One angry man

by andrew.mcnulty / 21 April, 2007
Winning is everything for Joe Karam, long-time campaigner for the release of convicted murderer David Bain. But as he awaits the Privy Council decision on the case, which could come at any time, he feels that he is also being judged.

He had it all. A loving family, successful businesses and an All Black jersey in a wardrobe full of Italian style. His kids went to Auckland's King's College, he drove big cars, he could make a grand in an afternoon.

In the champagne days of the 90s, Joseph Francis Karam was a risk-taking millionaire with a generous disposition and a talent for giving things a good spit and polish. He owned 25 investment properties and a winning racehorse. Every year he'd hire a marquee at the races for friends and family. With a galloping enthusiasm for life and an entertaining line in braggadocio, Karam was a middle-aged colt with a nose for making money and an appreciative eye for the fillies.

Ten years down the track, the friends and fortune have gone. The woman he loved left him, he sold his home and he doesn't bother going to dinner parties any more, sick of them ending in an argument and a walk-out. And what few people know is that every morning for two years, Joe Karam, former All Black, successful entrepreneur and self-appointed crusader for justice, would wake up, sink to the edge of the bed and cry.

"I had to get up and fight the battle all over again by myself ... None of my friends have stuck by me. None ... One of the hardest things has been the loneliness. I'm the only bugger left. No one's there to pat you on the back."

Depending on the opinions of five law lords at the Privy Council, the fight may soon be over for both convicted mass murderer David Bain and the man who has spent the past 11 years campaigning for his release. Karam's public credibility has become so fused to his crusade for Bain's release that in a way the court will also be passing judgment on him.

Karam lives in Te Kauwhata, an up-and-coming settlement off the Auckland-Hamilton highway. He got the brick house - a deceased estate - for a bargain last year. Brian, the widower owner who died at 91, hadn't touched a thing since the 1960s, leaving Karam with tearaway gardens, exhausted chocolate-box wallpaper and a lot of potential. And one ageing peacock - that he calls Brian - desperately holding on to his last shaky tail feather.

The paper trail from the Bain case is hidden in the garage in several floor-to-ceiling shelving units. If Karam does not know off the top of his head how many pairs of trainers Bain owned, he knows exactly what page to find it on. For a man who says he's not in too deep, it's a curious skill to boast about.

Karam well remembers the day in 1996 when he read the newspaper article about "an old music teacher and a bunch of young, long-haired university students" trying to raise money for Bain's appeal by selling jam. He speaks in a tone that could be exasperation from telling it so many times or frustration at a system that makes people do such a thing for justice: he rode in and gave them money.

Karam also split from his wife that year. They remain friends. It wasn't his crusade that broke them up: the marriage was over before he began his affair with the Bain case, he says. If anything, the separation drove him to it. Vulnerable and maybe a little disillusioned, Karam was an accident waiting for the Bain case to happen.

With his interest piqued by Bain's exuberant first lawyer Michael Guest, Karam read through the trial material. By the time he had become angered enough at the perceived injustices to write David and Goliath, two main pieces of evidence stood out as troubling: the time the computer, which contained a purported suicide note and admission of guilt from father Robin Bain, was turned on; and the photos and statements from police about where a lens from a pair of glasses said to be worn by David that day was found.

But in those early weeks, Karam says he was most swayed by meeting Bain: believing himself to be a good judge of character, Karam thought it "odd" that anyone could think this guileless man was a killer.

He says the 11-year war was the fault of the police. Besides the "millions" he says it has cost him directly and in lost earnings, the toll so far includes a Police Complaints Authority review, a judicial review, two hearings by the Court of Appeal, a high-profile defamation suit, two Privy Council hearings and several settlements between Bain and various media organisations. They started it, says Karam, by attacking him personally as if he were "some sort of hellraiser". He believes he had no choice but to fight back.

"Two firms of private investigators were hired to follow me around. My phone was tapped. It was like the KGB. That was what I was subjected to."

It emerged in court during the defamation trial against Karam that a private investigator had indeed been hired by the two officers taking the case: the sleuth was hired to investigate Karam's finances and to check the statements he was making about the two men. There is no evidence that the investigators tapped his phone.

"People think that I've had an obsession, which means that I've got so emotionally and every other way involved in this that I'm prepared to stop at nothing to try to get my belief believed by other people. But what really happened," he says, "is that every step of the way it wasn't really my decision. There's always another battle to fight. And I have won every battle.

"The police have come at me again and again. They've tried to keep me down. But every time Joe Karam rises like a phoenix."

Some of his case rests for validity on the supposition of police conspiracy: if I knew police like he did, says Karam, I'd understand.

He also took up the case when others didn't, he says, because he was "naïve" enough to believe that the police would be horrified by the inaccuracies he had uncovered, and because he is "a thinker".

"People ask me what I do, and I say, I think. That's how I make my money. I spend a lot of time on my own and you can make a lot more money thinking than you can working. With the Bain case, I think about things that never dawn on other people."

