Boredom led man into bootlegging

Richard Gray.
Richard Gray.
You couldn’t get a burger or chips from Gray’s Takeaways, but if you knew which door to knock on and had $15 in your pocket, you could get a cheap bottle of liquor. 

Rob Kidd talks to Richard Gray about his bootleg booze business, his arrest and subsequent court appearance.

For A year, Richard Gray was the most famous man in South Dunedin.

Nestled among the dusty second-hand stores of King Edward St, the smorgasbord of fast-food outlets and the neon lights of sports bars was a room.

His room.

You had to know it was there to know it was there.

Above Heffs Hotel, an illuminated beer sign provided night-long light for the 65-year-old and he would wake up at 4am to get to work.

Gray would make whiskey, bourbon, vodka and rum from the small flat; and beer for himself.

"It’s so easy," he said.

On his door was a sign: "Gray’s Takeaways".

Photos: ODT
Photos: ODT
It never started as a money-making venture, he told the Otago Daily Times this week.

He had brewed a few spirits for friends and family and word of his dab hand spread.

"Next thing I know I was starting to get knocks on my bedroom door," he said.

Gray could safely be described as a hard case — wide eyes, wispy moustache, pounamu tight around his neck and the rising rumble of his chuckle.He is hard not to laugh with.

All the same, he seemed an unlikely bloke to pit himself as South D’s Maori Robin Hood.

He knew what he was doing was illegal but at $15 a bottle, those who could not afford a trip to the liquor store would pop over to Ritchie’s place.

"In a way, it felt like I was helping the underprivileged," Gray said.

"I felt like I was bringing people who can’t afford this stuff something to enjoy."

Steadily, he built up a crew of regulars - fellow retirees among them, but his cut-price grog attracted youngsters, too.

Drunks would hammer on his door in the early hours when they had run out of booze, and  students would  travel across town looking for  a bargain.

But his growing notoriety also made him a target.

Once, he returned home to find someone had smashed his door down and made off with five bottles of bourbon. It was his most popular product, he said. Later, he was approached by a 14-year-old  on  a bike brandishing a $10 note.

"Are you the home-brew man?" the kid asked.Gray told him he was too young.

"Next thing you know — bang. He whacked me, eh," he said.

"I’d been told I was not a bad scrapper, but I’ve blooming had it."

Some hefty new dead bolts and a fake camera by his entrance stopped any further attacks, but he would not stay under the radar much longer.

DOWNFALL

When a group of girls showed up to buy whisky and bourbon it was just another sale.

He reckoned he was shifting about 10 to 20 bottles a week at his peak.

Gray said he had no inkling they were under age. They were 15.

On July 6, the teens were admitted to hospital, vomiting heavily, after drinking the bootlegged brew.

The next day, Gray said, the game was up.

"I was in the back area where there’s a skip for the pub, just cleaning up. I looked out to the car park and all these police cars are pulling up. Then a guy comes round the corner — ‘Richard?’. Uh oh, they’re here for me.

"They had the warrant and all that," Gray said.

"I knew straight away what it was for: what I was making upstairs."

When he found out what had happened to the girls, he was devastated.

"I wouldn’t wish that on anyone," Gray said. "I never meant for that to happen."

Police were particularly interested in a notebook they found in the flat.

Among the scribblings was the figure "$32,000".

They assumed it was the profit Gray had made from his back-alley business, but the defendant was adamant that was not the case.

He told the ODT he made no profit from his dealings and the maths was simply him working out how much money he was saving from brewing his own beer as opposed to drinking at the hotel downstairs.

"A jug would cost me 83c to make ... that’s $20 in the bar," Gray said.

The $32,000 covered five years of home-brewing since he had lived in the flat.

He was charged with being an unlicensed person selling alcohol and immediately pleaded guilty when he appeared in the Dunedin District Court in July.

Gray, without taking any legal advice or being represented by counsel, was willing to accept whatever punishment the judge handed down, he said.

But he was persuaded to accept a lawyer and yesterday was fined $500 in  the Dunedin District Court.

Gray would relish a chance to apologise to the families of the victims in person but claimed there was no chance he had poisoned the girls.He was steadfast in his belief in the quality of his product.

No-one had complained of adverse effects before and he said he did things "properly".

Gray said he had a device which gauged the amount of alcohol in the liquid and he was careful to ensure it never exceeded 40%.

He even labelled the bottles so they said so.

PEACE

Gray had never set out to be some sort of suburban liquor baron; it was sewn in the seeds of boredom and ill health.

Following a prang he was hospitalised after having a seizure.At the age of 64, doctors told Gray his days of driving forklifts were over.

Diabetic and with a replaced heart valve, he was forced into an early retirement.

"It’s boring. Life’s boring. I’m used to being busy," he said.

And so Gray adopted his new role; and it kept him busy.

He would have a few beers in the afternoon, go to bed at 6.30pm and be up at 4am brewing, fermenting, bottling; until 1pm when he would relax again.

It became his routine.

When the police raided  his property, they confiscated all his equipment and with it his hobby.

While it had robbed Gray of some direction, it had brought him newfound peace — no 3am door knocks or aggressive teenagers.

And it was not as if he missed being surrounded by moonshine.

"I wouldn’t drink my blooming stuff. It’s too blooming strong," Gray said.

It was a less potent brew that remained his favoured tipple.

"I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble ... but I enjoy a beer in the afternoon," he said.

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