Hastings, New Zealand
An Insignificant Town in an Insignficant Country




Richard Ansell


 
© Copyright 2023 by Richard Ansell



Photo of the author in 1963.
Photo of the author in 1963.

With cat-like tread, I was patrolling on foot the back alleys of the Hastings city retail shops looking for anyone who maybe was there with nefarious intentions. It was my first night shift and so far quite uneventful. There was a suggestion of fog in the air but faint light filtered eerily from a distant security lamp casting shadows over untidy rubbish bins and their scattered contents - like a stage setting from Cats without the orchestrations. Rounding a corner a man about 20ish was walking towards me and didnít seem bothered meeting a policeman in uniform.  Even stopped to talk.  He said he had seen off someone at the nearby railway station and was taking a shortcut.   I did hear a train at the station a few minutes earlier so his explanation didnít raise my suspicions. 

As we parted, I turned around and saw a pair of socks hanging from his back pocket, but not only that!  Around his neck was a red pirate-like bandana.  My expertise in all things pirates had faded considerably but I knew he wasnít a pirate king as they always wore crowns.   But just maybe mmm. 

I called him back and asked why he had socks there and without an explanation, asked him to empty his pockets.  Out fell a short piece of wire which I immediately recognised for what it was.  Mr Gilbert described it best.  It was a skeletonic key. A pick lock.  It was a piece of wire bent in a certain shape used by burglars to insert into a lock that has a key on the other side.  It allows the person to turn the key and unlock the door.  So simple but many older houses have this common type of lock.  I arrested him for carrying implements of burglary.  The socks he explained later, were to put over his hands to prevent leaving fingerprints and the bandana was for his face.  Who said a policemanís lot is not a happy one?

This incident is significant because it shows the value of the beat constable. Had I not met this man, how many houses would have been broken into that night and what could have happened if he was interrupted in his work? He was a big man. Many people, particularly the elderly, do not realise how easily these rogues can enter houses.

Ripe for the Picking 

I donít know what it was about my meal breaks but they seemed to be a magnet for action.

I had just sat for lunch when we had an emergency 111 call.  A car had been stolen from an orchard picking party west of Hastings and was last seen heading toward the city.  The sergeant went out in the patrol car, as sergeants do and I headed to the main road on foot - about a ten minute walk. This was pre walkie-talkie radio days.  The only information given was a group of youths in a green mini minor.

I came to the main street and headed in a westerly direction checking the cars as they went by.  It was busy and the traffic was nose-to-tail.  As I came to an intersection I spotted the car on my side of the road heading towards me and just that moment the traffic lights went orange.  Seeing me and trying not to raise suspicion, the driver stopped and waited for the pedestrians.  And I waited, planning my next move.

My adrenaline was pumping but I resisted my first instinct to rush out because I knew if I panicked the driver, he could accelerate and seriously injure a pedestrian.  I tried not to look interested in the car and they didnít know I knew who they were. I noted the car was only a two door and there were three boys in the back so they had little chance of escaping.  There were  two in the front and I had no alternative but to jump into the driverís seat so that left the front seat passenger who could escape.  I must overpower the driver but then I could be attacked from behind, a risk I had to take.  

As the pedestrians started to thin out, I quickly made my move, stepped onto the road, opened the driverís door and drove off to the police station with all five offenders.  All were quite placid and probably stunned at the suddenness of my actions. They were escapees from a local borstal and were quickly repatriated.  

They would be grown men now.  I wonder if any message was passed to their children or grandchildren about the stupidity of picking illegal fruit.

The Euclid

Just a few minutes into my Saturday afternoon shift, a man entered the station advising of a serious road accident involving an Euclid earth scraper some 20 miles south on the state highway known as Te Aute cutting.  He gave an actual mileage reading from his car, so I headed off with my foot heavy on the accelerator.  

At the time, the commissioner of police had our vehicle sirens removed meaning we were now governed by our own traffic laws.  Legally, the only vehicles allowed to exceed the speed limit were emergency vehicles with sirens operating, therefore if I exceeded the speed limit without the siren, I could face prosecution.  I exceeded the limit that day because of the emergency situation and what I felt was the possibility I may save a life but I could have been fined and even a loss of licence.

