Meltdown: Death of a family

by Bruce Ansley / 02 June, 2007
After the Privy Council quashed David Bain's conviction for murder, Bain campaigner Joe Karam spoke in a Weekend Herald interview about why he'd taken up the case in the first place. One thing that had got him thinking was a Listener article published just after the trial at which Bain was convicted in 1995.

Said Karam: "Journalist Bruce Ansley wrote in the Listener that after three weeks and 100 witnesses everyone was wondering why David Bain would have done this."

Here is that article, reprinted in full, as it appeared in the Listener of June 17, 1995, just days after the jury in the Dunedin High Court found David Bain guilty of murdering five of his family.

David Bain took the guilty verdict as you'd expect of a young man who was about to spend the best years of his life in jail. He paled, swayed, collapsed.

One year after the five other members of the Bain family were murdered, after 11 months of investigation and three weeks of trial, David had not altered his story a jot. He didn't kill them. His father Robin did.

But for Robin Bain to have killed his family, then himself, involved a sequence of improbabilities and coincidences that the jury of five women and seven men clearly couldn't accept.

Yet - why would David murder the family he loved? Nothing the prosecution put forward during his trial suggested a reason.

To his friends and relatives, David was a happy young man, immersed in music and sport. No one suspected him of violence.

Violence, in fact, was foreign to the Bains. In the words of a friend, they were a "lovely, cultured family". Dunedin was not only stunned by its third mass murder in a decade, the city was astonished that it had happened to the Bains. A talented, middle-class, spiritual family, which lived by its principles, had simply melted down.

David Cullen Bain, 23, now faces a life sentence for the murder of his mother, father, two sisters and brother. For almost the whole trial, he sat immobile, sometimes in blue fibrepile jacket, sometimes in the dark-blue jersey lent by his lawyer Mike Guest. He had had his wavy light-brown hair cut short, giving a gaunt look to his delicate face.

Occasionally, when the full horror of what had happened to his family was shown in videos and given in oral evidence, he sobbed. Most of the time he looked at exactly the same spot on the old desk in the century-old Victorian courtroom with such intensity that after three weeks it should have smouldered and burned. Reporters who had watched him during the pre-trial hearing last year said the only time he had shown emotion was when someone had called his keeshond dog Casey a mongrel. He had muttered angrily.

At the end, it was clear that this monstrous killing lacked a monster. David Bain was just a normal young man and, after tens of thousands of words of evidence, there is still one question no one can answer: why?

At 7.10am on the shortest day of last year, Frances Edwards, a Christchurch Telecom operator, answered a 111 call. The caller was making strange, groaning sounds. Maybe, she thought, he had asthma. Maybe he was on drink or drugs. "I've got a right one here," said Edwards to the operator beside her. The caller gasped that his father was dead. She put him onto the ambulance service and, in accordance with Telecom policy, began taking other calls.

Tom Dempsey was working a 14-hour shift in the St John Ambulance control room in Dunedin when the call came through. A panicky voice, high-pitched, but the details were quite clear. "They're all deeeaaaad," moaned the caller. "I came home and they're all dead ..." His name, he said, was David Bain. His address, 65 Every St, Andersons Bay.

The first police car pulled up outside at 7.30am. Sergeant Murray Stapp, a former traffic officer, took a revolver from his car and ran towards the house. It was pitch dark. Shrubs blocked the street lights. Stapp could see a light in the hallway through the glass panels in the front door. A voice came from one room. It sounded distressed. The policemen could see a rifle and part of a man's body in another room.

Stapp sent back to the car for two more revolvers, The key in the front door wouldn't turn. He took a piece of wood, smashed a panel, cleared the glass with his revolver barrel, reached inside and opened the door. A pile of spears and primitive masks fell across their path with a clatter.

David was in his room, lying on the floor in a foetal position. Stapp moved slowly towards him, covering him with his gun. Bain was hysterical, He wailed. "They're all dead, they're all dead ..."

