A highlight of the national equestrian eventing calendar was always the Auckland International Airport three day event at Puhinui, up the road from the airport.
It attracted top New Zealand riders such as Mark Todd, Blyth Tait, Andrew Nicholson and Vaughn Jeffris.
For horse lovers it’s been a tough test of rider and animal.
December, 1999 was no exception.
Puhinui that year attracted thousands of spectators from all over the country, competing teams from Australia and Great Britain and as usual gave emerging riders the opportunity to compete alongside some of the world’s best.
It is by necessity a heavily sponsored event and includes a thriving market in everything from six-figure luxury live-aboard horse floats to Akubra hats and hot dogs.
The weather for the 1999 three day event was atrocious.
I found myself sheltering glass-in-hand in one of the many hospitality tents watching the downpour and earwigging on some nearby chat.
Two fellows with English twangs were bemoaning the weather and musing over the chances of competition being called off.
David King, a south England farmer and husband of British champion eventer Mary King, was swapping casual notes with a dapper gent I initially took to be just another visiting Pom.
Sidling closer and introducing myself I took in my first sight of Jonathan Napier Powell, then aged 35.
Powell was tall, handsome, well built, neatly but not foppishly groomed and with a good head of hair. A well cut sports jacket complimented a checked Vyella shirt, cavalry twills, polished English brogues and a firm, confident handshake.
The pair chatted about Powell’s army service, English country pubs, the royal family and various names from English society.
By his own assertion Powell was an ex-military man who claimed to have served in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had more recently been attached to protecting the royal family.
“Not the thing to say too much about but damned interesting work,” was his way of explaining himself.
The small talk continued as Powell and King found they apparently had a few places and people in common.
Powell told how he had recently arrived in Auckland and had embarked on an investment plan with an eye for upmarket tourism.
He had just bought the well-known Auckland luxury launch MY Sirdar – formerly owned by the Butland cheese family - was negotiating to buy another grand old sailing vessel, owned by Dunedin-based fishing and investment magnate Sir Clifford Skeggs, as well as an up-market tourist resort on Waiheke Island in the Auckland harbour.
Other investments were also in the pipeline including Rover, BMW and Mercedes Benz rental cars for wealthy tourists. Powell enthusiastically invited his new found farmer friend to bring Mary King and the British eventing team out for a harbour cruise on Sirdar.
His invitation hadn’t extended as far as me when a new Range Rover pulled up outside the tent and a blonde totty in tight-fitting white pants hopped out.
“Your car’s ready Jonathan,” she chirped.
“Must go old boy, some business to attend to, see you all later,” smiled Powell, making an affably impressive Range Rover departure into the rain.
I don’t know if Mary and David King and their horsey chums got their cruise on Sirdar, but Powell had already started to make waves on the Auckland fast money social scene.
Parnell and the Viaduct Basin were his stamping grounds and Krug champagne his tipple as he charmed his eligible way through the city’s social quagmire.
I occasionally heard his name but it held little interest for me until June 2000 when The National Business Review heard questions were being asked as to whether Powell actually owned Sirdar and whether it had been “arrested” to recover money owing a finance company.
When I spoke to Powell and asked if there was any substance to these claims he became extremely annoyed and said he could prove that he was Sirdar’s owner and there were no money worries.
Powell sounded hurt by the claims but was reluctant to meet me face to face to “put the record straight.”
In a fax message dated June 14, 2000 Powell told me he owned a company called Y2000 Charters Limited, which he said in turn owned the Sirdar.
He said M Y Sirdar was purchased on September 13, 1999 and finance company UDC provided some funding to assist with the purchase. He said Sirdar had been operating on charters out of Auckland’s Viaduct Basin on a regular basis since then. He confirmed that the yacht had not been repossessed and the financial arrangements with UDC were being met in the terms of the loan facility.
Powell attached a copy of a fax on UDC letterhead dated June 13, 2000 which purported to confirm UDC Finance Limited, as the secured financier of the M Y Sirdar, had not exercised any warrant of seizure against the vessel.
