If Peter Jackson made a movie of it, the story might go like this.
Sir Peter, the overlord of the Lord of the Rings movies, longed to watch lovably oddball airplanes flying over his native New Zealand, where he had planted the flag of Middle-earth in six of the most successful fantasy films of all time. To build and pilot his flying machines, he hired a clever and stylish American with a shadowy past. The two became fast friends, bonding over their love of the beautiful aircraft. As the years went on, however, the aviator proved to be a cunning pirate, out to grab the ring of power by swiping the very contraptions he’d constructed for Sir Peter. In the final reel, the Dark Rider zoomed off and almost got away. But in one last duel in the clouds, Sir Peter rose up, hobbit-like, all cuddly and barefoot, and sent the airplane bandit crashing to earth.
In fact, the climactic confrontation between the two men took place in a cramped, windowless courtroom in Wellington, New Zealand. The country’s most famous son—Jackson was knighted Sir Peter in 2010—occasionally goes about without shoes. But in the summer of 2019 he arrived shod at Wellington High Court to testify in the aerial-piracy trial of his former friend Eugene DeMarco. Among the six criminal charges: stealing and selling two of Jackson’s reproduction World War I warplanes for more than $1 million as well as pocketing $500,000 that a friend had given him to buy another historic plane on his behalf, then keeping both the money and the aircraft, using the latter to secure a bank loan.
“I liked him,” Jackson told the jury, “for nearly 14 years.” In the past, he said, “Gene was always able to talk to me about anything.” But then, Jackson recounted, something changed. As DeMarco sat in the courtroom, he heard his ex-boss refer to him as a “con man,” a “piranha [who] manipulated…lied…and ran rings around [people].” DeMarco, as it turned out, had a history of swiping planes.
For years, DeMarco had been known as a daredevil, flying vintage and replica planes in air shows. In Hollywood, he’d gained renown as a barnstorming stunt pilot in films and commercials, most recently flying a seaplane for the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die. Within the small but global community of antique-aviation buffs, he continues to be held in awe, considered by many to be the most accomplished flier of dangerously obstreperous World War I airplanes.
I’ve heard DeMarco variously called a genius, a charmer, and “a scorpion” by those who know him well. Having spent months tracking down DeMarco’s associates in the U.S. and New Zealand, I now see that he merits all three labels. Like the dashing flyboys and fighter pilots depicted in the movies, he can make airplanes dance, delight crowds, and entice beautiful women. He has won the trust of the rich and powerful—men like Jackson—and then robbed them, all the while flashing an endearing, toothy smile.
How could a Hollywood powerhouse with three Academy Awards have been taken in by an old-school barnstorming swindler? The real story begins with DeMarco’s and Jackson’s mutual obsession with historic military aircraft.
HIGH FLIER Eugene DeMarco appeared as a fighter pilot in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, set in 1930s New York.
Illustrations by Corey Brickley.
Jackson’s interest in the First World War (in which his grandfather Sergeant William Jackson, a Brit, served with the Welsh infantry) is best known through his much-celebrated 2018 documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. For that movie, the special effects wizards at his sprawling Weta Digital complex, in Wellington, painstakingly restored 100-year-old footage of British soldiers and gave them a voice by editing and splicing in historic audio recordings. Jackson, in effect, was able to reanimate a long-dead past.
That is precisely what drew him to DeMarco. Jackson first met him at an air show in Australia in 2001, where he watched DeMarco at the controls of the notoriously tricky Sopwith Camel, the most famous fighter biplane of the war. (It’s the plane Snoopy flies in his antic dogfights against the Red Baron in the “Peanuts” comic strip.) Jackson wasn’t a pilot himself, but DeMarco had clocked more hours in a Camel cockpit than anyone who ever lived. Jackson was impressed. He and DeMarco hit it off, and the director conscripted the daredevil to do stunt flights at a series of aerial showcases. By 2003, DeMarco had moved to New Zealand at Jackson’s behest and began to restore, build, and fly Jackson’s growing fleet of aircraft.
