Gangs of Marlborough Gangs of Marlborough

Last updated 15:06 16/04/2008
The Marlborough Express
SHOWING THE COLOURS: The appearance of the Mongrel Mob's red gang colours in Blenheim have raised questions.

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A group of men clad in leather jackets and red T-shirts and scarves are gathered in Blenheim's town centre.

They're not doing much, but members of the public look on nervously: Some of the jackets have a patch on the back with the words Mongrel Mob.

Usually the only place where Marlburians see patched Mongrel Mob members is out of town or on the news. And usually the news is not good news.

Although Mongrel Mob members and associates have been living in Blenheim and surrounds for years, they have mostly kept to themselves and have refrained from wearing patches in public.

But that changed this year.

Patched members are openly wearing their colours in town, creating an intimidating sight for some which has already driven several people to call police.

Sources say the change is because of the arrival of Mongrel Mob associates from Christchurch and Timaru. Their intentions are not clear. Some say they are here to gather new members and secure their presence in town, others say they are simply here to take advantage of work available in the vineyard industry.

Members of the gang have every right to work and earn money for themselves and their families, says one vineyard contractor. Judge someone on their individual character, not their supposed reputation, he advises. Whatever the case may be, the Mongrel Mob is making it known they are here.

So far the gang, which consists of just a handful of patched members and a small contingent of associates and prospects, have not actually been charged with any major offences.

A few Mongrel Mob associates have appeared in Blenheim's court for minor crimes such as unlawful assembly, threatening behaviour and shoplifting.

According to Blenheim police figures, since July last year 14 Mongrel Mob members and associates have been arrested on minor matters. Two people were arrested twice.

But the appearance of red gang colours have raised questions.

Are the Mongrel Mob reacting to the demise of the Lone Legion Motorcycle Club's headquarters, pulled down after the shooting of Blenheim man Carl MacDonald?

Four Lone Legion members will stand trial for the murder, which happened outside the Gascoigne St club house.

Before the shooting, the Lone Legion had kept a low profile for years, and since the shooting they've done the same possibly because many of them are in custody.

"This town no longer belongs to Lone Legion observes New Zealand gang expert and Canterbury University researcher Jared Gilbert. "When a vacuum is created it will always be filled."

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Mr Gilbert cannot place a direct link between the murder of Carl MacDonald and the subsequent removal of the Lone Legion's clubhouse by the gang itself, but doesn't rule it out.

It also doesn't mean the Lone Legion, which has been in Blenheim since the 1970s, has gone away.

A few weeks ago, patched Lone Legion motorcyclists were seen in Blenheim among a larger group of black-clad motorcyclists, among them Epitaph Riders and others from as far south as Dunedin.

Though their weekend visit was a quiet one in fact, it was probably an annual one some say it is a sign they could have been flying the flag against rival gangs in town. Mr Gilbert says the group described make up what is known as "the A-Team", which includes affiliated gangs such as, the Southern Vikings, Sinn Fein and the Lost Breed.

A criminologist and former police officer says he has seen signs of Lone Legion members trying to increase their influence in the area by wearing their patches.

Andrew MacDonald has made a study of New Zealand gangs, is a relative of slain man Carl MacDonald and has close ties with Blenheim and Rangitane.

The reason why Lone Legion and the Mongrel Mob may both be showing their patches could be simple, he says: "People need an image and you can't have an image without an audience.

"The A-Team are rebunching and the Notorious (Mongrel Mob) are rebunching and prospecting. To me, the Notorious are imaging to show they are here: The A-Team are imaging to show they have back-up."

Communication between key members of the community is vital, Mr MacDonald says, to prevent a polarisation of groups.

"I would hope that people in power start talking to the community. Have meetings been called? Does someone need to be shot before this happens?"

Mr MacDonald says that after the death of Carl MacDonald some people in Blenheim were in "a state of anxiety" as people wait for the next move would there be retribution? Would there be more violence?

As yet, the only event brought before the courts was a violent assault on Lone Legion associates six women and two men in central Blenheim on January 13. The alleged attackers were said to be MacDonald family sympathisers and police removed a man and a woman from the home of Carl MacDonald's parents after the event.

Apart from that, nothing else has been apparent to the public.

Jared Gilbert also believes the motorcycle club is still active.

But he says motorcycle gangs seem to be fading from popularity partly because it's cooler for a young person to be seen behind the wheel of a souped-up Nissan Skyline then a Harley Davidson.

The apparent shift of gang power in Blenheim seems to be in line with what's happening throughout the South Island, in particular in Timaru where both the Mongrel Mob and rival gang Black Power are jostling for elbow room.

