Thursday, 18 May 2023 - 9:50am

'It gets under your skin'

3 min read

News article photos (1 items)

Minister Kiri Allan presents Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson with his award.

Like so many others, Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson joined Police thinking he’d be saving lives. In SAR, he found himself doing exactly that.

For more than two decades John has been at the heart of search and rescue in Rotorua – improving capabilities, innovating, mentoring the next generation and, ultimately, finding people and saving lives.

He’s now been recognised for that service and commitment with a Certificate of Achievement - Support Activity in the 2022 NZ Search and Rescue Awards.

While search and rescue may have seemed like an obvious area for John, a passionate hunter, he says joining wasn’t something he ever envisaged.

“I didn’t take the normal progression of becoming a SAR member, but it gets under your skin a bit.

“There’s not many roles where you can say you are responsible for saving lives. In SAR, you get the opportunity to do that and are sometimes the difference between life and death.”

John has been a part of dozens of these operations.

“The good work stories from SAR also helps to offset some of the tougher stuff you deal with in CIB.

“SAR is real hearts and mind stuff - a good SAR job is instant gratification.”

The two roles have also had their share of crossover, moving from search to investigations.

“On one occasion a man confessed to a murder, saying he had buried the body in a remote area.

“Every time I drove past the area I would wonder, and one Sunday I got a phone call to say remains had been found which matched the missing person.

“After 26 years we returned him home. That one was like a homicide in reverse, we got the body at the end, after the offender had been to jail.”

Some jobs stand out more than others, says John.

“There’s a degree of gut but a search is the ultimate mystery. You might have an idea and there is a lot of science but it’s not until you actually find them that you know where they’ve been. It never ceases to surprise me.”

John is quick to point out he’s but one cog in a big machine.

“I have been lucky. There have been a lot of people that could have died and didn’t, and whether that is good management or luck I don’t know – I’m just grateful.”

But there’s also been those that haven’t ended happily.

The death of an elderly woman whose body was found after a seven-day search spurred John to introduce WanderSearch - a small tracking device worn by someone at risk of wandering off and getting lost – in the region.

John founded the WanderSearch Charitable Trust and has since seen the benefits of the technology for many people - carrying the device might mean the difference between a search taking days, or just a few hours.

That desire to improve was also the impetus for setting up water rescue squads in the area.

“Rotorua SAR has responsibility for something like 17 navigable waterways, some of which are quite hard to access. These make a real difference in a situation where every minute makes a difference.”

After two decades, there’s one job that continues to weigh on John – a woman who went missing more than a decade ago and hasn’t been found despite extensive searches.

John remains in touch with the woman’s father and says he is still disappointed they never found her, despite all of the efforts.

Bay of Plenty District Commander Superintendent Tim Anderson says it's fantastic to see John recognised for his immense contribution and commitment to search and rescue across the Bay of Plenty over many years.

"Whilst John says he’s one cog in a big machine, he’s been a vital leader in reuniting missing people with their loved ones.

"This is also a great opportunity to reflect on the tremendous people - both volunteers in our communities and Police officers - who make up the search and rescue machine around New Zealand. These are people who drop everything in their own time to go and find missing people."