With 1160 convictions, 1000 jail sentences, and a maximum jail time of over 5000 years, Les Orchard could be New Zealand’s most prolific fraudster. He does it all for fun, he tells Steve Kilgallon.
We meet in a McDonald’s opposite Wellington’s main railway station. He’s wearing a striped dark shirt, a fleece jacket, and carrying a neat briefcase. Tanned from two weeks holiday in Fiji, he’s in much better shape than our old file photographs show him. He looks like an accountant or a small business owner.
Instead, he’s quite likely New Zealand’s most prolific, and certainly most unrepentant fraudster. Among his scams was, he claims, “selling” Rangipo prison to Japanese investors as a backpacker’s lodge.
Over a McChicken burger and a green tea, the remarkable life story of a man who has amassed 1160 convictions and 1000 sentences of imprisonment pours forth.
“I’ve always had a motto,” says 58-year-old Leslie Ronald Orchard (his real name, though he has many others). “If you’re not having fun, get out and do something else.”
After 37 years as what one judge called an “incorrigible rogue”, it seems the fun never ran out for Les Orchard.
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‘They don’t give a s… about anyone else’
I’m no psychologist, so have no business attaching labels, but you might argue Les Orchard was a sociopath: loose of moral, lacking in remorse, and caring little for consequence. Prison psychiatrists certainly think so, though they attached a more formal description: anti-social personality disorder.
Canterbury University criminologist Greg Newbold’s analysis is that Orchard is “absolutely typical” of many professional fraudsters. He ticks off the markers: personable, plausible, highly intelligent, highly self-confident, good conversationalist, completely lacking in conscience, “inveterate and highly plausible” liar, capable of playing multiple characters. “They don’t give a s… about anyone else,” he says. “They would rip off their own mother without a second’s thought, without even blinking.” Indeed, Les Orchard did lose his mum’s house in a swindle.
But if Orchard was made, not born, then his start came in a graveyard in Kamo, Wh?ng?rei, some time around early 1981, when he was 21 years old.
He had been kicked out of Wellington College midway through his fifth form year, for reasons he’s vague about. He went home and told his parents he would get a job. His father said he could have the three weeks of the August holidays to find one, or he would be back to school.
Just in time, he found work as a kitchen hand. Enthusiastic, his father secured him something better: $2.80 an hour as a management trainee at the Trigon Plastics factory.
Then he was offered a job in Auckland selling life insurance for Guardian Royal Exchange. Orchard threw in the cadetship, bought a couple of suits and drove his Cortina 2000E north. An Australian colleague asked if he wanted to make some extra money.
In the graveyard, at the Aussie’s direction, Orchard found himself walking around tombstones, taking down the details of the recently deceased. Using his own money, he opened life insurance policies in their names and paid the first two months’ premiums.
The commission on those sales made him the company’s top salesman for the month and while he’d paid $8000 in fees, he had collected $65,000. He bought a brand-new Cortina Ghia, establishing a pattern: every time he pulled off a major fraud, it seems, he would go and buy a new car.
The next month, his Australian colleague said he was going back home: the catch in their crooked scheme was that if the payments on policies lapsed within two years, they had to refund the commissions. Having been at the scam longer, the Aussie’s clock was ticking.
On April 2, 1981, they went out and got drunk. Orchard says he woke up in Palmerston North hospital with a head injury, having been propelled through the windscreen when the Australian’s car hit a bridge. The cops, he says, were interested only in his mate. Orchard got away with it. He smiles and laughs: “From then on, you don’t have to f…ing work.”
This was his first experience of fraud – an offence which would become, as one judge said, his profession.
In future court cases, that head injury would be cited by multiple defence lawyers as mitigation, having caused some sort of malfunction that had stripped Les Orchard of moral reasoning.
One, Joe Hamblett (who didn’t return a call for comment), said the brain injury changed his client, producing doctors’ reports saying he had occasional hallucinations, mania, reduced social judgment, reduced concentration, poor memory and reduced social awareness. During one prison sentence, he was placed in the care of Rotorua psychiatrist Gil Newburn and prescribed lithium.
But Orchard’s own account would suggest he was already well on the way to being crooked before the accident.
“There’s actually nothing wrong with me,” he says.
A life charted in jail sentences
Orchard is vague on dates and locations. But his court appearances, memorialised in old newspaper clippings, offer some structure to the story of his life of crime.
He started small. In May 1985, he faced 15 charges, mainly of forgery. One of his favourite aliases, Hugh Fraser, appears in the papers for the first time, the beneficiary of two cheques, one for $250 and one for “$371 and not a bloody cent more”, said the man who had been duped into writing them. Bouncing cheques for food, a hotel, a rental car, petrol and plane tickets brought a 52-week jail sentence – one day short of a year, allowing the judge to impose various parole conditions.
