Simon Day has a meal with a criminal narcissist.
Somewhere between the sweet-and-sour tripe and the dramatic dissection of the five-spiced suckling pig, we discover that our entrancing new acquaintance named Alex is actually called Wayne, and is one of New Zealand’s most prolific conmen. Over the course of the evening, and four courses of Chinese-influenced food, Alex takes us on a journey that starts with fascination, progresses through scepticism and eventually ends in shock. What follows is an amalgamated account of an unorthodox evening, and some of Alex’s remarkable stories, according to the collective memories of the people who interacted with him on Friday night.
The event is the first of Homestead’s winter dinner series. Tonight is a collaboration with roaming modern Chinese pop-up eatery Judge Bao, hosted in Pah Homestead’s elegant property in the Auckland suburb of Hillsborough, and tickets are $95. The meal is served family style down two long tables, on big sharing plates, and it’s the type of night where strangers sit next to each other and have meaningful conversations and connections.
Seating arrangements separate me from my four friends, and I start to make new ones with tablemates who work across Auckland’s restaurants and cafes. The evening begins with still warm homemade sourdough and butter made with fuyu – fermented tofu. The fuyu gives the butter salty, pungent flavours as it melts into the hot bread.
We are eating amongst an exhibition of textile works from the Wallace Trust collection. Quilts are turned into art; their bright patterns hang loosely on the white walls of the 19th-century mansion. The 60-odd guests gaze at the chandeliers of the ground-floor ballroom gallery. A grand piano sits in the window. Outside the night is freezing, inside we are warm on plum wine cocktails and the buzz of the weekend starts to fill the room. Wrapped in en vogue butcher-style aprons, the chefs, Jamie Johnston from Judge Bao and Sam Mannering from Homestead, address the diners about the history behind the evening’s meal. We applaud.
Alex plants himself at the head of one table and starts telling fascinating stories about an eccentric, unique life lived all over the world. He’s a big, tall man who fills up the room. He speaks with an aristocratic British accent and a flamboyant elegance. He is charming and clever, smooth and confident. He’s the centre of attention at his end of the table, his neighbours almost immediately enthralled by his oration. He’s a yarngod.
Before anyone even finishes the bread Alex is deep into his elaborate autobiography: he was raised on a sheep farm in Mahia and is the sixth of 11 children. He’s a gay man from a traditional, wealthy Jewish family, and he appears to relish his rebellion against his parents’ values, at the same time as spending “Daddy’s” money all over the world. He tells the table about the day he disclosed to his father – “a conservative Kiwi bloke” – he was gay: his father sat down all his siblings and told them “apparently it’s trendy to tell your parents you’re homosexual. I don’t want to know”. He’s never talked about it with his dad since.
He is now living in Hanover working as a lawyer, he says; he has a licence to practise law in Germany and Thailand. Apparently, in Germany the court system lets you practise law in whatever language you like (although he speaks German).
He’s working on a case where a Māori boy is seeking asylum in Germany because the racial discrimination in New Zealand means he’s unable to live a full life here. He says two other New Zealanders have been successfully granted asylum in Germany, and apparently lots more in Sweden. His flamboyance extends to the courtroom, and when he’s before a judge in Germany he likes to be provocative, wearing bow ties and waistcoats with Union Jack patterns.
He says he much prefers what he describes as Germany’s genuine social liberalism to New Zealand’s lightly veiled conservatism. But he votes for the most conservative political party in Germany. He says he feels happier and more at home in his German friends’ families than with his own.
He has an American lover (their romance progresses from “quasi-relationship” to “boyfriend” during the evening), a Republican who voted for Trump. They met on Grindr in Berlin; the American had a profile requesting “a job and a house” and Alex said he could stay at his place in Hanover. He tells the table he’s thinking of breaking up with him by “hiring a boat and having him fall off”. Such drastic measures are required because “he’s American, he wouldn’t move on”.
His laugh bounces around the room. He thinks he’s very funny. He says he loves wearing politically conservative T-shirts to places like Family Bar with slogans like “I’m a Key man” to wind up the regulars. But he doesn’t like gay bars. “In Germany, there are no gay bars, just bars.”
The next course – “surprise beef” – is a surprisingly delicious version of the famous sweet-and-sour flavours, served with deep-fried tripe. It’s a tip-to-tail version of chef Johnston’s favourite after-service late-night feed. My conversation is about the use of the more obscure parts of an animal. Behind me Alex is hypnotising my friends with fantastic stories of his glamorous life.
“You remind me so much of our fabulous friend Josephine in New York, she’s our rabbi’s wife, also with a background in law, but seriously, I could be sitting next to her right now,” he tells my friend Sophie after he discovers she’s a reformed lawyer. Sophie is flattered.
When he learns David is an opera singer, he tells him how much he loves it and how he attends the Salzburg opera each year. He enquires about whether New Zealand has any great opera houses. He believes the Ten Tenors have had their day.
