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.

Advertisement, New Zealand Herald, December 1928
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

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”.

Party types

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.

Hard-up

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.

Hold up

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.

The Chase

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.

No Escape

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.

Sources:

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

 

RCC August 2013/June 2019/April 2020

Crime involving motor cars was relatively new to Auckland in the 1920s. An act of banditry in Mt Eden against an innocent couple in October 1928 was a well-planned night time holdup which turned violent and involved cars… in the crime itself and for the getaway.

 

 George and Elizabeth Pearce kept a clothing shop in Auckland’s Pitt Street on the Beresford Street corner. By the mid-1920s Pitt Street and Karangahape Road had become very busy centres of commerce and for shopping.

Karangahape Road and Pitt Street Corner:
Pearce’s shop would have been where the car’s parked
James D Richardson – ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-2249

Each evening they would close their store and stroll the couple of miles to their cottage in Mt Eden. If it was raining they would take a tram, otherwise they would walk home, situated near Boston Road on Mt Eden Road. September 28th 1928 was a fine spring evening. It was also Friday, late-night shopping in those days with opening hours extended to 9pm. This was before up-town Karangahape Road made the controversial change to late shopping on Thursday evenings. So it was almost 10pm by the time the Pearces turned into Mt Eden Road from Symonds Street, within a stone’s throw from home.  As usual George Pearce was carrying his businessman’s brief case while Mrs Pearce travelled light with just her handbag.

“Having passed the well-lit intersection at Symonds Street we continued down Mt Eden Road. The shadows lengthened from the street light behind us as we approached the corner of Burleigh Street, also better lit. The darkened section of the road between the two street lights was deserted.

There was a car parked at the kerb, but I took no particular notice of it. As it turns out, I think the occupants got out of the car and silently went around behind us. A man was suddenly upon us appearing out of the gloom. He went straight for my wife and grabbed her handbag. She screamed trying to frighten off her attacker. Simultaneously another man came at me. Neither assailant said a word but it was obvious that this was a hold-up and we were the victims! My attacker pushed me so hard I tripped and fell to the roadway. Fortunately my brief-case cushioned my fall but nonetheless I injured my wrist as I went down”.

George Pearce

The Getaway

“Despite being temporarily dazed I got up and gave chase after the two men. They were dashing headlong for the car that we had earlier noticed parked at the kerbside. One of the men leapt into the driver’s seat but had trouble starting the car. The second man got into the other front seat. I wasn’t far behind them and jumped on to the driver’s side running board determined to thwart their getaway. After several attempts the car’s engine roared into life and made off at speed towards Burleigh Street, heading out of town. I leant into the car, trying to grapple with the steering wheel to delay the getaway. The passenger yelled at me to get off the running board and tried to loosen my grip but I did not want to let go my hold, still hoping my presence would prevent or slow an escape and that maybe someone would come to my assistance.  We had covered a mile or so when the episode took a sinister turn. The passenger produced what looked to me to be a revolver. He pointed it at right at me. ‘Get off or I will kill you’ he ordered. Finding no option, I leapt from the moving car and was further injured as I hit the road. I cut my face and suffered abrasions”.

Mt Eden Road, looking South towards Boston Road, scene of the robbery with violence
The X on the right indicates exactly where the assault took place, the arrow shows
the path of escape to the Talbot car, its position marked X on the left.
NZ Truth

The Criminal Parties

Joseph Henry Trask, a 48 year old Australian, had been in trouble with the police in his homeland and moved to Auckland in the mid-1920s to make a fresh start.  He was an alcoholic. Described as a carter and labourer by occupation, Trask supplemented his income by passing valueless cheques. His son, 22 year old Roy Edward Trask, joined his farther in Auckland “to help look after the old man”.  Trask Junior worked with his father plastering, labouring and doing handyman jobs.

It was on one of these jobs, repairing punctured motor-car tyres, when Roy Trask met Norman Travers, a seaman the same age.

“I have been out of employment for some time past” Norman Travers was later to say “and I have been staying, at various places in Auckland and I’ve slept out, rough, on various occasions. I met Roy Trask at different times. We were both hard up, short of funds, and he told me he knew where he could get some money.  On the morning of September 28th I met Trask and went with him to Symonds Street, City. There we took a Talbot car from outside Cavanagh’s Garage. He was the driver.

That was about lunch-time. In the afternoon we both drove round the city. When we met again in the evening Trask still had the car with him and we went for another spin until about 9 o’clock, and then went on to Mt Eden Road”.

