Auckland’s car thief vigilantes: ‘I’m sick of what’s happening in our neighbourhood’

There are no barriers between Mark Mana’s front door and the Sandringham footpath.

A humble expanse of tyre-torn grass rolls down from the white weatherboard house his wife and five kids sleep in, to the concrete edge marking off his property.

No fence, or hedge, or tree obscures the view of those walking by under the glow of the scarce Shorwell St lamp posts.

The only sign of caution to the outside world is a row of four cars backed into the yard and parked as close to the house as possible.

Along the eastern side of his block there is no privacy either. Just a woven wire fence separating a public walkway into a reserve shouldering half his property.

“You hear people running from the cops through there at night,” Mana says.

He is exposed to the street, as he has been, living in this community for the past 10 years.

And in 2021, this has become a useful asset to his neighbours in Sandringham, the central Auckland suburb he calls home and which boasts one of the most ethnically and financially diverse demographics in the city.

Mana knows the street lurkers as well as the invading middle class behind those increasingly high fences. He’s been both – sort of.

And he may have found a solution to the worst spike in car thefts and burglaries he or anyone in the area can remember in decades.

'I'm sick of hearing what's been happening in our neighbourhood'

The 38-year-old first posted about thefts on the Sandringham AKL Community Facebook page on June 17 – and was surprised at the immediate, massive response he got.

“I’m going for a drive shortly around our beautiful neighbourhood to make sure no one’s cars get broken into or try to catch someone in the act,” Mana wrote.

“I’m sick of hearing what’s been happening in our neighbourhood, so I’m going to do something about it. Me and a couple [of] Man Up brothers will patrol our streets for a few hours. Give us a message if anything suspicious is happening near you.”

The post, and a subsequent one canvassing local volunteers,received 520 likes and 121 comments- many from people offering to join the nightly patrol.

A scroll of the Sandringham community Facebook page over the past few months shows dozens of posts and comments fromresidents who’ve had their car stolen or smashed into this year.

“Just had my car stolen from the driveway. It’s the 3rd time one of my cars has been damaged or stolen this year. Be on the lookout,” one resident posted on July 4.

“It’s everywhere now. Build your own security folks,” another commented.

“It’s shocking … carjacking too now,” wrote another.

The sound of police sirens and the Eagle helicopter hovering overhead are commented on in real time as they reverberate across the neighbourhood streets.

And it seems the statistics back up the online community’s concerns.

The most recent Police statistics show a 115 per cent jump in theft of motor vehicle parts or contents in May around the Sandringham, Balmoral and Mt Eden areas compared to the month before. The data jumped from 32 incidents reported in April to 69 in May.

For the 11 months prior, the number of motor vehicle thefts in those three suburbs averaged just 25 a month.

From April to May, there was also a 94 per cent increase in the Illegal use of a motor vehicle for those three suburbs from 33 to 64 incidents reported.

And since May, Police area commander for Auckland City West, Inspector Grant Tetzlaff, said they had seen another increase in reported vehicle crime in and around Sandringham, Balmoral and Mt Eden.

“There has also been a number of instances where stolen vehicles have been located dumped in these areas. We are finding these reported incidents are occurring overnight,” Tetzlaff said.

“In many cases police find opportunistic offenders will target a number of parked vehicles in close proximity to each other. We know, in this community, with the age and design of houses, there is a shortage of off-street parking.”

The accounts from long-time Sandringham residents were not so calm about it.

Local Tina Knight has replaced five sets of windows smashed in three separate car break-ins since December.

On May 4, offenders appeared to systematically target Kingsway Ave. Knight counted six vehicles with broken windows, but says that was late morning, and other victims may have already left for work.

“The whole road was covered in glass. Every second car,” Knight said.

Her subsequent post to a community Facebook page, saying “this is getting ridiculous,” prompted more reports of vehicle break-ins on nearby roads on the same night.

Knight says the targets are not necessarily expensive cars. In her case, it had cost up to $1000 to fix windows, doors and ignition panels damaged in the break-ins.

“It’s happening to people who can’t afford this.”

Mana says many of the smashed car window victims are local Kāinga Ora tenants without insurance.

Ayyan Ali, whose car was recently broken into on a neighbouring Sandringham street, believes his alarm scared thieves away, but said his family was now “suspicious of any sound or movement that takes place near our house. It’s made us quite worried and stressed.”