Arriving at the scene, I saw the Euclid tilted on its side and the tire on top of the driver's head.  No one could survive this. The Euclid had been travelling toward Hastings coming down a sharp incline, the driver failing to negotiate a left bend and driven over the right side of the road into a drop of about 6 feet.  The force of this drop bounced him up in the air then he landed with the Euclid coming back on top of him.

Retrieving the body with the help of an ambulance driver, I had it dispatched to the mortuary.  Hastings, being a small town, did not have a mortician after hours, so it was my job to go there, secure any valuables, label them and the body, place the body into the cooler then head off to advise the next of kin. 

I have notified next of kin about deceased relatives a number of times and it is never easy but on this occasion, I was shaken.  I was in uniform and knocked on the door.  It was a small flat, neat appearance and two steps lead to a landing, so I was close to the front door when it opened. A woman answered and immediately put her hand to her mouth in shock and said, ďmy husbandĒ  She knew immediately why I was there.  This woman was about the same age as my wife and both were about the same stage in pregnancies.  I sat her down and talked for quite some time then organised for a relative to come over and waited until she arrived.

Investigating the Euclid and the circumstances of the accident, the natural assumption was that the driver was going too fast down the gradient and was unable to negotiate the bend where the accident happened.  I felt uneasy at this assumption as it cast a shadow on the driver so I requested a vehicle inspector to check it out.  What he found was the brakes failed and he determined this as the fan had embedded into the radiator on impact and the fan was stationary.  The fan and brakes operate from the same source in the vehicle.

A few days later, I was asked to attend his post mortem.  The pathologist was not what I expected but had you asked me what I expected I couldnít tell you. 

I donít know why I was asked to be there as any injury found on the body related to the accident would have to be given as evidence to the coronerís  court by the pathologist and I was truly uncomfortable being there.

I arrived at the mortuary early and as I was opening the door, I was still wondering why I had been asked to attend but as the great Lord Tennyson said, ďOurs is not to reason why,Ē so I entered and although it wasnít the ĎValley of Deathí it had something similar. One large room with an operating table in the middle and 6 large stainless steel doors leading to the chambers.  And I wasnít with 600 mounted men but 20 student doctors there to learn.  The pathologist opened one of the stainless doors, wheeled out our body with my label attached to his toe and he was placed on the operating table.  I was in police uniform and was introduced to the students then work proceeded.

I had attended to this manís accident, took him away from his death machine, I had taken him to the mortuary, undressed him and secured his valuables and I had spoken to his widow. Somehow I felt some attachment.  Now I was witnessing more than his death and psychologically I was not ready for it but I was a police officer and had to obey orders.

The Smile of Lady Luck

I was on my beat in the main street one night shift when I was approached by one of our detectives.  He told me there had been a burglary at a hardware shop and a quantity of tools had been stolen. One item in particular he described as a hand held winch looking a bit like a fishing rod with a reel near the bottom.  

I didnít know how I would come across something like that but a few evenings later there was a call at about 3am and two of us had to attend a rowdy party near Clive about 20 minutes drive.   Things werenít aggressive and they shut the party down after our arrival.  The girlfriend of the man running the party wanted to drive back to Hastings but was intoxicated.  I said I could drive the car, an old Chevy, and my colleague drove the police car.

I got into the car to drive and the girl sat in the front seat next to me and nobody was in the back seat.  For some unknown reason I cannot explain, before I started the car, I turned around and lifted up the back seat.  The back seat in an old Chevy is like the boot and has storage capacity underneath.  To my amazement, I saw a quantity of new tools and an item that looked like a fishing rod with a reel.  Of course I knew immediately what it was and without taking notice of anything else, including an unopened bag, I drove straight to the police station and called up the detective who had told me about the burglary.  Lady luck was smiling at me that night but I didnít realise how big her smile was until later.  A stroke of luck seeing that winch just after being told about it but there was one other surprise.  The unopened bag was full of dynamite together with the detonators.  They were planning to blow a safe and the bag was dangerously unstable. Talk about real luck.

