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The 'Old Man' of crime

Once, he was New Zealand's most wanted man, a bank robber whose weapon of choice was a .44 Magnum. Now, he's a pensioner who rides a bicycle.

Leslie Maurice Green is now enjoying collecting a pension, after years as New Zealand's most infamous bank robber.

The 71-year-old career criminal has been a free man since September, having served what was at the time the longest sentence handed down for armed robbery.

He begins his freedom at a time of year when armed robberies traditionally rise. As the country heads into a recession, there are lessons for those who would follow in the footsteps of Green, a self-described child of the Depression.

Green is a man the justice system considered impossible to rehabilitate, one with a "reputation for extreme violence". Police described him as "New Zealand's most wanted man" during his crime spree in the early 1990s. Criminals call him "the Old Man".

Since 1954, when, as a 17-year-old, he was first charged with a crime, Green has amassed 46 convictions that have carried sentences totalling 116 years. Although many of the sentences were to be concurrent, papers show Green has spent 30 years of his life in prison.

The number of convictions, while significant, is not large for a man who is regarded as a career criminal - and a prolific one at that.

Authorities suspect he was caught for a fraction of what he did - something Green seems to recognise. A note on his Department of Corrections file says he was interested in writing an honest account of his life, but it would be -published after his death.

Aside from Green himself, there are two sources of information for insight into the Old Man. One is the criminal fraternity, and they won't talk. Green has never narked and his attitude towards those who do is as notorious as he is.

The other is prison, where he spent nearly half his life. And here is what his prison file says.

Born on February 16, 1937, Les Green described himself in an interview with prison authorities as a child of poverty. He was the middle child in a family of five and "reported that his mother would not feed him at times because there simply wasn't the resource to provide".

At times without shoes, Green would skip school because he did not want "to put down the family" by going to class in bare feet.

He was raised on South Island's West Coast, although the family shifted often in a search for work. The report says he was "the apple of his mother's eye and the sole of his father's boot". Infractions were dealt with by beatings - a stick across his back.

His academic performance at school was poor, although those who know him now describe him as a highly intelligent man. One file note records Standard Four as the extent of his education. Although left-handed, he was "forced to use his right hand". "This appeared to be a contributing factor towards [a] distrust of authority," the file noted.

He left school at 12 to work on his uncle's farm, was passed among relatives until he was 14, then hitch-hiked from the West Coast to Nelson, where he joined the merchant navy.

For the next 12 years, more often than not Green worked as a seaman. He travelled to Australia - where he lived at the height of his notoriety - Canada, the US and the UK. He also went through basic army training (there are no records of further service), was injured in a car accident and - most significantly - recorded his first criminal convictions.

On November 8, 1954, he was convicted in the Wellington District Court on two counts of theft.

Other convictions followed in the 1960s, when he learned skills that would earn him a reputation as a safecracker. He was convicted in 1967 (with two well-known criminals) on two counts of burglary, and possession of housebreaking instruments. He served time in Wi Tako Prison near Wellington and "was regarded as a good inmate, although he remained apart from most other inmates", before being paroled about 1973.

The Corrections file records new convictions that year; "in the same month, his parole terminated, [the] offender was involved in four burglaries in New Plymouth which netted him $17,762". They were big jobs - worth $200,000 today. He was also convicted of blowing open a jewellery company's safe and stealing goods worth $105,000 - a whopping $1.2 million in today's terms. And he was convicted of possession of a firearm - an unusual feature in those less dangerous times but one that would become a hallmark of Green's criminal behaviour. He served five years of a seven-year sentence at Auckland Maximum Security Prison at Paremoremo where, again, he was described as a model - although not forthcoming - prisoner.

In 1979, there was one final stretch inside (aggravated assault, attempted theft, possession of tools for car theft) before Green vanished from the system for eight years - with the exception of a minor charge for using someone else's passport.

When he emerged in 1987, he faced charges of possessing a pistol and conspiring to commit aggravated robbery. When police used a patrol car to knock Green and an associate from a stolen motorcycle, they found a pistol and a key.

The key was for the motel room of a policeman who was guarding a witness in a court case. They were holed up in adjacent rooms on Auckland's North Shore.

These were far more serious crimes than he'd committed in earlier days. When sentenced, he was accused of - but not charged with - a string of armed robberies in Auckland and the Waikato. Police offered no proof to the court, and Green denied his involvement. Yet, the scope of the crime he aspired to was growing. So was his -reputation.

If there was a roundtable of crime, Leslie Maurice Green and his associates sat at it. They include Arthur William Taylor and Peter Francis Atkinson.

As crown prosecutor Simon Moore says, once a criminal is known by more names than their first and last, they are at the serious end of the business.

In fact, Green was known by many names. His file records a few: Leslie Batt, Andrew Cook, Peter Hay and Leslie Littlejohn.

The legend of Les Green comes with many stories attached. There is the one about the unwitting policeman who helped him change a tyre on a getaway car, unaware he had shifted bags of stolen cash to get the spare wheel out of the boot. Or the officers who let Green through a cordon set up to catch him, believing the "village idiot" act he put on.

As Green's antics became larger than life, the chances of him remaining free diminished. He didn't help matters by choosing the world's most high-profile handgun as his signature weapon when he undertook a spate of bank robberies after being released from jail in the early 1990s.

In 1993, he was convicted of seven bank robberies staged using a silver-barrelled .44 Magnum handgun; he was sent away for his longest lag. Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry called the gun "the most powerful handgun in the world". In the movie Taxi Driver, gun dealer Easy Andy claimed it could put a bullet "right through an engine block".