The Planned Raid

“Trask told me he had been in Pearce’s shop in Pitt Street several times before… so he knew the couple who owned it and their habits. He said they’d be heading home on foot along Mt Eden Road about now and Mr Pearce would be carrying a bag containing the shops’ takings. We would steal the cash. We planned our raid. We waited in the car, parked near Nikau Street. About half past nine a man and a lady approached, walking on the footpath. Trask confirmed it was Mr and Mrs Pearce so we let them past and then followed them until they were opposite where we had left the motor car. As we had planned, Trask tripped up Mr Pearce and I grabbed the handbag off Mrs Pearce. We then ran over to the car and after initial trouble Trask soon got the engine going. But Pearce surprised us by jumping on to the running board. I tried to push him off.  He was interfering with the steering wheel, pulling it left and right trying to upset our getaway. I threatened him and Mr Pearce was forced to jump off the car further down the road after Trask slowed down a bit. We travelled South but as we went along Great South Road, Greenlane, the car ran out of petrol. On opening the stolen handbag I found that there was £6 in it. I gave Trask £5 and kept £1 for myself. He said the £5 would be for expenses because police would be after those who held up the Pearces, and that we could not stay in Auckland.

A Further Plan

With their getaway car immobilised, out of petrol, outside Joll’s Store on Farmer’s Hill, Great South Road (the sharp rise between Greenlane and Market Roads), the two had to make alternative arrangements. Enter Joseph Trask, Senior, into the crime. With his son Roy and Travers he went to Freemans Bay next morning and took a rental car, an Essex, the property of Bert Shorter.

Shorter’s advertisement mentioned “responsible persons”, N Z Herald 26th October 1928

The trio headed south, passed through Hamilton and on towards Te Kuiti. En route they slept in the car at the roadside for several nights. It was later said that Trask Senior would go to New Plymouth and then return the car to Auckland while the two younger men would travel on to Wellington.

1927 Essex Coach … similar to the stolen rental car

But the long arm of the law was after them. On the night of the robbery Mrs Pearce had recognised Trask as a former customer in the shop, so her word and description put him in the frame. A further clue was recovered from the Talbot car when a subscriber’s card in the name of Pearce was found on the rear seat. It had fallen out of Mrs Pearce’s handbag. As for the Talbot, the manager of Cavanagh’s Garage said it had been stolen while parked out front of the premises on the Friday morning and was first discovered missing late afternoon. “We recovered the car from Farmers Hill. We knew the bandits had certainly covered long distances around Auckland because it had run out of petrol and in addition they had used another 2 gallons of fuel kept in a can in the boot for extra supplies”, the manager said, “and the rear carrier had broken off because they had attempted to tow something too heavy for the car. They had also broken the engine’s magneto cover so that they could get the car started”.

Arrest Under Arms

Police throughout New Zealand were alerted to the description of the 3 men, the rental car they were thought to be travelling in and the fact, after Mr Pearce’s confrontation with a revolver, that they were armed.

On October 1st Mr George Easy, a draper of Otorohanga, got a glimpse of a car passing through the township’s main street. He managed to hold his glance just long enough to recognise that the number of the Essex car was the same as the one reported having been stolen in Auckland. It had 3 occupants – that also matched.  It was travelling towards Te Kuiti. Mr Easy immediately advised police who in turn contacted the station at Te Kuiti and then set off in pursuit of the car. Meantime, all Te Kuiti police were mustered to intercept the Essex and stationed themselves on the main road and the back road leading into the town.  Given that a revolver had been used in the hold-up in Auckland it was assumed the men may be armed so Te Kuiti police drew guns from their armoury before taking up position. The occupants of the Essex were taken by surprise when, on the lonely back road into the town, they were called upon to stop by Sergeant Fernley and his party of armed constables. Quietly and quickly the three were arrested and charged with the theft of the Essex motor car valued at £200s. Transported to Auckland they appeared in the Police Court next afternoon. As well as stealing the Essex, there were much more serious charges laid against Travers and Trask Junior. By now police had positively linked the duo with the earlier crime in Mt Eden.  They were charged with robbing the Pearces with personal violence of a handbag containing some £6. Their banditry in Mt Eden Road had caught up. Joseph Trask, Senior, was also further charged with obtaining £10 by passing a valueless cheque.

Magistrate’s Court 

After a remand both men appeared again in the Police Court and pleaded not guilty to the major charge of robbing Mr and Mrs Pearce, despite admitting that they set a trap for the couple with the intent to rob them. In their statements they revealed that the “revolver” was not a real one, but a dummy which they had since discarded. Travers told the Court that he would not have robbed the Pearces but merely followed Trask – while Trask admitted taking the Talbot car, planning the attack and tripping up Mr Pearce. He said he did it because he was broke: out of cash and out of work.

Frederick Knight Hunt, Magistrate and Coroner National Library of N.Z.

At that point the Magistrate, Frederick  Hunt, said he would deal with Trask Senior first. The police revealed that the defendant had been in trouble in Australia. “He’s still on 3 years’ probation for attempted arson. Had we not caught him in Te Kuiti his mission was to flee, back to his homeland”.  Trask’s lawyer said his client had not been in jail before. Mr Hunt changed all that when he sentenced Joseph Trask to a total of nine months in jail, three months for taking the Essex car and six months for passing worthless cheques.