“Pete’s an aviation fanatic, and he loves early airplanes,” DeMarco told the writer of a book about Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. For that movie, DeMarco constructed the 1930s fighters that swoop across the Manhattan skyline as King Kong hangs on to the Empire State Building. DeMarco even appeared as one of the onscreen aviators. In 2006, Jackson and his partner in life and business, Fran Walsh, decided to launch a firm to manufacture historic airplanes, making it a subsidiary of their movie production company, Wingnut Films, with the expectation that some of the airplanes would appear in Jackson’s movies. They named their new venture The Vintage Aviator Limited (TVAL). And they hired DeMarco as general manager and chief pilot.
In an operation unlike any other in aviation history, the TVAL team of about 60 craftsmen constructed reproduction World War I biplanes and triplanes. Some were sputtering, steampunk rigs; others fast, single-seater fighting machines, duplicated from the originals and handcrafted as they were during the war—down to the balky engines, brass hardware, and woven wicker seats. Over the next decade, Jackson’s personal air force grew into the largest collection of its kind. Eventually, he would possess about 50 period aircraft, all of them spectacularly detailed.
Some of the planes went to museums, others to very wealthy private collectors. Jackson, to this day, keeps many for his personal pleasure—and to share with his countrymen. For years, they flew regularly in air shows over Blenheim, on New Zealand’s South Island, and at the Hood Aerodrome, on the North Island outside Wellington. Jackson and DeMarco brought early aviation back to life in the skies above New Zealand—albeit without the bullet-torn bodies and deadly crashes.
As the choreographer and star of these shows—and as TVAL’s majordomo—DeMarco prospered. He occupied a light-filled, modernist-style house overlooking the teal waters of Wellington Harbor. He acquired planes and cars and a hangar with a nice apartment at the Hood Aerodrome. Now 58, Gene, as his friends call him, had an infectious rascality, a dark, windswept mane, and a winsomely boyish demeanor.
THE AVIATOR PROVED TO BE A DARK RIDER, A CUNNING PIRATE.
According to Chad Wille, a longtime American friend of DeMarco’s, Gene and Peter grew “very close.” Over the years, Wille says, Gene became “involved with the movie side of things as a friend of Peter’s, not just as an airplane guy.” Jackson, who is 59, trusted the airman enough to allow him to take Jackson and his two children aloft in the fragile airplanes. He loaned DeMarco his personal Aston Martin. On occasion, when DeMarco needed money, Jackson advanced him the funds.
Perhaps Jackson should have known that their collaboration was bound for a crash landing. According to close associates, he had been warned long ago about DeMarco’s past. The pilot, in fact, was a convicted felon in the United States, having admitted to possession of a stolen aircraft—just one in a trail of planes he had made off with.
TVAL isn’t far from Wellington’s Miramar neighborhood, home to Jackson and Walsh’s filmmaking businesses. I went there in October 2019. My guide, Lindsay Shelton, is the former marketing director of the New Zealand Film Commission. In that capacity he sold Jackson’s first four movies, including his breakthrough, Heavenly Creatures. The 1994 thriller showcased the first computerized fantasy scenes concocted by Jackson’s then fledgling company, Weta Digital. That film’s graphic sophistication, in time, would help land Jackson at the helm of the Lord of the Rings franchise.
Jackson chose not to move his productions outside of New Zealand and instead poured his earnings into Weta’s growing infrastructure. Shelton posits, “He created a whole new awareness that you didn’t have to leave home to be a success.” In the process, Jackson, for three decades, has drawn fellow directors, Rings-inclined tourists, and deep-pocketed aviation hounds to his Pacific outpost, doing wonders for the nation’s economy.
