Beauty or the beast

00:26, Jul 27 2013

There's something about Christchurch.

When people talk about the issues in our city, it's earthquakes, boy racers, council divisions, stadiums, architecture and binge drinking. But when it comes to crime, those disparate issues and residents are greater than the whole. They meld together, forming a single character. More precisely, one character with a split personality - a genteel being, all manners and respectability during the day but when night falls . . . oh, when night falls. The city goes off its meds. It's The Strange Metropolitan Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Put it this way, if some unfortunate person is murdered or gets the bash in Wellington, it is the criminal who did it. If the same thing happens in Christchurch, it is viewed by and large, as symptomatic of the city itself. As if the character of the city were at fault, rather than the perpetrators.

Take the Jesse Ryder incident. The cricketer was leaving a Merivale bar and was beaten senseless with injuries that would land him in Christchurch Hospital's intensive care unit for several days. In the void between the beating and the facts, the city of Christchurch and its perceived reputation became the target.

Only in Christchurch, people said. Only in Christchurch (never mind that a street bashing in Wellington a few months earlier resulted in death).

Social media was rife with opinion on the city. Auckland comedian Dai Henwood posited on Twitter that the rebuild was at fault. That the surge of testosterone from the city's new workers made it inevitable. That a bar owner had told him so.


Exactly one week later, Auckland journalist Jock Anderson appeared as a panellist on Radio New Zealand. When the topic of Ryder was brought up, Anderson paid little attention to Ryder, instead saying: "Christchurch is an odd place, there's a lot of below-the-surface violence in Christchurch. It's not a nice place for some people . . . people are on edge in Christchurch a lot. They've had earthquakes and all that type of thing and who knows? There might be a whole interesting backstory behind this."

Yes, there may well have been a backstory but it was this fugitive character of Christchurch that was being hunted alongside Ryder's actual attackers.

Ten days after the attack, TV3's The Nation, visited Christchurch in search of boozing and street crime. Ryder put a focus on the problem of street crime and disorder - a fair call - but presenter Rachel Smalley asked her guests: "Were there any particular concerns about Christchurch? Does that city worry you a little bit?"

For a week there, we'd shaken the moniker of Quakeschurch and returned to Crimechurch. No Garden City, no Eden.

If the Ryder incident was shocking (sportsman attacked outside bar at night), it should have shocked for another reason - that it happened in Christchurch at all. According to the numbers, at least.

The Press looked at the last 12 years of reported crimes in the five main centres : Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Canterbury and Dunedin. Using figures supplied by New Zealand Police and Statistics New Zealand (they are only available as regions in some cases), Canterbury consistently has some of the lowest figures of any of the main offences (see interactive graphs on for more figures).

Looking at total offences per 10,000 people in the most recent calendar year, Canterbury is beaten only by Dunedin (664.7 offences per 10,000 people). Canterbury had 773.5, Wellington had 791, Auckland had 1098.5, and Hamilton had the most total offences with 1149.1 per 10,000 people.

The Press drilled into the total offences, looking at four of the most serious categories; intent to cause injury, sexual assault and related offences, public order offences and drug offences. The green line of Canterbury's graph remains low, with Hamilton and Auckland battling it out for New Zealand's Next Top Crime Capital.

It was no whitewash though, Canterbury was the worst city for one offence category, "miscellaneous" which includes libel, bribery, disease prevention and quarantine offences.

If the numbers are in decline, why do we have this reputation for violence? When the lights go down in this rural hub, when the moleskin trousers are folded and the Airtex shirt is in the washing basket, does something evil crawl up through the faultlines and stretch its talon-tipped fingers?

On the Government-funded website, Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, the crime entry has a sidebar especially for Christchurch headlined 'Weird crime city?'

In Lynley Hood's book A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case, the author says the 1992 allegations of ritual paedophilia against Peter Ellis shocked the nation "but the fact that the bizarre claims arose in that Southern City came as no surprise".

She said the city's history of "wealthy and pious Church of England settlers" who built genteel suburbs with verdant parks and gardens had created a class- conscious city with "snobbery imposed from above".

"It seems to have provoked those below with a defiant eccentricity," Hood wrote, concluding there was no evidence of a paedophile ring in Christchurch but rather, a city whose collective history and attitude somehow brought it unavoidably upon itself.

It is true, we must put our hands up and say we do have our fair share of crimes that make national headlines - white collar and blue collar both.

If you had to pick some standout Christchurch crimes, you could choose from: the 1954 Parke-Hulme murder; the 1964 attack in which a man was beaten to death by six teenagers in Hagley Park; there's Morgan 'Fingers' Fahey, a former Christchurch deputy mayor and family doctor jailed for sex crimes against patients; Gay Oakes, who poisoned her husband then buried him in their Sydenham garden; Jason Somerville and the Aranui House of Horrors - strangling his wife, Rebecca, and neighbour Tisha Lowry before putting them under the floor and having sex with their corpses. Three sex workers were murdered, two bodies dumped in the Avon River, one in a vacant lot. More recently, Christchurch has been home to tragic murders of teenagers Hayden Miles and Jade Bayliss, before that it was Emma Agnew and Marie Davis. Even earlier, 6-year-old Louisa Damodran. We may not have the numbers but the city can certainly provide salacious detail which drives a nationwide perverse interest.

University of Canterbury criminologist Professor Greg Newbold says despite statistical evidence to the contrary, Christchurch is "weird".

