Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Killer of Auckland beauty hid his dark secret behind sinister mask of deception

Carmen Thomas. Photo / Supplied
Carmen Thomas. Photo / Supplied

The Herald is looking back on the crime cases that shook the country.

The missing person alert on July 16, 2010 was nothing out of the ordinary.

Carmen Thomas, a 32-year-old mother from the upmarket suburb of Remuera, had not been seen for at least two weeks. Her car was abandoned in Hamilton, while bank accounts were untouched. Her job as an escort increased the chances of Carmen coming to harm, said Detective Inspector Mark Benefield, who described her as a vivacious girl who liked to party.

Reading between the lines, it seemed Carmen was most likely murdered by someone she met at work or play. Photos of the attractive brunette pushed the story on to the front page that day, but there was little to suggest Operation Keppel would unravel more twists and turns than a crime novel thriller.

In the first few weeks of the inquiry, information flowed freely from the police.

Detectives needed help from the public and the details were broadcast through the media. Carmen was last seen on June 27, captured on grainy CCTV footage at the Countdown supermarket in Greenlane.

A text message was sent from her phone to her boss on July 3 and her black Nissan Pulsar was found in a suburban street in Hamilton on July 5. She was reported missing on July 13 by friends when she failed to pick her son up. Detectives trawled through thousands of hours of security camera footage in Auckland and Hamilton, while search and rescue teams scoured Orakei Basin near her Ngapuhi Rd home.

A few scant details of Carmen's life emerged too. The South African-born beauty was described as a devoted mother to her 5-year-old son Jack, whom she shared custody with her ex-partner Brad Callaghan. The couple met in England, but separated soon after the birth in 2005.

Carmen had recently won a speaking role on the racy television series Spartacus, starring Lucy Lawless, and frequented Danny Doolan's bar in the Viaduct. Photos of Carmen kissing All Black Ma'a Nonu on the cheek were labelled "great night out" on her Facebook page.

By the end of July, Carmen had been missing for a month and police arranged for her mother, Theresa Scott, to fly to Auckland from South Africa.

"We have to acknowledge that things are looking pretty sinister at this stage of the investigation," said Mr Benefield.

A tearful Ms Scott addressed reporters in a plea to find her missing daughter.

"I broke down and cried myself to sleep on a few nights ... I just want her to come back safe and sound." Fun-loving, vivacious and friendly is how Ms Scott described Carmen. "She's a good mum. She's not the kind of person who would just leave her son."

Her mother also met Callaghan and her grandson, Jack - a meeting that was secretly filmed by police.

At this point, the Operation Keppel team were still drip-feeding information to the public. Carmen's cellphone, wallet and car keys had disappeared.

As one would expect, police had also spoken to her ex-partner Callaghan at length.

"We've had several conversations," said Mr Benefield. "He's given us an account of their relationship and how they met - as much information as he can to help us."

And a week later, Brad Callaghan broke his public silence in a short interview with the Herald on August 7.

He was cool, calm and collected and the civil engineer said he hoped police found Carmen soon.

"Jack misses his mother ... I have spoken to police at length and given them all the help I can ... I hope they are successful in finding Carmen as soon as possible."

Then, a new twist. Police believed Carmen was dead because of the amount of blood discovered in her car abandoned in Hamilton. While the Operation Keppel team had acknowledged her family's worst fears, the significant forensic evidence had been kept secret until a report in the Herald on Sunday.

Also, the revelation a blue-lidded recycling bin was missing from Carmen's home began to build a picture of what may have happened.

Friend Nikki Tremayne said all hope had gone.

"The last month I have been holding on waiting for the minute when we find you well and safe, now my worst fears have come true," she wrote on Facebook.

Callaghan has only ever spoken publicly about the murder with the Herald - and his manner never gave away the turmoil he must have been in.

He was always calm and friendly, even greeting the reporter by her first name and sighing audibly - fed up, clearly, although it was a little too dramatic to be natural.

On several occasions he declined to comment until one day - after another approach - he said he would think about it. Within two minutes he called back. Callaghan told the Herald he was trying to get his head around the fact that Carmen was dead. He thought police were "keeping [him] in the loop" but did not know about the blood in the car. Callaghan then asked for privacy during an "obviously tough time".

The publicity generated a new line of inquiry.

Someone claimed to have seen Carmen's car parked in Whitford, a rural region southeast of Auckland, around the time she disappeared.

Police set up checkpoints along Sandstone Rd, near the Hunua Ranges, to stop hundreds of motorists in a bid to confirm the reported sighting. A few weeks later, forensic investigators returned to comb through a grass verge.

