This article originally appeared in Good Weekend
At the height of Queen Victoria's reign, the colonial architect James Barnet built hundreds of grand civic buildings throughout NSW, from Sydney's Customs House and GPO to ambitious and opulent courthouses in Goulburn and Bathurst. They spoke of hope, authority and a prosperous future for the colony.
And then in the late 1880s, at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, he built the Cooma Court House. It was one of his final commissions. Fashioned from severe local granite that could sharpen knives, it sits on a hill in the centre of town dourly surveying the citizenry. Its message is clear: take a wrong turn and the full fury of the law will come thundering down.
William Barry Wilkinson, one of Cooma's leading citizens, took a wrong turn.
In February this year, Bill Wilkinson, 62, along with his wife, his two adult daughters, their husbands and a knot of supporters, trudged up the long, sloping pathway and into Cooma Court.
For 30 years Wilkinson was the Monaro district's leading stock and station agent, with hundreds of clients. It made him a wealthy man in Cooma. He was born poor but rose to send his kids to Frensham, the prim and pricey girls' boarding school at Mittagong. He did charity work and was on the show committee. Everybody knew him and his big booming auctioneer's voice. He was a man people handed a microphone to at weddings to say a few words, on behalf of the family. He delivered eulogies for more than 20 clients and friends.
For years Wilkinson had prospered through drought and difficult dealings with dodgy meat companies, clam-fisted farmers and Hooray Henrys who'd buggered a billion-dollar wool industry. But now he was in deep trouble. He had been sucked into a fraud, a Nigerian-type loan scam run by an Australian called Denis Fing, living in Africa, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur ...
Back in 2003, with an initial promise of "tenfold returns", Wilkinson began transferring funds into Fing's NAB account. Over a period of seven years, he transferred his entire life savings, more than $2.5 million. Not a cent came back. Then, when he'd exhausted his own funds, he dipped into his company's trust fund and transferred almost $1 million, money belonging to farmers for the sale of sheep and cattle.
All the while he believed his "investments" with Fing would come good and he'd be able to repay the trust. They never did. In November 2010, administrators were appointed to wind up Wilkinson's once thriving business. Investigators from NSW Fair Trading were called in and he was charged with six counts of fraud.
He pleaded guilty and in February this year he faced the consequences in Cooma Court.
For several hours two psychologists, one for the prosecution and one for the defence, addressed the court about his mental capacity. Then the magistrate, Chris Bone, spoke. He felt for Wilkinson and said his judgment had obviously been impaired. But he had no choice, the amount of money involved, $931,325.23, was simply too great not to impose a jail term.
Bone ordered Wilkinson to his feet and delivered his sentence: 18 months with a non-parole period of eight months. Wilkinson collapsed to the floor in shame. His wife, Jenny, fell at his side and screamed to the court, "No! No! My husband is a good man." One of his daughters began shouting at the prosecutor, "You bastard. You said you had compassion." The magistrate and the lawyers tried to calm everyone down as two sheriffs helped a trembling Wilkinson to his feet.
Over a period of seven years, he transferred his entire life savings, more than $2.5 million. Not a cent came back.
They led him from the courthouse and into the grim old police station behind. His fingerprints were electronically scanned, his shoelaces and belt were removed and he was placed in an austere, polycarbonate, suicide-proof cell on a stainless-steel bench, monitored by cameras, as he waited to be fed into the prison system.
His wife, his daughters and the folk of the Monaro were all left wondering: how did Bill Wilkinson's life come to this?
"I still can't believe it," says Cooma's Mayor, Dean Lynch, sitting in his office beneath a photo of Queen Elizabeth II. A farmer, Lynch, too, was one of Wilkinson's clients, and a friend. "Of all the people, Wilko is the last bloke you'd think would get himself tangled up in something like this."
The Wilkinsons were first introduced to Denis Fing in 2003 by their good friends Pat and Beryl Barron. Pat has been a successful businessman and farmer around Cooma for many years and runs a trucking business, delivering bulk fuel to farms. Beryl is a natural therapist. According to documents submitted to the court, the Barrons believed Fing was an accountant in Brisbane. He had done some accountancy work for them.
When Good Weekend tracks down a relative of Fing's in Brisbane, who asks not to be named, she says she has no idea where he is but she believes he is living somewhere in Africa. She adds that she has never heard of him being an accountant, "and I've known him for donkey's years".
"I think he is just a con man," the relative says. "He owes his family money - he defrauded his family, too, you know."
The Barrons are unwilling to provide Good Weekend with further details of their dealings with Fing. Beryl Barron tells me, over the phone, that what Bill Wilkinson has done is illegal but "my journey is to judge yourself, no one else". She then hangs up. Wilkinson's lawyer, Greg Walsh, says despite everything that's happened to the Wilkinsons, the last time he spoke to the Barrons they were still in contact with Fing and he believed they were still "investing" with him. In court, Walsh described Fing as "a consummate fraudster" and a "scumbag".
