Lynne Carter had it all. A $6 million Auckland waterfront mansion, a Ferrari and other luxury cars, her booming property development business and a lovelife that was the talk of the town.
Then a week ago, Carter, 45, was arrested and locked up overnight after a bizarre display at Dunedin airport. It led to charges, which, on Friday, were heard in the Auckland District Court. Carter is accused of methamphetamine possession and fraud. Sitting at the rear of a crowded courtroom, filled with those accused of drink-driving and vandalism, she told the Herald on Sunday she planned to deny the charges.
Carter's apparent fall has brought comparisons with the crisis that struck the life of millionaire businessman Mark Lyon. Both were leaders in their fields until the twin shadows of methamphetamine and gangs fell across their lives.
It's a comparison Carter rejects. "I'm not a Mark Lyon, partying with them. I was not in that situation," she said in an interview last year.
Speculation about Carter's increasingly complicated life reached new levels as news of the charges filtered through Auckland's social circle. But Carter has long been the focus of gossip, with her well-known enthusiasm for a healthy love life.
That gossip has only grown in the past few years as Carter struggled to free first her son Lance, and then herself, from methamphetamine and those who travel with it.
Carter entered Auckland's property development through an unusual route. She had run a house haulage company in Whangarei, and merged her company with a similar one run by former partner, Rod Haines, in the early 1990s. It made money - by the time the couple separated in 1999, her share of their parting was $1.5m.
At the time of the split, Carter reinvented herself as a property developer and eventually as an Auckland socialite. Successful residential developments across Auckland, in Northland and the Pacific saw her wealth grow to place her among those considered to be seriously rich.
While Carter built houses, made fortunes and became girl about town, there was trouble at home.
The Herald on Sunday has learned that Lance - now in his early 20s - began dabbling with P about four years ago. His use grew, along with Carter's knowledge that her son was increasingly in danger of becoming a victim of New Zealand's most insidious drug.
Carter staged an "intervention" - a successful but expensive technique in vogue among Auckland's wealthier families. It cost about $250,000 to whisk Lance, Carter and the minders to a remote part of Fiji, where efforts were made to straighten the young man out.
While it seemed to have worked for a while, he found himself again in trouble - this time in court, where the threat of prison on methamphetamine-related charges gave the Head Hunters a way into Carter's life.
The gang is notorious. Based in Auckland it has grown from its Glen Innes roots of 40 years ago to an intimidating and very smart organisation with great influence over crime.
Carter was approached and told that should Lance go to prison, the gang would provide protection. They would make sure he stayed safe and in return perhaps she should do something for the gang.
That "something" was to provide work for "contractors", including David Dunn, a gang member with methamphetamine and rape convictions. The plan was for them to work on the driveway of her $6m Argyle St, Herne Bay, home - but it never worked that way.
Instead, Dunn and his mates never left. They turned up for work and stayed the night ... and longer. At one stage her Ferrari vanished. Carter said she went looking for it and "it's not in the garage (and the) spare keys in the kitchen had gone".
The practice is called "taxing", where valuable items are simply taken. It places a burden on the person who has been taken from, who faces the prospect of crossing the gang and speaking to police.
Among those seen at her Argyle St home was Head Hunters president Wayne Doyle, who has a murder conviction. In last year's interview, Carter spoke highly of Doyle. He was a "good person" with "a high level of integrity". Carter was so moved, she said, she donated money to support the gang's Fight Club boxing events, which she attended at the gang's headquarters in Ellerslie. Also seen were members of the King Cobra gang.
Neighbours speak of the formerly quiet house as becoming frightening. Cars would race up and down the driveway at speed. Music was played loudly, and heavily tattooed and muscled men could be found drinking beer most hours.
Friday nights were the worst. Dunn would treat the neighbourhood to a ground-shaking pyrotechnics display, exploding pipebombs and other large-scale fireworks at the rear of the property over Herne Bay beach. When police later searched his West Auckland home, they found more of the explosives, and $50,000 cash.
