The murder of Helen Meads: The insidious nature of domestic violenceby Joanna Wane
From the archives: This story is from April 2012.
David White, the father of murder victim Helen Meads is currently on a tour around New Zealand to talk about stopping domestic violence. In this 2012 article, North & South's Joanna Wane talked to Helen's friends and family about what happened and the insidious nature of domestic violence.
In 2009, multimillionaire horse breeder Greg Meads shot his wife, Helen, in the throat a week after she told him she was leaving.
From 4am, the muffled whump, whump of hooves on turf beats out a rhythm around the track – steaming silhouettes emerging from the mist with nostrils flared and a haze of sweat rising from their haunches. Then the low, drifting murmur of the riders, their slight frames swaddled against the twilight chill, as they walk the horses back to their stalls.
Even in mid-summer, with the promise of a stinking-hot day ahead, there’s a touch
of frost in the air. So it must have been bitterly cold that morning in early spring
when the first police siren screamed down Banks Rd, across the far side of the track.
From the clubhouse, where Hazel, the tea lady, serves up hot drinks and toasted
baked-beans sandwiches, the riders who’d finished up training for the day had frontrow
seats. A drug raid, they reckoned, watching the drama unfold as more police
cars converged to set up a cordon at the top of the dead-end road. Or maybe a fight at
the place near the corner where there’d been a bit of trouble before.
It was only as the texts and phone calls started to stream in that the good-natured
banter dissolved into disbelief, and then shock. It was Helen.
When Greg Meads was sentenced to life imprisonment last year for the murder of his wife in September 2009 – with a minimum non-parole period of 11 years – there was little comfort in that, either. A bullet, people muttered, was cheaper than divorce.
“Some say it was a crime of passion,” says a racing industry insider who knew the couple well. “But it wasn’t a crime of passion. It was a crime of abuse and power. If Greg couldn’t have her, nobody could.”
After 13 years together, Helen had told Meads it was over. In the last moments before she died, she was on her cellphone making arrangements to move out that weekend into a place of her own – while he stood quietly outside the stables, a gun in his hand, waiting for her to finish the call.
A multimillionaire horse breeder and property investor, Meads had seemed to take news of their separation in his stride, even offering to pay her rental bond. “Family conference,” he’d noted in his diary the previous week. “Helen leaving.” Letting her out the door with any furniture was another matter. As far as he was concerned, everything in the house belonged to him.
The plan was for Helen to stay working with the horses for another few months until the yearling sales at Karaka the following February, to help Meads through a busy time on the farm.
Helen’s father, David White, remembers arriving home the night before from his shift driving milk tankers and stopping to chat to his daughter at the letterbox between the Meads’ house and the cottage where he and his wife, Pam, lived down the lane next door.
“She came over yakking, all excited and smiles. Really the old Helen, full of life and raring to go,” he says. “She’d got that sparkle back and her eyes were clear.” Fourteen hours later, she was dead.
Meads had followed his father into horse-racing and scored some notable successes on the track. One of his champions, Kristov, retired with career winnings of more than
$500,000. Ginga Dude went on to crack the million-dollar mark, racing here and in Australia. (Meads sold his quarter-share to trainer Graeme Boyd in the days before Helen’s murder.)
The couple raced under the Willow Park banner, grazing 50 or so thoroughbreds on their two Matamata farms. Both properties, worth a combined $2.8 million, were owned by Willow Park Ltd, in which Meads holds a 74 per cent stake. (His mother and another family company own the rest.)
Although Helen helped run the farms and did much of the hands-on work with the horses, nothing was in her name and Meads was notoriously tight. “All she got out of Kristov was a boob job,” says one of her friends. “And even that was for Greg.”
Yet Meads could be charming and generous, too. Openly affectionate with Helen in public, he doted on Samantha – his little “princess” – and took them on lavish overseas trips. Samantha and Kimberley, Helen’s daughter from a previous relationship, had a luxury horse truck for their ponies.
