Opinion: Arthur Taylor - Who is he?

Arthur Taylor (File)
Arthur Taylor (File)

Arthur who? You must know. That old crim who keeps popping up in the news with the regularity of whale strandings.  He used to sport a terrible toothbrush moustache and now, without lip or head hair he looks a bit like Bruce Willis playing a burnt-out boxer.  

This picaresque villain warrants as much security as a visiting Chinese official. Flashing lights and attendant cop cars mark his regular commutes from Paremoremo high security prison to Auckland's High court.  There he insists on exercising his democratic right to bang his head against a brick wall. Recently though, he's been making a skull shaped impression.

What's Taylor really like?  As one of the few senior journalists in this country who has never enlisted Taylor as a news source I'm probably the wrong person to ask. Never visited him, never spoken to him, never had him as a pen-pal.

I know his reputation though. He's the insider's insider.  Taylor understands the value of jailhouse information and trades on it with the acuity of a bond dealer.

At the weekend Taylor makes media history of sorts.  The Nation's Lisa Owen gets to interview an inmate inside Paremoremo.  Of course it's him. #nationtv3.  It won't be boring, that's for sure. I'm supporting her fine work by producing a backgrounder.  First stop then, an audience with the woman who knows Taylor best, his little sister, Joanne Ashby. She's down in Paeroa.

It's an old brick house in rural Waikato nestled under the lee of the Kaimai ranges. A modest piece of land surrounded by dairy farms.

There are wild pigs up the back.  I expect vicious dogs. She has a Chihuahua named Poppy. It's the small ones you have to look out for. Joanne's just come off the phone with her older daughter, a share milker raising two kids under five. That'll learn her. Joanne's a young looking grandma who rocks an electric orange T shirt dress. Cheryl West eat your heart out.

Joanne is Taylor's biggest fan. A diehard fan. The sort who buys tickets to every gig and knows where the after-party is.

Almost before I open my mouth she tells me that Taylor has a huge heart and a great sense of humour. Boy is her childhood name for him. B's very intelligent she says and often helps her two younger boys with their homework. By phone from prison that is. Though he's due for parole, it doesn't look like Taylor's getting out anytime soon. It's catch 22. He needs to do a rehab programme but corrections won't let him on the course until his security risk comes down. Not sure the interview will help.

Taylor's spent 38 years inside.  It could have been a whole lot less if he hadn't thought he was Houdini.  He puts his escape tally at 12. Two in Australia.

Before heading down country to see Joanne, I'd spent the better part of a day in the TV3 vaults trolling through Taylor's backstory. Reading every script, watching every item. I was trying to get a sense of his metamorphosis. How a cheeky fugitive and bank robber transformed into a legal juggernaut, a self-confident man about court, arguing the finer points of human rights legislation with the top minds in the justice system. He took some legal training in the eighties but he is not officially qualified to practise as a lawyer. These days if he's not defending inmates or himself, he's protesting inhumane treatment or the fact that prisoners aren't allowed to smoke.

I'm intrigued at one point to hear him make a polite but firm request to a judge.

AT: Before we start can I ask for a table your honour.

Judge: Where would it be situated Mr Taylor? 

AT: Just there your honour.  That would be suitable.

Suitable indeed. He needs the table to spread out the giant bundles of documents which he totes from prison to court. He's before judges so frequently Taylor's probably burnt through half a dozen loyalty cards in the high court coffee shop. Taylor challenges everything that moves. He used to have his own computer and office inside prison.

I spool back though old tapes looking for the very first time he appeared on our screens. 1998.  There he is, peering out of an innocuous photo. A shaven headed bloke in his forties, multi-coloured rugby shirt straight out of the Canterbury brand bargain bin. For the entire world like a bored high school geography teacher, complete with lazy eye.  Armed and dangerous said the cops, who presumably  handed out the picture. Do not approach. He and three others had scaled walls and snipped wire at Parry getting away in a waiting Toyota Hiace.

Where to boys?  Coromandel of course. Where every other self-respecting Aucklander heads on their weekend break. The Book-a-bach was salubrious. They broke into a millionaires gaff and for a short time, lived it up.  It was reported, somewhat snootily, that Arthur filled the fridge with red wine. As if that breach of etiquette was the crucial error that cost him his freedom.

Actually it had less to do with the temperature of the wine and more to do with the cold of the night. According to Joanne, his sister, Taylor fell down a 30 ft bank in the pitch darkness into the sea and wound up with hypothermia.  

Joanne was terrified during the manhunt. She thought they were going to kill her brother.  Not unfounded.  It was a massive show of force. Helicopters, police launch, lots of sinister looking AOS dudes in black toting automatic rifles. In one scene, an officer is shown wearing a white T shirt emblazoned with an inspirational slogan: Commitment isn't the time you spend but the line you cross. Taylor apparently overheard a chilling message on the police radio. If you see Arthur, shoot him. Cute that they were on first name terms.

