Ain't got no body: NZ's history-making murder case

by Redmer Yska / 11 December, 2014
Eileen Jones.

The conviction of serial conman George Horry for the murder of his wife, whose body has never been found, proved a landmark verdict that would redefine the law in New Zealand and beyond.

When Scott Watson stood in the dock charged with killing Ben Smart and Olivia Hope in 1999, the absence of their youthful remains was his best shot at escaping conviction. Without the bodies, the Crown had a slighter portfolio of evidence with which to sway the jury. In the end, the prosecution won and Watson was convicted of the so-called Sounds murders.

Although questions are still raised about the circumstances of the couple’s mystery disappearance deep in the Marlborough Sounds, Watson ended up in jail in part because of a landmark case half a century ago that laid the groundwork for convictions in cases of bodiless murders.

The “missing bride” case involved the disappearance of Aucklander Eileen Jones, who vanished in the Waitakeres the day after her marriage in 1942. It would also prove to be a nine-year battle of wits between a fiendish killer with a Walter Mitty complex and a ramrod-straight, bagpipe-playing cop.

The subsequent trial of George Horry secured our first murder conviction without a body and made legal history, helping to overturn an ancient principle in English law. The case would go on to inform the law on both sides of the Atlantic, helping American courts convict in bodiless murder cases, including one of the killings carried out by Charles Manson in 1969.

 

Deadly deception


The story began in wartime Auckland, with a whirlwind courtship. In 1942, Horry rolled out his cunning, diabolical plan to marry – then murder – Eileen Jones. Suave and silver-tongued, he had swept her off her feet, pretending to be a British spy named George Turner, doing hush-hush war work for the Brits.

In an elaborate scam that today almost defies belief, he proposed to the Herne Bay divorcee and factory “forelady”, pretending to be the son of an aristocratic British cutlery millionaire, soon to inherit a title and a fortune. His entire family had been blown up in the German blitz. In fact, he was a career criminal a judge once called an “incorrigible rogue”, who’d spent most of the previous 20 years behind bars in New Zealand and Australia.

Jones had no idea Horry was out on probation, working for a tailor. Or that he’d recently become engaged to a woman called Eunice Geale. Horry, however, knew Jones owned her own home in Ponsonby as part of a 1939 divorce settlement. Love-struck, she agreed to his terms. Straight after the wedding, they’d depart for Australia, then Britain, where he’d resume his confidential work. For security reasons, they’d have to be incommunicado for three months or more.

The wedding was set for July 1942. Jones assembled an expensive trousseau, sold her house in preparation for leaving the country and withdrew her savings in the form of a cheque worth about $55,000 today. Friends helped adjust her bridal gown, a kindness that would later prove crucial to the case.

As a busy spy, “Turner” was able to delay meeting Jones’s parents until the wedding day. She spent the morning settling the sale of her house, before the “Turners” married in the afternoon, at Pitt St Methodist Church in Central Auckland. Horry insisted on no bridal photography, on the grounds of national security.

George Horry George Horry.

Jones’s mother Harriet later recalled Horry’s behaviour at the wedding. “I shook hands with him and he put his arms around me and kissed me, saying ‘Thank God, I’ve got a mother at last.’”

The newlyweds drove west in a rented Morris to her parents’ home, then to the Helensville Hotel. At midnight, Jones spoke to her solicitor by phone from the hotel, asking him to make the cheque “open” or payable to Mr Turner. He agreed.

Horry’s plan then approached its awful conclusion. The Turners checked out in the morning, stopping at Titirangi to visit Jones’s friend Celia Shepherd. Shepherd was the last person, other than Horry, to see Jones alive. Jones’s body has never been found and is believed to be concealed deep in the Waitakeres.

A month passed. Jones’s elderly parents believed the couple had left the country by air. Confirmation of this appeared to come when they received a letter with an Australian postmark signed “George and Eileen”, stating the couple were leaving for England. It later emerged that the letter was bogus: Horry had made an elaborate arrangement to have it posted from Sydney.

