The normally quiet and reserved drummer in the Baptist Church band responded to the would-be armed robbers in the way he thought best, at the time and under the pressure.
“I screamed at them to f*** off,” says Graham Aitchison. Desperate times demanded desperate measures. “I said that because I really didn‘t know what else to say. I was driven by adrenalin and the desire to see wrongs righted.”
Knives were being flashed, people were screaming, hearts were pumping, tension was running high. An attempted robbery was going down at AJ’s Lotto shop on Tauranga’s Devonport Rd on September 29 and a wrong move could have been a fatal move.
“No, I didn’t consider the consequences. There wasn’t time. You just trust God is with you regardless of your circumstances.”
Graham’s the bloke who popped out from work for a pie and iced chocolate. And within his lunch break he demonstrated some selfless heroics by foiling an armed robbery, nabbing an alleged offender, and getting cut up and hospitalised. All in his lunch break from the Tauranga City Council call centre.
“I am a fairly quiet kind of guy so it wasn’t how I expected the day to pan out. But yes, I could have lost a lot,” says Graham, delicately understating the possible consequences of the high drama that went down in broad daylight, right at lunchtime in the busiest part of town.
“It could have ended very badly for me.” He could have died, as his wife Shontelle reminds him.
It was a month ago yesterday and Graham was headed down Devonport Rd from Picadilly Arcade. “Two guys came towards me. They had their hoodies up and they were wearing black masks with the eyeholes cut out.”
A robbery was about to go down, weapons were involved and lives possibly endangered. “I guess so, but there was just something in me that said I needed to take action.” So he turned around and followed them.
The two hooded and masked youths went into AJ’s lotto shop at the bottom of Devonport Road. “I heard the owner of the shop screaming for dear life. One of the guys was threatening her with some kind of weapon, she was standing on the counter, and the other guy was standing by the door threatening people outside.”
Graham took control of the situation, asking people to call the police. Then he stepped into the fray.
“I started screaming at the robbers. Between me screaming and the shop owner screaming they started to panic.”
Then the mild mannered muso in the Baptist Church band fired off his expletive laced order to leave. “They took fright and ran out of the shop and down Devonport Road.” They’d gone, but they hadn’t gotten away because Graham was right behind them.
He’s not a big, brawny athletic type of hero. He’s very lean, in fact more the build of the sticks this drummer uses in the band. But he has a big heart and a social conscience.
“And I am quick. I used to play football.” But he’s never been in a violent situation, never landed a punch, nor taken one. “Not since primary school anyway.”
And he was chasing a would-be robber armed with a knife. Graham must have been scared. “Yes and no. But as I was running after them a thought did cross my mind. What do I do if I catch them?”
He brought one of the fugitives to ground about 50 metres from AJ’s – bailed him up by the power transformer shed bordering the railway at the top of The Strand.
“He could see I was going to stop him from escaping. He lashed out with the knife. He was desperate, he was really frightened.”
That’s when Graham took a knife blow to his arm. A month later the stab wound is clearly visible and his forearm is still badly bruised. “It’s taken a while to clear up.” Graham took another knife blow. “A cut on the left hand side of my head from above the left eye to behind my left ear. A flesh wound, and it’s fine now.”
Meanwhile the perpetrator was demanding to be released.
“He said ‘f*** you, let me go’. I said please don’t talk to me like that. I told him he wasn’t going anywhere until the police arrived. He seemed to accept his lot and shut up after that.”
Graham says he acted on instinct and adrenalin. “It makes us do things we aren’t sure we’re capable of. I have thought about it quite a lot since, and while it was the right thing to do at the time, and had the right outcome, I could have lost a lot. That will haunt me.”
And yes he would do it again, but perhaps differently, perhaps do something more practical like capturing evidence on his mobile rather than being a hands-on hero.
“There were no little prayers, no time, but there was certainly some divine protection going on.”
The co-offender took flight in another direction, but was tackled by two other civic minded passers-by. They may have been treated to divine protection too.
When the police arrived Graham was bundled off to hospital. “They were so grateful that we had intervened. The police were brilliant the whole time. I was very impressed with them.”
And they with him.
It’s understood a 13-year-old and 14-year-old face charges of assault with intent to rob using knives. The 13-year-old is also charged with aggravated wounding.
Graham falls back on his faith. “I just feel He was with me that day.”