By Tom Taylor of RNZ
A Te Kūiti resident who came face-to-face with armed bank robbers – one of whom police believe is fugitive Tom Phillips – almost handed them the cash they dropped as they fled.
Police have linked the robbery in the Waikato town with the missing Marokopa father of three.
Phillips and his children Jayda, Maverick, and Ember have been missing since December 2021.
The robbery happened on May 16 but police only revealed on September 5 they had charged Phillips with aggravated robbery, aggravated wounding and unlawfully possessing a firearm.
A second person, believed to be female, was also involved in the brazen theft.
“I saw those two robbers coming out of the bank,” the resident, who asked not to be named, said.
The resident was walking along the main street when they saw two people leaving the ANZ bank in a hurry and dropping wads of cash on the pavement behind them.
“There were heaps of $50 notes falling on the ground. There would have been roughly $2000 that I could see.”
The resident’s first thought was to call after the duo.
“I stopped one of them, and that was the girl. I stopped her and told her that her money is on the ground, so why don’t you pick it up, or I’ll help you to pick it up?”
It was only as the resident bent down to collect some of the notes that they saw the guns.
“One was a small one, which the girl was handling, and the man had a little brown thing, a bit bigger.”
The resident said they were dressed all in black and had their faces covered, but one looked female, the other male.
The female called out to the male, who was further ahead.
But when the male turned back, a nearby supermarket owner came running after him and tackled him to the ground.
“Then that man said: ‘Fire the gun’.
“I was just a [short] distance away and he fired the gun.
“I was scared, and all [the stores] closed their doors. I was alone on the street.”
The supermarket owner, who was uninjured, declined an interview, but a cashier saw the incident from her position behind the counter.
She said her boss chased the duo down the road and through the car park, tackled the man, but retreated when he saw he had a gun.
The cashier said more than $1000 in $20 and $50 notes were scattered near the trolley stand.
Vape store worker Angela Mahani said the robbers took off around the corner of her shop into a ca rpark, where their getaway motorbike was waiting.
Her cameras showed the whole scene playing out.
“It showed them running away and then the money dropping, and then them driving away out the back.”
She said the robbers then headed down an alley, past the public library, and out of sight.
Across the road, local radio station Maniapoto FM overlooked the bank.
Presenter Te Aroa Pou was on air when he heard a bang and saw people running in all directions.
“We saw a commotion going on down there by the car park and saw a lot of people picking up what we thought they must have dropped – something that caused the loud bang.
“We didn’t look too much into it.
“It wasn’t until we got down there and had a look ourselves that we saw it was actually money that had been dropped.
“It was then that we realised maybe the bank had just been robbed.”
Police said the duo fled on a black, farm-style motorbike.
At a press conference on Wednesday morning, acting detective Inspector Andrew Saunders said although shots were fired, no one was injured in the robbery.
He reiterated police’s view that Phillips had been receiving help to stay hidden for so long and urged people to rethink their support for him in light of the new warrant for his arrest.
Police had not yet identified the other person involved in the robbery.
There remained no confirmed sightings of Phillips’ three children since December 2021.
ANZ staff declined to comment.
Investigator hopes police will step up efforts to find Philips
Private investigator Chris Budge, who previously worked on the disappearance of Philips and his children, said it was a relief the police were finally treating the case as a criminal matter.
He told RNZ Checkpoint up until now police’s handling of this case was “quite disappointing”, especially with making inquiries around Marokopa.
“I don’t think they’ve actually treated it very seriously at all.
“I’ve spoken to a neighbour to Tom’s parents’ farm, for example, and she said they’ve never ever been spoken to since this thing started.
“Hopefully with this aggravated robbery, the new arrest warrant, they will step up their efforts and do some real investigating.”
Budge said he had also contacted police about sighting Phillips on a farm in the Otorohanga area.
“And it just so happens that the owner of that vehicle, which was stolen three weeks ago, was actually the owner of that farm. So there’s some bits there that I don’t think the police have quite put together yet.”
He said police had missed a number of opportunities and needed to step up their game.