Memories of days in blue

04:48, Jun 25 2012
emmett mitten
EMMETT MITTEN: After a career of police work, he has settled in Timaru.

Former top cop Emmett Mitten quietly moved to Timaru a few months ago, staying well under the radar.

But he soon discovered that in his old home town it doesn't take long for word to get around, and for the phone to start ringing. He spoke with features editor Claire Allison.


When Emmett Mitten left Timaru 56 years ago to become a police officer, he didn't imagine that one day he'd be back for good.

But a few months ago, Mitten slipped quietly into Timaru; some years retired now, widowed, and ready to make his dream of living somewhere with a view of the sea a reality.

That dream was going to be realised in Christchurch; Sumner possibly, but the earthquakes caused a rethink, and with Timaru being his home town, and a daughter here, he decided if he could find the right place, he'd move.


He now lives in a split-level apartment, overlooking Caroline Bay. The view over the Bay is stunning, and he's found he can while away the afternoon quite easily looking at it from a comfortable chair in his lounge.

It was a very young Emmett Mitten who left Timaru to join the police, becoming the first member of his family to break with a military tradition. Three brothers were in the army, although one left and followed him into the police force.

His father was a small-scale farmer and freezing worker, and when Mitten left school, he began work at the National Mortgage and Agency. He did his Compulsory Military Training, and then joined the police; his motivation at the time being mostly financial.

"At NMA I was getting paid monthly, and getting about 12. Going into the police, it was 8000 a year, and I was paid fortnightly, so I was broke for only one week at a time."

He knew some of the local police in Timaru, and says they all seemed to be good fellows, role models to look up to. Mitten's introduction to policing was a sink-or-swim affair.

"I was sworn in as a constable here in the afternoon, given a rail pass and put on a train. I caught the ferry to Wellington, and at 7am the next morning, I was met at the wharf in Wellington, taken to the police store, given a uniform, and at 1pm, I was walking the beat in Lambton Quay. I'd never been in Wellington before in my life, I'd never been a policeman before. And it was a year before I did training. That's where native cunning came in.

"My first night in Lambton Quay, I met a woman who was affected by a substance, and she was using language I had never heard before. I was 19. God, it was funny. I'm trying to shut her up, and the more I tried to shut her up, the worse she became!"

It's a stark contrast to today's training. A grandson who graduated in December had to undergo pre-acceptance training, pass physical competency tests, prove he could swim, go out on patrol as an observer, pass muster at interviews, and then go through six months of intensive training at police college.

Seeing his grandson graduate and begin work as a probationary constable in Christchurch has given Mitten an idea of how his parents may have felt when he began his policing career. "I think they would have had the same feelings that I have now ... as a young person, you see things totally different to an older person. What might seem scary to an older person will seem like a ball to someone younger."

Mitten's career took him around New Zealand and overseas, but while he was never posted to Timaru, fate dictated that he would become involved in two murder cases with a South Canterbury focus.

On holiday in Timaru, Mitten was ordered to Waimate in January 1967 to report back to senior officers on whether police were dealing with a missing person's case or a murder. He reported back that he believed it was a murder case. It was the right call, but he says, made for the wrong reason – he had the wrong suspect in mind.

"It was one of the harder inquiries, because everybody seemed to be with somebody else [that they shouldn't have been with] on New Year's Eve."

Compounding police difficulties was the information that at the time Gillian Thompson was snatched off the street, the same thing was happening 100 yards away.

"So we had two people, two cars, we were chasing our tail. The only thing we had with [suspect] John Ramsay was that one of his headlights was not as bright as the other."

Some memories stand out. Living in sports slacks, a T-shirt and jandals for two weeks, until other clothes could be sent down to him, and Ramsay's confession.

"It has to be one of the most unique confessions in the annals of criminal history. He confessed to her murder while he held a gun to a policeman ... and I had a .303 trained on Ramsay ... but it all ended up peacefully."

The case illustrated that while good policing is important, luck plays a vital role too; the decision not to ask farmers to check their offal pits and drains, a policeman out driving one night at just the right time to see the offender's car with the dimmed headlight, the fact that just one more carcass hadn't been dropped into the offal pit where Gillian's body was found.

"There is a lot of luck in all of them. If you do everything right, that plays a big part, but you have still got to be lucky, because things can change very, very quickly."

Luck wasn't on the side of police in the Jennifer Beard case; the young Tasmanian hitchhiker found murdered early in 1970. No-one was ever prosecuted for the crime.

Mitten groans a little at the name.

"For 40 years, the bloody news media, every year, would ring me up. There, it came back to luck, but this time, luck was against us.

"The day of, or the day after, a kiddy from Oamaru told her mother there was a woman asleep under the bridge, and the parents sort of dismissed it ... arguably, had they followed that up, the Beard murder would never have become the case that it did ... because it was some 14 or 15 days before her body was found, and each hour gone after the first 48 hours, you're up against it, memories have changed, and your vital evidence has gone."

Luck was against them too, in a photograph taken by a young boy, of a car on the Haast Bridge.

"It was `the car', but the photo was of the hood of the car. Ten seconds earlier, and it would have had the registration plate."

