The Tamihere case: In the Shadow of Murderby Donna Chisholm
A High Court jury today found a jailhouse informant in the Swedish tourists murder case guilty of perjury in his testimony against the accused, David Tamihere.
Tamihere says the evidence - that he had confessed to sexually abusing and killing the young Swedes -turned the jury against him. He maintains his innocence of the murders of Heidi Paakkonen and Urban Hoglin in April 1989.
Nearly 30 years after young Swedish tourists Urban Höglin and Heidi Paakkonen disappeared on the Coromandel Peninsula, the key players in the case are still haunted by the mystery.
The roar of the rain-swollen Tararu Creek just down the bank to the south is the soundtrack for this tranquil place, with backing vocals from the ducks and free-range chooks scratching outside an old farmhouse and lean-to that now serve as the farmstay’s storage rooms.
It’s a three hour-plus uphill tramp from here to Crosbies Clearing, famous for its panoramic views of the peninsula – and infamous for its surroundings of bush so thick and mine shafts so deep you wouldn’t need to bury a body because no one would find it, anyway.
At 76, Graeme Pearce has made the return tramp between Tararu and Crosbies innumerable times, but never more regularly than he did in the winter of 1989, when the place became the focus of the police hunt for missing Swedish tourists Urban Höglin, 23, and Heidi Paakkonen, 21.
One of dozens of search and rescue volunteers, it was Pearce who found Paakkonen’s distinctive blue and white rain jacket, folded neatly in the bush at a place they call the Jam Tins, about 90 minutes’ walk from the farmstay. Police later found Paakkonen’s black fold-over wallet and photographs of her family, and of Höglin, nearby.
Pearce’s discovery on July 29, 1989, a week or so after the official search was called off, reignited efforts to find the pair. By then, the months-long effort was already the biggest land-based search in New Zealand history, involving unprecedented numbers of police and military personnel.
Pearce has agonised over how that jacket might have got there. Either her killer discarded it, he thinks, or there is a more chilling explanation: that Paakkonen, being marched up the track by the man who had killed her fiancé and would later murder her, feigned an excuse to make a toilet stop, and left her jacket there as a clue for searchers to find, like Hansel’s trail of breadcrumbs in the Grimm fairytale.
For years after, Pearce would return to Crosbies and the track that led to the clearing and keep looking. Like most people associated with this enduring mystery, he’s been irrevocably changed by it. He and his wife, Lynnette, take in backpackers these days, rather than see them camping out. Some have stayed for weeks. They’re parents; they’d want someone to do that for their kids, too.
Even now, 28 years later, Pearce breaks down at the thought that Paakkonen’s remains are still out there. “I don’t know how many weekends I spent up in the bush, wandering, looking…. It gets to you. It took a while to realise, you know, you’re not going to find her. You’ve got to face that fact and once you get your head around that, you can start coming right.”
At the end of August this year, the case of the murdered Swedes returns to court in a perjury trial against one of three secret witnesses – all prison inmates – who gave evidence against the man convicted of the double killings, David Wayne Tamihere.
Tamihere has always denied the murders, and his convictions on the charges in 1990 – without any bodies and on circumstantial evidence alone – were among New Zealand’s most controversial.
The jailhouse witness testified that Tamihere confessed to him that he’d beaten Urban Höglin over the head with a lump of wood and dumped the couple’s bodies at sea. Höglin’s remains were found in bush near Whangamata on October 10, 1991, the skull intact, and neither at sea nor at Crosbies – the location more than 70km away that police focused on at Tamihere’s trial.
The so-called Secret Witness C has name suppression. In 1995, he swore an affidavit retracting his evidence against Tamihere, saying police had fed him the information, and that he’d been offered up to $100,000 and consideration for early parole. He later retracted the retraction, saying he made it after threats to him and his elderly parents. But now, Paremoremo inmate Arthur William Taylor has filed a private prosecution for perjury against Secret Witness C that has passed early legal hurdles and will go to a High Court jury trial scheduled to begin on August 28.
Tamihere’s current lawyer, Murray Gibson, will take the case for the prosecution. He says Tamihere and his brother, former MP John Tamihere, are expected to give evidence, as well as Taylor, handwriting expert Linda Morrell, pathologist Timothy Koelmeyer, and Secret Witness C.
Tamihere says the testimony of the prison informants – including one who gave graphic evidence of how Tamihere allegedly told him he’d raped both the Swedes – sickened all who heard it. He told North & South he knew from that moment he would be found guilty. “With secret witnesses, there’s no defence, and that’s what screwed us. Once the jury heard that, it was over. It didn’t matter a damn what you said.”
In an account he wrote following the 1990 trial, Tamihere said a hand grenade lobbed into the courtroom would have had less effect. “An atmosphere of pure horror pervaded the room. I watched [jurors’] rapidly failing attempts to listen dispassionately… None were prepared for the graphic account they were being given. And they hated me for it. They hated what I was said to have done, and they hated me for having to hear it.”
For other witnesses caught up in this murder mystery, the coming trial will be one more reminder of a time they already find hard to forget.
But for the man who spent 21 years in jail for a crime he says he didn’t commit, it’s probably the last chance he will get to swear on oath that he is innocent.