The air smelt musty and stale. The four police officers crept through the dark house, every sense alert. They found Robin Bain, 58. His wife Margaret, 50. Then Arawa, 19, Laniet, 18, and Stephen, 14. Only David, his dog Casey and a ginger cat remained alive.

Robin lay partly on his back, a .22 Winchester rifle with telescopic sight and silencer near his hand. His body was still warm as if he had been killed within the hour.

The next room on the right down the hall was piled with junk. Furniture, cartons, heaps of clothing and rubbish reached almost to the ceiling. A narrow pathway through the mess led to a double waterbed and in it, under a pink and green duvet, lay Margaret. Her right eye was closed. Her left was filled with blood from a bullet wound just under the eyebrow. A trickle ran down her cheek. The dog, a dark, fluffy thing like a husky, was in her room.

Stephen's room. The arrows show blood spread.

The entrance to Stephen's room led off his mother's. A grey blanket served as a door. Batman posters covered the walls. The room was even more of a mess. Racks, shoes, clothes, blankets, sports gear, bike helmets, even a jar of Granny's Foot Remedy. A fierce struggle had evidently taken place. Blood was everywhere and, in the middle of it - blood-soaked white T-shirt pulled around his neck above his black underpants - lay Stephen. He had been shot twice, partly strangled, then finished off with a single shot through the top of his head.

Laniet, dressed in jersey and pants, for this was the middle of a southern winter and the old house was so rotten that you could see through the walls in places, lay on a single bed in a room that looked as if it had been used as a study. She had been shot three times in the head. The first shot may not have been immediately fatal. Blood spattered her hand where she had raised it to the wound.

The policemen crept down the stairs. The kitchen at the bottom was filthy. The rest of the house smelt; the kitchen stank. Dirty dishes lay in the sink, unwashed pots sat on the coal range. Shelves of preserves were so old that some of their contents had disintegrated. A bathroom at the back was just as rank. Maggots crawled on the handbasin pedestal.

A narrow passageway ran from the bottom of the stairs. Two steps down, two curtains, one beaded, the other white mesh, covered the doorway of the room beyond. Inside, a young woman lay on her back, legs tucked beneath. Arawa Bain had been kneeling in her pink pyjamas and green jersey when she had been shot once in the head. Mementos of school, university, teachers' college lay around the room. Photographs of Arawa working as a model were pinned to the walls.

Back in his room, David was convulsing. Chief ambulance officer Craig Wombwell had been called to someone who seemed to be having a fit and David certainly looked bad. He lay on the floor, still curled up, his body heaving in fits. When he spoke, he complained of a bump on the head.

The paramedics could find nothing wrong with him. A cardiac monitor showed a normal heartbeat. David was lying with his eyes shut, but he seemed conscious and able to hear. He simply did not respond. Once, when he heard a dog bark outside, he raised his head and called "Casey!" Then he sank back to the floor. Quietly at first, then more loudly, he repeated a phrase. "Black hands are coming to get me." Then he became lucid. He had to get up, he said, and go to varsity.

Detective Sergeant Milton Weir, now in charge of the scene investigation, had David carried to the ambulance in a carry-chair. He was concerned for David's welfare. But partly, too, he wanted to preserve all David's clothing. It was already clear that the young man was a suspect.

Stephen was the killer's undoing. The boy must have been woken by the "phut" noise, quieter even than the click of the trigger mechanism, made by the silenced, subsonic .22 bullets.

This is the version put forward by the prosecution and accepted by the jury. In the defence scenario, only the name of the killer would change.

The evidence suggested that, as his killer came through the curtained door, Stephen woke and grabbed the muzzle of the gun. The first shot may have gone through his hand and along his forehead. Stephen was hurt, bleeding profusely, but alive and kicking.

The second shot misfired. The rifle jammed often. It gave Stephen his chance. "He was so strong," David told Margaret's sister Valerie Boyd after the shootings. "He must have fought so hard."

David tried to clear the gun. He stripped off the blood-soaked white dress gloves (bought previously for a ball at Larnach's Castle), so he could put a finger into the breech. The gloves were left on the floor.