For Helen, her marriage to Meads meant the days of barely scraping by and having to call her parents for help with the rent were over. Police investigations after his arrest conservatively estimated his assets, which include a portfolio of property investments, at $17 million.
Behind the leafy fence in Banks Rd, the picture wasn’t so pretty. Meads’ controlling presence dominated family life. Michael, Helen’s oldest child, clashed with his step- father and moved out as soon as he could.
Meads called Kimberley “the half-breed” behind her back and worked her relentlessly on the farm. He expected the house to be kept immaculate but wouldn’t spend money on a dishwasher. If dinner wasn’t on the table by 6pm, there’d be hell to pay.
Not naturally at ease with either horses or people, Meads – like his father, Howard
– had a reputation as a ruthless operator who’d screw down his trainers and leave them high and dry if they didn’t fall into line. “It was his way or no way,” says Phil Stevens, who trained and co-owned Kristov. “That bastard,” says another who’d worked with him. “He has no friends here.”
If Meads was the money, Helen was the spark – in both their private and business life. “She was the front person, the one who’d be at the races chatting to the jockeys and trainers,” says Annette Conder, one of Helen’s closest friends and the last person to talk to her before she died.
“She had the most infectious smile; it could light up a room. Money and power were Greg’s whole world. Helen knew she’d get nothing [when she left]. But for her, it was never about the money.”
A lifelong smoker, with a weakness for McKenna bourbon, Helen had unruly hair that hung in dark ringlets and her face was weather-beaten from years of working outdoors. Bubbly, gregarious, a bit of a dag; “Mad Helen,” they called her affectionately down at the racetrack, where she’d zip in for a quick coffee and a laugh with Hazel on the mornings she came down to help with the horses at those dawn training rides.
Both Samantha and Kimberley were regular riders at the Matamata Pony Club, where Helen was district commissioner. A kids’ race at the club’s annual pre-Christmas meeting has been named the “Mad Helen Scurry” in her memory. Two and a half years on, the mention of her name still makes those close to her break down in tears.
“Helen lived life to the full,” says her younger sister, Robin. “She didn’t stop. But she had a really good way of covering things she didn’t want you to see. You only ever saw her bubbly, out there on the farm with the horses… always the horses.”
“She wanted to be a lady and have beautiful nails,” says Forbes. “Often she’d be up at 4am [with the horses] and wouldn’t be done till late in the day. This was time she could come and spend on herself.”
Forbes knew Meads was controlling; Helen’s “curfew” if she was out with friends was 7pm. But no one thought twice about the high turtlenecks she liked to wear, or the scarves wrapped round her neck. When Forbes noticed bruising on her body or legs, Helen would shrug it off, saying she’d been kicked by a horse.
Then one night – a year before her death – Meads laid into Helen badly, breaking her nose and crushing her larynx. This time the damage was harder to hide. “The bastard, look what he’s done to me,” she said, as she walked into the salon. Forbes pulled Helen into her arms and they both cried.
She talked about leaving him then, but Meads “wiggled his way back round her”. At her last appointment, a week before she died, Helen told Forbes she was ending the marriage for good. “She was so excited about moving into her own place. I was really pleased she was finally getting away.”
Some 700 people – including racing royalty Lance and Bridgette O’Sullivan – turned up in torrential rain for the funeral, held in a room at the Matamata Race Club decorated with balloons, streamers and glitter. Helen was 41. A few days later, jockeys riding at the Te Aroha races wore black armbands in tribute.
Forbes said her own goodbyes in private at the funeral home, writing a personal message in the memorial book. “We all loved her. She was definitely a special spirit and her life ended way, way too soon.”
David White has tortured himself with all those questions. Evidence of any previous assaults and friction in their marriage was suppressed in court, but once Meads’ history of violence came out after the trial, grief slowly curdled to anger. White – who’d lived right next door – copped it most.
Like Lesley Elliott in Dunedin, who unwittingly let her daughter Sophie’s killer into the house, White had failed to protect his child. And that heartbreaking knowledge will always stay with him.
