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‘I had recurring nightmares in which I would fall victim to the anger of the Rastas’

The live email interview is a form which no one seems to practice but will almost certainly revolutionise journalism, possibly. It has the zip and tension of meeting in the flesh, and writing questions and answers adds a kind of literary dimension.

This interview with Angus Gillies took place last night (Monday). Gillies is a TV3 news producer, and also the author of Ngati Dread, his remarkable trilogy of self-published books about the killings, arsons and general weird shit that went down in Ruatoria in the late 1980s. An excerpt appeared yesterday. It was a very FFS kind of excerpt: it detailed the beheading of Lance Kupenga by fellow Rasta, Joe Nepe. 

Angus in my introductory remarks to your excerpt from Ngati Dread on the Spinoff yesterday, I described the events in Ruatoria during those five years from 1985-1990 as “a kind of Maori Rasta uprising”. How would you put it?

There were a lot of things happening at the same time. Some guys had brought dope and Bob Marley’s music back to the East Coast from the city. Chris Campbell had learnt about Rastafarianism in prison. There were a lot of young guys coming through who felt that the land that should have been theirs had been allowed to fall into the hands of the Williams family and other Pakeha families by their elders.

In the early 80s there was a big Black Power hui in Ruatoria and that is also seen as one of the important formative moments in the emergence of the Rastas.These young guys were reading the Bible and seeing parallels in there to what they felt they were going through. Smart guys like Chris Campbell, Beau Tuhura and John Heeney started talking to their elders and trying to find out the Maori prophecies from that area and mixing it with Te Kooti’s Ringatu religion, Rastafarianism and the Bible. They began to develop a rebel religion with gang roots. In the early days they started out chopping fences and burning hay barns on stations belonging to the Williams family as a protest about the land alienation.

There were all sorts of other things too, weren’t there? I mean in part the wider context of the times – Rogernomics had laid the East Coast to waste, and the theme running through the daily lives of Rastas and loads of other people on Ruatoria must have been dispossession. A less fancy way of saying is that were was a lot of unemployment.

But also, what about the influence of a woman called Sue Nikora? You interview her in the book and she talks the most alarming bullshit – Maori came from outer space, the waka was a UFO. And yet it seems she was a kind of ideological godmother to the Rastas, filling their head not just with nonsense but also genuine grievances as well. Was she an instigator?

Yes, Sue was definitely an instigator of the Rastas. You might remember Sue from news stories. She believes she is the rightful Prime Minister of New Zealand and has sent relatives around to motels in Gisborne that she doesn’t own to collect rent. She believes she has a claim by blood to a lot of the land up the coast and she was able to get the boys to park things up on the coast. Almost everyone I talked to up the coast, from all walks of life, said that Sue was influencing and guiding the Rastas in those early days.

When I was about to meet Sue I expected her to be some fearsome, baleful character but she seemed very nice and harmless and all I could get out of her were her very imaginative stories. They were always such great stories, I felt, and in keeping with the coast, that I felt I had to include them. Harry Crews wrote a childhood autobiography called The Biography of a Place and a lot of stories people told me I put into the books because they were part of the biography of the place.

It’s said that Sue led the boys until they got their own mana and realised they could get their own way by their own means and they eventually moved on from Sue. Bob Kaa, one of the vigilantes, said that he was once invited by Sue and her family to a woolshed to talk about what to do about the Rastas and when he got there there was actually a really nice house inside this rundown old woodshed.

There were a lot of other things. I was the same age as the Rastas and a lot of my friends in Gisborne were on the dole. When I moved to Wellington and would return to Gisborne it always struck me that there were more and more boarded up houses. A lot of people had left the Coast to find jobs in the city but also, the East Coast lost generations of their most amazing leaders to war. The soldiers in C company from the coast in the Maori Battalion were legendary. John Heeney was a nephew of Moana Ngarimu, the VC winner, on one side and Tom Heaney, who challenged Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight boxing title on the other.

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Luke Donnelly is walked from the courthouse to the back of a police van.

In this five year period there were the arsons, and Rasta dudes on horseback on the main street acting like they owned the place, and the unbelievable nature of the killing of Lance Kupenga, and the thing they did to that horse, and it seems to have ended when Luke Donnelly shot and killed Rasta leader Chris Campbell. You interviewed Donnelly quite a few times. He tells you about the first time he came into contact with a Rasta. The Rasta says, “What you fucken think you’re doing, cunt?” And Donnelly answers, “Who are you calling a cunt?” And then he grabs him by the dreads and gives him a hiding. And when you talk to him about killing Campbell, he confesses to you that as Campbell lay dying, what he really wanted to do was kick Campbell’s head in. He also said, and this is revealing, because I think maybe the greatest truth in this reply to you is in the last sentence, “I don’t go looking for trouble. I’ve never gone looking for trouble. But if trouble comes looking for me I won’t back off. “

Things ended badly between you and Donnelly. What do you have to say about him?

