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Peter Fulcher interview - the last days of Mr Asia

In an extraordinary deathbed conversation, the true relationship between two of New Zealand’s most notorious criminals, Mr Asia drug syndicate bosses Terry Clark and Peter Fulcher, has finally been revealed.

Peter Fulcher was The Gangster – the hard, muscled enforcer who was Terry Clark’s right-hand man during the Mr Asia boss’s murderous reign. Photo­graphs of him in just underpants and handcuffs once graced newspaper front pages on both sides of the Tasman. Such was Fulcher’s notoriety that in the early 1980s Prime Minister David Lange, during a transtasman dispute over Fulcher’s deportation from Australia, described him as New Zealand’s most wanted criminal, a “thug” and someone “who had coughed his lungs out”.

Fulcher, 71, and with 28 years’ incarceration behind him, is now literally coughing his lungs out. A sallow shadow of the man who once ruled with the hickory hardness of the baseball bats he wielded, he is holed up in Whanganui, waiting to die. Emphysema has destroyed his lungs. His words are whispered rasps.

“I don’t know if I am going to croak this week, this month or what,” he tells the Listener during a phone interview. “I am struggling for breath all the time. I am not complaining or anything. I am only good sometimes – slurring and carrying on like an old drunk.” But the details he reveals are clear. He talks openly of drug dealing, of knowing Clark was going to kill people, of violence, sex and money.

Fulcher coldly admits he was the major heroin distributor in New Zealand during the Mr Asia years and that he was Clark’s heavy – both here and in Australia. He tells how in the mid-1970s, armed with a baseball bat and often a pistol (“it was sometimes required to make sure people got the point”), he called in drug debts of up to $100,000 and dished out discipline to those who didn’t pay or who had breached syndicate rules.

Did “discipline” involve a baseball bat? “Yes,” he says. “I have dished out a bit of extreme violence. But by Jesus it was well deserved!” According to police, he was also willing to use his pistol, scaring a rival drug dealer out of town after arriving at the man’s home early one morning, smashing the bedroom window and randomly firing six shots into the room.

The New Zealand series Underbelly: The Land of the Long Green Cloud (which starts on TV3, on Wednesday, August 17) dramatises the early days of the Mr Asia gang. However, because Fulcher is still alive, the producers created a fictional character called Gary Major (played by Joel Tobeck) to be Clark’s offsider. But in frank phone interviews with the Listener and in video­taped discussions with writer and actor John Yelash (the pair did time together) and film lecturer Paul Judge, Fulcher has described life as one of the Mr Asia bosses.

He tells how his life of crime started at 14 and reached its pinnacle when he was the major heroin importer into New Zealand and the man Clark flew to Australia to help with distribution and enforcement. Although many in the syndicate were his associates, Fulcher is dismissive of them. “They were a bunch of clowns, getting together and taking advantage of the riff-raff of society,” he says.

Millions of dollars passed through Fulcher’s hands. “Money? I buried it, hid it in the panels of car doors, stuffed it in rubbish bags. There was so much it was an embarrassment. Several times I promised myself to invest, but I made myself false promises.” Drugs were a powerful commodity. They were the way to “money, pleasure and women. Lots of them.” Both he and Clark were obsessed with having sex with young women.

“Clark was an awful man,” says Fulcher. “He had one of his girlfriends in the car one day – I can’t remember which one because he kept swapping them – when we picked up a hitchhiker. He asked if she smoked dope and she said she did. Clark said, ‘Well, take your top off and you can have as much as you like.’ And then he took her and his girlfriend to a motel for a night of sex.”

Fulcher admits he was not too different. His high point? “Pulling up in a yank tank, going into a suite in a top-class hotel with two teenage girls in tow who were not addicts who just wanted a good time, and spending the weekend in bed with them.” And the low? “Suddenly finding yourself in handcuffs sitting in Long Bay (a Sydney prison) and looking at 10-20 years incarceration.” Did he worry about the results, the heroin addicts? “No, not at all.”

Fulcher says his was a conscious decision to get involved dealing cannabis and heroin. In the early 1970s, while serving four years for safe-cracking, he met men convicted for possession and sale of cannabis and heroin. “They were getting ridiculous sentences, and the money seemed ridiculous. So I did a bit of a study of it and greed got the better of me.”

His first deals, including an attempt to import heroin via Fiji (for which a female courier was convicted), were done through old prison associates. In the then small Auckland drug-dealing scene he soon came to the attention of Clark who, after an audacious drug theft (see box), had enough money to start muscling in on clothing salesman Martin Johnstone’s thriving cannabis operation.

