Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Crewe Murders: Part One

New Zealand's most enduring murder mystery

Before I begin this in-depth look at one of the most well known and controversial unsolved murders in New Zealand history, some updates on crime news from earlier in the week.

There's been an arrest in the case of the murder of Cun Xiu Tian in New Zealand.  A 19-year-old Auckland man made a brief appearance in court on Thursday, charged with the murder and sexual assault of Cun Xiu Tian, a 70-year-old grandmother who was savagely beaten to death in her home in Te Atatu, West Auckland.  There was anger from members of the community outside the court building, who vented their emotions as the teen was escorted to and from the court. 
Teen arrested in Tian murder

In Australia, the man shot dead by police in Sydney has been identified as New Zealand born David Peterson, originally from Auckland.  Peterson entered the Quaker's Hill station brandishing a knife and screaming at the officers to "just shoot me."  While it's still not clear exactly why Peterson did this, there may have been mental health issues involved.
Man shot by Sydney police ID'd as Kiwi

Pukekawa, Franklin District: June 22, 1970

61 year old local farmer, Lenard Demler, enters the farmhouse his daughter, Jeanette Crewe, shares with her husband Harvey and their 18 month old daughter, Rochelle. Demler finds no sign of the young family, except for baby Rochelle, distressed and dehydrated, in her crib.  In the farmhouse living room, Demler finds blood staining the carpet.

The investigation would later reveal that by the time Demler entered the home and found his granddaughter, Jeanette and Harvey had already been dead for five days. Their bodies were found, weeks later, in the Waikato River.  What had happened in this quiet, rural farming community?  Jeanette and Harvey Crewe were an ordinary young couple who kept to themselves and kept busy, raising their daughter and working hard to grow and improve their farm, a legacy left to Jeanette and her sister Heather after the death of an uncle. Why would anyone want to kill them?

Background: Before the murders

Jeanette Lenore Crewe was born in 1940, the eldest daughter of farming couple, Lenard and May Demler. Her younger sister, Heather Demler, was born 1942. Jeanette and Heather grew up on the family's farm in Pukekawa, in the Franklin District, south of Auckland city, and both attended the local primary school there, Later, Jeanette moved to Auckland to complete her high school education and to train as a teacher.  The farm where Jeanette was eventually to settle with her husband Harvey, known as Chennell Estate, was left to the two girls by an uncle who died in an accident in 1950.  As the girls were still children at the time, a series of farm managers was employed to manage the farm's stock and finances until the girls reached adulthood.

In 1962, after a brief excursion overseas, Jeanette returned to New Zealand to teach, first in Maramarua and then in Whanganui.  It was while Jeanette Demler was living and teaching in Whanganui that she met Harvey Crewe. 

David Harvey Crewe, usually known as Harvey, had a similar
background to Jeanette.  He was born and raised in a
farming district in the lower North Island, but attended school in
Wellington. Upon leaving school he was employed on various farms in the
Woodville and Whanganui districts, where he met Jeanette and in 1966, they were married.

That same year, the newlyweds made the decision to move back to Jeanette's childhood home, Pukekawa, where they bought Heather's share of the farm. 

 Life in rural New Zealand in the 1960s was slow, quiet and routine, centred around hardwork, family, church and community.  Farming and agriculture was the mainstay of New Zealand's economy, especially sheep farming and wool production; which has rise to many jokes about Kiwi's and sheep over the years.

What do you give a Kiwi sheep farmer for Christmas?....

Velcro gloves. (Think about it for a bit, it will come to you.)

There was no such thing as privacy in a New Zealand farming community, when something out of the ordinary happened, everybody heard about it and the event would be the subject of pub and tearoom gossip for weeks on end. 

The first sign that something was amiss in Pukekawa came in July of 1967. Jeanette and Harvey returned home after dinner with Jeanette's parents on the neighbouring farm, to find their house had been broken into and a number of items taken.  Strangely, most of the stolen property was personal items belonging to Jeanette, items with no real monetary value.  The burglar was never caught.

