He claimed to be an ex-special forces, Mandarin-speaking Aborigine being hunted by the CIA. He was actually a brazen conman with a string of victims in his wake.
Just after dark one night in June 2009, a small crowd gathered in Lane Cove, on Sydney's north shore, for a special screening of the award-winning documentary Kanyini. Hosted by Lane Cove Residents for Reconciliation, the film by a Sydney director, told the story of the Mutitjulu indigenous community near Uluru, in central Australia, through the eyes of traditional owner and elder Uncle Bob Randall.
Randall wasn't at the screening, but the film director's partner, another Aboriginal man by the name of Wadari "Wadi" Wiriyanjara, was. A slim 37-year-old, Wadi wore dark trousers and an open-necked shirt; he had short dark hair and light skin.
"He was the kind of person who could have blended in anywhere," says Lorraine McGee-Sippel, an author and member of the stolen generations, who was in the audience.
After the film, Wadi took to the stage, having been introduced as a Pintjantjatjara man from Mutitjulu. He addressed the audience, answering questions about his culture before singing a song "in language", a performance that brought some in the audience to the verge of tears.
"We were incredibly moved," McGee-Sippel says. "Not just by hearing language spoken, but by how powerfully he sang the song. It was so strong, like he was really proud."
To the audience, the director and Wadi seemed perfectly happy, the very embodiment of reconciliation.
"It was just a lovely night," McGee-Sippel says.
And yet Wadi and the director, who does not want to be named, were guarding an extraordinary secret. Soon after they had started a relationship in July 2007, Wadi said he was a member of the SAS. He had seen active service, been tortured overseas, and now suffered crippling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Indeed, he often awoke from terrible nightmares, screaming "Enemy attack!" and "Get down!", even issuing what sounded like battlefield commands. At one point, a woman claiming to be an army nurse rang the director, confirming his condition.
Wadi was a complex person. Apart from the PTSD, he had suffered brain damage - a result, he said, of special drugs the army had given him in an attempt to turn him into a "super soldier". What he longed for now was a discharge, but he "knew too much" about a drug syndicate he had uncovered operating inside the army. The top brass wanted him dead, and continued to send him, against his will, on missions to Afghanistan, from where he would text the director, telling her when he was about to go into combat. The director suggested they tell her father, but Wadi said no, adding: "You want your father to be killed?"
According to Wadi, the only way out of the army was to bribe them. He needed $2.5 million, which he would raise by conducting a rescue mission to Nigeria, where a British woman and her daughter were being held hostage. But to put the mission together he needed $30,000, which the director volunteered.
When he returned, in March 2008, however, Wadi was furious. He accused the director of having "talked"; her indiscretion had not only cost lives on the Nigerian job, but now the US military were also after him. To escape them, he would need to travel to Thailand, again at the director's expense.
Throughout 2008, Wadi's stories became increasingly outlandish, his demands for money more urgent: there were helicopters to be hired, bribes to be paid, reconnaissance missions to be undertaken, all of it on the director's tab. At one stage, the director paid for Wadi to travel overseas to locate a sympathetic ex-CIA operative, code-named "G", who, as it happened, promptly turned against him.
In June 2008, after a series of threatening texts, "G" demanded the director pay him $175,000. A month later, she paid a further $125,000, this time supposedly to the Russian mafia, which had also become involved. Whenever she suggested they go to the police, Wadi refused, insisting she and her family would die.
By the time of the Lane Cove screening, the director was broke. She had burnt through most of her savings from her previous career in corporate finance; she had even sold shares worth $30,000. Wadi then suggested she get a loan for $45,000 against her Surry Hills home. When this ran out, he convinced her to sell the property, with $300,000 again going to the "Russian mafia". By June 2010, the director had, according to police, paid $997,490 to Wadi, who by this time was largely absent, leaving her alone.
On the last day of July 2010, the director walked into Sydney's City Central police station. "She was upset, and very emotional," Detective Sergeant Warwick Brown, of the City Fraud Unit, says. "She said, 'I think this bloke has taken all my money.' "
In August this year, Wadi appeared in Sydney's Downing Centre District Court, charged with 30 counts of fraud. Only this time, Wadi wasn't Wadi, son of an "Aboriginal magic man" from Uluru; he was Dallas Gwilliam from Neutral Bay in Sydney.
