Fighting the Demon

Sitting at home one Sunday evening, Nicky Goldsbury flicked on the TV to watch the news.

The lead story was about a suspected P lab in Katikati; dramatic footage of flames and smoke billowing from a shed and masked cops carrying rifles.

Despite his face being pixelated on screen, Nicky instantly recognised the man - tall, strong and bald - with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Her only son, Karl.

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"I just sat there in shock," says Nicky. "I thought 'Oh shit, he has really cooked his goose this time'."

A registered nurse who has worked in Rotorua Hospital for 21 years, Nicky has seen first-hand lives ruined by methamphetamine.

Her shock turned into shame. Sorrow came later.

"Here was a high-profile drug criminal in the Bay of Plenty - and he was my son," says Nicky.

"It hurt. Words can't even describe the tears I've shed over Karl. He was brought up by a good family that loved him.

"That's the frustrating thing, I could have beat my head up against a brick wall, thinking could we have done anything, could we have seen anything?"

Sitting inside Waikeria Prison, Karl Goldsbury says he's asked the same question - Why did he follow such a self-destructive path?

He was born in Rotorua in June 1975, the only child of Nicky and Brian Goldsbury.

The family moved to Maketu, a coastal township near Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty, when Karl was 13.

How the Bay of Plenty Times reported the explosion
How the Bay of Plenty Times reported the explosion

Brian had suffered a serious neck injury and was unable to work as a firefighter anymore, so the Goldsburys bought the local garage.

Looking back at Karl's school reports and photographs, Nicky said it was clear her son - always the tallest in class - was an "outdoors kid".

WATCH: The Fighting the Demon documentary

READ MORE: Inside NZ's 20 year meth crisis

Karl made the first XV at Te Puke High School, loved to surf, skateboard, swim, played tennis and rode motorbikes. He'd earn money by mowing lawns in Maketu, or chopping firewood.

"He was sporty and fun-loving. From a very young age, he was very physical. He was big and strong. He was never going to be a scholastic genius," says Nicky.

"His first primary school teacher said if class was taught under a tree, Karl would be happy."

After leaving school, Karl's first job was cutting down trees.

He'd travel up and down the Bay of Plenty clearing bush during the week, then lace up his boots to play league on the weekends.

Karl thrived by working hard and playing a hard game. But a leg injury took him off work for a while. This was when a friend showed him an easy way to make money.

"I started growing dope. I actually hated meth at the time because I could see what it did to my mates, making good buggers angry," says Karl.

"Then out of nowhere, I had just one puff."

Karl Goldsbury hopes sharing his experience of methamphetamine will discourage others from following the same destructive path. Photo / Mike Scott
Karl Goldsbury hopes sharing his experience of methamphetamine will discourage others from following the same destructive path. Photo / Mike Scott

That first time, Karl was with a friend in Te Puke in the early hours of the morning and unable to stay awake.

He was tired from "being up to no good doing drug deals" and having relationship problems with his partner.

"My mate was like 'have a puff on this bro' and I was like 'nah, fuck I'm alright'. But I kept dozing off and he kept offering," says Karl.

"So I had that first puff, thinking one time will be alright. And I nearly fell off the chair. It was like a feeling of you've just woken up, like you're brand new or something."

Without realising the time, 24 hours had gone by. Karl went home and cleaned. And cleaned. And cleaned.

Halfway through the following day, he started to get worn out, tired, like a "real, real bad hangover".

"I thought 'shit, I better go back and get some more to fix me up'."

He swapped four ounces of cannabis for a tiny bag of P, probably less than a gram.
"Boom, I was back into".

Karl quickly became reliant on methamphetamine to stay awake, a boom-bust cycle.

But in his own mind, bartering cannabis for P helped justify his growing dependence on the drug.

"I thought 'I'm using my dope business to pay for meth, I'm not forking out my own money, so I'm not as bad as those other pricks who can't provide for their family'," says Karl.

"Looking back, I was bullshitting myself really."

Ironically, methamphetamine proved bad for business.

"I was quite sharp, quite calculated, quite careful. But once I got a taste for meth all that went out the window," says Karl.

"You don't realise it at the time, but you're not yourself because you're losing sleep. You're not as clever as you think."

He was caught with four ounces of cannabis, some cash and a couple of pistols, while renting a home owned by friends of his parents in Maketu.

"We were just floored. This big healthy guy, who can't stand cigarette smoking, who was absolutely adored by his family. And he did this," says Nicky.

"Drugs were not part of our life and so we found it hard to believe our son was in this world."

He ended up spending about 18 months in prison.

Karl Goldsbury is a serving inmate at Waikeria Prison for serious methamphetamine offences. Photo / Alan Gibson
Karl Goldsbury is a serving inmate at Waikeria Prison for serious methamphetamine offences. Photo / Alan Gibson

"We supported him, wrote to him, visited him with his two boys," says Nicky.

