"The Beginning of the End"
During our early years of marriage, Paul and I purchased a farmlet in North Otago. We employed a builder and spent every moment of our time and money restoring the 120-year-old Ardgowan Homestead, which was on a four-hectare block, over a seven-year period. Paul learned some real building skills and loved working on the project. The children had a great life and had their own ponies. I bred and showed Old English Sheepdogs and was involved with the local Kennel Club and the SPCA.
We started and owned a pizza parlour in Oamaru, and it was a real goldmine. It was one of the first pizza parlours in New Zealand and was on the ‘foodie’ trail. Buses would pull in one after another and we would have to cook and feed a busload in 20 minutes. I would be serving three people at once and have three pizzas up my arms, then into the oven they would go. It was a busy time working day and night.
During one lunchtime while I was at the pizza parlour, I got a call from the local Fire Brigade. I was told that our homestead was on fire. I was stunned. I tried to speak but nothing came out. My mind was racing. There were puppies in the wash house that had to be saved. I was grateful that the fireman did not hang up the phone so I could eventually blurt it out. My father had been in the Fire Brigade for 25 years and I was brought up very fire conscious. After the conversation, I was more worried about what Dad would say rather than the house being on fire.
We were underinsured but we did have some savings so proceeded to rebuild the house. We had a small mortgage, so decided to increase it if needed. The fire for Paul and me was the beginning of the end.
After the fire, my first taste of God’s love came from a stranger, John Ballantyne, a pastor of a local church we didn’t attend. He arrived at our place on the Sunday straight after church to help us clean up, still dressed in his suit. Life went downhill after that. I was pregnant with my fourth child and we moved into a small house on a friend’s farm that had been used for storing equipment.
We sold the pizza parlour so Paul could rebuild and restore our home. My daughter Kate was born during this time. The day she turned six weeks old, my hell began. Paul and his sister were arrested for the Gloria Kong kidnapping, leaving me with four children aged from six weeks to 12 years to care for alone.
The crime, described by the defense counsel as “the most publicized crime in living memory in New Zealand” outraged the whole country and especially the small, ultra-conservative South Island town of Oamaru. My husband and two accomplices kidnapped young Gloria Kong at gunpoint; leaving her parents and three other relatives, bound and gagged. Thirty-six hours later, she was dumped in an isolated hay barn on the evening of 30 June 1983. After Gloria freed herself and raised the alarm, police found her disheveled, and in shock. I could not even imagine the unspeakable horror she must have endured during that time, and how frantic her parents must have been.
On the night he was arrested it was dark and stormy. There were continual outbursts of lightning and thunder followed by torrential rain. Paul, the four children, and I were all in bed when six police detectives converged on our house. They just bowled in and started opening cupboards and searching our drawers. It was terrifying for me and the children. They took Paul into the bathroom and when they brought him out, they handcuffed him in front of our children. My eldest girl, Jacqui, started screaming, “Don’t take my father away,” my second daughter, Lisa, hid under the bed, my son, Ben, was in our bed watching wide-eyed, and the baby, Kate, was asleep. After they took Paul away, I pulled Lisa out from under the bed. She had jammed herself right up by the bedhead and it took my full force to pull her out. To this day, she cannot remember everything that happened. It was so traumatizing for her and the other children.
The police detectives had brought a woman police officer with them to look after the children so I could go to the police station to be interviewed. After the interview, they told me that Paul had been arrested for kidnapping and he would not be coming home. I was in shock so my lawyer drove me home, and on the way, he crashed my car! I was so traumatised I cannot remember what happened when I got home, what happened to the lawyer, what I said to the children, or what we did. I just remember the woman police officer leaving.
I felt extremely uncomfortable living in the house as our friends were also friends of the Kong family, so I moved out and into the home of Paul’s parents. Prior to the arrest, I had been interviewed by the police several times. Little did I know that I was considered a suspect as it was discovered there was a woman involved in the crime. She was later found to be my sister-in-law. The receipt of a purchase I produced at the time the kidnapping took place, saved the day for me. I was breastfeeding and had to take the baby with me for the interviews. It was June, the middle of winter, and very, very cold. One time the baby picked up on my stress, stopped breathing, and went blue, so the detectives stopped the car to revive her.
I was grateful Paul had never told me of his involvement. I hadn’t asked as I had no reason to think it was him. There had been one night though when he hadn’t come home. My mother-in-law and I talked together about it and we both had a gut feeling something was not right. She said that she felt like a volcano was about to blow. It turned out that Paul, his sister, and two accomplices had been involved.
After the arrest hit national news, it began a journey of me dealing with shame, police, lawyers, trying to sell the half-finished house, travelling to court proceedings, and trying to remain sane. The local plumbing firm repossessed items we had purchased for the house in case we couldn’t pay. On top of all that I had four children who had more going on than just their own needs being met.
The children’s school was doing a project on the crime at the time following the progress through the news media. Once everyone knew who the offenders were, they stopped it. My children were embarrassed and ashamed as well as the children and teachers at the school. So, it did not just affect us, it affected everyone we knew. My son started bedwetting, my milk dried up, and I could not hold the baby for a while due to the trauma. It felt like the whole situation was happening to someone else. It was like I was watching a movie and I was in it.
The community in Oamaru was just wonderful to me and the children. They reached out in the streets, at school, came to where I was living, and supported me where they could. The days and weeks that followed could only be described as a living death. Our father, husband, and provider had gone and I felt alone and lost. There was no time to grieve, just lots to do.
