Charming conman's trail of lies

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 09:26 29/03/2014
Pita Edwards
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
PITA EDWARDS: Began reoffending again soon after being released from prison on dishonesty charges.

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A "catch-me-if-you-can" conman, jailed after charming his way into institutions around Wellington, could have made better use of his smarts in a career other than crime, a court has heard.

Pita Phillip Edwards, 26, who donned a stethoscope to blend in at Wellington Hospital, was a charming, clever man who wanted to live the high life, Wellington District Court was told yesterday.

He was freed from prison on November 11 after serving a two- year, four-month term for fraud and burglary. Police say the "confident" Edwards was so prolific in the fortnight he was out of prison he caused a one-man crime spike. In just 16 days of freedom Edwards conned his way into a Wellington medical school, then burgled Victoria University and the Department of Internal Affairs - which he then charged for his takeaways.

A Corrections officer became suspicious when he saw Edwards wearing a stethoscope at Wellington Hospital.

Police caught up with him after two weeks on the run when he tried to bank a cheque in the name of prominent lawyer Steven Price.

The city's burglary statistics jumped from 15 to 20 in the previous weeks, to 30 to 35 in the fortnight Edwards was on the loose, Detective Senior Sergeant Glenn Williams said.

As soon as he was arrested, the crime stats returned to normal.

"I have seen a small number of offenders that really have a knack of committing burglary offences by imitating someone else to get entry. But it is not a usual modus operandi and he [Edwards] has had to have quite a lot of self-confidence to pull that off," Mr Williams said.

Lawyer Philippa Sullivan called Edwards clever, charming and very good company. She said his mother died young and he became institutionalised after being in care. When he was freed from jail he felt overwhelmed and unsupported, and so he took things he felt he had been denied in prison.

He told a probation officer he offended to get back behind bars.

"He spent the proceeds on things like legal highs, living high, a hedonistic lifestyle that others enjoyed with him," Ms Sullivan said.

But in a Parole Board report after a hearing last May, Edwards' offending was described by one sentencing judge as "the efforts of a conman".

A 2011 report noted he had "quite an extraordinary record for a person aged 23".

His ability to talk his way into exclusive premises prompted police to label him a "catch-me-if-you- can" criminal, in the style of American fraudster Frank Abagnale.

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"It's clear from your offending that you are an intelligent man and you would have the potential to do other things if you were able to commit yourself to lead a law-abiding, productive life," Judge Denys Barry said yesterday.

He jailed Edwards for five years and three months, ordering him to serve half the term before he became eligible for parole.

While in jail he will study music.

 

THE CRIME SPREE

November 11: Freed from prison.

November 16-17: Talks his way into the Department of Internal Affairs building and uses phones and computers to convince staff he belongs there. During the weekend, he and accomplice Stacy Richard Howard take access cards and then return to the building, removing about $10,000 of personal items.

November 18: Visits Roti Chenai restaurant, where he bills his $70 takeaway to Internal Affairs.

4.30pm: Talks an Otago University medical school student into letting him into a secure locker-room, where he takes money cards and a stethoscope he is later seen wearing at Wellington Hospital.

6pm: Talks his way into WelTec School of Hospitality where he takes identity cards and keys from a cleaner and spends three hours stealing.

November 22: Takes a cash register from Victoria University's law school, gaining access cards and a master key. Steals personal items and electronics then uses the key to get in to Vic Books. Takes a key pad after failing to break into a safe.

Later that weekend: Uses the key to access the Kelburn campus, taking 50 students' transcripts, including credit card details.

November 25: Goes to a bank and presents a $1050 cheque in the name of Victoria University media law expert Steven Price, whose signature he forged.

November 28: Visits another bank, depositing the lawyer's money in his own account and withdrawing cash. A member of the public recognises Edwards and calls police. He is arrested at the bank.

THE AFTERMATH

Internal Affairs: Building owner makes improvements to access and security systems.

Victoria University: Has to replace more than 350 locks, at an estimated cost of $30,000. The university makes operational changes to campus security.

Wellington Hospital: Says the publicity around a recently freed prisoner being able to get into exclusive parts of its buildings has injured its reputation.

- The Dominion Post

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