By now, updates from the police had ceased unless requested by reporters. Behind closed doors, they had their man - Brad Callaghan.

While police refused to confirm publicly, the Herald learned that he was a sole suspect who had had help disposing of the body.

Callaghan was an engineer for Mansons TCLM, owned by richlister Ted Manson, which had two projects on Victoria St.

Callaghan's site office was inside the nearly completed Telecom corporate office. Across the road, beside glamour gym Les Mills, is an empty construction site.

This reporter watched him at work for several days. Detectives were spotted leaving Mansons' HQ in Parnell - while Callaghan was out of the office - then speaking with him at the Victoria St site the following day. We even tailed him home after work, following his Subaru Legacy through the Auckland traffic along Tamaki Drive to his home in Remuera.

Photographs published of Callaghan with the police earned the ire of his friends - and even Carmen's family. The inference was clear and his supporters believed he was incapable of killing the mother of his child. Carmen's stepsister Colleen Ritson-Poole wrote on Facebook that Callaghan was not only a victim, but a lovely person who was having to "love and protect" his little boy.

Friend Angela Dorreen said he didn't deserve the media attention. "Brad is an absolute gentleman, a great and loving father, and definitely does not deserve this."

Callaghan even wrote a letter to the Herald complaining of harassment.

"I have provided ongoing assistance to the police during the course of their investigation. I have not been arrested or named as a person of interest in this inquiry ... Carmen's disappearance has been distressing for my son and for me as his father."

But while professing his innocence, Callaghan - an intelligent man, schooled at Auckland Grammar with an engineering degree from Auckland University - was working hard to cover his tracks and obfuscate the police inquiry.

On the evening of June 28, police say Carmen contacted Callaghan with concerns about their son Jack, aged just 5. The following morning, around 8.45am, Callaghan arrived at her home in Ngapuhi Rd.

What happened next will be resolved by a disputed facts hearing next March, but a post-mortem examination showed she died from at least eight blows to the head with a blunt instrument. The fatal strike fractured her skull behind the right ear.

A neighbour of Ms Thomas, whose identity is suppressed, heard a panicked scream and whimpering. She went to check, but no one responded when she called out to Ms Thomas.

"I stood there listening. I could hear a whimpering sound. I could also hear a male voice ssshhhing her. The male voice was saying something like, 'Ssh, ssh it's okay, be quiet'," the woman told investigators.

Soon after, Callaghan came out of the flat and convinced the neighbour that Ms Thomas had vomited blood on his trousers because she was sick. "He asked me if I wanted to go in and have a look, but I thought that if she was that ill I didn't want to disturb her," the woman told officers.

The neighbour then sent a text message to Ms Thomas and shortly after midday received a reply.

It said: "yeah have been really sick thi week [sic]. Went to hospital for a bit. Heading down south for a week off. Will be back Sun."

The court documents say Callaghan rang a close friend - who has name suppression - and arranged to meet him at the Countdown supermarket in Greenlane. He then sent the man a text message which read: "Can you please bring 3 black rubbish bags and a bottle me kerosene [sic] ... keep it quiet".

The friend bought a bottle of kerosene, then met Callaghan at the supermarket, where he bought large plastic bags and cleaning products.

Police say Callaghan returned to the Ngapuhi Rd flat to clean it, including wiping away splattered blood from near the front door. He hid the body and evidence inside a large 240-litre recycling bin and took it away.

Over the next few days, Callaghan hatched a plan to dispose of the body and cover up the death. Part of the plan was to make it seem as though Ms Thomas had travelled to Hamilton and not returned home. On June 30, police say, Callaghan bought a meat cleaver and a 120 litre plastic bin.

He also began sending text messages from Ms Thomas' mobile phone to give the impression she was still alive. Callaghan responded to her friends who were trying to contact Carmen to say she was not feeling well, and had gone "down the line" for a few days.

At some point, Callaghan had Carmen's Auckland Council recycling bin at his home in Sonja Ave, Remuera and swapped it with his neighbour. This is when the murder took a grisly turn. Police still do not know where exactly Callaghan cut her body into eight parts, but after he had done so, he put the pieces into plastic bags.

He then put the plastic bags in plastic paint buckets and 120 litre "fish bins" and poured concrete into them.

The next step was to dispose of the parts, so Callaghan called a second friend - who has immunity from prosecution and whose identity is suppressed - to borrow his boat.

