john griffin blue ridge capital coronavirus new zealand escape 2x1Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Business Insider

  • Hedge fund billionaire John Griffin’s private jet fled New York for New Zealand just days before the US declared coronavirus a national emergency, according to flight data analyzed by Business Insider.
  • Last year,  Griffin paid the highest price ever recorded for a residential townhouse in New York City.
  • Griffin also owns property in New Zealand. According to flight data, his jet flew from Newark to Queenstown, reaching the remote island nation on March 11 after a stop in Honolulu.
  • Griffin’s is just one of 16 private jets that have arrived in New Zealand from the US since February, as the coronavirus spread globally.
  • The remote country is a popular escape location for wealthy Americans, including tech billionaire Peter Thiel and Griffin’s own financier mentor, Julian Robertson.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Hedge fund billionaire John Griffin appears to have left his home in New York City for a New Zealand redoubt as the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on the United States, according to flight data reviewed by Business Insider. 

Griffin, who recently wound down his hedge fund, Blue Ridge Capital, and serves as chair of the Robin Hood Foundation, paid a record $77.1 million last year for a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But he seems to have left it behind just eight months later as the pandemic threatened New York City.

Griffin’s private jet, a Bombardier Global 6000, landed in Queenstown, New Zealand from Newark, New Jersey, on March 11, after making a stop in Honolulu, flight data shows. Four days later, the plane flew from Queenstown to Gisborne, where Griffin owns an estate, before continuing to the metropolitan city of Auckland, where it remains.

Griffin’s flight was one of at least 16 private jet flights from the US to the remote island nation since coronavirus began to stir fears of a global cataclysm in February, according to data provided by FlightAware. But the ownership of the planes is unclear due to an obscure federal program that allows US private jet owners to block their aircraft identification numbers, or tail numbers, from public tracking sites.

Business Insider traced the Queenstown flight by matching an identifier received by FlightAware to a tail number associated with Griffin. The jet’s precise movements were mapped using data provided by ADS-B Exchange, a network that tracks and records aviation signals. 

Two days after Griffin’s plane landed in New Zealand, Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic. Eight days later, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closed the country’s borders to non-citizens and non-residents.

Griffin did not respond to voicemail messages or a request for comment sent via the Robin Hood Foundation.

With its remote location and small population, fleeing to New Zealand is a popular backup plan for apocalypse-fearing billionaires in the US.

Julian Robertson, a famous hedge funder who mentored Griffin early in his career, owns property there, as does American tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who — despite his vocal support for Trump’s “America First” policies — was secretly granted citizenship to the island nation in 2011 after pledging to invest there. But the investments quickly evaporated, and the scandal over the appearance of special treatment in handling his citizenship application prompted a reform to laws governing foreign ownership of land.

Fidelity chairman William P. Foley and Hollywood director James Cameron also own property in New Zealand.  According to Bloomberg News, at least seven Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have purchased bunkers there, buried 11 feet deep, from a company called Rising S.

Last month, the Huffington Post identified a plane owned by a shell company called Thorondor, an apparent reference to the Lord of the Rings series, which has served as the inspiration for many of Thiel’s companies. That plane flew from Los Angeles to Hawaii on March 12, and a review of its flight history showed regular flights from California to New Zealand, usually via Hawaii, according to the report.

It’s unclear whether that plane belongs to Thiel, or if its passengers continued on to New Zealand. A representative for Thiel did not respond to a request for comment. The New Zealand embassy declined to comment.

Like Thiel, Griffin is known to take regular trips to New Zealand.

The New York billionaire built his fortune through the hedge fund Blue Ridge Capital, which he founded in 1996 after spending time under Robertson at the legendary firm Tiger Management. Griffin wound down the hedge fund in 2018, though his plane is still registered to a subsidiary of Blue Ridge, Helair Holdings LLC.  

In 2002, Griffin bought a historic plot of land near the town of Gisborne known as Young Nick’s Head Station, for $3.2 million New Zealand dollars, in a deal that set off a lengthy dispute with local indigenous communities and ultimately led to stronger regulations around land sales to foreigners. 

Data from Griffin’s plane shows that it flew to New Zealand in 2016, 2017, and 2018 in addition to this year. A local report from 2016 said the he visits the Gisborne area every New York winter.

As of Wednesday, New Zealand had just 1,078 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Two new cases were identified by officials in the region of Gisborne this week, and “mystery surrounds the source of one of the cases,” according to the Gisborne Herald.

On March 24, the White House issued an advisory asking all travellers leaving the New York region to self-quarantine for 14 days. Days later, the Centers for Disease Control urged all New Yorkers to avoid non-essential travel.

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