Spies, lies and a disappearance: Ron McQuilter on 37 years as a private investigator and how he solved the case of Lee Sheppard

Ron McQuilter thought he’d be dead by 40.

“I dunno why, I just assumed I’d say or do something stupid and someone would kill me,” says McQuilter laughing, a nod to the occupational hazard of being a private investigator.

“I never looked that far ahead. When I stepped off the plane I was skint, I had nothing. I didn’t see this…nice house, nice money.”

We’re standing on the lawn of his renovated home in the heart of Mount Maunganui, complete with an enormous pool – “It’s the biggest pool in the Mount, takes a week to fill!” – with a brand new car parked in the driveway.

It’s the trappings of success but McQuilter says this without arrogance, just a genuine enthusiasm and gratitude for what his extraordinary career has given him since he emigrated from Glasgow in 1983.

The rollicking highs-and-lows of his 37 years as a private investigator in New Zealand are detailed in his new book Busted!

It’s an eclectic collection of some of the thousands of cases McQuilter has solved: blackmail, cheating spouses, corporate espionage, thieves, fraudsters and insurance scams.

But there’s one case with particular significance: the disappearance of Lee Sheppard in London.

Sheppard and his wife Juliet, both from Pahi near Whangarei, had been living in Britain for several years before Lee vanished in January 2003.

Juliet had just learned she was pregnant with their first child when 26-year-old Lee never returned from a night shift at the refrigerator recycling plant where he worked.

His disappearance was completely out of character. A Metropolitan Police investigation failed to produce any leads, leaving his shattered family without closure.

Three years later, McQuilter was approached by a documentary maker to investigate the missing person file.

The production company offered him $10,000 to travel to London with a film crew in tow, but McQuilter soon realised the case would never be solved in a week.

After meeting with members of the Sheppard family individually, McQuilter was convinced something untoward happened to Lee rather than the expectant father simply leaving his family in the lurch.

Any documentary which failed to properly investigate his disappearance would simply leave more questions than answers, so McQuilter took on the case as a personal mission to find out what happened.

• Shipping container linked to gang vanishes with help of port worker
• The Head Hunters’ $1m man in Tauranga
• From Harley Davidson to wheelchair: Inside the downfall of Killer Beez boss
• Patching over: Mongrel Mob leader’s brother, nephew join rival Comanchero
• Gangs of New Zealand: Why gang numbers spiked by 50 per cent
• Inside the gang tensions which brought Tauranga to a standstill
• How a Sydney airport brawl changed NZ’s gang scene forever

“Lee could have been anyone’s son, living in the UK like so many Kiwis,” says McQuilter, a father to two adult children.

“I didn’t want the only memory of Lee being this documentary and leaving a stigma over his character. So that’s how I got committed.”

He was stonewalled by the London detectives for two years, until they finally agreed to give him access to the police file and witnesses. In doing so, McQuilter became the first private investigator to ever work with the Met police force.

He invested countless hours and thousands of dollars re-investigating the case, until he gathered enough evidence to prove Lee Sheppard never left his work place at all.

A Coronial inquest later agreed with McQuilter’s investigation that Sheppard must have climbed into one of the machines used to dismantle refrigerators, which had frozen during a snowstorm that evening.

The lengths that McQuilter went to crack the case is detailed in a book extract published in the Herald on Sunday tomorrow. It’s a remarkable tale of persistence and never taking anything at face value, especially the failings of the original police investigation.

“I don’t think I’ll be welcome back for another joint investigation,” laughs McQuilter. “But the truth is the truth.”

He understands why the police in London were so suspicious of him at first, as private investigators are unlicensed in the United Kingdom and have a terrible reputation for unethical tactics, such as phone voicemail hacking for tabloid newspapers.

Telling the real stories of private investigators in New Zealand, where McQuilter is the chairman of the industry licensing body, was the main motivation for writing Busted!

“You tell someone ‘I’m a PI’ and they think you just collect debts, or follow cheating husbands around. Even my family back home don’t really know what we do,” says McQuilter.

“Private investigators get a bad rap, people think we’re spooks or spies. Like any industry, there’s some bad apples. But there are hundreds of PIs in New Zealand working today saving people’s livelihoods and saving people’s jobs.”

He points out that the police will, rightly, investigate an armed robbery of a dairy and arrest the culprits within days.

But if a business owner turns up with suspicion of employee theft or fraud in the workplace, McQuilter says the police struggle to find the resources to investigate.

“And that’s where we come in. Catching crims, that’s what we do.”

There’s plenty of McQuilter’s trademark humour in the book too; including the tale of how he was so well camouflaged on a surveillance stakeout that someone urinated on him.

McQuilter is still the head of Paragon, the private investigation firm he founded, but handed over the day-to-day running of operations when he and his wife Gillian moved to the Mount in May 2014.

Gillian was the reason McQuilter moved to New Zealand in 1983. He was smitten at first sight when they met in Glasgow when she was on her OE, they’ve been inseparable ever since.

He recently turned 65 – far outstripping his prediction of an early death – and despite seeing the worst examples of human behaviour over his long career, McQuilter is adamant he’s not jaded or cynical.

“I grew up in the hard part of Glasgow, the slums, but my mum and dad taught us kids to be nice people. I’m a good guy, I think, and we were taught to be ourselves.

“No matter what, no matter how bad the other person is, you don’t let them change you. That’s my philosophy,” says McQuilter.

“Everyone is different too. I don’t look at a gang member and think you’re a piece of sh**. They’ve had a different life, or made different choices.”

Besides, if it wasn’t for criminals, McQuilter says he’d be out of work.

“I love them, I want to give them a hug. Otherwise I’d be flipping hamburgers somewhere.”

Busted! Stories from New Zealand’s leading private investigator
By Ron McQuilter
Published by New Holland
RRP: $35
Out October 26

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