In the late 1920s Shorters of Shortland Street, in Auckland’s central business district, offered rental cars in what was fast becoming a lucrative business, the hire-car industry. The “Drive Yourself” innovation differed from taxis and chauffeured trips, giving renters utmost liberty in their travels. Advertisements, for instance, enticed tourists to “see New Zealand the interesting and economical way… drive yourself in latest model cars”. Two visitors from overseas rented a car… and drove straight into crime – and notoriety.
Unremarkably, an Australian man, Roy Patrick Kitching and an American, David MacKenzie Stewart, called at Shorters Rental Cars in the city and together hired a car to get around Auckland in pursuit of their business interests. They used false names on the rental agreement documents, but Shorters were not to know that. The pair gave Central Hotel in Victoria Street as their address while they were in the city. The month-long hire of the car would enable them to travel in connection with their project in aviation, to set up the New Zealand Aerial Service in Auckland. They had a second string, telling some people that they were also “motor brokers”.
Kitching and Stewart had arrived from Sydney aboard the “Marama” on November 6th 1928, cleared customs on tourist visas with “nothing to declare”, and immediately rented a furnished house in Epsom and hired the car at Shorters, paying £26 as a deposit. To observers the two were obviously well-heeled… and everyone they came in contact with could see that social interests, rather than business, preoccupied the pair. The house in Liverpool Street, Epsom, rented as a base for commercial activities, soon became entertainment-central. Late-night parties, comings and goings at all hours and loud dance music into the wee small hours did nothing for the image in the quiet, suburban neighbourhood. But for those locals who got caught up in this whirl of lavish entertainment, including social go-getters and an attractive damsel from a well-known legal family/firm, it was all good fun.
But the money was running out. Kitching had arrived in New Zealand with £100, Stewart with £5. They owed the Central Hotel £3. They figured they knew Winnie Turner at the hotel’s desk well enough and settled their account with a cheque for £23. She passed over the £20 and they were in funds again. But the £20 would not provide their lifestyle for long, so they hatched a plan. They would emulate olden day “highway robbers”. They discovered there was a weekend race meeting at Te Kuiti and it was likely cars returning to Auckland in the evening would contain passengers… and cash. They would stop likely-looking cars and rob the occupants. As crims would say they “cased the joint”, carefully choosing a likely spot at Westfield on the Great South Road where the railway deviation was being constructed. Back in their cosy Epsom bungalow they fashioned black stockings to create masks and polished their plans for the hold-up. To deter pursuit after the deed they purchased a couple of packets of tacks… and packed their two revolvers, an automatic and a Colt. So much for their “nothing to declare” statement at the border when they arrived from Sydney! Off they went to set the trap at Westfield.
They parked the rental car out of sight behind trees at Westfield and used a few branches to make a barricade. At this stage they both lost their nerve. With each passing car they thought it not such a good idea. They did not even have enough courage to accost a motorist who stopped to clear the barricade! “If only I could get my hands on those who set up this obstacle” he said. The pair played dumb. Finally, around two o’clock in the morning, a car approached, the occupants of which were obviously intoxicated. It happened to be a couple of jockeys and their friends returning from Te Kuiti horse races.
The pair’s nerve returned for such an easy quarry: they went into action. But they bungled. Kitching had the automatic: it was not loaded but it was flourished to be impressive. Stewart kept the revolver in his pocket, though later it would be claimed that at least one shot was fired. They got the driver to pull ahead a bit and got the car’s occupants to take off outer clothing, and then looked for money. The woman in the party laughed hysterically throughout, in the end thrusting out her handbag – “Here, take it and the money, but don’t shoot us, we have three children at home!” What money they did get was put on the car’s front seat. Another occupant remained asleep in the back seat until the drama (perhaps black comedy) was nearly over. But the bandits had no time for him; they did not search him, just wanting to quit the scene. Forgetting to collect the money they had gathered up, they hopped in the rental car and headed back to Epsom.
Douglas Wallace and two others riding on his motorcycle/sidecar happened on the scene just as the rental car was leaving. Told what had happened, they gave chase at high speed (later described as a “a thrilling ride”) along Great South Road and between Westfield and Penrose they spotted a stationary car. As they approached, a man jumped on the running board and the car quickly took off towards Auckland. It was then the 3 on the motorcycle saw what they thought were beads of glass sparkling on the road ahead but which, on investigation, turned out to be carpenter’s tacks. The trio guessed they had been spread by the man in the car to stymie any pursuit. But the 3 decided to keep up the chase. They got within 50 yards (about 50m) and were gaining on the car, when there was a report and a flash… they had been shot at from the car. Soon after this, near the Penrose railway overbridge, the tacks had done their work and, with three flat tyres the motorcycle/sidecar was unable to continue.
The bandits made it back to base in Epsom but lost no time in making tracks out of Auckland, planning to get away until “things cooled down”. That same afternoon they left for Northland, first obtaining groceries and supplies from Hutchinson’s shop in Newmarket, paid for with another worthless cheque.
The pair was eventually tracked to Ninety Mile Beach in the Far North and arrested in Kaikohe after an intense manhunt by detectives who found the revolver and the loaded Colt, with 15 rounds of ammunition, concealed in their hotel room. “I have nothing to say” Stewart said to police under questioning, “…it would not be wise to admit being owners of things like that”.
Back in Auckland, police found the masks in the Epsom house along with a few packets of tacks, left over from the escapade.
The men, who each had been using several false names since they arrived in Auckland, were charged with robbery under arms, discharging a revolver with intent to injure and obtaining credit by fraud, including the £20 from Winnie Turner of the Central Hotel. The two pleaded not guilty in the Magistrate’s Court but in written statements both apologised for their actions, saying they would recompense all those out of pocket. Kitching said the hold-up was Stewart’s idea and as far as he (Kitching) was concerned he was relieved they had been caught and he was freed from Stewart’s influence. Stewart apologised for the shot fired during the getaway… “the revolver went off accidentally”.
The two were sent for trial. In the Supreme Court they changed their pleas to guilty to the charge of robbery under arms. The other charges, except one of false pretences, were withdrawn. Sentencing was delayed until Kitchings’ relations arrived from Australia in support of the prisoner. Stewart told the Court he had telegrammed his family asking for money to be sent by cable to make restitution.
On the day of sentencing Kitchings’ family was in Court to suggest he return to Australia where he would be confined to an outback farm, out of trouble. Stewart said he was unable to pay back those financially hurt. The telegram he had received from America read simply “Love and Sympathy, Trust in God – Mother”.
The Judge, Mr Justice Blair, described the two as “amateur highwaymen” and sentenced Kitching to jail for a year, Stewart for 18 months.
Shorters got their car back… as well as tales to tell about its criminal adventures not to mention the considerable mileage that had been run up. In the words of that Shorters’ advertisement the car had “…seen New Zealand in an interesting way…”, well much of Northland, anyway, including travelling some of its unformed roads, fording un-bridged streams and being bogged in the salty sands on Ninety Mile Beach.
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand
RCC August 2013/June 2019/April 2020