Gunfire in Main St

From our archives: June 5, 2010

Last updated 05:00 25/02/2013
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Kevin and Donna Fox shooting in Gore, June 6, 1985.

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On June 6 1985 Kevin David Fox, aged 32, and his wife Donna Terese Fox, aged 26, were shot dead in Gore's Main St. Sonia Gerken looks back on a black day in the town's history.

Ask anyone in Gore what they were doing when Kevin and Donna Fox were shot dead in Main St and chances are they will remember. It's one of those events people subconsciously hold to bookmark their lives.

Tomorrow marks 25 years since the very public deaths of the husband and wife as they sat in their Holden V8, in one of Gore's centre parks. Those parks had developed a reputation for youthful after- dark misbehaviours. This, however, was a sunny Thursday afternoon.

For 40 minutes Kevin Fox sat in the back seat holding a shotgun to his wife's neck. Then he shot her.

Seconds later, as he tried to get out of the car, apparently to train the gun on nearby police, he was brought down by fire from two constables and died soon after in hospital.

This husband-wife tragedy had been no domestic dispute. The pair had been holding a hostage, and had sent him into a bank to cash a cheque, apparently for a drug deal. Inside, he had quietly raised the alarm.

Incredibly, people were within 50m of the Fox's car as the drama unfolded. They were four and five deep on the corners of Mersey and Irk streets while others were on fire escapes armed with telescopic sights or in shops with binoculars.

Among the bystanders was Jan Wheeler, the wife of Gore's top cop Senior Sergeant Jack Wheeler, who would later recall feeling numb as she watched her husband, just a month short of his retirement, negotiating with the gunman.

With an announcer for local radio station Radio Hokonui giving a running commentary from the station's studio, directly above the scene, it did not take long for news to spread. The announcer's warnings for people to stay away had the same effect as yelling "lolly scramble" at a school fair.

For Senior Sergeant Ken Devery his enduring memory of that day is one of people everywhere.

Mr Devery, the only police officer on shift that day who is still in the police force, said he can still remember the belligerent attitude of some people as they were asked to move back.

"One man told me that he paid his rates so he was entitled to be there."

No-one knew how it was going to pan out and in the end everyone was shocked at what happened, Mr Devery said.

"It was a sad day for one and all, " he said.

Pharmacist Jim Tattersfield had an unobstructed view from his shop window, next to the bank.

"It's imprinted on my mind. I remember the boom of the gun when he shot her."

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It almost felt like the making of a movie and while everyone in the shop realised it was for real, no-one expected to end the way it did, Mr Tattersfield said.

The first shot took police as well as the public by surprise - one officer said he was flabbergasted - and the question remains whether Kevin Fox had intended to fire the shotgun. The only person able to answer that with certainty died that day.

It was known that the safety catch for the left barrel of the double barrel side-by- side shotgun, the side that discharged the fatal shot, did not work. Police never checked the position of the safety catch after they shot Fox, so could it have been accidental?

One of the many investigations into the incident says that was unlikely.

Then QC Peter Penlington, later to become Justice Penlington, found that Fox's actions and words after Donna had been shot led him to conclude her killing was deliberate.

Police and civilian witnesses recalled Fox yelling "now you know that I'm not f * * * king bluffing" and "what are you (police) going to do about that".

This killing was "an invitation to the police to kill him (Fox) or alternatively, that it was an invitation to have a shootout, " Justice Penlington's report says.

SO how did it come to this?

"A man out there has a gun. Call the cops. I'm under pressure to do this, " - these were reportedly Steven Lines' first words when he walked into the Westpac Bank just before 1.15pm on June 6, 1985.

It was the end of a horrifying ordeal for the 25-year-old who had been held hostage by Kevin and Donna Fox. Forced to drive around Southland with Fox beside him, shotgun at the ready, Mr Lines had been made to cash an $8000 cheque, drawn on his employer's business account, at Invercargill and had been sent into the bank's Gore branch to cash a $10,000 cheque.

The money was supposedly for a drugs deal although for reasons never determined, the couple had been desperately trying to raise $7000 in the days leading up to Mr Lines' abduction.

He and Kevin Fox first met just 10 days before at the Dunstan Hotel, in Clyde, and had completed a couple of drugs transactions.

Unbeknowst to Fox his new friend had been telling police everything and on May 27 Fox was arrested at his Clyde home by police acting on information from Mr Lines.

Subsequently Fox tried to make a deal with police to turn informant and was given bail and interim name suppression on his first court appearance.

Police quickly decided that Fox has nothing to offer and called the deal off.

Meanwhile, Mr Lines continued working in the Riversdale-Otama area but fearful for his own safety, had started sleeping in his car with a shotgun beside him, the shotgun that was eventually used to kill Donna Fox.

Kevin and Donna came south on June 3 searching for Mr Lines, eventually finding him two days later playing pinball in a takeaway shop in Riversdale.

What started as an amicable encounter soon turned nasty and during the next 24 hours Fox would show extreme paranoia and talk to Mr Lines about what they did to people "who dob them in".

Justice Penlington describes Mr Lines as naive in his dealings with Fox and lucky to be alive.

"Acting the part of a drug user and dealer, when he in fact was a police informer, led him inevitably into a dangerous situation with Fox, " his report says.

The report stresses that Mr Lines was not criminally involved in any incidents involving Fox.

WHEN the 111 call from a frightened bank teller came in it started one of the most memorable incidents in the annals of Gore police.

It was not long before a plain-clothes policeman was dispatched on a bicycle and a detective and constable, also in plain-clothes, left in an unmarked car, to do a reconnaissance.

Given staff numbers, the fact Fox's car was more powerful than the police vehicles, and the large number of shoppers and workers in the Main St block, it was decided to have a close cordon.

The three police cars available were used to block-in Fox's car at the front and back.

The plan had been for police to approach the Holden and disarm Fox. They never got the chance.

For 40 minutes police negotiated with Fox to give himself up.

Donna was seen sitting calmly in the front, nothing suggesting she was being held against her will.

She lit several cigarettes, passing them to Fox and acted as his spokesman.

With no portable loud hailers, police had to rely on the strength of their own voices to negotiate after it was discovered there were serious feedback issues with the public address systems on police cars when they were used with the car doors open.

On one occasion Mr Wheeler walked in full view of Fox to shift a police car to keep the gunman calm. Another time he went, at Fox's request, to get a can of beer. Fox never got it though - police were not about to give him something for nothing and Fox refused to hand over the shotgun.

At the time police knew very little about the man they were dealing with and it was only later revealed that Fox was on trial leave from Cherry Farm psychiatric hospital. In and out of prison throughout his life for a variety of offences, Fox had developed a phobia about being imprisoned and swore he would rather kill himself than go back there.

One of his clinicians would describe Fox as "a small man who always wore built up shoes, dark glasses and presented himself as a big time criminal. He would recite for hours his past deeds; deeds which always involved violence and the presence of weapons of some sort".

Inevitably, police came under intense scrutiny after the double shooting and while they drew criticism from some quarters, there was huge public support for the actions taken that day.

After his detailed investigation Justice Penlington made a list of recommendations about procedure, police welfare and equipment, and the need for information about psychiatric patients to be held in the police Wanganui computer centre.

Ultimately Justice Penlington said he concurred with the collective conclusion of the sizeable crowd of onlookers who were there on the day. Police did a good job.

- The Southland Times

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