Horry opened a bank account with a fictitious name and deposited the cheque for Jones’s house and a small amount of cash. Within a few days, he’d managed to withdraw everything from the account and buy a section with the proceeds. His plan had so far worked to perfection. But as 1942 drew to a close, he made a decision he’d regret. On December 12, under his real name, he married Geale in a bizarre public ceremony held in the 1ZB Radio Theatre. Officiating was “Uncle Tom” Garland, host of a popular religious programme that regularly featured live weddings and christenings.

Worried he might have been recognised, Horry then called in on his in-laws. He spun them a callous, implausible tale: a German U-boat had torpedoed his and Eileen’s ocean liner in the Atlantic. A British warship had picked him up and taken him to England. Eileen was still missing and he was waiting to hear what had happened. His confidential work forced his return to Australia.

The elderly couple reeled. Days before Christmas 1942, they reported their daughter’s disappearance to the police.

It was at this point that senior detective Bill Fell entered the picture. The new Auckland CIB boss’s subsequent pursuit of Horry – a heroic effort that took nine painstaking years – could have been ripped from the pages of a crime novel. It also illustrates, chillingly, just how close Jones’s killer came to getting away with it.

 

Bill Fell Detective Bill Fell.

The crim and the cop


Although the wicked jailbird and the upright cop appeared worlds apart, they shared a few surprising similarities. Both were English migrants born on the cusp of the 20th century who arrived here as youngsters.

Born in Sheffield in 1907, George Cecil Horry landed in Auckland at age 13 with his “poor but respectable” parents. His life of crime began in 1923 when he appeared before local courts no fewer than five times, being convicted of 22 charges, including violence, burglary and false pretences. He was sentenced to a month in jail and three years’ youth detention.

The NZ Truth newspaper was quick to identify 16-year-old Horry as a “lothario”, an unscrupulous seducer of women. “He did not spend his plunder on drink or at the races. He would buy chocolates and sweets for ‘lady friends’ and treat them royally with a visit to a show, followed by a trip home in a taxi …”

Three years older than Horry, Fell was born in Wiltshire, arriving in New Zealand at age eight. He grew up in pre-war Canterbury on his parents’ farm. Tall with a strong build, he spent his teens chasing horses rather than girls, driving a team of Clydesdales, learning woodworking at night school and playing the bagpipes in the Ellesmere pipe band.

In 1925, aged 20, he joined the police and entered the criminal investigation branch as a detective three years later. From the start, he was his own man, heading off to secretarial college to learn what were then the exclusively female arts of typing and shorthand. This early commitment to thorough interviewing of witnesses would later prove crucial in assembling a case against Horry.

During the 1930s, Fell variously worked in Samoa and around New Zealand as he moved up through the ranks. His entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography says he was “a resourceful and persistent detective. He had an orderly mind and was an astute observer of human behaviour.”

Horry spent virtually the whole decade behind bars, upholding his reputation as a ladies’ man on the few occasions he was released. His forays into confidence trickery and fraud in the 30s saw him capitalising on his impeccable grooming, plausible manners and gift of the gab. In 1932, for example, he booked into a posh Auckland hotel as “Captain GS Cunliffe”, passed valueless cheques and sailed first class to Sydney, into the arms of waiting police. He spent the next three years in Waikeria Prison.

Three years later, in a dry run of the nuptials that would end with the bride’s disappearance, he courted and married Evelyn Bates under an assumed name. Posing as English steel magnate George Collver, he escorted Bates across the Tasman. After Sydney police caught him issuing bad cheques, he was jailed for three years and deported on release. Bates stayed behind.

In 1938, an Auckland judge declared Horry a “habitual criminal”, noting he’d spent more time in jail since his teens than out of it. Hours after his release from prison that year, Horry was arrested for serious violence charges and sentenced to three years’ hard labour.

Meanwhile, Fell continued his climb to the heights of his profession. In 1942, as Horry hatched his marriage scam, Fell was appointed head of the Auckland CIB, very much the hard-boiled, streetwise gumshoe in gabardine overcoat and fedora. Within months of taking up the position, he’d be grappling with the Jones case, one that would occupy much of his time for close to a decade.

 

Fell, Shieff Stipendiary magistrate JH Luxford (left), Horry’s counsel Norman Shieff (centre) and Fell examine aspects of the case.

