Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Medals-for-bail gangster released from prison

One of the key players in the saga of the stolen war medals has been freed from prison.
The scene of war medal theft at Waiouru Army Museum in December 2007. Photo / Doug Sherring.
The scene of war medal theft at Waiouru Army Museum in December 2007. Photo / Doug Sherring.

The senior gang member who helped negotiate the safe return of priceless war medals is a free man.

Daniel William Crichton was jailed for nine years and seven months on serious methamphetamine charges, but has been released by the Parole Board with nearly two and half years remaining on his sentence.

The 47-year-old was notoriously granted a bail-for-medals deal while facing the drugs charges during a time when police were searching for the war medals stolen from the Waiouru Army Museum in December 2007.

The Black Power member organised the return of a George Cross to police as "a sign of good faith" and the rest of the medals, including nine Victoria Crosses, were returned four weeks later in early 2008.

Daniel William Crichton
Daniel William Crichton

Crichton, who has more than 180 convictions, also received a nine month discount on his prison sentence for his role in securing the war medals.

The Parole Board has now released Crichton with special conditions, including being electronically monitored with an ankle bracelet.

The audacious theft of the national treasures led to a $200,000 reward when there seemed to be no progress in the hunt for the burglars.

They struck the museum at night. The raid was executed with discipline and precision, leaving few clues behind. In and out in just four minutes.

The scene of war medals theft at Waiouru Army Museum in December 2007. Photo / Doug Sherring.
The scene of war medals theft at Waiouru Army Museum in December 2007. Photo / Doug Sherring.

The pair jemmied open a door on to the mezzanine floor of the museum, tripping the alarm.

Dodging security cameras, they traversed a flight of stairs and made a 30m dash across the floor to smash the glass case and grab the medals.

Instead of going back the same way, they headed for a fire door opening to a waiting getaway vehicle.

Prolific pair Ronald van Wakeren and James Kapa - who have 420 convictions between them - were the prime suspects but the police didn't have the proof.

James Kapa
James Kapa
Ronald van Wakeren
Ronald van Wakeren

Word was also filtering out in the criminal underworld and Crichton was listening.

Denied bail on the methamphetamine charges, he was sitting in Mt Eden Prison when Van Wakeren was sent - on a different set of charges - just days after the medal heist.

Crichton once told the Herald that Van Wakeren made one set of medals available to him as a bargaining chip to get bail. Police say that Crichton paid for the medals, but he denied that.

"I have good knowledge of the criminal world. I know who's who in the zoo. I know first hand that he is the only man who could have pulled this off. The people involved were professionals. They were not pot plant thieves or street kids."

Criminal barrister Chris Comeskey - lawyer for both Crichton and Van Wakeren on an earlier deal involving a Goldie painting - was approached to negotiate a deal with police.

Chris Comeskey. Photo / NZPA / Wayne Drought.
Chris Comeskey. Photo / NZPA / Wayne Drought.

Soon after, a set of medals was returned and the police withdrew their opposition to bail for Crichton.

He was released and discussions with Comeskey continued.

According to a pre-trial ruling from Justice Tony Randerson, Comeskey told police he was acting on behalf of people who wanted to return the medals for the reward money.

He said Crichton had "moved to the side" and his clients were "trying to keep the medals away from the Headhunters gang".

Police asked for photographs proving the medals were safe. During this time, they kept Kapa under surveillance.

He was seen in Comeskey's chambers twice leading up to the return of the medals.

On the second occasion, late at night, Comeskey sent an email titled "medals return agreement" to the Police Commissioner. The contract said the medals would be returned on payment of $200,000.

The police put the money into the trust account of law firm Russell McVeagh, to be released only when the medals were safe.

Phone records show Comeskey and Kapa were texting and calling each other before the exchange, and the locker in Avondale was again accessed.

On the return of the medals, Comeskey was hailed a hero in the media. He later quit the legal profession following a nine month suspension on unrelated disciplinary charges.

No mention was made of Crichton until the Herald revealed his conduit role the following week. Even with the return of the treasures, including Charles Upham's VC and bar, many feared the culprits would never be caught.

