By BRIDGET CARTER, EUGENE BINGHAM and PHIL TAYLOR | 04.07.2004 11:46 | Terror War
By BRIDGET CARTER, EUGENE BINGHAM and PHIL TAYLOR
An Auckland family have told how their tetraplegic son's identity was stolen by an Israeli secret agent who moved in just down the road.
Zev Barkan, who has fled New Zealand and escaped the justice faced yesterday by his two co-accused spies, lived within 300m of the man in whose name he applied for a passport to assume a New Zealand identity.
"Barkan lived in the street next door to where [the victim] was living," said his father, speaking exclusively to the Weekend Herald.
"He must have been able to see all these handicapped people going around in wheelchairs. I don't know if that is relevant or coincidence."
The story of the handicapped man caught up in the spy story emerged yesterday after two men pleaded guilty to a charge of trying to obtain a false New Zealand passport.
Urie Kelman and Eli Cara were remanded in custody and will be sentenced on July 15.
Mystery still surrounds how the spies selected their victim, who lives in care.
The family - whose identity is suppressed - were drawn into the world of international intrigue when a Department of Internal Affairs officer, Ian Tingey, rang them in March asking if their son had applied for a passport and had travel plans.
The victim, who is his 30s and has cerebral palsy due to brain damage at birth, is in no state to do either.
"[My son] is quite intelligent, he just can't speak, can't toilet or feed himself," said the father. "He is a person in his own right. He lives in his own world and most of it is in his head - he can't talk to you and me.
"He has a fully operational brain - he was writing plays when he was about 11 or 12."
He communicates by using a device with a protruding connection which is attached to his head. He uses it to tap onto a computer pad and can thereby slowly type.
Mr Tingey became suspicious about a passport application made in the victim's name after a phone call from a well-spoken man who claimed to be the applicant and was seeking to speed up the process.
The caller faxed through a travel itinerary and ticketing information to help the process. But Mr Tingey had noted the caller had what he thought was an underlying Canadian or American accent.
On March 19, Mr Tingey contacted the victim's father and was told the applicant could not be his son.
"When we first heard about it, we thought goodness gracious, how outrageous," said the father. "How the hell have they got hold of our details?"
The victim himself treats it in a minor way, his father said.
When Barkan applied for the passport, he used the victim's birth certificate, which had been applied for using the victim's mother's name.
She is no longer married to the victim's father and has lived in Britain for two years working with cerebral palsy victims.
"They used her married name, which she hasn't used for God knows how long, and they also used her middle name, which she has never answered to," said the father. The mother flew out from Britain to see if she could help with police inquiries, but there was nothing she could add as to why her son was selected.
"It's great the police have caught these guys but it still doesn't answer the questions of how and why they targeted him," said the father.
When Internal Affairs informed the police about its suspicions, a covert operation began.
Detectives uncovered details of four people, their movements in and out of the country, where they stayed, cars they rented.
The men were Kelman, Cara, Barkan and a fourth person, whose identity police have not discovered.
The police summary of facts lists the occupations of the three as unknown, but senior Government figures believe they are agents for Mossad, Israel's secret service.
The guilty plea came suddenly, after a fast-tracked depositions hearing and extraordinary efforts by Kelman to avoid being photographed by the media.
Kelman and Cara claimed not to know each other or Barkan but police say inquiries reveal otherwise.
There were calls made between cellphones found in the possession of Kelman and Cara, and keys to a car rented by Barkan were found in Kelman's possession.
The defendants have claimed they met Barkan by chance and were merely good Samaritans helping someone. They initially denied knowing there was anything illegal in what they or Barkan did.
Soon after beginning inquiries, police learned that Cara particularly was a regular visitor to New Zealand, having travelled here 24 times between October 2000 and March 2004. He used two Israeli passports, the second a replacement.
Cara claimed to be a travel agent and to operate a Sydney travel agency. But inquiries by the Weekend Herald indicate it does not exist - or if it does, it operated illegally.
Barkan appears to have come to New Zealand with the purpose of illegally obtaining a New Zealand passport using an assumed identity.
He first came here, according to the police summary of facts, in November 2003, travelling on a United States passport which identified him as an Israeli.
Later that month, Barkan visited a doctor's surgery in Lynfield, using the victim's name.
On December 3, Barkan left the country. The next day Internal Affairs received an order for a birth certificate in the victim's name. This was processed and the certificate sent to the Auckland post office box number supplied.
Barkan, Cara and Kelman all travelled in and out of New Zealand during December, apparently working on the passport scam.
In March, all three returned to New Zealand. On March 6, Barkan rented an inner-city apartment on a short-term agreement in St Paul St.
Six days later he returned to the Lynfield doctor complaining of a minor ailment. Barkan told GP Keith Way to witness his passport application, telling him it was needed urgently as he was soon to marry in Australia. The doctor filled out the form.
On March 13 an urgent application for a passport was lodged with Internal Affairs in Wellington. With it was a genuine birth certificate and a passport-sized photograph of Barkan. Cara left New Zealand that day. Barkan left a week later.
Kelman stayed in Auckland, where on a Kiwi International Hotel registration form he entered the same vehicle which records indicate was rented to Barkan. This was March 21, the day police began their sting.
Cara and Kelman were arrested on March 23, after plainclothes police watched as the passport was delivered. According to the police summary, the day began with a male caller refusing to pick up the passport in person and requesting it be delivered to Travcour, a Queen St company specialising in travel documentation. Undercover police made the delivery.
About 1.25pm Travcour received a telephone request from a male caller that the package containing the passport be couriered to the St Paul's address at which Barkan had rented an apartment earlier in the month.
Undercover police again made the delivery. The apartment manager told them that an ex-tenant (Barkan) had phoned requesting permission for a package to be delivered to the office and asking that he be phoned when it arrived.
A detective noticed a person - whom he later identified as Cara - at a cafe across the road monitoring movements. About 2.35pm the manager was contacted. He confirmed the package had arrived. The caller told him a taxi would pick it up. At 2.38pm a call was made from Cara's phone to one used by Barkan.
An Alert taxi arrived at 3pm and, watched by Cara, the driver picked up the package. The taxi driver was told to go to a Freemans Bay location.
There Kelman was waiting.
"On seeing plainclothes police, Kelman hid his cellphone in bushes then walked swiftly from his observation area," a prosecutor told the court. Soon after, Kelman's phone began to ring. A policeman retrieved it and answered it. It was the taxi driver saying he had arrived.
A former Mossad spy living in New Zealand has said he suspects the agency is behind the scam.
He said New Zealand passports were prized by spy agencies, particularly Israel's, because they didn't arouse the suspicion of border officials, particularly in the Arab world which regarded the New Zealand as sympathetic to Palestinians.
If the men were Mossad, he said, it was unlikely to be the first time the spy agency had tried to get New Zealand passports.
Herald investigation: Passport
By BRIDGET CARTER, EUGENE BINGHAM and PHIL TAYLOR