By Michael Perry
COATESVILLE, New Zealand, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom's online profile was larger-than-life, with fast women, faster cars and chartered planes, yet he lived like a virtual recluse in a sprawling, manicured estate on the outskirts of New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland.
Dotcom, also known as Kim Schmitz, faces extradition to the United States over charges of masterminding a scheme that made more than $175 million by infringing copyrighted content without authorisation on his online file-sharing website.
The German national, who denies the charges, is currently in custody in a jail cell, and a New Zealand judge is due to decide by Wednesday whether he will get bail.
Neighbours in this nouveau riche community of hobby farms, vineyards and equestrian clubs sometimes saw Dotcom on the winding roads in one of his luxury cars, but no one Reuters spoke to had actually met the multi-millionaire, former hacker.
"We see him driving around, but he keeps to himself and we're quite close neighbours. I’ve seen him driving around with his 'GUILTY' number plate," said Libbi Darroch, as she groomed her 7-year-old showjumper Muffy at the Coatesville Pony Club.
Living just over the hill from Dotcom’s rented 30-acre property, the Darrochs drive past the estate's back entrance, guarded by a security outhouse and surveillance cameras, to reach the shops or take their daughter to school.
"I've never seen him walking or anything. I think he does all his business in his mansion. All I thought was he had a funny number plate. People knew he was incredibly wealthy because of the huge rent he was paying," said Darroch.
Megaupload boss says innocent [ID:nL4E8CN3X6]
NEWSMAKER-Dotcom's boom and bust [ID:nL4E8CN1HM]
ANALYSIS-Shutdown unlikely to deter piracy [ID:nL2E8CO024]
Congress puts brakes on anti-piracy bills [ID:nL1E8CK5BK]
The money behind the online piracy battle [ID:nL1E8CJF73]
Dotcom, 38, rents what is reportedly New Zealand’s most expensive house, built by the founders of Chrisco Christmas hamper fame and worth an estimated NZ$30 million, with a monthly rental put at NZ$30,000-NZ$40,000.
At the nearby Coatseville general store, garage, cafe and gift shop, everyone told the same story - no one has actually met Dotcom, who reportedly stands two metres (six ft six inches) tall and weighs more than 130 kg (285 lbs).
Nor has anyone met his wife, who is heavily pregnant with twins, or his three children or know where they go to school.
Since taking up residence here in 2010, Dotcom has ordered some NZ$4 million ($3.2 million) of renovations to the mansion, including a heated lap pool with underwater speakers, imported spring water and a NZ$15,000 custom ladder, according to media.
But any work on the estate, which looks like a world-class golf course with clipped lawns and staff moving about in golf carts, is organised by someone in his entourage, say locals.
Adding to the reclusive image, Dotcom claims to have become the world’s top player of the video game "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" after racking up 702 hours of gaming in just months.
On New Year’s Eve, Dotcom uploaded a video of his achievements on YouTube, looking at the camera and punching the air. The time lapse video shows Dotcom sitting in a chair playing the game on his computer as the sun goes up and down. (here)
Dotcom spent NZ$500,000 for a 2010 New Year's Eve fireworks display over Auckland, but few city officials have publicly admitted meeting him. Former Auckland mayor John Banks said he met him after his fireworks donation, but added he hardly knew the multi-millionaire.
"He has been very generous to many charities and good causes as I understand it, and he was very generous to Auckland City when he volunteered to fund the fireworks display and did," Banks told local media on Tuesday.
Banks said he had dined at Dotcom's estate once. "I'm a car enthusiast and he had a nice collection of cars. I got to speak to him for a few minutes," he said.
This all contrasts with Dotcom’s online image, with one video showing him surrounded by topless women and men spraying champagne on board a superyacht during a "crazy weekend" in Monaco that cost a reported $10 million.
"Fast cars, hot girls, superyachts and amazing parties. Decadence rules," said the commentary accompanying the so-called fun documentary, which Dotcom dedicated to "all my fans".
Dotcom was arrested on Friday in a high-octane raid by New Zealand police, backed by helicopters, on his home in Coatesville, during which the former hacker was found holed up in a safe room.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates Dotcom personally made around $115,000 a day during 2010 from his empire. The list of assets seized when he was arrested, included nearly 20 luxury cars, one of them a pink Cadillac, works of art, and NZ$10 million invested in local finance companies.
Megaupload's lawyer has said the company simply offered online storage and has sought Dotcom’s release on bail, but prosecutors say he is an extreme flight risk as he holds German and Finnish passports and probably has access to secret funds.
Despite having no contact with Dotcom, many people in this sleepy village were sympathetic, believing he has been treated harshly for someone not charged with a violent crime.
"He’s innocent until proven guilty," said one woman at the Fernleigh Cafe. Another local protested that the police raid on Dotcom’s house was heavy handed, with police rappelling down from a helicopter and busting down his bedroom door.
Jeff Ifrah, a U.S.-based white collar defence lawyer, wrote in a blog that the U.S. government had raised the stakes by treating the Megaupload case as though it was dealing with organised crime and ignoring that other online file-sharing sites had successfully defended themselves.
"These actions, more suitable to the type of steps that the government takes against an organized crime enterprise dedicated to murder, theft and racketeering, are astonishing," he wrote.
On Tuesday, while Dotcom sat for a fifth day in a prison cell, there was little activity at his estate, bar the security guards moving about quietly in golf carts.
A Finnish flag flew above his mansion, while two statues of giraffes stood high on a hill overlooking the main entrance.
(Editing by Ed Davies and Ian Geoghegan)
((Ed.Davies@thomsonreuters.com)) Keywords: INTERNET PIRACY/MEGAUPLOAD
C Reuters 2011 All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by caching, framing, or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters and the Reuters sphere logo are registered trademarks and trademarks of the Reuters group of companies around the world.