Editorial: On the trail of Westpac runaway

By Abigail Hartevelt

I still remember the day when I received a call from someone saying they'd heard police were investigating a case where a bank had accidentally put $10 million into a Rotorua businessman's account.

Initially, I thought "yeah right, not in Rotorua". But then I got on the phone to police and, sure enough, the person who tipped us off was right.

During that first call, police didn't want to say how much was involved and were only prepared to say an investigation had been launched into a substantial sum of money mistakenly advanced from Westpac. Police said they'd received a complaint from Westpac relating to people living in Rotorua. They also wouldn't confirm who the people were.

However, a day later, police didn't have much choice but to reveal how much was involved and who was involved as media organisations swarmed. Media representatives from all corners of the country arrived in Rotorua for a police press conference.

That first week was frantic. It seemed people wanted to know about Gao and Hurring and how they managed to get away with millions of dollars. People also wanted to share their stories of how they'd had money put into their accounts accidentally by a bank.

There was worldwide interest in the case. After the sentencings last week, I was interviewed live on BBC World News about the reaction.

There were even two Facebook groups set up purporting to support Gao, and within a few days of the news breaking one of the groups, Go Leo Gao - Go You Good Thing, had attracted 153 members while another group, We Support Leo Gao and his 10 Million Dollars - Run Leo Run, had attracted 49.

One cheeky post on one of the Facebook pages written by a man based in New York read: "New face $20,000, plane tickets $5000, leaving junker at airport $500 - screwing a major bank - PRICELESS."

I remember going home to search Facebook for people named Leo Gao and "friending" a few hoping I might be able to find him before police. I remember sending a private message to one asking if he was the Leo Gao wanted by police. He politely wrote back saying he wasn't. To this day I wonder if it actually was him.

Having now seen the wanted Leo Gao in person in court, the person I "friended" on Facebook did have some similar features.

I remember being on a day off work and driving to Tauranga in February last year when I heard on the radio Hurring had been arrested at Auckland Airport.

I was gutted that I wasn't working that day.

And then, of all things, I was away on the day news broke at the end of September that Gao had been found.

As for the sentencing - it certainly has been a long time coming.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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