Joseph John Thomas Pawelka (sometimes spelled Pavelka or Powelka) was born at West Oxford, Canterbury, New Zealand, on 4 August 1887, the son of Moravian-born parents Jozef Pavelka, a bushman, and his wife, Louisa König. The family moved to Kimbolton when Joseph was four. He attended school there until aged 13, when he was apprenticed to an uncle as a butcher. He later moved to Palmerston North. In 1908 he contracted typhoid fever and spent five months in hospital, during which time part of a lung was removed.
On 29 September 1909 at Ashhurst, Joseph married Hannah Elizabeth Wilson. Their daughter, Iris, whom Pawelka was destined never to see, was born in July the following year. The marriage was unsettled and in December 1909 Pawelka tried to drown himself. He was charged with attempting to commit suicide, but his actions were attributed to depression resulting from his recent illness; he was ordered to come up for sentence when called upon. His wife, Lizzie, sought and was granted a separation order and Pawelka was required to pay her maintenance.
Late in the morning of 25 February 1910, Joseph and Lizzie Pawelka appeared at the Palmerston North Police Station following a marital disagreement. Lizzie asked for police protection, complaining that Joseph had a firearm. When questioned, Pawelka produced a pistol from his pocket and surrendered it. During a search of his house for the cartridges, several items stolen in recent burglaries were found. Pawelka was arrested and charged with theft. He appeared in the Palmerston North Magistrate's Court on 7 March and was remanded in custody. Five days later, taking advantage of the gaoler's inattention, Pawelka, with the aid of two upturned buckets, scaled the wall of the prisoners' yard, stole a bicycle and made his escape. After two days of freedom he was recaptured at Awahuri and taken to Wellington's Terrace Gaol. On 23 March he was transferred to the police cells in Lambton Quay. That day, the gaoler, Constable John Gallagher, removed Pawelka's cell-mate but failed to lock the cell door. Pawelka fled.
A trail of burglaries marked Pawelka's passage north. On the evening of 2 April 1910 a couple returned to their Palmerston North home to discover that it had been ransacked. They were confronted by a masked man bearing two revolvers and demanding money. The offender was assumed to be Pawelka and the robbery acted as the catalyst for a fortnight of hysteria, fuelled on 5 April when major fires destroyed the high school and two shops in the city. Two days later Pawelka was sighted in Pahiatua but avoided the shots of his pursuers.
Additional police were drafted into the area but Pawelka was not seen again until 9 April, when he visited the house of his wife and mother-in-law at Ashhurst. He again evaded capture and that evening Palmerston North experienced a further burglary and another arson. A wire was set across the path of the house belonging to a local butcher who had once employed Pawelka; the butcher took money home from his shop on Saturday nights and Pawelka was aware of this. The following night a person, believed to be Pawelka, approached the house. The police arrived, and during the ensuing struggle Sergeant John McGuire suffered a severe bullet wound. The offender ran off as shots were fired in his direction. McGuire died four days later.
The manhunt escalated, a reward of £100 was posted, and military volunteers and armed civilians patrolled the streets of Palmerston North. On the evening of 11 April Michael Quirke, a volunteer searcher from Pahiatua, failed to acknowledge a challenge from a fellow searcher and was shot dead.
Six days later Pawelka, armed with two loaded revolvers, was surprised by Constables Jim Thompson and John Gallagher in a cowshed at Ashhurst. He was overpowered before he had a chance to use his weapons. Ironically, Gallagher was the officer who had failed to lock the cell door on 23 March at Lambton Quay.
A series of Supreme Court trials followed, during which Pawelka was acquitted of the murder of Sergeant McGuire, acquitted after a retrial of robbery under arms, and convicted on the theft, arson and escaping charges. He was remanded to Palmerston North where, on 8 June 1910, Justice Theophilus Cooper handed down cumulative sentences totalling 21 years before declaring Pawelka, subject to the approval of the Court of Appeal, to be a habitual criminal. The public who had lived in fear of Pawelka only two months earlier now rose protesting the severity of the sentence. Within six weeks the minister of justice, J. G. Findlay, had received a deputation comprising members of Parliament, church ministers and other prominent citizens, and had been presented with a petition of almost 15,000 signatures. Findlay would not be swayed and Pawelka remained at the Terrace Gaol.
In early August 1911, Pawelka made his first attempt to escape from the gaol. It was unsuccessful, as was a further attempt on 14 August. He tried again on 17 August, this time remaining at large for an hour and a half before being recaptured under a house in nearby Woolcombe Street. Ten days later, on 27 August 1911, he removed the grille from his cell window, the screws having previously been replaced with wood shavings and soap. The last recorded sighting of Pawelka was as he ran from the gaol towards the Botanic Garden.
Joseph John Pawelka was never recaptured and never again came to official notice in New Zealand. Family lore has it that he was assisted to Auckland by family and friends, and sailed aboard the Makura for Canada, via Suva. His mother's prayer book is annotated with the date of his departure – 16 February 1912. Lizzie Pawelka petitioned for divorce in August 1915, on the grounds of her husband's desertion.