But Stephen was struggling fiercely. His back bore the diamond imprints of his dresser handle where he had been forced backwards, bruises where he had been bashed with the silencer. Blood from his head splashed everywhere, over the gun, over David's clothes, over the floor. It was then, probably, that David's bloodprints got onto the gun. The killer, his rifle temporarily useless, forced up the boy's T-shirt and strangled him with it, holding on until Stephen was incapacitated. Blood spread onto the crotch of David's shorts. Deep finger scores were left on the boy's neck, as if he had been trying to free himself. The gun was cleared. Then, in a manner that later led prosecutor Bill Wright to describe the murders as an execution, Stephen was finished off with a shot through the top of his head.

The fight was David's downfall. It left bruises on his right temple. The spare pair of glasses he was wearing - his own had been broken the previous week - were knocked off and twisted. A lens was left in the room, along with the cover from the telescopic sight. The spectacle frame and other lens were later found in David's room.

The dark-green jersey he was wearing, which he later said was Robin's, left fibres under Stephen's nails. One shoulder was soaked in blood. As he backed out of the room the jersey left telltale blood smears on the doorway. Droplets of blood fell onto David's socks. Blood on the floor soaked into the right sole, leaving prints that later showed up as blue luminescence under a sprayed chemical called luminol. They led out of the room where his mother lay dead, shot in her sleep, along the hall, in and out of Laniet's room.

Probably Laniet had been shot once by then. But the first shot may not have killed her. She would have made gurgling noises as the frothy blood from the wound in her cheek was sucked into her airways. She was killed by two more shots, one the characteristic shot through the top of the head. And David later said that he had heard Laniet gurgling. Wright leapt on the admission. Only one person could have heard that, he said. Her killer.

But Stephen must have been screaming. The noise of the fight probably carried to Arawa's room, although not to the old caravan behind the house where Robin slept, ousted from Margaret's bed. Arawa was out of bed, David was now without his glasses, couldn't see clearly beyond 30cm or so. He fired from the waist. Missed. The shot thudded into the wall behind the bed. The gun again misfired, was cleared. The second shot took her cleanly in the head as she knelt on the floor. Pleading? Praying?

What took Arawa so long to react to the prolonged noises above? Possibly, she was deeply asleep. She had been to a ball on the Saturday night with her friend Dougal McGowan and hadn't got in until 4.00am on Sunday.

The killer went into the bathroom downstairs, tried to clean up. He put the bloody jersey into the washing machine, leaving a bloody palmprint on the top in just the right position for a person leaning to fetch the detergent. He tried to sponge off blood that had soaked through onto his white Gondoliers T-shirt.

Only Robin and David now remained alive. David left the house early for his newspaper run delivering the Otago Daily Times. On his Walkman he played the Queen song that he later wanted played for Laniet at the funeral: "Who Wants to Live Forever". A long distance runner, he sped through the round with Casey in tow, finishing earlier than usual.

He knew his father came into the living-room to pray each morning. He darted behind the curtains covering an alcove off the living-room, where the family computer was kept. Waited. Without realising that an engineer could later fix the exact time the computer was switched on - 6.44am - he flicked the switch and composed a final touch. He typed: "Sorry, you're the only one who deserved to stay." The message only made sense if written by his father. It was a machiavellian touch.

In the caravan outside, Robin's alarm clock was set to go off between 6.30 and 6.45am. When it was checked, it went off at 6.32. He had been reading Agatha Christie's Death Comes as the End, a work first published in wartime. The plot, curiously, concerns the serial killing of a family. But it is set in Egypt, 4000 years ago.

Robin collected the morning newspaper (delivered by another paper boy). He came into the room dressed in the shirt he was to wear to school that morning, with a dark-blue sweatshirt pulled over the top, a pair of old track-suit pants and a green woolly hat.

Perhaps he sat in his customary position, his hand to his forehead, to pray. David shot him through the gap between the curtains. The spent shell ejected behind the curtains. He placed the rifle beside his father's hand, and the spare magazine by the rifle. Having done everything he could, he dialled 111.