As soon became apparent, Gwilliam, who is 40, was not Aboriginal and had never served in the military. As part of the case against him, DPP lawyer Steve Higgins accused Gwilliam of having constructed "an elaborate web of lies", a statement which, though true, seems dismally inadequate.
Gwilliam's con was ever-evolving and wildly improvisatory, a 20-year jazz solo of A-grade bullshit in which he had posed not only as Aboriginal royalty and a special forces veteran, but as a Shaolin monk, seeded tennis player, telco millionaire, martial arts expert, UN peacekeeper and Chinese racing-car driver.
Newspapers described Gwilliam as a "Casanova conman", since his victims were often women. Yet he wasn't conventionally attractive: he has pitted skin, and is slightly built, almost boyish.
"It felt like I was in bed with a teenager," one woman told me. Yet he had a powerful presence and colossal personality.
"He was funny," says Lisa Rochelle, who met Gwilliam in 2004. "His jokes would have whole tables of people rolling in laughter; he could have made a brilliant stand-up comic." Within days of their meeting, says Rochelle, "I was in awe of him, and totally in love."
In matters of money, however, Gwilliam was a moral vacuum, accumulating a small mountain of debt in his mother's and brother's names (both were subsequently bankrupted).
"Dallas will tell you anything to get money out of you," says his younger sister. "Once, when I was in high school, I'd saved up $500, which he 'borrowed' and never gave back."
In hindsight, Gwilliam's claims appear ludicrous, even laughable; at one point he described himself as a hired assassin whose hands had been registered as "lethal weapons". But he was also a gifted illusionist, carefully propping up his fictions with lots of tiny truths. He often wore army uniforms, complete with medals; Rochelle says she once saw a pistol in the back of his car. He also used accomplices, none of whom has been caught, and spoke both Mandarin and Pintjantjatjara.
"He had an incredible way of explaining away inconsistencies," Rochelle says. "Whenever I would say, 'I'm so confused', Wadi would say 'That's brilliant, because if they ever capture you, you won't be able to tell them anything. You're meant to be confused,' he'd say. 'I want you to be confused.' "
Dallas Gwilliam was born in Sydney, in 1972, to Dennis Gwilliam and an unemployed 23-year-old named Lynne Rootsey. Rootsey's mother had died when she was 10; she had never completed high school. At the time she met Gwilliam, Rootsey was living in a boarding house in Summer Hill. After the birth, the pair lived on the streets, pushing Dallas around Kings Cross in an old cane pram. They eventually found a place in a boarding house in Paddington, but by then the relationship, such as it was, had fallen apart. "Dennis drank," Rootsey says. They split, and Rootsey and Dallas moved to Brisbane.
Over the next 15 years, Rootsey would have four more children by three men. The family moved around a lot: by the age of 15, Dallas had moved house at least eight times. He also had a testy relationship with one of his stepfathers, who "would hit him," according to Rootsey, "but only when he deserved it."
Dallas left school at the end of year 10 and went to live with his uncle on the Gold Coast. Now and then he'd drop in on Rootsey, boasting of having been adopted by a rich Chinese family, the Chans, who lived in Brisbane. "They were giving him lots of money," she says. "He stayed with them for a while, but then he said the father had cut him off because he was spending the money stupidly."
It was at about this time that Gwilliam, who had changed his surname to Chan, began to go, as Rootsey puts it, "right off the rails". One night when he was 18, he got caught speeding in an unregistered car. Soon he was passing valueless cheques and doing break and enters.
By 1994, however, Gwilliam was in Sydney, working for a telemarketing company in Leichhardt, where he met a woman called Penny Fischer. Fischer was almost 20 years older than Gwilliam, but the two became friends (platonic, according to Fischer). Within a year, he had moved into Fischer's home in Woollahra. "Dallas said he'd grown up with the head monk of a Shaolin temple in the west of China, who was like a grandfather to him," she says.
He also seemed very "in" with Sydney's Buddhist community. One weekend, he took Fischer to visit a temple in the western suburbs, where they had a meal and chatted to the monks. Gwilliam's time in China had clearly been well spent: he not only knew Qigong, the ancient Chinese meditative practice, but was a martial arts expert. "He showed me some moves, which were convincing enough," Fischer says.