Piecing together the puzzle


When the file first crossed Fell’s desk on Christmas Eve 1942, police still had no inkling that George Turner was Horry, a villain well known to them. This vital fact only came to light after detectives got Jones’s frantic parents to write to Turner in Sydney, pretending they’d accepted his explanation. Once again, Horry’s associate intercepted the letter and readdressed it to Auckland. Waiting detectives later observed Horry collect the letter from the post office, open it and destroy it. It was then that they realised who he was – and what was at stake.

Detectives trailed Horry home to Mt Albert, then paid him a visit. After he denied having any of Jones’s property on the premises, they discovered her hatbox and a suitcase containing her wedding dress. Her friends later confirmed it was the one they’d helped to alter.

Fell then embarked on the lengthy process of gathering evidence that would become a hallmark of this case. An early move was interviewing Horry for many hours. The 1968 book Crime in New Zealand records how in the preliminary stages of the case, detectives “transcribed and set out a tremendous amount of material”.

“When the trial took place eight years later, there could be no argument about what had been said, because it had been written down and verified in writing by both officers. If they had relied solely on memory, their evidence would have been quite unreliable.”

During the interview, Horry admitted he’d married Jones as Turner. He’d done so to facilitate her running off with another man, for which he’d received much of the $55,000. Asked why he was now telling a different story to the one he’d told her parents, he replied: “I can see now it is getting complicated.”

But although Horry’s story was crumbling, Fell knew he still lacked enough evidence to secure a conviction for murder. Horry was meanwhile conscripted into the Air Force, and while stationed in Christchurch was caught for burglary and fraud and sentenced to two years’ jail. Over the next five years, he was rarely out of custody.

Teams of Auckland police embarked on a series of arduous searches for a body around the swampy and heavily forested South Head of Kaipara Harbour. Years after his conviction, when told police had combed the area, Horry reportedly made a cryptic remark: “Wrong head.”

police search, Eileen Jones A police team hunts for Eileen Jones’s body at the “wrong head” of Kaipara Harbour.

 

Time to strike


Fast forward to 1951. Nine years had passed since Jones’s disappearance; she was now legally presumed dead. Fell had drawn on the carpentry skills he’d learnt in his youth and built his own house. Much of his leisure time was devoted to the Auckland Police Highland Pipe Band and he hosted the weekly Scottish programme on Auckland’s 1YA radio station.

But he never forgot Horry and remained more determined than ever to pin the murder on his old adversary. He decided it was now time to persuade the Crown to bring a case against the wavy-haired groom.

It was a risky strategy: much of the evidence against Horry was circumstantial and the lack of a body meant a jury could easily acquit for murder. But for Fell, it was now or never: one witness’s health was in marked decline and the missing bride’s parents, both key witnesses, were elderly.

In April 1951, the detective strode into the Auckland Crown Solicitor’s office, the Jones file under his arm. Announcing “my witnesses are dying like flies”, he urged solicitor Vincent Meredith KC to charge Horry with murder. Meredith looked closely at the contents, then nodded: “Either run with it now or put the file away.”

June 14 brought a second welcome breakthrough. It was the day Fell and fellow detective Harry Holmes motored from the central city to Horry’s Mt Albert home to arrest him for murder. The words the pair heard that day would seal Horry’s fate, helping to secure his eventual conviction.

As Fell and Holmes prepared to make the arrest, Horry said to Eunice Geale, “It’s that Turner business.” She replied, “Why, has she turned up?” Horry then told his wife, “That’s impossible – she couldn’t have. Say nothing. Tell them nothing.” Fell then took him in.

newspaper, NZ Truth, Horry A scathing account of Horry in NZ Truth.

 

Guilty as charged


Following a depositions hearing, the jury trial began on August 6, 1951 in the Auckland Supreme Court before Justice Francis Adams. Meredith appeared for the Crown; in a peculiar twist, Horry’s defence lawyer was named Turner – he later became Sir Alexander Turner, a judge of the Court of Appeal.

In his 1970 memoir No Remedy for Death, pathologist Dr Philip Patrick Lynch recalled Meredith’s opening remarks to the jury. “They would probably think it strange that a woman about to run away with a man would leave behind her frocks …”

The formidable Meredith went on to provide the jury with chapter and verse of Horry’s changing stories, the trail of bogus letters, the wedding gown found in his house and his blatant fraud involving Jones’s cheque. Defence counsel Turner, however, told the jury it would be impossible for them to reasonably find any of it proved Jones was dead, let alone at the hands of Horry. He was unable to find any case in which a person had been convicted without a body.

