The Old Man of NZ crime who got away with murder

He held up banks across North Island with the world’s most powerful handgun – an enormous silver-barrelled .44 Magnum revolver – and was revered as a master of disguise, reviled as a sexual deviant, and regarded as the most dangerous violent offender in New Zealand.

Leslie Maurice Green died a few years ago at the age of 82. It was a pathetic end. He barricaded himself in his little council flat in Papatoetoe. “He came out looking like a concentration camp survivor,” said his old mate and another of New Zealand’s most famous ex-cons, Arthur Taylor.

“He didn’t recognise us, wouldn’t listen to us, so we had to call an ambulance. The place was in a hell of a mess, and Les was a tidy guy.”

On the way to Middlemore Hospital, Green told the ambulance staff that he had been assaulted recently. Two days later, on October 25, 2019, the retired criminal died in his hospital bed. The official cause of death was an undiagnosed throat cancer and pneumonia, with heart disease a contributing factor.

Given his history and long list of enemies – Green had spent 30 years in prison, almost half in a single lag – Counties Manukau police investigated his dying claim of being attacked. No evidence could be found to corroborate the allegation. One senior detective felt that Green was bewildered in his malnourished state, and the Coroner agreed there were no suspicious circumstances.

There was no mystery. Case closed. Just another sad and lonely old man with only his paranoid thoughts for company. But there are other mysteries spinning around the name of Leslie Maurice Green – or one of his many aliases – which have always been just out of reach, for detectives both here and in Australia.

Historical police documents obtained by the Weekend Herald, and published for the first time, reveal he was a suspect in the disappearances of at least six people. There are rumours Green had a death toll in the double digits as a hitman for Mr Asia.

Even if the stories are wildly exaggerated, strip it all back and one thing is almost certain: the “Old Man” of New Zealand crime got away with murder.

'He must have been a fearsome sight'

Leslie Maurice Green was never one to say more than was needed but he had a way with words when he described his childhood. In his prison file, he is quoted saying he was the “apple of his mother’s eye and the sole of his father’s boot”. He claimed he was often beaten with a stick as corporal punishment by his father.

Green was born on February 16, 1937, the middle child of five siblings. His father worked as a marine engineer, fixing boat motors, but the family struggled to get by in the Depression era. The family moved around the South Island in search of work, sometimes not having enough money to afford rent, food or adequate clothing. Green sometimes went to school barefoot. His parents couldn’t afford a new pair of shoes.

He was good at art and sport but struggled academically, with his poor behaviour no doubt made worse by teachers forcing the left-handed Green to use his weaker hand.
This harsh treatment from teachers and his father at a young age was believed to be a factor in his antipathy and distrust of authority, which followed him for the rest of his life.

He left school at 14 and started drinking not long after. He found work on an uncle’s farm, and then joined the merchant navy. His first brush with the law was at 17, when he was convicted of two counts of theft.

He would go on to rack up another 46 convictions in his 40-year career as a professional criminal: burglaries, stealing cars, firearms, prison escapes and aggravated robberies show how his rap sheet escalates over time.

He learned how to blow safes with explosives and was jailed in 1967 for burglary. Within a month of his release in 1973, Green was involved in four burglaries in New Plymouth that netted him $17,762 ($237,000 in today’s money).

They were big jobs but paled in comparison to what happened next. The then 37-year-old blew up a jeweller’s safe and made off with $105,000 worth of valuables ($1.4 million today) in what was the biggest heist in New Zealand at the time.

He was also convicted of possession of a firearm. Such an offence is almost commonplace among the modern criminal landscape, but carrying a gun was remarkable in a more innocent time – and it only added to Green’s fearsome reputation as a dangerous character.

Green went back behind bars until his release in 1979. He moved to Australia, where he associated with the notorious Mr Asia heroin smuggling syndicate.

By this stage he was a confirmed loner who lived a transient lifestyle; police intelligence records describe him as a “master of disguise” with a number of aliases, and the skills to stay under the radar. That was evident during the two years he managed to evade capture while committing a string of armed robberies across the North Island by brandishing the .44 Magnum revolver – the gun wielded by Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dirty Harry movies.

Green got away with more than $100,000 and $46,000 in travellers’ cheques in six hold-ups, finally coming unstuck on the seventh when robbing the ASB in Three Kings in September 1993.

During the escape, a policeman had noted the number plate of the stolen getaway car. It led to a high-speed chase across Auckland which ended when Green lost control and spun out. He tried to hijack another car at gunpoint, then turned the pistol on two constables who wisely backed off. Green was finally stopped when struck by a police car. Two other officers grabbed him from behind.