IĎm estimating it was travelling at 10kph at the time - a flat deck truck down the main street at 9pm on a Friday night ending up a wrestling ring of sorts.  I still have my original report on the incident and a couple of newspaper cuttings but there is a little more to the story than what was ever printed.

I was on my beat in the main street at about 8.30pm.  My shift finished at 9pm and being the afternoon shift, part of the uniform is a white helmet. Night shift wear a black helmet.  This helmet turned out to be my guardian angel and saved me from what could have been a very different ending.

Two or three people ran up to me reporting a fight outside the Nic Nak take away, the local hangout for young people.  They were urging me to hurry.  I was about 50 yards away but experience had taught me never run to a fight.

When I got there, some 4 -  5 minutes later, it looked as if it was all over and most of the energy had been spent.  Then I saw one youth with a broken bottle in his hand about to stir things up again.  I came behind him and pinned his hands to his side and ordered him to drop the bottle which he did into the gutter.  The gutters were high off the road and suddenly the fight started again and from a higher view point, I could see three or four youths battling it out in the middle of the road with passing traffic negotiating around them.  Suddenly one went down and others around him started putting the boot in so I ran over and was trying to lift him up when I got king hit from behind.  As I bent over the chap on the ground, my handcuffs fell from my belt and I had retrieved them and were in my hand when I got hit.  I stood up and caught sight of the guy who had hit me and set off in chase.  I was a fast runner and although I was only a couple of yards behind him, I was not closing in so I threw my hand cuffs and hit him in the back.  This proved a lucky break as I was able to identify him back at the police station with a perfect red mark the shape of a handcuff on his back.

I went back to see if it was all over and it appeared to be but as I was standing there, an old flat deck truck was in the line of traffic and the guy who hit me was sitting on the tray with his legs over the side facing me, goading me thinking he was getting away. When adrenaline takes over from commonsense, anything can happen.  In two bounds, I had leaped from the footpath, onto the tray of the truck and rolled him to the centre, getting him in a headlock.  At this stage, we were both lying down, he was trying to push me off and I was determined to either stay there or take him with me. I had wrapped his legs with mine so he couldnít kick or knee me and I watched my white helmet roll side to side at the end of the truck deck as it sped away.  Strangely, it never fell off.

Looking through the rear window I eyeballed the driver as he turned around and I felt the truck accelerate.  I knew I could be in trouble and with the man on the tray still in his headlock, I reached up and smashed the window with my fist. It was not safety glass.  I was going to try and grab the driver but thought better of it as I would surely have cut myself.  The truck then made a left turn, a right turn and I knew I must prepare myself for a real fight as he was heading for a dark back street.

Unbeknown to me, a number of urgent phone calls had been made to the police station about the incident and a sergeant was weaving his way in a patrol car.  He was in Friday night traffic so could only go as fast as the cars in front. No siren remember.   However, he was close enough to see me with my white helmet leap onto the truck and followed the white helmet as it was acting like a beacon. 

When the driver decided he was in a suitable isolated area, he stopped and I heard him get out slamming the door.ďThis is it,Ē I thought to myself, but just like a choreographed scene from a ĎCí grade cop movie, my sergeant arrived in the patrol car blocking any escape from the front, an off duty ambulance driver out with his wife in formal evening suit, had seen what was happening and followed, came behind blocking that exit and a police officer from Wellington on holiday in Hastings, also saw the fight and went back to his hotel, got his motorbike and also weaved his way through the traffic thanks to my white helmet.  So there was no dramatic fisticuffs at the end and two arrests were made.

I saw in the newspaper report of the incident, there was a fine of just 15 pounds.  Was it all worth it?  If a police officer makes a decision not to prosecute a felon on the basis that he or she would just get a light sentence, I personally think that is wrong but is happening today in police forces around the world.  If I thought I was putting my life in danger, then the risk I took was not worth it.

The Five Star Accommodation

Thatís what my Senior Sergeant told me. 

I was assigned to a small country town for a week while its resident policeman went on leave. My accommodation was the local hotel, not five star I noticed but I didnít think my Senior Sergeant would accept my complaint.  So I didnít bother.

