Lawyer suckered by $27m net scam

By Abigail Hartevelt

John Rangitauira.
Photo / Rotorua Daily Post
John Rangitauira. Photo / Rotorua Daily Post

A retired Rotorua lawyer and his client were shown pallets of cash in Amsterdam as proof of a $27 million inheritance but the pair were instead duped in an internet scam, a court has been told.

John David Rangitauira, 59, is on trial in Rotorua District Court after pleading not guilty to four charges of obtaining by deception and an alternative charge of theft by a person in a special relationship.

He stood to make $6 million from the $27 million inheritance offered to Jennifer Taukamo in an email from "Central Bank" and flew to Amsterdam where the pair were shown "heaps" of money, which came out on pallets, the court heard.

However, when Ms Taukamo fell ill she gave the lawyer authority to act on her behalf. When the overseas contacts began demanding money to clear the inheritance, Rangitauira borrowed from Westpac Bank but also allegedly used $338,000 from a Maori trust that he chaired. The $27 million promised to the pair never arrived.

"It will become apparent that they [Rangitauira and Ms Taukamo] were duped. They were scammed. This was all just a have," Crown Solicitor Fletcher Pilditch told the court.

Mr Pilditch said Ms Taukamo received the inheritance email and approached Rangitauira as she needed a lawyer to help her. She had never met Rangitauira, who at that time owned Rotorua law firm Rangitauira & Co. Rangitauira stood to make $6 million from the inheritance.

Rangitauira was also chairman and lawyer for Te Houoterangi Trust, which owned 25ha planted in pine.

Ms Taukamo told the court she and Rangitauira flew to Amsterdam where she was shown "heaps" of money on pallets. She said she was told the money needed cleaning and she was given a $100 note and was shown a chemical to clean the cash.

The pair returned without any of the money. Two weeks later, Ms Taukamo had a heart attack and stroke. She said she gave Rangitauira the authority to get the inheritance. Demands for money were made by the overseas contacts in order to clear it.

Rangitauira borrowed from Westpac, saying he needed the money to buy property overseas. He was loaned various amounts which he then banked into accounts overseas. He borrowed a total of $506,000.

In 2006, the Maori trust made $414,000 from harvesting trees and $100,000 was given to the trust's 513 beneficiaries as dividends.

In July 2007, Rangitauira wrote to his fellow trustees telling them there was $340,000 left over and it was in a bank earning 4.5 per cent interest but he could invest it to earn 7.5 per cent interest.

He created a document for the trustees to sign for money to be invested to earn the higher interest but used $338,834.48 to meet the demands for the inheritance. He transferred the cash in nine lots between October 2007 and February 2008, the court heard.

The alleged offending came to light when Rangitauira's accountants needed information about money going overseas. Towards the end of 2009, Rangitauira told the trust the money had been lost and he would stand down.

The first the trust knew about what the money had been used for was when trustees were approached by the Serious Fraud Office. The offending is alleged to have happened between April 2005 and February 2008 at Rotorua and elsewhere.

Defence lawyer Jeremy Bioletti said Rangitauira had been systematically defrauded over a long period.

"That situation is a modern problem because of the use of the internet. What you are going to have to assess is the state of mind of a person who themselves is being defrauded or deceived or by deception induced to send money overseas to people who are plainly criminals."

No one was foolproof, "whether they are a truck driver or solicitor or the winner of MasterChef, it makes no difference".

- APNZ

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