Spies, jail sentences, hidden assets, a famous explorer - a former MP's bid to build a high-tech stealth helicopter has more twists than a combat mission, reports Karyn Scherer.

When a lawyer with a search order knocked on the door of their Bombay home on May 7, 2009, Trevor and Glenda Rogers knew they were in trouble.

According to affidavits, Glenda slipped out to the back of the house and told their gardener, Leo, they were "in the shit".

She gave Leo her cellphone and told him to call "Tony". Apparently, Tony would be able to get rid of the container the couple were paying Leo $25 a week to keep at his own property in Pokeno.

But it was too late. Another lawyer was already supervising a simultaneous search at Leo's property, and had found the container. Inside was a stash of parts for a top-secret helicopter the Rogers had previously insisted had already been destroyed.

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In fact, the container was also a specially modified "command centre" for the hi-tech helicopter, known as the Snark.

The lawyers appear to have known exactly what they would find, thanks to a sting set up several weeks beforehand. But it was still a sweet moment. As a High Court judge later noted, the discovery was one of several pieces of evidence that proved "there has been dishonesty of a serious kind for a long time by Mr and Mrs Rogers".

In February this year, Justice Peter Woodhouse sentenced Trevor Vicemar Rogers - a former National MP and Auckland city councillor probably best known for his campaign against pornography - to a month in jail for contempt of court. In March, he sent him back again, and his wife as well.

The Rogers declined the opportunity to explain their side of the story to the Herald. According to friends, they did not exactly enjoy their time in the clink. But the couple are adamant they no longer have what the judge still wants them to produce: technical drawings that are said to be worth "millions and millions of dollars".

It is a mystery that has so far involved the Security Intelligence Service, senior government officials, two of the world's most famous explorers, a prominent used-car salesman, and one of the country's best-known dairy farmers.

According to Trevor Rogers, the Snark was a revolution in aeronautical engineering, with outstanding stealth capabilities. But what is perhaps surprising is that most of this managed to fly under the public's radar - until now.

Trevor and Glenda, and their son Trevor jnr, formed TGR Helicorp in July 2000. By all accounts Trevor Rogers has had a lifelong fascination with aviation, and in the late 90s he became involved with a Taiwanese businessman who owned the rights to a new type of ultralight helicopter invented in the United States.

His company, Light's American Sportcopters, was selling the craft as a kit. Rogers believed he could build an even better model, and formed a New Zealand company, Ultra Helicopters. However, he and the businessman eventually fell out and in September 2000, Ultra was placed in receivership.

TGR was even more ambitious. In 2005 Rogers told technology magazine Gizmag he had developed the world's first unmanned combat helicopter able to run on diesel fuel.

The Snark, wrote journalist Mike Hanlon, was a war machine "of immense capability". It was light, fast, super-quiet, and could carry enough firepower "to sink a ship", as well as surveillance equipment.

Incredibly, he noted, it had been built in New Zealand "and seems likely to put the staunchly independent country on the armaments industry map in a big way".

Rogers was quoted as saying the Snark had the potential to be "seriously nasty". "We have fitted 24 missiles, as well as eight defence missiles that we built ourselves, and it can fit two Sidewinders too," he enthused. "We've even hung a Maverick under it too".

In fact, the Snark was barely even a prototype at that stage.

A former TGR employee says that when he was originally hired from Britain, he was told a large team of electronics engineers was working on the project in Australia alone. Once he arrived in New Zealand, in late 2005, he was surprised to discover there were only about 15 staff.

He was initially enthusiastic about the project, but became increasingly sceptical as plans to try flying the Snark were constantly postponed.

But this was hardly surprising, he says: "None of us had ever designed helicopters before."

Another describes his time at TGR as the worst job he ever had. "The staff turnover was something fierce. Trevor would have temper tantrums at work, and he would fly into rages - like huge, massive rages. I don't have anything nice to say about the guy at all."

According to former staff, none of TGR's helicopters ever flew, and their avionics had not been proven.

