With Stanley Graham dead, and his family adopting new identities, questions over the 1941 Koiterangi manhunt remain unanswered. In the final of a two-part feature marking the 75th anniversary, using letters written by Graham himself, LAURA MILLS of the Greymouth Star asks who fired the .22 and was Dorothy Graham to blame or was she a victim?


Just a week and a half before the killings, Stan Graham wrote to his friend. The letter - one of five recently donated to the Hokitika Museum - is lucid and friendly.

A letter written by Stanley Graham to a friend, also called Stan, about nine days before the shootings. Photo / Hokitika Museum
A letter written by Stanley Graham to a friend, also called Stan, about nine days before the shootings. Photo / Hokitika Museum

He complains that two of his cows had a "strange sickness we could not understand" but "are beginning to see the two causes of it now, your two friends Mr Cropper and the other near neighbour is still here".

He does not put in writing his later claim that the neighbours were poisoning his stock.

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He says he intends to do some shooting "later on, probably amongst the deer".
He must try out a rifle on a target some time in Preston's trees: "I have had a few shots with it and it shoot (sic) perfect." He signs off the letter with a "cheerio".

Another letter four months earlier, on May 12, asks after his friend, and says things are quiet at home in Koiterangi. He yarns about someone building a new house, hiring a housekeeper and buying a car, and muses "so there is money in farming". Again he talks about shooting, and warmly of his dog.

In earlier letters he talks of cock fights, and reveals he now weighs 10 stone after swinging the axe and slasher on the farm. At one stage his cows have been "licked into good shape and we have a lovely farm here, but it will take a bit of work to get it into shape."

So where did it all go so horrifically wrong?

On Wednesday, October 15, Graham's sister, Mrs Scott, wrote to a friend on day seven of the manhunt.

"We have been through a nightmare which seems unending. God grant they find him soon. He is alone against a hundred men and more. Starving, cold, perhaps with pneumonia, a gunshot would in his right shoulder." He had "molested no one unless he has been shot at".

"He keeps trying to get to his home and walks there openly, in sight of them all." Although she said he deserved to die for taking the law into his own hands, "I wish he could go out quickly".

"It is the suspense that is just killing. We have some Auckland police guarding the house."

The sister says it is doubtful he even shot the Home Guard, who she described as "undisciplined and untrained" and should not have taken the risk of entering his house. "You know Stan. How sporting and generous and decent he was. There is a lot of sympathy for him in spite of all. His marriage ruined his life. We all know that. Even now, her [Dorothy's] people won't have her at home."

Did Dorothy Graham fire a shot?

The only people alive who could reveal more about that dark October day are Stan Graham's children. If the youngest, Johnny, is still alive, he is now 81. Perhaps he could settle the one big question once and for all - did his mother fire a shot?

One thing is clear - in the midst of the shootings that first day, someone had fired a .22 bullet. The 1979 big screen movie Bad Blood, shot in Kowhitirangi and Hokitika, showed a slightly panicked Dorothy firing once, before fleeing.

However, the question was never explored by the coroner. The book Manhunt by H A Willis, later reissued as Bad Blood when the movie came out, claims Kaniere constable Ted Best was shot in the hand by the .22.

Graham, though, had been using his 7mm Mauser. A .22 cartridge was found by police the following day, under the front doorstep, where it may nor may not have been accidentally kicked.

It raises the question of why Graham would change weapons. Perhaps, two dead, he realised Best was a threat and grabbed the first weapon within reach, before resuming shooting with the other rifle.

It seems unlikely, yet this may be what happened. Because Best lived long enough to make a statement, albeit under duress from the Grahams. In it, Best says Dorothy was between her husband and the police, but Graham ordered them out of the house, pushing her after them. After the first two policemen were shot, Best says he rushed back in and was shot in the hand. Graham went out the back door, and soon afterwards he shot Hokitika sergeant William Cooper.

The only witnesses to those first shots were neighbours, the Croppers. Emma Cropper told the coroner she heard three shots in quick succession. She ran into the back garden and saw Mrs Graham and her children running out of the house. Stan Graham went around the house and two more shots were fired.

