Human Interest

William Stewart

Why Does New Zealand Love Fugitive William Stewart?

May 13, 2009 06:00 PM
by Rachel Balik
In New Zealand, a violent criminal running from authorities has inspired celebration, T-shirts and beer drinking.

Where’s Billy?

Police say that he is “a pain in the neck,” the Australian Associated Press reports, but that has not stopped William Stewart, a criminal on the run, from winning the hearts of the public in New Zealand. Now not only are police struggling to track down their target, they also cannot convince the public that he’s actually dangerous. 

Openly mocking the police as incompetent, people are rallying to support “Billy” by starting Facebook pages and cheering him on in other ways. Stewart first made his mark (literally) when he stole dinner from someone’s kitchen and carved a message in the table identifying himself as “Billy the Hunted One.”

Allegedly addicted to methamphetamine, Stewart has a long criminal history of theft and assault; he is currently accused of physically threatening a police officer on Feb. 10, the New Zealand Herald says. Since he went on the run, Stewart has become “a bit of a legend” said one man, who wrote a song about him. Someone else has started a business selling “Where’s Billy” T-shirts.
On May 9, students in the town of Hamilton decided to mark the three-month anniversary of Stewart successfully eluding the police by celebrating National Where’s Billy Day. The student who organized the celebration told Scoop that the celebration was “about having some fun while drinking one beer for each evasion of capture.”

That means students consumed a total of seven beers and encouraged people to buy T-shirts. A charity, the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind, will receive 10 percent of the price of each shirt purchased.

Others are less enchanted by Stewart. South Canterbury Women's Refuge housed Stewart’s terrified former partner after “he beat her repeatedly, stabbed her, tried to suffocate her, broke her nose, hacked her hair off with a knife and put her in hospital.”

At the beginning of the manhunt, she saw Stewart lurking around her home. The woman told the New Zealand Herald that one of her two sons has started having nightmares, and their mother is afraid to leave the house.

Related Topic: Criminals with a following

Stewart has earned himself a reputation as a Robin Hood-like character, but he also bears comparison with other real-life fugitives with a fan base. Convicted of killing her husband’s ex-wife in 1981, Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek escaped via a prison window in July 1990. As many believed Bembenek had been wrongly convicted, she earned a public following, The New York Times reported. Like Stewart, she inspired t-shirts commemorating her run from authorities. The shirts said “Run Bambi Run,” and restaurant proprietors even named menu items after the popular fugitive. She was apprehended in Canada, after someone recognized her from “American’s Most Wanted.”

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, known better as Bonnie and Clyde, are perhaps the best-known criminals-turned-folk heroes. They met in Texas during the Great Depression and were “young, beautiful, and disillusioned with their lot in life.” During the Great Depression, the public harbored resentment toward big business. Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks for two years, but instead of being seen as criminals, they were regarded as champions of the people.

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