In 1976, when Clark and Johnstone used the yacht Brigadoon for a mass importation of cannabis, Clark gave Fulcher the job of selling a million buddha sticks. Fulcher describes the Mr Asia years as being like a “big mulching machine that got out of control. You were completely hyper all the time. On the alert, running the gauntlet of heavyweight police and heavyweight criminals trying to get you, and girls wagging their tails trying to set you up. Complete paranoia.” He tells how rivalries within the group were such there were attempts to set people up for dealing. In one instance Auckland criminal Stephen “The Rat” Bazley believed Clark owed him money, so he left cannabis on Clark’s yacht and called police.

In retaliation Clark offered Fulcher $10,000 to murder Bazley. Fulcher, who detested Bazley, says he “sorted” the matter without killing. Australia’s Royal Commission of Inquiry Into Drug Trafficking, which included the Mr Asia Syndicate’s activities, said Bazley had an “extensive criminal record dating back to 1956 and has convictions which led to the New Zealand Police describing him as a thief, burglar, car converter, abortionist, sex offender and false pretender”. Fulcher: “I tried to keep as far away from him as possible.”

As the Mr Asia syndicate grew and expanded into Australia, the threat of violence became ever present, Fulcher says. Clark forced syndicate members to help in a murder or the cover-up of one. They did it “because they had nowhere to run or turn”.

“You can’t say anything,” says Fulcher. “You can’t go to the [Australian] police, because they are in Clark’s pay; you can’t refuse because you know it will happen to you. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.” Fulcher won’t say whether he was involved in murders. “There are forms of duress that have severe consequences” is all he’ll say. But he does say Clark talked to him in advance of the murders. He also all but confirms the long-held belief that the syndicate’s murder list was higher than the six associated with Clark.

Asked directly whether Sydney law clerk Brian Alexander, who passed Clark and Fulcher information from Australian police, and who disappeared in 1981, was murdered, Fulcher is hesitant. “I will pass,” he says. “Too much knowledge. He was not considered a strong person that would stand up in any interrogation.” Were others killed, too? “Heaps, really. But it’s touchy ground.” Was Clark’s wife, Norma Fleet – an associate of poet James K Baxter – murdered by being given a drug overdose? “Pass. Norma was a good person, but had a drug addiction problem,” he says.

Fulcher says when Fleet died from a heroin overdose, he was one of the first to know. He got his wife, Shirley, to ring Clark with the news – “and she said to Terry she had good news and bad news. Terry said he’d have the bad news first and she said Norma had died, and he said, ‘That is the good news, what is the bad news?’” If, as hinted by Fulcher, the deaths of Alexander and Fleet were ordered by Clark, it brings to eight the number of murders with which he was associated.

Clark and Fulcher’s relationship during the peak of the Mr Asia syndicate was complicated. Fulcher was Clark’s staunchest ally. But Clark also treated him with disdain. “In New Zealand in the early days when he was supplying me with heroin, he was also supplying Doug Wilson,” Fulcher says. “He’d undermine me with giving him a cheaper price. He was a handicap all the way.”

But in spite of such duplicity, Fulcher was Clark’s loyal lieutenant. “It was my job to guide him. When Terry Clark was with me, he was a real gentleman and he would agree to things and common sense, but the moment my back was turned he would break every rule in the book.” Fulcher says he often warned Clark about talking too much about his enterprise, believing the syndicate’s affairs should be on a “need-to-know basis”. But Clark would tell too many people what was happening and he also allowed heroin addicts to stay within the syndicate.

“Doug and Izzy Wilson [whom Clark would eventually pay to have killed], I refused to meet them,” says Fulcher. “They were addicts. I said, ‘You are a fool having them here with you’, and he said he had had 100% results with them so far. Eventually, he had to put them in rehab. Terry Clark told them things they should never have known.”

It was the same with Allison Dine. The former Rotorua kindergarten teacher was out of her depth, Fulcher says. Dine became part of the syndicate when her boyfriend, Wayne Shrimpton, a former Wi Tako prison colleague of Clark’s, started dealing heroin. Clark seduced her away from Shrimpton and made her his top courier – one of the young women Clark and Fulcher used to import heroin hidden in suitcases. Dine was “quite an attractive and educated sort of girl, but was shown things and told things she should never have known”.

