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Current as of 23/12/14 05:40PM NZST

Bank hits back at millionaire runaways

By Beck Vass, Rachel Tiffen

The fugitives at the centre of a $10 million banking blunder that has sparked an international manhunt have escaped with little more than a third of their initial windfall.

And they have left a chunk of their own money tied up in property as they fled.

Of the $10 million accidentally put on Rotorua businessman Leo Gao's overdraft, $6.7 million was withdrawn.

But Westpac managed to block his access to $2.9 million of this money, leaving him with $3.8 million.

The bank has also seized mortgaged properties owned by Gao and his business partner, Huan Di Zhang, and worth more than $1.9 million.

The hunt for the fugitives is now focused on Hong Kong.

Police have refused to reveal the identities of the missing people, but said yesterday that "two individuals of interest to the inquiry" were believed to be in Hong Kong.

Inquiries to locate them were continuing through Interpol and official channels in Beijing.

It remains unclear how many people are missing and have access to the money, though the Weekend Herald understands Gao's mother and brother have disappeared.

Gao's girlfriend, Cara Young, and her 7-year-old daughter, Lena, are also missing, as is Ms Young's sister Aroha.

Ms Young's mother, Suzanne Hurring, who lives in Blenheim, told TV3's Campbell Live last night that she knew her daughter was "somewhere in Asia".

"If you really want to know, I would like to ring his [Leo's] blinkin' neck," she said.

Mrs Hurring said Cara had telephoned her since disappearing, but she hung up on her daughter "because I knew what she had done".

Mrs Hurring said she went into the police station yesterday to try to sort out "this stupid, stupid, bizarre situation".

She urged her daughter to come home.

"Just come home now, please, and it can be okay. It's going to be okay."

Westpac spokesman Craig Dowling said the bank was continuing to "vigorously pursue" the money.

Court documents show the bank has seized four properties relating to the BP service station Gao owned with Huan Di Zhang because the bank alleges they owe it $3,782,000.

The combined value of the seized properties - two in Auckland and two in Rotorua - is $1,914,000. Mortgages are owed on all four.

Westpac applied to the High Court at Auckland on May 14 for a "charging order", which freezes anything to do with the four properties, because the bank believes the owners owe it the missing money.

The $10 million was handed over by "human error" after Gao applied for a loan of $100,000.

The Gao family moved from Graceview Way in West Harbour, Waitakere City, to their Rotorua home near the service station in August 2007.

A woman at the West Auckland home yesterday told the Herald that Gao was her landlord.

There was little evidence of the family in Auckland, although Gao's rundown ute was found parked in the long-term parking at Auckland Airport.

WINDFALL: $10 million.
FUGITIVES TAKE: $3.8 million.
BANK RECOVERS: $6.2 million.
BANK SEIZES: $1.9 million properties.

- NZ Herald

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