To the outside world, this was an attractive, talented family. Says longtime family friend Ken King: "I always saw a very happy family, right up to the last." Les Cleveland, David's music coach and friend: "I'm still trying to come to grips with how this happened to such a lovely, cultured family."

But layer after layer was peeled back by the murder trial. In the end, this was a family that was cracking up.

The trouble probably began in Papua New Guinea. Robin, a primary school teacher, had been there on Volunteer Service Abroad in 1964. He returned to Dunedin in 1965, met Margaret at the city's big Presbyterian First Church in 1967, married her in August 1969. David was born on March 27, 1972. They bought the big, old house in Andersons Bay. In 1973, Robin and Margaret returned to PNG as mission teachers at Gaulim Teachers' College, run by the United Church; the family later moved to Port Moresby. David was one and a half when they left, 16 when they returned to Dunedin late in 1988. Arawa, Laniet and Stephen were all born in PNG.

Barbara Neasmith, now a high-school teacher in Sydney, met the Bains in PNG in 1975, when they were all teachers and members of the United Church, with a shared love of music and singing. Robin played keyboard and guitar, Margaret the piano. "They were a happy, close-knit family, bonded by deep religious beliefs."

Yet, when she visited the Bains in Every St in 1991, she found a very different story. Robin was living in the caravan at the back of the section, coming in every morning to pray. She heard arguments. Margaret called Robin the Lion, or the devil. Neasmith concluded that this was a dysfunctional family.

Margaret was into New Age religion, consulting a pendulum of crystals over decisions as small as whether to buy peaches or apricots. Neasmith became a little testy. Once, in Te Anau, she suggested tea in a nearby restaurant. Margaret hesitated: "Are you sure?" "Well," Neasmith responded, "I haven't consulted God, but I don't think he'll mind."

The parents seemed uncomfortable back in New Zealand. Robin was out of fulltime work for almost two years. He took relief teaching jobs. According to King, he sold Amway products for a time. King gave him some work in his floor-covering business. Their Presbyterian church friends found them moving away, Robin to the Quakers, Margaret (now an anthropology graduate) to spheres of her own. A coolness grew, especially as some church friends felt Margaret was resentful that Robin, who had spent much of his life on church business abroad, should now be out of work. Said Tom Campbell, in whose parents' home Robin had lived before he was married: "Margaret said the church owed him something."

Eventually, Robin got a job as principal at the two-teacher Taieri Beach school, a tiny settlement along the coast, south of Dunedin. He slept in his old Commer van on the school grounds until the school board politely suggested it wasn't appropriate. Then he slept in his van on the roadside until he was able to move into the school house, coming back to the caravan for weekends and Royal Dunedin Male Choir practice on Monday nights.

Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife was deteriorating. First, she moved into the caravan, then he did. Margaret wanted him out, Robin refused to go. "Oh, Dad," sighed David in a telephone conversation with Neasmith, "he still won't let go."

Robin desperately wanted to keep the family together, but the strain was taking its toll. When Robin returned from PNG, he looked so wasted that Ron Campbell, Tom's father, thought he was suffering from some tropical fever.

Robin, always quiet, always pleasant with his dry sense of humour, seemed to be turning into a shell. Even in 1991 Neasmith found him passive. Margaret, dominant, was calling the shots. Said Neasmith: "Margaret seemed to think she should make most of the decisions, and appeared to make most of them."

Robin brought in the family income. Margaret didn't earn money. Increasingly, she watched TV until very late, lay in bed in the morning. Sometimes she gardened. She grew more involved with herbal medicine, homeopathic remedies, and doted on her eldest son. Valerie Boyd told the high court: "David was the apple of her eye."

The old house was already dirty. Ken King said that he found it more homely than filthy. It was filled with artefacts from PNG: "It was a museum. You couldn't have dusted it. You'd have had to remove it all."

Yet it was clearly getting worse. Weatherboards were rotten, spouting so bad that the neighbours complained and the family had been ordered to do something with the house or demolish it.

Robin told friends that he had lost heart for the renovations. Margaret dreamt of building a new house on the site.