"We thought anyone who's done time in prison, surely they'll come out and never do it again. That was my thinking at the time."

On his release from prison, Karl felt embarrassed at how his young family had struggled financially in his absence.

He had a job but, again, a friend showed him an easy way to make money.

An ounce of methamphetamine (28.5 grams), worth around $10,000, was offered to Karl.

No need to hand over the money upfront, Karl could pay him back after selling the drugs.
Grams were going for around $800 - Karl paid his debt and made $12,000 profit. In a week.

The next time, he bought two ounces and paid for one upfront. Within months, he was buying five ounces debt-free. Then 10.

"That was all the profits coming to me, I didn't owe anyone," says Karl.

"If I had $100,000, I'd grab 10 [ounces]. Because that's nearly a $250,000 in product, assets. It was an investment."

The money was easy, but meth also gave him power.

"It's quite surprising, the people who want meth. It's people from across all walks of life," says Karl.

"You're feeding their dirty little secret, you know, you become like a god to them."

His dirty little secret was taking its toll on his partner and two children.

His answer was to throw more money at them.

As well as his growing drug business, Karl was working as a waterblasting contractor to clean mud off flood-damaged houses in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

This gave him more opportunities to deal methamphetamine, but also to indulge his own habit.

He'd lock himself in his Toyota Hilux between jobs and put up sunscreens to block the windows.

"I'd sit in the cab, puff up for 10 minutes, and there was so much smoke it would look like the ute was on fire," says Karl.

"Then boom, I'd be off for the day. I would work so hard, I actually fell off the roof a couple of times. Everyone would compliment me on what a good job I did."

Nicky Goldsbury hates the impact methamphetamine has had on her family and community. Photo / Mike Scott.
Nicky Goldsbury hates the impact methamphetamine has had on her family and community. Photo / Mike Scott.

Listening to her son's motorbike roar through Maketu late at night, Nicky knew Karl was back in the drug world. And not just growing weed.

She confronted him.

"I told him my worst fear was finding out he was in the emergency department at work shot, or dead, from a drug deal gone wrong."

Karl told her: "Nah, you're just being stupid".

By this stage, Karl was in his late 20s and a patched member of the Mongrel Mob in Maketu.

Standing 195.5cm, with a shaved head, and nicknamed "White Dog", he wasn't exactly flying under the radar.

While on bail for kidnapping charges, Karl was stopped by police in a car and caught with 84g of P.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 3 years 8 months in prison.

A second stint in prison wasn't enough for Karl to stop and reflect on the harm he was causing - to himself, his family, or the wider community.

"I didn't feel sorry or think about who was being affected. You just think about how dumb you were getting caught. Selfish eh."

This time, his parents didn't support him, write or visit him in prison.

"That was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. Because basically we disowned him," says Nicky.

"How else were we going to get the message home? Our family had been ripped apart.

"Each and every day I would go to bed and I would wonder about him. It would be the worst period of my life, absolutely."

When Karl was released from prison, he moved straight back to Maketu and methamphetamine.

This time, instead of relying on others to supply P to him in wholesale ounce amounts, Karl decided he would be in charge.

After years of mixing in criminal circles, he knew where to find the raw ingredients and equipment needed to cook methamphetamine. And he knew people with the expertise to perform the chemical process. And dealers to supply.

"It was just greed. You think 'I can be that person'. It's greed, money, power and control."

Nicky could stand on her front lawn and see where Karl was living, just 100m or so on the other side of a field.

They were no longer estranged; but while they were talking to each other, Karl wasn't listening.

"I could hear the car come and go. I could hear the motorbike come and go. I could hear him in a rage sometimes, shouting," says Nicky.

"Karl was just doing what Karl was doing. Then of course, things got worse."

That was Sunday December 9, 2012; the night Nicky turned on the television to see her son handcuffed in front of a blazing building.

The dramatic arrest was on the television and the front page of the Bay of Plenty Times.

Nicky's workmates knew, her neighbours knew, the kids where Karl's children went to school knew.

"I felt guilt by association."

The burnt down remains of the P lab in Katikati. Photo / NZME
The burnt down remains of the P lab in Katikati. Photo / NZME

After an application by his lawyer Paul Mabey, QC, Karl was released on electronic bail to live at his mother's house.

At the time of his arrest, Karl had separated from the mother of his two boys and was in a new relationship.

His new partner - now wife - was pregnant and had a daughter from a previous relationship.

"So our household of two became a household of seven. Our power bill doubled, our food bill almost tripled," says Nicky.

"With Karl, I've always called a spade a spade. If there was any crap, I told him he could go back for prison."

Eighteen months later, Karl was convicted of five offences including the lead charge of conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine at the Katikati property.

