A successful campaign for the release of terminally ill fraudster Vicki Letele illustrates one of society's most difficult decisions, writes David Fisher.

When terminally ill prisoner Vicki Letele arrived home to her family, including her partner and three young children, there were emotional, jubilant scenes.

Letele learned she was being paroled an hour earlier after returning to prison from a chemotherapy session at Auckland City Hospital.

Amid tears she said the day had been "a roller-coaster".

She was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and given only five months to live - but she was only eight months into a sentence of three years and two months for 10 offences of mortgage fraud that netted $500,000.


The Parole Board originally refused to release Letele on compassionate grounds.
But a campaign that began on Facebook quickly gathered steam. The Prime Minister weighed in. "We do need to take on board the criminal activity that the person's undertaken but I don't think we want to see people dying in prison if, on compassionate grounds, it's reasonable they could be returned home," said John Key.

Meanwhile, 12,0000 people signed a petition calling for her release.

At the celebrations on Thursday night, Letele's uncle Ian thanked supporters.

Across town, Tino Mamea was not celebrating. He was one of Letele's victims and he sits now in the Mangere home she helped him to buy.
"Having a house is my dream," says Mamea. "The way I achieved my dream is not a legal way."

Mamea was listening to NewstalkZB a few weeks back and heard Letele's name. "I came and told my wife, 'Vicki's in prison and she wants to come out because she's got cancer'."

So he thought about it, and how she might be released. "I don't want to see here again. Better to stay there. Whatever happened, she deserved."

Letele got three years. Mamea is still paying his way clear.

It takes a hard heart not consider Letele's illness, her family and her children.


Compassion is a central pillar of our humanity. But justice is a central pillar of our society.

The two can be uncomfortable bedfellows.

Vicki Letele with her children and partner. Photo / Supplied
Vicki Letele with her children and partner. Photo / Supplied

We wouldn't be having this conversation if this was blue-collar crime, says Dr Jarrod Gilbert, sociologist at the University of Canterbury.

"If she had been a man who robbed a post office with a shotgun this conversation would be very different."

The case has fascinated Gilbert. He's an academic drawn to understanding criminality and how society relates to it. His book Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand took readers to places most would never go - gang pads and parties, gang figureheads recounting stories previously locked away from the public.

So, cases that show the public engaging with pariahs - as those convicted of crimes are usually considered - are worth studying.

Letele quickly won support on a petition from 12,000 people wanting her free to die at home. As well as Key speaking of "compassion", Corrections Minister Judith Collins got Letele's release under way by having prison bosses study again whether they could support the inmate through to her death.

"It gives every impression of (support) being universal across politics and society," says Gilbert.

Seeing inmates as human is not something society generally manages, he says.
"As a society, we're often at our worst when talking about prisoners. The fact she's a woman helps. And that it's a white-collar crime. Society tends to view white-collar criminality far less seriously than blue-collar criminality.

"It tends to be seen as a victimless crime, which is a complete fallacy. White-collar crime gets a very easy run in this country. She's not in prison for something of no consequence."

In Letele's case, society decided it would "draw a line", he says. "There will be times when collective humanity takes over."

Vicki Letele is hugged by family as she arrives home after being released from prison. Photo / Dean Purcell
Vicki Letele is hugged by family as she arrives home after being released from prison. Photo / Dean Purcell

In doing so, there has to be consideration of what message it sends. "Does this say if you have a terminal illness you can go out and commit crime with impunity?"

Releases on compassionate grounds are relatively rare. There were six applications to the Parole Board in the past year, all of which were approved, according to the Board's annual report.

Letele's application was turned down by the Board late last month after Corrections opposed early compassionate release and told the Board she was being adequately cared for in prison.

She was due to be considered for parole in April next year, with her full sentence to end in May 2019.

The Board had decided her case did not meet the exceptional circumstances test for early release but said Letele's condition would inevitably deteriorate to the extent she would require hospice care and at that time compassionate release would be appropriate.

That ruling galvanised the Letele family. They gave interviews, including harrowing details of her suffering.

Part of going public was a Facebook post that stated: "In March this year Vicki Letele was convicted of fraud using forged documents to allow low-income families to obtain home loans."

That's not exactly what happened.

For Vicki Letele, it was all happening in 2010. It was year in which her success was celebrated in NZ Property Investor magazine and the year in which she committed the frauds that ended in prison.

"If you have a dream and determination you can do whatever you want," she said to the magazine in a story that told of rising above her family background. Her parents, David and Tui, and uncle Lei, were Mongrel Mob members.

Vicki Letele with her parents (front) Tui and David, her partner Leah, and brother Dave. Photo / Supplied
Vicki Letele with her parents (front) Tui and David, her partner Leah, and brother Dave. Photo / Supplied

Her start in property came three years earlier, she said, when she borrowed $6000 through a friend's credit card to attend a Richmastery course. On the second day of the course, she quit her job with a freight company and embarked on a career earning money through property.

With no cash to start, "maxing out" credit cards was the answer to paying deposits on houses that would be quickly fixed up and sold on.

Her first property cost $500,000, bought with a $10,000 deposit and immediately advertised. It was bought for $525,000 and both her purchase and the sale were settled on the same day. Doing it that way meant she could use the buyer's money to pay for her own purchase of the house.

It was money without any outlay other than risk. Letele paid off the $10,000 deposit and had a $15,000 profit.

In 2010, she turned over 36 houses.

Letele told the magazine how rewarding it was finding houses for first-home buyers. "Handing the keys over is quite emotional as you can see the joy it brings."