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the Barrons, and the Wilkinsons still consider them friends. Documents submitted to the court stated that the Barrons were "hanging by the skin of their teeth", having also invested with Fing.
"He's a very convincing man," Jenny Wilkinson says of Denis Fing. "Bill believed him. He thought it would just be a one-off and that it might help make a few dollars. Bill told me that we'd get a tenfold return on our $20,000." His confidence in the validity of the scheme was strengthened by the fact that the Barrons were also investing with him. "It was meant to be a one-off but it went on and on and on ..."
Then, she adds: "It's almost like it was somebody else's life. This man brainwashed us, hypnotised us ... I mean, he would even introduce us to these refugees over the phone and Bill would speak to them about their dire situations. Bill was working and running one business during the day and then was dealing with this every night. He was utterly exhausted."
Fing's spiel to the Wilkinsons is outlined in a document he wrote, titled "The Beginning of African Ventureism", which was submitted to the court. Fing writes that on a "crisp morning" when he was still in primary school his teacher was giving a lecture about Africa and he knew "one day I would find my way to this vast and enterprising land". Then, at a church service in 1997, "a prophet" told him he must go there.
In 1999, he flew to Africa with his three sons with the idea of setting up a business foundation, African Ventureism, to help the poor and displaced. Fing and his sons and two African colleagues travelled to South Africa, Ghana and Togo. In Togo, his third son went missing and they discovered his body in a mortuary. "The forensic tests revealed my son had been injected in the back of the right shoulder with a lethal narcotic substance resulting in instantaneous death."
But "life must go on" and two years later Fing returned to Togo seeking "closure" over his son's death. Back in Africa, "I once again felt the rekindling of a driving force to help the displaced nationals ... victims of civil war and in dire need of humanitarian aid." Several prominent and wealthy families who had been displaced approached him "requiring my assistance". The late King El Kamara "nominated myself as the executor to his Last Will and Testament".
Other regal and wealthy Africans also found their way to his comforting bosom and he set about helping them liberate their substantial assets in Europe. Fing claimed that with a percentage of their billions, he would fund his charitable deeds. He just needed some investors to help him liberate those assets. He promised that those who helped would be handsomely compensated for their investment while doing their part to alleviate pain and suffering in Africa.
He convinced Pat and Beryl Barron, Bill and Jenny Wilkinson and, it is believed, dozens, possibly hundreds, of other Australians to invest in his scheme.
And so, in September 2003, Bill Wilkinson transferred $20,000 to Fing, and in November of that year another $28,530. In June 2004 he wired $12,000, $2500 in July, and four payments of $7000, $5000, $1500 and $8000 in October. He sent two more payments of $15,000 and $4000 in November. In 2005 he made 21 payments to Fing of between $150 and $12,500 totalling $66,088. From 2006 to 2009 the payments became increasingly frequent and he was sometimes sending tens of thousands of dollars several times a week. By the time of his last payment, a few weeks before the administrator was appointed in 2010, Wilkinson had made more than 400 transfers into Denis Fing's account totalling $3,616,330.
Fing withdrew the money in cash from automatic teller machines, wherever he was in the world, as soon as it was deposited. "These transactions were highly, highly suspicious," says one person involved in the case. "You'd wonder why the NAB never looked into it. They seem to have wiped their hands of any duty of care."
The pressure on Wilkinson was immense. In 2010, when his own funds ran out, he began juggling money. Unlike many businesses that go bust and no one gets paid, Wilkinson was paying most of his bills. He paid his advertising bill at the local newspaper, he paid his rates and he even paid his tax. He paid all his smaller clients and bundled all the debts on to his wealthiest clients: mainly old, landed-gentry farming families and pastoral companies. He then tried to stall them, waiting for his investments with Fing to arrive.
It began to unravel in 2010, but his excuses worked, for a time, because people trusted him. Wilkinson's handshake had always been a watertight contract. "We'd been dealing with Bill for more than 40 years," says David Ryrie of Michelago Station. "All this fell from a clear blue sky. He'd always been trustworthy, an extremely good agent, very driven." And a friend? "Yes, and a friend."
Wilkinson told Bryce Garnock of South Bukalong Pastoral, whom he owed $273,042 for the sale of 4709 merinos, that the purchasers hadn't paid him. When Ray Parnell of Braidwood Cattle Company called to find out why his bank account was overdrawn and $164,806 hadn't arrived, Wilkinson said he'd deposited the money in the wrong account. He told David Ryrie, who was owed $68,814 for a truckload of Angus steers, that the purchaser hadn't paid but he'd follow it up. He said to the manager of Jeir Station that his wife, who did the books, had pneumonia and when she was better he'd pay them $50,199 for their dorper sheep. He gave the same excuse to the farm manager of EBH Pty Ltd, whom he owed $222,691. To Carol Mueller, a widow he owed $151,770 for a clearing sale, he said he'd mailed her a cheque weeks ago and would chase it up.