In December of  '68, Rochelle was born. But only days later, while Jeanette and her infant daughter were still in hospital, Harvey Crewe returned home from dinner with his In-laws, to find the house ablaze. 20% of the farmhouse was damaged by the fire, and once again, the perpetrator remained at large.  

The next incident in this escalating pattern of nuisance attacks on the Crewe's came not long after the fire.  But I must preface it by saying that there is some controversy as to whether or not this actually happened, and that the police do not include this incident in their official timeline.  In 2010 an elderly Auckland couple came forward and claimed that the brake lines on Jeanette Crewe's car were cut in early 1969.  Jeanette, who had shared a room in the maternity ward with the female witness , had complained to her new friend about this brake incident just weeks after returning home from the hospital with Rochelle.  According to these witnesses, Jeanette said the brakes were "cut clean through."

Finally, in May of 1969, the Crewe's barn burned to the ground, along with 800 hay bales. That's at least three serious incidents of criminal nuisance, possibly four counting the brake incident, within the space of three years.  The barn fire was the last in this series of bizarre and unexplained attacks leading up to the murder. Less than a month later, Jeanette and Harvey were dead.

The Murders

I mentioned earlier that, by the time Rochelle was found, abandoned and distressed in an empty house, the Crewe's had already been dead for five days. What happened during those five days? And why did nobody think to check in on the Crewe's earlier?

 June 17th, 1970

The Crewe family ran a number of errands in and around the Pukekawa area and were seen by a number of different people throughout the day.  The police were able to use these sightings and other witness statements to compile a timeline of the events leading up to the murder, and in the days following, prior to Lenard Demler entering the home to find the Crewe's gone.

9:45am. Local stock agent, John Gracie arrives at the Crewe farm, where he has tea with the couple before leaving with Harvey to view a bull he is considering purchasing from a farm in the nearby community of Glen Murray.

10:00-12:00. Thyrle Pirret and her three-year-old daughter arrive at the farm for a visit. The women have tea together and are soon joined by Harvey, who has returned from viewing the bull. Thyrle and her daughter leave at around midday.  A short time later, the Crewe's leave together in their Hillman Hunter. This car is seen parked at a local vegetable stand between 12 and 12:30, though the witness do not recall seeing the Crewe's themselves.

12:30-3:00pm.  The Crewe's attend a stock clearance auction at another farm in the Bombay area. By this time it's raining fairly heavily, so Jeanette and Rochelle stay in the car while Harvey attends the sale. This is the last time that any of the witnesses see the Crewe's alive, although there are several sightings of their vehicle after this point.

3:30-4:30pm.  Beverly Batkin, a friend of Jeanette's, sees the Crewe's car drive past her house in the direction of Pukekawa. Craig Fulton, a Glen Murray farmer, also sees the Crewe's vehicle, parked at a stock gate a couple of kilometers from their house. He doesn't see the Crewe's themselves, but since Harvey is known to attend to stock in that area, Fulton doesn't think anything of it.  A second Glen Murray farmer, Alexander Irvine, also sees the Crewe's vehicle around this time, parked outside the local cemetary.

This sighting by Irvine is the last time the Crewe's vehicle is seen prior to the murder. Events after this point are based on the police investigation timeline, which states that Jeanette and Harvey probably returned home between 5 and 5:30pm, where they had dinner, the remains of which were still on the table five days later, when the disappearance is discovered.  Jeanette and Harvey are murdered sometime between 7- 9pm on the evening of June 17th.

June 18th

9:30am. local delivery man Emmett Shirley arrives at the Crewe farm and leaves a loaf of bread, two bottles of milk and a copy of the morning paper in the delivery box at the end of the driveway.  There are no other visitors to the farm and no sightings of the Crewe's that day.

June 19th

9:00am. Local farmer Bruce Roddick sees a woman and a vehicle on the Crewe property while feeding hay to his stock in a neighbouring paddock.

9:30am. Emmett Shirley returns to the Crewe farm and discovers the previous day's deliveries untouched in the delivery box. Nonetheless, he leaves more bread and milk, and the day's paper before continuing on his route.

