Tissot robber tells all

Ricardo Sannd revisits the Auckland Art Gallery this week. Photo / Doug Sherring
Ricardo Sannd revisits the Auckland Art Gallery this week. Photo / Doug Sherring

Anthony Ricardo Sannd is a small man, 172cm tall, who owns a big motorcycle. It is a $120,000, red-and-white Ducati Desmosedichi RR, one of only 1500 ever made. It weighs 171kg, pulls 202hp and the factory in Italy has certified its top speed at 307km/h.

Sannd has never ridden his bike, never even seen it. He has spent 32 years of his adult life locked up in jail, lengthy terms of imprisonment punctuated by brief stints on the outside that would inevitably culminate in vicious gunpoint robberies.

For his victims, the fruits of those robberies have been bitter: injury, trauma and loss. For him, the fruits have been barely any sweeter: anger, resentment, years of institutionalisation - and a $120,000 Ducati.

Sitting outside an Auckland cafe, barely a week after his release from Rimutaka Prison, he sips a white coffee and smiles wanly. He is fit and healthy for his 61 years, after whiling away the days on the prison treadmill and rowing machine. But under the black baseball cap, his eyes are red-rimmed and watery.

The bike, he says, was bought for him by an English friend, with his share of the proceeds from the sale of a house they owned together in Taunton, Somerset. That house had been bought with nearly $80,000 that police never recovered from his first armed robbery in NewZealand. But he doesn't have the $15,000 he reckons it would cost him to ship the motorbike from the UK and get it through Customs.

And so it sits in England.

His mother died during his last prison term. So, too, his wife Elena, a Russian whom he married in Singapore but who was never allowed to emigrate to New Zealand.
He has a daughter, Sarah, who was adopted out at birth. She is 37 and living somewhere in Auckland with herownkids-but he doesn't know how to call her and ask to see her after all these years.

He is not looking for sympathy.
And why should he get any?
Today he is owning up to a string of armed robberies for which he was never arrested or convicted, as well as laying out the brutal recollection of those robberies for which he gained his notoriety: the Armourguard van in Birkenhead, the ANZ bank in Kerikeri, the Auckland Art Gallery where he left a middle-aged guard bruised and shocked as he sped away on his titanium Honda 1100XX Super Blackbird motorbike, an $8 million Tissot canvas rolled up and slung over his shoulder, firing his shotgun into the air behind him.
He just wants to get it all out there. Tell his story to the world - then go and visit the graves of his mother and wife. No more lies.
Colin Tremain Urry was a motorbike dispatch rider for Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg during WorldWar II. His life was once saved by an Italian named Ricardo, so he said. And in 1951, when his third son was born in Manurewa, he and his wife Ruth named the baby Anthony Ricardo Urry. These would be the first of many names.

At Manurewa High School in the 1960s, a young John Walker learned to race on foot. Jim Richards learned to race cars. And a teenaged Ricardo learned to race motorbikes.

He left school and moved to Australia to race bikes with friends who would later become track champions, such as Graeme Crosby and the late Rodger Freeth. Bike racing was expensive and Ricardo was not rich. But these were heady times in a fast town.

In Sydney, he found people and means to fund his racing passion. Thirteen times, he acted as driver in the robberies of armoured vans, robberies in Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney for which he was never arrested. Once, he placed a wheelie bin in the route of an armoured van. When the driver pulled up, his gun-wielding accomplices pulled the guards out and took the money off them.

They threw the money in the bin and wheeled it 100mthrough an alleyway to where Ricardo was waiting with a getaway ute. He reveals this now because, he says, Australia's Statute of Limitations means he can't be charged. Why did he fall so easily into crime? He can't really answer that. Perhaps it was something to do with the half dozen times he was concussed in bike accidents.

"I don't think even a clinical psychologist could definitely say what the reasons are," he says. "Everything in life has a cause and effect but you can't always pin them down. For every action there is a reaction."

This is where the story starts sounding like a fantastic movie script in which, he admits, facts are hard to verify. Ricardo Sannd - the new surname he adopted - says he was working as a real estate photographer when he replied to a job advert for a photographer to work on an overseas contract.

With only a few months' compulsory military service under his belt, he found himself teamed with five ex special forces soldiers, Australians and Americans, and flown into war-torn Cambodia by helicopter.

They were military contractors, he says, tasked by their private sector employer with finding and documenting evidence of Khmer Rouge genocide. But the mission went disastrously wrong.

Dropping in by parachute, one of the men broke his arm. They were spotted by Khmer Rouge and came under mortar fire. Two of the men were killed, the other four split up and ran for it.

Sannd says he ran for 13 kilometres, before taking refuge up a large tree, a fig tree of some sort. He hid there for 11 days, feeding himself from his ration packs. The days blurred together. Eventually, he was found by some local people, who guided him to the Laos border. He was airlifted to Thailand by an American special forces helicopter.

He was debriefed in Singapore and handed over the 23 rolls of film he had shot of what appeared to be mass graves. And then, his fee was paid into the account the company had set up for him with Nugan Hand Bank, and he returned to Australia, then New Zealand.

