A once high-flying businessman appeared to have all the characteristics of a successful and motivated executive. However, he was also behind what was described as one of Australia's worst cases of animal cruelty. Then in 2016 pet rabbits started to disappear from their hutches in suburban Auckland. After a more than two-year court case, Sam Hurley can now reveal this truly bizarre story.

It's dark and it's early.

At just 10 minutes past five o'clock in the morning it also must be cold at the outset of September.

Then, slowly, a man wearing a beanie starts to crawl across the ground behind an Auckland home, seemingly trying to remain undetected.

It's a thief.

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His possum-like eyes shine as they catch what little light there is.

But he's not Auckland's typical burglar, the type who breaks into people's homes to lift material goods and jewelry.

This man steals rabbits.

"He came on the Thursday night before Labour Weekend 2016," one owner told the Herald.

"Then I heard the squealing of my rabbits."

Police began trying to identify this bunny burglar and asked for the public's help after 15 rabbits were stolen from breeders and owners.

"Think about padlocking hutches, using CCTV cameras and sensor lights if you can," police warned animal owners in 2016.

"We're also asking pet shops to be alert for suspicious behaviour. If they have concerns about someone who is offering rabbits for sale then we'd like to hear from them."

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Can you help us identify this bunny burglar? 15 rabbits have been stolen from breeders in Auckland's Mt Albert, Blockhouse Bay and Massey over the past three weeks. CCTV footage from the latest burglary in Mt Albert around 5am on Saturday 10 September shows the offender in action on the property. If you have information about the person identified in the CCTV footage or knows about the rabbit thefts, please contact Avondale Police on 09 820 5623 email ldbn11@police.govt.nz. You can also provide information anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Posted by Auckland City District Police on Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Little did police or the animal owners know, this rabbit thief was a former high-flying Sydney finance executive.

And they certainly didn't know the Kiwi businessman had also been jailed, but later acquitted, for what a Sydney magistrate said was one of Australia's worst cases of aggravated animal cruelty.

During the mid-2000s something strange and disturbing started happening in downtown Sydney.

Dead or dying animals - some of which had been skinned - were being found strewn and dumped in the alleyways of the popular waterfront area known as The Rocks.

The dead rabbits and a guinea pig were found over a six-week period during the winter of 2005.

Some of the animal carcasses were also found in the women's toilets at a York St office.

Inside the building worked a man named Brendan Francis McMahon.

He helped to manage Meares-McMahon Capital, a financial planning and mortgage brokerage, with Jason Meares, the brother of Australian model and fashion designer Jodhi Meares.

The Sydney press soon began to take notice of the dead rabbits, while police were told by a pet shop worker of a man with scratches on his face trying to buy rabbits on his company credit card.

It was McMahon - he was buying up to three rabbits at a time.

He was arrested and later granted bail, with a Sydney judge ordering him not go within 50 metres of any pet shop or enter any rural lands.

In July 2006, McMahon was jailed for 16 months for offences which included the torture and mutilation of 17 rabbits and a guinea pig.

"In my view this is one of the worst case scenarios of aggravated cruelty to animals," Magistrate Ian Barnett said.

McMahon also faced a charge of bestiality, but this was later withdrawn.

The New Zealand-born man, however, would appeal his convictions on mental illness grounds.

And in November 2006, McMahon's crimes were quashed.

"I am satisfied that the accused suffered from a disease of the mind, and that his psychosis was not due to drugs alone," Judge Peter Berman said in a New South Wales court decision obtained by the Herald.

"I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the appellant has the defence of mental illness available to him. I therefore find that at the time these animals were tortured by the appellant he was mentally ill so that he was not responsible, according to law, for his actions."

Fergus McMahon, then known as Brendan Francis McMahon, pictured on his mobile phone outside a courthouse in Sydney in 2005. Photo / Getty Images
Fergus McMahon, then known as Brendan Francis McMahon, pictured on his mobile phone outside a courthouse in Sydney in 2005. Photo / Getty Images

Judge Berman based his decision largely on a report by forensic psychiatrist Dr Stephen Allnutt.

The report said McMahon had been using methamphetamine daily since January 2005 because it gave him a "mental push" at work and business confidence.

In 1998 he had developed an interest in reading Genesis in the Bible, the report reads, which led to "an intensification of his preoccupation with mysticism beliefs" in 2003.