Carter became increasingly desperate. Bodyguards were hired to stand guard for her overnight - and one night surprised a man hiding in bushes, believed to have a gun. A bodyguard struck the man with a spade and called police, sparking an armed offenders squad callout. The man was not found. Carter was becoming increasingly fearful and sought escape. Towards the end of 2007, she moved to a serviced apartment in the city, then left the country, travelling to Fiji and then Europe.
Back in New Zealand a year ago, and still terrified, Carter moved home briefly, and then left for Fiji once more. Her business changed, with three companies she owned being put into voluntary liquidation, a process which sees debts paid and profits returned to the shareholders.
The books balanced - but there was no cash left over.
Neighbours in Argyle St also speak of tow trucks arriving and leaving with her luxury cars. The house was put up for mortgagee sale; valued at $6m, it sold for $4m. Another palatial home on Ring Terrace, across the road from former Foreign Minister Winston Peters and his partner, sold for $2m - it had been valued at $2.8m.
And then, on July 15 this year, Carter was reported missing. The next her parents - father is renowned boatbuilder and designer Max Carter - heard was when she called from a psychiatric unit in Dunedin.
Carter had arrived in Dunedin from Auckland on a ticket carrying a false name. Her erratic behaviour at the airport, and curious garb, led police to ask for identification.
But when they approached, she refused to identify herself and would not remove the black hat and black scarf that obscured her features. Carter, who had swayed men in bars across Auckland with her strong, attractive features, told officers she was Muslim and could not show men her face.
Carter had cash but no identification, saying she had left her bag in Auckland. Her behaviour was such, though, that the officers took Carter to Dunedin Hospital's psychiatric unit for assessment.
While there, she made the phone call that would reveal her identity. Mental health staff redialled the number and found Carter had been speaking to her parents in Auckland.
Hours later, emergency psychiatric staff cleared her. There was no mental illness. Instead, Senior Sergeant Bruce Ross said, officers were told she had been affected by drugs.
By then, police in Auckland had found her backpack and inside it a small quantity of methamphetamine. Charges followed - possession of methamphetamine and credit card fraud, apparently for using someone else's credit card to buy lingerie.
If the bag was in Auckland and she was in Dunedin, perhaps someone else put the drugs in her bag, said earth-moving contractor Tucker Hornsby, a friend of Carter and former partner Haines. He has seen her only once in the past few years to do work on a development - her Argyle St home.
Property developer David Henderson, who himself earned a drug conviction in 2005, also said Carter had "dropped off the radar" the last few years. "She was a very good property developer, and there are very few women property developers."
Auckland Mayor John Banks has known Carter for 25 years. He was horrified to hear of Carter's troubles. Like others who have known her well in the past, he had not seen her for about five years.
"She's an extremely interesting individual. She faced death with a very serious liver cancer and [fought] back from that very bravely.
"She comes from a very good family. She had a lot of spirit, a very good fun person who was as tough as it comes in business. It is a tragedy I can hardly believe."
It was "socially frightening", said Banks. "In pockets of this city, gangs have got a stranglehold on a lot of citizens."
Sitting in the back of the Auckland court, Carter raised the same question Hornby had. "How can I have possession of it if the bag was in Auckland?"
The drugs were not hers, she said, but belonged to someone else who had put it there without her knowledge.
Carter was remanded on bail to appear again next month.
Lawyer Paul Wicks moved in to shield Carter from further questions. Yes, she agreed, now was not the time to talk.
If the wrong thing was said, Carter explained, she could be killed.
* An insidious drug
Businessman Mark Lyon lost his house and credibility after becoming addicted to methamphetamine. Head Hunters-connected criminals took his belongings and were living in his Remuera mansion when it burned down in 2003.
Millie Holmes, daughter of broadcaster Paul Holmes, has appeared in court facing methamphetamine-related charges after becoming involved with the son of a Head Hunters gang member.
Wine heiress Keita Nobilo has faced charges of possessing methamphetamine for supply, possessing cocaine, possessing cannabis, and possessing a methamphetamine pipe.
Nadia Cooper, daughter of Trelise Cooper's husband, Jack, faced a number of methamphetamine-related charges, including an alleged attempt to smuggle the drug into Mt Eden Prison.