Northland man denies burning down house but insurer refuses to pay out
Did a Northland man really burn down his own house by logging on from 400km away? A court rejected the claim, but the insurer isn't backing down.
In April 2013, an insurance company fire investigator stood in a court in Whangarei and told a very curious tale about a house that had burnt down a year-and-a-half earlier.
The investigator said he believed the house, a large, multimillion-dollar home in the countryside near Kerikeri, was burnt down by its owner, even though the owner was in Hamilton with his wife at the time, almost 400km to the south. He said he had a theory about how the man might have set the fire from a distance, and it went like this:
The investigator's theory was that the man, while in Hamilton, opened his Macbook Pro laptop, and used the internet to log-in remotely to an Acer-brand PC back at the Kerikeri home, which was connected, perhaps wirelessly, to a nearby Brother inkjet printer. Once logged in, the man caused a print command to be sent to the printer.
The investigator suggested that when the printer started pulling the sheet of paper in, it set off a Heath-Robinsonian chain of events: the paper was sellotaped to a piece of string, which was attached to a switch. When the string pulled the switch, it completed a circuit that included a 12-volt battery and a length of high-resistance wire like the ones that glow inside your toaster. The wire was wrapped around the heads of a few matches, so when it got hot the matches ignited and set fire to additional flammable material nearby, and then the fire took hold through the entire mansion, with the assistance of some sort of accelerant such as petrol, which had been poured about the place.
To demonstrate the feasibility of this method, the investigator and a colleague had made a video of themselves starting a small fire in just this way, using the same brand of printer, and other easily sourced components, and that video was played in court.
The next morning (the fire investigator told the court) the man got up, scrubbed the remote login software from his computer, then got on with his day. The police had been in touch to let him know his pride and joy – his beautiful house in Kerikeri – had just burnt down. He had some smoking ruins to inspect, and a hefty insurance claim to make.
In August 2016 the man, an Englishman in his late 60s named Christopher Robinson, told Stuff that almost everything the fire investigator Russell Joseph said during that pre-trial evidential hearing in Whangarei in 2013 was nonsense.
He said he was in fact under-insured when his house burnt down, which would make him a pretty lame arsonist. He pointed out that after years of legal battles he was in fact acquitted of the arson charges that were laid against him, and that the Crown had never been able to show that the complicated printer-ignition method actually happened. Contrary to the insurer's allegations, he said, he wasn't in serious financial difficulty before the fire.
He said if the fire was deliberate it was probably set by malicious intruders, and that if he'd known his house was going to burn down, why did he choose to drive to Hamilton that morning in his crappy $15,000 Nissan, leaving his "stunning" Mercedes E Class, worth more than $40,000, in the garage to be incinerated? He said he still wanted his insurance payout, but five years after the fire, he was losing hope.
Some people do burn down their houses, make a false insurance claim, then lie their heads off. By the same token, insurers don't always pay out policies when they should, and when they get to court they have the financial resources to outlast just about any policyholders.
But the case of Chris Robinson, the insurer IAG, and the burnt-out Kerikeri mansion is much stranger than a standard tussle between disgruntled policyholder and suspicious insurer.
Aside from the printer-ignition theory there's blackmail and bankruptcy, and allegations of conspiracy. There's a side-plot involving poisoned land. The IRA and a fake Irish priest make cameo appearances. It's a story whose various interpretations differ so drastically that someone, somewhere, must have told some lies.
THE HAMILTON TRIP
Chris Robinson and his wife Alison moved to New Zealand with their two children in 2005, and bought their house and 12 hectares of land in an isolated spot not far from Kerikeri, for a reported $1.6 million. By late 2011 they had extensively refurbished it for use as a luxury lodge. In July 2011, the mortgage was in default, with Robinson owing the ASB bank around $8500.
On the morning of September 9 2011 the couple drove to Hamilton. Shortly before midnight, neighbours saw the house was well ablaze. By the time firefighters put the fire out, the property was little more than a shell.
Robinson told Stuff virtually nothing was saved. His Rolex and Corum watches, most of his wife's jewellery, and almost all their photographs were destroyed.
"We had nothing apart from what we stood up in and the contents of the car following the fire."
When the insurance company's fire investigators looked around, however, they saw things differently.
