This article was originally published in the Listener on 27th October, 2013.
It is three weeks before Christmas 1963. An irritated landlord marches into a rickety villa he owns on Bassett Rd in Remuera, overdue rent on his mind. Inside, he finds his two tenants, a couple of toughs, sprawled on blood-spattered mattresses in a front bedroom, riddled with machine-gun bullets.
Investigating police later conclude the villa had been operating as a “beer house” at a time when pubs closed at 6pm and after-hours drinking was big business. The shootings horrified New Zealand. What made them notable was a sinister new flavour of criminality uncovered as police probed the debauched, violent lifestyles of the people involved.
It emerged that the killers, Ronald Jorgensen and John Gillies, acted for a rival “sly grog” operation in Ponsonby. Gillies had smoked marijuana before carrying a Reising submachine gun wrapped in a flour sack over to Remuera.
In respectable 1960s Auckland, a twilight world of sex, drugs and flamboyant gangsterism had taken root in the back streets. Officials were astonished, struggling to make sense of it.
As we approach the 50th anniversary this month, the events at Bassett Rd can be seen as the moment New Zealand woke up to the fact that shiny, seductive urban culture, which so many hankered after, had its price. Its afflictions, a type of criminal subculture that hadn’t been seen here before, had finally reached these shores. Truth announced “Chicago Comes to Auckland”. Efforts to ensure this didn’t happen would shape the rest of the decade.
Alarmed officials concluded that marijuana could make users homicidal, leading directly to the founding of police drug squads. Long jail sentences for “dealing” in cannabis – any amount over 28g – were introduced. The 60s counterculture was just emerging, but already the backlash was taking shape.
The killings capped off a year of unimaginable shocks. It began with the killing of four police officers in two separate incidents, at a time when such events were almost unthinkable in New Zealand. A longer-running story was a steamy British scandal involving politician John Profumo and call girl Christine Keeler, forcing a prime minister to resign. Then, in November, US President John Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas.
BIG CRIME IN THE CITY
The Bassett Rd killings were an unwelcome reminder that urban New Zealand was growing up fast. The all-night beer house and brothel culture flourishing in run-down, inner-city Auckland was disreputable but widely patronised and often indulged by police.
The victims, Kevin Speight and George Walker, were cashing in on rigid, outdated alcohol laws that forced hotel patrons into the street by 6.15pm. Punters who wanted to keep drinking had the option of beer houses provided by the criminal demi-monde, with sexual services also on offer. Alcohol, chiefly beer, cost more in these places, but not excessively so.
The four men involved in the crime often drank together at the beer house at the former fire station on St Mary’s Bay Rd. Jorgensen lived at another notorious “den” at 37A Anglesea St, Ponsonby. Most “shops” were located in the inner city; the Remuera establishment was the first to move outwards.
Politician John Banks, who gathered mountains of empties from sly-grog dens as an entrepreneurial teenager, remembers them clearly.
“They were well-furbished, garishly, with white carpets, black wallpaper, lots of mirrors, a sleazy bar and blue movies, women that would normally be jumping out of cakes standing around being available … there were incredible scenes. Numerous women lay around … the rooms were just full of smoke – you couldn’t see from one side to the next. But it looked glamorous, good-looking women, cool-looking dudes, all ostensibly having a good time,” he wrote in his biography.
Banks had barely started the job when the shootings occurred in the small hours of Wednesday, December 5. Both the killers and the victims knew his sly-grogger father, Archie, and all had visited the family home.
The vice enveloping Auckland’s city centre in 1963 might have seemed shockingly new. But many of its purveyors were the “teenage delinquents” demonised a decade earlier. The 1955 hanging of a 19-year-old “bodgie” who killed his tough-guy rival by a Queen St jukebox was an effort to stamp out a working-class subculture seen as criminal, promiscuous and extremely violent.
My 1993 study of 1950s teen culture, All Shook Up, quoted a prophetic official profile of the “bodgie”. These “less robust types … don’t work much at all but expect the girls to keep them in food and liquor … [they] can readily, both collectively and individually, be encouraged to indulge in violence”.
By the early 1960s bodgies, with slicked-back hair, and their female counterpart, “widgies”, were well into their twenties. Some worked the “dens”. Others, such as “King of the G-String” Rainton Hastie, were launching careers based on Auckland’s newly discovered appetite for sex. In 1963, Hastie opened the Pink Pussycat on K-Rd, New Zealand’s first striptease club. It would later emerge in the trial, sensationally, that Jorgensen watched a dancer with red hair perform there hours before the shootings.
