By Scott MacLeod
MANGAKINO - Geraldine Ford of Mangakino no longer sells the little packets of chips that Carlos Namana stole from her cafe before killing the town's most popular policeman. It just wouldn't be right.
Tiny Mangakino is still hurting from the brutal murder of Constable Murray Stretch on May 26 - and from a string of firefighter arsons, rampant burglaries and other small-town problems.
But Namana's guilty plea to murder on Wednesday has spared Mangakino the pain of a lengthy trial.
For Geraldine Ford, that means putting the past behind her.
"I feel free," she says after the news. "Free for the first time since it happened. I felt terrible because Murray was guarding the shop, but I know I can't blame myself."
Others in Mangakino also want to move on, and say they are sick of people dwelling on the dark side of the South Waikato town. Some say the murder has helped spark some positive changes.
More than 200 people met after the killing and formed action groups to tackle crime, services, housing, the local economy and social issues. They want to spruce up their town and make it safer.
Up to 30 derelict cars have been removed from sections. Ten thousand "think safe" leaflets are being distributed. Owners of the 30 messiest properties will be asked - nicely - to clean up.
A church has offered a lounge to be used as a drop-in centre. Money is being raised to bring a seminar to town called Parenting with Confidence, and crime figures are down.
"The murder was a wake-up call," says the chairwoman of the Safer Community Executive Committee, Ailsa Gathergood.
"Things were getting pretty bad for a while, but there's been a massive amount of progress."
Things are better for the police, too. Six people have volunteered to help the town's three officers so none will face danger alone - as Constable Stretch did the night he was bashed to death.
The changes are obviously a good thing for Mangakino, but the biggest challenge is posed by unemployment.
Mangakino developed in the 1940s, and its population swelled to 12,000 as workers built the nearby hydro dam. Those jobs are now gone, and just 1500 people remain.
"If you've got a job now then you're one of the lucky ones," says Mia Reweti, one of three hotel workers who comforted Constable Stretch in his dying moments.
One of the few job vacancies is to replace Constable Stretch. Nobody in the police force wants to shift to Mangakino.
Senior Constable Colin McLean says there has never been more than one applicant for any police job in Mangakino in the eight or nine years he has worked there. The town's reputation is partly to blame.
"I just don't know why we've got that image," he says.
Of course, much of it stems from fights, burglaries, the lack of jobs, the arsons and that murder. So what is the town like for young people?
Says one teenage girl: "There's nothing to do, so we just sit over there outside the shops."
Those few shops sell takeaways, homekill meat and a few other goods. The big hospital across the road is closed for good. Occasionally a car will drift through. There seems little reason to visit Mangakino unless you actually live there.
But Geraldine Ford has no regrets about shifting to the town five years ago, even after the murder and 14 burglaries at her cafe. Evil memories of May 26 have finally been banished.
"I tell you, I just feel free today," she says while tending the pot plant she has dedicated to Constable Stretch. "This was always a special shop for me - and now it is again."
By Scott MacLeod