Story transcripts

Built on Lies

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Stephen Rice

Who could ever forget those images after the Christchurch earthquake, of the local television station reduced to rubble?

One hundred and fifteen lives were lost in that building.

Now one of the key people responsible for its construction has been revealed as a monumental impostor.

Brisbane man Gerald Shirtcliff conned his way into the building trade. For 42 years, this fraud masqueraded as an English engineer called Will Fisher.

He stole Mr Fisher's name, his birthday and his professional qualifications. It was a monstrous deception, a real life "Catch me if you Can" - as audacious as it was evil.

Read a statement from 60 Minutes below:

60 Minutes invited Gerald Shirtcliff (aka Will Fisher) to be interviewed for this story. He declined.
We have subsequently received correspondence from lawyers representing Mr Shirtcliff (click here).
Viewers should note that Mr Shirtcliff’s claim in relation to the Kingsgate building that he was “only involved with certain excavation and preliminary works on this building and not any structural works” is directly at odds with his statement, in his own curriculum vitae, that he was “the Site Engineer then Project Engineer on this job”.
60 Minutes is also in possession of another CV used by Mr Shirtcliff, under his alias of Will Fisher, in which he lists among his achievements: "Supervision of major construction works including … piling contracts for high rise buildings … eg Kingsgate, Sydney."
60 Minutes stands by its story in every respect.

Full transcript:

STORY – LIAM BARTLETT: He’s a difficult man to track down. But in a suburban Brisbane hardware outlet, we find him. Good morning. Liam Bartlett, 60 Minutes. How are you?

GERALD: I don’t want to talk to you, thank you.

LIAM BARTLETT: A man of many faces.

GERALD: I don’t want to talk to. Excuse me.

LIAM BARTLETT: Is it Mr Shirtcliff today, or is it Mr Fisher? The answer to his identity, and his professional competency, may lie in the rubble of New Zealand’s devastating Christchurch earthquake. Of the 185 people who died on that terrible day in February last year, 115 were killed here, in the six-storey CTV building.

CLEMENCY: It was just like this huge boom.

LIAM BARTLETT: Clemency Mutze was on the top floor.

CLEMENCY: I thought that my time is up, and I said goodbye to everyone. Sorry.

LIAM BARTLETT: This is all that’s left of the CTV building - a concrete slab, some memorial flowers, and a lot of unanswered questions. The biggest mystery is why this six-storey building was absolutely flattened when so many others – including the one right alongside it - remained perfectly intact. Now one bloke who could answer those questions is the construction manager – but he doesn’t want to talk to us. And it’s no wonder. It turns out this supposedly highly-qualified engineer is not at all who he claims to be. Will Fisher, as he calls himself these days, has worked here in Australia for 25 years as a civil and structural engineer. And he’s done extremely well for himself - a bay-side house in Brisbane, a brand-new Merc, and $250,000 cruiser parked nearby. But his whole career is built on a lie - and a grand theft. We’ve spoken to the real Will Fisher – he’d like his degree back, sir, if that was possible. Mr Fisher? His real name is Gerald Morton Shirtcliff. 45 years ago he stole the identity, and the university degree, of an English engineer. And that Will Fisher is not happy.

WILL: It makes me feel pretty rotten, you know. I mean, my name is stuck there like mud, isn’t it?

LIAM BARTLETT: It’s not your fault but you’re left -

WILL: Left with the mud, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: This Will Fisher really is an engineer. In 1967, he’d just proudly earned his degree from Sheffield University, and set off for an engineering job in South Africa. It was here he met a brash young New Zealander, a junior technician named Gerald Shirtcliff.

WILL: He was a larger-than-life character, you know, full of stories, and we used to hang out together, we used to go camping. We became mates, and in the last six to eight months, we actually shared a flat.

LIAM BARTLETT: Will Fisher returned to England, and never saw Gerald Shirtcliff again. Strangely, he never saw his engineering degree again, either.

WILL: I couldn’t find it, and that was it.

LIAM BARTLETT: It vanished?

WILL: Yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Amazing coincidence, isn’t it?

WILL: It certainly is, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Do you have a copy?