Charles Upham's VC and bar, among the 96 stolen war medals that were returned to the Army Museum. Photo / NZPA / John Cowpland.
Charles Upham's VC and bar, among the 96 stolen war medals that were returned to the Army Museum. Photo / NZPA / John Cowpland.

A month later, TV3 journalist John Campbell had an exclusive interview with one of the men claiming responsibility for the medal theft.

Going by the name "Robert", the hooded man appeared in front of a blood red background and apologised to the nation for the high-profile theft.

"Robert" as he appeared on Campbell Live
"Robert" as he appeared on Campbell Live

Campbell later apologised for failing to tell viewers Robert was an actor, re-enacting a transcript of an earlier, taped conversation with the real thief.

The controversial interview, in which Campbell guaranteed Robert anonymity, would prove to be crucial to the police case.

After the interview aired on February 21, 2008, police seized CCTV footage from the Duxton Hotel which showed Campbell and fellow Campbell Live staffers Carol Hirschfeld and Ingrid Leary entering and leaving the hotel that afternoon.

The security cameras also captured Kapa.

When interviewed by police, Campbell refused to identify Robert but said he had taken steps to ensure that Robert was the real thief.

He asked Robert to tell him something that only the perpetrator would know - which Campbell said he did with "great gusto" - then verified that with Comeskey by telephone.

After the furore of the Campbell interview, all seemed to go quiet in the hunt for the medal thieves.

But eight months later, the police, led by Detective Inspector Chris Bensemann, called a press conference to announce they had arrested Van Wakeren and Kapa.

Detective Inspector Chris Bensemann
Detective Inspector Chris Bensemann

They were the prime suspects from early on. But the police case was circumstantial until Campbell agreed to give evidence about his interview.

While refusing to directly name Robert, the former TV3 host promised to give a statement that would corroborate other evidence the police had gathered.

This included:

• A speeding ticket issued to Van Wakeren in Cambridge as he and Kapa drove to Waiouru.

• CCTV footage of the pair in a BP station near Taupo.

• Storage lockers hired by Kapa under a false name that were used when the medals were returned.

• Footprints from the crime scene that showed one of the thieves had a distinctive walking gait, such as Kapa has.

• Analysis of computer hard drives showing Van Wakeren was researching military themes on the internet, including VC medals.

• ESR analysis finding that a metal threaded rod used to break into the museum had identical tool marks to a piece of wire at Van Wakeren's house.

Soon after Campbell agreed to testify, Van Wakeren pleaded guilty to the medals burglary and unrelated fraud charges.

He was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison and paid back his $100,000 share of the reward money.

Kapa, who has 179 dishonesty convictions, also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years for the burglary, on top of another nine years for money laundering and fraud.

Both sentences were later reduced on appeal.

Van Wakeren has since been released by the Parole Board in December on special conditions which means he cannot access the internet until his sentence ends in December 2019.

Kapa is due to appear before the Parole Board in September.

Operation Valour

December 2, 2007: Waiouru Army Museum burgled and 96 medals stolen, including nine Victoria Crosses, worth an estimated $5.7 million.

February 15, 2008: Medals were returned after deal brokered by barrister Chris Comeskey. Daniel Crichton received bail for acting as a conduit. A reward of $200,000 paid to thieves.

February 21, 2008: TV3 broadcasts a John Campbell interview with one of the burglars, a hooded actor referred to as "Robert".

October 15, 2008: Two men arrested, known as K and W.

June 30, 2009: High Court hearing to determine whether TV3 staff have to give evidence to identify "Robert" in trial. John Campbell refuses to identify him but later agrees to confirm other evidence.

September 10, 2009: Ronald van Wakeren, or W pleads guilty to stealing the medals.

August 2010: James Kapa, or K, also pleads guilty.

October 2011: Prison sentences of 13 years, three months for Van Wakeren and 14 years, six months for Kapa reduced on appeal by one year and one year and three months respectively.

December 2015: Van Wakeren released by Parole Board.

May 2016: Crichton released by Parole Board.

September 2016: Kapa to appear in front of Parole Board.

- NZ Herald

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