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Police revisit Crewe murders

SUNDAY , 02 JULY 2006

Police are being urged to reopen the Crewe murder case after they received an investigator's dossier which identifies the alleged killer and names the mystery woman who fed the dead couple's baby.

Journalist and publisher Chris Birt has been collaborating on the investigation with the Sunday Star-Times, and has spent 30 years researching the Crewe murders.

Last week, he handed his file on the woman to assistant commissioner Peter Marshall.

Marshall told the Star-Times he was keeping an open mind and would decide what action to take -if any - in about 10 days.

"Who fed baby Rochelle" is one of the enduring enigmas of New Zealand's most infamous murder mystery. The 18-month-old was found distressed in her cot at the Crewes' Pukekawa farm south of Auckland five days after the June 1970 murders and there was evidence she had been fed and changed.

The Star-Times knows who the woman is - she lives in Auckland -but will not name her on legal advice. Arthur Allan Thomas was twice wrongly convicted of the murders and spent nearly 10 years in jail until being pardoned in 1979.

His brothers Des and Richard are backing the new bid to reignite the investigation - "36 years have passed by, but better late than not at all", said Des. Arthur Thomas declined to comment.

Birt's dossier contains evidence from informants who have come forward since the publication of his 2001 book, The Final Chapter, which named Jeanette Crewe's father, Len Demler, as the killer.

Demler, who died in 1992, had "discovered" the crimes, but had a motive for double murder. His wife Maisey, who died four months before the killings, had left her half of the farm to Jeanette, while his favourite daughter, the younger Heather, was cut from the will. Heather has been ruled out as the mystery woman.

Birt has unearthed new material from the original Crewe homicide file under the Official Information Act and from documents handed to the Thomas family - including a notebook belonging to one of the original Crewe inquiry police investigators, the late Len Johnston. Birt says the new material proves:

The mystery woman, who was informally interviewed by police, lied when she claimed she had no connection with Pukekawa before 1972. Birt says he has evidence which puts her in the district a year before the murders.

Detectives thought they knew from the outset the identity of the woman - and that it was not the woman they claimed it was, Arthur Thomas's wife Vivien.

That then police commissioner Bob Walton issued a directive in February 1979 - just before the Thomas Royal Commission -ordering that no further inquiries were to be made about the woman.

That Len Demler was seen on several occasions in a south Auckland hotel drinking with police investigating the murders.

That farm labourer the late Bruce Roddick - the witness who saw the woman in the Crewes' front yard in the days after the murder - had confirmed the woman's identity to the Thomas family two years after the murders.

That in 1973, just before the second Thomas trial, Len Johnston wrote in his notebook that Roddick's identification of the woman confirmed the police's own suspicions.

The woman Birt names yesterday denied any involvement.

"It's not true," she said. "I had nothing whatsoever to do with it. I have a clear conscience. I can put my head on the pillow every night and go to sleep."

She said she "sort of" knew the Crewes. They were "a lovely couple".

"It was the most dreadful, dreadful thing. Who the heck did it I don't know."

Arthur Thomas's brothers want police to pursue the woman.

Five women have been named as suspects, but Birt has been able to rule out the other four on the basis of Roddick's description and his own inquiries.

It was not Arthur Thomas's wife, Vivien. It was not Jeanette's sister, Heather Souter, nee Demler. It was not Ruth Eyre, the woman on whom suspicion was cast at the second Thomas trial in 1973 because her son was a local farm boy who was known to have roamed the district with a firearm.

And it was not, as original Thomas case campaigner Pat Booth alleged, Jeanette Crewe.

Booth believes Jeanette Crewe killed her abusive husband, then, a few days later, committed suicide and Len Demler disposed of her body. Birt says he has new evidence which suggests Jeanette Crewe's skull was cracked by blows to the head before she was shot.

Birt says he is disturbed at the detectives' failure to put the woman in an identity parade for Roddick or interview her before the Royal Commission. He believes police did not want to be gathering evidence that Thomas was not the killer.

The Walton directive came after Queen's Counsel Robert Adams-Smith - appointed by then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon - sought more information from police about two women who could have been the one seen by Roddick.

Walton, interviewed last month, said he could not understand why he would have directed then CIB head Brian Wilkinson not to interview the woman.

"There must have been a damned good reason, that's all I can say. I can't think of any reason. I can't see why I would stop him."

He directed the newspaper to Wilkinson, who said no reason was given for the directive, but that in hindsight, he ought to have sought a reason from his superior.

Walton and Wilkinson said the identity of the woman was one of the outstanding unresolved issues of the case.

Walton's letter to Wilkinson has not been made public until now.

Posted on 29 Mar 2007 by Dave Stewart

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