Knife-wielding man puts cafe on red alert

LAURA BASHAM
Last updated 12:58 20/08/2014
Meg Howie
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
CONCERN: Red Art Gallery co-owner Sarah Sharp, pictured with barista Alex Handiside, praised staff confronted by a man with a knife but is also concerned about him.

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A disturbed man handling a large new hunting knife in a Nelson art gallery with a cafe full of customers sparked an alert handled so deftly some people did not even know what happened.

Red Art Gallery in Bridge St in central Nelson had about 25 cafe customers when a young man, wearing a puffer jacket and carrying a skateboard, came into the gallery yesterday afternoon and looked around.

Red co-owner Sarah Sharp said he went into the bathroom near the entrance and with an aerosol can wrote numbers on a mirror. Twice a woman customer went to use the bathroom while he was there.

When he came out, Lorna Nicolson was with gallery assistant Kirsty Keen when she spotted the knife. He drew it out of its sheath and they knew it was new because he was peeling off the price label.

Calmly Keen went and called the police, letting the cafe staff know what was happening.

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Sharp said the man was not aggressive or yelling, and while he pulled out the knife and handled it he had not presented at anybody. He left and went across to the Bridge St Backpackers.

Barista Alex Hardiside said the police advised them to lock the doors until they arrived. Nicolson pitched in and made coffees for customers.

Hardiside said: "I thought he was a bit crook; it's sad, that he needed to have got to the point he was messed up. We kept it very low key and tried not to get upset or alarmed."

It was so low key that some customers did not realise what was going on.

Customer Mark Raffills was with his wife Jeanie and engrossed in eating his chicken pie. "It wasn't until Alex said ‘Excuse me, I would just like to say we just had a gentleman in here with a knife, he is now outside and the police have advised us to keep the doors locked until they get here'. My wife and I just looked at each other, we hadn't realised anything was going on. They did an extremely good job."

Sharp praised her staff for keeping calm, but she was also concerned for the young man.

"It was frightening, but the staff handled it well. For me it's not about being afraid, it's not about protecting our own shops, but protecting our people in the community and making sure mental health needs are well funded to support our patients.

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"Our main concern is the New Zealand health system is underfunded and that incidents like these appear more often because of a lack of funding in the health system."

She sees it as a political issue.

"I would like to see instead of a user-pays system that there needs to be more money in mental health."

People with mental health issues could often be seen around Nelson.

"That's a concern for me often, they are lumped into cheap accommodation and together, but there's not the funding to support their mental health."

Police said a man would be charged with possessing a knife in a public place.

He had bought the knife just before going into Red and taken it from its box, attached the sheath to his belt and then put the knife into the sheath, said a police spokeswoman.

She confirmed mental health issues were involved.

- The Nelson Mail

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