While Tamihere himself believes the secret witness evidence turned the jury against him, the most compelling testimony at the trial was undoubtedly that of seasoned trampers and Search and Rescue veterans John Cassidy and Mel Knauf, who identified him as the man they’d seen with a blonde woman resembling Paakkonen at Crosbies Clearing just after 3pm on Saturday, April 8, 1989. The woman, they said, appeared ill at ease and out of place.
These days, most people don’t recall that trial judge David Tompkins regarded their identification of Tamihere as so tainted by unacceptable police practices that at a pre-trial hearing, he ordered it inadmissible. Crown prosecutor David Morris had argued the Cassidy and Knauf evidence was backed up by one of the secret witnesses, leading Tompkins to remark: “The danger of doubtful evidence being used to support and corroborate doubtful evidence is obvious.”
Tompkins’ decision was overturned pre-trial by the Court of Appeal – the same court that rejected Tamihere’s appeal against conviction in May 1992, seven months after Urban Höglin’s body was found, still wearing the watch the Crown had claimed during the trial that Tamihere gave to his son.
We don’t easily remember now that Cassidy and Knauf described the man they saw as clean shaven or with a “small mo”, when Tamihere had a big bushy moustache. Or that their certainty it was him dawned only after police showed them photographs of Tamihere, including police mugshots, and suggested they get a look at him at the Thames courthouse where, three months prior to being charged with murder, he admitted stealing the Swedes’ car.
Police did not put Tamihere in an identity parade; what they did broke every rule in their procedural handbook.
It’s no surprise this flagrant breach of the rules was orchestrated by Operation Stockholm head Detective Inspector John Hughes. Hughes, who died in 2006, had a reputation as a ruthless operator during more than three decades in the force. Crims dubbed him “the gardener” after accusations he planted evidence in more than one case.
Hughes took a gamble the evidence would stand, despite the rules being flouted, and he won, when the Court of Appeal said the credibility of Cassidy and Knauf and apparent reliability of their evidence outweighed the “irregular identification techniques by the police”. But as Tompkins had said, “that they are convincing witnesses makes the need to be satisfied that their identification was properly made all the more important”.
With the passing of time, their Crosbies Clearing identification of Tamihere – and, therefore, Paakkonen – has become established fact; the most damning piece of evidence linking him to the tourists. “Of course, Tamihere was seen up there with Heidi,” more than one witness told us in interviews for this story. “Well,” said another, “if it wasn’t him and Heidi, who was it?” Crosbies is relatively isolated and not particularly popular with trampers at that time of year. “The chances of it being anyone else is one in millions.”
The memories of the interaction between the trampers and the couple they saw, which at the time could seem relatively innocuous, have become embellished in subsequent years. “He had an axe in his hand and was threatening them,” one witness told us, when the man identified as Tamihere had been quite cordial, showing Cassidy and Knauf inside the tent he was erecting.
The witnesses also refer to the evidence of Victoria University professor of psychology Tony Taylor, who said the woman believed to have been Paakkonen might not have alerted the trampers to her peril because she was in a state of extreme shock or “frozen fear”, or was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. The fact the trampers described the woman as wearing make-up and nail varnish, which Paakkonen did not routinely wear, was also explained away when Taylor said she may have been forced to apply it as part of some sexual fantasy.
But Auckland University professor of psychology Keith Petrie, who prepared an affidavit for the Court of Appeal that the judges declined to admit, doesn’t accept that. Petrie criticised Taylor for attempting a meaningful assessment of “Paakkonen” by relying on short and secondhand observations by lay strangers. But the court said Taylor’s evidence was not a clinical assessment, rather a possible explanation for the woman’s conduct.
Petrie told North & South the “frozen fear” argument just doesn’t add up, because Cassidy and Knauf came across the couple suddenly.
“If Tamihere said to her, ‘Trampers are going to appear in an hour, half an hour… if you do anything, this is what I’m going to do to you and you’ll see what I’ve just done with Urban.’ It just didn’t seem to me that she wouldn’t say anything, given that might be her only chance.
“I don’t think there’s any scientific evidence backing up frozen fear as a psychological state that people get into. It could explain behaviour over a very short period of time, I would have thought seconds or minutes. We could consider a state where you were traumatised enough that you couldn’t act, but is that going to last over an extended period, and in that window when she was like that, the trampers just happened to come?”
Likewise, Stockholm Syndrome normally develops after extended periods, rather than a few hours or days. If Paakkonen was alive on April 7, and Tamihere was driving around Thames alone in the couple’s vehicle on April 10, the longest time he could have spent with her would have been little more than two days.
Cassidy has since died, but Knauf told the New Zealand Herald in 2010 that the case haunted him. “It’s stuffed my life. My life would have been different. A lot of lives have been stuffed because of this.”
Knauf said he’d tortured himself that he’d failed to save Paakkonen. “What if I’d been more observant?” He wouldn’t talk to North & South for this story, saying only, “Won’t you let it go?”
Knauf had told the trial that what struck him about seeing Tamihere in person was his “rolling gait”.
