Christmas on the Barrier Reef for Amdi Petersen?

Gold Coast Bulletin/November 27, 2004

Mogens Amdi Petersen is a hard man to track down.

After all, he once went missing for 22 years.

When he seemed to slip off the face of the Earth in 1979, most people saw Petersen as a throwback to the 1960s - a charismatic do-gooder out to help the Third World.

The Danish teacher espoused Marxist-Leninist principles, set up radical teaching colleges in his homeland and sent young disciples to Africa.

Then, one day, he disappeared.

Despite this, the 'charitable' causes he founded didn't miss a beat. In fact, they grew stronger - much stronger.

Some people started calling the elusive boss a cult leader.

Others wondered whether the millions of dollars were reaching the right places.

All wanted to know where they could find Mogens.

There were stories: he was being hidden in Zimbabwe by an old friend, Robert Mugabe; he was living next door to Oprah Winfrey on an ultra-exclusive Miami island; the police were hot on his heels.

The first two may be rumours. The third is a fact.

The FBI, acting on the advice of Danish authorities, arrested Petersen at Los Angeles airport in February, 2002, as he changed planes.

He had been en route from Africa to a Mexican resort, and there had been some changes in two decades. It was as if the former penniless hippie had emerged from a chrysalis of capitalism.

According to assistant US attorney Matthew E. Sloan, Mogens Amdi Petersen was the head of a secretive business empire called Tvind, which controlled worldwide assets of more than $126 million.

There were schools for troubled youths in Denmark; op shops and volunteer recruiting centres in Europe and the US; plantations in Belize, Brazil, and Malaysia; property and shipping companies in the Caribbean and Florida; a satellite TV station; a ranch in Zimbabwe.

Petersen had access to luxury homes dotted around the world, had a multimillion-dollar Florida apartment just for his dogs and enjoyed the use of an elegant super-yacht. At 40m, it was once the biggest fibreglass luxury vessel in the world.

If you take a stroll to the Broadwater this weekend you can see it for yourself in all its three-masted, teak-inlaid glory.

Named Butterfly McQueen, the Bermuda rigged schooner was until recently owned by Tvind offshoot the Teachers Group.

It still might be - the crew won't say much, other than their last port of call was Auckland.

The skipper, Joe Grove, is in his 50s with a mop of sandy-coloured hair. He speaks with a European accent and has a small, young crew. He looks relaxed in a white T-shirt and it's fairly obvious that the boss, whoever that may be, hasn't made the trip to the Coast.

Asked yesterday whether his fine-looking yacht - up close it looks more like a ship - is still connected with Tvind and Petersen, he said: "I'm just here to run the boat.

"I can give you technical details, but that's it. That's fairly standard practice in this business.''

He's right. Several million dollars doesn't just buy you a nice boat, it buys a measure of privacy. The superyacht crowd don't court publicity, and skippers with loose lips tend to find it hard to get work.

Teachers Group had been trying to sell Butterfly McQueen for several years and it remains listed for sale on the Internet at $4.1 million.

The superyacht, named after Scarlett O'Hara's maid in Gone with the Wind, glided into the Seaway on November 30.

About the same time in Denmark, Petersen was attending one of his court hearings.

He and seven top aides are facing charges of embezzling $11.3 million from a charity and evading $13.8 million in taxes.

Petersen denies all the charges. He said he was retired and that the trappings of a high-flying lifestyle, including the yacht, were simply put at his disposal by others who bought them as investments.

The case is big news in Denmark, where Petersen has been a household name for many years.

He wasn't keen on going home, though, fighting hard to avoid extradition from the US.

Petersen needed a public defender for the task, he said, because he was part of a 'communal group'.

The man who had once signed for a $126,000 membership at Miami's Fisher Island Golf Club had just $2500 to his name.

But in the end the public defender wasn't needed.

Somehow Petersen found the money to appoint high-profile O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro who described his man as a 'humanitarian'. Jail him and Tvind's good work may grind to a halt.

"Millions of people around the world who are on the poverty level, who are depending on this for education, will indeed be cut off,'' Mr Shapiro told a hearing at a Los Angeles court.