The friend cannot be named but has known Callaghan since their days at Auckland Grammar and describes him as "pretty outspoken, really likes sports", "always happy and loves his son Jack".

Witness 70, as he is known, told police, "I'd never describe him as an angry person, I mean he shouts at sports games, but who doesn't?". The pair spoke to each other on Friday July 2, with Callaghan asking if they could go boating the following morning.

"I said to him 'it's your lucky day'." Witness 70 was already planning to take his 4.5m Buccaneer out to his yacht, moored at Okahu Bay, to clean it before it was sold.

Callaghan tried to convince him to head out on the water around 7.30am but he wanted to sleep in on a Saturday morning.

"I thought at the time I was talking with [Callaghan] that he sounded a bit serious for him. He's normally talkative and chipper, but he was really serious and matter-of-fact. There wasn't any of the normal joking."

The friends ended up meeting at the Okahu Bay boat ramp just before 9am. This is Witness 70's story, as told to police.

"When I looked at him I could tell that he didn't look himself. He was unshaven, looking pretty tired and he looked physically stressed. He was pretty serious. So I said to him, 'what's going on mate, you all right?"'

Callaghan didn't say anything, so the question was asked again.

"Then [Callaghan] said 'no, I'm in big trouble'. It took him a while to say anything.

"Then he said, 'I wouldn't be asking you if I didn't have to, but I really need your help'."

"I said 'I'll help you if I can but I can't if you don't tell me what's going on'. Then he said 'I've killed Carmen'."

The man's first reaction was that his friend was kidding.

"But looking at him and the way he was acting, his serious nature, and just the way he was, I could tell obviously it wasn't a joke."

Callaghan said he couldn't go to the police. Callaghan said, "'I need your help. I need to get rid of the body.' I finally realised that he's down there at the marina with the body to get rid of it. That stunned me."

He asked why Callaghan didn't bury it.

"And he said 'Mate, I've tried everything, I've been out every night this week trying'," according to his statement to police.

"I can't remember exactly what I said but something to the effect of 'is it here' or 'where is it', meaning Carmen's body, and [Callaghan] said 'it's in the car',"

Callaghan walked to the back of his Subaru wagon and opened the boot, according to his friend.

He pulled back a blanket and there were three Resene paint buckets inside black plastic bags. There was also another container, like a "big fish bin". He could see concrete inside the bags, buckets and large bin, "full to the brim".

"And that's when it sort of hit me what I was actually looking at. I started to freak out and then I remember feeling ill and just disbelief I guess."

The man then realised the body was in a busy marina in "broad daylight" and told Callaghan to shut the boot. "I said to him 'aren't the police going to know it's you or come to you?' or something like that."

Callaghan told him he was going to take Carmen's car to Hamilton. He had Carmen's phone and was going to text her boss and friends "to make it look like she'd gone to Hamilton".

He said the pair decided to go somewhere quiet to move the buckets from the Subaru to the boat. They drove out of the Okahu Bay marina on to Tamaki Drive, then Watene Cres, before pulling into a carpark by an empty construction site.

The buckets were heavy, maybe 20kg, while the larger fish bin took both men to lift into the back. "I would say it was over 50kg, easily."

The friends drove back to Okahu Bay to launch the boat.

"We hadn't really said anything more at this stage to each other. I felt like I'd been hit by a bus basically. I was still trying to digest exactly what was going on."

The pair idled the boat out to where the man's yacht was moored and started cleaning the yacht as planned earlier.

"While I was cleaning the boat down, I had a bit of time to myself to think and I made up my mind it wasn't going to happen. I wasn't going to help [Callaghan] with whatever it was that we had started, it was just craziness," Witness 70 told police.

The pair left the yacht and started the engine of the smaller boat, which held the body parts.

Callaghan suggested heading to the main shipping route beyond Rangitoto island but the man replied the channel would be too busy.

Then Callaghan suggested past Waiheke island, but was told the boat would run out of fuel.

"I said 'we can't do this, you know, it's crazy doing this in broad daylight, there's people around. The tide's wrong, the wind's wrong. What if they float, what if they don't sink?' ... or just whatever I could come up with to get out of it," said the police witness.

The friends smoked a few cigarettes and sat in silence for about 10 or 15 minutes. "I finally said to him, 'it's not going to happen today'. I think I said to him 'let's do it later on in the evening, check the tides and see what it's like then'.

"I had no intention of going out later on, I just wanted to get back into shore and get the stuff off my boat and have nothing more to do with it. I was just using any excuse I could."

