Murder-accused Aucklander Clinton Thinn speaks from maximum-security US jail

Fairfax NZ

29-year-old Clinton Thinn, the step-brother of National cabinet minister Nikki Kaye, is in a US jail charged with murder.

With his right hand cuffed to the table and his left hand to a belt around his waist, Clinton Thinn leans on the table awkwardly to hold the phone to his ear.  

Behind the glass, he sits in green prison scrubs. His hair stands wildly on end. He stares.

He looks different to the photos he'd posted on social media before he landed in prison last June. He's thinner, his front teeth are chipped, he has a beard, of sorts.

And, for the next 90 minutes, Thinn – the step-brother of National cabinet minister Nikki Kaye – will ramble confusingly through various strands of his life, chained to a visitors' table in cellblock 5A inside the maximum-security George Bailey Detention Facility outside San Diego.

Clinton Thinn in one of the photos he posted early in his trip to the US.
Supplied

Clinton Thinn in one of the photos he posted early in his trip to the US.

READ MORE: 
Clinton Thinn allegedly strangled fellow inmate in US prison
Aspiring rapper stepbrother of MP Nikki Kaye accused of US prison murder


"It's all sort of worked out alright," Thinn says. "Everything has sort of been alright."

He'll talk about having produced a rap album behind bars, his plans to sail in the British Virgin Islands, and doing press ups until he's tired.

He continues like this. Darting, scattershot sentences, coming to a sudden halt at times, as if unsure where his thoughts were going.

The San Diego bank where Clinton Thinn was arrested for alleged armed robbery.
SAM BOYER

The San Diego bank where Clinton Thinn was arrested for alleged armed robbery.

If he's acting, he's doing a very good job. But that would be an astonishing act of deception by a man whose own friends have described him as at times unhinged, "cooked" by serial methamphetamine use.

Thinn had money, family connections and opportunity. A boy from an affluent Auckland family, he attended Auckland Grammar and Selwyn College. But now Clinton Forbel Thinn, 29, sits in the George Bailey jail charged with armed bank robbery and a jailhouse murder. How did he fall so low?

According to court documents filed by the San Diego District Attorney's office, Thinn is facing 14 charges in relation to the June 24 attempted bank job – for assault with a deadly weapon, attempted armed robbery, a death threat, false imprisonment and burglary.

He was arrested inside the bank, with several witnesses and bank surveillance cameras. It was reported by local media that he was armed with a flare gun, which he fired twice, and a hammer, with which he tried to smash his way to the tills. He attempted to rope the doors of the bank closed from the inside, and court documents say he assaulted one person with a knife.

Then on December 3, while awaiting trial in the San Diego Central Jail, it is alleged he strangled his cellmate, 30-year-old San Diego local, Lyle Woodward. A week later, Woodward's mother Bessie made the decision to terminate his life support after he was declared brain dead.

"Prove it," he told a local reporter in a 10News television interview. "I didn't kill anyone." 

He also questioned where police got their evidence for the "botched" robbery attempt, and then sung some of his own rap lyrics for the TV news crew.

Thinn now finds himself on 24-hour lockdown in a more secure facility, allowed out of his cell just three times a week for an hour at a time. If he does leave his cell, he does so with his hands shackled to his waist and his feet chained together.

Initially detained in the San Diego Central Jail, Clinton Thinn is alleged to have strangled his cellmate here.
SAM BOYER

Initially detained in the San Diego Central Jail, Clinton Thinn is alleged to have strangled his cellmate here.

He does not seem to fully comprehend the situation he finds himself in. 

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"I should be pretty much done. I'm pretty much on the last leg [of court proceedings]," he says.

"There will probably be a few things that I'll get charged with, but basically not…" 

When he shuffles his feet under the seat, his ankle chains rattle down the phoneline.

THE ENIGMATIC RAP STAR

According to friends of Clinton Thinn, he thought he had a relationship with the singer Rihanna.
GETTY IMAGES

According to friends of Clinton Thinn, he thought he had a relationship with the singer Rihanna.

It's difficult to get a clear picture of his US holiday from Thinn.

His recollection of pre-arrest events is hazy – possibly or possibly not intentionally – and he declines to talk about the bank or the alleged murder, saying only: "There's nothing there."

From his social media accounts, though, it's clear he was in Los Angeles in early June, posting happy pictures of himself in Long Beach, Hollywood, and Inglewood. 

Then, in mid-June, his accounts went silent. By the end of that month he'd be in jail.

It's not clear why he left for San Diego, and Thinn himself is cagey – or confused – about his reasons.

"I had people that I needed to see, so that's just where I was," he says.

He can't recall but thinks he travelled from LA "by trolley". Except, it's 200 kilometres between the two cities and there is no trolley service.

He won't say who he was seeing, but adds that he "was pretty much just having beers and stuff like that, just visiting people that I know".

Rewind to Los Angeles, though, and the picture is marginally clearer.

"It was basically for the music, that's why I came over here," Thinn says through the glass. 

"I went on a 'mission', you know, like the Mormons. I went door knocking out to studios, went online, tried the whole thing, pretty much.

"I didn't get exactly what I wanted to get."

It didn't work out. But then it was never going to. His rap dream was a fairy-tale. It was all in his head.

Piecing together accounts from his friends back home, a sad narrative comes to light.

Clinton Thinn attended Selwyn College and Auckland Grammar. In his early 20s, while studying accounting, he owned a two-bedroom inner-city apartment and drove a Mercedes. He had opportunities, but he also had demons. According to several close friends, he was in and out of clinics for mental health treatment and drug rehabilitation.