The case was a very public one, with the news media the only way police had to communicate with the public. And telephone party lines of the time meant there wasn't much said on the phone that wasn't known about.

"And I think the people of the West Coast took umbrage at the fact that a guest, as she was, in their part of the world, had been murdered and that it appeared that the murderer came from outside of the Coast. And it was also made quite clear by me that the girl was a pretty virtuous girl, of very good character, so it was an affront to the West Coast."

It was a huge case; covering a massive geographic area, involving hundreds of police and army staff, checks of thousands of Vauxhall cars, and hundreds of suspects.

"And we were able to eliminate virtually every one of them. One guy in Christchurch, 35 separate people nominated him."

Evidence was found that pointed to a Timaru man, Gordon Bray. He owned a car similar to the one that was seen, a rolled up receipt in his name from a Timaru garage was found.

"However, when we got to a certain stage, we had a meeting, and attending that meeting were some pretty high-powered people. When it was all boiled down, we had a large amount of circumstantial evidence, but we didn't have enough to charge anyone. Had we charged him, I think he probably would have been found guilty ... and I think there would have been all sorts of allegations of planting of evidence ... "

He says he has always refused to discuss Bray, saying Bray himself went public with the information he was a suspect. Bray died some years ago. Now, is Mitten willing to say whether he believes Bray was guilty?

"Yes, I believe he was."

Does that frustrate him?

Mitten is philosophical; You win some, you lose some.

"You live with it. A lot of things happen, when you know people have done things, but you haven't got the proof. Sometimes in other settings, or a social setting, they know that you know, and you know that they know that you know, and they always seem to end up on the other side of the room ... "

Those were the high-profile cases. But others have stuck in Mitten's mind too.

"The worst homicide that I went to in New Zealand was a fellow who killed six; the boyfriend of one of the daughters in the family was a well-known cricketer and he came with a shotgun and he slaughtered them and then himself."

There was the woman who killed her 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter, then tried to kill herself, cutting her throat and sinking an axe into her head. Mitten was tasked with interviewing her in hospital; conscious, and certified by a doctor as able to be spoken to.

"When I gave evidence in court off her having admitted to killing her own children I was regarded with horror as having been so callous in having interviewed her.

"I say, very carefully, what might have been acceptable 40 years ago in the way you handled people would not be acceptable today."

And while Mitten doesn't feel he was badly affected by those experiences, he is aware other police officers have been. As head of personnel at police national headquarters, he was involved with the introduction of the "perfing" scheme, which allowed police a way out of the force for health reasons.

"Some of those cases were quite tragic, and had we been alerted to them 10, 15 years earlier ... constant exposure to trauma and traumatic experiences. It doesn't necessarily mean to say you were going to become unwell mentally or physically, but we weren't alert to the possibility – especially in the undercover programme and the AOS."

Mitten stretched his wings in the 1970s and headed overseas as a UN Human Rights Fellow. In 1976, he travelled around Asia and the United States, reporting to the UN Secretary General on state and federal authorities' observation of human rights in regards to terrorism and narcotics trafficking. He met Fidel Castro, drank vodka with a KGB general, and spent six weeks at the White House.

But he says it was a posting to South Africa in 1992 as a member of an observer group leading up to the first democratic election that really opened his eyes.

"That's when I came of age. I never in my wildest dreams expected to see what I saw there."

More than once, he feared for his life.

At a funeral rally, things turned nasty. The "poor little white boy from New Zealand" was caught in the middle when someone opened fire with an AK47. He tried to get his 16-stone frame behind a lamp post as 60 men carrying broken beer bottles, hunks of wood and machetes advanced towards him.

"I'd resigned myself to the fact this was it, and was thinking, `what the hell am I doing here?', when the next thing they stopped and dropped their weapons ... there was a South African policeman with a machine-gun."

His UN role of holding weekly meetings between the major political parties in Umlazi saved his life on one occasion. Once again, Mitten became caught up in violence, as cars were turned over and set on fire. He was protected by some of the men from that area, who shielded him from view as the rioters passed.

He had difficulty coming to terms with the number of people shot and killed by the police or army, and the fact that under their law, those killings were justifiable.

"I'd like to think that the occasions when force is used here, it's the last resort. The person pulling the trigger, he is well aware of the law, and what he can and can't do. And he's got to have the moral courage to do it, and that means a life of hell. I've given the order to shoot three times, and three times, fortunately, the situation changed and it didn't happen."

Mitten says he doesn't resile from his statement that frontline police should be armed, providing the training is there and the right firearms are available.

He says he has been in countries where police have been armed and, to his eyes, acted responsibly. But he was also present overseas when police shot at a hostage-taker, and while killing the offender, also wounded the hostage.

"It got maybe three inches of newspaper publicity. They visited the hostage in hospital with flowers, and the policeman who fired the shot was immediately promoted to inspector. In New Zealand? The victim would still get the flowers, but he'd also get ACC, and the officer's career would be over."

Returning to New Zealand, Mitten looked at everything with new eyes. His experiences in South Africa and in other parts of the world reinforced his belief that we don't realise how lucky we are.

The Timaru Herald