October 23-29 2004 Vol 196 No 3363

The fall of Mr Asia

by David Lomas

Twenty-five years ago, the Mr Asia drug ring came to a bloody end, with the discovery of Aucklander Marty Johnstone's handless, mutilated body in an English quarry. DAVID LOMAS, who has followed the case from the start, revisits New Zealand's most famous crime gang.

A mass killer with a glamorous lawyer lover. A harem of attractive young women couriers. A playboy drug baron. And a bunch of hard-nosed ex cons. All Kiwis.

Sex, drugs, money and murder – Terry Clark and his Mr Asia gang had it all.

By the end of its bloody reign 25 years ago this month, Clark and the Mr Asia syndicate had left corpses strewn across the globe, been responsible for the importation of hundreds of kilograms of heroin into New Zealand, Australia and Britain and had pocketed, in today's money terms, nearly a billion dollars.

They had also left thousands of lives in addicted ruin.

Over the years the names of Terry Clark, Marty Johnstone, Errol Hincksman, Jim Shepherd, Peter Fulcher, Dennis Williams, Andrew Maher, Alison Dine and Wayne Shrimpton have become legends of New Zealand crime. So, too, have the names of the dead – among them Doug and Isabel Wilson, Greg Ollard and Julie Thielman, Pommy Harry Lewis, Norma Fleet, Maria Hisshion and Tibor Banfy.

For a journalist, Clark and the Mr Asia gang was the crime story of a lifetime. I got my first taste of it as a crime reporter on the Dominion, after the Auckland Star broke the story in late 1978.

But, as Star reporters, journalists in Australia and England and I were to detail over the next year, that initial Star series only scratched the surface. It revealed nothing of Terry Clark and his cold-blooded murders. Nor did it touch on the true scale of the operation.

Mr Asia was a story that never left me. In the early 90s, seeking more details, I often used to drive for four hours to the Tongariro Prison farms near Turangi to visit Peter Fulcher, one of the gang's hard men, as he served more than a decade in prison for his role as the Auckland distributor.

Fulcher and I used to sit in the prison yard and he would puff his roll-your-own cigarettes, talk about how he looked after the prison dogs and then candidly tell me about the sackfuls of money he handled as he peddled Clark's drugs. He would coldly dismiss some of the murders committed by Clark as "occupational hazards". And he would talk about greed and the women who threw themselves at the drug baron and happily carried his drugs.

Later, when he got home leave, Fulcher and I used to wander the coffee bar scene of Ponsonby Rd and he would muse about a world that had so drastically changed while he languished in prison for what he acknowledged was "my role in bringing in evil".

I also learnt from Auckland police their frustrations over the inaction of the police hierarchy. The boys in "bullshit tower" couldn't comprehend a multinational, multi-million-dollar crime group, detectives said, so, as a way of embarrassing resources out of their bosses, they leaked the story to the Star.

When TVNZ agreed to air a 25th-anniversary documentary, John Keir and I set off seeking to talk to all those names of long ago.

The two key players were, of course, dead.

Marty Johnstone, an Auckland menswear shop salesman, had started the Mr Asia group by importing Thai buddha sticks with the help of Singaporean ship's steward "Chinese" Jack Choo.

Choo had simply tossed the bagged-up sticks overboard as his ship passed through the Rangitoto Channel. Johnstone, in a waiting boat, picked them up.

But Johnstone had teamed up with Clark, a petty thief and sometime police informant from Gisborne. Clark ruthlessly forced himself to the top of the syndicate, eventually ordering Johnstone's murder when a Thailand drug deal went wrong.

Clark was convicted of killing Johnstone and later died in prison in England.

After a quarter of a century, we believed that people would talk – and many did. But the main villains wouldn't talk on camera.

The dapper little "Diamond" Jim Shepherd, although built like a jockey, had ferociously held his own during more than 15 years in Sydney's notorious Long Bay prison. Clark's No 2 – who stepped in to run the drug ring while Clark faced charges in New Zealand – Shepherd said he had never realised how evil heroin was until he went inside for dealing. In prison he saw the addicts created by the Mr Asia gang and it seemed to play on his conscience.

