Con artist failed to convince the Grim Reaper

IAN STEWARD
Last updated 05:00 26/05/2013

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A morbidly obese fraudster who tried to argue he was too fat for jail died in custody after being taken to prison from a hospital bed.

Max Heslehurst, 58, known as "Mad Max" and "Fat Max", who tipped the scales at 200kg, died last August while in custody.

He was on parole after serving a 3 -year jail term for fraud. He had fleeced at least 30 people across the North Island of more than $300,000.

It was the latest in a string of cons Fat Max had carried out over a 26-year crooked career here and in Australia, during which he racked up more than 100 convictions, most for fraud.

During his time Heslehurst claimed to have won Lotto, managed multimillion-dollar investments, headed companies and been an unlikely lothario targetting solo mums through online dating sites.

He had been due to appear at Hamilton District Court facing fresh charges involving fleecing a further $100,000 from hapless victims. But he collapsed of a suspected heart attack outside the court last May. His lawyer told the court Heslehurst had been taken to Waikato Hospital and he was excused from appearing.

But with the new allegations hanging over him and a history of using his size and medical problems as excuses to delay proceedings, a parole recall warrant was later issued - forcing him to go back to prison to serve out the rest of his original sentence.

Police arrested him at Waikato Hospital and took him to Waikeria Prison. But within days he was transferred back to the hospital and died - technically while still in Corrections Department custody.

An inquest into his death will be held in July.

Mike Williams, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the case had already been raised with his group, but had no criticism of the prison authorities, saying they had no choice but to recall Heslehurst. "The responsibility lies with the doctors who released him. They must have felt he was OK to release back to the jail."

The hospital would not discuss the case.

Hamilton detective Simon Eckersley said Heslehurst had a history of claiming medical problems, and had in the past fought extradition from Australia "saying he was too fat to fly". When eventually brought to New Zealand, Heslehurst promptly got a friend's passport and flew back to Australia. He was finally deported to New Zealand. The Sunday Star-Times reported on Heslehurst in 2009 when he went to the Court of Appeal arguing his size and ill-health should keep him out of prison.

His lawyer argued Heslehurst was "degraded" in prison, and other prisoners had to care for him, including wiping his bottom.

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The courts rejected the appeal and sent him to jail. Eckersley described him as a "consummate conman" but his methods were simple. He played on people's greed, duping his victims by offering to sell them cut-price cars or wide-screen televisions, none of which existed.

"He had the ability to talk people into anything - people from all walks of life, from dentists to little old ladies." Eckersley said in one instance Heslehurst went into a bank to do some banking and noticed the branch was undergoing renovations.

He spun a line that he was involved in a motel that had gone into liquidation and he had several brand-new big-screen TVs to sell for $750 each.

Despite never showing them the merchandise "he sold five to bank staff and one to the builder, all for cash". On another occasion he walked into a car dealership with a losing Lotto ticket, Eckersley said, convincing the car dealer he was a new millionaire and drove out in a new car with another on order.

One of Fat Max's victims, Shirley Ross, said Heslehurst was "a big fat ugly piece of whatever" but he was very convincing.

"He had a memory like a tape recorder. He could bullshit you but a week later he knew exactly what he had said." Asked if she knew of his death, Ross said, "Yes, thank God. It's the best piece of news I've ever had."

- Sunday Star Times

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