As a result of injuries sustained in training, however, he required special Chinese medicines, which Fischer gave him money for. Then one day Gwilliam received some terrible news: the senior monk in the monastery had died, and he needed to travel to China for the burial. "I actually had to sell something to pay for that," Fischer says. Gwilliam was gone for a week. "When he got back he had a little burning ceremony in the backyard for the spirit of his grandfather. He also gave me a coin which was part of it, which I've still got."
Despite being what Fischer describes as "bone lazy", Gwilliam had big dreams, one of which was to be an air force pilot. Another was to be a racing-car driver. Fischer wouldn't be part of this, and made it plain that no more money would be forthcoming. Not only that, she wanted what she'd given Gwilliam to be paid back. He agreed to do so. The next night, however, he went to Chinatown to meet some friends and never came back.
"I met Dallas in 1997, through a friend," says lawyer Stuart Austin, who lives on Sydney's northern beaches. "My involvement with him was brief and not very pleasant."
Back then, Austin ran a sponsorship research company. "Dallas hired me to help raise money, about $1 million, which he needed for his team, which he called Dallas Chan Racing."
Gwilliam claimed to have a rich uncle in Hong Kong, Leung Chan, who would eventually fund the operation. In the meantime, Austin and his friend would have to foot the bill. "We wanted validation that he was a racing driver," Austin says. "So he took us to race circuits and introduced us to people like [veteran driver training instructor] Ian Luff and his son Warren, both of whom seemed to know Dallas and took him seriously." (Warren Luff says he met Gwilliam when he completed some driving courses with his father.)
Gwilliam then proceeded to dazzle Austin with his driving skills, which he demonstrated at Amaroo Park Raceway. "To this day, I genuinely believe Dallas is or was a racing driver, because he definitely knew what he was doing on that track." After six months and $25,000, however, it became apparent to Austin that "Uncle Leung was never going to come through", and he pulled the plug.
These days, Austin is out of the racing game, but still keeps an ear to the ground. "You know what I heard?" he tells me, sotto voce. "That Dallas isn't Chinese at all - he's actually Aboriginal."
Writer Dave Eggers once remarked that the stories you tell about yourself are no more than "snake skins" that cease to be you as soon as they are shed. Gwilliam, however, never fully shed his skins, always retaining bits and pieces he could rearrange for future use.
"When I met Dallas, he was incredibly caring," says 41-year-old Brisbane woman Amanda Elphick. "He wasn't my type - he had terrible teeth, for a start. But he latched onto me, always making sure I was okay, always getting me anything I needed."
It was 2003, and Elphick, recovering from a brief drug addiction, was staying at a girlfriend's house in Adelaide, where Gwilliam was also living. The adopted daughter of strict parents, Elphick had spent the early 2000s in Sydney, where she had become involved in an abusive relationship with an underworld figure. She had moved back to Adelaide to start afresh when her brother, Craig, died unexpectedly. "Craig had left me $75,000," says Elphick, a vivacious woman with olive skin and sea-green eyes. "The money hadn't come through yet, but Dallas got wind that it was on the way."
Gwilliam was extremely thin and had some unusual scars on his body, particularly one on his ankle, which he said was a spear wound - "payback from the elders". He didn't drink alcohol or do illegal drugs but lived on coffee and cigarettes, and could get by with very little sleep. His personal habits were unsavoury: Elphick calls him a "bit of a grot". And yet he gave off an air of authority, "like he was going to take care of me".
Slowly but surely, Gwilliam won Elphick over. He said they were "soulmates". He would massage her legs, which ached from detox, for hours at a time. He also told her he belonged to a secret special forces unit, and that his teeth had been damaged in Somalia, where he'd taken part in the "Black Hawk Down" incident. Late one night, a man in a Commodore pulled up to the house to deliver some paperwork which Gwilliam, with a show of reluctance, allowed Elphick to read: they were instructions, stamped TOP SECRET: AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE, on how to detonate a bomb. Gwilliam also claimed to be very spiritual, on account of his Aboriginality: one windy night, he even used his ancestors to "contact" Craig.
A couple of weeks later, Gwilliam mentioned that he had found out his father was "a direct descendant of Uluru", and that he was entitled to royalties, back payment of which ran into the millions. Until the money came through, he and Elphick decided to go travelling, driving a car she had bought with her inheritance to Alice Springs, where Gwilliam could visit his Aboriginal family. In Alice Springs, however, one of the first things he did was visit the casino, gambling with money borrowed from Elphick. "I remember he ran out of money and asked me for more. I said no, and he became furious. He said it was really his money and not mine because he was paying me back."