But in his judgment last year, Justice Woodhouse said he accepted that by late 2007 TGR was a "world leader" in its field. According to the judge, a "substantial body of evidence" showed that its prototypes were of high quality, and there were good prospects for their sale.

The chief executive of the Aviation Industry Association, Irene King, believes Rogers' ideas were "highly credible".

While she admits she is not an engineer, King says she believes TGR was at the "leading edge" of international developments in unmanned aerial systems - known in the industry as UAS or UAVs.

"Yes, it stretched the bounds of what was possible and what was known at the time, but since then we've had the Martin Jetpack come along, and the Rocket Man. Maybe you do have to be the brave entrepreneur who does take on the establishment and say: 'We can do this'," she says.

Others in the industry remain unconvinced. The Civil Aviation Authority's UAS expert, Rex Kenny, visited TGR a couple of times, and agrees it looked impressive.

"There was electrified fencing all round the building, and bars on windows - but it's difficult to know what is absolutely factual and what isn't," he says.

Kenny recalls seeing Rogers' name on the register of a reputable international organisation overseeing the development of the industry, but notes that it is no longer there.

"I think the proof was in the pudding, and it never flew. I never saw the thing fly."

TGR's main shareholder was a Rogers family trust, the Midas Touch Trust. But eventually three more families joined the company: the Glaisters, the Barrys, and the Crafars.

Reporoa dairy farmer Allan Crafar was introduced to Rogers by Peter Glaister, who is also a dairy farmer, at the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow. Glaister and his wife Sonia, who are from South Otago, appear to have paid $1 million for shares in TGR in 2001.

Crafar is reluctant to talk about his investment. "I've been keeping out of it because I've got enough to worry about without that rubbish," he sighs.

He insists Rogers' ideas were sound. "The overall idea is alright - it's just that joker didn't carry it through."

But he also can't resist a bit of black humour: "Unfortunately he didn't take us for a ride because he never got the helicopter off the ground," he cackles.

Peter Barry was a Hawkes Bay farmer and stockcar driver who was also initially impressed with Rogers' vision. His family also invested in TGR but tragically, he was fatally injured while racing in Palmerston North in February 2009. In one person's opinion: "Once he was off the scene, it all started to fall apart."

While Rogers was happy to accept the investors' money, he was less enthusiastic when they began questioning what progress was being made.

An email found on one of his home computers refers to the minority shareholders as "the three shits", and another notes: "I hope this happens before the Shits get to do anything about it".

In another email to an overseas contact, he claimed to have finally made plans to test the Snark in April 2008. He said he had organised tethered test flights "down near Taupo", and had sent invitations to aviation authorities and military organisations "all over the world". The plans were said to include "landing demonstrations on a New Zealand frigate".

But by the end of 2007 the money was starting to run out. According to court documents, by April 2007 the Crafars, Glaisters and Barrys had among them invested around $1.6 million in TGR. However they had become increasingly concerned that Rogers was embarking on a new model, known as the Alpine Wasp, before the Snark had even been tested.

The Alpine Wasp was intended to be an unmanned rescue aircraft that could operate on Mt Everest, and Rogers issued press releases claiming it would be able to operate as high as 30,000ft (over 9000m).

Getting a helicopter to fly in such a thin atmosphere would be an extraordinary achievement and has only been done once before, by multibillion-dollar manufacturer Eurocopter. But even that was only a stunt, and experienced engineers say it is not yet physically possible to carry climbers as well.

As part of the Alpine Wasp project, the Mt Everest Trust was also created, with climbers Mark Inglis and Peter Hillary as patrons. Sir Edmund Hillary is also believed to have taken an interest. However, a former TGR employee believes the Hillarys and Inglis eventually distanced themselves from the project.

Some time before April 2007, Rogers asked the minority shareholders for more money. They agreed, subject to a security arrangement over TGR's intellectual property.

"For Mr and Mrs Rogers," noted Justice Woodhouse in a judgment last year, "a dream was coming close to fruition, with the prospect of financial success. And this was occurring as they were coming close to retirement."

