Death in Remuera

Grim discovery: Detectives first on the scene at 115 Bassett Rd,  December, 7, 1963, where Frederick George Walker, 38, and Kevin James Speight, 26, were shot dead.
Grim discovery: Detectives first on the scene at 115 Bassett Rd, December, 7, 1963, where Frederick George Walker, 38, and Kevin James Speight, 26, were shot dead.

Gangland monikers of Auckland's mobsters were once like famed American writer Damon Runyan's string of exotic names for fictional gangsters.

From the Auckland name-calling: Trevor ("Too Fats" ) Smith, Barry ("Machine gun") Shaw, "Spats Charlie", "Pinky", Claude ("Pooch") Quintal, "Diamond Jim" Shepherd, believed the last Mr Asia survivor, Frank ("The Tank") Zimmerman, "Fred the Head", Leon ("Lucky") White , "Big George" Curtis and "Knucklehead" Walker.

To add a final effect, some wore Hollywood-style fedora hats pulled low over their eyes, high-collared coats and chewed toothpicks.

But the thin coating of Runyanesqe comedy didn't hide worrying trends. Notably, when "Knucklehead" was shot dead as he prayed, along with Kevin Speight, killed by John Gillies one December night - 50 years ago this week - in 1963 at 115 Bassett Rd.

Scott Bainbridge's tight, vivid text and its documented facts and photos, have caught the tone of that era with its bizarre cast of hoodlums, a time when four New Zealand unarmed police were shot dead in one month. That death toll prompted a new specialist unit, the armed offenders squad.

We've had the sharp shooters ever since.

Of course, Gillies' use of a smuggled Reising sub-machine gun seemed like something from the black days of America's Al Capone. It conjured up volleys of bullets. In fact, as Scott Bainbridge makes clear, it was jammed on single shots.

One more link. Ron Jorgenson, convicted of being with Gillies at the murder - in part due to a suspect alibi - had the off-putting habit of shouting to any audience that he was "the next Al Capone".

Oh yes, strange people living in their own private world that anyone with any sense would stay clear of.

Some who didn't stay clear, had "accidents" the ACC wouldn't have written a cheque for.

Like Gerry Wilby, found dead hanging upside down and half submerged off Wynyard wharf. The accepted theory, up to and including a coroner, was "accidental death" - that he "tripped over a coil of rope which became tangled on one leg as he fell off the wharf and the tide rose".

Again, yeah right!

Then there was Jorgenson's car found upside down on rocks near Kaikoura. No Jorgie. Paroled, he was living in a caravan on his father's West Coast section.

Theories: He was murdered by someone unknown over something equally unknown, perhaps a drug deal that went very wrong. His body welded into an offshore crayfish pot is one possibility an underworld source suggested to Bainbridge.

Or, another theory: it was a staged accident - there were no supporting skid marks on the road above - before he fled, was picked up, possibly in a yacht, and delivered to Australia.

I've never forgotten the tense hour I spent in John Gillies' Lower Hutt unit after he'd finished his most recent jail term - and the stroll, at his suggestion, to the local bottle store. There, he picked up a bottle of whisky and handed me the docket.

"You'll pay for this, won‘t you?"

Yes, I did pay - wouldn't you?

His room seemed to get smaller and smaller as the level in that bottle dropped quickly .

Within two months, he was back behind bars having pistol-whipped someone unwise enough to annoy him.

Then, there was February 4, 1965. Armed with a sawn-off shotgun which had been smuggled in, Gillies, safe-cracker Leonard Evans and career escaper George Wilder, overpowered a jail guard, took him hostage, and escaped from the Mt Eden prison's maximum security wing in a prison truck.

Police reported to the Auckland Star newsroom that the escapers were holed up in Mt Eden's Horoeka Ave. A young reporter quickly told me that he used to board in that street. I told him to ring his former landlady to see what she could tell him. He ran back from his call. Guess who had answered the phone. John Gillies.

Ringed by police and lured by bottles of gin and whisky, the three later agreed to throw the shotgun out a window and surrender. A nice touch - the escapers were given time to empty those bottles before they left the house.

One relic Jorgensen left behind was at the home of a 60-year-old Kaikoura woman who had befriended him. He did her gardening.

Beginning a new life ? Not really. When police searched her property in a series of drug raids, they found a makeshift greenhouse, a large, foil-lined compost bin, behind a concealed door, rigged with an elaborate irrigation system, with a crop of 104 cannabis plants.

It's hard to rid yourself of a lifetime of habits.

The Bassett Road Machine-Gun Murders, Scott Bainbridge, Allen & Unwin $37

Sunday Star Times