill them and take over."

The Dominion Post