For all his violence, Green abided by a code of honour. He entered a guilty plea to each of the seven bank robberies and the case went straight to sentencing. Simon Moore, the Crown prosecutor, made the unusual request for the judge to examine the .44 Magnum for himself. Those confronted by the imposing handgun must have “experienced real terror”, remarked Justice Thomas. Many of the victims were unable to return to work, and suffered recurring nightmares due to the trauma.

“To those in the bank, he must have been a fearsome sight. It matters not that Mr Green has some strange code of conduct which, for example, restrains him from swearing on such occasions,” said Justice Thomas. “His appearance brandishing a shocking weapon is obscenity enough.”

Green was the epitome of a recidivist offender without hope of rehabilitation, said Justice Thomas, and the only way to protect the public was a long period of imprisonment. He duly sentenced Green to 20 years. Although it was reduced to 15 on appeal, Green served nearly every day in Paremoremo, New Zealand’s maximum security prison.

On the advice of a psychologist, and despite him being a model prisoner, Corrections successfully sought an order from the Parole Board to keep Green behind bars beyond the expected release date.

Green was considered a “legendary figure” in criminal circles because of his propensity to use extreme violence, especially against other criminals.

“Inmates appeared to regard Mr Green as something of a figure to be revered,” according to his prison file. “His reputation for being a dangerous criminal meant that even those with greater physical prowess conceded to his status.” He was deemed to be a “villain from the old school” who followed a strict code of conduct, an example of which was Green’s thoughts on how a prison lag should be served.

“You don’t nark, you don’t tea leaf, you don’t stand over,” Green told the author of a prison report, meaning inmates shouldn’t inform, steal from or intimidate one another. By the time of his release in September 2006, Green was nearly 70 years old.

His advancing age was no impediment to crime, according to the author of the psychologist’s report to Corrections, who predicted Green would orchestrate crimes to be carried out by younger, stronger men. His predilection for using firearms was also an “equaliser”.

No rehabilitation had taken place. Green refused to engage with Corrections staff, the psychologist wrote, and it appeared the only reason Green had not committed more crimes was because he was incarcerated.

There seemed little doubt, the Parole Board acknowledged, that Green was “doomed to see out his years in a prison environment” until he received a generous offer to live at a marae in Māngere. He spent two years at a unit on the grounds of Ngā Whare Waatea, before moving out when his 15-year sentence expired in September 2008.

On Green’s release, the Parole Board wished him well, noting the adjustments he faced.

“He said he is used to punishment. He said he has been punished all his life. He knows how to handle that. He said this kindness and this generosity, however, have knocked him off balance. He has not received that before.”

The prediction that Green, who was often seen riding his bicycle around Manukau, would return to his criminal ways did not come true. He lived his days in relative quiet until he passed away, emaciated and confused, in Middlemore Hospital in 2019 at the age of 82.

Despite spending 30 years in prison, criminal associates and law enforcement authorities have long suspected Green was caught for only a fraction of the crimes he committed.

A note on his Department of Corrections file says he was interested in writing an honest account of his life, but any book would be published only after his death. So far it seems he took any secrets to the grave.

'Bernie Gray and his girlfriend are in the ground'

On May 29, 1984, two Australian detectives arrived in Wellington to look into the disappearance of a young Sydney couple.

No one had seen or heard from Anna Fiore and Bernard Gray since February 24, and Fiore’s worried father reported her missing three days later. She was just 19 and had never been in trouble with the law. Gray was 30, and a crook from Lower Hutt. He had convictions in New Zealand for aggravated assault, burglary and firearms, and in Australia, drug importation.

Their vanishing act was thought to be foul play. Their bank accounts were untouched, all Gray’s belongings were left in his flat, and both their cars were missing too. Gray’s Toyota Land Cruiser was later found abandoned in the suburb of Paddington.

Friends of the missing couple had called at Gray’s home on the evening of February 24 and spoken with his flatmate, John Pomeroy. He told them Gray and Fiore were at a restaurant, where Pomeroy had left them to finish a bottle of wine. The friends waited for half an hour while Pomeroy packed his bags, for a trip to Melbourne he said, but the couple did not return.

Detectives working the case learned that Pomeroy was in fact Leslie Maurice Green.

Green maintained five aliases in Australia and used a sixth, a passport in the name of his brother, to return to New Zealand a few days after Gray and Fiore were last seen alive.

He was in such a rush that he left his campervan behind in Sydney, later sold on his behalf by his friend, Duncan Barry McFarlane, another infamous figure in the Wellington underworld.

