John wanted to be an air traffic controller but instead became a bank robber. Herald writer Phil Taylor goes in search of his old school friend.
Decades roll by. Adolescents grow, accept responsibilities, find jobs, a career, perhaps have a family. I've often wondered whether that happened for John? Did things come right? Did he make good?
At nearly six foot, John was tall for a kid in the fourth form (Year 10). His eyes were a glittery blue, and at lunch breaks, we'd make the short walk home from Linwood High. John would marvel at the way we Taylors did cheese on toast. Rather than grill it, the go-to for most folk, we'd slowly reduce a slab of cheese in a saucepan, stirring constantly over a low heat until it became a yummy yellow slurry. Pour over toast. Season to taste. Add tomato sauce if sacrilege is your thing. Bon appetit! Perfect on a chill Christchurch day.
We found trouble together, John and me. We had slingshots. Many panes got broken in a neighbour's glasshouse. Hearing the tinkling, the owner came running, carrying a rifle. There was hell to pay. We were 14 or 15 - delinquent, I guess, but far from lost causes. Free from the responsibilities that would come later, it was a time of crushes, and the pseudo independence of hooning in a mate's first car, a Ford Anglia. Being John's friend was exciting, and a little rebellious.
John wasn't totally aimless. He wanted to be an air traffic controller and he had the kind of cheeky charm that can open doors. My mum liked him, "a rough diamond", she would say. And that was despite the glasshouse incident when she foiled John's escape by grabbing him by his ear as he snuck along the dry drain that fringed one side of our property. A funny image in hindsight, Mum, a tad over five foot, wagging a scolding finger at this hulking youth.
We were close friends for not much more than a year but 1973 left its mark in my memory. It was a turning point. My worst school report led to a respected uncle warning I might like to sort myself out before the School Certificate year or find myself working as a manual labourer. Thanks, Uncle Ken, I heard you.
It was a turning point for John, too. He was soon gone from school and from my life. Focused on schoolwork and making the Canterbury junior road-cycling team, I lost touch with him. I'd started university when I heard he'd robbed a bank. He was 19 when he went to jail.
In recent years, I've thought about trying to find him but something held me back. Better to let sleeping dogs lie? I'm not one for school reunions, although looking at that old class photo and those Beatles haircuts, piques my interest. But do I want my fears confirmed about a few of the hard cases? Kids such as Pete, who walked out rather than shave his beard off, or David, a troubled guy who rode a motorbike to school and famously once wore an upturned cake tin in lieu of a helmet.
John was different. He had charisma to go with an edgy unpredictability. I recall being taken with the whiteness of his skull when he caused a sensation by turning up to class shorn of his long locks. People didn't shave their heads for charity back then. I'm guessing he sought to shock. His pretty girlfriend wept, their nascent relationship over.
A pecking order of sorts was established via "friendly" fights. John was near the top, one of the tough kids. Me, I was hanging out with the tough kids. A particular night of hijinks demonstrates the difference. John had an airhorn. We would sneak up to house windows after dark, give it a blast and run like John Walker. The adrenalin surge was fun until two police cars arrived. We were separated. Mortified, I blurted out my full name and address, while across the street John was staunch.
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John had three siblings. His two sisters are, by all accounts, fine citizens. Older brother Mike was already a rebel when John and I were friends, a member of the Epitaph Riders motorcycle gang. Why was it that the boys were wild? That question as much as any led me to try to find John.
He's hardly left a trace on public records. Electoral rolls, phone directories draw blanks and the Parole Board, which deals with all prisoners sentenced to two years' jail or more, has no record of him. That suggests John hasn't been in really serious trouble since 2002 when the board was set up. Despite his early interest in aviation, I learn John has apparently never had a passport.
I get a break while at a justice conference in Christchurch. An organiser knows a retired social worker who dealt with local motorcycle gangs during the 70s. He'll give him a ring. Next day, that social worker, Cosmo Jeffery, is at the conference. The Epitaph Riders are long gone, Cosmo tells me, the club's now valuable properties on Lincoln Rd in Addington were taken over by the Headhunters. Mike, he says, was a patched member, respected but not senior. "His gang name was 'Oink'."
