When two young men, their pockets full of cash, were collared slinking away from Wellsford's BNZ, the police thought they had solved a standard bank robbery. Then a few details failed to add up.
I'll let you in the back door. Hide downstairs. Wear the white overalls, the balaclavas. It's bank policy to co-operate during a robbery so there'll be no bother. Brandish the knives, tie us up, take the money and off you go. Easy-peasy. An ordinary hold-up, and me, the manager, a regular victim like the other bank staff. A part-time worker due in about 9am will discover the robbery - the perfect crime.
THE REALITY CHECK
Small-town folk notice unusual details. Why was Bridget, the BNZ's part-time teller, heading to work on her day off? Those two sets of legs glimpsed below the opaque glass of the bank's front door - were they scuffling? Was that a scream?
THE UNFORSEEN CIRCUMSTANCE
At times a person will put aside caution and take a chance. Such action can alter the course of events
Wellsford, population 1740. It's a place that is town and country. Almost three-quarters of residents are Pakeha, most of the rest are Maori. The first Europeans turned up in the 1860s from London. Called Albertlanders, after Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, they were a breakaway group from the Anglican Church looking for a new world.
They settled at Port Albert on the Kaipara, 10km west of what is now Wellsford.
Wellsford began life as a service town on the main route north. Almost exactly halfway between Auckland and Whangarei, servicing passing traffic and the surrounding hinterland sustains it today and gives it the bustle of a busy regional centre.
It's a place where city people take on petrol and coffee on the way to beaches and baches. The salad roll is good at the Country Kitchen, there's a gleaming Italian coffee machine at Peppers Cafe, both on the main drag.
For the couple of kilometres that it dissects the town, State Highway 1 becomes Rodney St. Rumbling Chevrolets are common in towns such as this where the library is called The War Memorial Library and where curious tin sculptures of livestock are posted by the roadside.
A nondescript red-brick building on the western side of Rodney St housed the town's branch of the Bank of New Zealand. With the rise of technology, over-the-counter transactions dwindled. Where the branch once employed 20 staff only half a dozen are now needed and since the robbery the branch has moved up the road to smaller, fresher premises.
But on Tuesday, June 20, the BNZ Wellsford branch was still trading from its old brick home.
As usual for a weekday, Gayle Brown rose early and went about her routine: picking up buns for Peppers Cafe, collecting the mail before heading to her job as a clerk at accountants Middleton and Associates further up Rodney St. She stopped to check her bank balance and was reading the ATM printout in her car when a sound caught her attention.
"It wasn't an absolutely screeching scream," Brown said, "but it was a scream". It was coming from the direction of the bank.
"I looked to see if it was someone playing a joke. I couldn't see their heads or shoulders but I saw two sets of legs. One set was male ... the other person wore a black skirt." Although her view was fleeting and the opaque glass of the bank's door obscured all but the lower third of the figures, Brown got the idea that the man was forcing the woman into the main part of the bank.
"I thought, 'Shall I wait for another scream? Oh, don't be silly. It doesn't take long to rob a bank'."
Brown, a 63-year-old grandmother, shoved the keys into the ignition of her Nissan sedan and headed to the police station, squealing the tyres for the first time in her life. The time recorded on her ATM slip read 8.41am.
The bank's senior teller, Debbie Poa, had arrived at work at 8.10am to find the manager, Mark Scott, already there. Scott was born in Barbados but grew up in the United States and, so the story goes, served as a Marine in the 1991 Gulf War.
He'd met a Wellsford girl, Vanessa Woodcock, 10 years earlier in Sydney where Scott, 40, had a job in the finance sector and Vanessa, 28, worked in a bar. Blond and pretty, she had aspirations and had a pitch at fame with
, where she made it to the second round of auditions. The Scotts hadn't married but after the birth of their daughter, Vanessa, she changed her surname to Scott. After settling in Wellsford last year, Mark Scott worked as a private security guard before getting the bank manager's job last October.