The buyer picked it up in Paddington – just 150 metres from where Gray’s Land Cruiser was eventually found.

With such suspicious circumstances, and Green’s unenviable reputation, the two Sydney detectives flew to Wellington to interview the then 47-year-old career criminal, as well as friends and family of Gray.

“What Bernie does is Bernie’s business,” Green told the Australians when they asked if he knew where his friend was. The detectives left mostly empty-handed from their trip to New Zealand.

There was one new tip from a criminal informant, that “Bernie Gray and his girlfriend are in the ground” over a drug deal gone wrong, but a police briefing admitted the investigation was stalled.

“Mainly because we believe the persons who may have information are too afraid to come forward,” according to the September report written by Detective Carpenter in September 1984.

“While there are obvious overtones of drug and firearms involvement in the inquiry, there appears to be no real motive that we can uncover at this stage for the deaths of Gray and Fiore.”

While Green’s behaviour raised “grave fears” for the safety of the missing couple, Carpenter conceded the case was circumstantial with insufficient evidence to arrest Green or anybody else.

The case remains unsolved, New South Wales police confirmed to the Weekend Herald.

But Green was responsible for their deaths, as well as the deaths of others who disappeared in New Zealand, according to the senior detective who helped put him away for 15 years.

'Some kind of moral code as a criminal'

Harry Quinn is a 37-year veteran in the Wellington policing district. He retired in 2008 at the rank of detective inspector. He says: “There is no doubt in my mind [Green] killed that couple from Australia. We knew he had murdered five or six people but there was simply no evidence.”

In the early 1990s, Quinn was put in charge of the first organised crime squad based at Police National Headquarters.

There had been a string of bank robberies across the North Island, with Green nominated as a suspect. Each armed hold-up was being investigated separately by different police officers until Quinn got them together to compare notes.

They soon realised that between them there was more than enough evidence to convict Green and compiled an arrest warrant.

Now they just needed to catch the elusive loner. The opportunity arose on September 22, 1993, with the robbery of the ASB in Three Kings and the car chase across Auckland.

Quinn was asked to swear an affidavit for the Crown to oppose any reduction in sentence, but the senior officer refused. Why?

“Les Green had some kind of moral code as a criminal,” he says. “He could have shot those young police officers chasing him, blown them away. But he chose not to, he did the right thing.

“If I argued to keep him inside longer, as the police officer with the most knowledge about his crimes, what message would that send to the criminal underworld? That there was nothing to be gained from not shooting police officers.

“He was a professional criminal who did terrible things but he did it in a fashion which you don’t see in the criminals of today. But that’s not to embellish his character. He was an awful character who robbed people at gunpoint, was notorious as a sexual deviant with women …and murdered people.”

One of the victims was believed to be Marion Granville, a mother of three young children who was last seen in August 1980 getting into a car outside a Naenae dairy in Lower Hutt.

The 29-year-old was on drug charges with her partner Michael John Sneller, an associate of Green at the time. Though he was in custody when she went missing, the police suspected Sneller was involved somehow, which he has always denied.

Sneller was later convicted of killing Lower Hutt businessman Robert Cancian in a 1983 robbery that went wrong. In prison, Sneller confronted Green about killing Granville – which he denied.

But while waiting to be released, Sneller chose a different route to seek answers about his partner’s disappearance. He took successful legal action in the High Court to force the Coroner to investigate the cold case. An inquest was held in 1992.

Sneller told the Coroner he believed Green had killed Granville, as he and Green had fallen out a few months before she disappeared.

“I knew him to be a particularly violent, unpredictable and dangerous character, even by my standards,” Sneller wrote in an affidavit on the inquest file obtained by the Weekend Herald. “His threats were not to be taken lightly.”

A senior detective giving evidence at the inquest also confirmed that Green had an intense dislike of Granville and was a suspect in her disappearance.

The Coroner shut down any more questions about Green, although years later, police were reported as saying Granville was rumoured to be a getaway driver in one of his bank robberies.

Her disappearance was officially declared death by misadventure, although Coroner Philip Comber made no comments about Green.

More than four decades after Marion Granville went missing, Sneller had “no doubt” Green was responsible.

“I know it was him,” said Sneller, who still wants to know where the mother of his daughters is buried. “He wasn’t much of a fighter but he was dangerous. There’s a number of people he killed.”

'Green considers himself an elite criminal'

There are other suspected victims. The body of David Phillip Wilkins was discovered in 1987 in a rubbish tip. The official cause of death was a chloroform overdose.