In the dock, Orchard was described as a self-employed salesman, but also as secretary-treasurer for the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Party, the short-lived libertarian political party founded by Sir Bob Jones.
His defence counsel argued he’d been working long hours for the party and was “tired and distressed after the sophistication and glamour of the position”.
Hmmm, says Jones. “The name doesn’t ring any bells. He certainly was not secretary-treasurer of The New Zealand Party, not the least because we had no such position.” With 87 electorates at the time, and 22,000 party members, Jones allows that Orchard may have held a branch role – but certainly not the “glamour” job described in court.
By 1990, the Evening Post would record that Orchard was now up to 303 counts of fraud. Judge Gordon Bisson declared him a con man, but, on appeal, reduced a jail sentence for running up nearly $27,000 on two dodgy credit cards from five to three years.
Orchard was becoming audacious: one $3.5m fraud was run through a company called Mencon International – an anagram of conmen. Asked about the unusual name by his bank, he passed it off as Scandinavian. He served two-and-a-half years for that one, he says, and claims he took the fall in return for a collaborator escaping punishment.
It also cost him his relationship with his mother, Chloe, formerly the matron of the New Zealand Police College: Mencon held the mortgage for her home, and she lost it. He says he doesn’t really regret that, and they never patched things up. “My mum worked for the police, and I was an embarrassment.”
In 1991, back in the dock, Orchard offered to turn gamekeeper and teach his tricks to the companies he’d defrauded. He’d used various names and companies to open trade accounts and buy $191,000-worth of whiteware on hire purchase, then sold it all for cash.
Jump forward to 2002, and Orchard had developed a complicated web of aliases. In some frauds, he had to use “his boys” to front operations because the lawyers and accountants involved had already met him under another identity.
He was known variously as Paul Adams, Aaron Scoble, Paul Cameron, Chris Johnson, Christian Shepherd, Hugh Fraser, Whiri Rakei, Paul Alexander, Paul Banks, Paul Armstrong – and by the nickname “Bumpa”.
At that year’s general election, he was registered to vote under seven different identities. He had three passports, three driving licences, and three different PO boxes. It was fairly straightforward then; the internet age has changed all that, he says.
He recalls being in a bar with a group of associates who knew him as Paul. Someone walked in and said: “Oh Chris, I’ve left that stuff in your office,” and went again. Orchard merely told his mates the guy must be drunk and kept drinking.
For one fraud, he even assumed the identity of a Malaysian man named Gopi Kunanagram, but struggled to remember the spelling so had to write it on his hand and in court said: “I could not pronounce it then and I cannot now.”
Newbold says for criminals such as Orchard, much of the excitement comes from making their scams increasingly complicated and elaborate.
In the early 2000s, Orchard was deep into a series of long and complex mortgage frauds. Most of his victims were finance and insurance companies. One scam, however, targeted people with low income but equity – a solo mother, a couple of pensioners, a pair of itinerant farm workers who said they were “desperate”.
The first time he faced court over these scams, police said the total he’d defrauded came to $1.4m and they had only recovered $770,000.
But as their investigations expanded, into what became known as Operation Allsorts, the total became about $6.4m and there were 24 defendants in the dock. They included lawyers, accountants and brokers. “You’re talking about prim and proper people, upmarket people, but when it came down to dollars – they were just like anyone else,” Orchard explains.
He can recall the day he was caught.
He was doing a deal to buy some cars, and popped out to his own car to pick up his diary. That day, he was Paul Adams.
But a plain clothes cop, Detective John Craig, called out: “Les! Les Orchard!” Suddenly there were three of them wanting a word. Orchard said he was a bit busy, and could they make an appointment for tomorrow? He put out a hand to shake on it, and instead on went the cuffs. “Oh. It’s that serious.”
They told him they were also looking for Miles McKelvy and Arden Fatu, the two other key players. “Mate, I haven’t seen them for bloody ages.” He says that between being arrested and being processed, his phone rang 17 times and most of the calls were from McKelvy.
Orchard says working with McKelvy was a lot of fun. McKelvy says Orchard could sell mussels to a mussel farmer, but also: “I don’t normally swear, but he’s a pr….”
Orchard tells me the police got all the money. When pressed, he laughs and won’t elaborate. But he told the Parole Board he’d invested $930,000 at 14 per cent compound interest and would have $2.3m on his release from prison.
“It was a game,” he says. Until it wasn’t.
This nonchalance extended to the courtroom, and then to the prison cell. When Orchard was on trial in 2003, the Waikato Times reported that he “seemed to enjoy the attention, passing comment to the police officer standing in the dock with him and mouthing words to people in the public gallery”.
“Judge MacLean said it was unlikely any sentence he imposed would change Orchard’s devious ways. Orchard appeared not to care. When Judge MacLean said the maximum sentence in theory could have been 4690 years, Orchard stifled a laugh and rolled his eyes.”