Auckland lawyer Andrew Hooker, who has 20 years' experience acting for both insurance companies and policyholders in cases of alleged arson, says the "bible" when proving an insurance arson is something called the "arson triangle", and you have to get all three corners to make your case.
"You must prove that: one, there was a deliberate fire; two, that the insured had the opportunity to have lit the fire; and three, you must prove motive – why they did it."
Fire investigator Russell Joseph, a former policeman who runs Wellington-based Corporate Risks Ltd, investigated the fire for IAG, and during his first three-day inspection, five days after the fire, he began pencilling in the triangle's first corner: proof of a deliberate fire.
He found characteristic burn marks on the ground which told him an accelerant had pooled there. He concluded broken windows and rocks found in the house, which arguably could have been pinned on arsonist intruders, were in fact "staged", and said items that a burglar might have taken hadn't been touched. At the same time, he noted, the house was surprisingly empty of the kind of personal items you expect to find after a non-suspicious fire.
While sifting through the cinder and ash he also found an intact Acer computer tower. He passed it to a computer forensics colleague, Martin Jorgensen, to see if there was anything useful hiding in the hard-drives.
Joseph was now pretty sure he was looking at an arson, and he suspected it was lit by the policyholder, but he was lacking the triangle's second corner – opportunity for Robinson to light the fire, seeing he was 400km distant.
But then he heard back from Jorgensen about the contents of the Acer.
The pair's gradual awakening to the possibility of remote ignition is all there in the transcript of the 2013 pre-trial hearing, where over the course of 150-odd pages he and Jorgensen step Judge John McDonald through how they developed their extraordinary printer-and-a-piece-of-string theory.
Jorgensen had trawled the Acer computer's internet search history for terms that might have been arson-related, such as "fire", or "timer", or "insurance" or "battery", and got some hits he considered promising. He found log files which showed the PC had been functioning on the evening of the fire and had been accessed, via a remote login programme called LogMeIn, by an Apple Macbook. Here, perhaps, were the glimmers of method of remote ignition.
During a second scene inspection Joseph got talking to Robinson, and asked him whether the Acer had been left on the morning of the fire, and whether Robinson could remotely access the Acer. Robinson said no to both questions. Joseph went to his car and swiftly made a file note of the conversation.
Jorgensen found files that made him think a printer could have been involved. Joseph returned to the ruins, used a big digger to move a large steel beam near the seat of the fire in the library, and recovered metallic remains of two inkjet printers. A hypothesis was firming up.
In December police seized Robinson's Macbook laptop and handed it to Jorgensen, who found files suggesting this was the specific Macbook that had logged in to the Acer PC. He found log files on the MacBook showing the LogMeIn software had been deleted on the morning after the fire. He noted that all emails on the Macbook from February until two days after the fire had been permanently deleted.
In January Jorgensen built a mockup of a printer-and-string-triggered ignition system to determine the "practicality and likelihood" of such a system. The precise setup was speculative but when they hit print, it worked! They made a video showing how it could be done.
Evidently the police liked the theory: in April 2012, seven months after the fire, Robinson was arrested on charges of arson and making false insurance claims. In May IAG declined his claim. In June his house was sold, and he was left almost half a million dollars in debt to ASB Bank, which set about getting him declared bankrupt.
A year later still, Joseph and Jorgensen presented their evidence and video demonstration to the pre-trial hearing, and Judge McDonald agreed their novel theory of remote ignition was admissible. Robinson's lawyer lodged an appeal to get the evidence thrown out, but things were looking dark for Robinson.
MEETING CHRIS ROBINSON
In July this year, Stuff approached Robinson at his home north of Auckland. He's a tall man with white hair, a lugubrious face and fairly posh English accent. He's articulate and clearly very intelligent. He refused a request to take a new photograph and said he would speak only off the record, until he'd checked with his lawyer.
Later, though, he agreed to communicate via email, and his initial caginess was replaced with an urgent need to communicate. He emailed answers to Stuff's questions, as well as court documents and transcripts and detailed explanations of how his antagonists were making things up and he wasn't.
Read the documents, he urged, and you'll see that "our story is not the fiction here. We have the sort of story that could earn a supportive journalist the New Zealand equivalent of a Pulitzer prize."
"This case," he wrote later, "is far bigger, far more far-reaching and significant than you have appreciated", and he suggested that if Stuff signed a non-disclosure agreement he could tell the "full story". We declined.