“I don’t have one,” says Tamihere now. “But as someone pointed out to me after the trial, ‘You do, if you’re viewed in slow motion.’” And that’s the speed at which much of the footage of him being escorted into court was played on the TV news.
When he jumped bail in 1986 and went on the run in Coromandel, Tamihere was about to be sentenced for the rape of a 47-year-old woman. He was, according to journalist Ian Wishart’s 2012 book on the case, Missing Pieces, New Zealand’s most-wanted man. The reality, Tamihere told North & South, was the police weren’t looking that hard.
“People get this false idea that they put out an APB and every policeman in town is looking for you. It doesn’t happen like that,” he says. “They’ll have a run around and check your mates in the early stages, but then they sit back and wait for you to find them. I wasn’t actively avoiding the police.
“I used to go and borrow an uncle’s wagon in Waihi and I’d park it at the police station, because some of my cousins down there would come out of the pub half cut and they’d jump in and take it for a joy ride, and you might see it again two or three days later. I’d go into the cop shop and say, ‘I’ve got my uncle’s wagon here, I don’t want these bastards running away with it.’ And they’d say, ‘All right, leave it there.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, and if I’m sleeping in it tomorrow morning, maybe [bring] a coffee?’ They knew I was a Tamihere.”
In those pre-internet days, it’s probably fair to assume they didn’t know which one.
He doesn’t recall the exact date he fled Auckland, only that it was “just before GST came in”, in October 1986. He discussed it with wife Kris and his sons, then aged nine and 13, and told them he didn’t plan on going to jail right then for the rape he’d admitted. “It was just pig-headedness, like I’ll decide what time I’m going to do it.” But there was only one end-game, and it was always going to be a prison cell.
He caught a bus to Thames, where he hit the bush. He drifted north to the 309 Road between Coromandel and Whitianga and south “until you could see the lights of Matamata”. On a good day, he could cover 30km or more.
Starting out with a metre-long crossbow with a 75-pound pull, a tomahawk, a Bowie knife and a couple of gin traps, he hunted goats, rabbits, eels and ducks for food. When he wanted a change, he headed to the coast for kai moana, usually kahawai. He trapped possums for cash – skins fetched eight bucks on average, but he recalls one that went for $16. Sometimes he’d snare a female goat and sell it live. That could bring in as much as $90.
He stayed in the bush for three months at a time. “Then I’d go into town, run my gear through the laundry, buy a few supplies and get drunk. I was a pisshead, not an alcoholic. I used to drink like a fish, but if I didn’t have a beer it didn’t bother me.”
About once a year, he’d return to Auckland to visit Kris and the kids, but he’d call collect every so often and talk to them. “The boys were always really happy to talk to him,” Kris says.
Tamihere’s version of his movements in April 1989 has never changed.
On the morning of Saturday April 8, he was above the Te Mata River on the main Coromandel ridge. He took about four hours to reach the coast, where he gathered shellfish. On Saturday night, he says he camped just south of Te Mata, before coming out of the bush at Tapu and heading south down the main road towards Thames. By about 1.30pm on Monday, April 10, he’d reached the barbed wire fence at the end of Tararu Creek Rd. He planned on camping at Crosbies before heading south to Matamata, but when he spotted the Swedish couple’s white Subaru parked there, loaded with gear, it didn’t take long for him to decide to break in.
He says he felt the vehicle’s exhaust and it was warm – suggesting the occupants had only recently gone into the bush and wouldn’t be back any time soon. It could not have been. No car passed Tamihere as he walked for more than an hour up the main road to the track entrance, and police tests showed the exhaust cooled within 30 minutes, so it’s an odd claim to insist on. But Tamihere still says, “It felt warm to me.”
He broke a length of number 8 wire off a nearby fencepost, doubled it over, shaped a loop on the end and threaded the wire through a gap of a couple of centimetres in the driver’s side window. After five minutes, he’d opened the door, and flicked the wire into bush by the nearby creek.
When he found a key to the car in the glovebox, he says he opened the back of the vehicle, and fossicked through the Swedes’ gear, chucking out plastic bags of clothes including women’s underwear, but hanging on to packs, some clothing, binoculars and Höglin’s fishing rod.
Living beyond the law, or on its edge, requires that certain rules be followed to reduce the risk of arrest. For Tamihere, a practised car thief, one of them was that a car, once nicked, should be disposed of within 48 hours. Until then, he says, “you’re pretty safe in a hot car”.
“I got caught driving in one once. Got pulled up by a cop in [Auckland’s] Blockhouse Bay Rd. The cop says, ‘This car’s been reported stolen.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know, you sons of bitches. I was the one who reported it. But I found it.’ I said I’d rung Central [police] to tell them I’d found it. The cop said, ‘Sorry, it can’t have gone through the system yet, see you later.’ I shot off to the nearest pub, parked it there, and walked.”
From the time he left the entrance to the Tararu track around 2pm on that Monday afternoon, the 48-hour clock was ticking. Tamihere drove to Sunkist Lodge about 3km away, where he spent the night, registering, as he always did, in the name of Pat Kelly, a union leader whose name he’d seen in a newspaper.