He recalls that moment. “I said, ‘S…, there’ll be no home leave out of that.'” He laughs. Orchard says everyone else takes the courtroom too seriously, and he enjoyed winding up judges. “They sit there as if they are God. I liked having a few digs at them.”
But if he disliked most judges, he was polite to others. From prison, he wrote to the cop who plotted his downfall, Waikato fraud squad boss Simon Eckersley, complimenting him on his professionalism. Eckersley, asked now about Orchard, reaches for a familiar description: “Les was a likeable rogue.”
Orchard also wrote to Justice Paul Heath from his cell, asking for trial transcripts, explaining that he was writing a book which could “add a humorous side to such a serious situation, plus I can outline how respectable people were conned into a web of deceit”. Heath wrote back reminding Orchard that any money he made would be subject to the Proceeds of Crime Act, but Orchard says he got the documents, 27 folders of them.
Orchard was the first of the Operation Allsorts defendants to be convicted, sentenced to six years, nine months for 686 charges. His confessions helped police unravel the rest, and earned him another 18 months prison time when it all came to an end.
In Orchard’s mind, jail is just an inevitable lifestyle outcome, not to be complained about, or even particularly to be endured, but to be enjoyed as best you can. He says he warned McKelvy they would be caught, and to hide as much of the money as he could first.
Orchard describes himself as a leader within Waikeria prison’s T?tara Unit. His parole reports describe a model prisoner. Neither that nor his apparent indifference to spending time there surprise Newbold. “They [offenders like Orchard] get on very well in prison, they ingratiate themselves with staff and they are normally well-liked by the inmates too, because they know how to play the game – because their whole life is theatre, and they are the key player in their own drama.”
Perhaps his most audacious fraud seems to have happened from inside Rangipo, a low- to medium-security prison near T?rangi. Press clippings confirm he was confined there in 1994 and the swindle is mentioned in court documents.
According to Orchard, he was in a group of inmates put to work preparing a new 60-bed unit. Orchard swiped the plans, and sent them to a mate in Wellington, who sold Pine Camp as a backpacker’s lodge called “Pine Lodge” to Japanese investors, who turned up to inspect their purchase in a limousine. He was outside playing volleyball when he was summoned inside on the loudspeaker. “‘Do you know who these guys are?’ I said I had no idea. ‘They are here to take possession of their backpackers’ resort, the one you sold them.’ I said, ‘F…, did that deal go through?!'”
While it cannot be entirely corroborated, the story fits the pattern of some of Orchard’s documented scams from inside the wire, such as when he taught fellow inmates how to pull off online fraud, and had $9000-worth of clothes delivered to prison. Newbold says the tale is entirely believable, because Orchard would have got a “huge kick” out of the complexity of the scheme and the potential notoriety it would afford him.
Like big-wave surfers or high-stakes gamblers, says Newbold, fraudsters like Orchard get hooked on these highs. “They become addicted to the adrenalin rush that they get. For most, it is a lifetime problem – unless you can swap it for something equally exciting and fulfilling, I don’t think you can solve it.”
A Court of Appeal-commissioned psychiatric report echoes Newbold’s assessment: Orchard saw fraud as his job, and prison part of the game. He was addicted to the adrenaline rush.
As Judge Neil MacLean once said, he’s “a complex and highly intelligent man”.
With his charm and sales skills, I put it to him that he could have done anything legitimate. “But there’s no fun element in normal things.”
And so when he went to prison for Operation Allsorts, he served his entire sentence. He got married while inside (he’s now separated, and has re-partnered), and he had time to write that book, and give it to a publisher, who he says then lost it. The stories are all still in his head, though, and he’d like to write it again, if anyone is interested: a chapter for each “adventure… I did so many deals”.
He was there so long because successive Parole Boards were absolutely certain he would reoffend.
His version of those hearings is a tale of flippant remarks, jokes about having booked a restaurant for later that week in anticipation of release, or pretending he was going to return his ill-gotten gains.
The formal records tell a different story: a string of judges dismayed at his outright lack of remorse.
In 2007, Judge Arthur Tompkins said he had a “staggering lack of insight into his own criminal offending and an almost complete and callous lack of any remorse … [He has] taken, it seems, every available opportunity to defraud as many people as he is able to come into contact with.”
Tompkins concluded that Orchard “continues to revel in what he clearly considers to be the reflected glory of a successful life as a fraudster”.
By 2008, the board had a report from psychiatrist Ieva Cechaviciute which said Orchard was very high risk, describing him as an impulsive decision-maker and preoccupied with “risk-taking arousal” and “the use of deceit and manipulation in order to gain personal rewards and the presence of a number of cognitive distortions justifying and minimising his behaviour”.