Letele warned how important it was to work alongside family, who by then had turned their backs on gangs and their faces to God. "You come across a lot of people just driven by money who are untrustworthy, hence the reason why we're all family in this business."

At the same time Letele was talking about untrustworthy types in real estate, court documents show she was already committing fraud to keep the property business going.
It all came spilling out in March this year.

If she had been a man who robbed a post office with a shotgun this conversation would be very different.

At the Manukau District Court, Letele was sentenced to more than three years in prison on 10 charges of "dishonest use of a document". The maximum penalty was seven years.

The case, brought by the Serious Fraud Office, focused on a string of property deals in South Auckland between August 23, 2010 and January 6, 2011, carried out through Letele's Focus Property Limited.

The sentencing notes of Judge Anna Johns recounted the details - a prosecution case she described as "overwhelming", saying: "I fail to understand why you elected to go to trial."

The company that operated the property scheme went into liquidation in January 2011 owing $78,000. Liquidator Grant Reynolds, when he investigated the company's collapse, wrote how "the company found it increasingly difficult to arrange mortgages for clients as there were no or few financiers prepared to lend to the company's clients who were seen as a risk due to their inability to service debt".

Letele adapted, with Judge Johns describing her business as one in which mortgages were gained for people with an "unsophisticated" understanding of how property sales work obtained using forged documents.

Inflating the cost of the houses was primary to the scheme, Judge Johns recorded. The houses would be bought by Letele's partner in crime, Ramni Kumar, with a delayed settlement date.

Letele arranged a buyer at an inflated price with settlement timed to take place on the same day. Doing so meant nothing more than a deposit up front would have been needed and the ultimate owner's cash would pay the money Kumar owed on the house. In one example, a house bought for $255,000 was sold on the same day to one of Letele's low-income clients for $314,000.

Letele's buyers generally didn't have the deposit, earnings or lending history a bank would require for a mortgage.

Young Vicki Letele with her brother Dave. Photo / Supplied
Young Vicki Letele with her brother Dave. Photo / Supplied

It led to Letele finding ways - illegal ways - to get them mortgages. Judge Johns recounted how Letele filled in the loan application documents, including untrue information.

The falsehoods extended to using sale and purchase agreements carrying the names of reputable real estate agents, including Barfoot & Thompson.

It was a critical part of the scam because sales handed by known agencies could be approved at a lower level in the BNZ - and that was where Letele had her inside man.

BNZ staff member Vinod Rathore was that man, the court records stated. He could approve lending on sales managed by reputable real estate agents.

In return, the judge's sentencing notes said, Rathore was paid $4000-$6000 for each bodged up mortgage application he approved.

Rathore, who has left New Zealand, has not been charged in relation to the scam.

The scheme led to the BNZ lending $3,672,000 on 10 properties with little or no security.

And although the bank took a hit, it wasn't a scheme without other victims. Two of the 10 properties were sold in mortgagee sales. Those people, said Judge Johns, "will have great difficulty ever being able to obtain loan finance for a home in the future".

All told, Judge Johns said the four months in which the scam operated led to Letele pocketing $512,340. Kumar got about $80,000. Repeated efforts to contact Kumar have failed. She served one year's home detention and 250 hours community service for her part in the scam.

Letele was the mastermind of the operation, said the SFO. She found the properties and the buyers, organised the dodgy sales and purchase documents and took those purchasing property to the bank.

Yes, said Judge Johns, "this was your scheme and ... your fingerprints are over every piece of each of these transactions".

There was no evidence of extravagant living yet "it cannot be said that receiving that amount of money was for altruistic reasons".

One of the houses over which Letele was convicted was that where Tino Mamea still lives. She found him through rugby league - he doesn't play but his cousins do.

Letele was part of the New Zealand women's league team that won the World Cup in 2008.

The scam's victims "will have great difficulty ever being able to obtain loan finance for a home in the future".

There were multiple visits to Mamea before the deal went through. In August 2010, Mamea and his wife, Toafia, became home owners.

What they didn't realise was the forms they had signed - filled in by Latele - had turned his $5000 deposit into $30,000. "I had a deposit but it was only a small amount. She was going to help me."

Mamea also didn't learn until later how much profit Letele got out his house purchase. It was bought for $260,000 and Mamea paid $320,000 for the house a few weeks later. Since then the bank has visited. Three suited men who wanted to talk about the mortgage.

Mamea pays it in weekly amounts of $430 earned through shifts at a South Auckland meat works. Meat workers average $15 an hour as a base rate.

Mamea has been in his house for five years now. With regular payments, he will barely have paid enough off his mortgage to cover the profit Kumar and Letele got out of the deal.

" I was disappointed. Very disappointed. I learned a lesson from Vicki - not to trust anyone."

Letele's uncle Ian says dragging family business into the public eye hasn't been easy, for all that it has been effective in pushing for Letele's freedom. "You have a loved one who is dying," he says. "Why would you want to share that?"

It has all happened so fast. Letele was diagnosed with stomach cancer on September 7 and operated on two days later. She's 35, he says, and shouldn't we expect to live until 70?

"To be cut short in your prime is hard to explain."

The family understands the need for justice to be served but they don't want to talk now about the reasons Letele was jailed.

"I've never been interested in it other than she made a mistake and she's paying a price. I really don't know much about how she ended up where she got to. When you get a family member in trouble you band around and try to help. We don't condemn."

But he is relieved that, in his niece's case, compassion has won the day.

"He [Key] says he believes New Zealanders are compassionate people. That in itself gives you hope."