“I’ve just taken it on the chin because in some ways I did fail her, didn’t I?” he says, rubbing the weariness from eyes that have faded to pale blue. “It’s useless saying you can’t blame yourself, because you do sit there and think, ‘What could I have done better that would have saved her?’ But hindsight is a wonderful thing.
“The people who’ve had a crack at me – some know me and some used to be very close to me. You find the true value of your friends that way. But I don’t blame them for what they’re saying. They’ve been hurt as well; it’s their way of dealing with it. And they’re not entirely wrong.
“I was so blind to what eventually happened; I just didn’t see any of it. But murder is a thing you read about in novels or in the paper that happens to other people. Never to you. You don’t know those sorts of people, so it doesn’t exist. It’s such an abhorrent crime that something in your mind won’t let you accept the fact it could be somebody you know.”
For the past two and a half years, White – Helen always called him “Fred” – has been consumed by her loss. He and Pam took in their nine-year-old granddaughter the day her mother was killed and Samantha hasn’t spent a night apart from them since. “She just clung to us like a security blanket,” says Pam. “We were all she had left.”
Sitting through the murder trial was painful enough, but the couple has also faced a prolonged and bitter fight with Meads through the Family Court over custody and child support.
Because no assets were in Helen’s name, Samantha inherited nothing from her mother’s estate. Meads was ordered by the court to pay reparations totalling $80,000 to Helen’s parents, sister and three children. But despite their considerable resources, neither Meads nor his mother (his father died in 2011) has given any direct financial support towards Samantha’s care.
The Whites’ story of an ordinary family thrown into extraordinary circumstances is movingly told in a book David has written about his daughter’s life and death, Helen. In part an account of the trial – including his disquiet over the way the Family Court operates and his disgust Meads got bail – it’s also a warning to other families of the ignorance and naivety that blinded them to the danger Helen was in.
For White, who turns 68 this year, words are the only weapons he has. The author of a historical fiction, My Name Is Matilda, based on a rather remarkable English ancestor, he’d worked in the book trade all his life until he and Pam sold their Auckland shop and moved to Matamata in 1999.
The couple had never warmed to their son-in-law, wary of his unpredictable temper and finding him cold and aloof. Worried by undercurrents of tension in the marriage, they rented a cottage by the Meads’ farm to be close to their daughter.
However, there’d been few signs of serious trouble until that savage beating in 2008, fuelled by Meads’ suspicions that his wife was having an affair.
Helen fled to her parents’ house and when White went over to confront Meads, he remembers being shocked at how coolly his son-in-law responded. The next morning, Helen was treated by her GP but refused to file a report with the police. Only a handful of close friends knew the truth of what had happened. Helen couldn’t even bring herself to talk to her mother, determined to deal with it in her own way.
“With me, out in the paddock with the horses around us, she did open up,” says White. “She felt she could keep the girls safer by staying. And we thought he’d realise he had gone too far this time. He was never going to get away with hitting her again.”
Annette Conder, who’d been woken by a panicked call from Helen that same night, confronted Meads too. “I called him a gutless bastard. He just looked straight through me.”
For the next year, Conder refused to have anything to do with Meads and wouldn’t go round to the house if he was home. She tried to convince Helen to leave, struggling to get her head around why such an otherwise strong, independent woman would choose to stay. To her, Helen had become little more than a trophy wife and cheap labour; an asset Meads controlled and manipulated, just like his horses.
“But she still loved him,” she shrugs. “Helen really believed she could handle it and that things would come right. It was when she finally realised nothing was going to change that she decided she was strong enough to get out.”
noted and police would have seized his shotgun for safety.
If only medical authorities had some way of alerting police or a patient’s family, without breaching the Privacy Act, when there was serious cause for concern.
If only Helen had known the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she makes the decision to leave. If only she’d read the first page of any Women’s Refuge pamphlet or phoned their toll-free crisis number. “Don’t say it out loud,” they would have told her. “Don’t tell him. Just make your plans and get out.”