And then he moves back to himself: he immigrated to New York in his early 20s and met and married a Swedish woman (despite being aware he was gay). They loved each other but not sexually and he didn’t sleep with her. His parents, who’d struggled with his homosexuality, were ecstatic he was marrying a woman, and paid for the whole thing. He wanted a big white wedding and chose her dress – Vera Wang. It was simple and classic, but seriously beautiful.
He’s had sex with a woman once. His brother told him it was essential to have heterosexual intercourse at least one time and provided all the guidance. Apparently Alex was very good, but because people are eating he doesn’t want to go into the intimate details. He does reveal the results were “like a waterfall” and he was repulsed.
So he chose to impregnate his wife with a turkey baster, and they had five children. They lived together in New York for 15 years, and have been separated for four. They gave each other the freedom to have “friends” on the side throughout their relationship. She met a woman eight years ago and they’re still together. His ex-wife’s family owns a chain of supermarkets in Sweden, where she is chief of marketing.
His life is entrancing. He commands the conversation. His stories are fantastic. He is seductive. Are we being conned?
The suckling pig is presented whole, steaming and golden. Chef Mannering and chef Johnston start by quartering the pig, their sharp knives simultaneously smashing through the crispy skin like it’s thin ice. They peel back the sheets of crunchy and salty crackling, revealing succulent meat. We wrap it inside Chinese pancakes with fresh coriander, Thai basil, cucumber and a thick and sweet homemade hoisin sauce.
It’s about now that Alex’s goose is cooked too.
When Sophie bustles up to the carving table to Instagram the beast, she gushes to chef Sam about the charming man sitting next to her at the table: “You’d love him, Sam, he’s fascinating: a Jewish family, one of 11 children, from Mahia, of all places. You must come and meet him.”
Sam looks down the long table and a bell starts ringing in the back of his mind. It rings louder when his general manager, who’s from Mahia – a place where it’s just accepted as plain science that everybody knows one another – has never seen him in her life. Another of Sam’s friends sidles up and tells him his partner recently met Alex, who introduced himself as the banished younger son of the “Auckland Friedlanders”. Sam knows Jason Friedlander – and calls bullshit.
Sam comes down the table pretending to meet and greet in order to get a closer look. “Holy fuck” rings the tune of the bell in his brain. He’s met Alex before. In 2015, at a New Zealand Fashion Week event, he’d ended up in a strange circle of conversation where a distinctively large figure was holding court, handing out what appeared to be expensive Cuban cigars.
Sam was initially taken by his gregarious nature, the endless stories about his close friend Tom Ford, the multi-million-dollar yacht in the harbour, and the massive property on Waiheke Island. But friend Colin Mathura-Jeffree intervened and alerted the young chef to the man’s criminal back catalogue. Two days later an article appeared in the New Zealand Herald showing the man posing with celebrities, accompanied with headlines about the conman’s recent release from prison. (Apparently, he had a licence to import those cigars because his grandfather, a surgeon, had saved Fidel Castro’s wife’s life).
A quick dash back to the kitchen to Google “Auckland fashion week conman” and the first story is about Alex. Sam frantically messages Sophie a garbled warning, hoping her phone isn’t sitting screen up next to Alex.
My conversation about the virtues of the coriander stem is suddenly interrupted by Sophie, urgently, but under her breath, insisting I look at my phone. She’s just discovered Alex’s true identity via Sam, and sent me a link to a 2015 Herald article warning the public about the return of infamous conman Wayne Eaglesome. The image at the top of the story is quite clearly the man at the head of her table, Alex. In the photo Wayne has dark hair and a puffer jacket, while tonight Alex has bleached blonde hair, a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and sneans. But they’re definitely the same person.
Alex could be Alex Newman. He’s been jailed under the names Wayne Eaglesome and Alexander De Villiers, and has used the names George Von Rothschild, Richard Mountjoy, Ari Ben Yitzhak and Bernhardt Augustus Longwater, among an estimated 33 aliases. He’s an infamous conman and a sexual offender.
In 2003 he was jailed for an array of fraud offences, including impersonating a priest named Father Anthony Garibaldi. In 2006 (as Alexander De Villiers), he was jailed for five years for sexually violating and indecently assaulting an 18-year-old backpacker and indecently assaulting another youth. While in prison, he attempted to impersonate a prison guard. In 2012 (by then operating as Wayne Eaglesome), he was jailed for three years for numerous fraud offences.
A Danish backpacker told Stuff that in 2012, Alex offered him a “dream job” on a 49-metre super yacht he said he owned. He was to be paid $50,000 for six months’ work. However, two weeks before they were to set sail, the backpacker received an email from Newman’s “mother” saying her son had had a massive heart attack. A second message said he had then had a stroke, and a week later an email said he’d died. A year later, he discovered who Newman really was, that he was still alive, and the yacht in fact belonged to Russian billionaire Mikhail Khimich.
Earlier this year, Alex, operating as George Von Rothschild, met a young New Zealand man in Thailand, and offered him $450,000 to sail with him on his super yacht (which he didn’t own) on a five-month voyage to Spain. He also offered a $45,000 alternative, for one night of the young man’s company.
