Unsolved bungled bank heist nearly a decade old

Wednesday June 04, 2014 Written by Published in Weekend
The ANZ Bank in Avarua, where the attempted bank raid took place in October 2001. 14060361 The ANZ Bank in Avarua, where the attempted bank raid took place in October 2001. 14060361

Rod Henderson is Australian and a retired police officer from Victoria, who is interested in unsolved cases that have occurred in the Cook Islands.

Married to Lily Elizabeth, the couple now live between the Cook Islands and the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. This is the first of a number of articles by Rod that will be published over time, as space permits.

The island of Rarotonga hosts three banks. The Bank of the Cook Islands, Westpac and Australia and New Zealand Bank, also known as the ANZ.

All three are located on the main road Avarua in the town’s busy shopping centre. All are within easy walking distance of a supermarket, specialty shops restaurants, night clubs and other like places the public frequent both day and night.

It was a balmy spring evening on Wednesday October 6, 2004 when ANZ Bank Manager Ms Gayle Stapleton was dramatically kidnapped at knife point from her Blackrock residence by three masked offenders and forcibly taken to her bank for the purpose of robbing the cash vault.

Never before or since has such an audacious or bizarre crime of this type, been committed in the Cook Islands.

The story went public on Friday October 8, 2004 under the headline – “Bank manager abducted from home” The story reads.....

‘Police are working around the clock to find those behind the abduction of the ANZ Bank manager at knifepoint from her home on Wednesday night.

Three men wearing balaclavas and armed with kitchen knives burst into Gayle Stapleton’s residence in Black Rock after 9pm that evening and then drove her in her own maroon Toyota Rav jeep to Avarua in an attempt to get her to open the bank’s vault.

Police commissioner Pira Wichman said when they arrived at the bank, there was someone using the automatic teller machine so they drove away and came back again.

When they returned a bank staff member was outside the building and one of the men got out of the jeep and threatened the man. However it is understood the man managed to break free and contacted police around 10.40pm that night.

Wichman says that the men then drove off and dropped Stapleton up the Avatiu Valley Road and she managed to walk back to the power station and raise the alarm around 11.40pm.

Yesterday morning Stapleton’s maroon jeep with licence plate ANZ was found on the back road of Tutakimoa near Pickering Motors following a police bulletin on Radio Cook Islands.

Although traumatised Wichman says Stapleton was not physically harmed. “We praise her; she complied with everything that was asked over her.”

“Obviously these three men don’t know how bank procedures work; no one person can open the vault there.”

The police investigation has been taken over by the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB)

“We are taking this very seriously, and we won’t rule out assistance from outside, says Wichman.  “The police are working around the clock.”

“They wanted access to the bank, this is the first time we’ve had a crime of this nature,” he said.

The police are asking for any information regarding the three suspects.

Suspect one – wore a blue balaclava that look like a Nike beanie with cut-out holes for the eyes to look through. He is of slim build and average height. He held a large kitchen knife with a light coloured handle, wore clear surgical gloves and a wedding band.

Suspect two – was referred to as Gus or Cuz and is of average height with a big build. He wore dark clothing and a dark coloured ski beanie and carried a knife.

Suspect three – cannot be described.

The police are also asking the public who may have seen the Rav maroon jeep with the ANZ number to contact them.”  

In October 2004 career banker Gayle Stapleton had been the National Manager of the Cook Islands ANZ Bank for a year. Held in high esteem by the Cook Island community she not only acquitted herself well in her new role she also immersed herself in various sporting and community projects, endearing herself to many with her friendly outgoing personality.

A single independent woman, she took up residence in an imposing house on the islands Hospital Hill. This stately residence had been rented by the bank to provide lodgings in keeping with the high status of country bank executives. Spacious and well appointed, it commands spectacular views of the South Pacific Ocean.

Living alone in the sprawling house was a privilege that went with the job. It is one of the nicest residences that rental money could buy. No near neighbours holding late night parties or barking dogs, the only distraction being the odd loud exhaust of a car climbing up the steep hill towards the hospital. Her temporary home must have felt serene and safe on the best part of paradise.

On the night of October 6, 2004 Ms Stapleton worked back as did some other staff members. On the way home she drove to a takeaway shop, and bought a meal to save time cooking as she was tired after a long day at the office.  Once home she ate and took a shower. This was sometime after 9pm at night.

While in the shower three masked and armed offenders entered Stapleton’s house, by climbing a ladder placed against the side of the front balcony and entered through open balcony doors. Once inside they located the stunned bank manager in the bathroom.

One of the offenders acting as spokesman firmly but politely asked Stapleton to get dressed and passed her a towel.  At no time was she molested or assaulted in any way.  She was told they were taking her back to the bank and they were going to rob the safe.  Stapleton was later to tell police she believed all were brown skinned Polynesians but not necessarily Cook Islanders. She is reported as saying, “They only spoke English with a South Auckland accent.”

When dressed they ordered her to get into the back of her car and was told to crouch down.  One of the offenders also got into the back seat and covered her with towel.  She was told if she co-operated she would not get hurt and to not to look up. The other two offenders got into the front and the driver proceeded to drive the short distance to the bank.

On arriving at their target the offenders observed a customer using the ATM located at the front of the building. Not willing to chance it they drove back in the direction they had come from and stopped at the Social Centre parking area in Panama where they discussed their next move.

Determined to go ahead, they returned with Stapleton still concealed on the back floor of the car and parked in the banks car park.

It was at this time, they saw a male employee leaving the bank. One of the offenders left the car approached this employee and menaced him with a knife presumably to have him assist in opening the safe.  Before he could overpower him the terrified employee ran off and immediately rang the police.

With Ms Stapleton still in the car the luckless offenders drove inland to the Avatiu Valley where they dumped the now disoriented Bank Manageress in a secluded bush area.

Once free she hid until she was certain they had completely gone then walked in the pitch black to the power station where she related her terrifying experience to a worker who rang the police station.

On their arrival the police found her to be in a highly distressed state but was otherwise uninjured.

The police force was mobilised to hunt down the perpetrators with 15 senior members put full time on the case. Apart from recovering her abandoned Rav car the next day on the back road it seemed they had completely disappeared without leaving any trace.

By the following weekend their investigation had stalled.  A call for assistance to New Zealand Police resulted in a Detective Inspector, a Scene of Crime expert and an Identikit artist being made available and they immediately flew to the island to beef-up efforts to apprehend the brazen offenders.  They went over ground previously covered, including re- interviewing the victim, speaking to witnesses and visiting both crime scenes. After a week’s solid work their efforts also proved fruitless and they returned home without discovering anything new.

Ms Stapleton stoically remained manager of the Bank for a further 18 months after her traumatic experience but found she couldn’t stay in the mansion house on the hill that was the scene of the terrifying home invasion.

In May 2013 Gayle Stapleton returned to Rarotonga to conducted business coaching seminars. Whilst on the island she told a Cook Islands News reporter something of the ordeal she suffered.  

“It’s always there in my mind, but it didn’t worry me in coming back,” she said. Stapleton does not believe the three men are still on the island. She suspects they were Auckland-based Polynesians who left immediately after committing the crime on the 2.30am flight.

Stapleton said while the experience left her shaken for some time, community support pulled her through.

“For me, it was about not letting them beat me. In the first few weeks after it happened, I thought ‘I can’t stay here’. But then why let them win? The community was very supportive and I stayed another 18 months.”

The general census of opinion was that whoever these offenders were, they were rank amateurs. They obviously knew nothing about the bank’s security system or the number of bank personnel required to open the vault. It is apparent they had done surveillance on Stapleton’s home and knew how gain access undetected, but that was about it.

Some agree with Stapleton that the offenders left the island shortly after their aborted attempt, while others believe they are still around. 

No reward was ever offered and nothing was subsequently released by the authorities to kick start their investigation.

Many have asked the question since, “How could they have gotten away with it! These things don’t happen here on this small island.”

Ten years later, this bungling trio of wannabe gangsters remain at large.

3 comments

  • Comment Link Rod Henderson Thursday, 12 June 2014 19:48 posted by Rod Henderson

    Not as far as I know Steve.
    The police never reveal any details of their investigations.

  • Comment Link Taramai Saturday, 07 June 2014 00:26 posted by Taramai

    Local coppers proved they are as good as the ones flown in to investigate. Nothing new revealed by NZ boys in blue. Must moved away from this concept and trust the more than capable local coppers.

  • Comment Link Steve Kurker Wednesday, 04 June 2014 10:57 posted by Steve Kurker

    Rod, were all males who flew to Auckland on the 2:30 a.m. flight interviewed?

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