WILL: I do have a copy, I’ve got it right here.

LIAM BARTLETT: So it’s certified that William Anthony Fisher, and that says 15th of July 1967, from the University of Sheffield?

WILL: Sheffield, correct.

LIAM BARTLETT: Well I’ve got the copy here that the Will Fisher has used in Australia and New Zealand, and it just so happens it’s on exactly the same date, 15th of July 1967.

WILL: Yeah. Incredible. This proves he’s taken my certificate, fabricated all this, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Over the next four decades, Will Fisher’s degree would be Gerald Shirtcliff’s passport to an extraordinary career. He used it to work on dozens of major buildings around Australia and New Zealand – including his oversight of the CTV building in Christchurch. And he used it on much bigger jobs, like one of Sydney’s most iconic buildings - the 33-storey Kingsgate building in King Cross, for which Shirtcliff claimed to be site engineer in the early 1970s. You’re playing with fire a bit, aren’t you?

WILL: You certainly are, yeah. I mean, part of my anxiety is, what the hell else has he got up to?

LIAM BARTLETT: As it turns out, Shirtcliff has got up to a lot more. When he isn’t conning his way into engineering jobs, he’s fleecing innocent families of their life savings. You believed him?

ERIC: I believed him, absolutely. I had no reason not to.

LIAM BARTLETT: Eric and Kay Zust bought a Christchurch auto repair franchise from Shirtcliff 15 years ago. But he’d cooked the books in breathtaking fashion, bodgying up tax returns to make the struggling business look healthy. Wow, they’re grossly inflated, aren’t they?

ERIC: That’s right.

LIAM BARTLETT: Look at that one there - $180 was the real figure; $7,281 is the figure that he made up.

ERIC: That’s right.

LIAM BARTLETT: So essentially he was just using Tipex to get rid of the figure and write in whatever he wanted?

ERIC: That’s right. He just put in a wild figure.

LIAM BARTLETT: Shirtcliff took the Zusts to the cleaners, then took himself back to Australia. Eric and Kay successfully sued him to the tune of $640,000, but they haven’t seen a cent. This once-prosperous, happy family has lost everything.

ERIC: Before everything went wrong, we lived in Queenstown, in a beautiful house down by the lake. I owned two rental property plus a plot of land. I owned shares. We were relatively well off, but the cost of trying to chase him - it’s more or less the ruination of our life, our family. That’s basically what really got to us most.

LIAM BARTLETT: Shirtcliff was eventually arrested, returned to New Zealand, and sentenced to 20 months jail for fraud. But incredibly, that wasn’t the end of his deceit.

PHIL: I went out there, and in front of a judge I stood up and I put the case that this poor old pensioner shouldn’t be wasting away in jail, and managed to get him out.

LIAM BARTLETT: After just a few weeks in prison, old friends Phil Stanley and Sue Lyons, took pity on Shirtcliff and agreed to take him in for home detention.

PHIL: I gave him a little Mazda station wagon to run round in, and he was a free man. You know, he sat in our comfy chair, and watched TV, and played with our dogs, and drank beer, and, you know, he was pretty happy.

LIAM BARTLETT: He was even more happy when Phil, an inventor, proudly showed off the revolutionary dual fuel system he’d been designing. But years later, Phil would learn his trusted mate had stolen his idea and registered patents for it all around the world.

PHIL: And then, next minute we hear, he’s got a dual fuel system running over there and patented all round the world. And I went what! You know?

SUE: We found out what – he had ripped off Phil’s project, that he had spent all our money on, sold our house and everything. The last ten years, all that money went into this project. And it’s gone. It’s all gone now, and he’s got his worldwide patent and we can’t do anything about it. So we’re left with nothing. Yeah. Thank you, Gerald.

LIAM BARTLETT: There’s a lot of people who would like some answers. But answers were in very short supply when we caught up with Gerald Shirtcliff in Brisbane last week. Do you have no guilt, no shame?

GERALD: I don’t have anything to say. I have no comment.

LIAM BARTLETT: But your life – seemingly built on this tissue of lies. Surely you have some answers. Are you going by Mr Fisher, today or Mr Shirtcliff?