She later got full police immunity and witness protection, including the creation of a new identity, and is believed to be in the UK. Fulcher believes he was the only syndicate member to stick to the “need-to-know” rule. It meant that even though from the early days in Auckland he knew Johnstone was a main player, he never met him. “There was no need for either of us to meet,” Fulcher says succinctly. Because Clark was so open about his activities and allowed junkies to be part of the syndicate, Fulcher says it was “a forgone conclusion” there would eventually be murders.

“Terry always boasted he would kill anyone who crossed him or pointed the police to him or did a bad thing to him, or someone offended him badly,” says Fulcher. “[Clark] certainly proved he could do it. But it was only short-lived. [He was] like all those cowboys and gangsters in the US who killed a lot; they were short-lived, too.

“I talked to Terry about most of those killings before they happened. I said, ‘Give them all an overdose or something like that.’”

Fulcher told Clark that all the people he planned to kill were known drug users, and in the cases of Greg Ollard, his partner Julie Thielman and Doug and Isabel Wilson death from an overdose would be difficult to prove as murder. But Clark was determined to ensure the deaths of Harry Lewis, Ollard, Thielman and the Wilsons were seen as a warning to others not to cross him, says Fulcher.

Clark first killed when he shot Lewis after he allegedly spoke to Australian police about Clark. “But whether ‘Pommy’ Lewis told tales or not we will never know,” Fulcher says. “Just because the cops say he did does not make it true.”

Ollard, whose “tongue was really bad”, and Thielman, “a bad addict who Terry Clark wanted to f---”, were next. Clark shot them both in the back of the head. “They were basically removed because Terry did not want to pay them any money and they were drug addicts. They got themselves into a pretty bad state. There had been reports from the narcotics bureau that they had been under observation, [a] listening device on their car. Greg was also waving .357 pistols around in restaurants trying to impress people.”

The Wilsons were killed after Clark and Fulcher were given tape recordings of them talking to police. In a television interview in 1996, Fulcher said, “Thinking of their occupation, they probably died of natural causes anyway.”

Fulcher says he was not directly involved in any of the Australian murders. However, Justice Donald Stewart, who conducted Australia’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into the activities of Clark and the Mr Asia syndicate, believes Fulcher was commissioned by Clark to kill the Wilsons, but that murder was later contracted out to two Australians. The judge also believes Fulcher “may have been involved” in Lewis’s murder.

All Fulcher will say is that he gave Clark advice on how to cover up Ollard’s and Thielman’s murders. When Clark told how he had killed the pair, and where he had left their bodies, Fulcher realised there was a problem. “I said Greg’s mother used to make dental appointments, so it will all be on record. I told him to dig them up, ignore the flies, throw them in a sugar sack and smash their heads with a baseball bat.”

As the money rolled in, Fulcher says Clark’s “greed took over and clouded his judgment”. Clark was “frivolous” and “stupid” with money. Once he agreed to buy a brand new Jaguar for the advertised price of $44,000, “when I could have got it for $36,000. I just had to pay over the cash. It was wasteful.” When Clark bought a luxury Bay of Islands mansion, Fulcher says the purchase was not discussed with him – “and it should have been because it drew the attention of police”.

Fulcher’s dedication to Clark was such that he admits to some extraordinary criminal activities related to Clark’s trial in Wellington in 1978 for heroin importation. (Charged with importing heroin in 1975, Clark had fled to Australia after being granted bail. He was arrested in Brisbane in 1978 and deported.)

“I investigated his jury,” Fulcher says. “I knew all about his jury.” Did he buy a juror? “I will bypass that a little bit.” Fulcher, however, admits he tried to intimidate and influence witnesses who were to give evidence against Clark. “I spoke to most of those witnesses and pointed out what they were saying was wrong. I tried to sow some good sense into them.” But his most extraordinary revelation relates to plans he had in place had Clark been convicted. “I had guns ready to get him out. [Clark] would not have lasted a night in jail because I had plans to get him out.”

Found not guilty, Clark spent the night celebrating with Fulcher and lawyer Karen Soich, who became Clark’s lover. After British police arrested Clark for Johnstone’s murder in 1979, Fulcher says he contemplated going to England “to bust him out”.

Fulcher says his life of crime started, ironically, as a result of trying to get a job. In 1954, with his 15th birthday just six weeks away, Fulcher decided not to return to school after the Christmas holidays. He started looking for a job as a milker on a dairy farm, “where they would feed me and pay me”. On his way to a job interview, he was picked up by a truancy officer and after going before a magistrate – “a man without an ounce of humanity” – was sent to reform school. Fulcher never returned home. He progressed from reform school to borstal, then prison. Borstal was horrific, he recalls. It was tougher than prison. Many staff were World War II veterans “and all they would do was bark at you and belt you”.

