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How millionaire businessman faked his death before being exposed by his brother after chance meeting

A wealthy businessman fakes his disappearance, is declared dead and starts a new life – then it all falls apart when he runs into his brother who can’t believe his eyes.  

It sounds like a story ripped from the pages of a spy novel, especially when you add in Ukranian gangsters, a $3.5million life insurance policy and a bigamous marriage. 

But it’s not a spy book, it’s Harry Gordon’s autobiography How I Faked my Own Death And Did Not Get Away With it – A True Story

The story starts in the Hunter region of NSW in June, 2000, when Gordon was aged 51. 

Harry Gordon (pictured) was eventually caught and jailed after faking his own death in NSW in 2000

Gordon took what he refers to as a ‘quickboat’ out on the Karuah estuary and, as far as the world was concerned, disappeared, presumed dead. In reality, he left the boat on a small rubber dinghy, made it back to dry land and was relieved to discover the van he’d parked – and the $100,000 in cash and two bottles of champagne in it – was still there. 

That was the how of his disappearance. The why was more complicated. Gordon has never strayed from his claim that he did it because he was in trouble with Ukranian business associates/gangsters. The NSW Police are convinced it was straight up insurance fraud. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Karuah River Estuary (pictured) in the Hunter region of NSW, where Harry Gordon faked his own death in June 2000

Karuah River Estuary (pictured) in the Hunter region of NSW, where Harry Gordon faked his own death in June 2000

Harry Gordon (pictured left) with his wife Sheila, before he faked his own death on a cold winter's night

Harry Gordon (pictured left) with his wife Sheila, before he faked his own death on a cold winter’s night

Gordon began living an anonymous life under the assumed name Bill Teare in the inner city Sydney suburb of Kensington. 

But he had a lot of time on his hands, much of which was taken up with trips on the Manly ferry, a daily visit to the State Library of NSW and going to the George Street cinema every Tuesday night because there were discount tickets. He only had $100,000 to keep the wolf from the door – he had to budget.

On one of those Tuesday nights, he bumped into an old female acquaintance and only saved himself through quick thinking.

‘It’s you isn’t it?’ the woman asked, grasping Gordon’s arm. His disappearance was big news, there was no use denying he was who he was. 

‘Well it certainly was me, in an earlier life,’ he said with a smile.  

‘But now I am someone else, in a witness protection program, the person you knew died I’m afraid.’

His response was off the top of his head. He should have planned for this eventuality, but hadn’t. To his astonishment, his lie worked. 

‘I am not really supposed to be out and about you know. I sneaked out of the safe house for a movie to give myself a little break from it all,’ Gordon continued.

‘Don’t worry; your secret is safe with me,’ the woman replied. And it was, she never said a word. Nor did anyone else he later had to use the same lines on. 

The cinema (pictured) on George Street, Sydney, where Harry Gordon bumped into an old acquaintance after he had faked his own death

The cinema (pictured) on George Street, Sydney, where Harry Gordon bumped into an old acquaintance after he had faked his own death

But after two months, Gordon desperately missed his wife, Sheila, despite their marriage being far from perfect. 

‘Sheila also was my only link with reality. My current life was imaginary, but insufficiently imagined. 

‘I used a false name and had some money, but I didn’t have a driver’s licence or a Medicare card, passport or any other identity document. I just didn’t exist,’ he writes.

After letting himself in the back door of their house in Waterloo – just 2.4km from where he was living – Gordon didn’t get the emotional reunion he’d longed for. 

The inner Sydney suburb of Kensington (pictured) where Harry Gordon rented a flat under a fake name after his 'disappearance'

The inner Sydney suburb of Kensington (pictured) where Harry Gordon rented a flat under a fake name after his ‘disappearance’

He describes it memorably. ‘We didn’t embrace. She folded her arms just below her large artificial breasts and listened as I talked. I reminded her that we had discussed the option of me disappearing.’  

Sheila uses some colourful language and tells him she never for one second thought he’d go through with it. 

Their daughter, Josaphine, was in the UK and pregnant and would soon have to be told her father wasn’t actually dead. 

Harry Gordon used to get the ferry (pictured) to Manly while killing time to allow news of his faked disappearance to die down

Harry Gordon used to get the ferry (pictured) to Manly while killing time to allow news of his faked disappearance to die down

By the time Gordon and Josaphine finally reunited in Australia after the inquest into his death, Sheila had already explained his mysterious disappearance to her by saying he was in a witness protection program.

Harry Gordon timeline 

1949: Born in Te Aroha, New Zealand.

Mid-1970s: Leaves for Australia.

Late 1990s: Beset by business and personal problems, including a scheme with Ukrainian gangster businessmen

June 2000: Fakes his death in on the Karuah River, NSW. Insurance refuses to pay out on his $3.5m policy because no body is found.

