The Gloria Kong kidnapping One of New Zealand’s most unusual crimes occurred in Oamaru in June 1983, when 14 year-old Gloria Kong, daughter of a Chinese market gardener was kidnapped for a $120,000 ransom. Premeditated kidnapping is rare, but the high profile means police chose to conduct the investigation is unique. Police managed to obtain a total news blackout for 36 hours, with the media itself agreeing to hold off publishing or broadcasting news of the crime because police feared publicity might lead to Gloria’s execution. Outrage and jail
On 12 April 1984, in the High Court in Auckland, kidnapper Paul McFelin was sentenced to 11 years jail and his sister Karen to 6 1/2 years, for what the judge described as one of the most serious and terrible crimes. Nine months earlier, McFelin, his sister and two accomplices kidnapped Gloria Kong in a well-planned, but subsequently abortive attempt to extract a $120,000 ransom. The crime, described by defence counsel as ‘the most publicised crime in living memory’ outraged the while country and especially the small, ultra-conservative South Island town of Oamaru.
The accomplices, David Larnach, 25 and Paul George’ 35 were arrested 13 days after the kidnapping and information they supplied led to the McFelin arrests. Larnach and George leaded guilty in 1983 and were sentenced to 7 and 5 1/2 years jail respectively. Both were key Crown witnesses at the McFelin’s trial which lasted five weeks and was characterised by unjustified defence attacks on the integrity of police witnesses. Criticism was rejected by the jury and in delivering sentence, Mr Justice Hillyer complimented police saying:
"A detective arrived at Paul McFelin’s house on a routine inquiry, noticed that he seemed a bit nervous, that his hand was trembling. That was only the vaguest hint but that was the beginning of the inquiry which resulted in your arrest and conviction. What I am saying is that the certainty of detection comes first, from careful, meticulous, proper police inquiries. The second was that the whole community rallied to the support of the law enforcement agencies and assisted police with the inquiries to the fullest extent they were able. That is a factor which would-be criminals in this country should bear in mind, that the community can and does rally behind the police and assists in detection of offences. People need not believe that they can get away with this sort of offence in this country".
The community did rally behind the police, but not by accident. (Then) Detective Inspector Neville Stokes of Christchurch, the officer in charge of the investigation and his media manager, (then) Senior Sergeant Joe Franklin of Wellington, used every means at their disposal, including a co-operative news media to promote that public outcry. This was unusual for the times.
Unlike today where there are many high-profile police officers, the 1983 environment saw very few effectively utilising the media The small-town environment and its conservative character provided Stokes and Franklin with a near ideal stage to exploit the drama for the purpose of catching the kidnappers.
Mr Franklin, who was the National Media Unit Manager at Police Headquarters in Wellington, was called to Oamaru the day after the kidnapping and spent 10 days there as the operation’s media manager. He later entered the media management aspect in the Peter Cherrington Memorial Award, presented by the Public Relations Institute of NZ for the outstanding public relations campaign of the year, which is strongly contested by New Zealand’s corporate and commercial consultancies. The entry was narrowly edged out of first place and received a Highly Commended award.
On Wednesday 29 June 1983, McFelin, Larnach and George, masked and armed, entered the rural home of Chinese market gardener Jimmy Kong and, after a gunpoint robbery, kidnapped Gloria; leaving Gloria’s parents and three other relatives bound and gagged. She spent the following 36 hours bound, blindfolded, gagged and with her ears plugged, with Karen McFelin as her jailer until she was finally dumped in a isolated haybarn during the night of 30 June. She freed herself that evening but fearfully remained hidden in the barn all night.
At 8.55am on Friday she walked to a farmhouse further along the road and phoned her father. Police sped to the house where they found Gloria shocked and distressed. She was dirty, dishevelled and wearing only the light skirt and clothing in which she had been kidnapped. She was showing signs of hypothermia including speech difficulties, skin discolouration and impaired movement. One consolation was that she had been spared sexual molestation.
The most disturbing aspect was the manner in which she was abandoned in the barn, extensively trussed up with ropes, tape and sacks and hooded, gagged and blindfolded. Her ears had been plugged and she was buried in a cave made from hay bales and loose straw had thrown about to disguise her prison. Had she not been able to free herself, her body may not have been discovered until the hay was fed out at winter’s end.
Within hours of the crime being reported, a large team of detectives which sophisticated scientific support had assembled at Oamaru and commenced a major investigation. There were no suspects or significant leads.
The media operation
Stokes and Franklin set as a priority, the need to co-opt the news media to promote as much public awareness of the crime as possible. The offenders were likely to be part of that same community and they calculated that a climate of public revulsion would flush them out. A deliberate campaign was mounted but without the luxury of time to pre-plan. The campaign had to be intense but carefully managed. Defence lawyers scan media coverage of crimes to look for loopholes in the prosecution’s case. As well, police must be mindful of confidentiality, libel, contempt of court and what is published must not jeopardise inquiries, future interviews of suspects or effect anyone’s right to a fair trial.
