Cocaine death row hell of socialite Amber Sceat’s stepdad revealed
The stepfather of prominent Australian jewellery designer to the stars Amber Sceats has been rescued from the hangman's noose in Singapore's infamous Changi prison.
Phillip George Sceats' harrowing 353 day ordeal can finally be revealed after a group of private investigators - including former high-ranking Australian police officers from three states hired by his family - managed to convince the Singapore authorities he had been set up.
The Sydney businessman - who has three other daughters with wife Jeanette - was arrested while transiting through Changi Airport on his way to a surprise holiday organised by his family to mark his 64th birthday.
He was en route to the resort island of Langkawi, where he was due to meet up with his wife of 34 years, who was in Hong Kong for business.
But instead of clearing customs and checking into his airport hotel to wait out the six hours before his connecting flight, Singapore authorities were waiting for him.
The cocktails and palm trees of Langkawi would have to wait. Phillip George Sceats' life as he knew it was about to implode and he would now literally be in a fight for his life.
Humble and hardworking, Mr Sceats was surprised to learn his family had organised a five-day getaway for him and wife Jeanette to celebrate his birthday.
Everything was organised for him and paid for - his airline tickets, a room at Changi Airport's Crowne Plaza where he could freshen up ahead of his connecting flight, and then five nights at the luxurious five-star St Regis Hotel on Langkawi. He was even treated to a "VIP upgrade".
The morning of March 6, 2018 had started as any other day, with Mr Sceats waking at his family's plush Vaucluse mansion in Sydney's exclusive eastern suburbs.
With his flight not till 7pm that evening - he headed off to work.
With his small suitcase packed with everything needed for a beachside holiday - swimmers, hat, loafers and snorkels - Mr Sceats put the bag in his car boot and made the short 20 minute drive to his office.
Later that evening, after arriving at the airport and checking in, Mr Sceats shopped at the duty free stores buying wine and picking up a copy of the Financial Review newspaper to read on the plane.
His flight was en route to Singapore before he was to board a second flight from Singapore onto Langkawi.
The way the booking was structured, Mr Sceats would have to clear immigration in Singapore, before collecting his bag and clearing customs.
His family knew it would be a long flight so a room at the airport's hotel was booked for him, where he could rest before boarding his final leg.
It was after midnight and still about 28 degrees when flight 242 touched down on March 7, 2018.
Mr Sceats left the aircraft with the other passengers, and headed to the Immigration desk where presented his passport and was waved through.
He was walking towards the baggage carousels area when a number of Singaporean officials called him by name and asked him to come back.
Surprised, he stopped, and the officials asked him to wait by their supervisor's desk.
Mr Sceats then saw two plain clothes people run down some stairs and approach him.
"They (Singapore authorities) were looking for me when I came out of the plane but must have missed me or not realised it was me," Mr Sceats told News Corp Australia this week
"I noticed them as I came out. They looked like Laurel and Hardy one was short and fat and the other really tall which was unusual … They had pencil thin moustaches.
"I had gone through immigration and the man at the desk had said 'have a good stay in Singapore' and then suddenly I was called back and those same two men came running down the stairs looking for me."
After checking his name, the officials asked Mr Sceats to accompany them to the baggage carousel and to point out his suitcase.
"They said 'you have to come with us'. They asked me to show them my bag on the carousel but I said I can't see it - it hadn't come out yet.
"They thought I was doing something dodgy.
"Then I saw it come out and I pointed to it and the two men ran to the bag and grabbed it, and left me sitting by myself. I could have just walked off," he said.
Mr Sceats was then taken to a bag screening area and his suitcase put through an x-ray machine.
The authorities opened his bag and found two small bags containing white powder easily located in the front pocket of the suitcase.
Mr Sceats said it appeared to be an "amateurish job" - if someone was supposed to be hiding the drugs. "they were meant to be easily found", he said.
"When they pulled me up and said there was cocaine in my bag, I thought someone was playing a joke on me and it must be sugar.
"The bags were kind of stuck to the inside of my bag (with masking tape) and they were a bit like a neon sign," he said.
He was arrested, handcuffed, and taken away to Changi prison on remand while the packets of white powder were tested.
PRISON - SIX WORST MINUTES OF HIS LIFE
It would be another three days before Mr Sceats would learn his fate.
It was now March 10 and 9.15am.