Motorcycle gangs are going down, ethnic street gangs are moving in to take the turf, says Mr Gilbert.

In Blenheim he suspects the Mongrel Mob may be looking to increase their strength but are probably being heavily policed, something Blenheim police confirm.

Marlborough police area commander inspector Steve Caldwell is blunt: "this is our community, the community doesn't want them here, we don't want them here.

"While they are here if they break the law they can expect the full attention of the law."

He says police have jumped on the "flurry" of gang activity in town and since then there have not appeared to have been a visible Mongrel Mob presence.

"The public are urged to call the police about any incident or concern involving (gangs)," Mr Caldwell says.

Wayne Stringer, a former detective sergeant in charge of serious crime in Tasman, who spent several years based in Blenheim in the late 1980s and early 1990s, says the current situation is not new.

Mr Stringer says that about 15 years ago about five patched members from the Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob moved into town and started parading their colours on the streets.

Several public meetings later, the public took matters into their own hands.

"They got `sent to Coventry' people wouldn't let them houses. They were in a state house and a group of the local boys actually trashed the house one night, just to get rid of them," Mr Stringer remembers.

In another incident, one young Mongrel Mob associate was beaten and had his colours stolen, he says.

Marlborough Mayor Alistair Sowman says those "vigilante-type" operations are no longer the answer in today's society, but he feels the public is sending the same message by reporting gang activity to police.

Mr Sowman says once upon a time the Lone Legion motorcycle club had acted as a deterrent to other gangs who hoped to move into Marlborough, but times, and gang members, had changed and aged.

Mr Caldwell also says the idea that local gangs kept outside gangs out is a "local myth".

"The police do and we will keep gangs out."

Whatever the case, the mayor is particularly worried about reports that young people are becoming involved with the Mob. After speaking to his counterpart in Timaru, he knows other towns around the island are facing similar problems.

"The message is clear: nip it in the bud early. We do need to keep on top of it, we can't let it escalate.

"This is something new for Blenheim and people feel intimidated. We need to have confidence in our police."

Mr Caldwell says police have already commenced a crack-down on gang activity in town and already it seems to be working patch "sightings" have dwindled.

"I wish to reassure the public that this is a safe community with strong community links with people that are concerned for its future.

"If individuals or groups wish to challenge that then they can expect the consequences," Mr Caldwell says.

Recent months have seen the establishment of at least one Mongrel Mob house in the town, from which most people go to work in the vineyards. It is the house several young people in court recently have been bailed to, with the proviso they don't mix outside the house.

The house is owned by Marlborough District councillor Francis Maher. He declined to comment on the matter, saying the house is owned by the Maher family trust and referring any questions to the trust manager, his eldest daughter Jess Maher.

The house was sold to the family trust near the end of last year.

Jess Maher also declined to comment, as did Mr Sowman who says the Mahers' ownership of the house is a private matter.

"I have no influence over a counsellor's private activities."

The police are not impressed though.

Mr Caldwell says while he doesn't want to be drawn into specific matters he would be disappointed if an elected official is housing gang members.

He says the community has a collective responsibility on who they house and employ.

But talk to at least one local vineyard contractor and it's a different story.

Grapeworx Marlborough's managing director Mack Pouwhare says he hasn't employed a Mongrel Mob member yet because none have applied. But if they did, they would be judged on their merits.

He says he knows of contractors employing gang members in Marlborough and hasn't heard of any problems.

"Yes I would employ gang members. I would judge them on their temperament, their character. Just like anyone else.

"Just because someone is in a gang doesn't mean you shouldn't employ them."

Mr Pouwhare employs 80 workers and says the Marlborough vineyards are now a massive employer, and it has become year round rather than seasonal work.

He said the link made between an increase in violence in the Marlborough community and the vineyards is tenuous.

"Look, the vineyards would employ about 60 percent of the people around here. It's like forestry used to be in some areas. It's just logical that a percentage of people appearing in court are going to be from the vineyards."

Mr Pouwhare says the Mongrel Mob has been in town for about 12 months and he understands Work and Income has been directing people to Marlborough for work.

It's part of the large wave of people coming here.

"I know several contractors who have moved from Hawkes Bay down here. It's just the growth of the vineyards. It's not just pennies, it's big money.

"And that means workers. And people are going to get worried about the Mob and the Tongan groups and the Samoan groups.

"There is nothing Marlborough can do about it.

"And it's an overreaction to talk about the gang presence the way it has been talked about. Just talk to them. It might not be that bad."

He says people in trouble with the police and the law would account for less than one percent of the total workforce in Marlborough.

The Marlborough Express approached members of the Mongrel Mob and Lone Legion for comments for this story. Both declined.

- The Marlborough Express