Gilespie now has 10 days to launch an appeal. His compatriot Henry Chhin was sentenced to death for trying to send 270 grams of methamphetamine to Australia in 2004. He remains in a Chinese jail, his fate unknown.
The prospects could not be worse for Gilespie. His detention is linked by timing and circumstance to Australia’s deepening diplomatic spat with China over the coronavirus pandemic.
The performer listed Nelson Mandela as his idol in 2009. The former South African president spent 27 years in prison on trumped-up political charges. “Being pure of heart has been a great lesson,” Gilespie said.
Gilespie’s journey to China began with his foray into the world of futurists and motivational speakers. Leaving acting behind in 2009, he moved into the property investment game. Linking up with a South African church pastor, Petrus Carstens, the pair pitched a “Property Players group” of international investors to “hunt in a pack”.
“It was a bit like JFK standing there saying we are going to take a man to the moon but we did not know how it would happen,” Gilespie said in one of his motivational videos posted online.
“If the growth cycle isn’t here in your suburb, where is it? Is it in India, Vietnam or another country?”
During four years of touring the motivational circuit Gilespie would present a “Your Financial Diamond” course, found the “Act You Life” high-performance coaching franchise and attend a Wealth Dynamics summit in Bali run by entrepreneur and futurist Roger James Hamilton.
“He had been an active member of our community, encouraging others to be the best they could be,” Mr Hamilton said. “Knowing the love he has for his wife and his children, this is not a man that deserves to lose his life.
“This is not right. This is not fair. This is not humanity.”
Gilespie, a talented footballer who once harboured dreams of playing in the AFL, started 2013 in high spirits.
“Welcome to 2013. I am planning to make each day count 1 step at a time,” he wrote on Facebook on New Year’s Day.
“When we step back and look at our life with perspective, suddenly we can be grateful for all that we have,” he added in August.
By the end of the year the twice-married 56-year-old had told friends he was travelling to Thailand. By December the prolific social media user had vanished.
“It was so mysterious too,” said Jill Parris, who has been pen pals with Gilespie since they were 13.
“I got a phone call saying he was going to go to Thailand with a new girlfriend, he was very excited to go but I was very concerned. He said he was starting a new company. Thailand gave me an uneasy feeling.”
Ms Parris said she was having trouble coming to terms with Gilespie ending up in a Chinese jail.
“I’ve tried to contact him several times to no avail,” she said. “He would not go without calling or writing to me.”
In the seven years since Gilespie disappeared, there has never been any mention of his arrest, charges or conviction. The first time he was publicly identified by China’s opaque judicial system or Australian authorities was when his death sentence was announced on Wednesday.
The Melbourne man is one of several Australians detained by China in a narcotics crackdown that ran from 2012 to 2015. The Australian Federal Police signed Task Force Blaze in 2015 to stop methamphetamine smuggling. On Sunday, an AFP spokeswoman said the AFP had no involvement in this arrest”.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, which is providing consular assistance but has not been able to see Gilespie in person due to the coronavirus pandemic, conventionally advises families to keep a low profile and hope quiet diplomacy will see their family member released.
“He was a wonderful and beautiful soul, I’m really upset by this,” said Ms Parris, who lives in northern California. “It seems to me he has been framed… I know he’s suffering, he’s a very gentle person but he’s mentally strong.”
Mr Hamilton, who has started a Facebook campaign urging the Australian government to do more to secure Gilespie’s release, said he had been told Gilespie had been duped.
“He was over there meeting investors for a deal,” Mr Hamilton said. “They asked him to carry presents back to their partners in Australia which included handbags. The drugs were in the handbags. It was a set-up.”
The claim was repeated by several of Gilespie’s acquaintances who asked not to be identified. Gilespie’s lawyers have been contacted for comment.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
Rachael Dexter is a journalist & audio video producer at The Age.
Pallavi Singhal is a data journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald