Joseph Pawelka, NZ Police Gazette
Notorious Manawatu criminal Joseph John Thomas Pawelka had a pretty short and unremarkable list of convictions, but his actions led to two men being shot dead and panic in the communities of the Manawatu, Rangitikei and Tararua regions.
Pawelka was born in 1887 in Oxford, Canterbury to Moravian immigrants and brought up in Kimbolton in the Rangitikei. At 13 he left school and apprenticed to his uncle at a Palmerston North butchery. In 1909 things started going downhill for Pawelka when a bout of typhoid fever put him in hospital for five months and saw him have part of a lung removed. The next year he married local girl Hannah “Lizzie” Wilson, but the relationship did not go well despite the impending birth of their child.
At the end of that year Pawelka first came to police attention after he attempted suicide, a criminal offence at that time. Lizzie was granted a separation. A few months later, the Pawelkas turn up at Palmerston North police station after a dispute. Lizzie told them Pawelka had a gun, which he did, and it duly handed over. Police then searched his house for ammunition, unexpectedly finding a large amount of property recently stolen in burglaries. It was unclear whether Pawelka had committed these crimes, or had merely bought the furniture and other items from someone else. Nevertheless, he was charged with theft and taken into custody. This is where things began to get even worse. Five days later, Pawelka used two upturned buckets to help him climb the wall of the Palmerston North Gaol, steal a bicycle and make an escape. He was recaptured after two days and this time taken to the more secure Terrace Gaol in Wellington. On March 23, 1910 Pawelka was taken to the police cells in Lambton Quay as he was due to appear in court. When the gaoler forgot to lock the cell door, Pawelka took the opportunity to escape again. He headed north and a trail of burglaries, an armed robbery, three arsons and a shoot-out with police in Pahiatua were attributed to him. Fearing Pawelka would target their homes, hysteria began to overtake the region’s residents. Extra police were called in and residents volunteered to help hunt for the wanted man. The crimes continued and on the night of April 9 a former employer of Pawelka’s called police claiming he was trying to break into his house. Officers rushed to the house and in the darkness a struggle ensued between the apparent burglar and Sergeant John McGuire. Several shots were fired by police and the burglar, one of which hit McQuire in the stomach. He died four days later. Two days after McQuire’s shooting, a volunteer searcher from Pahiatua, hairdresser Michael Quirke, was shot in the head by another searcher in Palmerston North after he did not respond to calls to identify himself.
On April 17, Pawelka was finally captured by police in Ashhurst, ironically one of his captors being the officer who had left the cell door unlocked. Pawelka was charged with the murder of Sergeant McGuire, robbery, theft, arson and escaping, but was eventually convicted of only the last three. The judge sentenced him to a total of 21 years in prison. Despite the community’s earlier fears of Pawelka, his lengthy sentence provoked protests, a deputation to parliament and a 15,000-signature petition seeking a reduction.
Pawelka made further attempts to escape from prison and finally, on April 27, 1911, succeeded. At the time Pawelka seemed to disappear into the ether, but many years later it was revealed that he had made it back to Kimbolton and, with help from those who knew him, eventually to Auckland. From there he either sailed to Vancouver, Canada on the Makura, 119 years ago next week, on February 16, 1912 or to Sydney on another ship.
His last resting place remains a mystery, but those of the two men killed during the manhunt are not. Sergeant John Patrick Hackett McGuire is buried in Karori Cemetery in Wellington. He was 41. Michael Patrick Quirke is buried in Pahiatua/Mangatainoka Cemetery. He was 36.