Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

The curious case of Mr Strange and the Nairobi gold heist

Francis Strange was thought to have died 30 years ago. Then he phoned his mum in New Zealand, out of the blue, for help to avoid prison in Kenya. His stunned family did what they could and Mr Strange was released on bail. Then he vanished again, writes Kurt Bayer.
Francis Strange and Haya Bar-Noy at their wedding celebration in Israel in 1986. Photo / Supplied
Francis Strange and Haya Bar-Noy at their wedding celebration in Israel in 1986. Photo / Supplied

The mysterious life of Francis Edward Strange certainly lives up to his surname. His disappearing acts are Harry Houdini-like. But once the puff of dust clears, his loved ones are left less amazed and more heartbroken and bereft.

The Waikato-born mystery man contacted his family out of the blue earlier this year. For nearly 30 years they thought he was dead. From Kenya, he phoned his mother asking for help and money after he was accused of a gold bullion heist worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from an African mining company.

Until six days ago, his first wife, Haya Bar-Noy, also thought he was dead.

They married in 1986 but split up four years later and she left Australia. She returned to Sydney in 1996; there was no sign of her estranged husband.

"I have carried the guilt for years that maybe I have had something to do with him [being] dead, which today we now know is far from the truth," she told the Weekend Herald this week. "I just don't know why he wants to disappear so much."

Mr Strange, 56, was released from his jail cell on bail and was due back in court on February 2 to face allegations he stole $630,000 of gold and other equipment from a mining company in Narok County.

However, he failed to show. A warrant was issued for his arrest. He'd disappeared. Again.

But then he resurfaced this week, and phoned Ms Bar-Noy.

Originally from Paeroa, Mr Strange emigrated from Ponsonby to Australia in 1981.

He was studying as a computer programmer in Sydney when he met Ms Bar-Noy in 1984.

They married in 1986, with Mr Strange's mother and sister flying to Israel for a wedding celebration with Ms Bar-Noy's family.

Ms Bar-Noy, a 55-year-old therapist who lives in Perth, Western Australia, says he was a "kind and caring, trustworthy" person who could also be "naive at times, perhaps leading to his current situation".

After four years of marriage, Ms Bar-Noy left him. When she returned from studying in the United States, she was stunned to discover that he'd vanished without a trace.

"I searched everywhere but couldn't find him," she said. "We went through a lot together and I think he was really shocked and devastated that we broke up."

Ms Bar-Noy contacted his family in New Zealand, who revealed they had heard nothing from him since 1990. For the family and Ms Bar Noy, mystery gave way to mourning.

But Mr Strange was not dead. Instead, he chose to disappear. Earlier this year he spoke to the Herald from his Nairobi apartment.

"I love my family," he said. "But my family is a little conservative. I wanted to do something where I could make a major difference."

He claimed he moved to Tokyo in 1992. He worked as an English language school teacher and became an outspoken union boss.

He published a book for English-language students and conducted research on the international cement industry and on rebuilding Japan's power network.

Mr Strange stayed there for many apparently happy years.

But a business opportunity in Africa's mining industry lured Mr Strange to Kenya in early 2014. It was a move that quickly turned sour.

In April 2014, Mr Strange took legal action against Mboe Sambu Resources Ltd, seeking a restraining order on their activities, claiming it was operating without a licence.

Nine months later, he was arrested alongside Australian friend and business associate Stephen Samuel Paino and charged with breaking into the mine and stealing equipment and gold worth $630,000.

Both vehemently deny the charges.

Mr Paino, who is now back in Sydney, says he wasn't in Kenya at the time of the alleged heist. He claims that both he and Mr Strange have been set up.

"I fear for his life," Mr Paino said.

Mr Strange also said he was framed in "a world of greed and manipulation".

He was held in Nairobi's notorious Kisii GK Prison in February last year after failing to scrape together $15,000 required for bail. He was one of only two white prisoners, he would later tell the Herald, and was in constant fear for his life.

"When I first went in there [prison], the following day I was taken to see the prison superintendent. I could see him rolling his eyes, thinking, 'What has been tossed into my lap?' He could see something terrible was going to happen."

The first attack came in the shower area, Mr Strange claimed. "It was a Sunday and there were no wardens about. This guy, a convicted killer who'd murdered his father by ripping out his throat, jumped me from behind. He tried to rip my throat out."

Another attack came on June 19 last year in the TV room, Mr Strange said.

"I was the only atheist in the prison ... I was standing there with two Muslims and some Christians when this same guy ran up and hit me on the head with a food pot. Everybody jumped on this guy and started beating him up. The shout went up, 'Kill, kill, kill' in Swahili and the warders ran out to save the guy."

After five months in jail, an appeal for bail was successful. His bond was reduced to $1500 - an amount he could raise - despite authorities' fears that he was a flight risk.

Bail came with strict conditions, including surrendering his passport, and living in the capital, Nairobi.

Nairobi is currently home to Francis Strange. Photo / Supplied
Nairobi is currently home to Francis Strange. Photo / Supplied

The phone call to his mother, Liz Sampson, at her Bay of Plenty home came in January this year.

Fearing the call was part of a scam, Mrs Simpson asked her other son, Gerard Strange, a Waihi farmer, to check out his story.

"We hadn't heard from Francis for nearly 30 years," Gerard said. "I talked to him and tried to ascertain, through asking some questions that only he'd know the answers to. I said to him, 'We don't know if this is you or not. It could be any English-speaking person, really.'

"He said a couple of things that I'd forgotten about, too, and so I rang my mum back and said I was pretty sure it was kosher."

Since then, Mr Strange has emailed his estranged family lengthy correspondence about his case.

It was a case that was due to be heard on February 2 - but Mr Strange did not reappear.

A warrant for his arrest was issued but it seemed Mr Strange had pulled his old trick.

However, on Thursday he returned four months' worth of messages left by the Weekend Herald.

He replied, saying he was working with his lawyers to "work all this stuff out".

A source in Kenya says a new court date has been set - a two-day hearing in September, which will include "a court visit at the crime scene". If found guilty by a judge, Mr Strange faces seven years in jail.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) was last year made aware of Mr Strange's arrest and detention.

Mfat and the Australian High Commission this week confirmed they were providing consular assistance.

Mr Strange also called Ms Bar-Noy on Wednesday this week - 26 years after they last spoke.

She missed his call, but got a voicemail saying he'd try again later. "We have a very strong connection and I was very happy to hear from him. After all these years, it's incredible."

Now, she's waiting for him to call again.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 22 Oct 2016 13:06:58 Processing Time: 549ms