“In this case, there was no direct evidence of death … the authorities said it was possible to prove the facts of death by circumstantial evidence, but this evidence had to be such as to be equivalent of proof of death.”

Meredith shot back that if a body could be destroyed, a person so destroying it would be immune from a charge of murder. Turner then made his case. “Horry and Eileen together concocted the story, went through a form of marriage, got up to Helensville where Eileen disappeared as she wished, and Horry carried out the rest of the bargain,” he said. “It might be a strange story, but no stranger than the one on which the Crown relied.”

The jury refused to buy this explanation. After an hour and 55 minutes, they found Horry guilty of murder. Narrowly avoiding the death penalty that had recently been reintroduced but was not in force at the time of the crime, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour.

As part of his subsequent appeal, Horry’s lawyers cited the famous maxim uttered by Lord Hale, a 17th-century chief justice: “I would never convict any person of murder or manslaughter, unless the fact were proved to be done, or at least the body found.” Three hundred years later, New Zealand’s Court of Appeal took another view. In a landmark decision that would ripple around the world, the four-member court found “the jury was entitled to regard the concurrence of so many separate facts and circumstances as excluding any reasonable hypothesis other than death”.

Horry remained in prison until 1967 and died 14 years later. Fell went on to head the New Zealand CIB and in 1963 was promoted to assistant commissioner. He’d be credited with the idea of establishing the armed offenders squad that year, after the deaths of four police officers in the space of three months. After retiring from the force in 1964, the tall man who nailed the wicked Horry lived for another 22 years.

In a curious coincidence, the two adversaries would make a final connection in death: Fell is buried at Meadowbank’s Purewa Cemetery. Horry (under the name George Taylor) was cremated there.

School for scoundrels


Waikeria Prison in the 1930s and 40s seemed a fertile breeding ground for career crims.

Charles Alfred Remmers Charles Alfred Remmers.

It’s tempting to think Horry learned the dark arts of confidence trickery from Charles Alfred Remmers, London-born forger and career criminal. Both men were in rural Waikeria Prison at the same time in the 1930s, serving long sentences. Disgraced former policeman Remmers, known as the “Master”, was sent to the Waikato facility in 1932. His crime: impersonating a Taihape clergyman, Reverend Harold Harris, in an ill-fated second-hand motor vehicle business.

Bill Fell certainly knew Remmers, once confiding to his nephew Brian that a weakness in the conman’s various disguises was a badly fitting wig. It was too distinctive, he said.

In 1942, the Master would become nationally notorious when another Waikeria “graduate”, Sydney Gordon Ross, hoaxed the wartime Labour Government. Fresh out of Waikeria Prison after a long sentence for safe-cracking, Ross rang Cabinet Minister Bob Semple at home from a phone at Wellington’s Waterloo Hotel on a quiet Sunday afternoon. He poured out a tale of treason and conspiracy, a plot involving Nazi agents poised to blow up dams and bridges. Traitorous Kiwis were massing, with assassinations planned.

Semple raced to tell Prime Minister Peter Fraser. Judging the story plausible, Fraser summoned the head of his new Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB), an agency operated at arm’s length from the police and run by an incompetent British spook. A Commissioner of Police would later describe the events that transpired as “beyond comprehension”.

Ross was given a new identity as “Captain Calder” of the Merchant Navy, furnished with cash, a car and unlimited petrol vouchers and installed at Rotorua’s Grand Hotel. His brief was to snare the “plotters”. Along the way, Ross named Remmers’ home at Ngongotaha on the shores of Lake Rotorua as the place where Nazi agents were holed up. He also identified his former cellmate’s Wellington house as the nerve centre for the conspiracy.

For the next three months, Ross spun out the story, producing a bogus list of saboteurs, even faking an attempt on his life. In late July 1942, Truth broke strict wartime censorship regulations to expose the whole sorry saga of how the “impudent jailbird” Ross pulled one over on the security authorities. It was barely a fortnight after British secret agent “George Turner” married his bride.

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