He went from a life of privilege in central Auckland to serving 25 years in a United States prison for a jailhouse murder. But the wannabe rap star and son of a Parnell lawyer remains optimistic about winning his freedom. Lane Nichols reports on the peculiar and tragic case of Clinton Forbel Thinn.
He may not be eligible for release till 2043, but the former Auckland Grammar boy is brimming with confidence and grand plans for his future.
Thinn – the stepbrother of former National Party deputy leader Nikki Kaye – wrote to the Herald on Sunday from California State Prison following coverage of his high profile murder case.
In a series of letters, the 33-year-old has detailed his naive pipe dreams of landing in the US and signing an instant recording contract with Snoop Dogg.
"Man, was that a far cry off."
He has also revealed ambitions for a Netflix television series and hopes for a multimillion-dollar publishing deal and tell-all book upon his eventual release.
The fledgling YouTube rapper ditched rehab and travelled to the US in 2016 to pursue a music career.
He says he now has a girlfriend and American citizenship but is still working on sourcing an iPhone behind bars.
He misses his family and is desperate for visitors.
"I need some contact with some of my friends."
He has also revealed being the victim of a robbery in Mexico in the lead up to his own incarceration and says prison life is violent and tough for a foreign inmate tens of thousands of kilometres from home.
"The jails are segregated into white, Hispanic and black. Generally you stick with your race … or you get 'three on oned' in a cell and cops turn the blind eye.
"The culture in America is extremely different. It is extremely racist, and all politics remain inside and outside jails.
"There are a lot of things I cannot say because I am still fighting inside to get out. I can put more in my book but let's just say it is dangerous to not have food stocked in the cupboard at all times."
Thinn attended rehab in Auckland for drug addiction and mental health problems before travelling overseas. He wound up in jail after committing an armed bank robbery in San Diego shortly after arriving in the US.
While awaiting trial for the failed bank heist, he strangled cellmate Lyle Woodward to death over several minutes with a ripped cloth ligature in December 2016.
He was charged with first degree murder and at one point faced the death penalty. Thinn claimed self-defence but was found guilty of murder by a jury in July 2018 and sentenced to 25 years.
Thinn - who goes by the name "Aussie" in prison – has filed numerous appeals.
His lawyers claimed his vulnerability as a white foreigner incarcerated in a cell with two black inmates meant he was at significant risk of violence. Failure to stand up to bullying could place him at greater risk.
An appeal to the Californian Supreme Court was thrown out late last year, after it ruled there had been no miscarriage of justice.
But in a statement to the Herald on Sunday, Thinn's father, Auckland lawyer Neil Thinn, confirmed lawyers acting for his son were now preparing a Federal appeal to one of the United States' top courts.
In his letter, Thinn told the Herald on Sunday his incarceration had been hard on his family, including Kaye, his father and step-mother Julia Kaye.
Covid-19 restrictions meant he'd had limited contact with loved ones back home, no telephone or email access, and no visitors. He also had limited access to his legal team.
"The whole situation is very upsetting not being able to talk to family for over a year. It is the same empty feeling when I lost my mother to cancer when I was 16. But this is something my family are going to have to deal with for the rest of their life."
After arriving in the US he had quickly run out of money so headed to Mexico where it was cheaper to live on American dollars.
"While I was in Mexico I got robbed and held up for my backpack, wallet, cellphone and cards. I had enough money to get over the border and some very close calls and situations that could have been much worse."
Soon after that he tried unsuccessfully to rob the San Diego bank.
Thinn recalled sitting in chains and prison "greens" during his murder trial and said his defence was effectively knee-capped by a judge's ruling which prevented his legal team presenting crucial evidence about racial politics in US jails.
He said he'd already spent $30,000 on his appeal but was unhappy with his lawyer's performance and planned to sue her. He was seeking new legal representation for the Federal appeal.
"I thought I would now get my murder charge overturned for a lesser involuntary manslaughter. I don't think I need to have a sentence like [25 years] imposed due to the facts of the case, but I am still going through matters and need help and support from people back home as well."
Thinn declined to discuss details of the bank robbery or killing of his cellmate, saying only that he owed $10,000 in court-ordered restitution to the victim's family - to cover funeral expenses - and hoped to start a Gofundme page to help raise the money.
He admitted that his lofty dreams of landing in California and making it big as a rap musician had been naive.
"I thought it was all going to happen, that I would get off the plane, walk into Snoop Dogg's office or the 20th floor of Cash Money Records and sign a multi-million dollar contract. Man, was that a far cry off.
"But what is for real is persistence pays off and I encourage people to follow their passion, whatever that may be, and don't let anyone tell you you can't do or be something."
The Herald earlier reported that Thinn was tackled to the ground in central Auckland one night in 2006 after being spotted by two members of the public carrying a semi-automatic rifle and 40 rounds of ammunition concealed under his jacket.
And despite being prosecuted here on firearms and drugs charges, Thinn's letter reveals he was able to travel to the US on an American passport and is now pursuing university qualifications while behind bars.
His life plans include publishing his book, the Netflix release and working on a potential investigative documentary. And he still hopes to pursue his love of music.
"I want to be out this time next year.
"So if you see me on tour back in NZ slide me a mixtape. I won't be signing new artists, but I'll play it back in the studios."
Thinn signed off his letter by saying: "Keep well and don't let people tell you [you] can't do anything or hold you back. Where there's a will there's a way."
Kaye declined to comment. She has previously issued a statement indicating her family planned to continue fighting for Thinn's release.
"I do not wish to make comment as a further appeal is being prepared."
Neil Thinn declined to comment further, saying he did not want to jeopardise his son's appeal.
Letters from Thinn's family released by his lawyer after his trial said his father and stepmother feared they would be dead by the time Thinn was eventually released.
"We will travel as regularly, for as long as we can afford to and are physically able to, to the United States to visit Clinton so he knows he has a place, family and home to return to. We write regularly and send magazines," the letter said.
The family were setting up a trust for Thinn to make sure he had a home of his own to return to when he eventually gets out of jail.
Thinn will become eligible for release when he is 55.