"About 18 months prior to my seeing him he described having had a number of unusual experiences that involved special connection to birds and a belief that nature might be communicating with him in some manner," Allnutt said.

McMahon also developed the belief that he was a "tool of the universe" and was connected to and meant to protect nature after he studied Eastern and South American mysticism.

"He also developed the belief that he could communicate with rabbits through a third eye (a form of non-verbal communication)," Allnutt said.

"He embarked on a process of releasing captured animals from pet shops in Sydney, which included rabbits."

McMahon, in his mind, was creating "safe havens" so they were "free of predators" when he would release them into Sydney's Hyde Park, Allnutt said.

But the financer also believed some of the rabbits did not want to be released and he needed to kill them.

Allnutt said McMahon's "interest in nature, bird-watching and mysticism became distorted by the amphetamine use".

"He really believed that he had been communicating with the rabbits, and that this interaction with the rabbits was of value to nature. He said that when this happened he would feel a 'joy' in his heart," Allnutt said.

The psychiatrist added McMahon's distorted views also led him believe he was being followed and stared at by birds and that he saw a cloud in the shape of a wedge-tail eagle.

After being released from prison in Australia, McMahon would eventually return to New Zealand to restart his finance career.

He also changed his name to Fergus Rebel McMahon.

The Rosmini College alumnus went on to become the director of project finance at Property Finance Partners in Auckland.

McMahon's bio on the company's website, which has since been removed, said he was a Takapuna-born seasoned veteran in the mortgage industry with extensive experience in large international mortgage markets with key property development brands.

"He loves strong espresso and hard mortgage negotiations for breakfast," it read.

It also said he had 25 years of construction and development funding experience.

From the outside Fergus McMahon had a successful finance career. Photo / Supplied
From the outside Fergus McMahon had a successful finance career. Photo / Supplied

McMahon, who according to his LinkedIn page, holds specialised qualifications in mortgage lending from the Securities Institute of Australia, further became an associate director of project finance for investment firm fulQrum.

In the now deleted bio on the company's site, he was called "one of Australasia's leading brokers with 30 years of experience, having funded close to $2 billion in development finance".

McMahon also said on his LinkedIn profile he had designed, launched and sold Super City Mortgages Ltd, a mortgage and insurance brokerage company.

On social media he listed animal welfare as one of the things "Fergus cares about" and earlier in his life said he was a volunteer bird ranger in Ararimu Valley.

But, despite what appeared to be a now glittering finance career, McMahon could not kick his drug habit and he relapsed.

In September 2016 an unusual trend began to develop in the backyards of suburban Auckland.

Rabbit breeders and pet owners were waking to empty hutches and cages.

"Fifteen rabbits, including the Netherland Dwarf breed, Mini Lops and a Mini Rex, have been stolen from backyards in Mt Albert, Blockhouse Bay and Massey over the past three weeks," police said in a public statement at the time.

One breeder said she had 10 rabbits stolen from her property alone, over four separate occasions.

It was McMahon - his predilection for rabbits had returned.

Twenty-two separate properties across Auckland were burgled over an 18 month period as police hunted the bunny thief.

Lily the stolen Netherland Dwarf rabbit. Photo / Supplied
Lily the stolen Netherland Dwarf rabbit. Photo / Supplied

Another pet owner told the Herald of the night McMahon came to her Blockhouse Bay home, as her children slept, just before Labour Weekend in 2016.

"I heard him. We've got pet rabbits, we're not breeders. We did have some babies at that time but that was just our own pets," she said.

"I heard this human noise from my window at one o'clock in the morning or something and the thought crossed my mind – bunny burglar?"

But she dismissed the idea because she wasn't a breeder and how would the wanted bunny burglar even know where to find them.

"Then I heard the squealing of my rabbits," she recalled.

"I woke my partner up after I heard the squealing. I didn't even know rabbits squealed, it was just awful."

McMahon stole four rabbits that night, including Boomba and Lizzy, while the rabbit named Lucky survived the ordeal.

"My partner ran out the front and he actually saw someone walking on the other side of the road, really slowly, casually, up the road, at this strange hour of the morning," she said.

Down a nearby street, sitting in a car, was McMahon.

"They came face to face," the rabbit owner said. "So [my partner] was able to positively ID him. We got the rego as well."

