Police busted after tracking device found on car

By IAN STEWARD

A police operation to covertly follow a Central Otago man came to an abrupt halt this week when the man found tracking devices planted in his car, ripped them out and listed them for sale on Trade Me.

Ralph Williams, of Cromwell, said he found the devices last week in his daughter’s car, which he uses, and in his flatmate’s car after the cars were seized by police and taken away for investigation.

Police have neither confirmed nor denied they placed the devices.

Williams said a cellphone sim card in one of the devices appeared to transmit messages to the mobile phone of Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw, of the Central Otago CIB.

Williams provided The Press with emails from Shaw saying: “If you have got something of ours it would be good to get it back. You can call me and I can come meet you.”

Williams said he found the devices concealed behind panels in the passenger-side footwells of the cars. They were marked with the name Trimble, an international company that produces GPS location devices.

Williams took apart one of the devices and found a sim card, which he put into a cellphone. He found the device was sending location text messages to Shaw’s mobile number.

Williams placed one of the devices on Trade Me with a price of $250.

The ad read: “Used government covert surveillance tracking. No police to bid on this.”

A Trade Me spokesman said the listing was removed yesterday afternoon “at the request of the New Zealand Police”.

Williams said the cars were seized for investigation after an unmarked police car was torched in Alexandra in July.

The investigation produced nothing on Williams, but when the cars were returned he contacted police because the cars were not running well, and he asked if they had left something behind.

Shaw emailed: “Can’t immediately think of anything we would have left … Like what …?????”

Williams said he and Shaw then spoke on the phone, with Shaw telling him the devices were valuable and should be returned.

Shaw then emailed repeatedly asking for “the stuff” back.

When contacted by The Press, Shaw declined to comment other than to say: “Police use a variety of legitimate investigation techniques when investigating serious crime. However, it is not the policy of the police to comment on those techniques or other operational matters.”

Shaw would not say whether a warrant had been obtained for the devices. The Summary Proceedings Act, which covers tracking devices, says a warrant should be obtained for a tracking device but an officer can install one without a warrant if there is not time and the officer believes a judge would issue a warrant.

Williams said he did not know why police were interested in him. He spent two years in jail “20 years ago” for selling marijuana to an undercover policeman, but had no convictions since then.

Williams said the devices were not hard to find and he described the operation as “a bumbling attempt” by “weirdos”.

New Zealand Civil Liberties Council chairman Michael Bott said the affair had “shades of (George Orwell’s) Nineteen Eighty-four”, as well as “shades of the Keystone Kops”.