We had always worked to provide for our family. Now I found myself forced to line up at Social Welfare. It was hard to make ends meet.
We were not entitled to legal aid because we owned the homestead that we were still rebuilding after the fire, so I ended up selling it at a bargain-basement price to cover costs. I paid out over $90,000 for Paul and his sister’s legal costs. Paul and I didn’t have a lot of say in the decision-making process as it took on a life of its own and I was the only one with money. Even though it was not my crime, it became my sentence.
Paul was sent to Addington Remand Prison, in Christchurch, which was 250 kilometres away. We didn’t know anything about the justice system or even where the prison was. The first time we travelled to Christchurch we could not even find the prison. Prisons were not signposted. In fact, I asked someone outside the prison and even they didn’t know, so I missed my first visit.
Addington Prison was a terrible place. You were not allowed to touch each other. It was hard to maintain a meaningful conversation. We needed to talk about things like legal matters, care of the children, and financial issues, it was impossible. There was a great long barrier down the centre of the room, Dads sat on one side with mum and kids on the other and a ‘screw’ would stand looking down on the inmates and visitors from the end of the room. During the nine months Paul was there, he never got to hold the baby until one day one kind ‘screw’ turned his back for just a moment so I could pass her over the barrier, so he could get a quick cuddle.
I quickly learned the prison jargon. The term ‘screw’ was prevalently used by the inmates, and families that visited, and they were commonly referred to as that. Screw is a term for prison officer or guard and is based on the fact that ‘screw’ was slang for ‘key’. One of the most important functions of a prison guard or turnkey as he’s often called, is to see that prisoners are locked up at the appropriate times—and that involves turning the ‘screw’. The guards themselves see it as a derogatory term. Other prison jargon was taken from British Cockney rhyming slang like ‘trouble and strife,’ which was your wife. I guess this is the flow over from the British jail system into colonial New Zealand.
The trial took place in Timaru, about 90 kilometres away from Oamaru. Paul was brought down from Christchurch to attend each day. My other sister-in-law, Debra, and I would drive up from Oamaru to attend. The trial went on for five weeks and it was national news every day. I was not allowed to sit in on the court proceedings as I may be called to testify. The highlight during the trial for Paul and me was seeing each other outside of the prison. He would walk He would walk past me as my husband, not as a prisoner, and we could briefly touch. I just lived for that moment.
My parents struggled with the situation and when the newspaper arrived each evening, my mother would throw it straight into the fire. She didn’t dare turn on the television because she didn’t want to see the news.
Before the trial, I started to consider if I should move to Christchurch so I could be close to Paul. For generations my family had never moved out of the area, so it was a big decision, but my children also had a right to a relationship with their father. John Ballantyne came and prayed with me and the children. He prayed like he really knew God and this impressed me. He prayed that God would comfort and strengthen us in the times ahead and that we would find a house for us in Christchurch.
At that time there were very few houses for rent there. The Christchurch Press newspaper only had about two columns of properties listed. It would be nigh on impossible for a prisoner’s wife with four children and on a benefit to find accommodation and accommodation that was affordable. But the prayer of the pastor had sparked a seed of faith and I knew that there was a house out there for us, somewhere.
I would visit Paul at the prison during the early afternoon and look for accommodation for the rest of the day. In the past, my communication with God had been all one way but God started speaking to me in a noticeably quiet way, deep inside. Once I turned up to this old house along with 30 other people who were all wanting to rent the place. It was old, cold, and dilapidated, and the grass was growing up to the windows. It was also in a scary part of town. While waiting with the crowd God spoke to me and said, “Do you really want this house, Verna?” I said, “No”, and walked away; my first step in faith. I trusted God would find us the right house that was suitable for me and the children. Debra and I started going house to house asking people if they knew of houses to rent. We would also drive around the streets looking for empty houses and would phone the City Council to check who owned them then approach the owners directly. But no one wanted a prisoner’s wife with four children renting their properties. One day on my daily house-to-house rounds I found an empty rambling four-bedroom home. I peeked through the windows and all that I could see was an ironing board and a table in the centre of the living room. I left a note on the door asking if the place was for rent and said that I was desperate. That evening I got a phone call. The owner was an IT man who was a workaholic and worked days and nights. He said that the house was always cold because it wasn’t lived in, and the very next day he was going to go down to the Salvation Army to see if there were a family needing accommodation who could come and warm it up. He said we could have the house. The agreement was rent-free accommodation in exchange for a cooked meal and ironed shirts. The house was half a block from the prison so we could walk there daily. Paul could even hear me calling the cat from his prison cell.
Debra, the children and I lived in the house for the nine months that Paul was on remand, awaiting trial and sentence. It was a difficult time. The local prison support organizations appeared to have no understanding or support in place for families. That is the reason I started Pillars at a later date. The children had few friends and were bullied at school. They were called jailbirds. Jacqui struggled and ended up on the streets twice overdosing on drugs. There was nothing I could do. At 12 years old the situation was hard on her. My family was falling apart, money was short and visits to the prison were often stressful.
There were visits to lawyers who were constantly demanding increasingly large amounts of money and playing competitive games among themselves. I had to do a lot of the running around for them in preparation for the trial. Looking back, they were the biggest cause of any pressure. Life revolved around the lawyers who made all of the decisions even when it didn’t seem right. Subsequently, we changed lawyers three times.