Brisbane, 1973. A young man was preparing for a career in the Royal Australian Navy. He was a high achiever—one of the top students in the state of that year. Then, filling in the paperwork from the navy, he glanced at his birth certificate and did a double take. Surely, it must be wrong.
He knew himself as Wolfgang Harbers, but his birth certificate didn’t agree. Confused, he questioned his mother, who burst into tears and told him a truth he never imagined existed. His real father had deserted her while she was pregnant, and she’d given birth to him as a single mother. When he was 10 months old, she met and married Albert Harbers, and they brought up the child together as their son, keeping his true identity secret.
“All of this was a great shock to me,” says Wolfgang Hellwig (as he’s known now) in his self-published book No Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes. The event marked the beginning of a chapter of his life he describes as empty and “unacceptable to society.”
After three years in the navy, one of his friends tipped off the authorities and he was charged with possessing an unlicensed firearm. “I felt betrayed,” says Hellwig. “I became very bitter and rebelled. I refused to salute the officers. I went about constantly with my hands in my pockets and was ordered to sew them up. Twice I went absent without leave and really ran amok in a military watch house.”
Eventually, much to his father’s dismay, the navy discharged him.
Back home, he joined a motorcycle club and from there slipped further into recklessness. His first taste of prison came when he was just 20.
“I was convicted of breaking and entering a motorcycle shop and stealing motorcycles and accessories,” he says. “My state of mind while an inmate was hard, bitter, angry and anti-social towards my family, authorities and society.”
When he was released, he was determined to leave his troubled life behind him and went to Western Australia to start anew. But as a lonely and purposeless youth, he quickly found himself drawn back to the danger and brotherhood of a bikie gang.
Even though he’s no longer in bikie gangs,
It is a thread that ran through the next 10 years of Hellwig’s life—betrayal, bitterness and bikies. And prisons. Seven, to be exact.
“Reflecting on those years, what should have been the best years of my life as a young man, I spent in jails. What a waste!”
His regret is so forceful, so passionate, that it seems he is making up for the lack of it as an inmate. When he received parole, he was determined to “go straight.” He had spent more than 10 years in bikie gangs and four-and-a-half in prisons.
Then, quite suddenly, everything changed. In 1987, Hellwig, then aged 29, was drunk and driving. He doesn’t remember much about it, but somehow, his vehicle landed bottom-up at the base of a 9-metre embankment.
“When the police saw me the next day in hospital, they said on arrival at the accident scene, that they thought it was a miracle that my life was spared. God did spare my life,” says Hellwig.
When he was released from hospital, he hitchhiked to a distant town. “I reached the town, my clothes still spattered with blood and my forehead still showing the stitches, when I saw some Christians witnessing on the street,” he says. “I deliberately tried to avoid them, but they made a beeline for me.”
It was his first real encounter with Christians and it made him edgy.
“I wanted to leave, but I did agree for them to pray with me, so that I could get on my way.”
Several months later, Hellwig was given a New Testament. He read it in five days. One passage (Titus 3:3–7) leapt off the page: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. . . . So that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
“My life was summed up in these verses,” says Hellwig. “I read about the love of God and of the Saviour Jesus Christ who suffered and died for me so that I would be saved and made free of guilt and sin. I then accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour, my Lord and my God. This really changed my life.”
Now, although his bikie days are well and truly over, Hellwig has maintained some of the characteristics that drew him to that lifestyle. Not the anger, bitterness or recklessness, but the core character traits. I can hear it in his voice—the sense of adventure, the independence, the passion—now, they are all channelled into sharing the grace and salvation he found in Jesus Christ, and saving others from a past like his.
After spending years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea (he describes these years as the most exciting of his life), Hellwig, now 53, has settled into the life of a model citizen, using his love of gardening for income and pouring his excess energy into crime- and prison-prevention programs for youth.
“The Bible says, ‘walk with the wise and become wise’ and ‘bad company corrupts good character.’ I just encourage people to be careful with who they hang around. Be careful of bitterness. I had the potential for a really good life in the navy but I got bitter and angry so young, and it was all downhill from there.”
Hellwig’s book contains his life story and testimony, and he regularly receives letters from people who’ve read it and been touched. It’s become his mission to repay his debts to society as much, and in as many ways, as possible.
But does “giving back” give him the same thrill that taking away once gave him?
“All those years were quite exciting. Since then, things have quieted down, but life is much better—more peaceful; more purposeful. I don’t have to worry about police knocking on my door or being part of a drive-by shooting. I just want to give back to the community. There’s a bit of excitement involved with that. I do sometimes need a bit of a buzz, you know!”