I knew Luke before I wrote up the whole Rasta thing. He got on well with my older brother John and my father Iain and I knew him because I covered rugby league for the newspapers and he was Kiwi league international Jason Donnelly’s dad. I knew members of Luke’s family in Gisborne and got on well with all of them. But Luke had this idea that the only part of the Rasta story that was interesting was when he arrived and started beating up the Rastas. Chris Campbell, who died on the operating table after being shot multiple times by two firearms by Luke, was a cousin of Luke’s. They were related. But Luke felt that everything should be seen from his point of view. So when he finally saw that I’d quoted a lot of people saying he was lucky he didn’t go to jail for murder, he understandably freaked. He wanted me to write a movie script with him and he would be the Clint Eastwood style character. I wrote to Luke in an email that he wouldn’t be happy until i wrote him riding into town on a white horse and wearing a stetson.

On the other side of the coin, the Rasta leader John Heeney couldn’t understand why I would want to talk to anyone about what happened in Ruatoria other than the Rastas. He kept saying, there is no two sides to this story. There’s only one side: The truth. So I just tried to tell a story that was as close to the truth as possible and walk a line in the middle of everyone. I haven’t seen Luke for a while but if I did we’d probably shake hands and have a good yarn. He’s probably the type of guy that respects you if you stand up for yourself.

I actually got on well with the Rastas too. They’re just guys my age from the coast. Pretty rough and ready, but they tell a great story.

“They’re just guys my age from the coast. Pretty rough and ready” – mate these are hard men. I wouldn’t last five fucken seconds with them. And yet there you are, writing about going to interview Rasta leader, or Rasta elder sort of, John Heeney, and there are other dreads there too, and he gets out the bong and you get so paranoid and stoned off your ass that all you can say is: “Mmm.”

I raise this also because – you’re the guy who just keeps going back for more with this story. The events all happened in the 80s but you don’t leave it alone. The pain is still intense in many households, no doubt, but you don’t leave it alone. Whitey keeps going back to Ruatoria in search of the story! It’s admirable and amazing and I dig the books big-time. But do they reveal an obsession? Is that what you became – obsessed?

Yes, I definitely became obsessed. I started out taking off three months from work at 3 News with the intention of gathering the material and writing a book about the Rastas. But it ended up taking 10 years. The reason I broke it up into three volumes because my head couldn’t handle all that info in one book. I had to finish one. Then do the next and then the last. But you’ll see in the last book there’s a section from way back about a farmer who says he was shot at by Chris Campbell. the reason that’s in the third book is because I didn’t find that stuff out until near the end of the process. Anyway, it kind of worked where it was because it showed how far Chris could go in that section leading up to where he has his big showdown with Luke.

I had wanted to interview Chris Campbell when he was alive and in prison but my father, who was the editor of the Gisborne Herald, talked me out of it. He said let sleeping dogs lie and old wounds heal. Then a publisher asked me if I wanted to write a book about Wynton Rufer, the footballer, whose mum, I think, is from the coast. Well, I saw this two paragraphs in the Dominion or the Herald in about 1999 saying that the man who had killed former Rasta Dick Maxwell had got off on self defence, even though he’d stabbed him, beaten his head with an oar and left him in a stream by the sea to drown, and the public gallery had got to their feet and cheered and I thought, “This bloody story is still going.” That set me back onto it.

I told the publisher, forget the book about Wynton I’ve got an amazing book for you. That was Ian Watt who was at Reed Publishing at the time and then went to Exisle. But by the time he said he only wanted 100,000 words i’d already written 300,000 and felt an obligation to the people involved to tell the story in a way I felt did justice to them and the material.

During the writing process over a period of years I had recurring nightmares in which I would fall victim to the anger of the Rastas. But as I said, as I met them I generally liked them. I found they were often disarmingly honest because they’d done it tough and they had nothing to lose whereas the so-called community leaders seemed shifty to protect their reputations. There’s one interview I didn’t get that I would still like to and if I do get it I’ll add it to the story. That’s Junior Paul. That’s the guy who went crazy for a while and they tried to “beat the devil out of him”. A woman contacted me once on Twitter saying her partner Junior wanted to talk to me but when I got back to her she didn’t reply.

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Luke Donnelly chats to a mate through the window of the Gisbourne District Court.

 

You interviewed one of the Rastas in prison and took your dad Iain, and you write how he gives the man’s wife $100 to spend on their kids at Xmas. Now this seems a fairly typical gesture of Iain. Everyone always says he’s a gentleman even though he’s Scottish and worked as a newspaper editor.

