While working at The Dominion, journalist Phil Taylor met Dan Dudson – a prolific burglar who liked sending long, handwritten letters to the detectives busy trying to pin him down. The pair would eventually go on to strike up an unlikely and enduring friendship, right up until Dudson’s death in June this year aged 74.
“Like yesterday’s fishburger, Van Dee, long time no sea. Getting sick of my jokes?”
So began one of Dan Dudson’s letters in the early 1990s to a police officer charged with capturing him. Van dee was Win van der Velde, a detective sergeant who was to become Waikato’s police chief. Matamata detective Bob Bevege – “Illustrious Bob”, or sometimes “Bungling Bob” – got letters too.
Laced with mock sympathy for their lack of success in capturing him, the tone was chatty. Postmarked from around the upper North Island, Dan filled them in on his life on the hoof, how to find a feed in the bush, about deer and flatulence, and how he took a little “Xmas break” back in civilisation because he was sick of his diet of venison and trout. “I enjoyed a few rum and cokes, a bit of Kentucky chicken,” he wrote.
Desmond Forrester Dudson – to use the name that appeared on hundreds of court charge sheets over the decades – would sometimes include a ballpoint sketch of an idyllic bush scene with a signpost inscribed with the word “HOME”.
There were poems too, like Fun On The Run which referenced several provinces and concluded:
“Well I do get around, and can’t be found by the boys in blue,
But I might head west (or do my best) but keep that between me and you.
This Hobo life agrees with me, like a friendly pint of ale,
And when they let a few cans into the can, I’ll apply for a stretch in jail.”
Dan got that stretch in jail. He was arrested eight months after going on the lam when the hut he built and furnished with stolen property in a rural reserve in the Waikato was discovered. Home comforts included airbeds, a television, a video player and a generator to run the electrics. Nearby was Dan’s cannabis plot.
By the time he was caught, he’d added me to his mailing list. I was working for The Dominion newspaper and wrote about him: “Wanted burglar keeps police ‘penpals’ posted” and, sure enough, a letter arrived, six neat handwritten pages, complete with his address: “P.O. Box No 1, The Bush”.
“Phil, looks like this is as near as we’re going to get to a formal introduction,” the letter began. Turned out we met just a month later at his bail hearing where, to the horror of those he’d led a merry dance, the judge didn’t remand him in custody. Dan had addressed him directly, told him why he wanted bail and gave his word he wouldn’t flee.
In a feature article of mine titled “The life of a most uncommon criminal”, I wrote that it seemed ironic someone who’d burgled hundreds of properties put any stock in keeping his word. “Your word is a matter of honour,” Dan told me.
That honour code extended to always pleading guilty when charged with his crimes. This time he spent two-and-a-bit years in jail. It turned out I met Dan at the point in his life where he really did turn over a new leaf. He started to do what he could to help with crime prevention, spoke at public meetings about how to make your house less of a target for burglars and whenever he got the chance he spoke to groups of troubled youth. That’s what he was most passionate about. Don’t be like me, was his message.
The motivation to change came from finding himself off to jail again at 46 years old – 14 years after his last conviction and 34 years after the adrenaline thrill of his first heist, the theft of a bicycle as a youngster. Here he was, useless to himself and his family (his words, not mine).
His youngest kids were facing their teenage years without either parent on account of Dan’s wife, who had no criminal record, being jailed for cannabis-related offences that Dan insisted were his alone.
He even felt he looked like a criminal, something he assumed ordinary citizens could see at a glance as though he was branded.
I figured if he tried to do something positive with his life then he should be encouraged, so we stayed in touch while he served his sentence and I came to regard him as a friend. If we were out when he popped round he came with the bonus of being able to let himself into the house and wait with a cup of tea, not that he ever did. He did, however, sort out our home security, complete with warning stickers.
I didn’t know whether it was even possible for someone like Dan to go straight. He’d been a burglar so long he had few friends who were legit. He did have one unusual thing going for him though: some very senior police treated him more as a friend than a foe.
One was Dave “Chook” Henwood, a detective sergeant who wrote a letter to the sentencing judge for those crimes in 1992. “I am not a supporter of soft justice and it is unlikely I shall repeat such a script again,” Henwood’s letter began.