Although he was intending to return to Auckland the following day, he met three backpackers at the lodge – a Swedish man, a Canadian woman and a Swiss woman – who wanted a tour of the peninsula but couldn’t muster enough passengers to warrant use of the lodge’s minivan.
Tamihere offered to take them in the Subaru if they paid for his petrol and $12 for a night at Sunkist – a decision that three months later would give police their biggest break in the case, when the Swedish passenger, Hakan Bokull, returned home and identified the Subaru – and “Pat Kelly” – from newspaper cuttings his mother had kept of the case.
Tamihere took the visitors on a full day trip on April 11, heading north to the 309 Road and over to Hot Water Beach on the east coast, where the tourists dug holes in the sand and bathed in the warm shallows. They invited “Pat” in with them, but he preferred to just watch from the Subaru. He was thinking, he says, of how Ngapuhi had raided three pa in the area, murdering thousands of Ngati Hei and Ngati Tuhukea locals.
“They grabbed the survivors and buried them in the sand and let the tide come in and out twice and then they started eating them,” he says. “Whenever I go near the place, that’s all I can think of.”
On Wednesday, April 12, Tamihere drove to Auckland with one of the trio, Swiss woman Gabriele Staub, dropping her off at a backpackers’ hostel in Park Rd, before dumping the Subaru at the Auckland Railway Station, and selling Höglin and Paakkonen’s binoculars and packs, and Höglin’s fishing rod for $100 at Harmony House in Karangahape Rd.
That night, he returned home to Kris and his sons in Blockhouse Bay Rd, Avondale, where he stayed for a further fortnight. He gave one of his sons a green jacket that had belonged to Höglin – he’d cut out its name and brand labels back at Tararu Creek Rd.
By the 27th, he’d returned to Thames, and the Sunkist Lodge. “I’d been mailing a letter in the New Lynn Post Office. I ran into a policeman who knew my brothers and after we’d had a bit of a chat… I figured this guy had twigged and they’d probably be knocking on my door that night.”
Tamihere was in the Coromandel for only a few more days before deteriorating weather saw him return to Auckland again – he’d been through Cyclone Bola the year before and hadn’t the stomach for another drenching.
He was arrested in Avondale on May 24, two days before the story broke that the Swedes were missing. Returning from the shops, he saw the police at his home. “I was going to keep walking but our little bitzer Rusty saw me.” Rusty’s enthusiastic greeting alerted the cops. After two years and seven months, Tamihere’s time on the lam was over.
It was not until July 10 that police realised Pat Kelly and David Tamihere were the same man. A junior officer on Operation Stockholm, who’d been tracking all guest phone calls from Sunkist Lodge at the time Bokull stayed there, had traced one to the Tamihere home in Blockhouse Bay Rd.
The same night, police descended on Kris Tamihere’s new address, 2km away in Victor St. The first thing they saw when they walked in was Höglin’s jacket hanging on a chair.
Tamihere, already languishing in Paremoremo, where he was serving a sentence of six-and-a-half years for the rape, was about to get some serious attention from John Hughes and the Operation Stockholm team. It took three months for Hughes to build his case. On October 10, 1989, Tamihere was charged with the murders. Two years later, to the day, Höglin’s body was found.
While Tamihere’s story hasn’t altered, the discovery of Höglin’s remains ensured that the police version of events they’d taken to trial in November 1990 had to change, and markedly, to explain how the body turned up so far from where the court heard the murders had taken place – in the vicinity of Crosbies.
The killer was definitely Tamihere, they said, but he must have met the pair in a different place, perhaps around Whangamata, closer to where Höglin’s body was found, off a track leading from Parakiwai Quarry Rd, an area known – as were many other places in Coromandel – for its cannabis crops.
According to the police case, the last people to talk to the Swedes, apart from the killer, were hairdressers Merilyn Round and Paula Johnson, who cut the couple’s hair at the salon Round owned in Pollen St, Thames soon after lunch on April 7. Round was certain of the date because Johnson, her apprentice, spent the rest of the week away at tech.
“You think, ‘Oh, God, could I have warned them?’” Round told North & South. “But nothing like that had ever happened before.”
Round, 82, who lives at a retirement complex known as the Tamahere Village, says the couple told them they were going into the bush near Tararu Creek and were about to leave New Zealand. (The couple was booked to fly out to the Cook Islands on their way home on April 20.)
She hasn’t changed her view that the right man was jailed for the murders. “He was the only one around and he was a bad bugger.” However, she says after Höglin’s watch was found on the body, she became convinced Tamihere was set up by police.
“It’s been done before – look at the Crewes,” she says, noting Hughes and [prosecutor] Morris were involved in that prosecution, too – where police planted evidence to wrongly convict Arthur Allan Thomas.
She wouldn’t be in a hurry to help the prosecution again. “They more or less make you feel guilty. I don’t know why. You just get the feeling they’re trying to get more evidence.”
In order for Paakkonen to be at Crosbies with Tamihere on Saturday, April 8, just after 3pm, given she was emerging from Round’s salon in Pollen St, Thames – a 3km drive and then a four-hour walk away – around 2pm on Friday, the following needs to have happened:
- Tamihere must meet and possibly befriend the Swedes, perhaps offering to guide them in the area, and then lead them to the place in the Wentworth Valley near Whangamata, where Höglin’s remains are found.
