Ten questions with Kirsty Johnston and James Hollings


Q1: New Zealand is a small country — and was even smaller in 1970 — and so it just seems incredible that this murder has never been solved. How is that possible do you think?

K: I think it comes back to the initial police investigation and the way detectives focussed on a single suspect right at the start. You can see in the files that this narrowed the scope and probably resulted in missed opportunities to gather evidence — and as the police review of the file showed in 2014 it’s very hard to close those investigative gaps in retrospect.

J: So true; also key bits of evidence which could have helped later went missing (e.g. the fingerprints) and of course they didn’t have the advantage of DNA forensics. The police tried very hard, but weren’t well-trained and as Kirsty says, tended to look only for things related to the current suspect. They were also preoccupied in the early stages with finding the bodies, a very difficult task, which meant they didn’t spend enough time canvassing and gathering witness evidence while it was fresh.

Q2: There’s something that drew you to this case other than just it’s bamboozling ‘unsolvedness’. What was it?

K: For me it was the way the Crewes, and Jeannette in particular, had been described by police and later by others who investigated the case. I felt deeply uncomfortable, and then really irritated at the way this young mother had been written off as a lazy housekeeper or some kind of social snob. I really wanted to try to create a full picture of who she was as a person, to get beneath what I felt were lazy caricatures and assumptions about her life. I also felt that might help identify why she and Harvey were killed.

J: Having taught it for many years, or at least the role of investigative journalism in it, I was I suppose professionally interested. When Pat Booth died, I did his obituary, and found myself unable to shake the mystery of the axle. Once I looked into that, I realised it was a topic you either did properly, or not at all. And all the books on it were so . . angled. There was room for a proper history. Also, as Kirsty says, some of the careless speculation about the Crewes seemed so unfair, and just wrong.

Q3: There are not that many opportunities for print journalists to really get stuck in and commit to a big, long investigation these days so did you relish this?

K: It was an extremely rewarding project, particularly given the rich archives on the case we were able to access, and the fact we were able to do in depth interviews with a handful of people who were involved in the investigation or who knew the Crewes. As journalists we aren’t always so fortunate with time or material as we were here.

J: Indeed, it was a privilege to work on something so significant, and which so many people had given so much time and sweat to. It was a privilege to be able to sit down with people involved – you always feel grateful to them for doing that with you. It is such an interesting story, with so many layers beyond simply a cold case. For me what made it worth doing was the way in which it illuminated layers of New Zealand society which very rarely see the light; the inner workings of the Justice and political hierarchy; how we as a country deal with these incredibly complicated questions of justice, and guilt, and punishment, and mercy, and acknowledging wrongdoing. There’s very few, in fact no other case in New Zealand that had all that – so that was an amazing privilege and opportunity.


Q4: What did you want to do that all the other authors and doco makers who have had a crack at the Crewe murders didn’t do?

K: We didn’t set out to solve the case. Initially, we were trying to explore the puzzle of the axle and we think we made some headway on that aspect, but repeatedly we resolved not to form definite conclusions, or to focus on a single suspect, which means we were able to look more broadly and investigate multiple angles as objectively as possible. We still went down rabbit holes, obviously, but invariably one of us would draw the other back to reality.

J: As Kirsty says, not having the pressure of having to solve the case made the inquiry more interesting and open-minded. We started with the axle, but then it dawned on us that no one had really done a proper history, and that there was so much more to tell; that this was much more than just a crime story or cold case. It was about the land wars, confiscated land, the death penalty, our justice system. That’s when it came alive for me.

Q5: How did the process of working on it together run?

K: Being able to bounce ideas and theories and concerns off another person was invaluable. I wish I had a co-author for all my stories! It really helps to be able to talk through complex ideas with another person who is just as invested as you are.

J: Yes! It was fun! Kirsty is wonderful to work with, and the story is so interesting. I felt very lucky to be working with such a clear-headed and capable journalist. We just got a lot of stuff done and seemed to agree on the sometimes tricky things like values and tone and no-go areas. I think it’s the kind of story you need someone else to keep you on track – there’s so much material to go through – and also pull you out of rabbit holes!

