There was no question that Martin James Eyles had a problem with alcohol.
He drank beer before he went to work at Napier’s docks, during meal breaks and after work as well – up to 40 handles a day. And when he didn’t drink beer, he drank his own home-brewed spirits, which his brother, after having a glass, said left him feeling the effects for three days.
Eyles claimed his long-term alcohol abuse caused him to go on a shooting spree on a busy holiday afternoon in December 1944 in central Napier, killing two, injuring three and narrowly missing several others.
Eyles was born in 1901 in Nelson the third of 6 children of Charles and Louise Eyles. His first brush with the law was a conviction for breaking and entering as a 10-year-old. When he was 12, his father died.
Alcohol was clearly a problem for a long time. News stories show that as a 17-year-old he assaulted a 12-year-old girl in a Wellington boarding house while he was drunk. It resulted in the court ordering an alcohol prohibition on him. Eyles received several more convictions up to the age of 25 then appeared to settle down.
Then at about 3pm on December 29, 1944, Eyles, then aged 44, walked into one of his local drinking holes, the public bar of the Caledonian Hotel. His friend and bar worker Charles Edmund Swain, 49, greeted Eyles in his usual jovial way, saying: “Good afternoon Mr Eyles.”
Eyles pulled a stolen 9mm German pistol from his jacket, pointed it at Swain at close range and pulled the trigger. Swain, who was hit in the shoulder, staggered, and then fell to the floor, dead. The bullet continued its journey after leaving Swain’s shoulder and hit 64-year-old Napier pensioner Thomas Rodgers, shattering his right arm.
Eyles waved the gun around, pointing it at other drinkers, who pleaded for him to stop, before he walked out into the hotel’s foyer.
There, 83-year-old James Henry Kearny, a retired journalist, on holiday from his home in Karori, Wellington, was resting in one of the chairs. Eyles aimed and fired, hitting Mr Kearney in the shoulder. Eyles then left the hotel, turned left, and randomly fired several shots up Hastings Street, hitting 28-year-old Thelma Allcock in the groin.He then turned to his right and spotted 14-year-old John Barry Bertram Howe, on holiday from Palmerston North.
Witnesses described Eyles aiming at Howe, who was riding his bicycle slowly past the hotel, but then lowering the gun, making an adjustment, before taking aim again and shooting the lad through the head, killing him instantly.
Detective Sergeant Duncan McKenzie and Detective Andrew Reid, who were nearby, rushed to the scene, only to be shot at by Eyles, one bullet lodging in the car just a few inches from Detective Reid.
More police converged on the scene and shots were exchanged. Eyles ran off up Vautier Street with Senior Sergeant Francis Forsythe and two constables in pursuit. Forsythe, who was unarmed, caught up and Eyles surrendered.
Eyles, who had also been shot, was taken to hospital. On the way he made two telling statements. He firstly asked how many he had killed, then he said he done it because he had wanted to go to war to get behind a machine gun but they wouldn’t allow him to go.
At his trial for the two murders, several witnesses including his brother Henry Charles Eyles, testified about Eyles’ excessive drinking habits. Henry said Eyles drank every day and had done so for 20 years. Eyles claimed he couldn’t remember the shootings.
The jury didn’t buy the story and convicted him of both murders. He was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed his conviction saying he had suffered from temporary insanity at the time – his appeal was rejected.
It’s not clear when he was released from prison, but by 1963 he was living in New Plymouth and was retired. He died on 19 July 1984 at the age of 83 years. He was cremated.
Charles Swain was buried at Park Island Cemetery and John Howe (who was known as Barry) is at Terrace End Cemetery in Palmerston North.
James Kearney died five years later, along with his wife and daughter, in a traffic crash near Hastings. All three are buried at Karori Cemetery.
Pic: NZ Police Gazette.
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