Ten years ago the Guardian first raised doubts about the Danish organisation behind a chain of used-clothes charity shops. Now Mogens Amdi Petersen, the mysterious, Svengali-like figure behind the organisation is to stand trial in a £15m fraud case. Michael Durham reports
I am standing in a quiet country lane, looking over a low steel gate and down a drive towards a house entirely masked by dense woods. There is a security camera trained on me. Poking above the trees is the top of an 80ft radio transmitter. Attached to a tree is a notice, in Danish, with a picture of a fierce alsatian dog, and the entire property is ringed by a two-metre electric fence.
This is No 13 Plagborgvej, just outside Grindsted, Denmark. Somewhere in there is a middle-aged man called Mogens Amdi Petersen, alias The Leader. He is known throughout Scandinavia as the supreme leader of a remarkable organisation, a diverse and idealistic charitable movement dedicated to helping the world’s poor – or not, as the case may be. Because nothing is as it seems in this story.
In the security of his compound, Petersen could well be enjoying a game of tennis – inside the fortified estate is a modern luxury villa with a swimming pool and covered tennis court. Petersen is obviously a wealthy man. Or is he? The name on the postbox is that of another individual altogether. And therein lies the mystery of Mogens Amdi Petersen – is he, as he claims, a simple person with modest tastes, an impoverished do-gooder? Or is he one of the world’s most astounding conmen, exploiting and robbing the poor and vulnerable all over the world?
This is the closest I have been to the elusive Petersen – assuming he is at home. He once went missing for 22 years. He is – or isn’t, depending on whom you talk to – the overall leader of Humana People-to-People, one of the strangest and largest international humanitarian non-governmental organisations in the world, also known in Scandinavia as Tvind. The hunt for him started in earnest 10 years ago, in 1993, when the Guardian published a two-page special investigation, headlined Alarm Bells Ring over Education Group. The story told of accounts by British college-leavers who had become involved with a strange, cult-like organisation with its own training academies in Scandinavia, and a network of British used-clothes charity shops whose accounts did not seem to add up.
If only the world had known then what is now small-talk at the Danish police department of serious economic crime. It has emerged that, at about the same time as the Guardian’s articles came out, Petersen and his girlfriend, Kirsten Larsen, were secretly moving into two $6m (£3.6m) luxury apartments in Miami, bought through a nominee company, and taking possession of the world’s biggest glass-fibre ocean-going luxury yacht, the Butterfly McQueen.
While accountants in Britain, Denmark, Norway and Holland scratched their heads over Humana People-to-People’s accounts, Petersen was – or so it is alleged – secretly building up a multinational business, flitting about the world using charitable money creamed off through offshore accounts. Petersen entirely denies this – he was, he says retired. He does not deny the existence of the apartment or yacht, but insists they were never his – but rather put at his disposal by others, who bought them as investments.
Then there are the “cult” allegations. Petersen is supposed to have created an elite society of highly motivated young people, prepared to give up ordinary life and follow The Leader; known as the Teachers Group, it was one of the foundations of his power. Petersen has denied that the Teachers Group exists. None of this has so far cut much ice with the authorities: Petersen, Larsen and six others are now arraigned before a special court in Aarhus, accused of fraud, money laundering and breach of trust, to the value of £15m.
Whatever the eventual verdict, what is now known for certain about Petersen makes for a remarkable tale. The son of a schoolteacher, he emerged from obscurity in Denmark in the late 60s as a kind of hippie guru, a revolutionary firebrand who preached a Maoist-inspired gospel of social renewal. His three tenets were common economy, common time and common distribution, laced with a measure of 60s free love and anti-authoritarianism.
Petersen seems to have gathered around 40 disciples and then set about creating first a school system, then an international relief organisation, and finally the many-tentacled Humana People-to-People NGO, operating under a baffling variety of names and spheres of interest. Used-clothes recycling schemes began in the 70s, more training colleges were opened in the 80s and the organisation expanded dramatically in the US under the name Planet Aid.