"You can put all the drug problems in Australia today down to one man – Terry Clark," Shepherd told us off-camera.

Shepherd also talked about Clark's lust to kill, how he had become like the people he supplied heroin to – addicted. But his addiction was the thrill of murder.

We also tracked down Errol Hincksman, one of the syndicate's hard men, who sold drugs, kept discipline and was found flaked out after a cocaine high when police raided Clark's London mansion and arrested him for Johnstone's murder.

Hincksman ended up serving almost a decade in prison in England for drug dealing. Now back in Auckland, well spoken and with a teenage daughter, he revealed that the syndicate used to import bulk loads of heroin hidden in aircraft fuselage. It was only recoverable when the planes were serviced in Sydney. No airline person has ever been caught.

Hincksman hooked up with Clark, like so many of the others, while they did time in Wi Tako prison in the early 70s. He remembered how Clark wanted to be the "Al Capone" of New Zealand – to rule the drug world.

Some of the pretty young female couriers, who would pack the top of their heroin-stashed suitcases with soiled underwear and broken children's toys to distract and embarrass Customs officers, now live as respectable housewives. One, who has gained national prominence in sport, boldly denied she was involved, despite an extensive police file that tracks her movements to this day.

Police told of driving to Paihia and using a kayak to land secretly in front of the opulent Opua waterfront mansion that Clark was building. There, they had watched and heard Clark and Auckland lawyer Karen Soich making love.

In Australia, Justice Donald Stewart, who ran a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Clark gang, spoke candidly about his investigation for the first time.

The old judge, now with both legs amputated, angrily described the corruption he uncovered, inside not just the Australian state police forces but also the federal drug bureau. He bitterly said, "The whole lot could be bought for the price of a hamburger."

Some police officers were complicit in murder, knowing that information they sold to Clark would almost inevitably lead the crazed Kiwi to their informers.

But the story Stewart most enjoyed telling, in that most basic of Australian ways, was how the whole Mr Asia gang was constantly riddled with gonorrhoea.

"They were all rooting each other behind each other's back. It was all going round in a circle – one would get the clap, then the other – then they would give it back to each other … there was a crook doctor down the road here (King's Cross) who almost made his living out of them."

Jimmy Smith witnessed his cousin Andy Maher murder Marty Johnstone. Maher had been Johnstone's friend, but his fear of Clark turned out to be stronger than that friendship.

Smith, a former Scots Guard, recounted how he vomited as he and Maher tried to destroy all evidence of Johnstone's identity; of taking Johnstone's body back to a garage in Leyton and laying it on the floor, of hacking Johnstone's hands off with an axe, so that no fingerprints would be found. The garage floor still bears the axe scars. Smith also talked about putting a cloth over Johnstone's face and trying to smash his teeth so that dental records would be useless.

From police officers I got horrific photos showing the true evil of death. In New Zealand we have for years seen the touched up "death mask" photograph of Johnstone that British police released at the time. The real photo reveals the panic of Maher and Smith. Johnstone's face is battered with blows. The teeth are intact.

At Ecclestone Quarry, the police diver who recovered Johnstone's body told me that if Smith and Maher had been one metre further to the left when they dumped the body from a cliff top, it would probably have lain untouched for another 20 years. The body landed on a ledge at a depth of about six metres. The adjacent drop went to 20m and was littered with car wrecks. When the quarry was drained, five years ago, 250 car bodies, neatly stacked by vintage, were pulled from the depths.

But for a misaimed throw, Johnstone's body may have lain among the cars for all that time. And Terry Clark may have carried on his killing way.

EXPOSÉ: THE REAL MR ASIA, TV1, Wednesday, 8.35pm
All content ©2003-2004 APN Holdings NZ Ltd. All rights reserved.