On June 15, 2000, and describing himself as an Auckland business entrepreneur, he sent me another fax message announcing he had bought the Waiheke Island Resort under the company name of Waiheke Island Resort 2000 Limited – of which he was managing director.
Was the sun shining on the affable chap with the Midas touch?
Or did his polished brogues hide feet of clay?
In early March 2001, I got a tip-off claiming Powell was in financial strife and that both the international police organisation Interpol and the Auckland fraud squad were closing in.
On Monday, March 12, Powell appeared in the Auckland District Court charged with credit card fraud involving about $600,000 and was remanded on bail to appear in court again in a couple of weeks.
Powell could not be identified then because his name was suppressed to give him time to break the bad news to his mum and sister, so no details were publicly disclosed.
But because of the seriousness of the charges and the amounts involved it was unlikely the suppression order would have been continued after his next appearance in court.
I was keen on this story and hoped no other media would have the gumption to pick it up until I could break it exclusively.
But a startling new development came out of the blue just a few hours before NBR’s Thursday deadline that week.
My colleague Nick Smith, a solo dad, had a phone call on Thursday morning, March 15, from another solo dad friend who worked at the Auckland City Council.
Smith’s pal worked in the council’s liquor licensing agency where one of his jobs was to check out the suitability of people seeking liquor licences.
Our informant had a scorching piece of public information he thought NBR might be interested in.
When Nick Smith and I met him at morning tea-time he handed over a lengthy and detailed report into liquor licence applications by Jonathan Napier Powell, of Parnell.
The council man’s report was dynamite.
Powell wanted a liquor licence for the up-market Waiheke Island Resort, which he purported to buy, while at the same time the police wanted to cancel the liquor licence for Sirdar.
In the course of routine inquiries officials uncovered Powell’s overseas criminal convictions and the fact he was wanted by Interpol.
Jonathan Powell wasn’t the well-heeled and connected investor or canny protector of Royal personages he pretended to be.
He was nothing but a serioiusly dishonest jailbird wanted by Interpol for fleeing a jail term in England.
The closest he got to a uniform was an arrowed suit. To make matters worse the practised liar appeared to have been born in Queensland.
Powell’s criminal record detailed nearly 100 convictions in Australia, Britain, including a couple in New Zealand, ranging from drunk driving and fraud to obtaining money by deception.
He had served five stretches in jail and was wanted on warrant from Bristol Court after failing to turn up for another inevitable prison stretch and fleeing the country.
Despite some confusion over travel documents, Powell was able to enter New Zealand where he immediately went about developing his new identity by capitalising on the gullible eagerness of Aucklanders to suck up to impressive sounding Poms.
They loved someone like Jonathan Powell, who had swatted up on the contents of the toffs’ Bible, Burke’s Peerage.
It was a great story but, there was more, much more.
At the time I obtained the council report, Powell’s frauds here were beginning to unfold.
The credit card frauds related to a swindle he worked through an upmarket rental car company - European Car Rentals - he operated from Auckland’s Princes Wharf.
He used rental car customers’ credit card details to effectively bill them more than once – frauds they didn’t detect until some time later when the bills came in and they were many miles away back home.
If convicted, and it looked from what I learned that was highly likely, Powell would almost certainly have gone to jail again.
He would also have faced extradition back to England to answer for the previous crimes from which he had fled.
But the scorching disclosures from the liquor licence agency changed everything.
They brought a totally new and unexpected dimension to the Powell story and provided the boot to wedge open the door.
Name suppression prevented me from immediately identifying Powell at that stage as the man charged with swindling $600,000 from rental car customers.
But the story of Jonathan Powell’s double life and how he duped Auckland’s gullible and fawning social climbers couldn’t wait.
The only way to do it was to ignore the latest fraud charges.
Without linking Powell to, or making any reference to the fraud charges, I wrote up a front page story about his double life, illustrated by a photograph of him kindly provided by one of his friends, and it was published in the National Business Review on Friday March 16, 2001.