They’d met 12 years earlier when Dan encouraged a young person to turn Queen’s evidence in a murder case. “He had no involvement other than to help a youth who came to him when in trouble,” wrote Henwood. “This to me typifies Dudson who I have found to be different to most of the criminal fraternity who, despite what they say, are usually asking ‘what’s in it for me’, and whose word is about as useful as a fly in your tea. Dudson’s word has been rock solid.”
Murray Jeffries and Len Johnson were other senior cops who had time for Dan. When Johnson died, Dan famously slipped a condolence card inside Jeffries’ locked car, along with a note saying he’d called around but seeing Jeffries had visitors decided not to disturb him.
Despite his predicament, Dan – whose style of writing was not unlike Barry Crump’s – kept his humour. He was a newbie inmate when riots erupted at Mt Eden prison in 1965 and so had no illusions when a quarter-century later he found himself back there.
Inmates would seek him out for help on their cases. Dan would read the file and find the evidence against them cut and kiln-dried. “Hell,” quipped Dan, “I’m the only bugger in here who’s guilty!”
Most of his sentence was served at Rangipo, a prison farm of 2500 hectares on the central plateau. That had its moments. “You may have trouble believing this,” Dan wrote in one letter, “but the extent of things in the penal colony are such that three of the screws are growing the weed on Justice Department land because it’s ‘safe’. Two have openly told me so and asked for my advice.”
The outside world was the real challenge. Who would employ him? “How long does it take to stop being a burglar?” he wrote in hundreds of pages of musings about his life. “How long to convince your friends and acquaintances that you are no longer in business? They like and respect you but don’t want to be seen with you. A burglar or thief is locked into a spiral outside of ordinary society.
“Changing will always be a personal battle. How long will it take? Twice as long as you have been a thief, and under twice the pressure, with twice the problems. Then you may expect acceptance.”
Media stories helped. Dan and I did a pre-Christmas feature titled: “How not to be burgled during your holidays”. Other media latched on and soon he was a minor celeb. He once demonstrated on live television how he could unpick crappy locks in seconds.
Dan had his blind spots. He hadn’t found sitting on a stash of stolen goods that stressful, but regular chores like registering his car – let alone getting a driver’s licence – just about gave him a hernia. When one of his kids was the innocent party in a car accident, Dan thought insurance money would magically appear. No Dan, you have to make a claim and then follow it up.
His impact on victims was another blank. When he came face to face for a 60 Minutes doco with a couple whose home he’d burgled, Dan was shocked by how angry they were. He didn’t get the distress caused by invading their sanctuary. He liked to think insurance made it virtually victimless.
He grew up a lot after that.
Dan got consultancy work with an insurance company and gave talks up and down the country. For the last decade of his life, he worked nights as an unarmed security guard on the huge building sites around Hobsonville. It takes one to know one. He had the chutzpah and presence to face down anyone dodgy, telling them: “Not on my patch.”
His regrets were many. He was also deeply disappointed that prison and justice authorities had no interest in using his experience and hearing his ideas on how to reduce a recidivism (reoffending) rate of 80%. The last time he was inside, he wasn’t even allowed to help fellow inmates with reading and writing.
Despite the odds, he did manage to build a life for himself on the outside, even though it was unconventional, as Dan himself was. In a gesture of good faith, he gave his burglary kit, with its lock picks and master keys, to his friend Chook Henwood, whose work as a criminal profiler led to the arrests of New Zealand’s two worst serial rapists, Joe Thomson and Malcolm Rewa.
I have a manila folder chocka with Dan stuff. In one letter, written early in that last prison term, he said he’d never had so many people backing him and he made us a pledge. “So Phil, it all means a lot more than words can say and I’m going to prove everyone’s faith in me is very well-founded.”
Dan lived out his days in a house bus where he spent his spare time writing. That’s where he took ill. He rang the ambulance himself but died later in hospital. It came as a shock, even though he was having treatment for cancer. He and Chook came over for lunch not so long ago and I just assumed Dan would continue to turn up.
Dan died on June 10, aged 74. For the last 28 years, he walked the line.
Chook is writing his memoirs for a book where he and Dan tell their stories of crime and punishment in alternate chapters. It’s to be called Chook and Crook.