He was released from prison in 2015 after, in an unusual outcome, he’d served the entire three years of his sentence because of his high risk of further criminal behaviour. At his release, police warned the public to “steer clear” and a report by a Parole Board psychologist said he had a medium to high risk of sexual offending, a high risk of general offending, and was a “prolific high-risk confidence man with narcissistic overlays”. That appears to mean he talks a lot of shit over dinner.
Tonight a lawyer in Germany, Alex has previously listed his occupation as a senior consultant for The Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, claimed he was a legal adviser to the US Federal Reserve, an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, a tax analyst at the World Bank and a senior Bank of England tax lawyer, according to media investigations.
Now it all makes sense. The aristocratic accent starts to jar. His behaviour suddenly appears strange, instead of eccentric. He only needed affirmation that you were listening – there was no reciprocity in the conversation.
Narcissism, in its most extreme form, is a personality disorder. It prevents the person from being able to form normal relationships, and can cause significant damage to those people they do form relationships with.
Extreme narcissists often have difficult upbringings, and have a primitive and “undeveloped sense of self”, according to Elsa Ronningstam, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. This creates a need to present a dramatically inflated vision of themselves to others, she says in an interview with Slate. They believe and behave like they’re superior beings – smarter, more beautiful, more interesting and more exciting than you and everyone else at the party.
Back at dinner, Alex’s storytelling continues to snowball.
He says he owns the legendary Rising Cock backpackers in Portugal, although you won’t find his name on the ownership documents as he didn’t want to be associated with the hostel’s crass name. He’s buying another backpackers in Thailand. Interestingly, Alex has a bit of a history with running backpackers under his Bernhardt Bentinck alias. In July last year, Stuff discovered he had filled properties he rented “for his family” with 28 backpackers in five-room homes, charging them up to $125 a night.
He’s also a generous couch-surfing host. Once, he tells us, when a large group of people were staying at his house, he was woken by a scream, then laughter. The scream didn’t worry him, but the laughter did. On inquiry, he learned that a young gay couple had been fisting in the living room and been caught. This incident required the addition of a caveat to his couch-surfing profile: “while a healthy sex life is fine, please no fisting in public areas”.
He had 48 people stay at his place over Christmas. And when one young Kiwi ran out of money on his OE, he offered to be Alex’s boyfriend for hire. If Alex was ever going to hire an escort, they would definitely look just like this guy, but he was uncomfortable with the idea of paying for sex. So he “made a donation” and they spent two weeks together.
The online catalogue of his apparent travels and couch-surfing guests has acquired 57,000 followers on Instagram at his handle @48people1house, a couch-surfing Christmas reference. By Monday night, the profile had disappeared. It once carried photos with hashtags like #hanover #fashion #germany #berlin #fineart #nz #deutsche.
He tells the group that luxury watch brand Patek Philippe gave him a piece (they start in the 10s of thousands of dollars, and can sell for multiple millions) to give away on his Instagram account to one of his followers. And while he’s here, he’s also staying in a certain rather dowdy “luxury” Auckland hotel, where rugby tours shove package deal fans.
Dessert is a Chinese steamed brown sugar sponge cake, served with grapefruit marmalade (made from fruit picked from the trees on the Homestead’s grounds), Calvados custard and kaya – a sweet coconut paste that’s like a thick, delicious Asian jam. By the time the wooden steaming baskets full of the sweet cake are handed around the tables, we suspect Alex realises people are on to him.
The evening had started with a plum wine cocktail and we’ve received refills of grapefruit Negronis, and most of those at the event have become less subtle. Alex has also become embarrassingly crass – Negronis, he says, may not be the only thing our friend Jeremy would be putting in his mouth that night. It’s getting unpleasant. There are more bad jokes. Q: “How can Germany cope with two million refugees?” A: “Well, they processed 30 million before.”
Half the dining room is reading the investigations into his fraud on their phones, and as he becomes more aware he’s been busted, he starts channelling his bizarre hubris through Siri. “I will transfer you 3000 Euros in three weeks time to Belgium,” he tells his phone. “Please book flight, via Qatar,” he shouts at the app. His boyfriend’s mother has suddenly gone back to hospital, so they have to leave immediately. When asked what’s wrong, he says “nothing, she’s just melodramatic”.
His final act is his most anguished, and perhaps his only successful scam of the evening. He is embarrassingly desperate for a doggy bag and repeatedly asks the two hosts for a takeaway serving. Eventually he storms into reception demanding directions to the kitchen. He doesn’t stop to listen and he’s already through the door, pouncing on the chefs and forcefully requesting his doggy bag (apparently for his boyfriend).
Realising the jig is up, he marches out of the kitchen and straight out the front door, his loot – a tin foil swan full of suckling pig– under his arm. A friend having a cigarette watches him vanish into the night.
Why was Alex there? What brought him alone to dinner that evening, other than for some takeaway pork? Could all these stories really be true? When I posed these questions about his Friday night to Alex by email, he replied (from South America, soon bound for Laos):
“I was high on ‘G’ at the time of my attending the party; I have no recollection of my conversations that night. I’m neither a farmer, lawyer or a member of a conservative or wealthy family.”
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