Peter Francis Atkinson, another notorious career criminal, was charged with improperly burying Wilkins’ body – but Auckland CIB officers thought there was more to the story because none other than Les Green was living at Atkinson’s house at the time.

Atkinson refused to talk and pleaded guilty. Silence was common; no one wanted to talk to the police about Green when he was alive, for fear of his violent retribution.

A police intelligence report obtained by the Weekend Herald links Green to two further disappearances – a man called Mervyn Rich, and one of the most famous vanishings in New Zealand history, Ronald Jorgensen.

“There is some evidence connecting Green to some of these disappearances. However, it is also true that Green exaggerates his involvement to promote his own image among criminals,” the briefing said.

“Green considers himself to be an elite criminal and has offered his services as a ‘hitman’ on some occasions.”

Jorgensen, who gained infamy for his part in the Bassett Rd machine gun murders in Remuera in the 1960s, had been paroled to live in Kaikoura on his release from prison. On December 17, 1984, his Mark II Cortina was found at the bottom of a cliff by the sea. His body was never found.

Many think “Jorgy” faked his death and made his way to Australia. Others in the criminal underworld believe Green set things up to settle an old grudge.

One man who knew both crooks very well doesn’t believe Jorgensen’s death can be pinned on Green – but is adamant he killed their mutual associate, Merv Rich.

“Merv and I were very, very close, lifelong friends,” said former safecracker Brian Agnew. “He was a fine gentleman, a thief but with incredible principles. You could trust him with your life, but he wouldn’t abide fools or psychopaths.”

Which is why Agnew was so surprised that Rich and Green teamed up to commit crimes.

Agnew had met Green a decade earlier, in 1968, when they’d drink themselves blind with other criminals in Wellington’s Regent Hotel. Green was “just a knockabout thief, cunning though”, said Agnew, who took him under his wing to blow safes together in well-planned burglaries.

They worked well, but over time Agnew said he started to observe some disturbing behaviour in Green.

“Particularly his absolute pathological hatred of women, and I later learned he degraded women in sexual ways terribly.

“Les Green was a terrible drunk, shocking, and that’s when the real nasty side of him would come out. But I never thought he was a killer, not until years later.”

They parted company and Agnew went to Australia, where he worked with the Mr Asia crew for a while, before returning to be a bookie in Auckland.

While taking bets from all over the country, Agnew was shocked to learn his friend Merv Rich and Les Green, each on the run from police, were hiding together in an Auckland flat.

He visited Rich to warn him about Green’s violent tendencies (“I said: ‘What are you doing with that lunatic?'”) but Rich indicated he needed to make money.

Green was one of the best in the business, so the pair went to Wellington to pull off a few heists.

About five days after they left Auckland, Rich’s girlfriend visited Agnew “worried sick” as she hadn’t heard from him.

They had also seen newspaper reports that Green, the master of disguise who had evaded capture for two years, was arrested walking along Lambton Quay near the police station.

It was odd, thought Agnew, so he agreed to drive her down to Wellington.

The girlfriend visited Green in custody and returned “crying her eyes out”. Green told her that Rich had gone to Australia to deal heroin with Peter Fulcher, one of the kingpins in the Mr Asia syndicate.

That was a lie, Agnew thought. He was close to Fulcher, too, and knew that Rich had twice angrily turned down a job offer from him. “Merv wanted nothing to do with that white powder.”

Agnew went to the motel where he knew Green and Rich would be staying, which was run by a well-known crook in Wellington. The owner confirmed that all of Rich’s belongings – including an expensive celestron telescope – were left in the room they shared.
Merv Rich was never seen again.

“We went around looking for Merv and I was telling everyone that when I catch up with Les, I’ll put an iron bar over his head. Force him to show me where he’s buried Merv,” said Agnew.

“Of course, the feedback was ‘Les says he’s going to kill you’. My answer was I wouldn’t see him coming, because he was a f***ing coward.”

Agnew never spoke to the police about what happened as “narking”, especially on someone like Green, is considered a cardinal sin in the criminal fraternity.

Around the time he started serving his 15-year sentence for the .44 Magnum bank robbery spree, Agnew drifted away from a life of crime to spend his days quietly in the South Island.

Even so, when Green was finally released from prison, now literally the Old Man of crime, Agnew always felt he had cause to look over his shoulder.

“He was an absolute psychopath,” said Agnew. “I’ve been straight for 25 years, not even a parking ticket. But I always kept a weapon in the house, just in case Les turned up. The day he died was when I got rid of it.”

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