So did a panicked, or angry, Dorothy grab a gun and also shoot? Was she just like her husband? Was she trying to kill? Or a mother desperate to get her children out alive?

Or did Graham, so talented they said he could shoot from the hip, grab the .22 and fire at Best, leaving his wife - who had already suffered years of his paranoia - to a lifetime of innuendo she was unable to defend herself against?

Schoolmates

Kowhitirangi octogenarian Hugh Havill went to school with Johnny Graham. The Havill farm was about a mile and a half away, and the school the boys went to was right across the road from the Graham house.

"He was one of us kids," Mr Havill recalls.

A very young Stanley Graham (bottom right) with his family picnicking at the Hokitika Gorge. Photo / Holitika Museum
A very young Stanley Graham (bottom right) with his family picnicking at the Hokitika Gorge. Photo / Holitika Museum

The police arrived at school that October day and told the children to go home. They had all left by the time the first shot was fired.

There were nine in the Havill family. Hugh was sent to his grandparents in the Arahura Valley during the manhunt, leaving the house his parents had just built. "My sister was born the day they got him."

"A lot of people reckoned he was a good fellow," Hugh says.

Eventually, Hugh Havill took over the Graham farm, ploughed up the house site, and even found one of Graham's gun club medals. Beneath the grass, he says, remains the path to the Graham's front door.

He heard that young Johnny, who was in the house when the first deadly shots were fired, was later educated and "did all right".

Hokitika identity Peter Kirwan remembers the policemen who died at Graham's hand. He was working for a blacksmith when they came in to speak to the owner shortly before the shooting, looking for a worker accused of stealing gold from the Arahura dredge - constables Percy Tulloch and Fred Jordan, young and with their lives ahead of them. He also recalls meeting sergeant William Cooper, who was new to Hokitika.

Peter's brother was working on the Koiterangi stopbank in the Hokitika River when the killing drama unfolded, and was quite oblivious. "He didn't know for a couple of days."

Peter never met Stanley Graham, but Graham knew his neighbour. "He never had a quarrel with him."

Son tracked down

The movie Bad Blood was, to a degree, sympathetic to Graham - the little man trying to keep his family afloat during the Depression, defending his patch.

In 2004, the same year a memorial to Graham's victims was unveiled on the site of the killings, Stan Graham's son, John, was tracked down, although his adopted name was never revealed in print.

He told the journalist his mother had died in a Christchurch block of flats, aged 75.
"It is my and my elder sister's strong recollection ... that the police assisted my mother with our change of identity after the tragedy to keep our identity private, and allow us to live our lives in peace, without being shackled by the past."

As children they were taken to their grandparents' house in Rakaia. "We left soon after and my sister and I went into children's homes in other parts of the country. Notwithstanding that relocation, some people quickly made the connection, and we were threatened and harassed by some children. We later returned to Christchurch during our teenage years and recommenced living with our mother."

Graham's Winchester model 1895 rifle on show

The farm house is gone, burned down by vigilante Koiterangi folk in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

Some artefacts made their way to the Police Museum, where they remain on show today, including a "wanted" notice, a cloth-covered notebook belonging to Inspector Charles Reardon and Stan Graham's Winchester model 1895 rifle.

The museum exhibit says that although constable Quirke had acted under instruction from his superiors to shoot if Graham was armed, he was condemned by the public. This was to influence the police response to armed offenders for the next two decades, and so as a direct result police were reluctant to shoot armed offenders; with tragic consequences.

Paranoid delusions

Now, for a new generation of West Coasters who never laid eyes on Graham, all that remain are a few grainy black and white photos. In one, short and stocky, he holds his gamebird, in another, his rifle. There is one of him with Dorothy and their son; presumably, most photos were lost in the fire.

There is one other photo of Graham - dead in the Westland Hospital mortuary, looking older than his 40 years, wounds concealed by a white hospital gown.

