Red Fox Tavern verdicts recalls era of armed robberies

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First person – The verdict in the Red Fox Tavern murder brought back memories of the time. As a young reporter I sat in front of the carpark of that low-slung building, with its beer hoardings and knot of trees behind, waiting for detectives to give their first, sad briefing.

The Red Fox Tavern in Maramarua.

The Red Fox Tavern, Maramarua, Waikato. Photo: Google Maps

Mostly I remember the swish of cars on State Highway 2 running in front. The perfect spot for an armed robbery; get-away roads heading in most directions.

I’m glad, as a reporter who had to cover this murder all those years ago, that police finally got their verdicts. Maybe that the family now know what happened.

But after 33 years, details have faded. There were the regular off-the-record briefings by police assuring us they were almost, this time, just about on the brink of an arrest. The wrenching awfulness of Chris Bush’s funeral. The way news moves on when there are no arrests in a case.

One thing has stayed with me – the crimes of the time, armed hold-ups.

The Red Fox murder came in the middle of a long wave of big armed robberies, of banks, pubs and security vans, that went on for years. It was a different time.

At one point the paper I worked for, The Auckland Star, decided to feature “Today’s Armed Robbery” on its front page. Next day it had to double the size of the box because there had been two bank hold-ups.

A screenshot of Chris Bush as seen in Police Ten 7.

Chris Bush died in the Red Fox Tavern robbery, in 1987. This week two men were found guilty of his murder. Photo: Screenshot / TVNZ archive footage

One day I called in to see the Papakura Police to find out if there had been any arrests in a bank robbery. That lunchtime, there were three more in their patch. Two were coordinated, one – I seem to remember – was coincidental.

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We learned the suburbs of Auckland by reporting on the latest hold-up, phoning in the story by asking a dairy or café to use their phone, then having to buy something as recompense. Or dictating it on the car’s RT. It was the days before cellphones. When the first mobile “bricks” did arrive in newsrooms, they had to be lugged down to that day’s police cordon outside the latest robbery.

The tellers always looked shaken, scared. They would start their story the same way; ‘I thought it was a joke, until he pulled out the gun…’

In the 1980s and then into the 1990s, armed robberies had reached a new level of visibility.

Greg Newbold in an essay in Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, says the incidence of robberies grew exponentially after the 1950s. “Robberies jumped sharply after 1970, reaching 1954 in 1996 – 68 times more than the 1950 total and 12 times more than in 1970.”

They were also more likely to be what’s known as “aggravated” robberies. By definition someone holding up a bank, a pub or a security van is ‘aggravated’. They are trying to dominate the people in a business by using firearms to force them to hand over money.

In the days before eftpos, when cash was the currency, the sums handed over could be substantial.

In 1984, several armed men held up a security van at an Auckland Foodtown supermarket and got away with $294,000; it was a record then. Eight years later, another security van was knocked off in Auckland to the tune of $480,000.

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The Red Fox Tavern was targeted because robbers believed it would have substantial takings after a busy Saturday of a long weekend. Chris Bush was fatally shot for $36,349.99.

Maybe robbing banks or security vans had a veneer of mystique. Many people in those days had grown up having watched re-runs on TV of a western, Alias Smith and Jones, about two likeable robbers who “in all their years of robbing banks, never hurt anyone”.

A colleague and very fine journalist, David Gadd, wrote about one robber, Les Green, who when apprehended read a statement to the court; “I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the staff and the customers who were present at the various banks I robbed.” He apparently never swore if there were women in the bank. But, as Gadd went on, Green’s “.44 magnum was loaded, he shoved it at people’s heads and left them terrified”.

Exasperated police would spend several minutes of every media briefing after a robbery trying to dispel the myth of the good robber.

The truth is that most of these robbers had little mystique. They were violent men with a gun. They were desperate and on edge. Tellers were traumatised.

But then slowly the era of these high-profile hold-ups started to fade. New Zealanders adopted eftpos and credit cards with alacrity. People paid for a round of drinks with eftpos, not cash. ATMs sprouted, so there was no need to go into banks. They started holding less cash. Cashing up the pub on a Saturday night became more about squaring the eftpos receipts than counting cash.

The rewards of the armed hold-up started to fall.

At the same time, the risks started to rise. Banks hired security guards to stand outside. So did many pubs. Banks put in double doors to screen customers. Security cameras became ubiquitous. Banks changed their layout so they would be visible to passersby, and the era of the mobile phone meant anyone could phone police straightaway or take a video of what was transpiring. Police became faster to respond.

Recently, banks installed SelectaDNA spray machines, which covers robbers with a solution that glows blue under ultraviolet light.

There are still armed hold-ups today, even more than in the 1980s and 1990s; where there’s money, there’s crime. But they have dropped in style, visibility and takings.

The focus has shifted.

Dairies and takeaway bars became the target, desperate hit and runs. Any lingering mystique has disappeared.

So, too, have the very large sums of money taken. No-one makes the news for robbing a dairy.

In the end, I was glad police caught the men behind the murder of Chris Bush that night at the Red Fox Tavern. Like all murders, it was a tragedy. But perhaps it was also the sad outcome of a criminal era now past.

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