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Why it took so long to catch Teresa Cormack's killer

Teresa Cormack.

Jules Mikus, who raped and murdered six-year-old Teresa Cormack in 1987, had an alibi for the timeframe police were considering.

After Jules Mikus was convicted, in October 2002, of Teresa Cormack’s murder, inquiry head Brian Schaab conceded that the initial police concentration on a narrow timeframe for the 1987 abduction may have been a mistake.

The focus from 8.45am-9.15am – after the little girl had apparently decided to return home after reaching Richmond School – meant that anyone who could produce an alibi for around that time was downgraded on the suspect list. “We weren’t considering the wider picture perhaps as much as we should have been,” Schaab told the Listener’s Denis Welch after the verdict.

Mikus had been able to place himself on the other side of town between 9.30am and 10.00am. Even the fact that he had repainted his Vauxhall Viva car was not seen as unduly sinister.

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Schaab told Welch there was never enough hard evidence at the time to pin the crime on Mikus. “Unless this guy had coughed or … someone had been able to tell us something about him, we still wouldn’t have been able to do something until last year anyway.”

The evidence that finally sealed Mikus’ fate would have to wait 14 years in a plastic bag in a coldstore. It included two pubic hairs found by a forensic scientist examining Teresa’s panties and smears of semen taken from her body.

A month after the murder, police were no closer to finding Teresa’s killer but were getting blood and hair samples from anyone remotely considered a suspect – just in case, one day, a way might be found of linking the killer to evidence left on the body. Mikus gave a blood sample to a doctor at the Tamatea Medical Centre in Napier on July 20, 1987.

Jules Mikus. Photo/NZ Herald/Mark Mitchell

But DNA testing had been invented only in 1985 and none of the conventional methods used in 1987 were capable of establishing a link. The country’s first DNA testing lab would not open until 1989.

Police and scientists could only sit back and wait as DNA testing techniques evolved. In February 2002, at the ESR institute in Auckland, forensic scientist Susan Petricevic was working her way through blood samples given by 845 “key suspects” in the Teresa Cormack case, looking for a match to a DNA sample obtained 11 months before from semen found on Teresa’s body. She tested more than 750 samples before finding a match. The DNA profile she held in one hand, extracted from Mikus’ blood sample, matched exactly the DNA profile in her other, extracted from traces of semen stored for years in a Wellington lab.

To make sure that the case against Mikus was watertight, Schaab took the pubic hairs to the US for further analysis, where it was found the pubic-hair DNA matched Mikus’ blood sample DNA.

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.