Yet there's enough in the documents Robinson supplied, and in numerous court documents and press cuttings, to draw a fascinating portrait of someone who is either a quite unusual person, or someone to whom very unusual things keep happening.
Before the fire, Robinson had taken lawsuits or made formal complaints against the New Zealand Government, his estate agent, the Northland DHB and the regional council, mostly in relation to his assertion that his family had been sickened by highly toxic pesticides that were dumped on his land decades ago.
Since the fire, he has made legal submissions accusing IAG, its lawyers, and the fire investigators it used or fraud, perjury and other crimes.
He possesses, you start to think, a tendency to add two and two and get seven million – which happens to be the number of dollars he requested from the ASB, after accusing the bank of destroying evidence, when it was preparing the house for mortgagee sale, that could have proved the fire was set by intruders. (A judge said the claims were "lacking in merit and appear to have been raised in an attempt to try and stave off bankruptcy".)
Yet when Robinson explained the flaws, for example, in the printer-ignition theory, or when he batted away worrying aspects of Joseph's pre-trial submissions, he sounded level-headed, in command of the facts, utterly plausible.
Why did he tell Joseph the Acer computer was off that night when clearly it was on?
Because he was talking about the screen not the Acer computer itself, and Joseph "misunderstood, possibly deliberately!"
Why did he tell Joseph he didn't have remote acces to the computer that night, when he clearly did?
Because "Joseph actually asked me if I used 'Remote Access' software […] if he had asked the more straightforward question, 'Did I use LogMeIn software?' then I would have told him."
The deletion of the LogMeIn software from his Macbook the morning after the fire? The programme actually operates as a "cookie", said Robinson, and deletes automatically, which Jorgensen must have known.
Those allegedly suspicious internet searches? Well, he needed batteries for an electric fence; he searched insurance because he was changing policies; he searched switches for water purification gear, and so on…
Also, he wrote, why such a crazily complicated system to set fire to a house? "Why would you use such a system rather than just plugging a cheap time-switch into the wall-socket?"
ANOTHER COURT CASE
From early 2013 to mid-2016 Robinson's legal adventures became labyrinthine. The important thread to follow, though, is that in late April 2013, just a week after the printer-ignition theory was ruled admissible, Robinson filed his own civil suit against IAG.
The statement of claim – a wide-ranging document alleging widespread conspiracy and fraud that a judge later described as "severely deficient" – asked not only for the insurance payout, but sundry other costs to a total exceeding $3 million. IAG successfully asked the court to have the civil case paused until the arson case had been determined.
But just one week after he filed that claim, Robinson seriously over-reached himself. He sent a series of emails directly to IAG and its solicitor Chris Hlavac expanding even further on their alleged criminal conduct, demanding even more money (this time over $5 million), demanding that they abandon their evidence in the arson trial and any other legal action against him, or else – and it was this threat of repercussions that got him in trouble – he would publish all his allegations online and tell the world.
IAG was used to disgruntled policyholders threatening to tell the world, but the scale and grandiosity of these claims were on a new level. The company showed the emails to the police and Robinson was charged again – this time with blackmail.
Then for a couple of years Robinson's two criminal cases inched along, mostly invisible to the public because of suppression orders which ended only recently.
The results were a mixed bag. The good news for Robinson was that in early 2014 the Crown's arson case went badly wonky.
Computer expert Jorgensen had always taken care to say the printer-ignition was only a theory, just one method of remote ignition that was congruent with the known facts.
"I'm not saying that this is the only way it could be done," he'd told Judge McDonald back at that pre-trial hearing, "or indeed the way that it was done".
Yet when Robinson's lawyer appealed the admissibility of the fire investigation evidence, Joseph and Jorgensen fell down a rabbithole of their own making.
Sure, they could prove the remote login, and suggest a likely scenario, and show the cool video of how things might have gone down. But speculative or not, the chain of causation – from Macbook to Acer PC to printer to string to switch to wire to matches to conflagration – must have involved a print command being transmitted from the Acer PC to the printer.
Such a command should have left its trace in a log file on the Acer PC, yet the fire investigators simply couldn't find it despite being granted months to do so. No print command meant no connection to Robinson,so the expert evidence was ruled inadmissable after all, and in May 2015 Robinson was acquitted, having never stood trial for arson.