Sitting in the Changi Prison complex, Cluster B2, Interview Room No 6, Mr Sceats would learn those two packets of white powder found in his suitcase had officially tested positive for cocaine.
He was to be charged with trafficking just short of 90 grams of cocaine.
The charge was read out in English, and Mr Sceats was asked to sign the bottom of the charge sheet saying he had been informed that, if convicted, he was liable to be punished with the death penalty.
He would become the first Australian hanged for drug offences in Singapore since Nguyen Tuong Van's death in 2005.
The official charging finished at 9.21am.
Mr Sceats then made a formal statement denying any knowledge of the cocaine, and told authorities he had been framed.
His day in court would have to wait. He was now being taken to the cells where prisoners facing capital punishment charges are held.
"In the first few days I was really pissed off at how all this had happened," Mr Sceats said.
"It was a terrible nightmare. At first I thought this will sort itself out quickly and justice would prevail because I didn't do it."
When Mr Sceats' family back home learned of his arrest, they called one of Singapore's most high profile and successful lawyers, Amarick Gill.
While Mr Gill began pouring over the evidence, Singapore's own narcotics investigators at the Singapore Central Narcotics Bureau were also looking into the strange situation - that of why would a 64-year-old wealthy businessman smuggle cocaine from Australia into either Singapore or Malaysia.
The investigators knew Australia was not a source country for cocaine and that there is no money to be made smuggling cocaine from Australia to any South-East Asian country.
The estimated 90 grams hidden in Mr Sceats' suitcase would have cost an estimated $27,000 to $30,000 to buy in Sydney. It is worth less than half of that in Singapore or Malaysia.
"The investigating officer in Singapore was smart," Mr Sceats said.
"He knew it was a set up job. He knew no one would take it (cocaine) there (Singapore). It was worth 10 times more in Australia. He knew that.
"He gave me a lie-detector test and I passed it," Mr Sceats said.
"He interviewed me for three or four days and nothing made sense.
"There were no phone calls connecting me to anyone. There was no money taken out to pay for it and there was no demand.
"I would have been the first person ever to smuggle cocaine into Singapore (from Australia)".
Urine tests came back negative for cocaine but he did test positive for methadone for which he has had a long standing prescription from his doctor.
Forensics experts in Singapore dusted the two packets of drugs for fingerprints and DNA. There were no fingerprints. There was only a tiny trace of his DNA on the outer surface of one packet - most likely transference from his suitcase.
The Singaporean authorities checked Mr Sceats' phone records looking for links, messages or calls to people in Singapore or Malaysia prior to his arrival in Singapore showing he had been liaising with people to deliver the drugs. There were none.
They asked for and checked his bank records to see if he had made any withdrawals of the size needed to pay for the cocaine prior to his trip. There were no such withdrawals.
They checked his flight bookings, Mr Sceats had not even booked his own flights.
"I am a family man. Nothing added up," Mr Sceats said of his predicament.
Mr Sceats was convinced he was set up and that Singapore authorities tipped off - he just didn't know by whom.
"The first phone call must have come when I was in the air," he said.
In Australia, Mr Sceats' family were becoming desperate. They knew he was innocent but like him, were watching time running out.
"I started losing hope, Mr Sceats said.
"I saw people disappearing. It was pretty rough. It was very strict regime in there. If you do something wrong they give you the cane on the bare bum.
"They say it is like sitting on a barbecue."
Visits were restricted and Mr Sceats languished in jail for months before he was able to receive 20 minute visits from family members who flew to Singapore to see him.
In the meantime, the family called in a private investigator in Australia to work on uncovering what they could about just who planted the drugs in Mr Sceats' bag.
Heading the team was former Queensland police officer turned private investigator Oliver Laurence.
Mr Laurence flew to Singapore to interview Mr Sceats and over the next few months pulled together an Australian team of investigators and consultants including former high-ranking police officers from three states.
Among them was former Queensland Police Assistant Commissioner Graham Rynders, former NSW Deputy Police Commissioner and United Nations senior investigator Nick Kaldas and former Victorian Police Detective Senior Constable Ken Clark.
Between them the trio had more than 100 years' experience in police work and held some of the most senior roles in their respective forces.
This journalist was also consulted as part of the team involved in the race to uncover the truth and get Mr Sceats released from death row.