Another Arthurian legend perhaps? It does explain his inaugural piece to camera.  As he's getting arrested, and guided into to a mufti police car in a sleeveless bush shirt,  Taylor addresses the camera like a pro. He assures his fellow escapees Darren and Matty that they haven't shot him.  There it was. His debut. In the parlance of television he was good talent.  So is the suave looking detective putting him in the car, Mike Bush. A familiar face. He's now Police Commissioner. Mr Bush won't talk about his old adversary since he got the top job. Previously he called Taylor a man without social or moral conscience. Joanne insists that Bush doesn't know her brother.

But how well can his sister know him? Considering how long Taylor's been eating prison food. Joanne says that spending two hours one-on-one every week in jail visits adds up to a very close relationship. He's put her in charge of his finances. Taylor doesn't do the legal stuff for nothing. He teaches inmates to read and right but charges for briefs. So would she say he cares more about others than himself?  No she doesn't think he cares more about others. She is firm about that. When he wins, which is quite often she says, he gets costs awarded. The IRD put his come in 2009 at more than a hundred grand.

Taylor spent $9000 of his earnings on liposuction for his wife, Caroline. As if that wasn't enough to make sensible sentencing types seethe, there was the news that he had managed to get her pregnant from inside prison. Yep. Apparently his sperm escaped without him. Legend has it that prison officers helped smuggle the semen out. Corrections has denied it, but Joanne says he's certain Arthur's the dad. If such a pregnancy was going to happen to anyone, she says, it would be Caroline.  After a checked life, Arthur's wife passed away two years ago, but her daughter still visits Taylor with the co-operation of foster carers.

There's an obvious paradox at the heart of this. If Taylor's so smart, so savvy, why is he still inside?  Why does he keep escaping and getting more prison time added to his sentence? You'll have to ask him, she says. Hasn't she?  No. Worried it might tarnish her view of him?  No.  He just does things because he doesn't like saying no to people. Does she think he's incapable of living on the outside? Of course not, Joanne says, in her most interesting observation, B's a chameleon.

Everyone seems to have their favourite Arthurian myth. This one's mine. It's utterly ridiculous.  Taylor was being escorted by prison officers to a family conference in central Wellington. An associate confronted them in the car park with what appeared to be a Glock.  Joanne says it was an air pistol.  Taylor was released; the prison officers were locked together. Taylor climbed into the roof space above an art supplies store to hide. The ceiling above the bathroom couldn't bear his weight. Underneath was a woman, well there's no easy way of saying this, sitting on the loo.  Imagine her consternation as this infamous escaped convict crashed on top of her.  Joanne says he stopped to apologise and was caught by police shortly after. The implication being that he compromised his getaway in the name of politeness.

So is Taylor just a gentleman bank robber? Or does the Chameleon have us all fooled? Joanne takes some time to explain the criminal caste system. People think all crims are the same. That's not true she says. Does she think there's a kind of moral dividing line? Yes. There are rapists and paedophiles and those who murder for no reason. Then there are the others.  Good baddies you might call them. What class is her brother in? B's in a class of his own, she says. He would have been really worried about that woman in the toilet. He wouldn't harm anyone. I point out that you don't take a gun on a robbery without anticipating violent consequences. She believes he never intended to shoot anyone.

There is however the outstanding matter of a murdered meth cook. Grant "Granite" Adams. Found in bits behind a thermal power station in Taupo. Police charged Joanne's husband Brett Ashby with his killing. Brett got cancer and died before the case came to court. Then Greg King who defended him died too. There were a lot of people dying says Joanne, including her and Arthur's mother.  Some say Taylor, a long-time friend of Brett's, ordered Granite's murder. Nonsense says Joanne. She was Brett Ashby's alibi at the time of the murder. He died before they got to trial. That makes him innocent, she says, and Arthur too.

Joanne is the kind of sister everyone needs. Loyal to a fault. Blind to his bad side, I suggest. He's no angel she finally admits. No, there are 150 plus convictions to consider, including meth conspiracy charges while inside.  She's not proud of those.  Joanne trots out the press release. Taylor just hates injustice. He's standing up for people who can't fight for themselves. For those who don't have the knowledge or intelligence to.  I wondered to myself whether at some point her brother had saved her from something or someone truly terrible. A wild guess. Just harmless conjecture, Arthur, if you're reading.

Taylor has proven that no-one is safe. Legally speaking. He took on the Prime Minister, challenging his legal right to be in Parliament. Taylor tried to argue that because Paremoremo is in John Key's constituency, Helensville, and because 650 inmates were denied the vote, his electoral majority is illegal. Audacious doesn't quite cover it.

He lost that one, but scored a memorable victory last year, making his sister proud. Taylor challenged the Governments ban on prisoners voting in the general election. The High Court agreed with him that this was a breach of the Bill of Rights. If he can take on the bigwigs and win says Joanne, well, good on him.

What next for the prolific and persistent Arthur Taylor? Once he finally emerges into the bright sunlight of freedom. University? A legal career?  A political one? Who knows. Maybe he could stand in Helensville. Technically convictions are no barrier to election. Peter Fraser went on to become Prime Minister after going to jail for sedition.  We love a good redemption story. Sometimes a good baddy is more appealing than a goody-goody.

So tune in for the interview. If you think that cicadas make a lot of noise after 17 years underground, you can imagine the row that Taylor's going to make when he breaks his 38 year silence.

The Nation