It is unclear whether the extra money was forthcoming. According to one person familiar with the saga, Trevor Rogers got impatient, and located some other money in the interim. It was meant to be a temporary solution, and caused further friction. But court documents also refer to a sum of around $661,000 invested by the farming families about this time.

By November 2007 staff wages were occasionally late, and when the factory closed for Christmas, no-one got holiday pay. The pay turned up the day before the factory re-opened on January 11, but two weeks later Rogers announced he was closing the doors permanently. According to court documents, the minority shareholders were not told of the move.

It may not have been just a money issue. According to Justice Woodhouse, "it is reasonably clear from the evidence that Mr and Mrs Rogers had for some time been planning to move overseas".

In an email to an overseas contact in March 2008, Trevor Rogers claimed the Snark was ready to fly in February "but it was then pointed out by Ernst & Young that if we painted and assembled the Snark Mk 3, certified it for flight testing, and then flew the test series, we would be flying a military helicopter".

According to Rogers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) had made it clear it would not allow TGR to export aircraft that were capable of being put to military use.

It was therefore better, he claimed, "to pack the helicopter in parts into a sea container for shipment ... as simply carbon fibre parts and moulds. So this is what we have done over the last 29 days".

The reference to "Ernst & Young" in the March email is likely to be Ernst & Young partner Gareth Morgan, who Rogers has referred to as "a personal friend". Morgan specialises in aviation: he was once hired by the Government to sell the RNZAF's fleet of mothballed Skyhawk fighter bombers and Aermacchi jet trainers. In recent years he has been based in Singapore, Dubai and Libya for the accounting firm.

On April 2, 2008, the minority shareholders decided they'd had enough and placed TGR in receivership. But by the time Deloitte staff turned up to the East Tamaki factory, there wasn't much left to receive.

What records the receivers did manage to find appeared to show that at the end of March 2007 TGR had assets of $5.4 million, including $2.3 million for "plugs and moulds", $2.1 million for "prototype helicopters", and $178,000 for "identifiable intangible assets". The remainder - around $750,000 - was mostly attributed to office equipment.

Rough accounts for the following year showed a similar story. But the only assets the receivers were able to find was a computer belonging to TGR's accountant, and a van which sold for just over $2000.

Rogers insisted everything else had been sold, given away or destroyed.

Around the same time, Lady Louise Fiennes, wife of the famous explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, got in touch with Rogers to ask if the Alpine Wasp would be available for her husband's next trip to Mt Everest.

"We are working with ITN," she wrote, "and it may be possible to get you some publicity with them."

Rogers replied that "unfortunately we will not be able to help". A later email explained that "the helicopters are in containers in bits in New Zealand awaiting a home country to go to".

It wasn't until several months later that Deloitte found some of those bits, after they obtained search orders for at least two storage facilities, in New Lynn and Greenlane. And it wasn't until the following May that they obtained further orders to search the Rogers' home, and the gardener's property.

Deloitte receiver David Levin was reluctant to talk to the Herald about TGR. But according to the legal stoush that has followed, some important assets have yet to be located and it is clear the receivers believe that Rogers, at least, knows exactly where they are.

All up, as many as 200,000 technical drawings may still be missing. Former TGR employees say two copies of every drawing were made and laminated, and that everything was also backed up in digital form.

Rogers has claimed the Alpine Wasp was a separate project, not linked to TGR, but this claim was cast in doubt when former employee Sean Williams testified that he had been asked to delete the words "TGR" from the Alpine Wasp drawings, and replace them with "Everest Rescue Trust".

According to court documents, Rogers told contractor Bob Lye, just before the factory closed, that he planned to take the back-up tapes "offshore". And according to Justice Woodhouse, emails later found on one of the Rogers' computers also contained "express statements" by Rogers that he still had the drawings.

Some containers of parts may also still be missing, and up to five storage sheds full of equipment have not yet been found. But it is the drawings that are seen as the company's most valuable assets.