But what about you, Angus? I mean – we haven’t met, which seems like an oversight, because we’ve both worked in journalism for 30 years and it’s a small trade, getting smaller by the day. But I had a sense reading the book that you’re partly – and I don’t wish to insult you – downright tabloid, almost feral, a Genevieve Westcott in pants.

A former colleague of yours said you were a top man and awesome journo and also mentioned your nickname was Angus Ghoulies. The section in the book where you describe what happened to the police photographer who was lowered into the hole in the ground where Lance Kupenga’s body had been dumped…That’s pretty far-out stuff. Is it one of the reasons why you remark to former Gisborne cop Nigel Hendrikse – I went to school by the way with his brother Wayne, who’s a forensic photographer with the police in Rotorua – that your books inflamed such feeling on the East Coast? You told him, “I know I’ve pissed off Rastas, cops, farmers, vigilantes and everyone else in the community too.” Did whitey take too much relish in the more lurid aspects of this story?

Firstly, my Dad is pathologically generous. When I return to Gisborne, he still tries to pay for my petrol and put $50 notes in my hand. Last time I was there he gave the money to my eldest son with instructions to him not to let me know until we were in Opotiki so I couldn’t give it back. He gave Dion Hutana a hundred bucks when we went to see him in Hawke’s Bay prison. Dion had burned down the Ngati Porou marae. His partner and kids were there and it was Christmas. Dad and I both felt that Dion should have been leading Maori, not languishing in a prison. Dad also gave Billy Kaihe a hundred bucks. Billy was shot by Luke Donnelly the day Luke also shot Chris Campbell. If Dad’s got money and he sees someone could do with a few bucks, he gives it to them.

Secondly, you and I have met. You interviewed me for the job as your replacement as editor at Capital Times in Wellington in the late 80s. I came along with a mutual friend, Tom Scully. Mike Alexander got the job.

Thirdly, the subs at The Dom always threatened to print my byline as Anus Goolies if I didn’t do what they asked.

Fourthly, I never shy away from a good story. I probably am tabloid in my tastes. I knew the Rastas and what happened in Ruatoria was explosive stuff. As I said in the prologue: “Sometimes I feel like Aladdin in the cave full of treasure, at others like the drunken village idiot left alone in the gelignite room.” You can’t attempt to tell a story like this properly and not expect to piss everyone off. I don’t think I relished the more lurid aspects and I did hold back some stuff, believe it or not. I actually revered the material. I felt it had a power of its own that needed to be respected.

I notice you use the word whitey and there was very much a sense for me of being the Pakeha interloper. Some Maori on the coast didn’t want a Pakeha telling this story. Api Mahuika met with me but didn’t want to be quoted. I approached Monty Soutar the historian for info: nothing doing. But the real people, who were directly involved, again, the Rastas, they opened up and were generous, as were the cops. I set out on this series of books thinking it would be a bizarre crime story. But as I said earlier, it turned into the biography of a place. There was a whole spiritual aspect to it that I found fascinating. For me it was like reporting from a parallel universe.

Tom Scully…Hell’s bells. I don’t remember that – it wasn’t Mike who got the job though, and by the by I’ll mention that David Cohen was my predecessor as editor and a later editor was Philip Matthews. Tom and I were close friends in the early 1980s. I was dazzled by him. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and had such an original mind and he committed suicide. It’s nice to meet someone who knew him.

Okay so anyway I went on Twitter while you replying to my questions and asked if anyone had something they wanted to ask you, and Ira Heyder wrote, “Kia ora kōrua, hope you’re well Angus. Look forward to the interview. How did Māori journos respond to the books?”

Yes, Tom was a genius and a shit hot writer and we used to argue like cat and dog. He came down to Gisborne with me and we were in the Tatapouri pub together playing pool one day when a Mongrel Mob member was put through a glass wall by one of the locals. He took it in his stride.

Hi Ira, I can’t remember talking to too many Maori journos about it. I did an interview for Maori TV at the launch of the first one. Kathy Akuhata Brown, who had brothers in the Rastas, reviewed volume one for the Gisborne Herald. We’d worked at the Herald together. She’s Sue Nikora’s granddaughter and I’d interviewed her dad in the book. She liked it although she was a bit wary that I’d described her in the book as a friend. I hope Kath doesn’t mind me mentioning this but she approached me to work with her on a film about the Ruatoria Troubles. As yet, it hasn’t come to anything. James Ihaka from the NZ Herald contacted me telling me he really enjoyed it. I’ve got to get copies of the second and third books to him.