Filmmakers now travel to “Wellywood,” as locals call it, to make their movies at Jackson’s facilities. On their 12-building campus, Jackson and Walsh employ slightly more than 1,500 people from 52 countries. Among the scores of cinematic epics that have benefited from Weta’s animatronic-model makers, green-screen witches, and digital drivers are Avatar, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame, three of the five top-grossing films ever made.
Keeping that fantasy-film machine humming, however, has required an endless stream of big-budget pictures. Jackson’s last fantasy offering to reach screens was the 2018 mega-flop Mortal Engines, which he wrote and produced. The film reportedly lost $175 million. His latest documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, is slated for release this summer, but without a recent blockbuster to draw upon, Jackson and Walsh have had to pull in their spendthrift ways. In September 2016 they sold their $80 million Gulfstream, and last December the New Zealand government approved the sale of a reported one third of Weta Digital, for an undisclosed “significant” investment, to Facebook’s first president and tech entrepreneur Sean Parker. (Weta has recently weighed on them further. According to news reports, in September a government ministry ordered an outside investigation of the firm after more than 40 former and current employees came forward to complain about the company’s “boy’s club” culture and widespread “toxic behavior.”)
Some of the blame for Jackson’s money woes can be ascribed to his filmmaking practices. He is a perfectionist, and tales abound of the lengths to which his studio will go to forge make-believe worlds that feel real. “Everything Peter and his colleagues do,” Shelton insists, “is done at the highest level of design and expense.” Jackson looked for that same commitment to authenticity and detail in his TVAL airplanes. And DeMarco delivered.
I have never met Gene DeMarco. I first saw his breathtaking flying work in the 2015 documentary The Millionaires’ Unit, inspired by my book of the same name, about a pioneering squadron of World War I aviators. (Over several months, DeMarco deflected repeated requests to comment for this story. Despite similar overtures, Jackson and Walsh declined to participate, citing ongoing litigation.) However, I have spoken with numerous people who know both DeMarco and Jackson, some of whom witnessed their relationship unfold and ultimately implode. Most preferred to remain anonymous because, as one source put it, “New Zealand is a small place.” The same can be said for the world of early-aviation enthusiasts.
TVAL, with an annual budget of about $6 million during its peak years, amounted to a tiny corner of Jackson’s empire. And yet that was a lot of money for turning out just a handful of airplanes each year. Jackson paid DeMarco an annual salary of $125,000 for a job widely considered to be among the most desirable in the vintage-and-replica aircraft field.
AIR RAID At the High Court’s sentencing, Jackson (above) issued a statement that the disloyalty of DeMarco was the “greatest betrayal” of his life.
Illustrations by Corey Brickley.
Each of Jackson’s airplanes was a monumental project, requiring about 20,000 man-hours. DeMarco started with original plans and specifications. When they didn’t exist, he borrowed digital scanners from Weta Workshop, Jackson’s model-making and prop shop, to reverse-engineer vintage airplanes and parts. He used the scans, old photographs, and blueprints to measure the exact dimensions and positions of each fuselage nail, wing strut, gauge, tube, and piston on the original planes. TVAL would then remanufacture them from scratch, right down to the lettering on the logos. For the most part, the facsimiles looked—and flew—exactly like the originals.
Jackson took pride in his growing personal collection and enjoyed showing his fleet to celebrity guests who shared his love of aviation, among them King Abdullah II of Jordan and Britain’s Prince William. TVAL admirers also included a handful of well-heeled collectors and pilots. One of them, Jerry Yagen, owner of a network of for-profit schools as well as Virginia’s Military Aviation Museum, told me that he might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or more just to buy a vintage airplane—and then almost as much to restore and keep it in flying condition. “I spend millions every year just to keep these aircraft airworthy,” he contends. You need money, lots of it, to fly such toys.
