Dead ends

by Pat Booth / 01 April, 2006
Those who still accept the police case against Arthur Allan Thomas are wrong.

So the Royal Commission that found Arthur Thomas innocent of the Crewe murders was swayed by family folklore! So says police historian Susan Butterworth, in criticising (Letters, March 18) the latest television documentary on the case.

"Folklore" is a strange label to apply to 64 days of hearings, 132 witnesses, 3500 pages of evidence, 210 exhibits and 5000 pages of police files. The commission members were not given to accepting baseless folklore; they were a tough retired judge from New South Wales, a former National cabinet minister and a former Anglican primate of New Zealand.

Butterworth's letter was a reminder of familiar police beliefs: that Thomas was guilty; that the pardon by the Muldoon Government and the Royal Commission of Inquiry's heavy criticisms of police were wrong. Her special target was the commission's verdict that, in order to convict Thomas, police planted a crucial cartridge case from the Thomas rifle in the Crewe garden, thus linking him to the killings. Thomas supporters had "persuaded the 1981 Royal Commission of their viewpoint", endorsed in the commission's report without "the slightest explanation". No evidence "has ever been produced that the disputed cartridge case actually was planted or that such a fabrication could be tied to any individual", she wrote.

Far from folklore, telling evidence produced by forensic scientist Dr Jim Sprott and myself was based on scientific facts and the detailed records of the Melbourne firm that made the cartridge case and the bullets found in the bodies of the Crewes.

Perhaps significantly, the first clue that the Crown's prime exhibit was a fake came from retired detective Jack Ritchie, a 63-year-old gun-shop operator in Dannevirke. He read reports from the first trial and rummaged in his stock to see if he could find similar examples. He couldn't. Instead, he saw differences in the cartridge cases that the police swore were identical - differences undetected even by the Melbourne company before Jim Sprott and I checked their comprehensive record system.

The police cartridge case and those distinctive bullets from the bodies didn't match and had never been together on the production line. Which meant that the cartridge the police "found" in the garden outside the Crewe house and which carried the ejector marks of the Thomas rifle was not a clue to the murders. Someone who didn't know the difference had planted the wrong one. Who?

The commission traced a paper trail through police records and evidence back to the head of the investigation, Inspector Bruce Hutton, and Detective Len Johnston. They borrowed the Thomas rifle and a packet of cartridges from his Pukekawa farm -"uplifted", as police jargon has it - before they carried out "firing tests" around the Crewe farmhouse.

A few days later, Hutton ordered a sieve search of the Crewe garden across from the louvres where police assumed the first shot had been fired, an area he said had not been sieved before.

Among witnesses the commission heard was Ross Meurant, then a constable, later an inspector and an MP, who told how he had been involved in a meticulous search of that garden area on June 23, 1970, the very early days of the police inquiry. Graham Hewson, Harvey's best man, told how he helped police sieve that garden at that time. Police later denied that he helped.

Far from being a pawn of pro-Thomas "folklore", Hewson later told me: "If Thomas had done it, I wouldn't want him just jailed - I'd want him hanged." Yet he gave crucial evidence in support of him.

On the basis of days of evidence, the commission said: "With the aid of scientists we have demolished the cornerstone of the Crown case ... it was not put in the garden by the murderer but by one whose duty was to investigate fairly and to uphold the law and who fabricated this evidence to procure a conviction."

The commission knew, of course, of Hutton's unexplained switch of plans for that controversial cartridge case. After the second guilty verdict, he talked proudly about having this key exhibit from one of his great triumphs polished and sent to the police museum. Then, about the time my first challenge to it was published and illustrated in the Auckland Star, the cartridge case was suddenly sent instead to be buried in Whitford Tip along with 136 other exhibits. It was never recovered.

If there was folklore, it came from the prosecution's distortion of facts. Take the theory that, from their young days in Pukekawa, Thomas was obsessed with Jeanette Crewe and had pestered her so much before her marriage that she gave up teaching at nearby Maramarua school and had fled "all the way to Wanganui" to get away from him. "She hadn't completed her course there ... what were you doing to drive her away?" Thomas was asked.

Prosecutor David Morris overrode the Thomas denials of pestering. Wrongly. My later check of education records revealed there was no "course" at Maramarua. She was simply a relieving teacher for two months, filling in time before an appointment in Wanganui that she had applied for before her spell at Maramarua. Police had never made inquiries at the school.