Then in October 2010, when he could no longer juggle the finances and the lies, he got in his car to drive to Sydney. He was headed for The Gap. He was going to jump.
Wilkinson didn't jump. Instead, he wound up in a Sydney psychiatric clinic under the care of Dr Edgar Freed. During the eight weeks he was in the clinic, and in consultations afterwards, Freed talked to him for more than 15 hours, then had two hour-long consultations involving both him and his wife Jenny.
During those long hours on Freed's couch, Wilkinson spilled out what had happened to his life. Freed says that Wilkinson is probably bipolar, which is what has made him such a good agent. The condition accounted for his ability to work long hours, making him confident, optimistic and a risk-taker. It also leaves him susceptible to being duped, Freed argues.
"All of Mr Wilkinson's investments with the Denis Fing scheme went into a black hole as if it were a poker machine that never paid any dividends or winnings," Freed says. "Mr Wilkinson became like a runaway boat with a continuous running motor that had lost its rudder and had no GPS."
Instead of getting money back from Fing, Wilkinson would receive official-looking documents and emails and phone calls, almost every night. He drew comfort from the knowledge that he was helping African refugees. In lieu of cash, this, and the flurry of documents and phone calls, became his reward.
In Fing's correspondence with Wilkinson there are references to government officials in Nigeria, documents stating that $80 billion has been transferred through the World Bank to Fing's account, letters from the International Monetary Fund, documents stating that 600,000 containers were being held up by port authorities, and stern letters of demand for monies to be released.
Freed portrays Wilkinson as "a simple country person" who conducted his business on a handshake. He says that because Pat Barron had spoken highly of Denis Fing, Wilkinson trusted him.
"They were in it together," Wilkinson's daughter Rachel Fergusson tells me. "Pat would go over to Dad's place and say, 'Fing needs $10,000; let's go halves.' " It became like a cult.
Continues Freed, "Having committed himself to this pattern of thinking in an obsessive way, and by being influenced by the Svengali-like persona of Mr Fing, Mr Wilkinson continued to send money. This is very similar to the delusionary, or quasi-delusionary, system that cult inductees develop that the world will end, except that they will be saved, provided they make donation after donation, sacrifice after sacrifice, even with their own lives."
The psychiatrist says, "It was as though he was brainwashed."
In August 2009, Wilkinson flew to Kuala Lumpur to talk to Fing about the "state of play" of his investments. The pair met at the Crowne Plaza. With Fing were two African "refugees". In the hotel, Fing produced several $US100 notes coated with white paint. He applied a chemical to the notes. After 30 seconds they were washed, then ironed and, apparently, returned to pristine condition.
The "refugees" said they had several suitcases with three to four million dollars' worth of these notes, but no chemicals to clean them. The next day Wilkinson withdrew $20,000 and gave it to Fing to buy the chemicals and that night the refugees returned with a bottle wrapped in plastic. The refugees wanted to clean the money in the room but Fing said "no" and he placed the chemicals in a cupboard in his room. Wilkinson was staying in the next room and there was an adjoining door. That night there was an explosion in Fing's room. Wilkinson rushed in and there were fragments of plastic and glass everywhere and Fing said that the chemical had exploded.
He and Fing went out to an all-night store and bought detergent to clean up the mess. Wilkinson was extremely disturbed by what had happened and wandered around Kuala Lumpur for a day, wondering what to do. His wife got a distressed phone call from him and told him to get the first flight home. On his return he was extremely depressed. He worked excessively and was sleeping very little.
Freed claimed that Wilkinson was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the explosion. The prosecutor, David Shepherd, of NSW Fair Trading, says the court accepted that Wilkinson was severely depressed, but was "unconvinced" he had PTSD.
Either way, it was not long after he returned from Malaysia, at the age of 60, that Bill Wilkinson would commit his first criminal offence - apart from being caught driving drunk in Armidale in the 1970s. He would dip into his company's trust fund and betray his oldest clients. His friends.
Denis Fing has left a trail of destruction, not only in Cooma. "I have lost years of my life from this," says a Brisbane doctor who lost several hundred thousand dollars to Fing. The doctor's son invested money with Fing and the doctor, who asked not to be named, said he originally became involved to help his son.
Fing was very convincing. "There were projects that were up and running and needed financing to complete," the doctor says. There would be guarantees and official correspondence right up until the moment the money was supposed to be repaid - then he would come up with another excuse. "All the time you'd be putting money in trying to recover the original investment."