As a child growing up on Long Island, all Gene DeMarco ever wanted to do was fly. The son of a Pan Am flight inspector and flight attendant, he slid behind the controls at age 14 and reportedly soloed before he could drive a car. At 16 he bought a Piper J-5, a stripped-down, 1940s airplane—the equivalent of a surfer dude’s woodie wagon. At 17, so DeMarco claimed, he flew the Piper around most of the United States, hitting 32 states. People from DeMarco’s past talk about his raucous early years, citing his fondness for fast cars, leading to several crashes, and his firing from a hobby-shop job for stealing. The store’s retired owner wouldn’t comment on the thefts, but said about DeMarco’s legal troubles, “I’m not shocked by hearing this.”
What DeMarco couldn’t stand, from his teenage years onward, was being stuck on the ground. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he went to work for IBM but hated being confined to a windowless office. At trial, he told the High Court, “[I would do] everything I could to stay in an airplane and I did everything from fish spotting over the Atlantic Ocean for tuna [to] bear spotting in the Adirondacks.… I towed banners and did skywriting, among other things.” He also began building World War I-era airplanes, for which he found a ready market.
DeMarco moved to Florida, married young, and had a son. That marriage didn’t last, and he embarked on a life as an airplane vagabond, a barnstormer moving between air shows and airports, landing where he could find work on planes and fly them.
Starting in the mid-1980s, DeMarco spent most summers for the next two decades working as an airplane mechanic while piloting in the air shows at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York’s Hudson Valley. DeMarco helped put on performances that included original and reproduction early airplanes. To this day, the shows generally include earthbound slapstick-comedy routines—with old cars and trucks, damsels in distress, villains and heroes—all linked to a plotline involving the acrobatics going on overhead. By the late ’90s, DeMarco had become Old Rhinebeck’s head mechanic, chief pilot, and showstopper.
BOTH MEN LIKE TO INVENT IMAGINARY WORLDS.
He cut a wide swath on the ground too. His coolness in the face of danger, aerial panache, and good looks proved irresistible to many women. They didn’t just flock to him, they sparred for his affection. Several people who knew DeMarco during his time at Old Rhinebeck told me about the time two women, each claiming to be his serious girlfriend, made a noisy scene at an area café. A few years later, during a New Zealand air show, he was in the cockpit of a parked Sopwith Camel when a stiff wind blew the flimsy plane on its nose. According to a newspaper account, two women came running from the airstrip sidelines to check on him and shortly fell to fighting over him.
DeMarco’s friend Chad Wille maintained and flew planes with him at Old Rhinebeck’s air shows, replacing DeMarco as chief pilot in 2003 after the stunt legend decamped to New Zealand. Wille recalls several instances “where a woman would look at Gene and a look would come over her face and it would kind of like be, Oh, it’s you. And they were gone.”
For more than a decade, according to sources close to DeMarco, he shuttled between New York and New Ritchey, Florida, where he kept a house replete with hangar, several airplanes, and access to a runway. One of those planes, it so happened, wasn’t his.
In early summer 1997, a dozen New York State police cars idled outside the entrance to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. They had come for DeMarco. A Piper Cub, stolen four years earlier, had been found in his possession. The airplane’s fabric covering and tail number had been changed. But repairs done long ago to its airframe left no doubt that this was the very same plane that, four years earlier, had disappeared from a locked hangar at a small private airport outside New Paltz, New York.
At the time it was stolen—on an August day in 1993—the aircraft had belonged to Robin Riley, a retired banker. “There was always the feeling that it had been done by somebody familiar with the airport,” says Riley. “Whoever got in knew the planes.” DeMarco, in fact, had previously lived at the facility.
After the airplane was recovered, DeMarco, according to some of the people familiar with what took place, said that he had taken the Cub only because Riley had stiffed him for major repairs he’d done. A former member of the Old Rhinebeck board of trustees repeated the story to me. Riley, to this day, insists that DeMarco never worked on his plane. “The only time Gene might ever have touched it,” he maintains, “I did an oil change and asked him how to remove the plug in the oil tank when I first got the airplane. If he billed me for his time, which would have been 10 minutes, I’d have paid it.”