Oink! The name sets bells ringing, a memory of being in a car with John when he suddenly swung up a driveway and around the back of the Epitaph Riders' gang pad. "Stay here," he'd said. There were motorbikes and dudes in leather jackets everywhere, I wasn't getting out of the car. John, I now suspect, was selling stolen cigarettes.
Cosmo tells me Mike moved to Australia. John had told him. Turns out Cosmo was at a gathering last year where John was handing out his book. John had written a book? Cosmo doesn't know how to contact John, but lends me his copy of A Sense Of Reason . Perhaps it will help me find John, says Cosmo.
It's self-published and there are no contact details. I trace one of three people the book is dedicated to. He's surprised to learn John has credited him. The manuscript he'd seen some years ago needed a lot of work, he says. "I told John to get his thoughts together and start over." He'd heard nothing more until I phoned.
We talk awhile and then he says something that sounds like a caution. Apparently, John stole from his own mother. He's vague as to when but via a contact, I get a date and later that day, in Christchurch's flash new library, I find a news report headed: Son "stole from frail mother". It's an account of a depositions hearing at which John's mother testified that he took money she needed for her electricity bill.
According to the report, police found John at the Christchurch Casino. He was bailed pending a trial but I find nothing further about the case. This was a long time ago - 19 years - but by then John was 42, a grown man. The report used his mother's maiden name. I recognise it as one of the names in the book dedications.
Searching records in Auckland's Central City Library, I learn John's parents were born in England and the family came to New Zealand via time spent in Jamaica and Canada, where John, the youngest, was born. He was 10 when he became a "naturalised" Kiwi. John's father was a teacher, his mother a wages clerk. She was a smallish woman, and I recall stories about her sons sitting her on top of the fridge, stranding her until someone came to help her down.
The family settled in working-class Woolston and the kids went to the local high school, Linwood. The school opened in the 1950s in response to population growth in the east, along the hills to Sumner and over in the port of Lyttelton.
Wikipedia notes it also served a relatively low socio-economic area of industrial southeast Christchurch and gained a reputation for being "rough". Fair enough, but it had its share of good teachers when I was there. Talkback host Mike Hosking was there a few years after John and me. Artist Tony Fomison, singer-songwriters Max Merritt (Slipping Away, wonderful!) and Tiki Taane and US-based climate change scientist Kevin Trenberth, were Linwood High kids too.
In the days after Cosmo lends me John's book, I leaf through its 137 pages. It's not polished but I'm impressed he quotes the likes of Alvin Toffler and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Write what you know, they say, and he has.
The first chapter is called Culture Shock and begins: "I had just been sentenced to six years for robbing a bank and now my drug-addicted self had to try to deal with this thing called prison. Locked within Paparoa Prison, I discover I have the emotional stability of a 13-year-old, yet I am 19. I have a brain injury from a car accident, a serious focus problem and I am scared. For me it is a nightmare."
He saw stabbings and a hammer attack by gang members on a sleeping inmate, and he spent three weeks in hospital after he was knocked unconscious by a cellmate in Paremoremo, where John was sent after escaping from Paparua. His response to the assault was "constant training". "For the next two years I do weight lifting, boxing and karate … to ensure I can knock out whoever I have to, whenever I need to. I'm not really maturing in a healthy mental sense but I'm getting bigger, faster and much more dangerous." He was, John writes, prepared for anything - "anything but the real world".
The book's central theme is that prison typically damages rather than repairs people. As well as his own experience, he cites the examples of others, including many names that are familiar because of the crimes they went on to commit. Its second message is that there is a better way. Forcing the young, dumb, stoned and crazy to mix ends predictably badly. Rather than be forced to associate, John reckons prisoners should be housed in separate huts, like in Norway, overseen by guards who are mentors rather than tormentors. As someone who has covered crime and justice for 30 years, the guts of what John says rings true to me.