July 2001: After coroner declares him dead, leaves Australia on a false passport and travels to Spain, England and South Africa. Tells his wife he is alive and liaises with her over how to access the insurance money.

November 2002: Arrives in New Zealand.

January 2003: Joins Versatile Buildings as housing consultant and garage salesman Robert Motzel.

December 2004: Meets and falls in love with Auckland social worker Kristine Newsome.

May 2005: His brother Michael spots him with Newsome and encourages Sheila to go to the police.

August 2005: Sheila tells Australian police he is alive.

September 2005: ‘Marries’ Kristine. They honeymoon in the Cook Islands, but his false passport is discovered. Sweet-talks his way to Fiji where he obtains New Zealand passport under his real name.

November 2005: Arrested in Sydney.

February 2006: Sentenced to 15 months’ jail for conspiring to defraud AMP Insurance and false representation.

November 2006: Released from jail.

December 2021: Rereleases autobiography with new chapters. 

‘We both burst into tears when we first embraced then laughed out loud at the wonderment of life and love. It was a joyful meeting,’ he writes.  

The next five years took Gordon to Spain, then to England and South Africa. In late 2002 he flew to New Zealand, the country he had left for Australia in the mid-70s, and settled in Auckland selling garages and project homes.

Along the way, he became Rob Motzel with a false passport that cost $25,000, and blue contact lenses.

In Auckland, he also picked up a new girlfriend, soon to be wife, the flame-haired Kristine. It would hasten his undoing.    

Trouble was soon afoot. In May 2005, Gordon and Kristine ran into his older brother Michael in Tauranga. 

The men passed each other and then Michael doubled back to confront the brother he thought had drowned in a boating accident five years earlier. 

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Is that really you?’

Gordon brazened his way through it. ‘Of course,’ he said. 

‘But look, it’s not convenient to talk now. I’ll call you in a few days.’ 

A few steps on, he explained to Kristine, ‘That was just an old friend.’

She bought it, and their bigamous marriage in September 2005, led to a bigamous honeymoon in the Cook Islands. 

But by the time they were due to fly back to New Zealand, Australian police had been tipped off about Gordon’s new identity by Sheila after Michael had encouraged her to do so – not realising she had known for years. 

Airlines were alerted, and ‘Rob’ was refused permission to board his plane because he had a stolen passport.

Kristine flew to Auckland on her own. She and Gordon’s work colleagues were about to find out that the man they thought they knew was wanted in Australia for a $3.5million insurance fraud.  

Ever resourceful, Gordon made his way from the Cook Islands to Fiji and used his charm to somehow get a New Zealand passport in his real name. 

He flew to Sydney, but once he got through immigration, he was arrested and charged with false representation and conspiracy to defraud the AMP insurance company. The jig was up. 

He pleaded guilty to all charges, and ended up in a low security prison farm. He was sentenced to 15 months but served just a year behind bars.

Harry Gordon used to go to the State Library of New South Wales (pictured) every day to read and write, while supposedly dead

Harry Gordon used to go to the State Library of New South Wales (pictured) every day to read and write, while supposedly dead

Sheila and Josaphine were later charged with conspiracy. Sheila served five months of home detention and charges against Josaphine were dropped. 

Gordon divorced Sheila and somehow convinced Kristine to marry him for real. 

Sheila died of lung cancer in 2017, Harry and Kristine are still together and he has a strong relationship with Josaphine and his grandchild.  

The word I appears 2,756 times in the book. It’s hard to write a biography without a lot of I in it, but it also shows who really mattered most to Harry Gordon all along. 

Read an excerpt from Harry Gordon’s How I Faked my Own Death And Did Not Get Away With it – a True Story

Chapter 1 –  The disappearance

JUNE 2000

The winter sun had long since set over the deserted waters of the Karuah estuary, east of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia. Darkness was falling quickly. There were no other boats in sight, no sign of life on the uninhabited shore where the trees had already merged into an indistinct blur.

When I switched off the motor there was a brief sloshing sound, as my ‘quickboat’ lost its momentum. Then there was nothing but silence. The last gentle gliding motion washed the boat up to a channel marker post that I had aimed for. 

I quickly slipped a rope around the marker, hitched the rope to a rail and settled back to relax. There was no sound or movement of any kind; in that huge expanse of water I was quite alone. 

I poured myself another glass of champagne from the open bottle then telephoned my daughter on her mobile phone. She had left the yacht club after a Saturday winter series race but was still in Sydney with places to go and things to do before she would even start her journey up to our North Arm Cove home.

She said that by the time she finished all her errands then drove the 250 kilometres to North Arm Cove it would probably be well after 11 o’clock. Then she asked what I was up to. 

‘I am still on my way back from an excellent seafood lunch at Zacs Restaurant in Karuah,’ I explained. ‘The outboard motor has broken down, nothing serious, probably dirty fuel. I will just have to clean the intake jets.’ 

