In the statement he had already given to police, Kitching had said that he was 'relieved' to be arrested, because he was 'weary' of the company of the man he called Stonor. The American had charmed and corrupted and manipulated him. Kitching wanted to return to Australia, and to never see the other bandit again. In the dock of the Supreme Court, though, Kitching chatted happily to Stewart. The two men smiled at each other when some of the details of the Westfield ambush were recited by a prosecutor.
When they appeared in court again in the first week of February, Stewart and Kitching pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, and not guilty to a slew of more minor charges, which were promptly dropped. A representative of the Kitching family had arrived in Auckland with an affidavit about Roy's character signed by sixteen worthy Melbournians. A manager of a local bank appeared, and confirmed that he was holding a large sum of money on behalf of the Kitching family, so that the victims of the Westfield ambush might be recompensed.
The bandits' lawyers explained that their clients had been determined to steal as politely as possible, and to return the cash they took as soon as funds arrived from Australia and America. Stewart had not intended to push his gun into Samuel Henderson's ribs; Kitching had fired accidentally at the motorcycle pursuing him. The men did not really block the Great South Road: the structure they made with kerosene cans and timber was too flimsy to be considered a barricade. Stewart and Kitching deserved probation, not imprisonment. They had already spent months waiting for trial in the unsalubrious Mount Eden prison. If Kitching were allowed to leave New Zealand, he would sequester himself on a farm his brother owned in Western Australia. Stewart would return to America.
Judge Archie Blair had the job of sentencing David Stewart and Roy Kitching. Blair had been admitted to the bar in the nineteenth century, but had only recently become a Supreme Court judge. He was fascinated by engineering as well as the law, and had designed one of New Zealand's first speedometers. Blair agreed that the men were 'amateurs in crime', but declined to give them probation. He sentenced them to a year's reformative probation. They would go to jail, but would not have to swing hammers and push barrows in Mount Eden's quarry. Stewart would get an extra six months' detention for passing bad cheques.
By contrast, three Maori robbers who had put a gun to a farmer's ribs outside Rotorua had each been sentenced to two years' hard labour plus two years' reformative detention in 1926. A sexagenarian who robbed an Auckland bank in 1925 got five years' detention.
The New Zealand Truth denounced the sentence. The paper reminded Justice Blair that Stewart and Kitching were 'highwaymen', albeit highwaymen with 'social aspirations' and 'timorous dispositions'. They had been spoiled by their families; now they were being 'spoon-fed' by the justice system. Blair's sentence suggested that the 'ancient game of highwayman' was now 'less serious, insofar as the consequences are concerned' than the mundane offense of breaking and entering. Had the judge been influenced by the 'romance' of Stewart and Kitching's crime?
claimed that the light sentence given to Stewart and Kitching was the 'sole topic of conversation' at Mount Eden, and suggested that the two men would not enjoy the rest of their time at the prison.
If Stewart and Kitching were villains, then Percy Fletcher was, for a while at least, a hero.
The Auckland Star
called his pursuit of the bandits 'wildly thrilling', and the Truth
ran a photograph of him sitting on Douglas Wallace's motorbike, like a knight ready to ride into battle.
In 1934, six years after the chase up the Great South Road, Percy and his brother Henry appeared again in Auckland's newspapers. They were tried for the theft and conversion of two cars in the same court where Stewart and Kitching had stood for sentencing. When the Fletchers were found guilty of receiving stolen goods, their lawyer argued for mercy, explaining that Percy was suffering from epilepsy, and that he and his brother were poor. The court was reminded of the bravery Fletcher had shown on the night of November the 26th, 1928, when he pursued two bandits up the Great South Road in a spectacle that excited all of Auckland.
Percy and Henry Fletcher were sent to Mount Eden for a year. Unlike David Stewart and Roy Kitching, the brothers got hard labour.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]