- He must stab Höglin and try to decapitate him, then secrete his body and get rid of his own bloodstained clothing, which has never been found.
- He then has to drive Paakkonen in the Subaru for almost an hour to the other side of Coromandel, without leaving a trace of blood in the vehicle or without her attracting attention.
- He must walk her under duress for more than three hours up the Tararu track to Crosbies, where he is spotted by Knauf and Cassidy erecting a tent, with Paakkonen sitting awkwardly nearby.
Despite the finding of Höglin’s body – with the watch – appearing to shoot enough holes into the Crown case to scuttle it, Tamihere’s defence team reckoned without the extraordinary reasoning of the full bench of the Court of Appeal, who speculated on how the jurors reached their verdict and invented alternative scenarios that would still fit with Tamihere’s guilt.
Had the jury accepted the evidence presented at trial that he’d given Höglin’s watch to his son, “one may wonder why it still took them a full two days to reach their verdict”, its decision said, suggesting the jury didn’t believe the watch evidence was reliable and “put it to one side”.
Despite the Crown’s contention in its opening by David Morris that the Swedes were murdered in dense bush a few kilometres north of Thames, the appeal court, somewhat bizarrely, said it was satisfied that “the Crown never tied itself to the places of murder or disposal, which are still unknown except for Urban Höglin’s remains”. It then speculated Tamihere had the appropriate vehicle – the Subaru – “to take Urban Höglin’s body to the remote place where these remains were found”.
Given the absence of Höglin’s blood in the car, that’s not a scenario even the police believed. In 1995, Hughes told documentary maker Bryan Bruce it was more likely Tamihere met the couple at the Wentworth Valley camping ground, lured Höglin away and killed him, then took Paakkonen to Crosbies.
Tamihere’s lawyer at the appeal, Christopher Ruthe, says he was “absolutely flabbergasted” at the appeal court decision. He had been helicoptered to the site where Höglin’s body was found five months before the appeal was heard, and says when he saw the watch still on his wrist, he thought, “That should be game, set and match.”
“I was shattered,” he says of the ruling. “I couldn’t believe it. I shook. I just found it incomprehensible. It’s the only time I ever felt that way in all the dozens of cases I’ve done at the Court of Appeal. It was a travesty of justice. An absolute travesty of justice. Appalling. I just feel gutted by the system.”
When presenting his case, he says, “One had the sense that the court had formed a view which was not going to change.”
He believed Tamihere’s story. “David said to me, ‘Christopher, here I was, I’ve been on the run for three years, would I go and fucking cut their heads off and fucking go into their car?’”
Tamihere’s lengthy rap sheet didn’t help. “Here is a convicted rapist, a bad egg. It doesn’t matter if he rots in jail for an extra 14 years because he’s the kind of guy you want to lock away anyway. Courts like to give the impression they are above the hoi polloi. But it was perhaps too much to expect a judicial system that was under pressure to withstand the opprobrium of the people.”
Senior lawyer Bruce Stainton, a major in the Territorials at the time of Tamihere’s trial, agrees. Tamihere’s defence team had Stainton recreate the scene at the Tararu track entrance where Tamihere threw away the number 8 wire he says he’d used to break into the Subaru. Police said because no such wire had been found – and there was no evidence the Swedes had had a second key cut – that it proved Tamihere hadn’t broken into the vehicle, but had got the key from them.
Stainton says he threw several lengths of wire into the bush, along with two rocks marked with fluorescent paint. Despite a grid search with a metal detector by him and about a dozen others, none of the wires were found, although the rocks were, indicating the wires were probably caught in the bush canopy.
Stainton met Tamihere during the trial. “I didn’t find him in the mould of people who have done murder. I didn’t find him as somebody who was a deliberate murderer, if you like.”
He believes the Court of Appeal didn’t pay enough attention to the aspects of the Crown case that were clearly proven to be wrong. “I think there were other things at play there, not least of which was the international reputation of the New Zealand justice system, because it was pretty much worldwide coverage.”
The pressure on police to solve such high-profile crimes is also intense. “The public is crying out for answers and we have reinforced that with the statement, ‘We need closure.’ But to try to put pressure on investigative authorities to give closure is in my view asking for trouble, and the Teina Pora case is an example of that, where we seem to be over-enthusiastic about this idea that we must have an answer. Jurors feel it. They feel they are there to do a duty to solve the problem.”
Tamihere directs most of his anger about his situation not at the police, but at the Court of Appeal. “I don’t have a dirty on the police. It’s like any job, any walk of life, you’re going to get arseholes in it. You’ve got to look at the fact they only did what the Court of Appeal allowed them to.”
He acknowledges it’s impossible for him to prove a negative. Ask if anyone saw or talked to him as he made his way south from Tapu to Thames that weekend and he shakes his head.
“There was a guy who said he saw me in the Tapu tavern … swore black and blue it was me. I’ve never been in it in my life.”
That witness could have been useful to the defence, except Tamihere knew it wasn’t true. “Those things tend to come around and bite you in the arse later. You’ve got to take eyewitness stuff with a grain of salt.”