So what did Mana do? He talked to his friends who knew a thing or two about crime in a past life.

'Just up and down, up and down. Every single street'

It was some of Sandringham’s most marginalised residents who took the first drastic step to protecting the community’s property – the Man Up brotherhood.

Without saying it, Mana knows the support group’s link to Destiny Church is a source of suspicion in many people’s eyes.

The Sandringham Man Up group is one of 300 across the country. Man Up describes itself online as: “a 15-week programme that helps identify, expose and understand core root issues of why men experience dysfunctions.”

Yet, for Mana and his “brothers” in Sandringham, the group is really just him and other men in the area gathering at one member’s house three to four times a week to discuss their issues.

“It’s hard to explain because it is connected to the church, but out here in the community it’s more the brotherhood. It’s not about that [Destiny Church],” Mana says.

“[It’s] just a bunch of men, we get together and we offload to each other – our issues. Put it this way, I can’t go to my friends I grew up with and talk about deep issues. Because you sort of feel judged.

“It really does help to talk. Especially stuff that has messed our lives up in some way.”

For Mana, this is a history with alcoholism that led to incarceration for assault in 2017 for “quite a few months”.

The topic of the spate of car thefts inevitably arose during these meetings.

“We all spoke about it and we were like ‘Ay, what do you reckon? Should we do something about it?’. That’s all it was. We didn’t tell anyone [at first],” Mana says.

What it’s morphed into is a concerted effort by Mana and his brothers to drive around the Sandringham streets after midnight looking for car thieves about three times a week.

Each trip lasts for two hours.

“This is what I usually do, just up and down, up and down,” he says behind the wheel of his white van, accompanied by another Man Up member.

It’s the night of July 1 and Mana believes his three or four weeks of patrolling has decreased the thefts and smashed car windows.

“Every single street. It’s not hard to spot them. It’s usually when you see a bunch of boys. If you spot someone on the footpath they’re looking out.

“It doesn’t hurt that people know who I am around here, so just seeing my face is a giveaway.

A newly painted picket fence with an Audi out front, sits next to a weather-beaten bungalow, or a flimsy wood panel structure.

There are no exclusively “nice” streets, and a motley mix of houses lines almost every strip of asphalt.

Yet, the size of those manicured yards, the height of those new fences, and the extended distance to the front door have become a particular target since May.

“This is another one of the hot spots around here,” Mana says of one wide Sandringham street with homes sloping upwards away from the footpath.

“You can see how far the cars are from the house, ay? A rainy night you won’t hear anything.”

But there is also no denying how indiscriminate many of the smash and grab jobs are.

“Most of them don’t go to school. It’s funny because you don’t see them during the day,” Mana says of groups of roaming teens.

“This generation’s just different. A lot of these kids are just joy riding and they don’t have a purpose for doing it. They dump cars down here.

“The neighbourhood’s thinking of putting cameras up. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Every street.”

Mana points out the popular Paradise Indian restaurant on Kitchener Rd where customers unfamiliar with the area will park and leave valuables in their cars.

Another notorious strip, known for worse crimes than car thefts, is the western corkscrew end of Haverstock Rd densely packed with three-storey apartments.

Cars pack each side of the narrow street.

“This is the hood. Everyone knows it. It all used to be homes around here and they bust them down and put these up. It’s a busy road.”

Another one of the brothers adds: “This is where all the activity is.”

“I wouldn’t come down here. Only the locals come down here. You’ll be spotted. Yeah it is rough down here,” Mana says.

Haverstock Rd is driven on every patrol.

'Our culture, we're all very family orientated'

Even in the dark, with the overhanging trees, and the sporadic street lights, you notice thepatchy gentrification of Sandringham.

A newly painted picket fence with an Audi out front, sits next to a weather-beaten bungalow, or a flimsy wood panel structure.

The central Auckland suburb is home to a diverse mix of people, particularly compared to neighbouring areas.

The 2018 Census showed 53.2 per cent of residents identifying as European/Pākehā, 36.6 per cent as Asian, 10.2 per cent as Pacific peoples, 7 per cent Māori, and 3.4 per cent other ethnicities.

Neighbouring Mt Eden, sitting to the east of Sandringham, has a population of 69.3 per cent European/Pākehā, 23.9 per cent Asian, 7.8 per cent Māori, 5.3 per cent Pacific and 3.4 per cent other ethnicities.

