Chris Lewis: Footsteps of a killer

by David Lomas / 15 January, 2011

Chris Lewis. Photo/APN/Mark Mitchell

The case of murdered mother Tania Furlan and her abducted baby rested on a bloody shoe print.

Chris Lewis was a calculating psychopath who almost got away with the brutal murder of young Auckland mother Tania Furlan. But he was tripped up because he did not change his shoes.

Lewis's plan was to kidnap Furlan, 27, the wife of the manager of a large supermarket where he sometimes shopped. On July 26, 1996, he went to her Howick home carrying a parcel and pretending to be a courier. When Furlan opened the door, Lewis later told a police informant, he struck her on the head with a small ball hammer, intending to knock her out. But, he said, the blood began "pissing out" so he decided to "finish the job".

Undaunted by having killed, Lewis snatched Furlan's six-week-old baby, Tiffany, and left after leaving his pre-written ransom note. A few minutes later he changed his mind about the ransom note and raced back to collect it. However, he kept Tiffany, dropping her at a church 18km away.

Tiffany's abduction added an extra element of mystery to what was, from the start, "a confusing case", according to Detective Inspector John Manning, who headed the homicide inquiry.

Manning says in most homicides, the main suspects are family or associates. In the Furlan case, he says, it was evident from early on that family were not involved.

With no clear motive, police had to consider all possibilities, including that it was a child-snatching gone wrong. It was an aspect of the case that got considerable media coverage.

Lewis later boasted, according to the police informant, that the spur-of-the-moment decision to snatch Tiffany was the best decision he made "because the pigs are off on the wrong track".

What Lewis did not know then is that police were not off on the wrong track, they simply had no track at all. According to Manning, the only evidence police had in the first two months of the inquiry were the blood-smeared footprints left at the crime scene and the knowledge that Furlan, an immaculate housekeeper, had washed the porch floor that day.

The bloody footprint left at the scene of Tania Furlan's murder.

The bloody footprint left at the scene of Tania Furlan's murder. Photo/TVNZ

When Furlan's body was found, police and ambulance staff walked in the bloody foyer of Furlan's house. Detectives backtracked and found every person who had been there and collected the shoes they wore that day.

"Then we had just one shoe print we could not eliminate - and we were very confident they belonged to the offender," says Manning.

What made police so con­fident was that some of those shoe prints had blood on top of them, "meaning they could only have been there before she died".

But, says Manning, the size 10 Reebok trainer that made the print was a relatively common one, making tracking sales of the shoe almost impossible. However, a shoe-tread expert from crown research institute ESR told police if they could find the shoes the murderer wore, it was highly likely they would be able to match them exactly to the shoe prints at the Furlan murder scene by their distinctive pattern of wear.

Three months after the murder, the shoe print was the whole police case. "Basically we had nothing else," Manning admits. But on October 25 Manning was told rapist and career criminal Travis Burns was offering to tell police who had killed Furlan and why.

Burns had breached conditions of his parole and faced being returned to prison. He was also after reward money being offered by the police. Burns named Chris Lewis as the killer.

Burns and Lewis met in Auckland's Paremoremo maximum security prison in 1992 while Lewis was serving time for armed robbery and Burns for rape. They'd struck up an unlikely friendship centred on martial arts and marijuana. The friendship continued after they were released from prison, with Lewis setting up a martial arts studio and Burns becoming one of his students.

Brett Simpson, the police's second-in-command on the case, with a life-size photo of the entrance to the Furlan house. Photo/TVNZ

Brett Simpson, the police's second-in-command on the case, with a life-size photo of the entrance to the Furlan house. Photo/TVNZ

Lewis was well known to police. He'd come to their attention as a schoolboy who'd committed two remarkable crimes. In the first, he robbed a bank of $10,000 in his school lunch break, riding to and from the robbery on his pushbike. In the second, he attempted to shoot the Queen, firing a shot at her from a building in Dunedin during the 1981 Royal Tour.

Police downplayed the incident at the time, but when I visited Lewis in prison in 1997, he confirmed he had been making a genuine assassination attempt. Between 1981 and 1996 Lewis spent most of his time in prison for multiple armed robberies. His last stretch had been for four years for robbing a bank in Paraparaumu; he'd disguised himself as a woman.

Although police were intrigued by Burns's detailed information identifying Lewis as Furlan's murderer, they didn't have any direct evidence linking Lewis to the crime. "But clearly [Lewis] was now someone we wanted to talk to," says Manning.

Police traced Lewis to the South Island where he was camping on family property. Detectives flew down to interview him. When the detectives arrived at Lewis's campsite, says Manning, he got an incredible phone call. The detectives who called said, 'You are not going to believe this ... but Lewis is wearing Reebok shoes of the size we want', and I said 'You're bull­shitting me.'"

ESR tests confirmed the shoes matched the shoe prints found at the murder scene. With Lewis firmly in police sights, further evidence quickly amassed, including the imprint of a ransom note on a notebook stored in Lewis's rented lock-up.

Lewis was never convicted of the Furlan murder. On September 23, 1997, 14 months after Furlan's murder, he electro­cuted himself while on remand in Mt Eden Prison.

Before he killed himself, Lewis repeatedly claimed he was innocent and had been set up by Burns. He told me, and later wrote in an autobiography, that Burns had taken the shoes from his flat, committed the murder and then returned the shoes.

In November 1998, a similar murder occurred in Whangaparaoa, north of Auckland. Joanne McCarthy was battered to death in her home. The young mother had fought back against her attacker and had scratched him with her fingernails. DNA identified Travis Burns as the attacker.

The similarity of the two homicides and the fact that Burns had been the informant against Lewis prompted police to reopen the Furlan inquiry to check whether Burns could also have committed that murder. The inquiry, by police staff not connected with the Furlan inquiry, found the evidence linking Lewis to the Furlan murder was robust. No charges related to the Furlan murder were laid against Burns.

This article was first published in the January 15, 2011 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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