Mr Hunt then turned to the two younger men.  Their lawyer, Mr Frederick Schramm, said they would be pleading not guilty in the Supreme Court where they would be facing the robbery charges and applied to have the lesser charges sentenced then, too.

Frederick Schramm – later went into politics and was Speaker of the House, 1944-6
Wikipedia

But Mr Hunt would have none of it… “No, certainly not. I’m convicting them on the charge of taking the car right now,” he said “and it’ll be 3 months’ jail each with another 14 days’ jail for Roy Trask for theft of petrol. He pulled up in a car outside a service station, took delivery of 6 gallons, sent the garage man off on some fool’s errand and then made off without paying.  And you think that’s clever?”

Both accused were then committed for trial to the Supreme Court on the more serious robbery charges.

Supreme Court

On 3rd November 1928 the two, Norman Travers and Roy Trask Junior, faced the Judge, Mr Justice Smith. They had, meantime, admitted the offence, pleading guilty, so it was a matter of sentencing.   Trask’s lawyer, Frederick Schramm, said Roy Trask had come to New Zealand to look after his father but had drifted into crime. “Since both Trasks are serving jail sentences for converting motor cars, Your Honour might be minded to deal with the matter under the Probation Act. I submit that the incident at Mt Eden Road was not as serious as first appeared. There was no great violence, the prisoner had been out of work for a considerable time, was short of money and committed the offence with the idea of getting some money to help him along”.

Vincent R. Meredith, Crown Prosecutor, Auckland,  NZ Truth

But Vincent Meredith, Crown Prosecutor, said it was an offence which could not be treated lightly. “There was a deliberate arrangement to hold up Mr George Pearce on his return home on a Friday night, when he had his takings with him. The attack on him and his wife was a serious matter. Although no firearm was actually used, there was intimidation by the pretence to use one. The two people held up were elderly, and it was an act of violence to force a man off the running board of a car when it was travelling at considerable speed. The whole of the circumstances indicated that the men were prepared to use any violence to achieve their ends”.

Norman Travers did not have a lawyer but from the dock told the Court “I have had been out of work for about six months and I did not intend any harm”.

David (later Sir David) Smith, Judge. S. P. Andrews and Sons – National Library of N. Z.

The Judge, imposing sentence, said that “both you prisoners have disgraced your manhood by attacking two elderly people. Any attempt of this sort will not be dealt with in a lenient manner”. Both men, he said, must be taught a lesson and there’s got to be a deterrent to others who might be inclined to do the same act. “On the charge of robbery with violence you are both sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, to be followed by reformative detention for not less than two years”.

The command “Stand the prisoners down!” lowered the curtain on a dramatic – “sensational” some newspapers of the day described it – sequence of events where motor cars played a leading role in the commission of crime and where a firearm, or the pretence of one, was also present.

Further Charges

The three men’s names, Norman Travers  and both the Trasks, Roy and Norman, were called in the Hamilton Magistrate’s Court a month or so after the Supreme Court hearing charged with stealing a tin of petrol. They must have run short of fuel on the escapade from Auckland. It was explained in Court that Travers and Trask Junior were serving jail terms. Each entered a plea of guilty and in all three cases the accused were convicted and discharged.

Campaigning Truth; “Flying Squads needed”   

The weekly newspaper New Zealand Truth was on to this angle, but in its approach added to the dramatic nature of the piece. “The only conclusion to be drawn from this outrage,” the columnist argued, “is that there is a new type of criminal evolving in our midst who is modelling himself on the pattern of his deadly prototype – the Australian gunman gangster. If that is the case, then the police are confronted with a new and dangerous type of crook, who, unless stamped out at once, will inevitably become the terror of peaceful, law-abiding citizens. The crime was carried out with a reckless desperation that brands the thieves as something more than casual amateur crooks. Whatever the explanation is whether they were genuine gunmen or simply reckless larrikins, the whole incident is a disgrace to the community, and no effort must be spared to hound them”.

Stirring stuff – but then perhaps the Truth had a point, part of its campaign of the times to get a better equipped police force?

“The modern criminal has taken to the motor-car” said the Truth. “It naturally follows that if the police are to have a flying start, they also must take to the motor-car. The need today is for a flying squad.  As things are at present, the police work at a disadvantage with the clever crook who knows the value of a motor-car when it comes to a quick getaway. The police must play him at his own game and with the fastest types of car available, in readiness every hour of the day and night at every central police station. The Government must play the game by the police, and organise flying squads without delay”.

 

©RCC August 2013 updated 2019.

Sources:

New Zealand Herald,

The Auckland Star,

New Zealand Truth,

Papers Past, Library of NZ website,

NZETC website.