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A week after returning to Auckland from the conference, a breakthrough. I trace a relative who agrees to pass on a message. John will be told I am now a New Zealand Herald journalist. "At the time you knew him, he was a promising young man," the relative says. "Sadly, John's life has gone in a very different direction to what we'd expected, wanted and hoped for him." Soon enough, I'm told John remembers me and will take my call. I ring, it goes to voicemail: "I'm probably on the yacht drinking champagne, but if you leave a message … "
When we do connect, we talk for an hour. It's strange. He's friendly, says he was thinking of me not so long ago when he found himself in the street where I grew up. His voice is familiar but it's as though it's coming from a parallel universe. In a way it is. There is no similarity in the lives we've led.
John's renting in a small town west of Christchurch but he's not getting on with a neighbour and is keen to get back to the city. The yacht and the champagne was bravado, of course. He makes a living, he says, as a handyman and chimney sweep. His mother died a decade ago, his father half a dozen years before that. He remembers my mum - "a fair woman" - and recalls I was the only male at school with shaved legs. "It was for the cycling, wasn't it?'' he queries. "I thought it was a bit suss. Still do!"
I ask after David, the cake tin guy. John suspects David was abused as a kid. He became a drug addict, he says. "Every time I ran into him he seemed a sadder individual."
And John? "I left school early in the fifth form bent on disaster." He crashed a car, went through the windscreen, suffered brain damage. Drugs, crime, jail - all before he turned 20. "I was a f***ing idiot and I came out of prison bitter. I did bank robberies up and down the country, went absolutely ape shit. It was, 'you hurt me, I'll hurt you'. You can't treat people [in prison] that way and expect them to come out and be okay … The timid bitch of youth, well he's mentally ill … "
He doesn't mention how many stints he did in jail but says the last was decades ago. I ask about ripping off his mother and he can barely remember it. He prefers to talk about the prison system. "I was always going to be a recidivist … People are programmed to respond to thoughtful treatment. Shouting at us through the dark, calling us morons, that doesn't do it."
I tell John I'm married with children at university and ask whether he wed. "It lasted three weeks," he says. "She was good looking but she was mad and I was looking at life through bitter eyes." He talks affectionately about his dog, Ursa, "a great little she-bear". We've reproduced a photo from the book of dog and master taken in about 2000. The dog's long gone. His companion now is a stray cat he's adopted. "I quite like cats."
Maturity didn't arrive until his 40s, he reckons. John uses the term "patterned" about himself and his brother, and suggests his family was dysfunctional but he doesn't know why he and Mike led such different lives to their sisters. "Women are different, aren't they?"
Was Mike an influence? "The follow the leader thing, yeah,'' he replies. Mike was four years older than us. He died from a tumour about a year ago, says John. "He got out of the bike scene and into the drug scene. He got a taste for that heroin!"
Mike did his bit for society by helping build skateboard parks in Australia when he was in his 50s, says John, and never went to prison, despite shooting someone. "The guy told the police he'd shot himself. This has been the strangest journey, mate."
Again, talk circles back to John's almost obsessive fixation with flaws in the prison system. Our prisons are unscientific, accepted by default, he says. "I didn't even know how to cook a meal when I came out … I needed help but I got a concrete box with a hundred chattering lunatics around me who were as silly as I was."
In his early 30s, John started to read. He took to carrying pen and paper. "I'd be halfway up a ladder, robbing some place, and I'd stop to scribble something down, an idea for the book. That's how it came together, over years." The idea of his nephews and nieces running into some of the people he met in jail spurred him on. There is a better way, says John. "Who wants to be a sick c**t? Everyone wants to be a human being."
We've talked again and exchanged texts. He's frustrated, he's had no luck trying to share his message. He says he's approached prison authorities and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. A reporter he sent his book to didn't seem to understand. When I tell him I'm thinking of writing about him, about us, John says to go for it. "I've got nothing to hide." It might even prompt someone to get A Sense of Reason out of the Christchurch library. "The book was my best shot."
Seems to me writing about prison and rehabilitation is John's way of contributing, a report on experience, something of value salvaged from wreckage. "It's funny how it works, Phil. I got lost for a good 20 years. It's very hard to explain."
There but for the grace of God? We were once so close, it's impossible not to wonder. I think not, though I also find it hard to explain. There was such a family drive towards tertiary studies and I had ambitions in a sport that requires dedication. And there were no bikies in my household. I congratulate John on his book and I wish him well. I really do.
+ We have withheld John's surname out of consideration to his family.