This would become a familiar refrain. As the couple moved around, always staying in nice hotels, it was Elphick who paid the bills. At the beginning, this seemed reasonable: they were a couple, after all. Gwilliam talked of buying a house together in Tasmania, near Elphick's birth mother. One day, while staying in the Blue Mountains, he even proposed - using a ring he'd had Elphick buy, for $2500.
"Dallas wasn't great sex, he wasn't even great looking," she says. "But maybe because I was adopted, I've just never felt that unconditional love, and Dallas seemed to give me that."
He also happened to "know things", mainly about Elphick's ex-boyfriend. One day, while driving near Launceston, Gwilliam took a call on his mobile. It was from his "Uncle Bernie", whom Gwilliam described as "head of National Security". When Gwilliam got off the phone, he looked worried. "He said Bernie had found out that my ex, in Sydney, had discovered I was going out with Dallas and had put a $250,000 contract out on my life," Elphick says. Elphick now believes there was no such threat; at the time however, she was terrified.
Gwilliam immediately turned Elphick's phone off: from now on, she was to contact no one. (His phone was left on, as it was a "secure line".) Elphick was due to attend a girlfriend's wedding in Adelaide in a few days' time, but Gwilliam ruled that out: "Uncle Bernie will call your friend and explain everything," he said.
By this time, Elphick's $75,000 inheritance was long gone, and so, at Gwilliam's urging, she began pawning possessions: a gold-and-diamond ring worth $5700, two watches ($4500), and, of course, her engagement ring. They also sold her car for $14,000. ("It'd cost me $30,000 four months before.") According to Gwilliam, the money went to Uncle Bernie for protection. "I never met Uncle Bernie," Elphick says. "But I did talk on the phone to someone who said they were Uncle Bernie."
Apparently, Bernie had urged Gwilliam to leave Elphick - "to cut her loose" - but he refused. And so Bernie came up with a plan: he would get Gwilliam a job with the United Nations, in London, where Elphick could join him. Not only that, but Bernie had organised for the UN to repay Gwilliam's debt to Elphick.
"Dallas even said that because I'd been so good about it all, that when the money came through he'd give me an extra $100,000 on top of what he owed me. All we had to do was wait till London."
Alas, the United Nations job was held up. In the meantime, Uncle Bernie found Gwilliam some detective work in Cairns. Using money from the sale of Elphick's car, the two flew north, where they booked into the Floriana, an art deco guest house on the Esplanade. A week later, however, he received bad news: Elphick's ex had tracked her to Cairns. "It's your card!" he said. "They're tracking you through your key card!"
According to Elphick, Gwilliam then took the card, claiming he would pass it onto Bernie, who would install an anti-tracking device on it. "When I got it back, every cent I had in it, $5500, was gone."
Elphick was furious, and let Gwilliam know it. But she was in no shape for a fight: she was hardly eating and had lost weight; she spent most of her time in the motel room, feeling trapped and terrified. (She ultimately made two suicide attempts while in Cairns.) To help her "cope with the stress", Gwilliam began giving Elphick morphine tablets. "I've no idea where he got them," she says. "He'd give me enough to give me a slight addiction, then leave me hanging and sick while he took off, sometimes for hours, sometimes days."
She considered going to the authorities, but Gwilliam had warned her against that. "The people I work for, they can make people disappear," he would say. "And besides, the cops would never believe you. You're just a drug addict."
Lynne Rootsey isn't the wordiest of women. Mention her son, however, and she produces a veritable thesaurus of insults. Dallas, she says, is "evil", "crazy", "a liar" and "lazy"; a "crim", "crook" and a "con artist". He is also, she concedes, "very clever, especially in the way he talks. He will tell people what he thinks he can get them to believe. Sometimes I think he really believes it, too, and that's how he convinces other people."
In the early 2000s, prior to meeting Elphick, and for reasons that are unclear, Gwilliam turned up in the campground at Yulara, 15 kilometres from Uluru. With its mystical connotations and sacred heritage, Uluru is known for attracting misfits and drifters; many of Yulara's 880 residents are either from overseas or interstate. Yet no sooner had Gwilliam arrived than he was "family".
"I don't know when he first turned up," says Uncle Bob Randall, the star of Kanyini. "But by the time I met him, about four years ago, he was already saying he was anungu - one of us."
