One of the last "old school villains" and a legendary figure in the New Zealand criminal underworld has died.

Leslie Maurice Green, an infamous bank robber, died in hospital this morning after his friends Arthur Taylor and John Murphy found him in an emaciated state two days ago.

The pair had not seen or heard from Green for two weeks so, concerned for his wellbeing, visited him at his flat in Papatoetoe.

"He had barricaded the doors, finally came out looking like a concentration camp survivor," said Taylor.

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"He didn't recognise us, wouldn't listen to us, so we had to call an ambulance. The place was in a hell of a mess, and Les was a tidy guy."

Taylor, who himself spent years as a high profile prison inmate, acknowledged Green's fearsome reputation but had not seen it for himself.

"I'd always seen the kinder side. It's a sad day."
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Green, who was 82, had kept out of trouble since being released on parole in 2006 having served what was at the time the longest sentence for armed robbery.

In recent years, the "Old Man", as inmates called him reverently, was seen biking around the streets of Manukau.

Leslie Maurice Green enjoyed riding his bicycle around Manukau following his release from prison. Photo / Supplied
Leslie Maurice Green enjoyed riding his bicycle around Manukau following his release from prison. Photo / Supplied

It was a far less threatening sight than his heyday in the 1990s when police described him as "New Zealand's most wanted man" during a string of bank robberies in which he brandished a distinctive handgun.

A silver-barrelled .44 Magnum pistol, which featured in the Dirty Harry movies of the era, was his signature weapon.

At bank after bank for almost two years, Green would don a mask, enter the building and leap atop the counter, waving the pistol in the faces of terrified tellers until they filled a bag with cash.

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He would then escape in a car he had stolen the night before.

He stole just over $100,000 in cash and $446,000 in travellers' cheques in the seven robberies for which he was convicted.

Police were convinced he would kill someone before his spree came to an end.

In September 1993, Green robbed the ASB Bank in Three Kings, Auckland, taking $10,500 and escaping in a stolen car.

During the escape, a policeman had noted the number plate and approached, quickly backing off when he saw Green and his pistol.

Green dumped the car, changed his clothing and got into another vehicle, as police began to give chase.

The pursuit led them through Mt Roskill to Mt Albert, where Green's car spun out of control.

He turned the .44 on police, who backed off, then he set off at high speed again. Police continued to chase and again Green lost control of his car.

So, he ditched the car, and with his pistol in one hand and loot in the other, he dashed across the road, shoved the gun through the open window of a passing motorist's car, forcing both occupants out.

As he was about to complete the carjacking and escape again, two officers approached. He swung the pistol in their direction, was rammed by a police car from behind, swung the pistol around again but was tackled before shots were fired.

Green pleaded guilty, as was his habit when caught in the act, and the case went straight to sentencing.

Simon Moore, the Crown Solicitor for Auckland at the time, made the unusual request that the sentencing judge be given the Magnum to examine.

It must have made an impression.

Leslie Maurice Green, seen here being arrested, was once described as the country's most wanted man. Photo / NZME
Leslie Maurice Green, seen here being arrested, was once described as the country's most wanted man. Photo / NZME

Justice Thomas, at the Auckland High Court, said most of those confronted by Green "experienced real terror".

"Many now suffer from a lack of confidence. Some are unable to return to work in a bank. Many suffer from insomnia and have nightmares. To those in the bank, whether bank staff or customers, he must have appeared a fearsome sight. It matters not that Mr Green has some strange code of conduct he adheres to ... In my view, no question of rehabilitation arises in Mr Green's case."

It was only a "matter of time" before he killed somebody. The only way of protecting the public was "putting him in prison and keeping him there".

He was sentenced to 20 years, later cut to 15 years on appeal.

Green served his time in Paremoremo the same way he did all his lags - without co-operation but unobstructive.

"A villain from the old school" was how he was described in a probation report, with firm beliefs on how a sentence should be served.

"You don't nark, you don't tea leaf [steal] and you don't stand over," he is quoted as saying.

A prison report from 1991 said Green prided himself on keeping his word if he gave it willingly.

"In his words, he is a villain, not a liar. But one with a reputation for extreme violence and inmates appeared to regard Mr Green as something of a figure to be revered."

Since 1954, when, as a 17-year-old he was first charged with a crime, Green amassed 46 convictions which is not a particularly long rap sheet for a career criminal.

He spent 30 years in prison - which undoubtedly prevented him from committing other crimes - but authorities suspect he was caught for a fraction of what he did.

There are rumours, or perhaps an urban myth, Green penned a confession to other crimes, to be released only upon his death.

The legend of Les Green comes with many stories attached.

There is the one about the unwitting policeman who helped him change a tyre on a getaway car, unaware he had shifted bags of stolen cash to get the spare wheel out of the boot.

Or the officers who let Green through a cordon set up to catch him, believing the "village idiot" act he put on.

A review of pre-sentence reports shows Green's belief "he robbed the rich because he thought it was an honourable way to live as opposed to taking a benefit".

Another states that he "had no concern for money and gave it away". "Mr Green engaged in criminal activities that were typically well organised and frequently violent," read the report.

He used firearms, robbed banks, used explosives to blow safes, used disguises, intimidated victims and was able to work alone or act as leader in a criminal undertaking.

When he was finally released from prison in 2006 the Parole Board noted "... at one stage there seemed to be little doubt he was doomed to see out his years in a prison environment".

But the board was overwhelmed - as was Green - with an offer from Nga Whare Watea Marae, and support from those who had watched over the Old Man as he grew older.

Prison guards, probation officers and prison lawyers showed "enormous goodwill, generosity, co-operation and kindness" to give "what Mr Green himself said is the best offer he has ever had".

On Green's release, the Parole Board wished him well, noting the adjustments he faced.

"He said he is used to punishment. He said he has been punished all his life. He knows how to handle that. He said this kindness and this generosity, however, have knocked him off balance. He has not received that before."