It’s not as if he’s never benefited from faulty eyewitness evidence, though. He reckons he blew up the car of a guy he had a beef with years ago and it was an eyewitness who kept him out of jail.
Tamihere says he planted a timed device in the car, and by the time it exploded, he was having a drink at the Potter’s Wheel pub in New Lynn. However, a witness claimed he saw a person in a vehicle draw up alongside the car, throw something into it and take off with screeching tires as the car exploded. “But they could prove I was standing in the pub at that time. That’s how dangerous it can be.”
This could, of course, be another of Tamihere’s tales of bullshit and bravado, but it’s an odd one to recount when you’re trying to get the public on side.
Without an alibi witness for Tamihere in the Swedish tourists’ case, the defence put up five people who said they’d seen Höglin and Paakkonen further north in Coromandel at the time Knauf and Cassidy said Paakkonen was at Crosbies. Among them were Anne and Peter Novis, who ran a Department of Conservation campground at Stony Bay, near the northern tip of the peninsula.
Both remain convinced the Swedish couple stayed in a cottage at the campground that weekend, arriving in the early afternoon of either Friday, April 7, or Saturday April 8, and leaving around 8am the following day. The Novises said the couple had tramped to the campground from Fletcher Bay, at the far northern tip of the peninsula. DoC says that walk takes around three hours.
The timings are crucial. If the Swedes arrived there around 2pm on April 7, they couldn’t have been getting their hair cut in Thames at the same time.
If they arrived at the same time but on Saturday, April 8, Knauf and Cassidy were wrong.
However, the Novis evidence also had to be weighed against that of five other witnesses who testified they saw the Swedes’ Subaru parked at Tararu Creek Rd by about 12.30pm on Sunday, April 9.
In his summing up, Tompkins said if they left the campground at 8am Sunday, and had to walk three hours back to Fletcher Bay, and then took three-and-a-half hours to drive to Thames (a distance of some 115km), the Subaru couldn’t have got to Tararu by 12.30. And nor did a Saturday arrival at the campground fit the evidence of another defence witness, BMW parts manager Stephen Waters, who told the court he saw a pair matching their description at Fletcher Bay on Saturday afternoon. Or, that of two other defence witnesses, Vern McDonald and James Gray, from Manawatu, who said they saw what they thought was the Swedes’ car at Wilson’s Bay, 40 minutes north of Thames, at 4.30pm on Saturday, April 8.
But Peter Novis and his former wife, who remarried in 1990 and is now Anne James, told North & South the time estimates given in court for both the walk to Fletcher Bay and the drive to Thames were excessive. They say the couple could easily have walked to Fletcher Bay and driven to Thames by 12.30 if they’d left the campground on Sunday morning. They say the walk to Fletcher Bay could take as little as 90 minutes to two hours; the drive to Thames around two-and-a-quarter hours. Tararu Creek Rd is only 3km from the main town centre.
Novis, who was a friend of John Cassidy, wouldn’t comment on whether his recollection was correct, and therefore Cassidy had erred. “I don’t know. I don’t want to put a spanner in the works. I knew John and he was very honest. I don’t want to discredit him.”
Anne James says it was Heidi Paakkonen who asked for the cottage for the night, because her partner was unwell and they couldn’t return to Fletcher Bay as planned.
Asked if she was still firmly of the view they were the couple she saw, she replies, “I know I did. I know what I saw. I know who came to my window.” She says police never interviewed them.
The verdict, and the disputed timings, have never made her doubt her own recollection. “The fact it doesn’t coincide with what someone else thinks they know is just life. It’s unfortunate. It doesn’t change what I know to be right. At the time, I was absolutely certain and nothing has changed.
“It’s something you don’t forget because it’s out of the ordinary. She was out of the ordinary. Even since then, I can’t recall seeing anyone like her.”
James, now a mussel farmer in Thames, can’t recall now how they let the authorities know about their sighting of the Swedes. However, Tamihere’s lawyer, Colin Nicholson QC, also represented Peter Novis when, a year earlier, he admitted the mercy-killing shooting of his terminally ill father. Novis was cleared of murder but convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 months’ supervision.
Anne James weeps when she hears Tamihere served 21 years before his release in 2010, knowing he could have been freed earlier if he had admitted guilt. “I’m sure he would have admitted it if he’d done it.”
If defence witnesses were at odds with each other over timings, so too was one of the police witnesses with the thrust of the Crown case. CIB intelligence analyst Robert Mills told Tamihere’s trial that he prepared a flow chart of the Swedish couple’s movements around New Zealand after they arrived in December 1988.
He analysed hundreds of witness statements and documentary evidence, including receipts and postmarks, and discounted a number of sightings. “I am satisfied that they did head north [on or after Friday, April 7].” In a job sheet dated July 31, 1989, he said there was a 65 per cent probability the Swedes drove to the Tararu track on the late afternoon of Saturday April 8 after completing an overnight trip to the top of the Coromandel peninsula. There was a 35 per cent probability that they, or someone else, drove up after that time.
In cross-examination, Mills was asked if he’d changed his opinion since that date. “No, no sir, I haven’t. I am more firm now that this inference was in fact correct.”