If only the Whites, or anyone else in Helen’s life, had known that a woman is killed in New Zealand every five weeks by her partner or former partner – and had for one second imagined that terrible statistic might be relevant to them. “There’s a perception that domestic violence is centred on certain sections of the community,” says Carpinter. “But change the names [in the Meads case] and put in an area that’s not as affluent and you’ll find exactly the same underlying issues of power and control.”
On the last day of the trial, Carpinter – who’d spent each day in court with Helen’s family – gave them all a white ribbon to wear when the jury came back with the verdict. David White has never stopped wearing his.
An anti-violence initiative spearheaded by men, White Ribbon was set up in Canada in 1991 after a man walked into an educational facility, ordered out the men, and shot dead 16 women. In New Zealand, the campaign is run by the Families Commission. League star Ruben Wiki, who saw his mother being beaten by her boyfriend, was appointed its first national ambassador in 2009. White is among dozens of others who have since joined him.
White Ribbon campaign manager Rob McCann believes Helen was trapped by portraits of domestic violence as the exclusive domain of poor people with brown skin – something that doesn’t happen to “families like us”.
“We know that’s not true; it’s right across the spectrum,” he says. “But someone like Helen sees all those headlines in the newspaper and thinks, ‘That’s not me. It must be my fault; I must be doing something wrong.’ So she makes what seem to be sensible choices about her behaviour, but it’s based on a myth.”
Middle-class violence can be particularly insidious because both the perpetrators and the victims have more to lose – and are better at hiding it. “Perhaps if the walls are solid and you have double-glazing, people might not hear you,” says McCann. “Your property might be more private and you’ll probably guard your privacy a little bit more.” And although the methods someone uses to intimidate their partner may vary, the ultimate aim is to manipulate and control.
“People use the tools they have at their hand,” says McCann. “If you’re good at business and getting people to do what you want, that’s what you might use. Someone in a factory who’s not so good at that type of manipulation and is better with their hands might use the tools differently.
“Power and control – using fear to get what you want – is a form of violence against women. I feel sorry for David, but imagine what it was like for Lesley Elliott – she was in the same house when the murder [of Sophie by Clayton Weatherston] was committed. They’re both educated people, from middle-class families, and they didn’t see the warning signs.
“If they had, both murders might not have happened.”
Greg Meads sat impassively through his seven-day murder trial in the High Court at Hamilton, barely registering a flicker of emotion. It took the jury three hours to find him guilty. Sitting in the public gallery, within spitting distance of her daughter’s killer, Pam White couldn’t bring herself to meet his eye as Justice Christopher Allan described Helen’s shooting as “horrific and entirely incomprehensible”.
Sitting in the public gallery, within spitting distance of her daughter’s killer, Pam White couldn’t bring herself to meet his eye as Justice Christopher Allan described Helen’s shooting as “horrific and entirely incomprehensible”.
But on the day Meads was sentenced, Helen’s teenage daughter, Kimberley, let him have it as she read her victim impact statement to the court. “You took my Mum away from me,” she told him, never taking her eyes off his face as she broke down in tears. “For that I will never forgive you. I hope you rot in hell.”
A self-possessed young woman who looks strikingly like her mum, Kimberley turned
20 in December and is halfway through her primary-teacher training at Massey University in Palmerston North. It’s only now she’s come to understand how important that moment in court was for her.
“My whole life he told me what to think, how to think and when to think it. He needed to know what he had done to me… and this time he couldn’t stop me saying it.”
A preschooler when her mother met Meads, she can’t remember a time before his controlling presence dominated the house. Rarely allowed out with friends, she was expected to put in long hours on the farm and keep her mouth shut at the dinner table. Samantha was treated very differently; spoilt, indulged and rewarded with presents for telling on her big sister. “She was Daddy’s little angel.”
Kimberley, who’s much closer to Samantha now, says her mother saw Meads as “a man of stability” and shielded both girls from the darker side of their marriage.
the strength to do that, just put up a wall in front of your kids and pretend everything is all right when it’s not.”