THE MULDOON TIP-OFF
Aucklanders awoke on Monday, December 9 to find the Remuera landlord’s ghastly discovery splashed across the Herald’s front page. A squad of 50 detectives and constables, led by Detective Inspector Ron Walton (later commissioner), were to assigned to the case. The investigation quickly foundered. It was only the unlikely intervention of future Prime Minister Robert Muldoon that yielded a breakthrough. A constituent told Muldoon, then a greenhorn MP, how Gillies had visited the restaurant where he worked as a cook, virtually owning up to the killings. Muldoon wrote of these events in his 1974 book Rise and Fall of a Young Turk:
“Gillies … had come in and ordered a meal, and had then told him he would see something sensational in the papers before long. He then described the room in the house at Bassett Rd and made some rambling comments … in the morning my informant read the paper and realised what Gillies had been talking about. He spent a day of terror. He knew Gillies had a record of violence of the most brutal kind.”
Muldoon later drove the man to the central police station, where he introduced him to Walton. Gillies refused to co-operate with police, but he and Jorgensen were placed under close surveillance.
Both were finally arrested on New Year’s Eve 1963 and charged with murder. Following open threats to witnesses by Gillies, their magistrate’s court appearance was held, unusually, behind closed doors on New Year’s Day.
The trial began at Auckland’s Supreme Court on February 24, 1964. In his opening remarks, Crown Prosecutor GD Speight talked of a “twilight world” characterised by “the low, subnormal behaviour that these people indulged in”. Gillies, 30, and Jorgensen, 31, both pleaded not guilty.
The crown prosecutor based his case on the financial rivalry between Ponsonby and Remuera beer houses. Jurors also learned Gerry Wilby, the owner of the Anglesea St den, had a beef against Kevin Speight (no relation). Wilby resented that Mary Rapiro, a sex worker who had lived and operated from his house, was now seeing Speight.
Dozens of anonymous witnesses were called, hidden behind such cover names as Miss Mattress Maker, Mt Albert Young Divorcee and Housemaid Princess. Jurors heard of amphetamine use, threats to use hand grenades, and of Gillies smoking marijuana hours before driving with Jorgensen to Bassett Rd in a green Vauxhall.
A turning point came on the fourth day with the testimony of a second sex worker named “Lola” (Lynette Lewis). She confirmed that Gillies and Jorgensen took a suitcase containing the gun from her Grafton Rd flat at 2.15am on the night of the murders. Attempts by Jorgensen’s counsel to unfavourably compare Lewis to the scandalous Christine Keeler failed.
After the eight-day trial, the jury took four hours to find Gillies and Jorgensen guilty. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment on March 4, 1964.
SEX, DRUGS … AND ROCK’N’ROLL
The year took a happier turn in June when the Beatles touched down to a welcome by thousands of screaming teenage girls. It was the moment that young New Zealand felt itself connected to an international youth culture, with all its sexual and chemical freedoms. The world would never seem quite the same.
Not surprisingly, police still associated sex, drugs and rock’n’roll with vicious criminality and fought for a harder line. In his submission to the 1965 Narcotics Bill, Police Commissioner Les Spencer made the Bassett Rd marijuana reefer the cornerstone of his successful call for tougher drug penalties.
Under the law passed that year, a person caught with more than 100 reefers (the equivalent of 28g) could be jailed for up to 14 years as a supplier. Contrary to legal tradition, the onus of proof of innocence now lay with the accused. Official police historian Susan Butterworth described the 1965 Act as “controversial … and draconian in relation to the minuscule problem”. It was loosened a decade later.
Detective Inspector Walton was meanwhile promoted and sent to San Francisco and other American counterculture hotspots. On his return in 1965, he was assigned to set up drug squads in the four main New Zealand centres.
The flourishing beer houses of central Auckland never quite recovered. Some closed down, and a 1967 referendum saw two-thirds of voters support the end of six o’clock closing. Within a month, hotels were open until 10pm.
In his history of the vote in New Zealand, Neill Atkinson wrote: “This decision symbolised the beginning of the gradual loosening of New Zealand’s numerous restrictive controls and regulations, a process that would gather momentum from the 1980s.”
The ghosts of Bassett Rd lingered. By 1967, as the rise in youthful drug use seemed unstoppable, officials decided to hold a top-level inquiry. Gillies, still in Mt Eden prison, saw an opportunity to exonerate himself for the murder. His letter to the committee demonised marijuana: “I felt I was another person detached from my real self. This feeling of disassociation caused me to believe I was a witness to what my other self was doing. I was in a detached dream state divorced from reality.” The “confession”, widely seen as a stunt, gained prominence in the inquiry’s report. No recommendation for release was made.
Both men remained behind bars until the 1980s. Recalled in 1986 to serve the rest of his life sentence, Gillies was released on parole in 1987 under the name Karl Bremne.
Ron Jorgensen vanished a year after his 1983 release. He was last seen in Kaikoura on December 1984, where he is believed to have faked his own death. Various sightings in West Australia have never been verified.