If Mills was correct, Cassidy and Knauf’s Saturday afternoon sighting was not. However, in his summing up, Justice Tompkins said Mills’ opinion about the evidence he analysed “is not itself evidence. What he thought was the chance that this or that may have occurred is just completely irrelevant and I suggest you disregard it completely.”
The sightings no one disregarded were those by four witnesses who told the trial they saw the Subaru parked at the entrance to the Tararu track on Sunday, April 9. Harry Goodwin, Jennifer Gladwin, Randal Cornish and Jackie Payne were viewing a house in the hills that Cornish and Payne were interested in buying and noticed the car, particularly because it was fully loaded with gear and had a for-sale sign on it. Their recollections of the asking price varied – from $2200 to $2500 to $3000 – as did their memory of the time, either 12.30pm or around 2pm.
After inspecting the property for two or three hours, they returned to the track entrance. The Subaru was still there. They were joined by shearing contractor Eddie Corbett, who lived near Paeroa, but owned land adjacent to the track that he also farmed. Corbett spoke to the group for about 20 minutes before they left.
Randal Cornish wouldn’t speak to North & South about his involvement in the case, but his evidence about seeing the Subaru would not be his only contribution. In December 1989, two months after Tamihere had been charged with the murders, Cornish returned to the Tararu track entrance with Goodwin and Gladwin for a picnic. While there, he had a look around the old barn with attached lean-to, at the perimeter of the property on which the luxury homestay has since been built.
In the front room, Cornish told the Tamihere trial, was mechanical junk, old tools, furniture and magazines. In the rear was a pile of old sofas and chairs. Cornish moved a tea chest aside and found a tent. Unrolling it, he saw its label: Tysklind Sweden. Three loops at the base of the tent had been cut off, and there was a lightning bolt-shaped cut at the top of one flap. The tent had belonged to Urban Höglin and Heidi Paakkonen.
The barn – a derelict house – had been searched twice by police in June and July, but they failed to find the tent. Yet Cornish, who wasn’t even looking for it, discovered it with ease. (Tamihere says he has no recollection of finding a tent in the Swedes’ car.)
Was the police search embarrassingly inadequate? Or could the tent have been put there after Tamihere was arrested and locked up in May? And by whom?
For Eddie Corbett, too, his sighting of the Subaru on that critical weekend in April was to be only the start of his involvement in the case. Some days after running into Cornish and his friends, Corbett noticed “a baggage ticket” with the name Paakkonen on it, hanging from a string attached to the barbed wire fence at the track entrance.
“I just looked at it, wondered what it was, and threw it down,” he told Tamihere’s trial in 1990. He also noticed what he thought were rubbish bags along the fence line and over the bank towards the creek.
When the media began publicising the Swedes’ disappearance on May 26, Corbett recalled the name on the label. He told the court he returned to the spot, found it where he’d discarded it in the long grass the month before, and took it to the police station.
The case has taken a toll on Corbett, now 73, who says he lost countless hours of work because of his commitments to the investigation and attending court hearings. “It cost me my marriage, my whole life. It financially destroyed me, not being able to work. It was a hell of a burden on the family. The stress was unbelievable. Dealing with the cops; cops arriving in the middle of the night, questioning the kids. No way I’d go through that shit again. I’d go to jail before I’d be back at court.”
His memories of the events have, perhaps unsurprisingly, changed over time. He’s now adamant it wasn’t a baggage label he found on the fence, but that it was a valid airline ticket, and he took it to the police before the Swedes were reported missing, because he thought it was valuable and someone had lost it.
When he was waiting to give evidence, he says the police told him Tamihere had raped a nun when he was 16. “Tied her up, and raped her repeatedly, they said. Then he murdered that prostitute – apparently he cut her throat from ear to ear.”
Tamihere says he didn’t rape a nun at 16, and the police fed witnesses stories about him to “push buttons”. “They’re pretty good psychologists, some police. They tell people what they want to hear.”
I tell Corbett that when Tamihere was convicted of manslaughter in 1972, he’d hit the woman on the head with a rifle in what he said was an accident. In fact, the jury had made a strong recommendation for mercy before he was jailed for only two years.
“Well, what was he doing there with a rifle?”
The exchange highlights the problem Tamihere has always had in garnering much support for the notion he may have been wrongfully imprisoned. At best, he is a practised liar. When first interviewed about taking the Subaru, in July 1989, he repeatedly denied any knowledge of it until he realised he could be facing a murder rap.
“I thought I’d stay there and play silly buggers all day long and I was quite happy to do it. I would still have been doing it. Until they said they were looking at it as a murder. I thought, of all the cars to steal, I had to steal that one.”
He was also a fantasist. The trial heard about a letter he wrote to a Danish woman with whom he had a sexual relationship while on the run, telling her that between 1973 and early 1979 he was a mercenary fighting wars for money. In fact, he’d never been out of the country.
At the worst, he is a violent rapist and a convicted killer. He was only 18 when he killed Mary Barcham, but the court appeared to accept his argument that he did not intend to do so.
