One of two men accused of stealing thousands of dollars of kayaking equipment from a German tourist's vehicle and then setting the vehicle on fire entered a late guilty plea during a jury trial today.
Matthew Edward Gutberlet, 25, of Reefton, and Joshua James Little, 27, of Christchurch, had both pleaded not guilty at Greymouth District Court to theft, arson and attempting to take a motor vehicle.
Little also pleaded not guilty to twice obstructing the course of justice by giving a false statement to police and falsely pleading guilty to receiving the stolen equipment.
Today, mid-trial, Gutberlet vacated his not guilty pleas and was remanded for sentencing at a later date.
The jury heard that on February 3, 2010, German tourist Sven Perschmann left his four-wheel drive at the start of Croesus Track overnight while he went tramping. When he returned, he found the vehicle had been broken into, set on fire and completely destroyed.
Over $11,000 worth of equipment had been stolen, including a kayak, two paddles, camping and hiking gear, clothing, camera lenses, a guitar and an MP3 player.
Crown prosecutor Anselm Williams said Gutberlet and Little, along with Gutberlet's then-girlfriend Lorelei Cole-Whitcombe, had been drinking at Little's Cobden home when they decided to go for a drive early in the morning of February 4.
Little allegedly suggested going to the Croesus Track carpark near Blackball to see if there were any cars they could break into. They found Mr Perschmann's vehicle, smashed a window with a rock and stole the equipment.
Later Gutberlet and Little tried to hot wire the vehicle and take it for a joyride. When they could not start it, they used cigarette lighters to set blankets on fire, then watched as flames engulfed the vehicle.
Little and his partner moved to Christchurch soon after the incident. Police tracked down some of the stolen equipment to a Christchurch pawn shop and traced it back to Little's partner. They searched his home and found a waterproof kayaking bag, a gas cooker and other missing equipment.
They also issued a search warrant for Ms Whitcombe's home in Greymouth and found the kayak paddles and a camera lens under her bed.
Gutberlet and Ms Whitcombe initially told police they found the equipment dumped by the river while they were on a picnic. Little said Gutberlet gave him the bag and gas cooker and he did not know anything about the items his partner had pawned.
Little and Ms Whitcombe pleaded guilty to receiving stolen items.
But Whitcombe told the court she decided to tell police the truth after breaking up with Gutberlet and becoming a pre-school teacher.
"I wanted to close that part of my life."
The police did not re-charge her over the incident.
Defence lawyers Richard Bodle and Paul Norcross said Ms Whitcombe had been telling the truth the first time, and changed her story to protect herself and get her ex-boyfriend in trouble.
- The Greymouth Star