Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Crewe Murders: Part 3

This is part three of an in-depth examination of the Crewe murders.  Check out Part 1 and Part 2 first.

                        The Trials of Arthur Allan Thomas


In November of 1970, after months of investigation and multiple searches of both the Crewe farm, and the properties of the two main suspects, police arrest local farmer, Arthur Allan Thomas, for the murders of Jeanette and Harvey Crewe.  The motive according to police? Jealousy, because Jeanette rejected Thomas' attentions all those years ago, prior to her marriage to Harvey Crewe, and Thomas' marriage to Vivian.

Arthur Allan Thomas maintains his innocence, but the police have a strong case against him, complete with "smoking gun," or more accurately, smoking bullet casing.  In October, while conducting yet another search of the section surrounding the Crewe house, Detective Sergeant Charles finds a .22 bullet casing in one of the garden beds.  By this time, police know that both Crewe's were killed with shots to the head from a .22 rifle.  They have confiscated more than 70 rifles from Pukekawa locals for test firing, including a .22 belonging to Arthur Allan Thomas, and another belonging to Lenard Demler.  On August 28th, the forensics expert tells investigators that he has excluded all but two of the rifles as the possible murder weapon.

The test-fire cartridge casings are compared to the casing found at the Crewe property and a match is made to .22 rifle belonging to Arthur Allan Thomas.  This cartridge case comes to be known as Exhibit 350.  But as if that wasn't damning enough, the investigation team are also able to link Thomas to the trailer axle found weighing down Harvey Crewe's body.  That trailer, and it's ownership history will go on to become a major point of contention at both of Thomas' trials.

The trailer and the .22

When police finally find Harvey Crewe's body on September 16 1970, he is wrapped in fabric tied with galvanised wire, the kind of wire used for fencing paddocks on farms throughout New Zealand.  Harvey's body is also weighted down, which is why it takes so long to be discovered, tethered with a different kind of wire, copper wire, to a rusty vehicle axle.

Officers hold up the axle found with Harvey's body 

Police immediately begin the task of tracking down the origin of the axle.   On September 18th, Detective Sergeant Jefferies appears on national TV news with axle, asking for members of the public to assist in identifying it's origins.  As a result of this broadcast, Charles Shirtcliffe comes forward and provides information about a trailer he bought in 1956, and subsequently sold to a man working at the Meremere Power Station later that same year.

In October, the NZ Herald publishes a photograph of the trailer provided by Charles Shirtcliffe, along with details of it's sale and an appeal for the power station worker to contact police.  The next day, Patricia Whyte, who recognises the picture as being a trailer she formerly owned, comes forward with details of it's purchase and sale in 1959.

Police are finally putting together a fuller picture of what happened to Jeanette and Harvey Crewe on the night of the murders.  A crime scene photo showing an open window with a clear line of sight to Harvey's armchair suggests that the killer may have shot Harvey from outside the house, through this window, before going in and subduing and shooting Jeanette.  The police stage a reconstruction of this scenario to test it's plausibility, with one of the officers playing the part of Harvey Crewe.  This reconstruction is a success, and demonstrates that the theory of Harvey being shot from outside the house is very plausible.

Reconstruction of Harvey being shot from outside
Police are still focusing on Lenard Demler as their prime suspect at this point, as demonstrated by his being bought in for multiple interviews, and being accused by officers during those inteviews in the hopes of gaining a confession.  This focus shifted significantly in mid-October of 1970, after police recieve a call from Heather Cowly, the step-daughter of Charles Shirtcliffe, who previously owned the trailer.  Cowley tells police that she remembers the trailer being sold to a Mr Thomas who lived on Mercer Ferry Road.

Police immediately visit Thomas and show him a photograph of the axle found with Harvey's body, but Thomas states that he's never seen it before.  They show him a photograph of the trailer, and Thomas agrees that it looks very similar to a trailer that his father had once owned.  Police also speak to Richard Thomas, Arthur Thomas' brother, who remembers driving the trailer to a man in Meremere named Roderick Rasmussen, who conducted repairs on the trailer.  Rasmussen even recycled parts of the old 1929 trailer to build the trailer currently owned by Arthur Thomas.

Slowly but surely, the investigation team are building a case that points, not to Lenard Demler, but to Arthur Allan Thomas.  But what's the motive? Why would Arthur Thomas, a hard working and seemingly happily married farmer, want to murder the young couple?  A review of the leads they already have takes police back to a phone tip from the early days of the investigation, before the bodies had even been found.  Back in July, police had received a tip from a friend of Jeanette's, that Arthur Thomas had once been interested in Jeanette romantically.  It's this tip that gives police the motive they are looking for.  Now they just have to prove it.