The 1986 rape seems impossible to mitigate – the victim was tied up and assaulted over a number of hours. Tamihere partly blames alcohol, saying around that time he “wasn’t sober for three years”.
After he was convicted of the Swedes’ murders, he also put up his hand to the rape of a 62-year-old woman in Avondale in 1985, for which he was jailed for a concurrent four-year term.
Tamihere now says he wasn’t guilty of that one. After his murder convictions, he claims the Operation Stockholm cops “had four or five other cases lined up that I ticked all the boxes for. They were coming up with a whole lot of things they were going to keep charging me with, that happened in Avondale. Someone eventually told them to pull their head in.”
He says with the focus at the time on his appeal, his lawyers told him not to get “bogged down” with fighting it. “It’s not as if they were going to give me extra time.”
Coromandel locals argue Tamihere was very familiar with the area in which Höglin’s body was found and Tamihere doesn’t deny that, saying he regularly camped in the Wentworth Valley, about a kilometre away.
Police put it to him, and one of the secret witnesses gave evidence at his trial, that he and “his mates” had together raped and murdered the Swedish couple. But Tamihere says his contact with other people when he was in the bush was limited. In one two-and-a-half-month stretch on the upper reaches of the Tairua River, between the Wentworth Valley and the Kopu-Hikuai Road, late in 1987, he spoke to no one at all.
It was a tough life, and not, he says, for the “weak of heart”, but he downplays his survival skills. “If you look at the alternative, you learn pretty quickly.”
Tamihere, 63, had open heart surgery within days of his release from prison in 2010, and his lifestyle these days couldn’t be further from his past. He spends a few hours every weekday morning on cleaning and handyman duties at the Hoani Waititi marae in West Auckland, and afternoons are spent quietly at home with wife Kris. He’s doing a course in te reo, in which he reached Year 12-level in prison, but he now wants to take his studies further.
His main ambition now, he says, is “to get this bloody thing sorted”, but he knows his legal options are all but extinguished, unless new evidence – in the form of Paakkonen’s body – turns up.
In 2000, he also failed in a bid to have his case heard by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
He’s kept his nose clean since coming out of jail, although in 2013 he was charged with breaching his parole conditions by flying over the Coromandel with a television crew. A judge did not uphold the charge. He was banned from the area because of Corrections’ fears he might try to move Paakkonen’s remains – although why that would be the case when the body has not been recovered in nearly 30 years is difficult to fathom.
His lawyer Murray Gibson, who tried unsuccessfully to take the case to the Privy Council in 1994, told me of his doubts about the safety of Tamihere’s convictions in 1996 and suggested I should look into them. I said no. At the time, we were working together on the David Dougherty case and I’d seen how hard it was to get the public onside, even when the evidence of innocence was clear-cut. If that was hard, making the case for Tamihere to be released was in a different stratosphere. Good luck with that one, I told him.
More than 20 years on, Gibson remains seriously alarmed by the holes in the case against Tamihere: the use of the secret witness evidence; the watch on Höglin’s body; the location it was found; the police identification tactics.
Even before Gibson became involved, he recalls sitting in on some sessions of Tamihere’s 1990 trial and being astounded to see two life-size pictures of the Swedes for jurors to look at, day in and day out. “It was a masterly move [by the Crown]. I don’t know why the defence didn’t object to it.” Tamihere’s lawyer Nicholson died in 2015.
Gibson believes Tamihere won’t have the opportunity for a retrial until Paakkonen’s body is found, and he still follows up tip-offs in the case.
He once even drove down to the Coromandel, after a call from the daughter of a woman in Whangamata who she said her mother had heard piercing screams around the time of the Swedes’ disappearance and looked out the window the next morning to see three men cleaning a car outside a property. He remembers considering hiring equipment that might be able to detect bones buried in the basement of the house.
Gibson has always considered Tamihere’s explanation of driving the Swedes’ car around the Coromandel – that he’d merely stolen it – was more likely than the Crown’s contention: that he knew the couple wouldn’t report it because he’d murdered them.
“I would have thought that if he had committed the murders, the last thing he would do is drive the car around so publicly and be associated with the people if he’d known they were dead.”
Whenever a body is found on the peninsula, he says, he always wonders if, this time, it will be Paakkonen’s.
If a scab has formed on the wound that is the enduring mystery of the Swedish tourists’ disappearance, the perjury trial in August will pick it off. In Coromandel, the men and women linked to the case will read the media reports and remember the winter of 1989, and their distress will be raw and real. The case will then recede once more from the public’s mind, but for them, it will never be forgotten.
This summer or next, Graeme Pearce will probably return to the Tararu track. And he will keep looking for Heidi Paakkonen, because he won’t be able to help himself. For him and the others, it still isn’t over.
This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.
Would you live with your ex? New Zealanders increasingly live alone or find creative ways to house themselves.Read more
A super-connected world comes with an alarming downside.Read more
Harvard-based New Zealander Simon Talbot leads a team of surgeons performing astonishing hand transplants and plays a part in operations that...Read more
The jazz songstress is staying inspired by writing with others.Read more
Israel Folau’s social-media post might condemn the Wallabies to Rugby World Cup hell, but the rest of us should ignore him.Read more
Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.Read more