GERALD: I don’t have any comment for you, sir. No comment.

LIAM BARTLETT: For a bloke who’s quite simply made up large chunks of his life, Gerald Shirtcliff is doing alright, thanks very much. He is living the dream. Around these parts he’s known as Will Fisher. This is the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron, where the establishment come to play every weekend. And Will has his own toy to join in the big boys’ games - his luxury boat is appropriately called Vagabond. But the past is finally catching up with Gerald Shirtcliff, his web of deceit unraveled by the deadly earthquake that destroyed the CTV building in Christchurch last year, and devastated so many lives.

CLEMENCY: I thought that my time is up.

LIAM BARTLETT: Clemency Mutze somehow survived a fall through six storeys of collapsing building, only to be buried alive.

CLEMENCY: I started saying prayers and saying my goodbyes to my family and my husband. I learnt that day that it’s my family and my husband – sorry.

LIAM BARTLETT: No, that’s alright. There’s no need to be sorry, and if I was in that position I think I’d be praying to anyone I could think of.

CLEMENCY: I just said thank you for this life, and I’m so grateful, and please look after my husband when I’m gone.

LIAM BARTLETT: When the rescuers turned up, when the hands reached in and grabbed you, how good was that?

CLEMENCY: Amazing, yeah. I just remember looking up and just seeing this face, and like, there was all white light around, and it - he looked like an angel, and yeah, he -

LIAM BARTLETT: He was an angel for you.

CLEMENCY: Yeah, totally. Totally.

LIAM BARTLETT: Clemency was rushed to hospital with a broken back and horrifying injuries.

COMMISSIONER: Mr Shirtcliff, I’m going to ask you to promise to tell the truth.

LIAM BARTLETT: The Royal Commission into the disaster is now investigating Gerald Shirtcliff’s role as construction manager of the building, and whether he holds any responsibility for defects that led to its collapse. When Shirtcliff reluctantly appeared by video link from Brisbane, he claimed to have been barely involved.

GERALD: From the best of my recollection, I was on the site about once a month at most, and there was no need for me to visit the site regularly because it was essentially a straightforward job.

LIAM BARTLETT: That staggering claim was met with disbelief.

COMMISSIONER: Do you accept that you were responsible for all the construction activity as construction manager? Are you getting advice, Mr Shirtcliff, before you answer a question?

GERALD: No, I am not getting advice.

LIAM BARTLETT: Shirtcliff’s former colleagues slammed his evidence.

COLLEAGUE: I don’t see how he could have possibly have done his job as a construction manager by attending the site once a month.

COLLEAGUE: Well, he just wasn’t up to the job, you know. It’s as simple as that.

COMMISSIONER: Mr Shirtcliff?

COLLEAGUE: Yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Sir, you were the construction manager on a building that killed 115 people, surely you something to say about that? Gerald Shirtcliff is now the subject of police investigations in both New Zealand and Australia, as authorities try to unravel just what role he played in dozens of building sites around both countries.

GERALD: Sorry, I have no comment.

LIAM BARTLETT: Well let’s forget about the New Zealand building for a moment – let’s try and forget about 115 people dying - what about all the other buildings you say you’ve been part of the construction of? Can you just tell us?

GERALD: Leave it.

LIAM BARTLETT: What about the Kingsgate building in Sydney? It’s 33 storeys, but you say you were part of that construction - is that safe?

GERALD: Absolutely.

LIAM BARTLETT: It’s definitely safe? It won’t collapse like the CTV building?

GERALD: No. No. Just leave it alone, please. Thank you.

LIAM BARTLETT: Whether he calls himself Gerald Shirtcliff or William Fisher, survivors of New Zealand’s greatest modern tragedy, and the families of those who died, want him to explain just what he’s been doing on building sites, on both sides of the Tasman. You might be able to avoid a building being built in that manner again?

CLEMENCY: Yeah, exactly. Totally. Who knows? There might be other ones out there like that, that we don’t know about yet. He’s got to deal with it, and take responsibility for what he’s done. Take some responsibility.

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