DeMarco would plead guilty to possession of stolen goods, a felony—for which he received no prison time. And over the objections of many at Old Rhinebeck, the board retained him as chief pilot. “His piloting skills and mechanical knowledge were exceptional,” says the former Old Rhinebeck board member, by way of explanation. “[I] never had any issues with Gene.” DeMarco stayed on and, if anything, became even more of a commanding presence on the Aerodrome scene.
In time, though, things would sour. At the start of the 2003 summer season, Steve Cunningham arrived at Old Rhinebeck as the new chief executive. A longtime aviation-industry executive, Cunningham told me that he heard right away from trustees that DeMarco was “a flipping crook, but he’s a great show pilot, a great mechanic.” Within days of arriving, though, Cunningham grew alarmed, he recalls, when he learned that a supporter of the Aerodrome had donated a plane meant to be part of Old Rhinebeck’s collection, delivering it to DeMarco. The plane never arrived at the airfield. Instead, as Cunningham found out, DeMarco had kept it and, in its place, substituted some aircraft parts that he claimed were of equal value. “It didn’t pass the smell test,” Cunningham says. He investigated DeMarco and discovered that he had also failed to list his felony conviction on his FAA commercial pilot’s annual medical certification application—a possible felony in itself. Cunningham banned him from the property.
Several of the trustees pushed back. “He had a lot of influence on the board,” recalls Cunningham. His supporters demanded he be reinstated. Faced with bitter resistance within the Aerodrome community, Cunningham says he decided to quit.
With Old Rhinebeck in turmoil during that summer, Jackson fortuitously swooped in and steered DeMarco toward his next chapter. One of DeMarco’s detractors who had been active at Old Rhinebeck at the time now says, “He left not under a cloud—it was Hurricane Katrina.” But, he adds, “it extended the problems out thousands of miles—to New Zealand.”
I visited Omaka Aerodrome, outside of Blenheim, where many of Jackson’s planes had long flown in air shows. Inside a spacious hangar, hobbyists were busy restoring vintage military aircraft. I spoke with two aviation mechanics who knew DeMarco and Jackson. “Gene wormed his way” into Jackson’s confidence, one of them asserted. “I think Peter was fairly impressed because Gene could come up with the unfindable stuff”—such as rare plans, engines, and parts needed to construct his airplanes.
They explained that after DeMarco arrived, employees working on Jackson’s airplanes at Omaka became concerned that parts there had gone missing. They shared their concerns with Jackson. “Peter was not interested in any of that trivial shit, so to speak,” one of them confided. “DeMarco was useful to him and capable. No bones about that.”
Jackson wanted original engines to reproduce for his air force, but only a few of the most prized World War I aircraft motors still exist. Among them, rotary engines—a distinctive period motor that literally spins along with the propeller—are particularly hard to find. DeMarco and Wille arranged to trade two of Old Rhinebeck’s original engines, including a rotary motor, for an entire Nieuport fighter that Jackson had purchased from another builder. Wille contends that Old Rhinebeck got the better end of the deal.
That Nieuport, however, proved ill-starred. In 2008, in the only fatality in the history of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, Vincent Nasta, an acrobatic pilot with 23 years’ flying experience, appeared to lose control of the plane and nosedived into the surrounding woods. The airplane burst into flames, killing him.
No matter whom I talk to about DeMarco, like him or loathe him, they volunteer that he’s a virtually unrivaled flyer. Darroch Greer, one of the filmmakers behind The Millionaires’ Unit and other aviation documentaries, told me, “I’ve now worked with maybe two dozen pilots over the last 10 years.” But, he says, “until I watched Gene fly, I don’t think I realized how extraordinary he was at it. I’ve watched other guys fly, and generally flying these old aircraft, you don’t want to dive too hard, turn too hard. We’re trying to film these dramatic dogfighting sequences, but generally the pilots are flying along in very soft circles. Gene was so dynamic and made the plane so exciting. He really acted for the film with the plane.” Greer concludes, “Nobody flew like Gene flew.”
