Two-year free-for-all on $22m private island with luxury home

Like a plague of locusts, invaders have stripped an abandoned island luxury home of wealth, slowly but surely, over more than two years.

It’s a timeline that has emerged during Herald inquiries into the abandonment of a $22m island and home in the Far North.

The Herald was tipped to the abandoned island but the length of time it had been left to the elements was unclear.

Police have now confirmed officers visited the island in early 2019 after a burglary report was filed but no complaints have been made since then. So police have not returned since.

And estate agent James Law, who is selling the island on behalf of China-based Jun Zhang, supports evidence compiled by the Herald showing repeat intruders who have continued to gradually strip the luxury home.

Incredibly, that includes thieves who, Law says, removed a cast-iron Aga cooker on a jury-rigged barge.

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Motukawaiti is the only privately owned island in the Cavalli group of islands, north of the Bay of Islands. It has been in private ownership since 1911, although Ngati Kura – whose rohe spans outwards from Matauri Bay to include the island- considers the sale to be invalid.

Its current bereft and abandoned state was revealed after the Herald visited the island to find all doors to the luxury home wide open, and the home stripped of televisions and other expensive electronic equipment.

Law said there had been “trespassers” in recent years. “If there is no one living there, people come and go as they wish.”

The Aga theft was one that had stuck with him. The enormously heavy cooker was somehow carried to a makeshift barge. From there, it is 3km to the nearest coastline.

The Herald saw signs of recent invasion. A video produced by Law showcasing the island, published in September, showed a long bank of intact windows on one wing of the house. When the Herald visited this month, those windows had almost all been smashed.

Recent receipts were left in the kitchen area, toilets had been recently used, and there were recent blood spatters in a bathroom.

Law confirmed Zhang had returned to China, having abandoned plans to develop the island. “The intention was to build their mansion there to live.”

Having left the country, it was considered too expensive to install a live-in caretaker atthe remote location.

Law said the island came close to selling recently and, after the deal fell through, that interest had been replaced with “a few others”. He said the prospective buyers were people in New Zealand.

A police spokesman said there had been no recent complaints over damage to the house. The most recent was a burglary complaint in February 2019 that led to police visiting the island. The visit included a forensic examination.

The spokesman said inquiries led to a “person of interest” who admitted being on the island but denied going inside the house. Attempts to contact another person identified by police were unsuccessful. “No property has been recovered and no persons were charged.”

Police asked that anyone with new information relating to the island pass information to police.

Zhang’s ownership of the island came under scrutiny from the Overseas Investment Office. He took it on in 2013 shortly after receiving New Zealand residency, having had it lodged as security on a loan used by the previous owner to buy it.

The previous owner, Wenning Han, bought it in 2010. As a New Zealand citizen, it needed no off-shore approval.

The OIO inquiry tried to discover whether the purchase by Han was a backdoor arrangement for Zhang to take ownership. It concluded it would struggle to gain a conviction if it decided to prosecute.

Zhang came to New Zealand from Qingdao, in China, where his family owns hotels, along with factories that produce water supply and pumping equipment.

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