The pair took the boat out of the water at Okahu Bay, with all the buckets and the fish bin still on board, according to the court file. They then drove around the Auckland waterfront, along Tamaki Drive, Quay St and through the Tank Farm industrial area. But there were too many people around for the buckets to be put back in the Subaru.

The friends ended up in the carpark of the Herne Bay Women's Bowling Club, which was no longer used and was overgrown.

The buckets and fish bin were placed back in the Subaru and Callaghan gave him some money to buy new cellphone sim cards.

"I still couldn't work up the nerve to tell him that I wasn't going to take him out. I didn't really know what to do or how to handle it."

The pair arranged to talk later on the new cellphones and Callaghan was insistent on taking the boat out again that night.

"There was a lot of long silences and pauses and finally I said to him, 'I'm not doing this, I can't do it, I can't help you out, I'm sorry, I don't want to be involved'."

"[Callaghan] didn't make a big fuss about it, just quietly accepted it, but he clearly was really disappointed."

The man texted Callaghan four days later but never heard back. He then went away on a family holiday until July 31.

By that time, Carmen Thomas' disappearance was in the media. A few weeks later, Callaghan visited Witness 70 at his home with his partner Tanith Butler and son Jack to watch a Warriors league game.

"Nothing was mentioned about that Saturday, July 3. I just didn't want to talk about it anymore and I didn't want to know anymore.

"The less I knew the better."

The next day, police say, Callaghan approached a third friend - named as Witness 79 - at his home looking stressed and "physically shaking". The man told police he said: "Mate, what's up? Have you knocked someone up?" Callaghan replied: "Did you say knocked up? ... Nah, nah mate, not knocked up, knocked off."

He then told the man that he had killed Ms Thomas and tried to bury the remains in the Hunua Ranges, but the spade broke. Over the next few days, police say, Callaghan drove into the Waitakere Ranges in West Auckland and buried Ms Thomas in a secluded bush area.

Late on July 7 and into the morning of July 8, they say, Callaghan took Ms Thomas' Nissan car to Dyer St in Hamilton. He left it there, and was picked up by the friend who bought the plastic bags and kerosene for him and returned to Auckland.

Police say Callaghan texted from Ms Thomas' phone between June 30 and July 10 to make it look like Carmen was still alive. And it was Callaghan who reported her missing on July 12. Police then found her car in Hamilton, and forensic examination identified items smeared with her blood. An examination of her home revealed blood patterns that police say were consistent with an assault and the homicide inquiry began.

Three months later, there was still no arrest. The pressure continued to mount on Callaghan but the police refused to comment, other than to say the noose was tightening on the killer. Friends of Carmen were re-interviewed by Operation Keppel investigators, who asked questions as to what Carmen's relationship with her ex was like after the couple split.

Detectives also "grilled" a Tauranga woman for three hours about her relationship with Callaghan - who already had a pregnant fiancee Tanith Butler. Jo Reid told the Herald in September 2010 she stopped seeing Callaghan about 18 months after a seven month long-distance relationship, but the pair kept close.

He repeatedly told the 29-year-old that he was single and she supported him, by phone, when Carmen disappeared. By chance, Ms Reid had bumped into Callaghan at Mt Maunganui a few months earlier and later questioned him about the blonde, pregnant woman he was with. "I texted him and said, 'Is that your girlfriend?' and he said 'No, no that's my dad's brother's daughter,' or something."

Two detectives were sent from Auckland to interview Ms Reid for three hours. "It was quite a horrendous interview, they were really grilling me, asking lots of questions. They obviously got the records from his phone," she said.

A few days later, there was a flurry of activity in the case. Revelations that police wanted to dig up freshly laid concrete at a construction site in downtown Auckland, where Callaghan worked, again renewed interest in the 12-week-old case.

The rumours were rife that Carmen was buried there.

First, police drilled a hole into a concreted area on the Victoria St site, then returned to lower a high-tech camera into the drain network for the site. Detectives also checked timesheets for workers and asked neighbouring businesses for any CCTV footage around the time Carmen disappeared.

The next day, Callaghan was arrested. Directors for Mansons arrived at Victoria St in a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche, as a group of detectives scoured Callaghan's office and boxes of documents were removed from the site office.

Callaghan was interviewed at the Glen Innes CIB office before being led into Auckland District Court to face a single charge of murder. High profile lawyer Stuart Grieve, QC, lost his client's bid for name suppression - mainly because of the fact Callaghan spoke with the Herald.

