Destroyed by drugs charges

By Carolyne Meng-Yee

Peter Verschaffelt says he now lives a humbler life. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Peter Verschaffelt says he now lives a humbler life. Photo / Herald on Sunday

Peter Verschaffelt once lived the high life, he says. He dined out at fancy restaurants. He spent more than he earned.

Now, after four years fighting a police charge that he helped manufacture P, the haggard 61-year-old lives alone in Mangere in a ramshackle shed. His relationship with partner Lynne Merrit, a former police officer, is under strain.

He gets about on a 10-speed bike. He has part-time work for Willie Jackson at Radio Waatea, but has applied without success for more than 100 media and publishing jobs.

Yet, still, there is a hint of the flashy TV reporter about him: the day that he gives his first interview since the charges were laid back in 2006, he wears a jacket and tie, and buffed, black leather shoes.

"I think a lot of people get into lifestyles that are obscene, wasteful and negligent," he says. "I did.

"Now, I live a humble, simple life, and I am happier than I have been in my life."

Much of that happiness stems from an Auckland District Court judgment, permanently staying the police prosecution because of the delays to his trial.

Verschaffelt - who had earlier spent the night in a 6m-by-3m police holding cell with more than a dozen other inmates - walked free.

The stay of prosecution is not the same as an acquittal - but it's enough for him.

The broadcaster's two adult sons had both previously been convicted on P charges, but Verschaffelt says he was never involved in drugs.

Never tried P. Never made it.

"The P problem - and I have seen it from the other side - is out of control. Drugs create a market for gangs and triads to rule this country."

There were many reasons for the court delays: Verschaffelt had to replace his defence lawyer six times; once he fell from a ladder and was admitted to hospital.

There were clashes in court dates; judges were unavailable; and his alleged co-offender changed his plea from innocent to guilty.

Inexplicably, police lost all copies of a video-taped interview with that co-offender - the "linchpin" witness whose evidence, they say, would have convicted Verschaffelt.

That witness, Gregory Wilesmith, later changed his evidence, so as to more firmly implicate Verschaffelt in setting him up in an Orewa motel with the ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine.

The head of the inquiry says he lost that earlier videotaped interview - in which Wilesmith is said to have been almost incoherent because of his drug use - but it did not matter because he did not need to put him in the witness stand for a depositions hearing.

At some point, though, as other pieces of evidence fell over, Wilesmith's evidence became key.

"The videotape of Mr Wilesmith's evidence became critical once the Crown had decided to call him to give evidence," said Judge David Harvey in his judgment.

"The loss of this particular piece of evidence is important for the defence and has arisen as a result of the delay and the failure of the police to make proper disclosure."

Detective Sergeant Andrew Wong insists police were not to blame for the 38-month delay.

"The only thing I can put my hand up to, on my heart, and say, 'yes, I made a mistake and I misplaced that tape,' which was caused by the delay."

He says two copies of the tape were made. "I have moved offices four times since then," he says. "I don't know, but at the end of the day it's been attached to a file somewhere and it's got lost along the way."

Wong says other evidence was critical: that Verschaffelt bought methamphetamine precursor ingredients acetone and a kilo of crystal iodine, claiming the latter was for Wilesmith's sores.

The broadcaster, however, insists he was persecuted because of his sons' convictions, and because his name was well-known.

"I am proud of my name and I am proud of what I have done ... All my life, I have fought against injustice."

Verschaffelt says he will make submissions to the Government and to select committees on how to "correct" problems in the police, the justice system, and Housing NZ, which sacked him after he was charged.

"You certainly find out who your friends are," he muses.

- Herald on Sunday

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