As an example, he says he was the only one who thought about what possible motive David would have to suddenly shoot his family.

Discussing the case with Karam can be infuriating. He knows every detail and uses a fair bit of that old spit and polish to make his arguments seem shiny and convincing. He states boldly that "we now know Robin Bain was psychotic", but the only new evidence since the trial was that Robin was clinically depressed.

Karam is defensive when challenged, and still bitter about a magazine article by journalist Rosemary McLeod that cast doubt on his motives for supporting Bain. He sued: her publication settled out of court. Another victory.

Police, of course, beg to differ with Karam's version of events. Karam got personal as well, making accusations against individual police in David and Goliath, which led to the defamation trial (Karam won). Since Karam's involvement, a Police Complaints Authority report, a Ministry of Justice inquiry and a Court of Appeal decision have found that although the police could have been more thorough, sound evidence for Bain's conviction remained.

For Karam, this shows how flawed the justice system is. He plans to set up an organisation similar to the Innocence Project in the US, where those with skills and resources offer their help pro bono, like a support club for single crusaders such as himself, Keith Hunter and Mike Kalaugher (the Scott Watson campaigners). But he'll probably only do it if he wins.

"People like winners, not losers, especially when it comes to money. If I won, I would be able to expound my views with a degree of importance. People would listen. I would have the success to act as a mentor [to other crusaders] and to pull them along."

For Karam, victory is important. Friends say he strives to win to the highest level, but only if they're causes he believes in.

But he has always had a strong sense of justice. At 16, he seriously considered becoming a priest. He later read a book about the existence of God that served only to prove the opposite, so he converted to another religion, rugby. But, he says, he has always been "pastoral" and finds it "difficult to walk past a person with a problem". Friends say he'd be the first one to offer help when they needed it.

The eldest child and only son of his Lebanese father and Irish mother, Karam had a blessed childhood on the family farm just out of Raurimu. They weren't rich, but there was no great hardship. His sisters went to Horowhenua College, while Karam was sent to St Patrick's Catholic boys' college in Silverstream, Upper Hutt.

He was, in a sense, an underdog: a country kid thrown in "with all these kids who had everything. They moaned about the food and that there was nothing to do on Friday night. I treasured it."

He grabbed every opportunity: he was a member of the public-speaking team, a prefect and even played a Maori boy in the 1968 school production. He was liked, he says, but didn't court popularity: he'd be the one training while his friends were smoking by the river.

He excelled in sport. Other students could run faster and kick better, he says, but they didn't use their brains like he did.

His notebooks of that time reveal much about Karam's fastidiousness and determination. From 14 on, he kept meticulous records of all his games with the First XV: the venue, the teams, scores (half-time and fulltime), players and positions, tries and penalties (for and against), the conditions and a critical but fair, and always optimistic, commentary on their performance, including his own. Each page is numbered: on the back page he has included an index. Against Taita in 1968: "We played a shocking game ... and my kicking was very poor ... however, we look forward to better things."

Karam shows me a newspaper clipping that he says will help to get "a better understanding" of what kind of person he is. It is a write-up of his "outstanding" performance at an interschool athletics tournament. It attributes much of the school's win to Karam: the saviour of St Patrick's.

Better things did soon come to Karam: the youngest-ever player picked to represent Wellington, he is widely accepted as one of the best All Black fullbacks ever.

Karam was even better known for being the first high-profile union player to defect to league, joining an Auckland club in 1975 for $20,000 a year. Teammates cried when they heard the news, he says: it was like being excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

His move had much in common with his decision to stick with the Bain case: he saw hypocrisy and injustice in rugby management. Karam was horrified by the financial burden that players experienced. On the UK tour of 1971, they got a pound a day as their living allowance. It was enough, says Karam, for a pint of beer in a London pub, and for players of "modest employment" slogging it out on the field for their country it meant that "their wife and children were starving back home".

At that time, he says, rugby officials "were flying around the world drinking champagne like it was going out of fashion".

"It was a form of protest. I've always been, well, people might say obnoxious," he says. "I've never been afraid to do what I wanted to do even when it doesn't fit the pattern."

His decision wasn't just based on principle, though: Karam, by now newly married, knew he didn't have many seasons left, and, ever the entrepreneur, took the money.

Karam wonders whether, if he hadn't been an All Black, his campaign would have gained so much traction. He expresses dismay that All Blacks, with their high public profile, contribute so little to society.

A few years ago, he attended an All Black centenary celebration and was overwhelmed by the response he got. "It's not exaggerating to say more than 20 wives of players that I met over the years came up to me and said quietly, 'Well done, Joe, I think what you're doing is fantastic. I wish that my husband and all of his cronies would do something. They think that their lives start and end down at the local rugby club. It's a shame they won't take a better interest in society.'"