At bank after bank for almost two years, Green would don a mask, enter the building and leap atop the counter, waving the pistol in the faces of terrified tellers until they filled a carrybag with cash. He would then escape in a car he had stolen the night before. He stole just over $100,000 in cash and $446,000 in travellers' cheques in the seven robberies for which he was convicted.

Police were convinced he would kill someone before his spree came to an end. In September 1993, Green robbed the ASB Bank in Three Kings, Auckland, taking $10,500 and escaping in a stolen car. During the escape, a policeman had noted the number plate and approached, quickly backing off when he saw Green and his pistol. Green dumped the car, changed his clothing and got into another vehicle, as police began to give chase.

The pursuit led them through Mt Roskill to Mt Albert, where Green's car spun out of control. He turned the .44 on police, who backed off, then he set off at high speed again. Police continued to chase and again Green lost control of his car.

So, he ditched the car, and with pistol in one hand and loot in the other, he dashed across the road, shoved the gun through the open window of a passing motorist's car, forcing both occupants out. As he was about to complete the carjacking and escape again, two officers approached. He swung the pistol in their direction, was rammed by a police car from behind, swung the pistol around again but was tackled before shots were fired.

Green pleaded guilty, as is his habit when caught in the act, and the case went straight to sentencing. Moore was acting for the Crown, and made the unusual request that the sentencing judge be given the .44 Magnum to examine. Evidence is usually produced at trial - not when the sentence is being handed down.

It must have made an impression. Justice Thomas, at the Auckland High Court, said most of those confronted by Green "experienced real terror". "Many now suffer from a lack of confidence. Some are unable to return to work in a bank. Many suffer from insomnia and have nightmares. To those in the bank, whether bank staff or customers, he must have appeared a fearsome sight. It matters not that Mr Green has some strange code of conduct he adheres to ...

"In my view, no question of rehabilitation arises in Mr Green's case." It was only a "matter of time" before he killed somebody. The only way of protecting the public was "putting him in prison and keeping him there".

He was sentenced to 20 years, reduced to 15 years on appeal.

Green served his time in Paremoremo the same way he did all his lags - without offering co-operation but without being obstructive. A probation report describes him as "a villain from the old school" who had firm beliefs on how a sentence should be served.

"You don't nark, you don't tea leaf [steal] and you don't stand over," he is quoted as saying. A prison report from 1991 said Green prided himself on keeping his word if he gave it willingly. "In his words, he is a 'villain, not a liar'."

A 2003 prison report also described him as "from the 'old school' of criminal offender" - following a "criminal code of conduct" that did not tolerate sharing information with prison or police authorities. "Inmates appeared to regard Mr Green as something of a figure to be revered." Although his most recent stretch pushed him past pension age, Green still commanded deference. "... his reputation for being a dangerous criminal meant even those with greater physical prowess conceded to his status.

"It appeared that Mr Green was known for a propensity to violence, particularly against other criminals ..." Police described him as a "legendary figure among criminal circles due to his ready use of weapons and serious violence in New Zealand and Australia".

A review of pre-sentence reports shows Green's belief "he robbed the rich because he thought it was an honourable way to live as opposed to taking a benefit". Another states that he "had no concern for money and gave it away".

"Mr Green engaged in criminal activities that were typically well organised and frequently violent," read the report. He used firearms, robbed banks, used explosives to blow safes, used disguises, intimidated victims and was able to work alone or act as leader in a criminal undertaking.

"For 49 years, Mr Green has successfully frustrated correctional efforts, disclosed minimal informational about himself and refused intervention or treatment." Further, it stated he had no "genuine capacity" for remorse or concern for his victims.

The 2003 report was written in a bid to keep Green behind bars as long as possible. The timing was critical. Under the law at the time he was sent to prison, Green was required to be released that year, when two-thirds of his sentence had been completed. The report said he needed to be kept inside, as there was a "high risk" he would lapse into serious offending within two years of release.

The report's author argued that Green's advancing age was no impediment to crime. There must be consideration "to his use of firearms as an 'equaliser'", he claimed. And even if Green himself was not committing the crimes, the prediction was it was likely he would "orchestrate crimes carried out by others more physically able".

"Judicial consequences have not served as deterrents," it reads. "Rehabilitation has not occurred and it appears that Mr Green did not commit more criminal offences chiefly because of the time he spent incarcerated."

On advice from a prison psychologist, Corrections sought and obtained a Section 107 order, forcing Green to remain behind bars beyond the normal release date.

He was finally released two years early, in 2006, with the parole board noting "... at one stage there seemed to be little doubt he was doomed to see out his years in a prison environment".

But the board was overwhelmed - as was Green - with an offer from Nga Whare Watea Marae, and support from those who had watched over the Old Man as he grew older. Prison guards, probation officers and prison lawyers showed "enormous goodwill, generosity, co-operation and kindness" to give "what Mr Green himself said is the best offer he has ever had".

He was released on two years' parole to live in a small self-contained flat at the marae until his sentence finally ended in September 2008. An old friend, the legendary Kimball Johnson, who walked a fine line between criminal and cowboy, sent Green a bicycle within days of release. Johnson died in 2007.

Most days, Green trundles his cycle out of the marae and explores Auckland and - mainly - its second-hand shops. The exercise seems in no way impeded by the hip replacement he had while in prison, or the arthritis in his knees, spine and other hip. He refused to talk to the Listener.

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."

In two years and four months, Green has yet to reoffend. Thus far, the prediction is wrong.