When he saw Poa arrive, Scott told her he'd done the security check of the building: de-activated the alarms, checked doors and windows and turned on the video surveillance equipment.
The building is single storey at the front but two at the rear where the land slopes away. Downstairs is an unoccupied flat used by staff as a lunchroom, from where a rear door leads to a carparking area. This door and one between the flat and the bank are usually kept locked.
When Jade Green arrived at work 10 minutes after Poa, Scott was on the footpath in front of the bank, smoking. He was so often seen there, cigarette in hand, that some locals thought he was a well-dressed security guard rather than the bank manager.
Once inside, the tellers got their work stations ready then sat down with Scott for a meeting.
There was a bang downstairs. Suddenly people wearing balaclavas appeared at the top of the stairs, running straight towards them.
"The guy in front was holding a knife in front of him," Green, 27, blond, and pregnant, later told police. A terrified Green was thrown to the ground.
"Debbie [Poa] called to me that it was all right, to just do what they say, so I just lay there and froze. I was waiting for one of them to stab me."
As Green lay on the floor attempting to conceal her face behind a sheet of office paper, Poa ran for the front door.
"I heard the latch and I thought Debbie had made it," Green said, "but then I heard her scream."
Poa was frog-marched back to the others and hit in the face. Balaclavas were pulled over Poa's and Greens' heads but they could still see faintly through the material.
They could hear Scott fumbling through a bunch of keys looking for the one to the safe. Poa offered to help but a robber told her to "f*** up bitch".
"That's when I did what they said," she told police.
Poa is a friendly Maori woman who has lived all her 32 years in Wellsford. She has a big build and an open face framed by striking dark hair that reaches to the small of her back.
Bold acts such as Poa's are officially frowned on, but you won't hear a negative word said about her.
Slab of a man
When the Weekend Herald called at her mother's house, Poa's brother Kimi, a vast slab of a man with an afro hairstyle, proudly confirmed this was indeed the family home and that he was Debbie's "little" brother. Gayle Brown had watched Poa grow into a quality adult and she also knew that the first trimester of Green's pregnancy had had its ups and downs. Such knowledge added to her stress. She was hyperventilating when she hurried into the police station foyer.
In a back office was the town's senior policeman, Sergeant Paul Carstensen, 39, father of a 3-year-old and a newborn, and in his last week as a cop. The most dramatic day of his 15-year career was about to begin.
He and his family were moving to Tanzania, where he will help on projects such as building schools, organised by the Christian Joshua Foundation. It's work that can make a difference.
The chance to make a difference was a factor in becoming a policeman and also in why he rates Wellsford as the best place he policed.
He's had stints on the North Shore and in South Auckland, been on the front line, in youth aid, and in court as a prosecutor. But nothing matched this town. "In the city you are processing people who you have never met and won't meet again. Here I will lock someone up and then see them in the supermarket and they will say 'hi'. You know everyone, their cars, where they hide, and you know their grandparents."
It's a place with country values, where the locals' inclination is to help, where a bollocking from the local policeman might just pull a wayward teenager back into line. And it's not the place where the cop will criticise someone like Poa.
"I think I said at the time that we wouldn't advise it, but you've got to give her 10 out of 10 for balls," Carstensen told the Weekend Herald.
Even from his office he could tell the woman at the counter was distressed and he could make out something about a guy at the bank having grabbed a woman.
Constables Duncan Hamilton and Dean Hetaraka race the 300m to the bank and radio that at least one robber is inside. Carstensen call "comms" requesting back-up and hurries to the bank.
One of the robbers has already been caught sneaking out the back of the building, the pockets of his hoody bulging with cash. Pistol drawn, Hamilton orders him to the ground and handcuffs him.
His name is Richard "Pepe" Cowell, a 26-year-old with a history of minor offending.
Within minutes Lewis Blackwood-Manukau, 19, is arrested attempting to hitch hike out of town along Port Albert Rd. The pockets of a hoody he is carrying is also stuffed with cash. There's a knife, a balaclava and thousands of dollars more in a bag found by the bank's rear door. Together, it makes $50,000.
