First published in July 2019 issue of Henderson Heights News 

piha tale
Piha in the 1930’s. credit: J.T Diamond Collection

West Auckland is no stranger to crime. The Ranges’ dense canopies and thick bush provide plenty of cover to conceal capital acts of misdeed.  Likewise, people with nefarious intent can withdraw from society and seemingly disappear into the undergrowth.

In 1939, two men Robert McKay and James Talbot were the architects in one of Waitakere’s, if not New Zealand’s, most unusual cases.

McKay and Talbot were no strangers to the Judge’s gavel in their native Australia. Having crossed the Tasman and taken possession of a shack in the then-underdeveloped Piha area, a fire was to break out in the property around 1.30 am on January 12.

Neighbours report awakening after hearing screams from Talbot, who exclaimed: “my mate is in there!”. The heat of the fire beat back any attempt to ‘rescue’ McKay, and he was pronounced dead by Police after his charred corpse was discovered. Both men had recently updated their life insurance policies, with cover of 25,000 pounds attributed to McKay, underwritten by the Australian Mutual Provident Society.

Upon formal identification of the body, Investigators smelled a rat. After examining dental records, the cadaver was declared to be not that of McKay, but the corpse of a recently deceased man named Patrick Henry Shine. The property also smelled strongly of kerosene, suggesting the blaze was not accidental. The crown alleged Talbot, and McKay had interfered with the remains of Shine, on or about January 10, and removed the body from Waikumete Cemetery and transported it to Piha.

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The case of the Australian grave robbers gained significant media attention in the Antipodes, and both men were brought to trial in May of 1939. Charged with interfering with a body, and insurance fraud. Police linked dirt on a shovel found at an Avondale address to a soil sample taken from the disturbed grave of Shine.

The duo never admitted their crimes, and were sentenced to four years in Mt Eden Prison, before eventually being deported back to the lucky country.