In June 2008 another overseas contact of Rogers sent him a note saying: "The best justice will be you selling your IP to Saudi Arabia for a LOT of money and the shareholders who caused this mess getting nothing."

Rogers' reply referred to a presentation in Paris for people from "Saudi" and Jordan. He also referred to discussions he planned to have with the Indian High Commission in Melbourne that week.

In his sales patter to one potential buyer, Gareth Morgan estimated the technology could be worth as much as US$50 million.

However, some people in the aviation industry are doubtful that the drawings are worth anything like that.

Three years ago, Tokoroa-based "missile man" Bruce Simpson expressed considerable scepticism about the entire project on his Aardvark blog. "TGR's diesel-powered helicopters and UAVs were never going to fly - their claims were just too ambitious and the closer the company came to collapse, the more ridiculous those claims became," he suggested.

Simpson berated the media for credulous stories about the project. He noted that most helicopters couldn't hover at even half the altitude of Everest, and that despite the "smart stuff" coming out of the industry, the guidance and control systems needed for such pinpoint accuracy "simply don't exist".

"Now, I don't really care if Trevor Rogers was living in a dreamworld," he scoffed, "but I do worry that the ridiculous claims made by TGR Helicorp have dented New Zealand's credibility as a developer and manufacturer of leading-edge [UAS] technology."

According to others in the industry, those fears were indeed justified.

Even Rogers' closest friends admit he is prone to hyperbole, and doubt some of the claims he has made about some of his qualifications. A former employee recalls him mentioning an office in Belgrade, and a $30 million contract he hoped to get with the CIA.

A former National Party colleague recalls him "going on" in Caucus about having a pilot's licence. "Maurice Williamson, who was Transport Minister at the time, stood up and said: 'I've checked, you haven't even got a licence'. Rogers claimed it was from the States."

The former colleague says it was once claimed in Caucus that Rogers owed someone a large sum of money. Rogers brushed aside the debt, he says, saying he'd "bring down a couple of mill' from Honkers".

Rogers could also be boorish, says the former MP. "He was fond of saying things like he'd rip someone's arm off and shove it up their arse. He'd say things like that in Caucus. It was rather tacky. He was just a blustering bully."

Friends say he can also be good company. "But we take everything he says with a grain of salt," says one. So no one knew what to believe when he claimed to have gone to Israel "looking for bombs and bullets and stuff".

In May 2009 he requested a copy of his personal file from the Security Intelligence Service. According to court documents, he believed the SIS was investigating his activities in Europe and he wrote an angry letter to its director, insisting that "what I do now in the rest of the world is absolutely no business of New Zealand".

Departments such as MFAT "have done nothing other than be obstructive to a legal and industrious loyal New Zealand company", he wrote. "A $100 million company is now gone from New Zealand for good, and this slap in the face by the SIS, with whom we have worked in the past, is the last straw".

According to several aviation sources, MFAT was indeed initially alarmed by TGR's intentions, but is now sceptical about the project.

Notes a former TGR employee: "Trevor blames not getting an export licence for everything. That was obvious, but the fact is he had nothing to export. All the customers would ring up asking about it. They wanted proof of its capabilities, but he couldn't do it. I think that was part of the problem really. He didn't want to fly it in case it failed, yet he had to fly it to get further funding."

Rowland Harrison, who is a director of Palmerston North company Hawkeye UAV and regarded as a leading figure in the industry, says it is particularly unfortunate that the collapse of TGR coincided with the resignation of the then-head of the Defence Technology Agency, Stephen Wilce, who is alleged to have doctored his CV.

"There are some complexities around this industry at the moment in the wake of Trevor Rogers and Stephen Wilce that makes certain things quite sensitive at the moment," he says.

Harrison's opinion is that Rogers was "delusional". "I think it's really sad because there's actually a lot of really good work going on out there and I actually think the damage he's done was quite significant internationally. It's taken us a couple of years to weather the storm."

