Billy the Hunted One captivates Kiwis

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The Independent Online

He may be armed and dangerous, but New Zealand's most wanted man, William Stewart, has become a folk hero, captivating the nation with his exploits as he slips from town to town, evading police and stealing cars and meat pies.

Stewart has been on the run for 94 days, since he threatened a police officer with an iron bar near Christchurch. He first came to public attention after he used a knife to carve a thank you note into the kitchen table of a farmhouse where he had helped himself to dinner, signing it "Billy the Hunted One".

Police are not amused, but the public are loving it. T-shirts with the slogan "Where's Billy?" are being snapped up on a online auction site. A fan has written a song about Stewart, and his adventures are being recorded on Facebook, which also carries updates on his whereabouts.

There have been numerous reported sightings. In one rural town, Methven, he stole a fishing rod and tobacco. In another, Darfield, he robbed food from the store. In Mount Somers, he took a Mitsubishi from someone's yard. Police have closed in on the 47-year-old at least seven times but on each occasion Stewart has given them the slip. Once he blasted through police cordons on a stolen farm motorbike. Detectives believe he sleeps rough in the bush during the day and moves around at night.

His ability to dodge police has led to comparisons with a legendary New Zealand fugitive, George Wilder, who escaped prison three times in the 1960s. He once remained at large for 172 days, during which time he covered 1,500 miles and committed 40 crimes.

Stewart's admirers include an abattoir worker, Robbie Robertson, who wrote his ballad, "Billy the Hunted One", after hearing about the fugitive in his local pub. Mr Robertson told The Timaru Herald: "He's a bit of a legend in this place at the moment."

On Facebook, there are mugshots of a dishevelled, long-haired Stewart, said by some to resemble the singer Michael Bolton. Messages on the site taunt police for failing to catch him. "Go for it, Billy!" says one. Another reads: "The cops down here couldn't catch a cold, and as far as I am concerned, you are going to be a legend for a long time."

The man behind the T-shirts, a property developer, Barry Toneycliffe, said he did not wish to glamourise Stewart. "It's black humour," he said. "He's really bringing out the devil in people and they're getting behind him."

However, police say their quarry is not a romantic figure. "This guy is a scumbag thief, a career criminal," said Senior Sergeant Stu Munro, who is leading the manhunt. "Like many drug addicts, he would rob his own grandmother to get what he wants."

Police have five warrants for his arrest, including one relating to an uncompleted prison sentence for kidnap. Sgt Munro said Stewart had been lucky to date, "and his luck will run out".