June 20th

9:30am.  Emmett Shirley makes his third delivery to the Crewes, sees that the previous two deliveries are still in the box, but assumes the Crewe's have just gone away for a day or two.  He leaves his usual delivery of milk, bread and paper.

2:00pm.  Neighbour, Queenie McConachie, sees a child and a vehicle on the Crewe property while driving past with her husband Maurice. Later that same afternoon, while driving back past the Crewe place, Maurice also sees the child, standing in the Crewe's front paddock, near the road.

June 21st

There are no visits to the Crewe farm and no sightings of the woman or the child.

June 22nd

7:00am.  Stock agent, Joseph Moore, telephones the Crewe household. The call goes unanswered so Moore calls Jeanette's father, Lenard Demler, to ask if the Crewe's have gone away. Demler replies that the couple should be at home and Moore tells Demler he will visit the address later in the day.

9:00am.  Joseph Moore and fellow stock agent, John Dagg, arrive at the farm and knock on the door for some time, but receive no answer.  The two men notice a light on in one of the rooms, but no movement or signs of life within the house. They assume the Crewe's are away and leave without further attempts to locate the family.

9:30am.  Emmett Shirley arrives as usual, but seeing the uncollected deliveries from the previous four days, decides not to leave any more. He removes the old bread and throws it into the front paddock for the birds so that it won't attract mice.

10:00am-12:30pm. Ronald Wright, a local transport foreman, calls the Crewe's  several times throughout the morning to organise the collection of some sheep for transport. After getting no answer, Wright calls Lenard Demler and asks him to try and get in touch with Harvey regarding the sheep.

1:00pm. Lenard Demler drives over to Crewe's, where he discovers bloodstains on the carpet of the living room and no sign of Harvey or Jeanette. He also finds Rochelle in her crib, alive but dehydrated and very distressed.

Lenard Demler's behaviour from this point onward is rather strange, something that is noted by police at the time, and is one of the things that initially makes him their prime suspect for quite some time.

1:00-3:00pm.  Demler leaves Rochelle in her crib and returns to his own home, where he first calls Ronald Wright to cancel the sheep collection, then calls his neighbour, Owen Priest, to ask for his help in locating Jeanette and Harvey.
The two return to the property together at around 1.45pm and begin searching the farm's paddocks and outbuildings. Finally, after leaving Rochelle alone for a further 45 minutes, Demler removes his granddaughter from the home and takes her to a neighbour by the name of Barbara Willis, while Owen Priest calls the police station in Tuakau to report that Jeanette and Harvey are missing, and that there is blood on the carpet in their home.  Owen Priest will later tell police that when he asked Demler what happened, Demler replied that Harvey had killed his daughter, and called him a bastard.

3:00pm.  Constable Wyllie arrives and conducts a cursory search of the house and property. He then calls his superior, Senior Sergeant Melville, to advise him of the situation. On Melville's orders, Constable Wyllie exits the home, locks it behind him and waits with Owen Priest for more officers to arrive.  

4:00pm.  Melville arrives, accompanied by Constable Rounthwaite.  Shortly afterwards, Detective Sergeant Tootill, Constable Abbott, and Constable Metcalf also arrive.  A more thorough search of the property and local area begins, and preliminary enquiries are made.

Coming up in part two of the Crewe Murders...

Finding the bodies in the Waikato River.

The police investigation

The suspects

Check back in the next day or so for part two of this in-depth look at the Crewe murders and their aftermath.  Finally, I leave you with the crime story of the week, from the "Only in the New Zealand" file....

What the flock?!? Sheep stop police car chase


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'm not going to get into all the grammar mistakes in this piece, but can you at least fix all the times you say "Crewe's" to CREWES. You don't have an apostrophe for a plural - there's more than one Crewe, therefore no apostrophe.

    If you're talking about them owning something, then you have an apostrophe ... after the name if a single person, after the S if there's more than one. "Harvey Crewe's car", "the Crewes' (both of them) car".

  3. Really 'unknown' May 6 2018 - fancy quibbling over grammar - didn't the reality of what was written move you at all?