But he couldn't pull off another O.J., and Petersen was sent home late in 2002.

His case is not expected to finish until sometime next year, and Petersen has been free to travel overseas between court dates, visiting the UK and Zimbabwe, where he has a headquarters designed by Joern Utzon, the man who penned the Sydney Opera House.

Perhaps in the midst of a cold snowy Scandinavian winter he dreams of sunny days spent somewhere like the Broadwater, ensconced in polished cherry wood, rested in handcrafted Italian furniture and bathed in water from gold-plated taps.

The Butterfly McQueen has all that and more.

Frede Farmand, who wrote a book about Petersen called The Master from Tvind, said his subject's ultimate aim was to take the yacht and a hand-picked group of favourites to Fiji where they would set up an idyllic base.

Judging by the way the case has dragged on, that won't be happening any time soon, and maybe not at all.

Horror stories continue to emerge in northern hemisphere media about young and idealistic university students being lured to questionable Tvind humanitarian aid projects in both Central and South America.

Many say they were injured or abused, picked up tropical diseases or were stranded in remote outposts and left to find their own way back home.

Despite this, some find the challenge life-changing in a positive way and are indoctrinated to become part of Tvind, handing control of their wages and lives to the collective.

Briton Alex Casteel worked with children in Guatemala and told Miami New Times reporter Rebecca Wakefield about his experience.

"People like me agree to join the Teachers Group because we believe in doing humanitarian work,'' he said.

"We agree that our salary should go into a pooled account believing this money would be used to fund new projects.

"Then the reality appears.''

A former high-ranking member of the Teachers Group, Hans la Cour, walked off another Tvind yacht when it docked in New Zealand in 1990.

He said he had fallen in love with an American crew member and Petersen had forced them to split up.

The group's original ambition had been `world revolution', he told the Chicago Tribune.

But when Petersen went underground, 'the nature of the beast started showing'.

"As Amdi became more isolated from the real world he wanted to create this feeling of us against everybody else,'' said Mr la Cour.

Petersen allegedly told some members to collect family photos and old letters so they could not be traced if they also had to disappear, and sterilisation was encouraged among some women members.

The Maoist principle of `constructive self-criticism' - basically a group put-down lasting hours - was applied to those who baulked at Tvind directives.

"Anybody who dared stand up would get worked on,'' said Mr la Cour, who has also written a book about his 18 years with Tvind.

In it, he describes running non-existent `environmental projects' and then laundering the proceeds.

He says he cruised the South Atlantic doing `surveys' in a ship called the Marco Polo while the money set aside for the work was used to buy a $11.3 million fruit plantation in Brazil.

Danish prosecutor Poul Gade seemed to sum it up when he was interviewed by the Tribune about Tvind earlier this year.

"It seems to me that they started out with an aim to create some very good things,'' he said.

"But perhaps it got out of hand.

"Power corrupts, and it is more fun to be the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company and live in Miami than to do hard labour to help the poor.''

If Petersen has a nemesis it must be UK journalist Michael Durham.

He first heard about Petersen almost 10 years ago and has penned articles about him for London's Sunday Times and The Guardian.

When contacted by The Bulletin this week, Mr Durham had just returned from a trip to Denmark where he saw Petersen face to face - no mean feat considering the Dane's secretive nature.

He had also tracked down a former intimate of Petersen who spent time with him in Australia during a world trip in the late 1960s.

Mr Durham knows of the Butterfly McQueen and was interested to hear of its latest voyage.

The yacht is featured on a comprehensive website he has set up about Tvind called Tvindalert.

"There has been a sense of a game between us, the journalists and (Tvind),'' said Mr Durham.

"It's sort of a little hunt.''

In Norway, the hunt is coming to an end for Petersen.

On the other side of the world, floating gently at Southport Yacht Club, is the Butterfly McQueen.

Perhaps it has new owners.

If so, the history of their expensive toy will provide them with plenty of fodder for dockside cocktail parties in Porto Cervo, St Kitts . . . and perhaps Main Beach.

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