The Crown's Case


The Crown prosecutor, David Morris, contends that Arthur Allan Thomas was obsessed with Jeanette Demler, and that he had become so jealous over her marriage to Harvey, that he murdered them both.  Morris even claims that Vivian Thomas, Arthur's wife, is the woman witnesses saw on the Crewe farm in the two days after the disappearance, and that it must have been she who looked after Rochelle.  The Crown's case was as follows...

June 17th 1970, 7-9pm

Arthur Allan Thomas can no longer contain his jealousy over Jeanette's marriage to Harvey Crewe, so he drives to the Crewe farm with his .22 rifle and finds an open louvre window with a clear view to living room, and the armchair where Harvey Crewe is sitting after his evening meal.  Arthur fires through the window, shooting Harvey once in the head, killing him almost instantly.

Arthur then charges in to the house and shoots Jeanette once in the head, she falls in front of the fireplace, leaving the blood smears that are clearly visible in the crime scene photos.  Arthur drags the bodies to his car, leaving the bloody marks found by the doorstep.  He wraps the bodies in fabric, tied with galvanised wire taken from his farm, ties Harvey's body to the axle from his decomissioned trailer, and dumps both bodies in the Waikato River.  

The jury is convinced by the overwhelming physical evidence and expert testimony; the bullet casing from Arthur's .22, the axle and the galvanised wire, both traced back to Arthur Allan Thomas.  They find Thomas guilty, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.  On appeal in 1972, Arthur Allan Thomas' conviction is quashed by the Privy Council and a new trial is ordered.  But he is convicted again, by a second jury, based on the same theory of the crime, and most of the same evidence.  Case closed.

There's just one problem.  It was all a lie.

In October of 1970, Detective Sargeant Charles breaks the case wide open when he finds that bullet cartridge on the Crewe farm, that is later matched to Arthur Allan Thomas' .22 rifle.  Lead investigators claim the reason it wasn't found earlier is because that particular section of garden had not been searched previously, and that it was noted during a conference of the investigation team that same month.  Enter Constable Ross Meurant.  He remembers the Crewe case very well, because it was his very first homocide inquiry, and he wanted to do things "by the book."  Meurant had searched that section of garden back in August, and even dug up a small shrub so he could sieve the dirt looking for evidence.  Meurant maintains that had there been a bullet cartridge in that garden back in August, when he searched that area, he would have found it.  Which means that someone must have placed it there after the initial search, for an unsuspecting D.S Charles to find.

D.S Charles points out where the bullet cartridge was found

Then there's the trailer axle, and the matching axle stubs that went with it.  The axle had been traced back to a trailer once owned by Arthur Thomas Senior, and later used for parts by Rod Rassmussen.  The Thomas family testified in court that Rassmussen had cut the axle stubs off the axle bar, but had not returned those parts to the Thomas's once he was finished building the new trailer.  However, Rassmussen asserts that he did return the axle stubs, and that they were thrown into the Thomas farm's rubbish dump.  Those axle stubs were later found in that rubbish dumping area by lead investigator, Detective Len Johnson.

Six young men came forward to testify that they had towed an old car from the Thomas farm five years earlier, along with an old axle, which they later dumped on the far side of Pukekawa along with other unwanted junk from the old vehicle.  

Things weren't looking good for the Crown or the NZ Police, and they only got worse after veteran journalist Pat Booth wrote a series of scathing articles.  Sarah Keonig was not the first journalist to uncover a glaring case of wrongful conviction.  Pat Booth was able to prove that although both bullet cartridges had the stamp on the bottom, the stamps didn't match, meaning they hadn't come from the same production line at the same time.  The cartridge from the Crewe farm came from somewhere else, and had been planted.

Comparison of bullet stamps showed no match 

Did I mention that Arthur Thomas had an alibi for the night of June 17th 1970? Well, he did.  Thomas's wife Vivian and his cousin, Peter Thomas, both testified that Arthur had stayed home all night, nursing a sick cow instead of attending a ratepayers meeting in Pukekawa that was scheduled for that evening.

Public anger and outrage was growing, as was the evidence that the police investigators had manufactured the case against Arthur Allan Thomas.  In 1980, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon recommended to the NZ Governor General that Thomas receive a full pardon.  The Governer General agreed, and Arthur Allan Thomas was pardoned and released after 9 years behind bars.

Coming up in part 4, the final episode of the Crewe Murders.....

Why was Jeanette Crewe to scared to stay in her house alone in the weeks before her murder?

Who really killed the Crewes? Alternate theories

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