Interestingly, TGR's website still exists, but it is now a Russian news portal. Although the news on it is more than two years old, the website's registration was updated in May this year, and is not due to expire for another two years.

Whether this has anything to do with the Rogers is unclear. In August 2008 Trevor Rogers sent an email to a friend claiming he had closed down "all the ISP operations for me or TGR and [wiped] all records back to 1997 so any future fishing expedition will produce nothing".

Several months previously Rogers had put together a document crystallising his thoughts on the future of TGR. According to Justice Woodhouse, the document lists "what may in broad terms be described as sales prospects or, in some cases, what are expressly described as 'contract under negotiation'."

The countries mentioned in the document are Pakistan, India, France, Germany, Italy, Vietnam, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Singapore, the United States and South Korea. Emails were also found between Rogers and an interested buyer in China. Other documents and emails outline the couple's plans to set up a new company, UAS Teknik, in Switzerland. A draft sale and purchase agreement between UAS Teknik and Swiss company Innosuisse, which also makes unmanned aircraft, was found.

In July 2008 Rogers sent an email to someone in Pakistan claiming "all the server hard drives are in two different European countries in bank security". He also mentioned that "moulds and jigs... are at present in several 40ft containers waiting shipment to Switzerland". A similar email to someone in the US claimed "the IP is already in Switzerland in a bank depository .. . and a second master set of IP is also held in a depository in another country".

Later in court, Rogers argued that what he had said in the emails was untrue, and that he was simply hoping to "fudge" a deal in the hope he would be able to cobble something together in time. But the judge did not accept this. "The entire correspondence, which Mr and Mrs Rogers believed would never be discovered, cannot have been a charade," he decided.

In January 2009 the Bank of New Zealand successfully applied to have both Rogers declared bankrupt. But friends note the couple continue to have some loyal and wealthy supporters, including a prominent Freemason and long-time National Party stalwart, Arthur French.

Metropolitan Rentals owner Dick Langridge, who is well known for his extensive collection of Rolls Royces, is also said to have stuck by Trevor Rogers.

Court documents refer to an "old pal" of Rogers, called Dick, giving him $6300 in cash to pay for storage, and helping him "surreptitiously" move three containers "from where they had been stored to a storage facility owned by Dick".

Since getting out of jail, Rogers is believed to have been working for Langridge, helping do up a storage facility he owns north of Auckland.

High profile car salesman Rod Milner is also an associate of Rogers, and is said to have considered investing a large sum of money in TGR. His name appears several times in court documents.

Rogers was apparently chuffed that he was known in jail as "the bloke who told the judge to go jump". But both he and Glenda have recently experienced significant health problems and Trevor, in particular, has lost a lot of weight.

"At the moment Trevor is very bitter," says Australian friend Keith Baker. "He was upset that they were incarcerated and he doesn't believe they've done anything wrong."

According to Allan Crafar, the receivership has been a waste of time. "It's just eating up all the money and got no real result," he grumps.

Crafar won't say exactly how much money he gave to TGR, but insists it wasn't the catalyst that put his own farming empire into receivership.

"No, I don't really blame it - it's just another lot of money that could have been useful," he says.

"I couldn't say it was the be-all-and-end-all because it wouldn't make that much difference, but it certainly would have helped."

At his March court hearing, Rogers offered to recreate the missing intellectual property in exchange for staff, facilities and a wage.

One observer says the judge's face was "priceless" when the offer was made.

"I don't think the judge thought it was funny - I think he thought it was an insult to his intelligence."

At least one of Rogers' friends believes he is so bloody-minded that he probably did destroy everything in a fit of pique.

"I really think that when Trevor says he's going to burn something or destroy it, he will. It doesn't matter about the cost. He says he was telling the judge the truth, and I believe he was."

That said, the friend acknowledges Rogers has always been the type of person to focus on the big picture, and he believes he is already making plans to bounce back from bankruptcy.

"All I can say is watch this space. Trevor and Glenda are going to have a few more surprises yet."