Inside, Mark Scott is carrying on as though he's just been robbed. It seemed sewn up: two offenders, both caught.
Cowell and Blackwood-Manukau worked at tool-making company Izard-Irwin, the town's biggest employer with 500 staff. The dull grey expanse of its buildings dominates the view from the rear windows of the bank. The car the pair planned to escape in was in the company's carpark where they had left it.
Furious that they had robbed their own town, Carstensen marched a handcuffed Cowell long the main street to the police station. "I wanted him to be humiliated," the sergeant said, "and he didn't like it at all."
Witnesses were interviewed. The BNZ's head of security and a psychologist arrived and held a meeting with Poa, Green, Scott and Vanessa Scott. Questions soon arose suggesting there was more to it than met the eye. Why was there no sign of forced entry? Where was the tape from the surveillance camera? Why did Poa think there were three robbers? Suspicions were confirmed when the bank tallied the money and found $80,000 gone.
Information led police to the Scott's rented house. Among items seized were a red plastic container of petrol and two H2O bottles. Cowell and Blackwood-Manukau carried identical bottles containing petrol into the bank to scare the staff.
That evening, while Mark Scott sat in a police interview room playing the victim, his wife guided detectives southwest over Wharehine Rd and retrieved from the a roadside thicket a bundle of plastic shopping bags. Inside was $80,000.
"I guess I won't be finishing my beauty course," she said in reference to the makeup course she had been attending in Auckland. Her confession was later corroborated by Cowell and Blackwood-Manukau. The petrol had been Mark's idea, they said.
News spread like an Aussie bushfire on a windy day. "Everyone was talking about it," said a local. "They stood out around the town, him black as the ace of spades, and her, the blond bombshell."
Merv Woodcock, Vanessa's father, who had been left to sort out their debts ($15,000, he estimated) and care for his grandchild, portrayed his daughter to a reporter as a gullible fool dominated by the manipulative, arrogant and financially inept Scott. "She's colourful. She accepts everyone at face value, she's too frigging trusting."
Townspeople were less sympathetic. Vanessa Scott was viewed as regarding herself as too good for the town and as being a poor worker.
Warren Hedley, who employed Mark in his security business before he became bank manager, said it was Vanessa who collected Mark's wages and seemed to call the shots.
Hedley didn't mind him but found Vanessa "obnoxious". She had joined the operatic society, remarked Hedley, sarcastically, "she was going to be big in Hollywood". Vanessa didn't stay long at her supermarket job where it is said she shunned flattening cardboard boxes as it damaged her nails. She worked evenings at the Wellsford Inn where she had a reputation for letting punters wait while she fixed her hair.
Some patrons liked her, many thought her "ditsy", the Weekend Herald was told.
The pub has Lion Red on tap, a TAB, pokies, a big screen for the races and rugby, and a pool table. Pepe Cowell, whose pool skills had won him competitions, and Blackwood-Manukau were regulars. It was around the pool table that the plan for the bank raid was discussed.
By the end of the day of the robbery, all four were in custody. As is often the way after the horse has bolted, the bank posted a security guard out front. Never mind. The idea is to present the image of safety. A great bear of a man with a stockman's hat upon his Fred Flintstone head, his shirt poking out beneath his windbreaker, he swayed constantly, a pace here, a step there, as though some great discomfort made stillness impossible. The Scotts spun their reality too, proclaiming their innocence when they got to court, despite the mountain of evidence.
On Thursday in a North Shore court, almost four months after the robbery, they were still at it, hoping their lawyers might work some miracle. The Scotts gave no visible sign of what was to come as they whispered to each other and assiduously took notes.
Then suddenly, dramatically, they abandoned their ruse. Vanessa Scott wept. Mark Scott cussed. The game, finally, was up.
Actually, it was up from the moment Gayle Brown heard Debbie Poa scream.
* The Scotts, with Cowell and Blackwood-Manukau, will be back in court on Tuesday for a sentencing date to be set. They have pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and kidnapping.