Helen, who’d dropped out of school so early, was enormously proud of her daughter’s plans for university. The night before Helen died, Kimberley had offered to switch courses to Waikato so she could be closer to home and support her through the separation from Meads. Helen wouldn’t hear of it.
“I wish she could have made it,” she says. “I still wake up some mornings in tears and absolutely beside myself because I just wish like anything she could be here. The hardest thing is I’m going through that time in life where it’s starting to make sense and I’m finding some direction. Not a day goes by that I don’t think, ‘I wish my Mum could see me now.’
Before the trial, Howard Meads came out fighting, saying his son had been “pushed
over the edge” because Helen was taking Samantha away. (David White says it hadn’t been decided where Sam would stay, and it wasn’t a big issue anyway because Helen would have been back at Banks Rd every day while she kept working on the farm.)
Other friends of the family North & South spoke to don’t buy it either. Several described Meads as a cold, calculating killer who executed his wife rather than part with any money in a divorce settlement and had intended to use provocation as a defence – until the public vitriol inspired by the trial of Clayton Weatherston for murdering Sophie Elliott sabotaged his master plan.
“Greg was miserable and tight,” says one. “The dollar stood above everything else. I truly believe he was prepared to be found guilty of manslaughter and do two years, maybe three, and he’d worked that out at a cost. But Weatherston beat him to the punch and destroyed his defence.”
In prison, Meads was said to have been on suicide watch and had paid gang members for protection – money apparently wasted, as he was later reported to have copped a beating from other inmates. Another newspaper story claimed police had warned a former jockey allegedly having an affair with Helen that a hitman might be after him.
Marriages turn sour, families tear themselves apart and sometimes people do indefensible things. But whether it was about control, money – or even love – Samantha has been caught in the crossfire.
Howard Meads died last year but his wife, Jan, visits Greg in Waikeria Prison every month and says her son seems to have adapted after a difficult start. “Of course I support him, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know he should never be where he is now. That’s our problem, not anyone else’s. They don’t know the full story.”
Jan Meads, who is in her late 80s, still lives in the family home at Te Puna, a grand
$2 million property overlooking Tauranga Harbour. She says she offered financial help immediately after Helen’s death but was turned down “very rudely and forcibly” and has not approached the Whites again.
Samantha’s custody conditions prohibit Greg Meads from initiating contact, but his mother says he has seen her school reports and a couple of friends on the outside keep him in touch with how she’s getting on. Cards and letters sent to Samantha by the family have gone unacknowledged.
“I have not been able to see Samantha,” she says. “It’s almost as though we do not have a granddaughter. I feel it especially for my son. Not that I want her to go to a prison – that’s the last thing I want. But he’s always asking about her and wanting to know what’s happening in her life.”
Mrs Meads says Greg and Helen were a great team who’d not long returned from a wonderful holiday in England and Dubai. Despite suggestions Howard didn’t approve of the marriage, she claims both she and her husband got on well with their daughter-in-law.
“Everyone did, I thought, including her husband. He thought the world of her, right until the last.”
In court, Meads’ lawyer argued for a manslaughter conviction, claiming Meads didn’t intend to kill his wife but was stressed over their break-up and some inflammatory texts he’d found on her phone.
Sergeant Graham McGurk, one of the first police officers to arrive at the scene, was sent across the road to break the news of Helen’s death to David White, then went
with him to collect Samantha from school. In a bizarre coincidence, White had turned up at the Matamata police station several months before Helen’s death to ask for advice on how to plan the perfect murder. White, who was plotting a novel set in the racing industry, wanted help with a scene where one of the characters is killed in a suspicious
“The scenario was a murder most foul, disguised as a car going off the top of the Kaimais,” says McGurk, who’d spent an hour or so with White, explaining routine police procedure at a fatal accident scene. “I didn’t realise it was the same person until David opened the door.”