In short, the 10 day media liaison part of the operation was a public relations campaign with police as the client and the media manager the ‘public relations consultancy.’. The ‘product’ being marketed was the need to catch those who had committed a cruel crime. The campaign succeeded even beyond police expectations. Gloria was reunited with her parents relatively unharmed and the offenders were arrested. Mr Stokes publicly attributed the success to the Oamaru community and the news media. However, unlike any other police operation before or since, this one from its outset, had a major complication.
Unique News Embargo
Apart from the $120,00 ransom demand, the offenders warned the Kong family not to tell the police. There were genuine fears that publicity could spark an execution. Police requested a local news embargo which was agreed to on the night of the crime. The following morning Mr Stokes asked Commissioner Ken Thompson at Police National Headquarters, to secure a national news blackout.
From this point Mr Franklin became involved and on the Commissioner’s behalf, he sought and obtained a news embargo agreement through the New Zealand Press Association, Radio New Zealand, Television New Zealand and the private radio network. There were initial reservations from two editors but after further discussions all agreed.
At no other time in NZ’s history had such an embargo been sought or obtained. It was in the nature of an agreement and could not be imposed by police. Concurrence hinged on the question of Gloria’s safety. Media accord was also sustained on the basis that police guaranteed to keep them as fully briefed as possible, even if the information was not at that time published or broadcast.
Mr Franklin arrived in Oamaru shortly after midday on Thursday 30 June and took control of a large group of both local and out-of-town reporters, film crews and photographers including those from the tabloids. The embargo was difficult to sustain and as various deadlines approached, reporters became increasingly nervous, some even distrustful and a few tempers flared. Full news releases were issued as they would be in normal circumstances. This meant newspapers could set copy and be ready to publish at a moment’s notice. Radio and television could also file stories and be fully prepared when the story did break.
During the morning staff briefing on Friday 1 July, police learned Gloria had contacted her father. Within minutes a patrol crew collected her and confirmed she was safe. By 9am, just 10 minutes after the report Mr Franklin told reporters the embargo had been lifted and recounted the circumstances under which Gloria had been found. Police would have preferred an operational advantage a continued news blackout would provide because the kidnappers would not have been aware she had escaped, but with her safe, the embargo justification was gone.
As brief as it was, the embargo was useful in unnerving the offenders, but was low key enough not to have panicked them into harming Gloria. It also obviated the usual crank calls and gave police breathing space to plan media strategies. On the debit side, the embargo was difficulty to sustain, was stressful for reporters, it added more drama and promoted even greater news media interest.
Features of the media strategy included:
A deliberate plan to seek front page coverage in the Oamaru Mail each day and this was achieved for 14 consecutive days. A new angle was released daily and in some cases subtly dramatised (graphic details on how Gloria was trussed and ‘left for dead’, the fact that offenders seemed to have local knowledge so "is or was your neighbour" and the house where Gloria was being detained "might be the house next door". The scene was set early, for a mood of full public support. Townsfolk were made to feel the offenders were ‘people within their community" and "needed to be flushed out".
The investigation was packaged as a community project. A $2000 reward was promoted by the Oamaru Mail and this whipped up even more interest (This was subsequently claimed by someone who identified the house where Gloria had been initially detained).
In an attempt to arrange a drop off of the ransom money, Larnach made several phone calls. A decision was made to have a tape of the voice broadcast over Radio New Zealand and on television. Callers supplied more than 20 names and a number positively identified Larnach.
On 11 July, the four offenders appeared before the Oamaru District court on a variety of serious charges including kidnapping, aggravated robbery, assault, unlawfully taking a car and burglary. They were subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced and between them they accumulated 30 years jail, ample time to reflect on whether or not crime pays.
Is an embargo possible today?
Soon after the Kong investigation, Mr Franklin learned a tabloid newspaper editor had decided to publish news of the kidnapping that Sunday, whether or not the embargo remained. In her view, the public’s right to know took precedence over the possibility publicity might lead to Gloria’s execution.
Since, the news media has been deregulated, there has been a significant proliferation in news outlets and we have personality-driven programmes such as the Holmes Show. Competition and the battle for ratings among the media would make a similar embargo impossible.
Neville Stokes reached the rank of Detective Superintendent. In spite of his high profile in the Kong kidnapping he preferred to avoid the media limelight. However, he decided early in the investigation that the key to success was the public and he fronted the media as often as he thought necessary, with apparently practised aplomb. Towards the end of the media phase of the inquiry, he remarked that if he appeared once more on television, Actors Equity would insisted he joined the union!