“Investor exposed as crim on the run from Interpol,” screamed the heading, above a picture of Powell in his dapper pin-striped glory.
“Colourful British-born Jonathan Napier Powell – who cut a dash through Auckland society with tales of wealth and aristocratic connections – is today exposed as a cheap crook with an extensive international criminal history who is dodging Interpol,” the story began.
The story outlined Powell’s business affairs here and detailed his overseas criminal history of predominantly fraud, deception and false pretences convictions accumulated over 17 years in Britain and Australia.
Because he had gone into hiding I was not able to track Powell down before the story exposed him but on Monday March 19 I managed to get through to him on the phone. If I kept him talking I might have a chance of winning him over.
Powell was devastated and wasn’t very happy about being exposed, although he admitted the story was true.
I quietly urged him to meet me and tell me his story. My tack was that the game was up and it might help him to get everything off his chest and take it on the chin like a man.
I was trying to appeal to the vanity of a man I had barely met while sheltering from the rain nearly two years earlier.
Powell said he knew what I wanted but he was too upset to think straight. Maybe later, he suggested, maybe later.
Powell was due to re-appear in court on Wednesday, March 21. By now there were about 100 charges involving more than $720,000.
When I turned up for work on Wednesday morning, a shaken NBR news editor Deborah Hill rushed over to me.
She had taken a telephone call at 8.30, a few minutes before I arrived.
“Have you heard? Jonathan Powell’s killed himself.”
Powell had not turned up at the rental car company that morning and when staff went round to the Parnell warehouse where cars were stored he was hanging from a ceiling beam.
He was found by his rental car manager John Lambert, who had driven Powell to the warehouse the night before and who told me he wasn’t surprised Powell took his own life “the way things were going.”
It was Mr Lambert who alerted police to his suspicions of fraud.
Mr Lambert said Powell wasn’t much worried about going to jail but what upset him more was what his new-found society chums would think of his having been exposed as a cheap, dishonest conman on the run.
In a statement to police Mr Lambert said it “was as if his castle was crashing around him and everything was starting to catch up.”
“Jonathan showed me the NBR story…It put pressure on him…The social implications would be bad…It really hurt him,” Mr Lambert told police.
The day before our story exposed him on March 16, Powell gave full details of his frauds to Detective Senior Sergeant Andy Lovelock, telling Mr Lovelock life wasn’t worth it any more.
Mr Lovelock told him to keep his chin up and advised him to get specialist medical help.
Forty-eight hours before he hanged himself Powell phoned Lovelock to thank him for his help and asked him to look after his mother Helen.
The night before he was due back in court and hours before he died he shouted drinks at his waterfront offices for his rental car staff.
Reaction to Jonathan’s exposure and his suicide drew an inevitable vitriolic response from some of his friends, especially those exposed as gullible mugs.
But the story was far from over.
My inquiries revealed how Powell concocted a complex web of deception that saw him purportedly “buy” apartments and the launch Sirdar.
He had armed himself with letterhead notepaper stolen from an English law firm on which he made up letters to himself about progress on selling up and releasing his “significant overseas assets.”
Substantial cash would soon be on its way. It was all lies but it impressed folk here and opened many doors.
His plan to buy former Dunedin mayor Sir Cliff Skeggs’ yacht Shirley B was just another piece of fantasy.
BMW, Mercedes and other dealers repossessed their flash cars from Princes Wharf, and the rental car business – which was doing very well – folded, owing tens of thousands of dollars.
His grand plan to buy the Waiheke Island Resort – the biggest on the island – had fallen over earlier when people wanted to see cash ahead of promise.
In traditional marine fashion Sirdar was “arrested” for unpaid bills and finance companies wrote off their losses.
Over the next few weeks I uncovered more details of Powell’s life on the lam.
He lived and died owing at least $3 million, much of it clocked up on false promises made about bogus property sales and written on stolen letterhead paper.