Mr Sceats' predicament was kept secret while investigators were examining every shred of evidence possible.
Investigators took statements from family and friends and business associates about his background, business, anything to do with cocaine, and about possible motives for the stitch-up.
Armed with the evidence they had gathered and a possible person of interest - the team approached the Australian Federal Police, and the NSW Police for help, but received none.
"I lobbied Government, police both State and Federal and got nowhere with anyone as they felt the offence had taken place outside of the country and ultimately didn't believe there were grounds for an investigation in Australia," Mr Laurence told News Corp.
The team also asked for help from Mr Sceats' then local Member of parliament, Dr Kerryn Phelps, but again received none.
Bewildered and anxious, Mr Sceats spent much of his time writing home to his family.
In May 2018 just two months after he was arrested, he wrote:
"Dear All, "most time I feel I am stuck in some sort of alternate universe. How (sic) I arrived here? I don't know as to how I leave. I can't.
"Don't think about too much! That's what they say in here - it's not good for you. That's for those resigned to their fate. I'm not yet.
"How did this all happen to me? Why? Has anything come from the Australian Federal Police?........ miss you all so much …"
Back home, Mr Sceats' family were doing all they could to support him while also maintaining the family's successful business interests.
Amber, whom Mr Sceats adopted when she was a baby, is one of Australia's most in-demand jewellery designers with her pieces featuring in high-end magazines and worn by stars including Isabelle Cornish, Samara Weaving and singer Ricky-Lee Coulter.
Amber also counts PR maven and socialite Roxy Jacenko as a friend, with Jacenko often spotted wearing Sceats' signature pieces.
Relatively private, Amber did give a rare insight into her business in an interview with Elle magazine in 2015
"My grandfather founded one of Australia's most prominent watch companies and my mother took part in founding the Amber Sceats brand in 2012," she told the magazine.
"We've been through a lot together but we've achieved a lot together as well. My mother is a fighter who inspires me to push through life's toughest moments and stay strong in every aspect imaginable. I adore them both."
Mr Sceats was being held on what is known as death row - one of the oldest men incarcerated and sharing a cell with three others.
"We had minimum food, only two books allowed at a time," he said
"We were allowed out for 20 minutes at a time I spent my time reading and doing yoga and writing letters.
"Guards come past your cell every hour. They don't turn the lights off when you are on the death penalty.
"There is a very strict regime. If you do anything wrong they give you the cane," he said.
"There are four people in a cell together and they change your cell every month."
He became friendly with his cell mates and watched helplessly as they were taken away one by one to face execution.
All the while knowing bar a miracle, that that too would be the fate awaiting him.
"You get friendly with people in there. It is heartbreaking when they are taken away.
"I think 14 guys were executed while I was there," he said.
"They get taken away to the execution place. They stay there and have one month to appeal and if that is not successful - they are executed."
Singaporean lawyer Amarick Gill said although he believed early on that Mr Sceats had been framed, it was his duty as a lawyer in one of the world' strictest countries to discuss with his clients the possibility of a plea bargain.
Twenty years in jail was more appealing than death.
"But when I brought up the subject with Phillip, he exploded at me," Mr Gill told News Corp Australia.
"Phillip said to me 'I am going for broke. I didn't do it'."
THE BALI NINE
After the 2015 executions of Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the AFP changed its policy on giving information to law enforcement in countries where Australians could face the death penalty.
But the question had to be asked did history somehow repeat itself in the case of Phillip Sceats?
On Friday, The AFP told News Corp Australia it only became aware of the arrest "of this man after notification from Singaporean authorities on 7 March 2018".
"The AFP had no knowledge of the alleged offence prior to the man's arrest," a spokesman said.
"Any questions regarding this matter should be directed to the appropriate Singapore authorities."
What is known is a mystery person tipped off the Singaporean authorities during Mr Sceats ill-fated flight from Sydney to Singapore - knowing full-well he would face the death penalty if convicted.
Mr Sceats had not been searched before he boarded his flight out Sydney. But by the time he disembarked at Singapore's Changi Airport, one of the largest and busiest transportation hubs in Asia, airport authorities had his name and arrival details.
Mr Sceats insists he saw AFP officer hats and jackets with logos on them at Changi Airport when he was arrested.
"I think the AFP should have investigated more thoroughly," Mr Sceats said.