But I get the most satisfaction when I hear from the Rastas or the cops or people who were directly involved telling me I nailed it. The other day a guy called Rihara Maxwell contacted me on Facebook. His profile pic was of a lot of guys with blue bandanas covering their faces giving gang signs. I thought, here we go and accepted the friend request. He was the son of Dick Maxwell, who claimed he was kidnapped by police and was later killed in a fight. Rihara said he supported everything I wrote about his father. Members of the Campbell family have contacted me with support, as has Wiki Haua, who grew up with Rasta Cody Haua. I wanted to write a book that the Rastas would enjoy reading, not an academic historical text. I’m sure there are some who aren’t happy with it though.

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John ‘Hone’ Heeney. Chris Campbell’s right hand man in the Ruatoria Rastafarians’ original 12. These days he tattoos the moko for the brethren. Photo courtesy of Maro Kouri.

We started this interview at 9m and it’s now 11.05pm. While I’ve been waiting for your answers to my questions, and they take about 20 minutes sometimes, I’ve been thinking, “He’s had enough, he’s shot through, he’s sick of this, he’s saying interesting things about ‘biography of place’ but I’m just calling him feral and whitey and he’s probably still bitter I didn’t recommend him for the Capital Times job.” But no! It’s all good, and here you are.

Okay so Andrew Lumsden the top bloke also known as Radar responded to my Twitter request, and had more than one question, five or six in fact, because he has an inquiring mind. I’ll just ask you a couple. One of them was, “Ever been back to see what happened to main protagonists now?”

I’m going to step in and give a partial answer to that on your behalf and mention how you found out that John Heeney, he who did the arsons, is now a firefighter. That’s not even an irony. It’s too bizarre for irony.

I was in touch with someone who grew up in Ruatoria and they claimed, “Nearly everyone I know that was involved in that saga is today mentally unstable, addicted to weed or dead.” Is that true or a nonsense, as far as you know? Is that what has happened to the “main protagonists”?

I haven’t been back to Ruatoria since the books came out. And I hadn’t been to Ruatoria before I started researching them. I’ve had a lot of contact with people involved with the books at the launches of the books and by phone and on social media. When I contacted the Rasta John Heeney between the release of the second and third volumes, he was pretty annoyed with me. He didn’t want the third book to come out because he’d had enough by then. But I felt I had a commitment to everyone who had entrusted me with their story, people like Lance Kupenga’s dad Paetene and Chris Campbell’s brothers. I hear of people I’ve written about dying or having strokes or going to prison but I also hear of my own friends and family committing suicide or getting ill or having bad luck or going slowly or spectacularly mad.

Hey, Steve, when I read that comment about people being unstable or dead, it makes me feel good that I got that stuff down in time. My argument to people in Ruatoria who thought I should butt out was, you might resent me, but trust me, there’s an amazing piece of history here and your children and their children and the generations to come are going to thank me. And I’m not being a blowhard, I believe that.

Let’s wrap things up with two last questions from Mr Lumsden. They are: “Is there a movie in it?” You mentioned someone wanting to do a picture about it with you but nothing happened. But didn’t I read somewhere that SPP want to do a film?

He also asks: “MOST IMPORTANTLY – where can we get a copy of the book!” Did you know by the way that volume three was the second most-loaned book of non-fiction at the Gisborne library in 2015? After the Road Code.

People can order them through book shops – they’re listed on Neilsen Book Data – or through Amazon.com or Kindle. But it’s probably easiest to get them through me – angusgillies@vodafone.co.nz.

The books get passed around a lot. A Maori mate says they were getting passed around heaps in the mines in Western Australia, I also heard lawyers in Hawke’s Bay have read them, as well as punk rockers in the South Island, led by Oi Bazooka’s Mark Tyler. I’m heartened they’re reading volume three at the Gisborne Library because I reckon it’s pretty special that one.

SPP didn’t approach me about a movie. It was Screentime. They had the option on it for a few years, then we dropped that when Kath Akuhata Brown contacted me wanting to do something. Two other people have also contacted me about doing a movie with one of them even writing a script based on the first book. I subbed the script for this guy and he never bothered to get back to me to pass it on to him. I wouldn’t want to be associated with it with the script in its current state.

Everyone wants to do a movie about the first book [it’s got the beheading in it] but I think the third book would lend itself to a movie very easily. That covers the lead-up to and the final confrontation between Luke Donnelly and Chris Campbell. They were both formidable characters who would not take a backward step and they were heading for a collision for a long time. It would be pretty easy to write, I reckon.

I’d watch it. Angus, it’s 11.42pm, thanks very much for your time – and congratulations on these books, this trilogy. The author Scott Hamilton recently nominated it on his blog Reading the Maps as one of the greatest ever works of New Zealand non-fiction; the trilogy’s an incredible achievement and a terrifying, revealing read about New Zealand. I sound like a man clearing his throat and giving a very formal farewell speech. How about this instead: cheers Angus! Awesome book.

Images courtesy of the Gisborne Herald.


 

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