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.
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”.
“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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
New Zealand Herald,
The Auckland Star,
New Zealand Truth,
Papers Past, Library of NZ website,