In sentencing him to 10 ½ years in prison, Justice Patrick Keane ruled Karl must serve a minimum of five years before being eligible for parole.

"What concerns me ultimately, however, is that you offended seriously in 2008 and have now offended again more seriously and very persistently," said the High Court judge.

"You will be at high risk of re-offending as long as you continue to use drugs and associate with those who manufacture and trade, particularly if you remain affiliated to a gang. Those are issues you will have to address during your sentence."

Those words fell on deaf ears.

"I was pissed off with my sentence for a long time," says Karl.

Like every other time he'd been caught, the now 39-year-old blamed authority - the judge, his lawyer, the police - for his predicament.

Slowly, he came to realise there was only one person at fault.

His new insight came as Karl started connecting to his Māori ancestry through classes run inside Spring Hill Prison.

He traced his whakapapa, learning haka and song, as well as speaking te reo by sharing pepeha and reciting karakia.

"It's sort of hard to explain," says Karl. "It sort of gives you a sense of something to be proud of."

Within the trust of the classroom, the inmates were encouraged to talk about their crimes. What they were thinking at the time, how they were feeling, the impact on those around them.

"At the time [of his drug dealing], I just didn't care about anything. That's the truth," says Karl.

"Getting up in front of your classmates ... that was the first time I got a bit honest and emotional ... because you're talking about your wife and kids ... there were a few tears.

"It took me a couple of years of my sentence to admit, I did have a problem. I was greedy, I was selfish, no one could tell me what to do. I did it for money and the glory of getting whatever I wanted, when I wanted.

"I didn't stop for one minute to think of whose kids or family I was wrecking."

Karl Goldsbury hopes sharing his experience of methamphetamine will discourage others from following the same destructive path. Photo / Mike Scott
Karl Goldsbury hopes sharing his experience of methamphetamine will discourage others from following the same destructive path. Photo / Mike Scott

Time in the drug rehabilitation programme in Whanganui Prison also opened his eyes to how methamphetamine - and the lack of sleep - warped his thinking.

And, for the first time, he admitted his own personal addiction.

"When you're fried on meth, you think you're okay and everyone else is f****ed," says Karl.

"That's exactly how I used to think. I'd be like, 'Look at those bastards', but I'd be out racing motorbikes at 2am, doing stupid shit. Man it's dangerous."

Nicky Goldsbury and Karl's wife joined him at his graduation from the three-month drug programme.

Fifty bare-chested inmates - many from rival gangs - welcomed all the visitors with a rousing pōwhiri.

And after Karl and the other prisoners received their certificates, family members were invited to speak.

Nicky stood up to address the captive audience.

"I told them how hard it was for me as a mother and how Karl had broken my heart. I was in tears and said I don't think you realise how much you've hurt your families," says Nicky.

"But for me there's hope, there's got to be hope, and I believe in Karl."

Mother and son hugged. Heavily tattooed gang members were crying. Some came up to shake hands with Nicky and thank her for speaking frankly.

Speaking ahead of Karl's first Parole Board hearing in May, Nicky believes her son has genuinely turned himself around.

They both credit the influence of Te Ao Marama - the Māori focus unit at Waikeria Prison - as a turning point in his life.

By connecting with his Māori culture, and with the unwavering support of some key Corrections' officers and his family, Karl says he's become a better person without even realising it.

"By knowing where you come from, knowing you're part of something much bigger than yourself, representing your ancestors, gives you pride and mana. It makes you take ownership for what you've done," says Karl.

"It's just really humbling what this place does."

Turning 44 in June, Karl's hopeful of walking free from prison soon.

His mother has offered her home as a potential address to relieve the immediate burden of providing for his wife and kids.

He's keen to work and share his story with kids on the cusp of trouble.

"Once I'm settled, I want to be work with youth ... maybe help inspire someone to change. If I had known what I now know 20 years ago ... but it's hard to get the message through to people who aren't ready," says Karl.

"It took me a while to be ready."

Nicky also hopes Karl will be released by the Parole Board soon - "we all serve the prison sentence" - and is confident he can turn his life around.

But she's less optimistic the wider New Zealand community can curb the ongoing dependence on methamphetamine.

"I hate meth. It destroys families. It's a heinous drug. And there's so much of it around and that's the saddest thing, it's just going to get worse," says Nicky.

"It's hard to see what the solution is but it's going to be around education targeted at a younger audience. People like Karl who have a powerful message," says Nicky.

"We can't bury our heads in the sand."

• Last week on Thursday, the Parole Board decided to grant Karl Goldsbury an early release from prison.

The final words of Judge Louis Bidois, the convenor of the panel, to Karl were: "You were a good prisoner. The challenge for you now is to be a good man. You've got the support of your whanau, your iwi. Don't let them down."