Illustrations by Corey Brickley.
Despite his dazzling flying—or because of it—DeMarco’s buccaneer life hardly changed once he moved to southern climes. And, according to an ex-TVAL senior staff member with knowledge of events that took place at the company over the past decade, Jackson was made aware of DeMarco’s behavior early on. In 2009, for example, according to the staffer, Jackson learned that DeMarco had been using TVAL employees to maintain his personal airplanes while making off with parts and fuel. DeMarco, this source maintains, was also running “side businesses off the Vintage Aviator’s back,” allegedly charging visitors to tour the company hangar and taking fees to fly them in TVAL airplanes. DeMarco’s sexual liaisons also intruded on the workplace, the ex-staffer says. DeMarco kept what the TVAL insider calls “a fuck pad,” an apartment with a hot tub in the hangar he built at the Hood Aerodrome. Issues with DeMarco, this source insists, also made things uncomfortable between Jackson and Fran Walsh: Despite the director’s closeness with DeMarco, “Fran hated him. She suspected he was a crook.” Nonetheless, DeMarco remained on the payroll.
By 2016, TVAL was bleeding money. Having run through upward of $80 million, says the ex-TVAL staffer, Jackson slashed its budget and laid off employees. Still, DeMarco remained operationally in charge and continued to be what the source calls a “parasite.” The last straw came in 2017, when Jackson and Walsh were in Los Angeles. The director told the High Court that while surfing the internet, he came upon photos and videos of one of his treasured airplanes that another aviation organization, the New Zealand Warbirds, was flying outside Auckland. He testified, “Fran and I were in a state of sort of complete panic, really, because we realized something very serious had gone down.” Jackson asked his personal accountant and attorney to investigate how his plane—without his permission (which he required before any were sold or traded)—had wound up on the other end of the North Island. In their research, his aides came across a New Zealand Warbirds buyer who, in 2016, had shown up at TVAL, where DeMarco, presenting himself as a TVAL representative, soon made a deal to sell two airplanes that he’d been building for Jackson, pocketing the nearly $1.4 million payment for himself. A third TVAL airplane was slated for sale as part of the transaction. Jackson, when apprised of the swindle, finally fired DeMarco—and sicced federal investigators on him.
Why had DeMarco taken such chances, risking the power, prestige, and lifestyle he’d amassed while in Jackson’s orbit? Money was almost certainly a factor. By now DeMarco owned the house in Wellington that has since sold for $800,000. The hangar with his apartment had cost another $800,000 to build. He owed Jackson money, which, with interest, totaled $650,000. And then there were DeMarco’s many other planes. He had partnered with a Hong Kong-based businessman, James Slade, to develop a large aircraft collection. But when Slade ran into financial trouble, DeMarco became sole owner of the fleet. According to an interview DeMarco gave in 2017, he had more than 10 historic aircraft in his possession. The upkeep for such a large collection would require serious means, far beyond DeMarco’s TVAL salary—even with his extra earnings from film and air show work.
After Jackson reported the absconded airplanes to New Zealand authorities, other fraudulent activities surfaced. Along with the accusations of stealing the TVAL planes, DeMarco faced charges related to a loan he secured for $162,000 from the Bank of New Zealand by using a World War II-vintage P-40 Kittyhawk as collateral. However, that airplane wasn’t his either.
Oliver Wulff came forward to clarify the situation. A German banker and aviation enthusiast, Wulff told the High Court that he had once counted DeMarco among his closest friends. Then their relationship took a turn. Wulff testified that DeMarco alerted him that his former partner, Slade—desperate to raise cash due to his business woes—would agree to sell Wulff the P-40, worth an estimated $1.5 million or more, for just a third of the price. DeMarco then convinced Wulff to wire him the money to buy it for him. DeMarco, however, chose to keep Wulff’s money and presented the P-40 as his own to the bank.