The place stank. "When we'd cleaned the whole place out, aired it by leaving the doors and windows open," said Milton Weir, "we'd open the fridge door to show people what the place smelt like when we came in. There were as many flies there as you'd expect in summer." Said Detective Senior-Sergeant Jim Doyle, in charge of the investigation: "If you'd been invited to have a cup of tea there, you'd have politely declined."

The family planned their new home. It was to be built on this .5ha section behind Andersons Bay in Dunedin, a beautiful site they had worked on, covered with trees. The house was to be six bedrooms, with ensuite bathrooms, double garage and lots of room for everyone. It was to be financed by $65,000 that the Bains kept in an investment account, and by the sale of sections they owned in Bundaberg, Australia, and in Whangarei.

Yet was this just a dream? The police found the plans in the room where Laniet was killed. They did not seem to have been prepared by an architect or draughtsman. They were drawn on graph paper.

The children were the best tribute to their parents. Three of the four, at least, seemed happy and well-adjusted. Arawa was immensely popular. She would have been 20 the following Sunday. Talented, a former head girl at Bayfield High, studying for a Bachelor of Education degree while training to be a primary school teacher, she gave no hint of a dysfunctional home life. After her death, the tributes in the Otago Daily Times ran for a week. "She was so interested in people," says McGowan. "She had that quality of making you think you were the only one who mattered."

Stephen, bright, jazz trumpeter, a fourth-former at Bayfield High, never seemed to have been photographed when he wasn't smiling. He had got into a little trouble, but nothing serious. He was a happy, spirited boy.

As for David, nothing in his background hinted at problems. Despite his fragile appearance, he was keen on sport. He had competed in triathlons, run a marathon, liked swimming and orienteering with Robin and Stephen. He had been to Outward Bound in 1993.

He worked hard at long-distance running, training being one reason he did his poorly paid (for a man of 22) newspaper run. The rest of his income came from the dole. He studied music and classics at Otago University. The one jarring note: he had bought the rifle for rabbit shooting, and he must have been keen, for police found more than 1000 rounds of live ammunition in his room.

He was interested in music, like his father a member of the Royal Dunedin Male Choir, and had a string of shows behind him, most recently the Dunedin Opera Company's version of the Gondoliers, which they set in New Zealand.

One of David's jobs was to pass a barbecued sausage to each actor on stage.

Each night he would rush into the wings with the barbecue and grab the two sausages left, a huge smile on his face. "That," says Ken King, "is my lasting memory of him."

He may have been slightly nerdish, with his delicate air and glasses, and his newspaper run and his music. But he had lots of friends, who sat in the court supporting him throughout the trial. He was kind and considerate; wanting to talk to a woman friend, Rebecca Hemming, at an inconvenient hour in the morning, he arrived with muffins for breakfast. Even after committing murder, he carefully sorted the whites from the colours before putting the clothes into the washing machine. He bought biscuits for the children in the Gondoliers. In his plans for the family funeral, he included Arawa's favourite superbra. He was even good at ballroom dancing.

The prosecution could only suggest that David was slightly ... odd. He had cried during Schindler's List - but who didn't? He had gone into some sort of trance at a symphonia concert with a budding girlfriend - but later said he was "away with the fairies"; hardly unusual for a young man on a date. He had had instances of deja vu (he had once dropped a sausage into the orchestra pit in the Gondoliers and had foreseen exactly what would happen - it was thrown high into the air by the musicians). He had spoken of black hands. He had had premonitions, most ominously the week before, when he had told Hemming that something horrible was going to happen involving his girlfriend.

After the murders, he had been asked by Hemming if they were "something horrible" that he had talked of; David had said yes, fallen to his knees and howled. It didn't add up to very much, nothing that would surprise anyone who has been around young people trying to dramatise their short lives.

The defence, in fact, produced psychiatric evidence that showed him to be perfectly normal. The Listener found only one piece - known neither to the police nor the defence - that didn't fit. Stephen had been in the habit of pouring out his heart to a young theology student, Nicholas Greet. One day, a week before the killings, he told Greet that he had dreamt that David had crept into his room, pointed a rifle at his head, and said, "Bang." Stephen had confronted David the following morning, but he denied any knowledge of the incident. So Stephen thought he must have dreamt it.

