A true crime writer's tale: Scott Bainbridge delves into New Zealand's biggest heist

Back in 1956, Auckland gangsters cut the top off a safe in waterfront offices and walked away with the payroll. ...

Back in 1956, Auckland gangsters cut the top off a safe in waterfront offices and walked away with the payroll. Investigative author Scott Bainbridge has written a book on how it happened (file photo).

Scott Bainbridge has heard confessions from 1960s gangsters, pored over old murder files, and had photos handed to him with a warning.

He's a true crime author, the man whose books inspired the television series The Missing.

His most recent work, The Great NZ Robbery, recounts New Zealand's biggest heist, which left a wrecked safe and a few scattered notes behind.

The Great NZ Robbery adds to Scott Bainbridge's growing list of books about Kiwi crimes (file photo).

The Great NZ Robbery adds to Scott Bainbridge's growing list of books about Kiwi crimes (file photo).

It was in 1956, at the Auckland offices of the Waterfront Industry Commission, and the criminals sliced the safe open to steal the equivalent of $1 million in today's money.

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Bainbridge is based in Hamilton and fits his writing around working for the NZ Transport Agency.

Researching the crimes has led to some interesting experiences, such as chats with former gangsters.

They're reluctant when he first makes contact, he said, but some loosen up once they come to trust him.

There was at least one that you couldn't shut up when he got going.

"These are guys that are sort of toward the end of their lives and they're talking about the era when they were the tough guys around town. Some of them still got a little bit of a glint in their eye when they talked about it."

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The book on the Waterfront robbery includes an interview with "one of our notorious criminals" - now in his 80s - admitting how he helped break out the man jailed for it.

Bainbridge went to Wellington to get the police file for the book, then found out it was actually in Auckland archives.

Staff are reluctant to photocopy the flimsy paper, so he's either taking pictures or making pencilled notes - "you're not allowed to use a pen".

"That took me about three trips on three different days to get all the information ... [The file] occupied about two great big boxes."

Once Bainbridge was handed a warning and a brown envelope with a photo of his son inside.

He was writing about a case and the family involved didn't want a certain aspect mentioned.

It was a veiled threat, Bainbridge said, but he found a way to leave the sensitive stuff out while making his points.

The Waterfront yarn came out of his interest in Auckland's gangland scene of the 1950s and '60s.

"I'm obviously not trying to glorify crime, but I just love that era," he said.

"[The gangsters] just pulled it off with sort of military precision and left no clue whatsoever. They took the equivalent of $1 million," he said.

Blowing the safe failed, so the top was cut off in what's known as a soup job, he said - using oxygen, acetylene and a blowtorch.

Only a handful of criminals in Auckland were capable of that, Bainbridge said.

"These guys took the payroll that night before payday. So all of these wharfies were coming to work expecting to be paid and it had all gone."

Company officials and emergency services found a smouldering pillow atop gas bottles, the dismantled safe, tarp-covered windows and a few burning notes scattered on the floor.

About a year later, Newmarket shop assistants noticed a guy going shop to shop buying things like newspapers and records with £10 notes - like $500 today.

Police arrived and arrested petty criminal Trevor Nash, who took the rap but was broken out of prison in 1961.

His freedom lasted about six months, as an Australian officer with a photographic memory picked Nash up across the ditch.

The Great NZ Robbery should appeal to blokes, Bainbridge said.

"If you like guns and fights and robberies and stuff like that, gangsters ... It's a book that a bloke would get into and it's all true."

The Great NZ Robbery is published by Allen & Unwin and is available in bookshops.

 - Stuff


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