Thursday, 6 July 2017

Kiwi academic on FBI and Interpol blacklist for a decade

'I never felt like I was this terrible person' - Kiwi wanted by FBI and Interpol for a decade
Dr Timothy Molteno was wanted by the FBI and Interpol for more than a decade.
2 July, 2017

Dr Timothy Molteno was wanted by the FBI and Interpol for more than a decade.

For a man who spent more than a decade on Interpol's most-wanted list, Tim Molteno is pretty easy to find.

The 196cm, 50-year-old's name is in the Dunedin phonebook, he has an online presence and his name is emblazoned on the door of his office in the physics department of Otago University.

It is not the type of hiding in plain sight one would expect of a man who until recently was sought by American authorities and subject to a 190-country "red alert" that could have seen him arrested on the spot and deported to the US.

Interpol's most wanted list, featuring Dunedin man Tinmothy Molteno.

Interpol's most wanted list, featuring Dunedin man Tinmothy Molteno.

So how did this South African-born, father of five's name end up on a list that has included Mexican drug lord El Chapo and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden?

"My case was one of those where no-one in bureaucracy wanted to deal with it," says Molteno, over a coffee in a Dunedin cafe.

In 2005, Molteno admitted hacking into the computer system of his former United States-based employer, BuyMusicHere, a now-defunct internet music business started by his former neighbour in Eugene, Oregon.

The case was tried in New Zealand on behalf of the US and he was convicted on two charges of unlawfully interfering with data in the BuyMusicHere database and one of deleting data from the system without authority.

He was ordered to pay reparations of $11,840 and do 200 hours community service.

He describes his offending as a "test case" for hacking law and says the resulting media attention was "terrifying and bewildering".

"I shouldn't have done it," he says, but he had no idea of the chain of events that would unfold following his conviction.

Two years after his court case, as he was planning a holiday to Australia, Molteno's sister suggested he should apply for a visa due to his conviction.

The Australian Embassy advised he needed a letter from Dunedin police saying he was of good character – but still the Australian authorities refused to issue a visa.

Just days from travelling he contacted an Australian official, and was asked: "are you sure you don't have an arrest warrant after you?"

"I thought this was really strange."

A search later found he had an active arrest warrant in the US, with authorities filing the same charges word-for-word on the day of his sentence.

"I was floored.

"These were charges I had faced that the United States had requested the New Zealanders charge me with, and I had faced the charges, been convicted in New Zealand and served the punishment."

His planned holiday was over, and any future travel plans were put on hold over concerns American authorities would have him extradited.

That fear was compounded when he discovered he was also on Interpol's Most-Wanted List – one of a handful of Kiwis appearing on the list.

"It never, ever came across my mind that this was going on. I just thought this was some crazy bureaucratic mistake.

"I changed my view of the world being in that situation. It throws a switch – I often used to think who else is on that list, and in my situation."

Over the years, he tried getting help from politicians and police, but "I was facing a faceless bureaucracy, there is no chink in the facade.

"There is nothing that says 'contact us here'."

And every so often he would get a call from reporters asking about the Interpol notice, and "I coped with it by shutting it out. I couldn't see how I could resolve it".

An August 2015 approach by the Sunday Star-Times to the FBI in Oregon, showed just what Molteno was up against.

"Given the fugitive status of the case," a US Attorney spokesman said, "we have no other information in public record and are not in position to comment further on the matter".

The case took another turn last year when Molteno received a package from the FBI, sent to his home address, concerning Timothy Molteno v United States of America and requesting he contact the public defenders in Oregon "to resolve the matter".

"That was the first time I had direct contact with US authorities."

Molteno was not keen on returning to the US to answer the same charges he had pleaded guilty to over a decade earlier.

Enter US public defender Bryan Lessley, who was assigned to his case, and provided much-needed support.

"It was the most amazing feeling, because someone was listening," says Molteno.

Then, in April this year, a breakthrough: Molteno's photo and details were removed from the Interpol site, although the organisation later confirmed he remained the subject to the same "red notice".

Finally, early last month, Lessley made contact to inform him of a court order dismissing the indictment.

"Your case is now over. Best of luck to you," Lessley said in his email.

The court order was signed by US District Judge Ann Aiken, and should trigger the removal of Interpol's red notice.

Molteno believed his file "wasn't a good look" for US authorities and could cause potential problems for other more high-profile cases, particularly the shadow cast by another New Zealand resident wanted in America: Kim Dotcom.

Another twist to his case was that his offence was not indictable in the US, meaning if he was arrested in Australia he may have not have been extradited to the United States.

Lessley declined to comment on Molteno's case, as did other US officials.

Questions to Interpol on the matter were referred to the US Justice Department, which failed to respond.

Molteno says authorities could have picked him up at any time, but the potential fallout over a New Zealand citizen being deported to face the same charges in the US would have been "unpleasant".

"My case was not so straight up and down, who would go into bat for a Kiwi in this situation?"

Molteno would still like official confirmation that he will be able to leave the country without fear of being extradited, but last week allowed himself a cheeky peak at a travel website for the first time in more than a decade.

"I have tried not to think where I would go for so many years I have tried to unthink it."

Molteno, who has a PhD in nonlinear dynamics and topological analysis of chaotic systems, shut out thoughts of that outside world by helping Kiwi companies and agencies in the field of electronics, including designing a world-leading GPS prototype tracking tag for seabirds.

But the main thing that helped him get by during his years as one of the world's most wanted was support from his family, friends, and colleagues.

"I never let this thing define me."

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