Judge Barry Lovegrove said Orchard had done nothing to deal with his offending. “He says little at today’s hearing raising any level of optimism… there is reason to fear more of the same in future.”
In January 2010, the board noted “Mr Orchard… [has] a self-reported intention to engage in further illegal activities if the opportunity arises”.
Parole boards use an algorithm called ROC*ROI, a figure arrived at by taking the likelihood of an inmate being reconvicted and multiplying it by the likelihood of them being reimprisoned. Orchard was rated between 0.86 and 0.88. Anything above 0.7 is considered high risk.
“That ROC*ROI is probably an understatement,” says Newbold. “Given what you’ve told me, he’s probably a 100 per cent chance of reoffending – and probably a 0.88 chance of getting caught.”
On the outside
By December 2010, Orchard’s sentence was coming to an end, and he told a parole hearing that he had “seen the light, he will not be offending, he has money and will be self-employed effectively once he is able to get to India”.
By February 2011, they had to release him anyway, with conditions including a psychiatric assessment, a ban on holding any positions of authority, on being a signatory to funds and acting financially on behalf of any organisation.
He kept to none of the conditions and he didn’t go to India, either. Instead, when he got out, his mate Kevin “Stretch” Stephens collected him from Waikeria. “Stretch” and strip club boss Tony Garraway had organised for Orchard to take over a Hamilton nightclub and turn it into a gay bar.
But multiple breaches of his parole conditions caught up with him, and he says he was summonsed to the Hamilton District Court in late 2011. He had missed 11 appointments with his probation officer, and reports later would say he had absconded from his probation address “owing money”.
As he recalls it, Hamblett, his lawyer, was waiting at the top of a flight of stairs, and told him the police planned to oppose bail. “And I said, ‘Alright, I’ll call you when I get to Christchurch.'”
He fled south, and ran a branch of an employment agency bringing in overseas construction workers. Even here, there was room for a deal. He had to interview New Zealanders before being permitted to bring in foreign workers, so would accept $20 bribes from those on the dole to say they’d completed the interview. The probation service, he says, was still looking for him.
Records show that he was finally jailed again in April 2012 for 20 months for those parole breaches, including trying to buy investment property “on behalf” of a couple.
On his release, he came north, taking a panel-and-paint job for the same friend that had organised his job in Christchurch. Then he was back inside again – for speeding, of all things. An undercover traffic car chased him to the paint shop. He quickly ran inside and an employee jumped in the car. The cop wasn’t fooled, though, and saw Orchard, who gave the Adams name, but was recognised. Off he went to Springhill, sentenced to six months, serving three. It was 2013, or 2014, he can’t remember.
And since then, he’s been a free man. A “bit of this, a bit of that” in Auckland, then back to Wellington.
Now he’s doing deals, he says: there’s a rich bloke in Fiji he met who asked him to look out for a boat for him; he found him a $3.5m catamaran and will bank a commission from setting that deal up. He’s also, he says, due a finder’s fee for locating a missing container-load of ceramic tiles that once belonged to Wellington rich-lister Terry Serepisos. This seems ridiculous, but also seems to be true – the tiles, worth $540,000, were subject to an odd legal contest in 2017. He says he’s starting a company to sell boats and commercial real estate.
Could we, then, describe him as retired from his former career? There’s a long silence as he looks at me, smiles, and waves his hands vaguely in the air.
It seems unlikely. At one stage, he produces two wallets. One is Les Orchard’s. The other belongs to his favourite and longest-standing false identity, Paul Adams.
Paul has some supermarket loyalty cards and other easy-to-get detritus in his name, plus a card that says he has completed a course in waterproofing that Orchard says “will get me into any worksite in New Zealand”.
Idly, he says the real Paul Adams just got knighted (Orchard says they once met in passing when they were teenagers). Does the real Adams know about Orchard using his name? Orchard laughs. And it’s true, there is a real, entirely blameless Paul Adams: a property developer knighted last month for his philanthropy, who is astounded at the news. “I’m surprised he’s not using Sir Paul Adams by now,” he says. .
It’s been an unusual life for Les Orchard. He observes that if he’d served the maximum sentence for each of his crimes consecutively, he’d have spent 5000 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure. “I’ve got no regrets,” he says.
Orchard once offered to turn gamekeeper. The offer was refused. How then, would he have helped them? “I would have shown the whole scam to them,” he says.
The key element to all of his frauds, he says, was finding the right mark. “You’ve got to find someone who is desperate to make money, and all these people we were playing with were. You paint them a picture – you show them how beautiful it is in Monaco, and ‘you could be there next year’.”
So the way to avoid getting defrauded by a Les Orchard is simple: if he tells you it’s raining, make sure you stick your head out the window to see if it gets wet. “People are too lazy to do their homework. If someone is telling them they can make a fortune out of doing nothing…” You should check? “You always check.”
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