The news that Callaghan was accused of murdering the mother of his child shocked Carmen's friends and family, all of whom thought he was a nice guy. And police finally confirmed Herald reports that she had been dismembered, despite not knowing where Carmen was hidden. Detectives ransacked the Remuera home in Sonja Ave that Callaghan shared with his pregnant fiancee Tanith Butler, who was due to give birth any day.

In the days leading up to the arrest, Ms Butler had been seen walking Callaghan's son Jack to primary school on the adjacent Victoria Ave.

For the rest of the week, police kept digging up the Mansons' construction zone in search for clues.

A bag of clothes was uncovered and odd-shaped pieces of concrete pulled up. Nothing relevant to the case was found. It's understood that police spent $50,000 on the futile search.

Mansons director Culum Manson - son of richlister Ted Manson - said everyone at the company was shocked by the police investigation. "Our thoughts and sympathies are with little Jack and the family of Carmen Thomas."

A week after being arrested and behind bars, Callaghan became a father again when Ms Butler gave birth to a son. Forensic scientists continued to search for clues for Carmen, examining cars owned by Callaghan and a boat belonging to a colleague, who has name suppression.

Finally, on October 1, a breakthrough after three months. Carmen had been found. At a hastily called press conference, an exhausted Detective Inspector Mark Benefield confirmed the remains of the missing woman had been buried in containers of concrete in the dense bush of the Waitakere Ranges.

He said Carmen could now be returned to her family in South Africa. Pausing to swallow and with encouragement from a colleague, he continued: "To her family ... and loved ones and let them lay her to rest in dignity."

And yesterday, Callaghan finally admitted the murder of his former lover.

The guilty plea in the High Court at Auckland saved friends and family the heartache of a trial, as well as thousands of taxpayers' dollars. But a new chapter begins for their son Jack. At just 6 years old, his mother is dead and his father faces a long prison sentence.

Jack Callaghan does not yet know the full circumstances of his mother's death but is coping well, according to affidavits filed in the High Court in a bid to protect his privacy.

In September this year Brad Callaghan obtained suppression orders to protect Jack and stop any publication of any photographs or information which might identify where Jack lives.

"Before her death, Carmen and I shared the care of Jack. He is now living ... in a small rural town. We have taken care to protect his privacy by keeping his whereabouts secret, and he attends a local school under an assumed name," Callaghan said in an affidavit.

"Jack is settled at school and is coping with the many changes in his life as best can be expected. With the exception of his headmaster, no one at his school knows his true identity."

And Jack is not the only son being raised without a father. Callaghan's son with Tanith Butler recently celebrated his first birthday.

How the story unfolded


June 27: Last confirmed sighting of Carmen Thomas, at Greenlane Countdown about 7.10pm. Last day her bank accounts were touched.
June 28: Message sent from her Facebook account at 8.14pm.
June 29: Carmen killed in her Ngapuhi St home in Remuera. Callaghan and friend clean up.
June 30: Callaghan buys a meat cleaver and 120L plastic bin. Dismembers body into eight parts to encase in concrete in plastic buckets.
July 3: Callaghan tries to get a second friend to help him dump body at sea, which is refused. Text sent from Carmen's phone to her boss at a Pakuranga men's club.
July 4: He approaches a third friend for help, which is refused. None tell the police. Carmen eventually buried in secluded bush in Waitakeres.
July 7: Carmen's car driven from Auckland to Dyer St, Hamilton.
July 13: Car towed and Carmen is reported missing by Callaghan.
July 16: Police issue missing person alert for Carmen.
July 20: Police search Orakei Basin behind her house, find nothing.
July 23: Carmen's mother, Theresa Scott, arrives from South Africa to speak with police.
Aug 15: Police admit Carmen is dead.
Sept 1: Carmen's wheelie bin found.
Sept 20: Police put a camera down a hole at a worksite on Victoria St in the Auckland central business district. Nothing found.
Sept 21: Thomas's ex-partner Brad Callaghan is charged with her murder. Police begin searching Callaghan's home.
Sept 23: Police begin searching an East Auckland property where one of Callaghan's friends lives. The man helped Callaghan cover his tracks.
Sept 27: Callaghan's fiancee, Tanith Butler, gives birth to a son.
Sept 27-28: Police receive information that Carmen is buried at a site in the Waitakere Ranges.
Oct 01: Concrete containers holding body parts excavated from shallow grave.
Oct 13: Farewell service for Carmen held at Greenlane Christian Centre.


Nov 25: Callaghan pleads guilty to murder and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

- NZ Herald

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