And so it was that on December 5, 2019—after a three-week trial ending in a guilty verdict—DeMarco appeared for sentencing. Over the past 40 years, DeMarco was said to have amassed some 14,000 hours of flying time. Many of those hours were in open cockpits, where the elements certainly took a toll on him. In the airless Wellington courtroom, his cheeks appeared jowly, his eyes puffy, his once-flowing dark hair receding, short-cropped, and gray.
DeMarco, as mentioned earlier, was given multiple opportunities to participate in this article. Instead, he emailed insults (“It appears that Vanity Fair has a severely tarnished image in the U.S. at the moment and subscribers are leaving in droves these days”—in fact, subscriptions are up and VF.com is booming); chose to communicate by mailing letters from New Zealand; and ultimately insisted upon “the right to review and edit” the piece before it went to print—something the magazine never grants its subjects. In a final flourish, he asked to be reimbursed for his expertise if he were to answer a list of questions that had originally been sent to him through his attorney. “As a world expert in Great War Aircraft,” he wrote, “I am considered the foremost expert in the construction, flying and operation of such machines.… My hourly rate is $295 per hour for attending to your needs. The initial consulting fee is for 8 hours but will most probably extend. Please attach your remittance for 8 x $295 with the completed consulting agreement [attached].” He was careful to add: “we do not accept visa or mastercard [sic].”
The correspondence was vintage DeMarco, suggesting not a hint of moderation or contrition after his protracted legal ordeal. “There was an inevitability about all this,” says one of those who’d known DeMarco during his halcyon days at Old Rhinebeck. “Anybody who knew him knew it was going to happen—just not the form it would take.” One of the people at Omaka who had tried to warn Jackson about DeMarco sums it up this way: “It���s not the money; it’s the abuse of trust. If you go behind Peter’s back and screw him, you better have a bloody good cork.”
Wille, for his part, hasn’t heard from DeMarco since the verdict. But he thinks the financial problems with Jackson should have been worked out without going to court. DeMarco, he says, had no chance “as an expatriate in a foreign country where they hold all the cards. You got to figure that’s the way it’s going to go, particularly when you’re dealing with opposition from a [revered] public figure.”
At DeMarco’s sentencing, the High Court judge noted that Jackson called DeMarco’s actions the “greatest betrayal” of his life. The magistrate, however, was also cognizant of DeMarco’s situation. Recognizing the hardship that a long internment might place on DeMarco’s young family (he had become a father again and, with his girlfriend, was expecting another child), the judge handed down a reduced jail sentence of two years and five months. Even then he served far less, being granted parole in late September. Now, while reportedly living with his New Zealand family, DeMarco is facing civil suits from Jackson, Wulff, and others seeking to recover their funds and airplanes.
Yes, fantasy is powerful stuff. The ex-TVAL staff member believes that DeMarco seduced Jackson, like so many others before him, with his aviation talents and roguish veneer—as if Jackson were glimpsing another way of life through DeMarco’s wayward existence. “Pete,” he asserts, “wanted to be him. Gene was living the life that he would have loved.” This, says the insider, is what may have allowed Jackson to excuse many of the pilot’s misdeeds. “Pete,” he says, “was willfully blind.”
TVAL has now stopped all new aircraft production and public air shows, blaming the effects of COVID-19. But the former staffer says the halts are also part of the wider cuts in the Jackson-Walsh fantasy empire.
Gone are the days when Jackson wanted nothing more than to stand barefoot on a grassy airstrip alongside his fellow Kiwis and look up to see his World War I airplanes flying overhead. For, just as it happens in his movies sometimes, a Dark Rider had flown in and sent Sir Peter’s dreams spinning to earth.
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