Puketitiri farmer slain 10 years ago today

By Doug Laing

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Jack Nicholas, the Puketitiri farmer shot dead 10 years ago today.
Jack Nicholas, the Puketitiri farmer shot dead 10 years ago today.

The anniversary of the slaying of Puketitiri farmer Jack Nicholas will be marked by family still concerned about the same issues of poaching which were the background to the tragedy which rocked Hawke's Bay and rural New Zealand 10 years ago.

Mr Nicholas was shot dead by a gunman who had waited for him to venture outside his Makahu farmhouse in the frosty dawn of August 27, 2004.

In a cruel twist of fate, wife Agnes heard the shots just before 6.30am but assumed it was her 71-year-old husband shooting at rabbits. The gunman escaped before she discovered the body near the gateway to their garden and alerted police, initially thinking it had been an accident with his own gun.

Police soon mounted a huge homicide inquiry but it was not until May 2006 that they made an arrest. However, after a six-week trial two years later, a jury deliberating for more than a day delivered a mid-evening verdict of not guilty, allowing then 51-year-old accused man Murray "Moe" Foreman to walk free.

While defence counsel and Wellington QC Bruce Squire immediately accused police of carrying out a "shoddy" and "selective" inquiry and nailing "the wrong man", police believed they had gathered enough evidence to convict, but the jury saw it differently.

No other arrest was made, and police have not commented on whether anything came to light afterwards to warrant investigating any other person.

The shot man's son, Oliver, who still lives with his wife and family at the remote Makahu gateway to the Kaweka Forest, as does his Scotland-born mother, told Hawke's Bay Today: "You get on as good as you can, and we're lucky we've had good family and friends around us.

"But I suppose the sad thing now, at the end of the day, is that things haven't changed," he said. He is still worried about poaching on the property and elsewhere in the area.

"It seems to be a weekly occurrence," he said.

"And until judges do something about it, nothing will change. We had a bad case last year when we caught some guys, but it's a disgrace."

"These guys operate at night," he said. "We work all day. We can't be up all night."

Bill Gregory, who was the head of the Napier CIB at the time the first confused reports of the shooting came in says he has no regrets about the inquiry, which at its peak involved over 60 police staff in Napier, including specialised officers from throughout the country.

But he does regret that the inquiry was unable to end with anyone convicted of the murder, which was to have some uncanny similarities with the later killings of Feilding farmer Scott Guy in July 2010 (brother-in-law Ewen Macdonald was found not guilty of murder) and road worker George Taiaroa northwest of Taupo in March last year (no one has yet been charged).

Mr Gregory said police who were investigating the Feilding killing consulted with those who had earlier been on the Nicholas homicide inquiry.

Mrs Nicholas still "gets about" on the farm, says her son. For those at the trial, memories of a stout farmer's wife giving evidence about the day she lost her husband linger on.

"I regret not being able to close it off for the family," says Mr Gregory. "But that's the system."

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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