"They should have looked into a tip-off that said this guy is coming into Singapore with drugs and do a proper investigation rather than just pass it on and take it as gospel.
"To this day I kept on saying when I was arrested in Singapore I saw the AFP logo on hats in the airport," he said.
A list of documents obtained under Freedom of information laws has revealed the AFP were aware of at least some of the tip-off information around the time of Mr Sceats' arrest.
But the AFP has refused to release any of the details contained in the documents.
Among them is one document about Mr Sceats' case which is described as "allegation/incident description" which is said to be undated.
Another document titled "Border Intelligence log No 9", may hold the key as to the mystery tip-off. It was entered into the police computer system on March 8, 2018, the day after Mr Sceats was arrested in Singapore.
There are email chains between the AFP and other unnamed people include discussions of "information communicated in confidence by the authority of a foreign government" - all of which the AFP refused to reveal for various reasons including "exempted material would disclose information that would have a substantial adverse effect on the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of the AFP and would be contrary to public interest."
It also refused to release the information "on the grounds that disclosure would divulge information communicated in confidence by the authority of a foreign government"; "information exchanged between the State Agencies and the Commonwealth government"; and "disclosure would or could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth".
The last document entry is described as "Case Note: enquiry re AFP involvement (log No 37.).
That document is dated February 21, 2019 - three days after the Australian investigation team again approached the NSW Police armed with a dossier of evidence including a situation report, summary of events, timeline, possible person of interest and possible crimes committed.
The team urged NSW Police to accept the referral for immediate investigation - given the urgency of the matter with Mr Sceats facing the death penalty.
The team were of the "firm view that there is an overwhelming case to suggest Mr Sceats had been set up or framed in Sydney to ensure his arrest in Singapore."
The referral letter also said previous directions from NSW Police to "engage with the AFP have proved unsuccessful …"
The dossier of evidence from the Australian team hired by the family was sent to the Singaporean lawyer, Mr Gill, who in turn sent it to the Singapore Attorney-General Lucien Wong SC for consideration alongside the findings of the Narcotics Bureau's own investigation.
Mr Laurence was preparing to travel to Singapore for a flying visit to assist Mr Gill in his final briefings to the Singapore AG on behalf of Mr Sceats.
It was to focus on the lack of evidence to prove the prosecution case.
On February 23, 2019, just two days after the AFP was asked about its involvement in the case according to FOI documents, Mr Laurence got a call with stunning news.
After 353 days on death row - Mr Sceats was being released.
Within hours Mr Laurence and Mr Rynders were on a flight to Singapore.
Woken at 4.30am, a confused Mr Sceats was only told he was going to court.
He sat in the cells all day - not knowing what was going on.
At about 4.15pm and after almost everyone in the court building had left, Mr Sceats was told the court was finished for the day. He assumed he would be returned to his cell at Changi prison.
Instead, "a guard came and said 'you have to go upstairs'."
When he was led into the dock, he was stunned to see his legal team, as well as Mr Rynders and Mr Laurence.
"I was taken up to the court and I saw my solicitor. He told me to be calm - and then said you are going to get a Dismissal Notice without Acquittal."
Mr Sceats said he was so overwhelmed is legs gave way.
"I was so relieved I could barely stand up," he said.
"I said to him 'you have to be kidding?' After all this I am being released - after facing the death penalty? Even the Judge seemed to have a small smile on his face."
He said his first thoughts turned to his family and his wife Jeanette.
"I wanted to call my wife and tell her I love her and I miss her and I am safe," he said.
A mystery caucasian woman was sitting at the back of the courtroom and slipped away before Mr Rynders and Mr Laurence could catch up with her to find out who she was.
Mr Sceats was immediately released into the custody of the pair on the promise they would take a one-way ticket back to Sydney within 24 hours.
After being without a comfortable bed for almost a year, Mr Sceats spent his first night of freedom in a hotel room he shared with Mr Laurence and Mr Rynders.
"The first thing I ate when I came out was fresh tomatoes with salt and pepper," he said.
"We had boiled cabbage and rice in the jail. No real meat. I wanted something fresh.
"I was down to 72 kgs. I was 92kgs when I went in. I lost 20 kgs.
He also got to eat the birthday cake he missed out on the year before.