On my first night, I thought I would take a walk around the shops.  There were about ten together along the main highway into Hastings.  So I headed off around midnight and to my surprise I noticed several shops had had deliveries overnight.  On the footpath still in their packaging, were  a fridge and freezer, a washing machine and two lawnmowers and a settee.  No criminals in this town so Iím in for a weekís paid leisurely holiday.

The second night, I was woken about 3am by the landlord as a car full of people had crashed into a bridge somewhere out in the country.  I had no idea where to go.  I had no map, there were no street lights in the country roads and few road signs.  Fortunately I was rescued by a farmer whose property was near the bridge and I followed his car to the scene.  His wife had all the people involved wrapped in blankets from her home for it was cold. Fortunately, none were seriously injured.

An ambulance arrived and took them to hospital and I assigned one person to take responsibility for returning the blankets to the farmerís wife.  On checking later, he had done this so back to bed for me.

The fifth day, a Saturday morning, a man with his daughter, about 9 years old, met me in the foyer and told me his daughter had just been raped.  I did not question the father or daughter as this was clearly a matter for the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) and questioning a minor on a sexual matter could jeopardise a trial if done incorrectly.

I called a doctor and took both to his surgery and he confirmed the girlís complaint was genuine.  With this information, I telephoned the CIB in Hastings and informed them what had happened then asked the father to take his daughter home, put all her clothes in a bag unwashed and not to bathe until the CIB arrived.

It was about midday and I knew there were youths gathered around the local dairy.  I went to meet them presuming the offender would not be around when a policeman was present and asked about a certain youth.  They gave me his name and address, so I waited for the CIB, and armed with this, I took the detective firstly to the victimís house and we were in for a shock. Filth was everywhere.  We only entered the lounge but there was not a ledge, mantle piece, or window sill that did not have layers of ornaments cluttering every bit of space thick with dust and grime.  Nothing had been cleaned for years.  Both parents had prestigious jobs of a semi professional position so they obviously showed a different side to their life away from home.  

One last surprise, when the clinical examination of the girl came through, she had venereal disease, not from the youth who raped her but passed from her mother at birth. - something I was unaware could happen.

Rebel with a Cause

After my week in the country, I went back to Hastings for a well earned rest and for a few months all was quiet and normal.  Nothing out of the ordinary but one week changed all that.  

A night shift is 7 nights - Monday to Sunday - and on the Sunday I dealt with my seventh fatal motor accident.  Karamu Road, one of the main arterial routes to and out of town had orange street lights which may look nice but for road traffic, they offer poor lighting especially in foggy misty conditions.

This particular night, around 9pm, traffic was heavy both ways and there was thick mist and rain.  An intoxicated  woman ran across the road, got through the inward bound lane and was hit and killed by a car in the outbound lane.  I attended the accident and taking into account all the circumstances, i.e. rain, poor street lighting, alcohol influenced pedestrian and appearing suddenly in front of the vehicle, I recommended the driver not be prosecuted.

When the file came back to me, the Senior Sergeant had attached a form to the file which was the start of a prosecution - careless driving causing death.  This is a serious charge and I was totally surprised.  The recommendation of the attending police officer is usually taken.  Now Iíll have to go to court and try to prove Ďcareless driving.í

I knew it was illegal for a senior officer to ask a subordinate to break the law and he never did but I noticed in the police summary, which I had prepared for the prosecutor, was redone and did not mention poor lighting, rain or alcohol impairment.  I asked the Senior Sergeant why we are going ahead with the prosecution and he told me if there is a fatal motor accident and no prosecution, he has to submit a report to the Police Commissioner.  So this driver had to go through all the stress and cost because the Senior Sergeant didnít want to make out a report.

The defendant pleaded not guilty and on the day of the hearing, I was the main witness. I have always had a bit of a rebel in me and was prepared to give evidence as per my report. I didnít think there would be any consequences if I did but I would deal with that when it came. When the prosecutor read out the evidence and was questioned by defence council as to the real facts, the Magistrate dismissed the case immediately discharging the defendant and I was not called.

In my time in the police, I never witnessed any police corruption although I worked with the good, the bad, and the ugly and even a sergeant who was frightened of the dark but was this corruption or just laziness?