I had been out on my boat for much of the day, south of my home in Port Stephens. I had returned briefly to my house earlier, before proceeding north up the Karuah River in the afternoon for lunch. During my brief stop at my house I made some basic preparations in case I did really decide to go through with my plan. I loaded some clothing, odds and ends, plus a bag with $100,000 cash into a VW campervan. I drove the van to a public parking space at the other end of my street. I walked through a bush shortcut to my home and onto my private wharf to continue my day on the water.’ 

Are you safe Dad?’ Josaphine asked in a concerned voice. 

‘I am perfectly safe,’ I replied. ‘The boat is tied to a marker post in perfectly calm water in the Karuah Estuary; I could paddle to the shore from here if I needed to.’ 

She asked some minor follow up questions until she was satisfied then we gossiped a bit before exchanging mutual declarations of love, as was our habit, then the telephone call ended. My message had been reasonably obscure and everybody processes information differently, but I felt sure that on reflection the message that ‘I would be all right no matter what happened’ would give her the assurance she would need for what was to follow. 

I finished the glass of champagne, poured myself another, then sat back with my feet up to relax and reflect on my next move. ‘Shall I do this or not? It’s not too late to change your mind,’ I said out loud. ‘This will probably end badly!’ 

Then ignoring my own sensible advice I emptied my glass of champagne overboard before starting out on the biggest journey of my life. 

First I removed the rubber dinghy from under its cover, inflated it with the foot pump then slid it over the side and secured it. Next, I lent over the side and fitted my brand new, tiny outboard motor to the rubber dinghy before throwing the foot pump, torch and carry bag into it. 

I moved quickly about the boat, overturning loose items to simulate the effect of the boat having run into something at speed. Next I disconnected the fuel tank, drained the remaining fuel, reconnected it then started the boat’s large outboard motor and ran it for a couple of minutes until it ran out of fuel and spluttered to a stop. 

I looked around the cockpit, where my mobile phone and wallet containing credit cards and cash sat on the dashboard where they would remain. All around me were commonplace items, all familiar and personal. I knew I would never see them again and felt a twinge of loss. I unhitched the rope from the channel marker post allowing the boat to float free with the tide before slipping myself over the side and into the rubber dinghy. 

The little 1hp outboard motor didn’t start on the first five pulls. ‘Oh dear!’ I said to myself anxiously. ‘This journey could be over before it even starts if I don’t have a getaway boat.’ The outboard motor came alive on the sixth pull and using the rubber dinghy as a sort of tug boat I shunted the ‘quickboat’ into the shoreline. To my dismay when I reached the shore I found that the little outboard motor didn’t have enough power to shunt the quickboat hard aground. ‘Oh dear!’ I said again as I slipped myself over the side waist deep in the cold water. ‘This wasn’t in the script.’ 

I pushed the ‘quickboat’ hard aground by hand then heaved myself back into the rubber dinghy – it seemed to be smaller than I remembered it. It felt unstable and unsafe. The little outboard motor wouldn’t start again. ‘I don’t know that my heart can take this,’ I said to myself, but on the sixth pull it started once again. 

Running at about half throttle, I steered the rubber dinghy towards one of the flashing red channel marker posts as I shivered miserably with the cold. As the dinghy left the calm estuary waters and entered the exposed waters of Port Stephens, the wind picked up and the water turned lumpy. As the last channel marker of the estuary faded behind me, the only visible light ahead was a faint white light glimmering from the oyster farm island in the distance. 

‘It’s a moonless night,’ I chided myself. ‘It’s mid-winter, you have never been in these waters at night before, you have no chart, so even if you do finally see shore lights you have no way of knowing where you are. You are in a tiny rubber dinghy with a tiny little fuel tank that may last you an hour or so before running out of fuel, then you will be in an open waterway with no power, you could die here tonight you know. You really didn’t think this through did you? You are a very, very foolish man.’ 

As it happened, running at half throttle it took two hours to finally reach my destination and there was still a little fuel left in the tank when I arrived. I had been lost and in despair several times during the voyage but at last I switched off the motor and glided into the deserted beach. 

Shivering with fear and cold, I pulled the dinghy up on the beach well clear of the water line, disconnected the outboard motor then stiff with cold and cramp I hobbled up the beach with it before laying it down quietly next to my campervan. I went back down the beach and returned with the dinghy and remaining odds and ends. 

I paused, took a deep breath, then opened the side door of the campervan, shoved in the dinghy and the outboard motor, slammed the side door shut swung open the door and slid into the driver’s seat in a single movement. The motor burst into life with the typical, deafening Volkswagen clatter that could wake the dead. 

Thankfully no lights came on in the nearby houses as I selected first gear, gunned the engine and clattered away. ‘The getaway vehicle was certainly an inspired choice wasn’t it?’, I mumbled to myself.

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