A snapshot of Sandringham’s Edendale Primary School in the 2019 Education Review Office records also attests to the suburb’s diversity. The student body is made up of 39 per cent NZ European/Pākehā pupils, 23 per cent Indian, 7 per cent Chinese, 6 per cent Māori, 6 per cent Pacific groups, 4 per cent other Asian groups and 15 per cent other ethnic groups.

In contrast, Balmoral School in nearby Mt Eden, has a Pākehā student population of 68 per cent.

Mana believes the rich Pasifika community in Sandringham is what has made this night patrol possible.

This “PI community” is fostered by the Richmond Rovers Rugby League Club in Grey Lynn and the Blue Rose cafe on Sandringham Rd.

The cafe has a Pacific menu unique for the area – offering taro leaves baked in coconut cream, and hangi pies – and was recognised as one of Metro’s top 10 in Auckland this year.

Seeing Mana and his wife Julia at the Blue Rose on any given day will involve jovialconversations with half the customers.

His local business, Hibiscus Painters & Decorators, is often a conversation starter.

“Back in the day in Ponsonby, Grey Lynn area was very PI orientated, and that’s the same with Sandringham,” Mana says.

“There is a lot of PI families here. Our culture, we’re all very family-orientated. So even if you don’t know a person, it’s just their vibe, that whole Polynesian vibe in Sandringham. That’s what I love.”

Mana being so central to the Polynesian community in Sandringham also helps him understand some of the teen culprits he suspects are from the same broad community.

He too was once a young car thief.

“That was quite a long time ago,” Mana says.

“I started when I was 10 years old until my early 20s. In Auckland, around Ponsonby area, Freemans Bay.”

Since beginning their patrol in June, Mana says he has spotted numerous groups of kids out at night on the streets.

He has also caught one kid in the act.

“I was just driving around and I just caught him down on this side of Shorwell St. All I saw was this head going up and down, just real quickly, and I knew straight away it was someone trying to get in and pop the ignition.”

Mana walked slowly up to the car door and says the teenager was primed to attack him.

“He was ready to do something. But I just grabbed him. All I said was ‘what are you doing this for?’ It was more that look in his eyes, like he didn’t want to do it, like he was afraid. I’ve seen that look in so many kids’ eyes before.”

Mana said the teen told him he and his brothers at home were hungry. He was hoping to steal the car to drop off at a nearby drug house for quick cash.

Eventually, Mana says, he forced an address out of the boy.

“I knocked on the door and straight away I could see both parents were strung up on, I knew it was meth,” Mana says.

“High on meth, you could smell it in the house. Oh mate, it wasn’t a sight to see, eh.

“I didn’t want to call the cops because I didn’t want those kids to get taken. That would just make things worse.

“I brought him home to mine to get some food and told him if you ever need food again, you just come knock on my door. And he’s been here a few times which is good. I think he’s 13 now. It was his birthday a couple of weeks ago.”

"We discourage the public from taking matters into their own hands"

Reading the support for the patrol on the Sandringham Facebook page, it’s not hard to believe Mana when he says they are personally “getting a lot of love for what we’re doing”.

“There are quite a lot of people who are jumping on and they’re asking about a roster. Even ladies, mums, which is awesome. I just hope it makes a chain reaction, like a domino effect for other communities around.

“I’m quite surprised. It just goes to show how much everyone actually cares in the community.”

The official police line is not so enthusiastic on the vigilante effort.

Inspector Grant Tetzlaff said they were aware “of commentary on community pages on forming watch groups”.

“While we acknowledge the community share our concerns about this spate of offending, we discourage members of the public from taking matters into their own hands,” Tetzlaff said.

“Instead we support people starting up or joining their local Neighbourhood Support group.”

Tetzlaff said police have increased their patrolling around Sandringham, Balmoral and Mt Eden and reminded “owners of Mazda Demios and Nissan Tiidas to be particularly vigilant as these vehicles are targeted by offenders”.

Local resident Avon Lines has been the spokesperson for that particular Neighbourhood Support group since 2006.

“What people leave in cars absolutely shocks me,” Lines said.

On one walkabout with police, she saw parked cars containing everything from divorce papers to jewellery, makeup, men’s suit jackets, wallets and children’s toys – all clearly visible to passersby.

“Keep an eye out on what’s going on outside your gate, trim your trees, get rid of your big fences … it’s not neighbours being nosy, it’s neighbours looking out for each other.”

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