George Wilder was a burglar who left apology and thank-you notes for his victims. He was at large for 65 days, becoming a renegade folk hero in the process. Wilder’s second (and longer) period on the run the following year won him even greater notoriety.
Wilder was serving time for burglary and theft when he scaled one of New Plymouth Prison’s highest walls on 17 May 1962. During his time at large his ability to stay one step ahead of the police caught the imagination of the public. The Howard Morrison Quartet later celebrated his exploits with their song ‘George the Wilder Colonial Boy’, a parody of Pat Boone’s ‘Speedy Gonzales’.
He was recaptured on 21 July at Whakamaru in the central North Island. Not content to serve his time quietly, he escaped on two further occasions. In January 1963 he broke out of Mt Eden Prison with three others, this time managing to elude police for 172 days. He left a thank-you letter and note of apology in the homes he burgled. Newspapers provided regular updates on his escapades. Wilder was recaptured on 17 July 1963 near Taupō. While on the run he had travelled about 2600 km and committed 40 crimes.
Wilder escaped from Mt Eden again on 4 February 1964. This time things took a more sinister turn − a sawn-off shotgun was brandished and a warder was kidnapped. But unlike his previous break-outs, this one was short-lived. Wilder and two fellow escapees took refuge in a house in Horoeka Ave, Mt Eden, only 1½ km from the prison, holding the occupants hostage. After a tense three-hour standoff with police, the fugitives surrendered when threatened with tear gas.
George Wilder is said to have taken part in the Mt Eden Prison riot of July 1965. In 2009 he was reported to be living in coastal Wairarapa.