Staying with a friend in Mt Roskill, the shock set in. "At the time I thought I was having some kind of a breakdown and couldn't talk to anyone about it. I didn't become unhinged, I became introverted."

Police searched the house, and found him surrounded by guns.

They sent him to Oakley [psychiatric] Hospital where, he says, he was subjected to electro-convulsive shock treatment by the doctors. He was shifted to Auckland Hospital, but ripped the drip from his arm and fled, dripping blood and clad only in the hospital-issue smock.

After serving two-thirds of a four-year jail sentence for a string of burglaries, Sannd used his extended Filofax of criminal contacts to begin planning a robbery that would, eventually, enter his name into the annals of New Zealand violent crime.

On October 19, 1984, outside the Birkenhead Foodtown, he and Charles Willoughby donned balaclavas to force three Armourguard security truck guards to the ground at gunpoint, as they ferried "cans" of $10 notes to a white Toyota van stolen from a Glenfield car yard.

One of the guards, Gordon Murton, sustained a gash to the back of the head when he was whacked with a shotgun. As the robbers fled, one of them smashed the back window of the getaway van and fired a shot over the head of a brave, perhaps foolhardy, member of the public who gave chase.

The $294,000 stolen made the heist, at the time, New Zealand's biggest ever armed robbery.

It was nearly three weeks before they were arrested: Sannd blames Willoughby, who he says immediately began living it up at nightclubs, snorting coke and boasting to anyone who would listen about the robbery.

But Sannd, too, drew attention to himself when he asked his brother to buy him a $10,000 racing motorbike in Sydney. Willoughby and Sannd were sentenced to 10 years' jail, reduced slightly at retrial.

The jury acquitted Les Green, now New Zealand's most notorious armed robber, of being the third holdup man. One of the three security guards, Barry Atchison, was robbed twice more before his retirement.

His wife Lindsay Atchison says he died two years ago, still deeply affected by the robberies.

"The trauma of the whole thing was horrifying for him. He didn't sleep for months," she says. "He would go to sleep and he would see the shotgun pointed at him. But he didn't want to be beaten by these people so he went back to work."

Sannd's mother Ruth had provided him an alibi: she said he was at home with her in Glenfield, reading motorbike magazines in the lounge and halflistening to Coronation Street. Now, for the first time, he admits he was one of the robbers. It seems he even made a liar of his mum.

Sannd was not long out of prison when he struck again.OnSeptember 4, 1992, he and Charlie Royal hit the ANZ bank in Kerikeri, getting away with $69,000. But not for long.

Five members of the police armed offenders squad tracked them to a firebreak outside the town. As a police helicopter hovered overhead, Royal dropped his gun and fled, leaving Sannd to confront the police.

Details of the standoff have never before been revealed. Sannd stood up and took cover behind a pine tree, as the police approached across open ground, no more than 12 meters away. He had 10 rounds in his pump-action shotgun and a clear line of fire-so he resolved to use it. He figured if he could "take out" a couple of them, the others would scatter in disarray and he too would get away.

"I was confident in my ability to do that," he says. "It was a Mexican stand-off - they were trained on me and I was trained on them. It was two or three minutes."

Slowly, Sannd raised the Franchi SPAS-12-gauge military-style shotgun, and tried to release the manual safety catch. "I had the red dot on the laser sights, and I was going all over their foreheads. I was trying to get the safety off and pull the trigger at the same time. I was ready to do the deed." But the safety stuck. Royal had loaded the gun with the catch in the wrong position.

Sannd was sentenced to five years' jail for the Kerikeri robbery and for conspiring to rob Webb's auction house, a charge he denies.

"I'm glad now that no one was hurt. It's not a thing I'm proud of. It's just the way things were at the time-I was intent on doing damage."
Was he thinking about the police officers as human beings with families? "No. I was thinking about winning. I wasn't afraid. If they want to put those black trousers on and front with weapons, then they can bear the consequences. They're in the game, I'm in the game, and the best man comes out victorious.

"It was a selfish path that a lot of criminals are on. To step off that path is quite hard at times, to return to being a normal functioning individual who doesn't commit crimes."

If Sannd was ever to have a chance to step away from his life of crime, it was after his release from jail for the Kerikeri robbery. He had a real job at the Glenbrook steel mill and began corresponding with a friend of- a-friend from Uzbekistan: a beautiful blonde named Elena Romanov.

Eventually, they met in Singapore, and within a couple of days were married. But she couldn't immigrate to New Zealand - the closest she could get was Bundaberg, Australia.

So, back in New Zealand, Sannd resumed contact with his bad old friends from the badn the page for the old days. One of those friends was Arthur Taylor, one of New Zealand's more well-known crims.

Taylor later described Sannd as "totally delusional", in an interview with the NZ Herald. "He told me back then he wanted to steal something from the [Auckland] Art Gallery. I told him he was crazy but I guess he didn't listen."

Sannd scoffs at Taylor's account. But, early in 1998, a friend invited him to dinner at a Korean restaurant in Howick, where he says he was introduced to a wealthy Hong Kong businessman. The man had a proposal: he wanted to buy a masterpiece by the French painter, Tissot. The only problem was that the painting was owned by the Auckland Art Gallery.

