From undercover cop to international investigator: Ashburton crime fighter shares his story

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Mark Van Leewarden. Photo: Supplied
Mark Van Leewarden. Photo: Supplied
Mark Van Leewarden has packed a lot into his life since leaving Ashburton as a teenager.

The 62-year-old had a bounty of $80,000 on his head in the 1970s because of his work in the murky world of covert policing.

As well as being an undercover cop, he’s been a detective, retrained as a barrister and for a number of years a top international fraud investigator.

His full and interesting life is outlined in his memoir called Crimetime: From Undercover Cop to International Investigator.

The book was released earlier this month and is already on the best sellers list.

Ironically one of the first crime scenes Van Leewarden saw was in the former Somerset Hotel in Ashburton, which his late-father Kees managed.

“I was 19 at the time and Dad brought me in to check out a burglary.

“Thieves had got in through the roof and had used ropes to climb down.

“I could see how things had transpired and that sparked an interest in me.”

Mark Van Leewarden indulging in his longtime interest in motorbikes. Photo: Supplied
Mark Van Leewarden indulging in his longtime interest in motorbikes. Photo: Supplied
After working on local farms, and driving tractors in Australia for a while, he took up his dad’s suggestion of joining the police.

After spending 15 months in uniform in Dunedin he was tapped on the shoulder for undercover work and deployed to Auckland.

“It was the big smoke and a bit of an eye opener for a lad from the South Island.”

Van Leewarden immersed himself into the criminal underworld and made connections.

He fenced stolen equipment and guns and was involved with drug deals in nightclubs.

After witnessing a murder by a senior crime figure he was a marked man for a while.

An excerpt from his memoir states: “It was simple. I was the evidence. If I didn’t make it to trial, convictions would not hold up.”

He disappeared to a safe house on the South Island while the case came to court.

Mark Van Leewarden with the ball playing for Mid Canterbury as a 17-year-old in 1976. Photo:...
Mark Van Leewarden with the ball playing for Mid Canterbury as a 17-year-old in 1976. Photo: Supplied
Van Leewarden said it was a time for reflection and “massaging a tortured mind”.

He later returned to Auckland and worked as a detective before electing to complete a law degree. He was called to the Bar in 1992.

Van Leewarden said he saw his career change as a fusion of investigation and the law.

Investigating international fraud has taken him around the world.

One case involved a Malaysian offender and fraud of $20 million.

“I was due to meet the offender in a hotel in Penang, but before it happened the FBI got wind of a $1m contract on him and a threat to bomb his hotel room.

“My meeting didn’t happen, but the offender was brought to justice,” Van Leewarden said.

In another $100m fraud case in New York he acted for 330 victims living in 30 countries.

The Ponzi scam involved the Russian mafia and eventually ended with five convictions and a chunk of the money recovered.

The fraud stories are outlined in his book and have also featured in crime lectures the author has delivered in the Middle East.

Van Leewarden has plenty of fond memories of his formative years in Ashburton.

He enjoyed school and growing up in the town, and was a representative rugby player and first five for Mid Canterbury at various age groups.

His mum Colleen and other relatives still live in Ashburton and he drops in occasionally.

“All those years ago when I was undercover cop I came home for some rest and relaxation and mum could see me deteriorating. I had to adopt the criminal persona for my job, but she could see it was affecting my health and she let the top brass know it.”

Crimetime: From Undercover Cop to International Investigator is available at Whitcoulls and Paper Plus and online.

-By Mick Jensen

 

 

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