Red Fox Tavern cold case: ‘We told her what had happened as gently as we could’

The immediate aftermath of the sudden violent Red Fox Tavern hold-up, which became one of New Zealand’s most infamous cold cases, has been revisited in court.

Mark Joseph Hoggart, 60, and a man with name suppression are on trial for the aggravated robbery and murder of its publican Christopher Bush in 1987.

Both of the accused men deny they were the ones that committed the crimes.

That particular Saturday night, October 24, fell within the long Labour Weekend.

After counting the takings, Bush was drinking with staff members Stephanie Prisk, Sherryn Soppet and William Wilson when two heavily disguised intruders burst in using an unlocked back door.

One was armed with a sawn off double-barrelled shotgun and the other with a baseball bat.

Bush hurled his glass at the gunman, who pulled the trigger killing the 43-year-old publican quickly, the court has heard.

Evidence from the staff members was heard in court yesterday.

After the offenders absconded with allegedly over $36,000, the group managed to free themselves and raised the alarm.

Soppet called her husband Peter so they would not be alone while waiting for emergency services, and he woke to the call about 12.20am.

Today statements by Mr Soppet, who is now deceased, were read to the High Court at Auckland.

“You could tell from her voice something was drastically wrong but she wasn’t hysterical,” he said.

“She was shocked.”

He told his wife he was on the way and she replied “be careful”.

Mr Soppet did not notice any other cars as drove his old J 1 Bedford truck to the tavern.

“If there had been anyone around, I would have seen them. I did not see any car lights at all.”

He parked up outside looked in from the “quite well-lit” carpark.

His wife was still on the phone to police when he arrived, he said.

When he saw Bush, he knew he was dead.

“He was lying face down on the floor.

“I didn’t touch him at all.”

When other locals arrived he told them also not to touch anything.

Mr Soppet also spoke to the police on the phone and, thinking of Bush’s widow, assumed the grim task of going to tell her the news.

“We told her what had happened as gently as we could.”

He stayed with her at the house until 5am. The Soppet and Bush families were close family friends.

In his second statement Mr Soppet said his “no nonsense” friend had no problem telling someone if he wanted them to leave the pub.

“He wasn’t a small guy so he didn’t stand back, but at the end of the day he was looking after the patrons, his bar and the establishment.”

The statement of the ambulance officer who attended was also read to the court.

Kevin O’Brien, then working for St John, said when he checked the body there was no pulse.

O’Brien noted there was bleeding from the nose and mouth.

“This confirmed my belief of blood in the lungs,” he said.

“There was also a large amount of blood on the body and floor but only on the left-hand side. The blood was congealed.”

He stayed with the body until police arrived and did not allow anyone else to touch Bush.

A police patrol car was directed to the tavern at 12.21am, arriving just over 20 minutes later to seal off the bar, the court heard.

The statement of Andrew Siemelink, then a police constable, said upon his arrival he was instructed to record the details of all vehicles in the front carpark at 1.40am.

He said at 4.35am pathologist Dr Warwick Smeeton arrived.

Together they entered the tavern’s lounge bar 10 minutes later.

Smeeton, now retired, told the court Bush had sustained “unsurvivable” injuries.

The shot-gun pellets fractured three ribs as they penetrated Bush’s chest cavity, striking his lungs and heart, the court heard.

Smeeton believed the publican would have died “very quickly” due to both blood loss and heart damage.

“Certainly less than a minute.”

The trial continues before Justice Mark Woolford and jury tomorrow.

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