Dallas, or Wadi as he now called himself, spent much of his time looking after a local elder, Daisy Walkabout. "It was an aunty-nephew relationship," Randall explains. "Wadi would stay with her, buy her groceries, give her money when she needed it. He picked up lots of language that way. So we just accepted him, and looked after him the same way as family."
Wadi's time in the desert would come in handy when he started knocking out "Aboriginal artworks" for European backpackers in Cairns, and holding $475 a person "Aboriginal healing" workshops on Sydney's northern beaches. It particularly helped when he met Lisa Rochelle, a single mother, artist and massage therapist in Mullumbimby in northern NSW, in late 2004. By this time he had left Elphick, virtually destitute, in Brisbane, on the understanding that he was going to a "safe house" to monitor her ex-boyfriend. In fact, he was enjoying a whirlwind romance with Rochelle. At first, Wadi seemed a true renaissance man, a gifted piano player (a legacy, he claimed, from his wealthy mother, who had been a concert pianist), and a seeded tennis player. "I've certainly never seen anyone run as fast as he could," Rochelle says. "He would just bound through the air. He said it was because he'd grown up chasing kangaroos."
He was also an Aboriginal kudaitji, or wise man, and a fully initiated Pintjantjatjara, who, according to Rochelle, had even undergone the traditional circumcision. Soon after they met, Wadi bestowed upon Rochelle a sacred chant that she claims had the power to induce out-of-body experiences. "Time and time again he would show me amazing things. At one stage my spirit was flying around Uluru with the eagles."
He also reprised the fantasy of his military service, with slight variations: he was a genetically engineered super soldier, but he was dying because the experiment had failed and his DNA was breaking down. When Rochelle fell pregnant to Wadi, in early 2006, she too became "part of the experiment", along with their unborn baby.
For 3½ years, the pair were almost constantly on the run or in hiding, ostensibly from the Australian Army. Rochelle was kept isolated from friends and family, and threatened with "a bullet in the head" if she talked. In fact, they were in hiding from Wadi's other victims, principally a man named Byron Smith, who Wadi had met in Brunswick Heads in April 2006. When they met, Smith had recently turned 18 and inherited $100,000 from his mother, who had died when he was five. Unfortunately, he had also just had his car stolen. He mentioned this to Wadi, who told Smith he could use his UN contacts to get the car back. First, however, he needed money for tracking equipment, and a car, and laptop computers. Within three months, Smith, described by police as an "unsophisticated young man", had handed over $76,000 and a plasma TV and stereo system, which Wadi promptly pawned.
It's thought a lot of this money went into gambling, but it also paid for the Pocket Rainforest Retreat, a boutique resort in the Byron Bay hinterland where Wadi and Rochelle lived for six months at a cost of $1400 a week. ("When I asked where the money was coming from," she says, "Wadi told me he'd had a communications company in Geelong, and sold part of it for $4 million.")
But when Smith found out where Wadi was, they were forced to flee. "As I drove out of town, Wadi hid in the back of my car," Rochelle says. "He said it was so the CIA didn't see him. But later I found out he was terrified of Byron."
These days, Rochelle makes lino prints that reference her time with Wadi, who ended up taking $75,000 from her. She is also writing a book about it. "I know it sounds silly, but at the time I really thought I was saving his life," she says. "Then hearing in court that he was not Aboriginal, for me that was the final twist."
Gwilliam pleaded not guilty to all the charges, claiming the plaintiffs, including the director and Rochelle, had, in essence, made it all up. The jury didn't buy it. Particularly damning was evidence showing that at the same time he was texting the director asking for $10,000 to pay a guide to take him through the Burmese jungle, he was actually staying at Bangkok's five-star Grand Millennium Hotel. "Most of the money went on high living," says Detective Sergeant Brown. "He also bought motor bikes, two speedboats. There was a multi-thousand-dollar bill for staying at [Sydney's] Star casino. It goes quickly when they spend on anything and everything."
In August this year, Gwilliam was convicted of 27 counts of obtaining money by deception. Sentencing is scheduled for February. When Good Weekend told his mother this, she laughed. "I hope he goes away for a long time."
Gwilliam faces five years in prison. He hasn't lost his touch, however. Last year, he got married to an Indian-Australian woman named Carol Sequiera. In March, while awaiting trial, his lawyer applied to have Dallas Gwilliam's passport returned, so that he could accompany Sequiera to meet her family in India. The request was denied.
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