A West Coast publican has been cleared of assaulting a train driver he accused of stealing historic fittings from the Otira railway station.
Lester Rowntree owns the Otira Stagecoach Hotel in Otira on State Highway 73 near Arthur’s Pass.
He successfully defended himself in the Greymouth District Court on Tuesday after he was charged with assaulting a KiwiRail employee.
KiwiRail train driver Stuart Watson told the court he was watching television in his caravan at the Otira railway station when Rowntree barged in on September 27.
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“He grabbed me with two hands around the throat. I couldn’t hardly breathe. He held me with his left hand and whacked me with his right hand. He had my shirt and pinned against the couch,” he said.
“I was shocked, I just had to take it. If I retaliated I would have had two of them. It could have been fatal.”
He said he’d had permission from his supervisor to take light fittings from the KiwiRail building in Otira and had helped remove a “very unique looking” roof vent to fix a leak. KiwiRail had investigated and found nothing was stolen.
In cross examination, Rowntree said Watson had been barred from his hotel for not paying for beer and had stolen his son’s bicycle.
Rowntree said the roof vents were irreplaceable and a “very rare outstanding feature of the building in magnificent condition”.
He was told by another train driver that Watson had taken light fittings from the station’s old tearooms and when he noticed the roof vent was gone he went to ask Watson if he had taken it.
He said Watson ushered him into the caravan and invited him to look for the items.
He became enraged when Watson denied taking the light fittings and called him a “bloody liar”.
“I went forward and really we were just about in each other’s face. I gave him a few whacks and we started wrestling . . . There was no blood, no bruises that I could see,” he said.
“You’ve got the wrong man in here. He kicked me between the legs . . . It could have crippled me so I hit him. It was a normal reaction. It’s fight or flight.”
His employee broke up the fight and Rowntree left.
Rowntree’s wanted to create an Otira heritage centre to show tourists the history of the village.
“It’s got a fantastic history but if someone like me doesn’t come and preserve it it will be lost in the midst of time. Pilfering has been going on for years,” he said.
Judge Jane Farish said she had issues with some of Watson’s evidence.
“He was embellishing how he was assaulted. Mr Watson had little or no injuries . . . I don’t accept Mr Watson would have sat there and taken this beating without responding. I think they both got as good as they both deserved.”
She said Rowntree was passionate about preserving the heritage of Otira, and she hoped the small community of 40 people could go about their business without coming to “fisticuffs”.
Rowntree has been trespassed from all KiwiRail owned land in Otira and Arthur’s Pass.
He bought 21 hectares – including the hotel, 18 houses, hall and fire station – beside the Otira railway a couple of years ago.
Since then, he has amassed a large collection of historical items and renovated the hotel.