Despite public outcry over Meads’ sentence, Rod Carpinter, the local police chief, is philosophical about the result. Realistically, he says, it’ll be 14 or 15 years before Meads (who turns 57 in April) gets parole.
"He’ll be an old man when he gets out. And in the meantime, Samantha is getting the best possible upbringing with the Whites, who can give her strong family support and keep her safe. The most relevant years in her life will be under the influence of a loving, caring family. If Greg controlled Helen that way, who knows what would have been in store for Sam?”
Faded show ribbons flutter round the neck of a horse’s head carved into Helen’s gravestone, opposite two black granite hearts where Matamata sisters Rebecca and Petria Martin are buried – swept away by a tsunami in Samoa six days after Helen was killed.
Among the array of fresh flowers, a can of McKenna bourbon sits on display in a glass preserving jar, a purple windmill spins in the breeze. An orange road cone, its top sliced off for a makeshift vase, was her final farewell from the pony club. Apparently Helen was notorious for swiping cones from roadworks to make obstacle courses for the kids, then sneaking them back at the end of club day.
Like her mother, Samantha is obsessed with horses, although she no longer has a pony of her own (Meads has put the horse truck up for sale, leaving the Whites with no way to transport a pony to events). Adjusting to a simpler life has been just one of many changes she’s had to make. The Whites won’t allow her to be interviewed or photographed but she’s settling into intermediate school and slowly regaining confidence.
This isn’t how they pictured their retirement. Coping with an 11-year-old growing up in a very different world from the one in which they raised their own three children hasn’t been easy. And they know there’ll be challenges ahead as she looks for answers to explain what her father did.
Right now, she’s more concerned about being “normal”; she doesn’t like Pam coming into her classroom because the other kids don’t have mums with grey hair.
“She’s desperately trying to live a little girl’s life and be like all the other girls at school,” says David, “and we’re not going to let anything destroy that.”
Legal bills – totalling $30,000 in the first year alone – forced David out of semi-retirement and for the past couple of years he’s worked fulltime driving milk tankers across the Waikato. But those 10-hour days on the road have taken their toll and he’s giving it up for good.
By refusing to let Helen’s story die with her, David has helped flushed family violence out of the shadows. He’s been approached by a number of other women breaking out of abusive relationships, and recently helped support a young rape victim through her attacker’s trial in Auckland.
“Part of their recovery is talking about it to someone who understands,” he says. “And it’s made me realise there’s a problem out there that’s much bigger than Helen. I dedicated my book to the police, but in hindsight I should have dedicated it to the women.”
can’t stand horses.
She remembers helping to feed out on the farm one day when Helen was pregnant with Samantha and a powerful stallion came galloping over the ridge of a hill straight towards them. Robin was terrified but, at the last moment, the horse pulled up right in front of Helen and rubbed its face on her belly.
Robin says plenty of people have “interesting theories” as to why Meads killed his wife. “But it doesn’t change anything as far as I’m concerned. She wasn’t a golden angel; I’d like to meet someone who is,” she says. “I still miss my sister as much as the day he did it.
“Why was she with him? Security, I guess. But I sometimes wonder if she didn’t love the horses more than she loved the man.”
The two sisters had a volatile relationship and often clashed. But Helen was there to support Robin through her messy divorce and she’s still there for her now, when Robin pops into the cemetery to sit and have a yak at her grave.
“She has to listen to me now – and I’m always right because she can’t talk back any more. I was there the other day telling her about some guy. At the end of it all I said,
‘He’s an arsehole, Helen,’ and I could feel her smile.”
This article was first published in North & South's April 2012 issue.
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If you are in immediate danger, dial 111 and ask for the Police.
Crisisline: 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843
Phone Women's Refuge Crisisline toll free from anywhere in New Zealand for information, advice and support about domestic violence as well as help in a crisis. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The 0800 Family Violence Information Line (0800 456 450) provides self-help information and connects people to services where appropriate. It is available seven days a week, from 9am to 11pm, with an after-hours message redirecting callers in the case of an emergency.
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