The only unusual child in this family was Laniet. From two of her friends, the Listener learnt that she was, bluntly, "on the game". Said Kyle Cunningham, who had lived with Laniet and her father in the Taieri Beach school house before the killings: "She was into prostitution. She told me. She said she did it for a bit of extra cash. She kept it pretty select. Only a few."

Cunningham liked her. "She brought out the demon in me. She was a hard case."

Alan Hunter, who had flatted with Laniet for four months, told the Listener: "She'd been on the game and given it up. She was very open about it. I don't think she was very good at it. None of the family was meant to know anything. Robin wasn't even meant to see a cigarette in her hand. She was paranoid." At the time, said Hunter, Laniet had been too young to go on the dole, but didn't like the tension at home. "She thought her mother was weird." Laniet, closer to her father, had moved in with him.

Other sources confirmed it. Laniet had been a prostitute.

And, said Hunter, she had tried to commit suicide, but Arawa had found her in time.

What was wrong with Laniet? David talked of a traumatic incident occurring in PNG. Certainly the reason why the family returned to Dunedin so precipitately, and patently unhappily, has never been revealed. Perhaps it was to do with the parents' deteriorating relationship.

But Laniet told friends, including Hunter, that she had been raped in PNG when she was 11, or shortly before the family returned to New Zealand, and had had a baby. She kept a photograph in her room in Hunter's flat. She told Hunter it was her child. The baby, she said, had been adopted. Hunter thought the child was a few months old, which he found strange. The baby, he said, was "non-European".

But, in the photograph the police found, the baby was white. They managed to track down the infant. "The child in the photograph," said Jim Doyle, "is not Laniet's." Photographs of Laniet at 11, said Doyle, clearly showed a pre-pubescent child. They had followed the story of the rape and childbirth back to PNG, but could find no record of either. Nor could they uncover the traumatic incident that David talked about.

Was it something about Laniet that triggered the events of June 20, 1994? There is possibly yet another twist to the family's story. But Guest, who wanted to pursue this in David's defence, was prevented from doing so by the judge's rulings. The Listener can publish no details.

What happened that night? The obvious point is that the whole family was at home. This was unusual. Laniet had to sleep in the room used as a study. It was June 19, the day before the shortest day of the year, and Robin, David and Stephen had been at the mid-winter Polar Plunge into the icy waters of St Kilda. Robin had held the boys' clothes. Later, David met Laniet at the museum cafe, where she and Arawa had worked part-time.

According to the only person who knew for certain what happened that night, David, it was a normal evening: watching a video until 8.30pm, him going to bed at 8.50 leaving his parents in the living-room watching TV, sleeping through to 5.30am, disturbed only by the sound of his parents arguing and by the car going out at about 11.00pm and returning later. (Money had been withdrawn from the parents' cashpoint account. It was found beside Margaret's bed.)

But something must have occurred Perhaps a full family conference had been called that Sunday night. Possibly it was something to do with Laniet. She, alone of the family, was shot three times; was there an element of vengeance?

Her revelations could have precipitated a crisis. Things had been going downhill in the household. The place had been getting dirtier and more unkempt. The parents' relationship had been getting worse. Was Margaret insistent in the face of crisis that Robin went at last, that the family was falling apart, that the dream house was off, that the older kids should go flatting and she would move, as she had once contemplated, into a townhouse with Stephen?

Perhaps the killer went to bed, mulled over the night's events, and, with all his dreams shattered, snapped. Wright talked of the antagonism between David and his father, suggesting that David was presented with a unique opportunity to get rid of them all and have the money for the new house. Guest believed he had found a motive for Robin, but was unable to put it before the jury. David told one of his friends that he was glad in a way that his defence had fallen down, despite the consequences for himself.

Something traumatic happened that night to trigger the killings. Perhaps Laniet was both catalyst and - if it's true that only the killer could have heard her gurgling - nemesis.

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