Auckland University of Technology law professor Warren Brookbanks said Graham was clearly a complex individual, who appeared to nurse a lot of grievances. "From all accounts he was also something of a social isolate and had plenty of opportunity to reflect on his perceived injustices and on how he might address them."

He said an interesting comparison might be with the Aramoana killer David Grey, who also had become very isolated and killed 13 people after a verbal dispute with his neighbour.

In each case the offenders appeared to be driven by a deep rage, no doubt fed by the sense of injustice they had been or were experiencing.

"In Stan Graham's case this appears to have developed into real paranoid delusions as his mental state began to deteriorate and his suspicions began to escalate. "Like David Grey, I imagine that Graham, despite his apparent fearlessness, was a pretty fragile personality, perhaps a product of his increasing isolation, auspiciousness and sense of rejection, and it did not take much to trigger an explosion of violent rage."

The interesting question is whether, had he survived the police confrontation and been tried on multiple counts of murder, he would have been able to mount a successful defence of insanity. Another thing we will never know.

Too terrified to go outside

For many years, flowers have mysteriously appeared on Graham's grave in the Hokitika Cemetery, fuelling local speculation about sympathisers. The grave is a simple, concrete structure bearing just one word: "Stanley".

The generation who lived at Koiterangi that spring of 1941 have all gone. Henry Growcott, who farmed there when Graham was shot, has died, but his daughter, Anthea Keenan, kept copies of interviews he gave and has vivid memories of him talking about it.

The tree stump where Stan Graham hid for a large part of the manhunt. Anthea Keenan recalls playing in it as a child. Photo / Hokitika museium
The tree stump where Stan Graham hid for a large part of the manhunt. Anthea Keenan recalls playing in it as a child. Photo / Hokitika museium

The hollow tree stump where Graham hid from the law was at the top of their farm; the children knew while growing up that it was Stan Graham's hideout. Like many from around Hokitika, Keenan even appeared as an extra in the movie. Henry Growcott, about 15 years younger then Graham, told them that he used to give him cigarette cards.

But then things went bad. Henry was in the Home Guard and was called up to help with the manhunt, while his wife also lived in the valley. The women were too terrified to go to the outside toilets, instead using commodes inside their bedrooms. Mrs Growcott spoke of the fear of going outside through the dark shed to get the water wheel going.

People down the road woke one morning and found their eggs had gone, and they also thought Graham may have even milked a cow. Lurking, gun cocked, in the shadows, in their sheds, their huts, even their deserted homes.

It was Henry Growcott's brother, Bob Growcott, who spotted Graham on the last day of the manhunt, and Henry and a policeman soon joined him, using binoculars to watch him walk slowly down a creek bed towards the Growcott home.

They could see he was carrying a rifle and automatic pistol. Police had been told to shoot if he was armed. Constable Quirke did. "They heard the shot and ran over to disarm him," Keenan said of her father and uncle. Graham told them he had been ready to chuck it in - but they also found his rifles still cocked.

When the house burned down the whole community wanted to forget, she said. She talks of the pain inflicted on police, and the other shooting victims, but also on the community.

So was Stan Graham okay, as some later argued? Just a typical little man struggling to keep afloat?

"People in town didn't know what he was like," Keenan says firmly. Plus, they had no choice but to shoot him, she adds.

A force to be reckoned with

So could Graham have fired at police that final day? His left shoulder was gangrenous, his right hand swollen to the size of a boxing glove. Probably he would have struggled to aim, let alone fire.

Yet ... again and again people underestimated Graham. He was heavily armed when police first called, but they thought they could handle him.

He shot five men, and they thought he had gone bush and killed himself. He came back, and shot two more. Again they wondered if he had died in the bush, from his wounds. Then out he walked again, gun cocked.

Whatever Graham's legacy, few alive now remember him. But one thing is certain - Stan Graham was not to be underestimated.

Remembering:

Edward Best
Percy Tulloch
Frederick Jordan
William Cooper
George Ridley
Richard (Max) Coulson
Gregory Hutchison