Just months before leaving the country to chase his imagined music career, Thinn is understood to have "graduated" from an Auckland live-in programme for patients with drug addictions and co-existing mental health conditions. It is thought he was clean, briefly. 

Clinton Thinn is now in 24-hour lockdown at the George Bailey Detention Facility.
SAM BOYER

Clinton Thinn is now in 24-hour lockdown at the George Bailey Detention Facility.

But, after being reintroduced to meth, friends think he stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication and was in a highly delusional state when he boarded his flight to Los Angeles.

Friends say Thinn believed rap superstar Snoop Dogg had agreed to sign him to a "platinum record deal"; that pop icon Rihanna​ was his girlfriend; and that rappers The Game, Lil Wayne, and 50 Cent "were out to get him" because they were jealous of his rhymes.

His mind, according to his friends, had potentially been unravelling for some time.

CALIFORNIA DREAMING

Thinn would get "cooked" on methamphetamine and stay up for days, said one friend. (File photo)
PETER DRURY/FAIRFAX NZ

Thinn would get "cooked" on methamphetamine and stay up for days, said one friend. (File photo)

Dylan Thomas, who counts Thinn as his "best mate", says the pair got hooked on methamphetamine together in Auckland.

Thomas, 27, is currently in rehab for methamphetamine addiction as part of his parole conditions, having just spent two-and-a-half years behind bars. He's trying to turn his life around. 

But, as he works his way out of the prison system in New Zealand, his best friend is staring down a life sentence in a United States penitentiary.

"We did a lot of drugs and that," Thomas says. "At the beginning, he (Thinn) was alright, he would get cooked and stay up for days and get a bit of psychosis. 

"[But] maybe four or five years ago, that's when he started picking up his meth use and getting out of control. Something changed in him and I'd never seen him like that before. 

"It was like a switch got flicked on and he couldn't get it switched off. It was just like a full-on psychosis."

One time, he visited Thinn at home when he couldn't get hold of him.

"I went around to his house once and the doors were locked. I got in and he had tied ropes around all the door knobs and everything. It was like walking into a bowl of spaghetti, it was like a boobytrap. 

"He was sitting in his room just staring. He was cooked. He thought the tree outside was possessed and trying to get him."

Clinton Thinn could now face the death penalty or a minimum of 25 years in prison.
Supplied

Clinton Thinn could now face the death penalty or a minimum of 25 years in prison.

So, two years ago before he went to prison, Thomas made the decision to get help for his buddy, contacting Thinn's father, spelling out for him what was going on. Neil Thinn got help for his son, Thomas says, registering him in a psych ward before enrolling him in the co-existing drug and mental illness programme at Odyssey House in Auckland. 

Then, early last year, Thinn graduated that programme, Thomas says.

"He still seemed normal, then someone – I don't know who it was, some idiot – got him back on the methamphetamine.

Clinton Thinn still believes he has a rap career waiting for him.
SUPPLIED

Clinton Thinn still believes he has a rap career waiting for him.

"Then next thing I know he was off to the States … then he's [facing] 25-to-life or something. He doesn't realise what's going to happen to him.

"I just want to help him."

Thinn strenuously denies any mental health history or drug problems.

His family have declined to talk about him or his problems. 

But in a San Diego courtroom last week, during a mental competency hearing, his lawyer – a court-appointed public defender – successfully argued that Thinn requires further evaluation to determine if he is sane enough to stand trial for the armed robbery charges. 

The outcome of that evaluation will likely also determine whether he is declared fit to face the murder charge. 

It may be the defence that saves Thinn from a life sentence, but he won't hear of it.

He freezes briefly when asked about participating in the Odyssey programme, before answering: "There's nothing there. It doesn't ring a bell. That's bulls...," he says.

"That's unbelievable."

He thinks he's getting out, and soon.

"I'll think I'll just go to the British Virgin Islands, or somewhere I can just 'lax out," he says. "Just somewhere I could do some sailing. I could go anywhere.

"I've got friends in Fiji, I've got friends everywhere. There's places I could go. I'm just over New Zealand, there's too many bulls....ers there."

Another friend, Nina Corfield, lived with Thinn at the Odyssey clinic for several months in late 2015.

She says he was in the clinic for methamphetamine addiction "co-existing with mental illness". She doesn't know what Thinn suffered from, but believes it could have been schizophrenia 

"He was on anti-psychotics in the programme," she says.

"When he's medicated, he's a really lovely guy. He's calm and well put together."

Corfield says Thinn dated another friend from the programme and, through that friend, she learned he may have stopped taking his medication before leaving the country.

Thinn denies this.

"Don't listen to what people say," he says. "That's basically just to make me look bad."

He also says he is not on medication in prison.

He's produced a rap album, he says suddenly. It's finished, recorded.

"I've made an album since I've been in here," he says proudly.

But pressed about the lack of recording equipment in the prison, he pauses, then backtracks.

He appears genuinely bewildered for a moment, as if he's not quite sure what he has been saying. This happens a few times.

"I need to get to the fortune," he blurts out.

What does that mean, "get to the fortune"?

He stares.

"I need to get to the fortune," he tails off. "That's just … yeah."

On May 10 – almost 11 months after his arrest – Thinn will return to the San Diego Superior Court, where his mental competency will again be debated by his lawyer and the state prosecutor. If deemed fit to stand trial for the robbery, the murder case will likely follow. If found guilty of the murder, it could be 25 years behind bars.

"May 10, that's like three months away," he says. "But that's okay, I should be done by then."

 - Stuff

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