Novelist is accused of assuming secret lives to conceal his assets

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The Independent Online

The bestselling novelist Wilbur Smith has been accused in a Cape Town court of swindling relatives out of money by concocting secret lives for himself worthy of the most colourful characters from the pages of his adventure stories.

The Zambian-born author of 28 thrillers – whose fourth wife, Mokhiniso Rakhimova, is 38 years his junior – has led a flamboyant personal life that has led to conflict with his children before. This time he is being sued by his stepson, the American medical specialist Dieter Schmidt.

He claimed in a Cape High Court this week that the writer had for years conducted a secret life as a Sri Lankan national called Steven Bisset Lawrence, and signed over assets to convenience companies run by himself under the aliases of "Lawrence" and "W Sinclair" to "place assets out of the reach of his children born of his former wives" and to avoid taxes.

Mr Schmidt reportedly says in papers that in 1994 his stepfather acquired Irish and Seychelles passports, adding to the British and South African passports he already carried. He proceeded to create false identities that enabled him to secretly transfer large sums of money and assets to himself.

The American, who says his close relationship with his stepfather soured after the author remarried in 2000, also claims that Mr Smith, 69, neglected his third wife (and Mr Schmidt's mother) Danielle Thomas during the last seven years of her life before she died from cancer in 1999.

Mr Smith – who often credited Danielle Thomas, who was also a top-selling author for inspiring his extraordinary success – was born to British parents in Zambia in 1933 and was raised in South Africa. He qualified as an accountant at Rhodes University and worked briefly as a tax assessor, but soon turned to writing instead.

His first novel When the Lion Feeds set him quickly on the road to fame and fortune, and was followed by dozens more mostly historical African-set works that are today published in dozens of countries and have sold more than 70 million copies worldwide. His latest work, Warlock, was published last year.

Although he has probably smarted from lack of critical acclaim, the self-proclaimed "white African" is massively rich and has owned lavish properties in London, the Cape and the Seychelles among other exotic parts of the world. He lives an enviable jet-setting lifestyle, combining writing with hobbies such as fly fishing, big game angling, hunting, skiing and scuba diving.

Mr Smith has not supplied a substantive answer to Mr Schmidt's affidavit, but he has indicated that legal action will be taken to have it declared inadmissible in court.

Often in the news, he will not welcome the publicity accompanying his stepson's law suit, which followed an application launched by Mr Smith and a Cape Town lawyer, Oscar Roupe in their capacity as trustees of the Sunbird Trust, which the author founded in 1986.

They wanted the High Court to set aside a decision by the trust that would have enabled Mr Schmidt's former home in Cape Town (owned by the trust) to be sold, with the proceeds going to Mr Schmidt to buy a house in America. Their suit sought to deny Mr Schmidt the money.

Mr Schmidt's counter application this week seeks the removal of both Wilbur Smith and Mr Roupe as Sunbird trustees, and to stop any distribution of capital or income to any beneficiary of the trust before it is terminated.

The stepson says in the court papers that he and Mr Smith were very close until recently. "He regarded me as his son and I regarded him as my father," Mr Schmidt said.

Problems between the two started after Danielle Thomas was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 1992. "From then on, both Smith and my mother were under increasing personal strain and Smith would spend longer and longer periods away from her."

When Mr Smith married his fourth wife five months after his mother's death, their relationship deteriorated.

Mr Schmidt says that before his mother died he was told by Mr Smith how to access his personal computer files. The stepson realised that Mr Smith had been attempting to deceive him financially.

From the records, Mr Schmidt learnt of his step- father's passports, and the 1993 acquisition of a Sri Lankan passport, driver's licence, library and business cards in the name of "Lawrence". He also outlines a complex set of companies controlled by "Lawrence" and "Sinclair" that involved transactions "between Smith and himself".

The intention, Mr Schmidt alleges, was to move assets that at the time were held on behalf of the Sunbird Trust to new companies "which would place them out of the reach" of his family – and to deceive the South African tax authorities.