She didn't go to Wanganui to get away from Thomas but to be close to a friend, Beverley Willis, daughter of a magistrate in the city. They had recently shared their OE. She lived with Beverley for her first few months in Wanganui. As Beverley's bridesmaid, Jeanette first met Harvey Crewe. He was the groomsman.

In the second Thomas trial, Morris asked Thomas: "Do you know anybody with more reason than you to be jealous of Harvey Crewe?" I remember Arthur Thomas hesitating at this loaded question, knowing if he said, "Yes", the next question would be, "Who?" So, unwillingly, he said, "No".

When David Morris reminded the jury of that exchange later, he grossly misquoted the reply: "In cross-examination, he agreed that 'no one in Pukekawa had more reason than me to be jealous of Harvey Crewe' ... That, you may think, was a very significant piece of evidence."

The jury may have been taken in by this, but the commission wasn't. From their final report: "We reject entirely that any of the evidence established a motive ... to kill the Crewes ... [Thomas] was charged and convicted because the police manufactured evidence and withheld evidence which could be of value to the defence ... we believe ... him innocent.

"That a man is wrongly imprisoned on the basis of evidence which is false to the knowledge of police officers is an unspeakable outrage ... a shameful and cynical attack on the trust all New Zealanders have and are entitled to have in their police force and system of administration of justice."

Journalist Pat Booth did his own investigation of the case after the second trial and campaigned for Thomas's release. His book, Trial By Ambush, was published in 1975. He was the first witness called by the Royal Commission of Inquiry.

The Final Hours

What Pat Booth believes happened:

Police searching country around that farmhouse in Pukekawa in June 1970 told the Auckland Star: "We're looking for two bodies - one in the river, the other up a tree." That summed up the first theory: murder and suicide.

When first Jeanette Crewe's body and then Harvey's surfaced in the nearby Waikato River in the months ahead, there seemed no question it was a double murder. The prime suspect for months was Jeanette's father, Len Demler, who lived on the next farm and had reported the house and its sole occupant, toddler daughter Rochelle. By October, police were poised to arrest and charge him. Then they suddenly changed their focus and instead charged Arthur Thomas.

They might have saved themselves trouble and him long agony if they had stuck with the murder-suicide theory, the argument defence counsel, Paul Temm QC, unsuccessfully put to the first trial jury. I remember Paul and I, who had once shared a St Patrick's College classroom, comparing notes around a restaurant table. As our dinners went cold, pepper and salt, cutlery and glasses became a bloodstained chair and lines of sight.

As we saw it:

During a major domestic in the Crewe house that Wednesday night in June, the irascible Harvey punched his wife so heavily that he broke a bone in her face - teeth were missing when she was found. She got Harvey's rifle and shot him as he sat in his favourite chair in front of the fire.

Then she phoned her father Len Demler. Between them they disposed of Harvey's body in the river and tried unsuccessfully to clean up bloodstains in the house. They burnt a probably bloodstained mat and a cushion in the lounge fireplace. Over the next few days Jeanette nursed her injury and became understandably desperate as she realised she faced a murder charge.

In this scenario, Jeanette was the woman seen near the house on the Friday when the police reconstruction said she was already dead and in the river. She was the person who dressed Rochelle and let her outside to play where she was seen by a passing driver on the Saturday morning. Later, she put her down in her cot in the pyjamas and two nappies the distraught child was found in. Jeanette garaged the family car originally seen parked alongside the house. She - and probably her father - moved stock and fed the farm dogs over those days.

Some time over the following weekend, she shot herself, and Demler put her body into the river, plus a rifle. On the Monday, he staged discovering the house and called the police. He never joined the search, telling the first trial: "I was worried about it, but there were plenty of others doing the searching. They were falling over each other."

Police said that when he went to the morgue to identify Jeanette after she was found in the river he showed little emotion. He told the first trial that when he went a month later, after Harvey was recovered, he recognised him by the gumboots he was wearing. When Temm challenged his statement that the body was not wearing gumboots, he said he had identified his son-in-law by hand-knitted socks. Strange.

Why then did Demler allow Arthur Thomas to be charged with murders he did not commit? He wanted to protect his dead daughter and his little granddaughter, and he believed the police could never convict Thomas, because he hadn't done it.

In that, he underestimated the ingenuity of certain police and the justice system - and made Thomas yet another victim of the tragedy.

*Acknowledgement: Obviously, the police do not accept this theory. To do so would leave them with records of a mysterious cartridge from the Thomas rifle they cannot explain. Nor do members of the Thomas family, such as his brother Des, who featured in that TV documentary and who continues research to identify the Crewes' mystery killer.

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