A few weeks later, they met again skeet-shooting on a farm near Port Waikato. Sannd says the businessman had put together a plan to rob the art gallery with Tony Johnson, a Port Waikato local and old friend of Sannd. The manwould pay $800,000-and Sannd says he was shown a paper shopping bag containing stacks of US$100 notes.

So, in July, Sannd cased the art gallery. It was cold and wet. He turned up in a shirt and tie, a heavy raincoat, glasses, a stick-on beard and an auburn wig. He paced out the distance from the door to the Tissot painting- 63m.

He planned to conduct the robbery later that month - but that morning; he woke up and had a bad gut feeling. He took a rain check. Two weeks later, on Sunday, August 9, Sannd checked his mobile police radio scanner. There was nothing happening. The time felt right.

He pulled up on his Honda outside the old Auckland Art Gallery, on the corner of Wellesley and Kitchener Sts. Without removing his crash helmet, he ran for the door. With a Sig-Sauer P220 in his right hand and his favoured Winchester Defender single-barrel shotgun in his left, he shoulder-charged the security guard who moved into his path-and barrelled on through to the Tissot.

Wrenching it from the wall, he placed it face down on the ground and jemmied it from its frame with a small crowbar. He rolled it up and ran for the door again, as his stopwatch beeped.

Three minutes. No police. As he mounted his motorbike - three minutes, 10 seconds - a pedestrian ran up behind him. He recalls turning in his seat to look at the man, reaching down with his right-hand and half pulling the handgun. The man stopped.

Then Sannd pulled the shotgun and fired into the air. The man hit the deck. The cartridge rolled out of reach. Sannd turned his motorbike round, and made for the motorway. He claims he hit 240km/h down the Southern Motorway to Greenlane, then turned off through Penrose and accelerated to 270km/h along Neilson St, through Onehunga.

He crossed the bridge over the Manukau Harbour and made his way to Wiri, where he pulled in behind an industrial building. For two minutes, he listened to the police radio scanner. Nothing.

Then, at a more sedate pace, he made his way back on to the Southern Motorway and headed south to Port Waikato, the $8m painting slung over his shoulder in an ex-military carrybag. SANND has no explanation for much of what happened over the next few days after he delivered the painting to Johnson. He denies any knowledge of the ransom note mailed to an Auckland lawyer, demanding $500,000 for the return of the painting.

He says he doesn't know how police got on to him, eight days after the robbery. And he has no explanation for how, when they searched the Waikato house in which he was staying, they found the Tissot lying under his bed.

They also found the typewriter on which the ransom note was typed. But he is adamant he never again saw a single one of those $100 notes that he had been shown in the Route 66 shopping bag. He wonders whether he ended up being the fall-guy for a bigger criminal conspiracy. He was sent down at the same time for two other robberies: a security van at a Bombay service station, and the ASB bank in Waiuku.

He says he didn't do those two robberies: they were committed by his friend Johnson, wearing a crash helmet and riding a motorbike Sannd had stolen. Perhaps it doesn't matter now: Sannd has done his time, and Johnson died 10 years in a motorbike crash, so he can't defend himself.

Yesterday, Johnson's friends and family in Port Waikato expressed surprise and doubt at the allegations, saying they were unaware of him being involved in serious criminal offending. Sannd's jail sentence - 16 years and nine months-was heavy by any standard. Rape Crisis pointed out that it was three times the sentence handed down to rapists, and longer than many murderers served.

He was sent to Paremoremo maximum security prison, knowing that he would be in his 60s before he was freed. The prosecution had alleged he committed the robbery to impress his wife-but he never saw her again. Elena Romanov died of abdominal cancer in Australia. Sannd did see the outside of a prison cell once more before he turned 60 - but not legitimately. In February 2006, after being shifted to the minimum security Rangipo Prison near Turangi, he learned that his mother was on her deathbed. So he walked away from a work party.

A friend picked him up and drove him to Auckland, where he stole a BMWM3 from a car sales yard. He visited his mum in Glenfield. "She wasn't well. She recognised my voice, though her eyesight was very poor. She didn't want my brothers to know I'd visited her-and neither did I. She died three months later."

After burgling a house in Onewhero, he was recaptured and returned to prison with an extra couple of years added to his sentence.

Sannd was released on March 7, and paroled to a friend's house in Pakuranga. One of the terms of his parole is that he cannot contact his victims at the Auckland Art Gallery - but on Friday evening he stood across the other side of the intersection, his baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. The gallery has changed in the 14 years since he pulled away on his motorbike, the Tissot slung over his shoulder. Auckland has changed. New Zealand has changed.

Last time he was here, he left at speed on his Honda Super Blackbird, a smoking shotgun in one hand. This time, he headed off for a coffee, and then caught a discount taxi back to Pakuranga. He had to be back before his 8pm curfew.

No more guns, no more motorbikes, no more hurt and traumatised victims. There is that $120,000 Ducati waiting for him in England - but he says his gangster days are over.

jonathan.milne@hos.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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