When a cash-strapped gas station owner in New Zealand went online to check his bank account, he suddenly yelled out to his girlfriend that he was rich: “I’ve got a million dollars.”
In fact, a 2009 clerical error by a Westpac bank employee resulted in Hui “Leo” Gao getting a credit line of NZ$10 million (US$7.7 million), 100 times his approved limit, according to court documents. After discovering the mistake, Gao did not waste any time. Within two days he was transferring money to overseas accounts. Within a week he was on a plane to Hong Kong.
Gao’s odyssey as the so-called “Accidental Millionaire” ended yesterday when the 31-year-old pleaded guilty to seven counts of theft. A summary of facts presented to the Rotorua District Court by prosecutors, which has not been challenged by defense lawyers, indicates Gao stole NZ$6.8 million before the bank realized its mistake.
The bank managed to get back about NZ$3 million by reversing some of the transfers, but has never been able to recover the final NZ$3.8 million. Gao has maintained his silence to police about the missing money and everything else to do with the case.
“As soon as he realized the error made by Westpac allowed him access to the funds, the accused set about planning how he could transfer funds now available to him offshore,” court documents state.
That set in motion a complicated series of transactions. Money went in and out of various accounts and companies, with some ending up in Chinese bank accounts, including accounts owned by Gao’s mother. Other money ended up in various player accounts at a casino in Macau. The players included Gao’s father and his girlfriend, Kara Hurring.
By late April that year, Gao had left for Hong Kong and so had his parents. Hurring followed soon after. The couple then vanished into mainland China as an international manhunt got under way.
Hurring, 33, returned voluntarily to New Zealand early last year after having a child. In September last year, Gao was arrested in Hong Kong as he tried to cross into the territory from mainland China. Authorities extradited Gao to New Zealand three months after that.
A jury convicted Hurring last month of theft, attempted fraud and money laundering. Gao’s parents have not been charged.
Gao’s lawyer Ron Mansfield declined to comment yesterday.
Prosecutor Fletcher Pilditch said it was an unusual crime and one unlikely to be repeated any time soon due to better banking safeguards.
“I think everyone in the banking industry has learned a few lessons from this,” he said.