Q6: There are two key things here, aren’t there? The police corruption that led to planting the incriminating cartridge case that sent Arthur Allan Thomas down, and the then a justice system which for years seemed determined to perpetuate that wrong. Which is the more shocking to you?

K: I can never decide. I have written a lot about the court process so in some ways the most shocking part for me was that nothing seemed to have changed in 40 years — our justice system still has a habit of entrenching to protect itself. But the possibility that an individual would plant evidence always gets me — when I try to envisage what happened I find it very difficult to imagine not how someone could do that, but how they could lie about it for so long.

J: As someone who has read a lot about the Soviet purges, and the way in which once someone falls under suspicion, the ‘system’ just gets going and becomes a self-reinforcing machine that just chews people up, this didn’t really surprise me. Planting evidence was not unheard of back then; shocking as it sounds to us now. What is a little bit shocking is the way in which some of the judges in this case actively favoured the prosecution; the way in which the police and justice colluded to subvert any questioning of the evidence. It was reassuring to see the care and generally fair-minded attempt of the 2014 police review team to redress that.

Q7: It’s a strong part of this book that you tell the long history of the land on which the Crewe farm sat, going right back to the New Zealand Wars and its confiscation. Are you saying that there is something like a dark stain on the Pukekawa district?

K: Land ownership is, if you think about it, at the centre of all of New Zealand’s culture and history and problems. It made sense that the stories in the land might help shed new light on the Crewe case, even if that was to disprove other people’s theories. The contested history of Pukekawa just happens to be part of that story — as it is for much of Aotearoa.

J: We thought a lot about what might a different lens bring to this story; it’s usually just been told through a crime lens; as a crime story. Researching it through a land and property lens brought some surprising things to light. And yes, that district has been very contested, as ground zero of the land wars; but we were surprised by just how much they were intertwined.

Q8: You read masses of evidence and reports as you researched this book. What’s one thing that really surprised you?

K: That individual police could do such good work with such limited technology. My earliest take on the case — from watching the films and documentaries in particular — was that this was a bumbling group of detectives, that the investigation was something of a farce. And while at times it really does feel a bit like Keystone cops, the amount of detailed work by individual officers at times really was so thorough and fair.

J: I agree; a good deal of the police work was actually very good; they just didn’t know it at the time. That surprised me, how they did a lot with fairly limited technical resources. And that evidence is still talking today. Some of it, of course, was shockingly amateurish, and at times literally criminal. Another thing that came through was just how desperately so many New Zealanders wanted to help; at times the whole country seemed to be involved, either trying to find the bodies, or the killer, or to help Arthur Thomas. It really moved so many people, in so many ways. I can’t think of a case like that nowadays. It really was a national story, and it went on so long – 10 years till Thomas was freed, then another 40 and counting.

Q9: And another thing?

K: Probably the opposite of what I said just before: That police could be so narrow-minded or so small-minded. At times I was so baffled by the investigation files and the assumptions of police and the actions of some officers. I would be reading through the files and find myself sending excerpts to James in complete astonishment. Of course hindsight is wonderful — and it was a different world back then — but I still found some of the individual opinions and theories almost unbelievably painful.

J: I so agree.

Q10: Who lingers in your mind when you think about this case? Thomas? The Crewes? Both?

K: For me it’s always Jeannette. She was only 30 years old, living in this tiny town, with her husband who she was so in love with, and their beloved daughter and she should have had this rich full life, but instead she’s become this kind of macabre footnote in history. I find her so interesting, and so normal. I think that’s why it’s such an enduring tragedy. These were simply normal people and they deserved better.

J: Yes, for me too, it is Jeannette, and Harvey, and Rochelle. They all should have had a nice family life together. Rochelle has had to live with her parents’ and grandparents’ characters being pulled apart; part of the motivation for me was to set that record straight. I also think about all the people who were just living a quiet normal life in Pukekawa and who got sucked into this whirlpool – the Eyres, the Demlers, many of the Thomases. I also find myself wondering about the person who almost certainly helped the killer and wonder whether they will ever find the strength within themselves to come forward and set people’s minds at rest. Finally I also find myself wondering about the person who killed Harvey and Jeannette; have they experienced remorse, or guilt or shame, and if they have, what would they like to happen now. If they were to come forward, what should happen – could there be forgiveness, or mercy? These are difficult questions.