He doesn't subscribe to "the Lion Red mentality" that life is "rugby, racing and beer", and that, he says, is one of the reasons the rugby fraternity view him with "a great deal of suspicion".

"If they look at what I'm doing too closely, all it would do is force them to examine their conscience, which they wouldn't really want to have to look at, because who are the All Blacks who have become such great leaders? Where are the All Blacks who have stood up for anything that is actually really that admirable?"

What, I ask, about John Kirwan fronting a campaign for mental health?

"I don't think he's putting his life out to help others. Where do we see examples of All Blacks stepping outside their comfort zone with possibly a little bit of personal risk to do something that actually helps New Zealand society? We all think All Blacks are gods, so they must be great leaders. But start analysing it. It's bloody dreadful that All Blacks don't individually do more." He appears to have forgotten men like Sir Wilson Whineray.

Whether Karam is, as he believes, doing society any good remains to be seen. We'll probably never know. Even he admits that the Bain case has become so layered that no one will ever know with certainty what happened at 65 Every St in 1994.

Karam may not have gone into this most unlikely of partnerships for the fame, but it is clear that he has enjoyed the attention. The furore when David and Goliath was launched was, he says, "incredible". He appeared regularly on Holmes, blew the TV1 show's ratings through the roof, and did a thousand other media interviews, without so much as a personal assistant to manage his calls.

The journalists who wooed him have since lost interest: Holmes, who once wrote that "I love my friend, Joe Karam", never calls.

Karam repeatedly talks about how unique he is, and what an underdog he is. He is the only New Zealand citizen, he says, to be sued by the police with their mighty resources. (In fact, two individual police officers, not the department, sued Karam for defamation over allegations made in his book.)

It seems everyone - police, the courts, the NZ Herald, even the Montana Book Awards judges - has had it in for him. David and Goliath remains one of the best-selling books in New Zealand, he says, but he wasn't even nominated for a Montana.

When he talks about the Bain case, he refers back to himself and about finding evidence that is "good for me" rather than "good for David".

His bookshelves look like a recommended reading list for Social Justice Crusaders 101: Beyond Reasonable Doubt by David Yallop, In the Name of the Law by David Rose, and everything ever written by John Grisham. His favourite movie? 12 Angry Men. They are fuel for his fire: he relies on past victories to give him hope.

It is important to Karam that people believe in what they do: he believes in the sanctity of a fair trial. It explains his view on Osama bin Laden. He doesn't condone what bin Laden has done, but unlike George W Bush, says Karam, at least bin Laden believes in what he stands for.

The year of the Crewe murders, Karam broke his kneecap and while recuperating became engrossed in the investigation. It might have left a mark on his subconscious. In David and Goliath, he writes that he had to remind himself that Thomas was found guilty twice before his release. And the Bain case, he says, is bigger than Thomas's in terms of its impact on New Zealand history.

"The thing with causes célèbres of this nature - miscarriages of justice like Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six - is that you see history repeating itself. You even get posthumous pardons. When truths are hidden, they eat away at people until they attack."

The loneliness has consumed some of Karam. His three children, Richard, 30, Matt, 28, and Simone, 24, have stuck by him. When he talks about them, he is engaging, enthusiastic and happy. His friends, he says, have not been as loyal.

"I understand why. It's a lot to put up with ... They'd say, 'Do we invite Joe Karam for dinner? Well, if you want a row during the second course.'"

He admits that the rows might have been as much his fault as anyone's and that he relegated relationships, and every? thing else, to second place. But, he says, he needed all his energy to fight.

His one true regret seems to be his break-up with runner Allison Roe. He wanted to marry her, but she couldn't take the fallout from his campaign any more. It was the first time he'd ever been dumped, and it probably did him good, he says.

Karam put himself out to pasture then: it was easier, he says, to be alone. He's coming right now, though. He once remarked to a journalist that he knew he was down when he'd lost his appetite for women. He seems to have found it again.

Today his shirt is a little faded but still Lacoste, the shoes Prada: even when he was penniless and renting, he always dressed as if he had money.

Karam seems to equate wealth with happiness. He's got plans: there are his franchises, his coffee business and property. He's already made $1 million in the past 18 months through investments. He wants to renovate the house; his new granddaughter, Lola, and her mother are close by, and there'll be another book.

He is cautiously optimistic about the Privy Council's decision. One suspects if he is wrong, it will be like a death in the family. Karam knows it is also his chance for vindication.

"If we lose, the jury will be out on me. There'll be those who admire and respect me and then there's the Establishment that will say we were right all along and that Karam was a loose cannon."

Of course, if the Privy Council upholds Bain's conviction, it's not over - where there's life, there's hope, he says. But for now he waits, sitting in his black leather chair in the corner with a cigarette and a bottle of sauvignon, dropping ash on the carpet, listening to a recording of Winston Churchill's greatest speeches, waiting to hear whether he is winner or widower. The only bugger left.

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