Joseph was reluctant to comment in detail given the possibility of future court action, but he affirmed that he stood by everything he had said in his evidence.
What you need to understand, said Joseph, is that "the issue of the print spooler is probably about one percent of the overall evidence. This is not a case about one thing. It is about many things.
"I believe he lit the fire, and that he lit the fire remotely using a combination of his personal laptop and his home computer.
"It would be very wrong to be drawn into: 'this is an innocent person persecuted by an insurance company', because he's not."
WHAT ABOUT THE BLACKMAIL?
And the blackmail trial that was sparked by Robinson's over-the-top emails to IAG? That finally went ahead in the Whangarei High Court this year, and on June 10 Robinson was found guilty and sentenced to nine months' home detention.
His threats toward IAG and Hlavac, said Justice Ailsa Duffy at sentencing, displayed "elements of grandiosity in some respects and detachment from reality", and his behaviour had been "rash, headstrong and arrogant".
"You have," she said, "done yourself a lot of harm."
On the other hand, she expressed surprise that a great big insurance company like IAG could really be as seriously affected as they'd claimed in the witness impact report.
She adjusted the sentence downwards in recognition of Robinson's attempts to remove defamatory material from the internet, and for his remorse.
IAG had requested suppression of the trial on the grounds that even though untrue, the allegations of fraud and perjury that Robinson had threatened to publicise could still harm their public reputation. Justice Duffy threw out the suppression, pointing out that these were indeed just allegations, and that news media could probably be trusted to "take care not to misrepresent the adverse material as a statement of fact".
In an email to Stuff, Robinson seemed to have come through the remorse phase.
"Technically yes, it was blackmail, I realise that now," he wrote. But "technically, almost every debt collection letter is blackmail – a demand is given […] and threats are made, disclosure to debtors agences, bad credit ratings etc". In reality, he said, the blackmail case was "an attempted blackening of my character".
TO BE CONTINUED ...
The story of IAG, Robinson and the burnt-out luxury lodge isn't quite over. Robinson says he still believes he can show the case against him was a fiction, "so yes, we are still hopeful", even though he says he is still unwell from the pesticides that poisoned his land, broke, and surviving on the generosity of his hard-working daughter.
On Friday a spokesperson said IAG still considers Robinson responsible for the fire, and the failure of the criminal arson case "does not impact IAG's case in any civil proceeding".
The status of Robinson's civil case against IAG has become rather messy. He lost control of the litigation because of his bankruptcy and is currently trying to wrest it back so he can once again chase IAG for his money. IAG is, naturally, opposing this. There was a hearing in Auckland High Court on August 23 about that, and the reserved judgment hasn't yet been released, so watch this space.
And there just one more chapter to this story – a kind of prequel to Robinson's New Zealand misadventures.
In Justice Duffy's sentencing notes for the blackmail, she said Robinson had no previous New Zealand convictions but in 1993 a UK court had convicted him on five charges of blackmail. She said the "precise details" of the offences hadn't been established, but they involved demands for money made to the chief executives of large London corporations, and that Robinson had been sentenced to four years' imprisonment. She slightly increased his sentence in recognition of the past offending.
Stuff has sighted press clippings describing the UK convictions. The reports in the East Anglian Daily Times say Robinson sent letters, in the name of a non-existent Irish priest, that requested almost £1 million in donations to a non-existent Irish charity for the victims of terrorism, alongside thinly veiled suggestions that companies who made donations were less likely to be bombed by the IRA. This was not long after the Provisional IRA had set off a huge truck-bomb in the Baltic Exchange in London's financial district, killing three.
Robinson's defence in the UK court was that he had been set up. He said he had done some administration work for someone who said he was priest from Northern Ireland, but when he received some serious threats against himself and his young family from a man with a machine-gun, he realised he was in fact dealing with the IRA, and didn't trust the police enough to ask them for help.
On Friday, Robinson said the UK press reports were very old and "highly inaccurate". He said that when he arrived in New Zealand he was able to supply the immigration service with a UK Police report proving that he had no criminal record in the UK. He said he wasn't at liberty able to explain this apparent contradiction to "on the record" at this time, but could do so off the record. We have not yet taken up this offer.
- Sunday Star Times