The consequences were horrendous. His son had a severe mental breakdown and ended up living as a "hermit in a deserted building in north Queensland". The Medical Board of Queensland suspended the doctor for two months after he recommended Fing to one of his patients. The patient then sued him. He also paid off the debts of others he had recommended to Fing. "It was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare, and the consequences continue to haunt me."
Several years ago, the doctor reported Fing to police and he was arrested when he flew back into Australia. The police questioned him and then released him.
"It is a disgrace," fumes Wilkinson's Sydney lawyer, Greg Walsh. "This guy has ripped off dozens of people and nothing has been done about him." He has written to the commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, asking the AFP to investigate Fing and stating he would provide copious material to police to help them with their investigations. "I understand that your Brisbane office has been made aware of this fraudster, Denis Fing," he wrote. "It is readily apparent to me as an experienced legal practitioner that Fing is nothing but a con man and a fraudster. It would appear that his conduct is ongoing and that other people are transferring money into his so-called African Investment Scheme." He made the same accusation to the court.
Good Weekend contacted the AFP, which said it had received Greg Walsh's letter and had replied. The AFP said it was a matter for state police.
A forensic accountant involved in the Wilkinson matter told Good Weekend that the total amount of money sent to Fing "could amount to tens of millions of dollars, possibly more". This person went through all of Wilkinson's accounts and could not find a single instance of him receiving money back from Fing.
Five of the farmers who Wilkinson ripped off have been paid back every cent they were owed through the stock and station agents' indemnity scheme, which guarantees payment to farmers.
A sixth victim, Carol Mueller, is still waiting for her $151,770 - clearing sales are not covered by the indemnity scheme. When I contacted her she says all this "upsets me terribly". Have there been moves to repay you? "No, and there never will be," she says. "That's it for me and that is why I don't want to talk about it." She begins to cry.
The Wilkinsons insist that Carol Mueller will be paid. They have signed a guarantee that when their shop - which is owned by their super fund and therefore beyond bankruptcy provisions - is sold they will repay her. "We will pay Mrs Mueller every cent we owe her," Jenny Wilkinson tells me. "That is my solemn promise. We owe her that money and we will pay."
Bill Wilkinson is now living at the Mannus Correctional Centre, a prison farm south of Wagga Wagga near the Victorian border. It's not far from where his other daughter, Nicki Pearce, lives on her farm with her husband.
The damage Wilkinson has left in his wake is immense. His wife, who grew up in Cooma, will soon have to move out of the family home because it is being sold to wind up their debts. She doesn't know if they'll ever be able to return to Cooma, where she has lived for most of her life. Daughter Rachel Fergusson was a teacher in Cooma and her husband worked as a real estate agent in her father's business. He has now set up his own agency in Cooma. The shame for them is searing. In a country town, there's nowhere to hide. "All this happened when I was pregnant with my second child," Rachel tells me when I visit her in Cooma. "The whole thing is an absolute tragedy."
Jenny Wilkinson firmly believes her husband's mental condition and the stress of becoming involved with Fing led to him committing the fraud. "I believe my husband was mentally ill," she says. "Bipolar has always been part of his personality and then the stress of all this led to a major depression." As for her own involvement, she says, "I backed him every step of the way. I trusted my husband to make the right decisions; he always had."
She starts to cry. "Bill has always been in the public eye and now it's like we've been stripped bare. Bill Wilkinson is a wonderful, wonderful man and I know that man is still there.
"He is destroying himself about this every day, saying, 'Why? Why did I do it? Why?' I visited him yesterday and he was saying it all again: 'I just don't know if I can ever face anyone. I want to go and live in a hut out the back of nowhere where I never see anyone again.'
"My husband is a good man," she insists. "A good man."
Funnily enough, the people of Cooma seem to agree. One of the farmers he ripped off even sent him a letter, which was submitted to the court, saying how concerned he was about Wilkinson's mental health. Mayor Dean Lynch says he's sure Cooma would welcome him back, once he's done his time. "I hope he and Jenny will continue to live here after he gets out of jail," he says. "I really hope he does. He's a terribly good bloke."
The editor of The Monaro Post, Gail Eastaway, says the Cooma Show just wasn't the same this year without Wilko calling the dog trials with a microphone in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other.
One of the hardest things for Bill Wilkinson to come to terms with, apart from deceiving his clients, is that he has been a fool. This man, to whom people looked for advice when buying tens of thousands of sheep and properties worth millions, couldn't pick a huckster.
Greed was the bait that hooked him in the first place. He may have been motivated to help African refugees as time went by, but he was lured by the "tenfold returns", a deal that was too good to be true. It cost him everything: his business, his house, his life savings, his liberty and his good name. He will be due for parole in October.
As for Denis Fing, it is believed he is still living in Africa. Still seeking further investors, on the cusp of liberating those billions from Europe.
Like Good Weekend on Facebook to get regular updates on upcoming stories and events