Ashcroft delighted reward led to medals' return (+video)

By David Eames

The British medal collector who gave $200,000 towards a reward for the return of valuable war medals stolen from Waiouru Army Museum has said he is delighted the reward helped secure their return.

On December 2, thieves broke into the museum and took off with the medals, awarded to 12 New Zealanders.

On January 17, a $300,000 reward was offered for information leading to the safe return of the medals. That was three times the previous highest reward offered in a police investigation.

Medal collector Lord Michael Ashcroft put up $200,000 of that sum, and Nelson businessman and former US Marine Tom Sturgess provided the balance.

Lord Ashcroft said he was pleased the reward had helped get the medals back.

"The judgment was this was either an opportunistic heist, or had it been planned, the thieves would then find out there was no real second hand value for these medals and that a reward in this case would be sufficient incentive to flush somebody out in order to get their return," he told NewstalkZB today.

"I'm absolutely delighted that this is the outcome."

Lord Ashcroft said it wasn't ideal that the thieves had been enriched by a sum which he would not discuss for fear of compromising the police investigation.

"Life is not about the best of choices. Quite often it's the best of worst alternatives and in this case right from the beginning it was always clear that there was a possibility that the thieves themselves may be enriched," he said.

"Of course there would be those that would have preferred that the medals not be found for the principle that perhaps the thieves might not be rewarded.

"But I think the general judgment because of the value of these medals for the heritage of New Zealand that even if some of the money went to the thieves that the return of these originals was absolutely vital and in the national interest.

"And remember there is no immunity for the thieves here and the police are going to go ahead and are hoping to make arrests in due course."

Lawyer Chris Comeskey of Auckland, who negotiated the return of the 96 medals, including nine Victoria Crosses, said money was "simply another tool to use in achieving an objective".

"You can always print more notes, but these medals are irreplaceable."

Mr Comeskey, through underworld contacts, successfully negotiated to get all the stolen medals returned.

Prime Minister Helen Clark today said she was "over the moon" at the return of the medals.

However, she was concerned about the possibility of the reward money being paid out to the thieves or their associates.

She said you wouldn't want "to set up expectations for the future that if someone stole something and then gave it back they would be paid for it," she said on TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

"It is a very very tricky issue, but we've obviously had to leave this to the discretion of the police."

She hoped police would eventually catch the thieves.

Some of the families of the war heroes who were awarded the medals were also angry that the thieves could profit.

But Associate Professor Scott Optican of the Auckland University law school said last night that Mr Comeskey appeared to have "simply acted as a broker for someone who wanted to come clean", and was not doing anything out of the ordinary.

And he said Mr Comeskey could get into more trouble revealing details of those involved than if he said nothing.

Mr Comeskey would be under no obligation to speak with the police, and as a lawyer, keeping quiet could be "perfectly his right and possibly his obligation" because of "ethical guarantees" to his client.

"If you want to let lawyers play these rules ... you can't then be in a situation where lawyers are going to be first witnesses against them."

Professor Optican said he did not believe Mr Comeskey's actions had set some kind of precedent.

"The lesson from it is for people to appreciate ... that this is a good example of how rules of confidentiality and privilege do play a role that [creates] some public good."

Law Society ethics council member Nicholas Till, QC, last night told the Herald the extent of lawyer-client privilege often depended on the nature of the discussions.

While conversations in which legal advice was given were privileged, conversations held for "the furtherance or future commission of a crime" were not. Mr Till refused to discuss the return of the medals specifically, but said such a matter raised two questions: for whom was the lawyer acting, and in what capacity?

Conversations would likely be privileged if the person had been acting "with a view to mitigation of the offence".

If he was doing it for any type of payment, privilege might not apply, Mr Till said.

Meanwhile, police have vowed to find those responsible for stealing the medals.

Inquiry head Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Bensemann yesterday refused to discuss the police arrangement with Mr Comeskey, but said investigators had made "considerable progress" because of him, and officers now had "people in their sights".

He denied investigators were angry at having to make the reward payment, but admitted the money had been a "massive motivation" to find those responsible.

"The recovery of the medals was the top priority. Nevertheless, our job won't be complete until we find the perpetrators."

Mr Bensemann said the medals had been returned only after "tortuous negotiations that changed every day".

Though "day-to-day" criminals occasionally made approaches to police through their lawyers, this case, and Mr Comeskey's involvement in it, appeared to be unique.

Mr Bensemann would not discuss the police attitude to people - even lawyers - mounting parallel investigations to police. "Let's celebrate the fact [the medals] are home, and they are safe."

MUSEUM SURE VCs WILL BE SAFE

The Waiouru Army Museum expects to retain control of most of the Victoria Crosses and other war medals recovered after being stolen from the museum in an early morning raid in early December.

Curator Windsor Jones told the Herald yesterday he was confident such a heist would not be repeated.

He said there was already increased security at the museum and extra measures - unlikely to be made public - would be put in place once the medals were returned to the museum.

The medals were with the police and would be forensically examined.

"We are unsure as to when they are coming back."

Mr Jones expected questions would be raised over their future safety and noted there had already been a comprehensive review on security.

"As we have only heard the medals have come back, we've got to sit down this week and decide the eventual display of them."

Most of the medals were owned by the museum, which would want them returned and stored on site.

Families who still owned some of the medals on display would decide on their future.

Mr Jones said there had been some added interest from visitors to the museum to see the spot where the medals had been stolen from.

Their return could prompt extra interest but the viewing of medals such as the VCs had always been a highlight.

Mr Jones hoped others would now think twice about such crime.

The daughters of war hero Charles Upham are calling for his medals to be locked in a vault and replicas displayed in public after the stolen war medals were handed back last week.

Capt Upham's daughter, Virginia McKenzie, said they did not want did not want to see her father's medals put at risk again.

She said the museum should follow overseas practices of displaying replicas of valuable medals.

"People from overseas couldn't believe we didn't have replicas," she told The Press.

"They were saying they should be kept in a vault. They were amazed."

Her sister, Amanda Upham, agreed the medals were too precious to be placed on display.

"I'm delighted they are back. But I'd like to see them in a vault as I understand they do in Australia," she said. The Upham family do not own the medals, which belong to London's Imperial War Museum. The London museum had loaned the medals to Waiouru for 999 years.

- Angela Gregory / NEWSTALK ZB / NZPA

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