"I'm an Aucklander and Mum told me the place was weird. The reputation is deserved. It's not something you can state statistically but it's got a reputation for being a city with a lot of weirdos in it and nothing in the last 25 years has disabused me of that.

"It's a bloody weird city. It does have a low crime rate and that is because you don't have many Maori here. Wherever you have a high Maori population. you have a high crime rate and higher domestic violence rate. We don't have that but we do have a lot of weird white guys. There's got to be something in the water."

He believes the city is too inward- looking and paranoid.

"The weirdness comes from the middle classes, the what-school-did-you- go-to brigade.

"What it boils down to is that Christchurch lacks a sense of community, it's gossipy, it's an exploitative, class-conscious city where people are measuring themselves against each other. That pushes the weird people out. It isolates them, which makes them more weird."

Jarrod Gilbert is a Christchurch researcher and author of Patched: A history of gangs in New Zealand.

"Like any city, it has an underbelly but in my experience (Gilbert spent eight years with Kiwi gangs researching his book), it is not as bad as some other areas. Christchurch does not have the significant deprivation or unemployment that other places have.

"Crime ebbs and flows with the economy. There was a very prominent skinhead leader who always waited until unemployment was high and he'd just go into recruitment drive. It was a very successful method.

"Statistically, we don't deserve it. We're all perversely titillated by crime but the data shows a different story. The infamous and unusual crimes are the ones that scar the collective consciousness but the perception incorrectly mirrors the national trend and a large part of the problem is perception."

During the 1970s, Christchurch was home to the first major gang wars and unique to the city is its stubborn skinhead population. Groups like the skinheads exist in pockets in other parts of the country but Christchurch's white demographic makes it easier for these types of groups to take root and maintain a presence.

The tendency for people to be out of sync with statistics when it comes to crime is well-documented. A blog entry by Roger Brooking dissects a 2009 study by Dr Michael Rowe. The study showed the crime rate in New Zealand had been in decline for a decade but only 57 per cent of New Zealanders reported feeling "safe".

As Brooking says: "Despite reductions in crime, and despite our international standing as a peaceful country, New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56 per cent feel safe) and Albania (54 per cent). New Zealand is also on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Iran (55 per cent) and Lebanon (56 per cent) and African countries such as Angola (53 per cent), Nigeria (51 per cent) and Uganda (51 per cent)."

Mind you, in the same year as that study, there were five murders in Christchurch over six weeks.

Both Gilbert and Newbold agree the proximity of Christchurch Men's Prison has an effect on the local crime scene. The region has a smaller catchment than some of the larger correctional institutes up north so prisoners are transferred. If the sentence is lengthy, their support networks move nearby. On release, they choose to stay.

However, in Newbold's opinion, the crime scene in Auckland is more sophisticated.

"Down here most are working proletariat, generally low class, low-level petty criminals with a lack of organisation. Thugs and knockabouts, small time criminals. Christchurch has a small town crime profile.

"In Auckland the highest burglary areas are the rich areas so criminals are enterprising. The poor will rob the rich, here they rob areas where the criminals themselves live. It's a predatory kind of environment."

There's that self esteem thing again. Are our criminals not even as good as their North Island counterparts?

Perhaps it's the physical and social geography. Hilly towns like Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin have more distinctive suburbs, ours bleed into each other so our criminals can't be pinpointed to a particular suburb. If Christchurch suburbs are indistinguishable, crime must belong to all.

If we are scrutinising crime and geography, a cop like Sergeant Vaughn Lapslie provides an experienced voice. Lapslie has been a frontline police officer for 23 years in Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland and back to Christchurch again.

Asked which aspect of crime is particular to this city compared with the others, his answer is an unembellished, "nothing".

"To be honest, I am surprised that you ask. I've worked in Wellington, in the North Shore, a bit in Henderson and it's the same job. You look after the same parties, the same domestics, same burglaries and yes, the same homicides. I think there are more trends in reporting than trends in crime."

Lapslie does not believe Christchurch is a city where criminals crouch by the letter box, waiting to pounce at night. "It's a city like any other, you never know what you're going to get. But I do believe in that full Moon theory."

The days are starting to get longer, but we're still in that winter gloom. The statistics might say Christchurch is a safe city, but the imagination conjures darker thoughts when allowed to wander a damp, damaged gothic southern city.

Roll of Horror

Thirteen-year-old Jade Bayliss was killed in November 2011 by Jeremy McLaughlin, a former boyfriend of her mother. She off school sick and at home alone. He torched the house after strangling her.

Gavin Gosnell beat and tortured 15-year-old Christchurch boy Hayden Miles in August 2011 in his Cashel St flat. He found the boy dead in the morning, chopped up the body and buried the remains in two cemetery graves.

Dean Cameron was already a convicted rapist when he raped and killed Christchurch schoolgirl Marie Davis, 15, in April, 2008. Her naked body was found on the banks of the Waimakariri River.

Christchurch sex worker Mellory Manning was brutally bashed, sexually assaulted and her body was found in the Avon River just before Christmas in 2008.

In September 2008, Jason Somerville killed neighbour Tisha Lowry and buried her under his Hampshire St home. In August 2009, he killed his wife, Rebecca Chamberlain, and also buried her under the house. He had sex with both of them after they were dead.

Deaf Christchurch woman Emma Agnew was raped and killed by Liam Reid in November 2007 after she met him to sell her car. He raped another woman nine days later, before he was finally arrested.

Sex worker Susie Sutherland was killed by client Jule Burns in Peterborough St in April 2005 in an attack described as among the most violent seen by experts who investigated the murder.


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