She called the police, while her children were horribly upset at the ordeal.

"[The police] came straight away, which we knew was something a bit weird as well, for them to come so quickly for rabbits."

McMahon's modus operandi was that he would first contact rabbit owners online, who were either breeding or selling them, to obtain their address.

Then, late at night, he would sneak onto their property to take the animals from cages and huts.

"It took us, and the police, a very long time to figure out," the pet owner said.

"A couple of years prior we had advertised once I believe on TradeMe, my partner had. My partner didn't remember this but somebody had texted him saying, 'hey, I'm interested in your rabbits – whereabouts are you?'"

Police released this CCTV image of the bunny burglar in September 2016. Photo / Supplied
Police released this CCTV image of the bunny burglar in September 2016. Photo / Supplied

Two years later McMahon was in their backyard.

"I still don't sleep well, even though we've moved houses," the woman said.

"Every little thing in the night ... it really changed my life dramatically, and my son's.

"It's changed who I am as a person. It's one thing to have your animals die but to think that he outright stole them."

She also recalled being later told about McMahon's Australian case.

"I remember when I got the phone call, I had just got out of the car at Blockhouse Bay and I was going to a cafe for breakfast and I just fell over on the ground and was just hysterical.

"Because it was so absurd, sickly absurd. I still can't even fathom it.

"I despise him, he's obviously a very, very sick man."

She also learned that one of her friends worked with McMahon.

"It's such a small world, he was working in New Lynn for a few years with a good friend of mine.

"She said he was always tired in the morning, always bedraggled.

"She thought he was alright, she'd chat with him for ages ... apart from he was always tired and falling asleep at his desk."

The woman doesn't own rabbits any more because of McMahon, and even after she moved houses remained scared he would return.

"It's that thing of loving something and having it taken from you in that way," she said.

None of the stolen rabbits, some of which belonged to children, have ever been found.

McMahon was eventually arrested by Auckland police and charged with burglary in July 2017.

At his first court appearance, Judge Eddie Paul said: "The inference is that he's then gone on to use them for some unsavoury purpose."

"There must be significant public interest where a person targets pet animals for their own particular interest," he said.

McMahon's Auckland crimes, however, would remain a secret - for two-and-a-half-years.

A court order prevented publication during the lengthy case as it remained a possibility McMahon would go to trial.

While McMahon's name was not suppressed the allegations against him were because of the similarities to his Sydney case.

The suppression order remained even after he pleaded guilty and was then made permanent by Judge Ema Aitken when she sentenced McMahon in May this year.

He faced 11 charges, eight of which were representative for the 22 instances of burglary, two theft charges for stealing rabbits and one count of careless driving.

The suppression order was only lifted by Justice Grant Powell who issued a final decision last Friday after a successful appeal to the High Court by the Herald.

During the sentencing hearing in the Auckland District Court Judge Ema Aitken said: "There is no case similar to this Mr McMahon ... You stole rabbits."

McMahon, now 51 years old, insisted he released the animals into the wild, believing in his mind he was liberating them from their hutches or the possession of their owners.

But the court also heard he struggles to remember exactly what happened when he stole them and found it difficult to determine "what was real and what was not".

Fergus McMahon appearing via video while in custody during a court appearance in October 2017. Photo / Doug Sherring
Fergus McMahon appearing via video while in custody during a court appearance in October 2017. Photo / Doug Sherring

Some of the victims became aware of McMahon's Australian case and feared the worst for their pets, while others have now increased security and further locks around their homes.

"There was behaviour that took place in Australia that it could be broadly described as similar," Judge Aitken said. "However, they were allegations of much more serious conduct involving the harm and death of rabbits."

The key driver to the offending, the judge said, was McMahon's dependency on meth and from May 2018 he became a resident at Odyssey House to curb his addiction.

"It would appear that you have made significant gains in terms of your rehabilitation," Judge Aitken said.

But the judge still had to "denounce and to deter [McMahon's] offending" and protect his victims.

A sentence of four months' community detention, with a nightly curfew, and 15 months' intensive supervision "should give the community some comfort that the authorities will know where you are at night", she said.

McMahon was also ordered to pay $2735 in reparation to the victims after they had lost something of "high sentimental value".

"The risk of reoffending is low, provided you remain abstinent," Judge Aitken told McMahon.

- Additional reporting Chris Marriner