Stolen haul of military medals recovered in New Zealand

Wellington – Nearly 100 medals, including nine Victoria Crosses – the highest award for military gallantry in the British Commonwealth – have been recovered undamaged after being stolen from the New Zealand Army museum in December, police said on Saturday. The 96 returned medals included the Victoria Cross and bar awarded to New Zealander Charles Upham – the only man to win the award in combat twice in its 151-year history – for acts of bravery in Crete and North Africa in 1941 and 1942 during the Second World War.

Police said an unspecified amount of money had been paid as a reward for the return, but nobody had been arrested and no immunity from prosecution or promise of reduced sentence for any offender had been given in return.

Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Bensemann told a news conference that the medals were recovered as a result of a 300,000 New Zealand dollars (234,000 US dollars) reward offered last month “that has encouraged a person to come forward and facilitate the return of the medals to police.”

The TV3 channel said an unnamed Auckland lawyer was believed to have acted as an intermediary in the return and although there were no arrests, Bensemann said, “The recovery of the medals has certainly narrowed the focus of the investigation, the net is closing and we are continuing to work very hard at pulling it tight.”

The medals were stolen in a lightning early morning smash and grab raid on the museum near an army base at Waiouru, 300 kilometres north of Wellington, on December 2.

The reward money had included 200,000 New Zealand dollars offered by British collector Lord Michael Ashcroft, who owns 146 Victoria Crosses, about a 10th of all those awarded since 1856 when the medal was created by Britain’s Queen Victoria.

The remaining balance was offered by a New Zealand businessman who was identified by news media as Tom Sturgess, a former US Marine and Vietnam war veteran.

“These medals are New Zealand’s national treasures, with a value beyond any monetary worth,” Defence Minister Phil Goff said.

“Along with other New Zealanders I also hope that those responsible for the theft will, in due course, be held to account.”