Accounts of friends from the early days describe a driven, charismatic working-class hero, almost worshipped by his followers, very attractive to women, but also running an organisation based on fear. The Teachers Group – about 600 comrades with a tight, secretive inner circle – was formed in the 70s. But Petersen became increasingly paranoid, claiming to be a target for the secret services and CIA, and one day in 1979, he disappeared.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. According to Petersen and Larsen, they severed all links with the organisation and retired to live as private citizens abroad. The police, however, contend that for the next 22 years, the pair were secretly running the show, chairing meetings, directing staff and making investment decisions, all the time laundering charity money to build a multinational empire and buy themselves expensive properties, such as the Miami apartments, and beachside villas in the Caymans.
Petersen and Larsen remained firmly out of public view until last year, even though they reportedly attended business meetings in Miami and Grinsted and went on world cruises. Those who knew of the money transfers and purchases insist they were made legitimately by the Teachers Group and not by Petersen. But two important individuals did eventually come forward to tell their side of the story. Steen Thomsen, a Danish schoolmaster who ran a Tvind school in Britain until 1998, denounced Petersen as a fraud the same year and sent a report to the Danish authorities, claiming Petersen was running a cult, not a charity, from which he was personally benefiting. At the same time another former high-ranking member of the Teachers Group, Hans la Cour, wrote a book in which he described 18 years “inside” Tvind, during which time he alleged he was asked to run non-existent “environmental projects”, and then launder the proceeds. While La Cour was bobbing about the south Atlantic on a ship called the Marco Polo inventing plausible “surveys”, the money was used to buy a $9m fruit farm in the Brazilian rainforest from Shell. La Cour is likely to be a key prosecution witness.
Two years ago Danish police, tax officials and the security services raided seven Tvind addresses, including 13 Plagborgvej, and removed computers, from which they eventually extracted about three million pages of encrypted documents – enough, they say, to build a case. An international arrest warrant was issued for Petersen, and in February 2002 he and Larsen were arrested in transit at Los Angeles International Airport. He has since been extradited to Denmark.
Petersen, for his part, denies everything. Many people, however, have been trying to break the wall of silence, including Frede Farmand, who studied 10,000 pages of confidential Tvind documents for his book about Petersen, The Master from Tvind. He compares Petersen to a millenarian cult leader akin to a religious messiah, and among the claims made in his book – and backed up by documents – is that Petersen’s last project was to sail away in the Butterfly McQueen with hand-picked members of the Teachers Group to a sun-kissed retirement in the island of Fiji, at a specially constructed jungle paradise.
Why does all this matter? The financial peccadilloes of a middle-aged man in a small Danish town hardly seem to have much bearing on the average Briton. But if Petersen is indeed found to have been the mastermind behind the hundreds of Tvind companies and charities all over the world, what of the operations under his control here?
At least two used-clothes charitable companies – although they often try to distance themselves – can be specifically linked to Tvind, so that every time a spring-cleaning housewife drops a donation of her old woollies into the collecting box, it is really a donation to the Teachers Group. One, a company called Planet Aid, is run by a Danish woman, Birgit Soe. Her husband, Torben, runs a similar company called Green World – according to staff, Torben Soe often spoke with admiration of the tall, bespectacled Dane, his inspirational leader, Petersen. On investigation two years ago, not one of the “environmental projects” Green World claimed to support proved to have an independent existence outside the Teachers Group.
Tvind also continues to advertise regularly and widely for “volunteers” in British newspapers. And what of the “training college” in East Yorkshire, where young people regularly sign up for development studies (and often depart in haste soon afterwards, complaining they have been asked to beg on the streets)? Tvind again. The question is, were all these part of Petersen’s master plan? And should we take their assurances that they are “nothing to do with Amdi Petersen” so lightly?
But perhaps most disturbing of all is the ease with which international “good causes” can spirit money from one country to another without proper restraint – as Petersen is alleged to have done to feather his own nest. Five years ago, Petersen’s main UK charity, Humana UK, was closed down on charity commission advice because of financial irregularities. No such sanction is available to any of the existing Tvind companies, according to the Department of Trade and Industry and the charity commission, because the money is supposed to be applied to good causes abroad. It is time this loophole was closed – fast.