Medals stolen from Waiouru Army Museum recovered (+ photos)

Military medals stolen in a museum heist in December have been recovered and the net is closing on those who stole them, police announced today.

The priceless collection of 96 medals, awarded to 12 of New Zealand's most highly decorated war heroes, was stolen from the Waiouru Army Museum in the early hours of December 2.

The medals included nine Victoria Crosses.

At a press conference in Palmerston North today inquiry head Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Bensemann said all the medals had been recovered yesterday in good condition and had been verified as being those stolen from Waiouru.

The medals were returned as a result of a $300,000 reward being offered last month by British medal collector Lord Michael Ashcroft and Nelson businessman Tom Sturgess.

The reward was three times the highest previous reward offered by police.

"The reward was offered for information leading to the safe return of the medals and that has encouraged a person to come forward and facilitate the return of the medals to police," Mr Bensemann said.

He would not say how much of the reward was being paid, but that "an amount" would be transferred to a third party on Monday, following several weeks of negotiations.

No immunity from prosecution or support for reduction in any sentence for any offender was given in return, he said.

"New Zealand Police celebrate the return of these national treasures. The recovery of the medals was the top priority. Nevertheless, our job won't be complete until we find the perpetrators of this burglary and bring them to court," Mr Bensemann said.

"What I can say is that the recovery of the medals has certainly narrowed the focus of the investigation, the net is closing and we are continuing to work very hard at pulling it tight."

The medals had now been sent for forensic examination, which could take some weeks.

Mr Bensemann urged the public to continue to come forward with information that may assist the inquiry.

" Even the smallest snippet of information can be of use in such investigations."

The Victoria Cross (VC) medals taken in the heist, included those of World War 2 soldier Captain Charles Upham, the only combat soldier to ever win two VCs.

The medals were considered to be worth several millions of dollars. VCs are valued at about $500,000. Two rare George Crosses, an Albert Medal and a Distinguished Conduct Medal were among the others taken.

Doug Elliott, the eldest son of Victoria Cross recipient Keith Elliott said his family was delighted by the breakthrough.

"I have just been on the phone to my sister in Wellington and we are delighted, and we would just like to thank the New Zealand police for their excellent work.

"I think it is a marvellous day for the country because these medals can be returned to Waiouru and then our children's children can go and see them."

Asked if he ever thought they would be returned Mr Elliott said: "I had my doubts. I just hoped they would not finish up over Huka Falls or in Lake Taupo.

Chief of Army Major General Lou Gardiner said the recovery of the medals was a testament to the professionalism and hard work of the police investigation team .

"This theft was not just from defence and army, it was from the nation, and as such the country should thank the investigation team for their work in recovering them."

He said while the return of the medals was the end of a distressing time for the army and wider defence force it was not the end of the police investigation.

Maj Gen Gardiner said the intent was to return the medals to the Waiouru Army Museum once a comprehensive security review had been completed and changes implemented.

"The museum is the rightful home of the medals. The museum is New Zealand's link to our rich and proud military history and that is where these medals belong.

"New Zealanders should be able to see the original medals that these men were given. It is a tangible connection to the gallantry of some of the nation's most famous sons."

Defence Minister Phil Goff was delighted and relieved at the recovery of the medals.

"These medals are New Zealand's national treasures, with a value beyond any monetary worth. New Zealanders will be both delighted and relieved that the VCs and other medals have been recovered," he said.

"Along with other New Zealanders I also hope that those responsible for the theft will, in due course, be held to account."

* The stolen medals were awarded to the following recipients:

Captain C Upham (VC and bar), Brigadier L Andrew (VC, DSO), Captain S Frickleton (VC), Sergeant J Hinton (VC), Sergeant A Hulme (VC), Major R Judson (VC, DCM, MM), Lieutenant Colonel H Laurent (VC), Sergeant J Grant (VC NZEF), Sergeant K Elliott (VC), Lance Corporal D Russell (GC), Sergeant M Hudson (GC), Captain R Riding (AM).

- NZPA

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