Karma

In 1965 I attended to a complaint at one of the town's Freezing works.  There had been a number of thefts from staff lockers and the culprit was not able to be found. Little could be done as there was no dedicated locker for each member and this made fingerprinting impossible as everyone had a right to be there.  So I took down the complaint and filed it.

About two weeks later, we were notified of a worker being killed there and I was assigned to investigate.
To understand the situation at a freezing works, stock is brought in and unloaded into a yard.  From there they are shepherded, single file to a ramp taking them to the top floor of the building.  This ramp is of concrete construction, just wide enough for the animal and about 1.5 yards above its height.  It cannot turn around so by the use of cattle prods to the animalís rump they slowly move forward and upwards.

The building and ramp had been built for about 100 years and in that time, no animal had ever escaped according to the information given to me.  However, on this day, one had managed to jump over the ramp crashing through the roof of a room below - which just happened to be the staff locker room.  Inside and right at the very spot where the beast had fallen, was a man, killed instantly with the beast on top of him.  He should not have been there during work hours.  Was he the thief? 

The Hanging

I was in the watchhouse when a frantic emergency caller reported a boy hanging from a tree.  I was the patrol officer on duty so rushed there to find such a tragic incident.  Two boys, one aged about 16 and the other 14, were playing during their lunch time in the nearby trees adjacent to their school. The younger boy had made a noose from a length of rope and placed it around his neck, slinging the other end over a branch.  He had climbed on his bicycle to do this, leaning it against the tree and stood on the saddle to reach the branch.  Suddenly, the saddle slipped and he fell. With the noose around his neck, the other end of the rope got caught on a fork in the tree and tightened.  He choked to death.

This type of accident, although rare, usually has sexual connotations.  A few years earlier, during my training, I did an assignment on this very subject.  There was information in the police library.  Later, the attending police doctor agreed with this assessment.

The Value of a Police Woman

Any fatal motor accident is sad and it reminds you of your own frailty in this world.  One particular one still plays on my mind.  I was on vehicle patrol one Saturday morning when a call came through the radio that a car had hit a power pole on the side of a rural road and there was a body in it.  I drove to the spot and there was a driver slumped against the steering wheel.  It was a young girl, well younger than myself and she appeared dead.  I arrived before the ambulance and although it was not my job to ascertain death, the circumstances left me in no doubt she was deceased, although there were no visible signs of injury. 

The ambulance arrived, took the body away and I arranged for the vehicle to be towed to storage and be secured.  Then I radioed my base and asked for a police woman to assist me.  We only had one, Ellen Young and she was a very competent person.

I drove to the hospital and carried out the correct procedure with Constable Youngís assistance then went to advise the next of kin to have the body identified.  Constable Young stayed in the room.

I picked up the girlís father as the mother was too traumatised and shocked.  On the way to the hospital I found conversation difficult but I did tell the father a police woman was with his daughter as I thought this would have some comfort for him.  It might have been my imagination but I felt some kind of acceptance of my words.  He told me his daughter was a chronic asthmatic and I wondered if this had contributed to the accident.

The full circumstances is why it has stayed in my memory for so long.  Hastings is well known for its dense fog at certain times particularly in its outer rural areas. This girl probably had an asthma attack and pulled over to the side of the road, possibly disoriented and hit a concrete power pole about five yards from the roadway.  Because of the dense fog, passing motorists did not see her vehicle until the fog cleared and she could have been alive for some time.  The impact was relatively minor as little damage was done to the car but she was thrown forward, her chest hitting the steering wheel which probably compounded her breathing problem.  This was in the days before seat belts.  

I did not convey my inner thoughts to the father.  I told him as the investigating officer, it was my opinion the impact made the death instant.  I hope that gave some consolation to a grieving family. 

In 1968, I was promoted to the Auckland Criminal Investigation Branch hence began the start of a new and exciting era in my life.  But this is a setting for another story.

*****

After graduating from police college, I was posted to Wellington, our capital city.  It was in the early sixties and a very different era from policing today, but there was still crime and still traffic accidents.  After a few years there learning the practical side, I was transferred to the city of Hastings, a small town in the upper north Island of New Zealand, got  married, and before I was allowed to cohabit with my wife, had to produce my wedding certificate. Incredible as that may seem, there were a lot more dramas ahead of me as I soon found out. 



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