After his release from borstal, Fulcher’s penchant for violence came to the fore. He sought out and “bashed a couple of them up and set off an explosion at another’s home. It was bravado. You said you would do it, so you did it. They were gross acts of stupidity.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s Fulcher earned his criminal stripes as a burglar and car thief, then as a stand-over man and safe-cracker. “All I wanted to do was learn a lot so I could go and earn enough money because all I wanted to do is go out and f--- young girls,” he says.

His associates were to be the big names of the New Zealand criminal underworld. He was also connected to the sly-grogging era of the 1960s and Ron Jorgensen and John Gillies of the Bassett Rd machine-gun murders notoriety. That double killing was, says Fulcher, not a gangland war over control of the illegal liquor trade. It was simply a dispute over a prostitute’s affections.

After learning safe-cracking, he largely worked alone, travelling to provincial towns to blow safes, then back to Auckland “to blow the money”. In 1966 he was arrested while trying to blow the Ministry of Works safe in Penrose to get the fortnightly pay – a job he says that in today’s money would be worth “millions”. By the early 1970s Fulcher was a top target of Auckland detectives and in particular the resolute John Hughes, who would later head the 1989 homicide inquiry into the deaths of Swedish backpackers Urban Höglin and Heidi Paakkonen.

Hughes, a boxing champion and later an ultra-marathon runner, was like Fulcher, a short man who prided himself on his physical prowess. The two came to blows. “We entered into fisticuffs a few times – and I came out the loser,” says Fulcher. “I always managed to get in a few good punches, but in the end he had the ability to put the handcuffs on.” Hughes had a reputation among criminals for finding evidence.

“When they had a hard crime to solve, they [the police] always got Hughes on hand and the next thing Hughes is up at the prison and he’s getting a verbal,” Fulcher says. In spite of his reservations about Hughes, Fulcher does not believe he got the wrong man in the Swedish homicide inquiry. During a videoed conversation, Fulcher’s old friend Yelash says he believes Hughes set up David Tamihere (the man convicted of the homicides).

Fulcher replies: “I will make no further comment there because I do not feel the same way about that that you do. I know a few things.” Tamihere’s is a good family, Fulcher continues. “His brother is a good bloke, the politician. He’s got another brother who is a screw and he’s a good bloke, too. It was a good family that had a misfit in there, that’s all I will say.” Fulcher says in prison a lot of guys wanted to talk about their cases and crimes, “but I tried not to get involved. If they shared it with you, it was just a burden you had to carry yourself.”

One prisoner who did not want to share anything was French spy Alain Mafart, who was arrested in relation to the sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior. Fulcher recalls meeting him in Mt Eden Prison. “He would walk around with a book all day reading. He never said a word. I was just back from Australia and I had a joint with me, and when I walked up to talk to him while smoking my joint he really panicked. It was like someone had produced an atomic bomb.”

Since his release from prison Fulcher has become a campaigner for better prison conditions. He talks of the violence and evil that pervades our jails. “Prison is not a good place,” he says. “You are on the alert all the time. You cannot live on the alert all the time. You cannot live in the hatred that is in there and come out all right.” To get through a sentence you become “like Rip Van Winkle. You go to sleep for 20 years. When you get sentenced to 14 years, you have got 14 years. There is no sense complaining about it. You just have to look at that first seven years as getting to the top and then it is seven years down.”

In prison he smoked a lot – “when you are confined to a small cell for many years, you take up smoking” – and read many books. Ronald Biggs was his hero. “I have followed him all my life.” But he was also a big fan of BBC foreign correspondent John Simpson, who has reported in 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and who has interviewed many world leaders. “Any bit of conflict and he is there,” says Fulcher. “And what I like about him is that he puts both sides.”

Fulcher says he regrets how his life evolved. “If I got to live my life over again, it would be entirely different; I would go out and get a job – it doesn’t matter for how much money. I’d get a work ethic, get a job I liked and just bank a small percentage of it,” he says. But given the life he ended up living, he says he abided by the rules.

“To judge myself, I like to think I went the extra mile, that I saved a lot of people incarceration, that never in my life have I given evidence to a policeman,” he says. “I like to hope that I came into this world stoic and I will go out stoic.”[gallery link="file"]