His major debts included about $1.3 million owing to UDC Finance on the Sirdar, originally “bought” for $2.1 million;
*Between $500,000 and $600,000 in credit card fraud;
*$450,000 owing to creditors of Waiheke Island Resort 2000;
*More than $400,000 owing on second mortgages to Symphony Group on two swanky Auckland terrace houses;
*At least $150,000 of tax debt;
*$130,000 owing to Sir Cliff Skeggs and Laurie Collins Commercial boat brokers over the collapsed sale of Shirley B;
*About $50,000 owing to rental car suppliers including BMW, Rover and Daimler Chrysler;
*And about $25,000 owing to Bridgecorp Finance on a unit at Waiheke Island Resort.
They had a send off for Powell at his favourite Parnell hangout, Iguacu, where it was said he owed no money, always paid from a wad of cash and left cash behind the bar to shout for chums still to arrive when he left.
As the scramble continued to find buyers for his debt-ridden ventures, his pals drank him off in style.
Death notices appeared in the New Zealand Herald.
“The colourful mystery character, who breezed into our lives for just a short time with whom we shared tales and laughter, and we were touched by your kindness,” wrote Rochelle and Dave Henderson and Pat Rippon.
“Thank you for the good times and the generosity you showed me and my friends, you will be sadly missed,” wrote Mary.
“To our friend, director and team leader. Thank you for allowing us to share in your vision. Gone but not forgotten. From all the team at European Car rentals, Sirdar, Waiheke Island Resort.”
And from Tomo, Toni, Suzanne, Dale and Ginly, who wrote: “To a man who always dreamed big, may the Bollinger never run dry.”
On March 22, 2001 – in the week after my first story - I received the following email from someone identified as Kevin London (firstname.lastname@example.org):
“Dear, you f*cking a*rse wipe, HOW much blood do you want on your hands or your dirty rag of a so called newspaper. Why don’t you get a f*cking real job. I’ll be there for Jonathon’s funeral will you be there? YOU should be, YOU pushed him. Look me up I’ll be there up the front and proud to be there.”
There were a couple of anonymous phone calls in similar vein.
After I broke the Powell scoop much more would be written about him as bits of his story were taken up by The Independent, the New Zealand Herald and in a long, heart-rending “poor devil” piece in the July 2001 issue of Metro – the last issue to be edited by my colleague Warwick Roger.
The following December, when I did a follow up story after a Coroner’s inquest confirmed Powell committed suicide, I got the following email from someone identified as Linda Hemingway:
“Jock, What is it about this man that irks you so that you just can’t let it go. Or is it just that you’ve lost the journalist’s nose for seeking out ‘new’ and ‘newsworthy’ stories? Jonathan’s dead. He has been for some time and yet you felt it vitally important to dedicate an entire quarter of a page of regurgitated information, the same information you have regurgitated over and over again in each of your articles about him. The only piece of not very enlightening news in your entirely rehashed diahorrea of a so-called article was the legal statement confirming how Jonathan died – a fact widely known by all since his death and not exactly gripping news. Your original story in the NBR played a large part in putting a rope around Jonathan’s neck. I truly wish this would provide you with many a sleepless night. However I doubt someone like you would have much to fear in that department more’s the pity. Journalism may be about reporting the facts but whatever Jonathan did is just that, what he did, not who he was. Linda Hemingway.”
The email finished with the pithy comment: “If you’re not living on the edge – you’re taking up too much space!”
In November, 2001, in a little courtroom overlooking Powell’s Viaduct Basin playground, Coroner Murray Jamieson found that Jonathan Napier Powell, of Flat 3, Latitude 37 in the Viaduct Basin, died in a warehouse at 69 St George’s Bay Road as a result of self-inflicted hanging.
Thinking back to the rainy three day equestrian event in 1999 and the chirpy Range Rover blonde – “Your car’s ready Jonathan” - it dawned on me that a promotional gimmick used by one generous sponsor – Land Rover – was to allow folk to book in for brief self-drive rides around the venue in new Range Rovers.
No need to buy, just be seen driving.
Such was Jonathan Powell’s cheek.
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