Mr Rynders told News Corp they are extremely grateful for the "exceptional assistance from the Singapore authorities and judicial system in bringing the matter to a successful and appropriate conclusion".
A sentiment shared by Mr Gill, who said "it is extremely rare for anyone facing drug trafficking charges to be released before facing a trial."
Mr Laurence said this investigation was one of the greatest challenges of my investigative career to date".
"Knowing that Phillip was innocent and the reality that he could be executed if I didn't do anything, made me work so hard to ensure we got him home to his family," he said.
"I looked at him in that jail cell as my own father, and ensured that the team and I left no stone unturned.
"It is often very dangerous as an investigator to make promises to a family that you will resolve a situation, but on this occasion, I broke my own rule. I promised I would bring him home, and we did," he said.
THE SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH
While he saved his client from the gallows, Mr Gill the case will haunt him forever.
"One question keeps bugging me and I don't want to go to the grave not knowing," he told News Corp.
"There was a tip-off and I want to know who made the call," he said.
Mr Gill said he had "written many times to the Singaporean government to ask for the source of the tip-off, both prior to Phillip's release, and afterwards."
But he said the Singapore government has refused to divulge the source.
And when he was told Australian police had not investigated the framing of Mr Sceats after he was released, Mr Gill said he was shocked.
"I think it is disgusting that it has not been investigated in Australia," he said.
"I think whoever planted that cocaine should be charged. Phillip spent 353 days on remand (on death row in Changi Prison) for doing nothing."
But even after Mr Sceats was released, Mr Laurence said he still received no assistance from police.
He said it was like - "oh well he (Mr Sceats) has been released now we don't need to do anything else."
Investigator Ken Clark said he too is extremely concerned by the lack of interest from state and federal police at the time they approached them for help.
"I am disappointed that this investigation never got the attention from the authorities in Australia that it should have," Mr Clark told News Corp.
"I am also concerned that not only have those responsible not been held accountable but they also failed to achieve their intention.
"That always creates a sense of urgency to resolve the matter as the threat still exists.
"If it was not for Oliver's decisive action and direction with this case Phillip's outcome could have been drastically different."
But the search for the truth has continued.
This journalist has spent the past year lodging Freedom of information requests with the AFP and Home Affairs and interviewing people trying to extract the truth.
Home Affairs has said they hold no documents in relation to Mr Sceats' case.
NSW Police said yesterday it had opened an investigation at the time and it is understood made a referral to the AFP.
Independent Senator Rex Patrick said he plans to raise Mr Sceats' matter with the AFP during Estimates hearings in Federal Parliament this week.
"This is a most disturbing story involving an innocent Australian being detained on death row in Singapore for almost a year.,"Mr Patrick told News Corp Australia.
"There are serious questions to be answered in relation to this matter. What does the AFP know about this matter? Did the call originate from Australia? If so, do they know who did make the call and what are they doing about the tip off?
"The tip off unquestionably put Mr Sceats in serious danger given the death penalty is mandatory in Singapore for anyone found guilty of trafficking more than 30 grams of cocaine," Mr Patrick said.
"There are important matters of public interest at play here."
THE PERSONAL TOLL
Home for just over a year now, the horrific incident has left Mr Sceats scarred and a shadow of his former self.
"If I didn't have a smart investigator I would have been done and dusted," Mr Sceats said.
"If it wasn't for the Singapore investigator really looking into this case I would have been hung by now.
"What is so worrying is how easily it can happen to someone and how easily it can ruin someone's life," he said.
"Apparently no-one uses cocaine in Singapore, I would have been the first person ever to have smuggled it into the country from Australia."
The man who proudly grew vegetables in his garden and rigged up irrigation systems for his pineapple crop is now suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He has trouble adjusting to his freedom and hates even being enclosed in a hospital room.
"My life has changed so much. The family has been shattered." Mr Sceats said.
"I used to work hard - 60 hours a week in the family business. - I had a great interest in gardening. Experimenting with plants and Australian natives.
"Now I watch TV all day. I am a broken man."
He leads a simple life now, only going out to catch up with a few mates for a beer at the local RSL or visits with his first grandchild.
But what hurts most is that police did nothing to help while he was on death row and have still done nothing to bring the suspected perpetrators to justice.
Police have not even interviewed him about his ordeal.
He wants to make sure that this never happens again to anyone and the police finally do their job.
"I would give anything to know what really happened."