Tragic murders leave scars on RSA

By Geraldine Johns

As families gathered this week to remember those they lost in the Panmure RSA murders, a robber marked the 10th anniversary by bashing the manager of another RSA. For Panmure survivor Susan Couch, it was too much. She went up-country to escape the memories. Geraldine Johns spoke to her.

William Bell is seen as having a 'persistent risk of reoffending'. Photo / Brett Phibbs
William Bell is seen as having a 'persistent risk of reoffending'. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Every year on a December morning, they gather together at the RSA to remember their dead: Bill Absolum, Mary Hobson and Wayne Johnson.

Tribute is paid to Susan Couch, too - the woman who came as close as anyone can to dying and who is still alive today.

And so it was on Thursday, a decade after William Duane Bell went on a murderous spree at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA. There, under a pohutukawa tree, bereaved families, friends and supporters, police and Crown prosecutors, stood in solemnity for a half-hour outdoor service.

Before them were the headstones bearing the names and photographs of the murdered victims. Couch, however, was absent. She has never returned to the address in Pleasant View Rd.

Chance had a lot to do with who was on the premises the day William Bell knocked on the door, armed with a shotgun.

Current club president Leon Matthews was a member 10 years ago. It was his turn to be on duty that Saturday morning, but he had instead gone to an annual RSA golf tournament in Rotorua.

Wayne Johnson had volunteered to take his place at the clubrooms.

Alan Eastwood - then club president - was late to work that morning. He had stayed home later than he expected, delayed because he was listening to radio tributes being played for Sir Peter Blake, who had been murdered earlier that week.

Bell had left by the time Eastwood arrived. Eastwood discovered the bodies of his mates.

And Couch would not have been there had she accepted another job that had been offered her. She had earlier chosen to turn down a job at the local TAB in favour of the part-time clerical post at the RSA. Why? She believed the RSA position was safer.

Although a decade on, it feels like yesterday for some of the bereaved. For Johnson's son Greg, "the devastation of what's happened is persistent".

At Thursday's service, Greg Johnson read a tribute to the slain trio, penned by the Absolum family. It was the first time he had made such a gesture and he did it from behind dark glasses. They did not, however, disguise the grief that still eats at him.

Later, in the rooms where his father died, Johnson, 34, says that he tries to remember the good times - "and there were a lot" - in an effort to address his feelings.

He does not, however, want to have children. "I don't want anyone I love to go through the hurt I've been through."

Wayne's daughter, Jeanene Gallagher, said their father was a "gem - a rough gem".

They vow to attend the memorial every year, although "events like today don't make it easier".

Her words had an additional meaning by the time she had spoken them. About the same time as the service, news broke of another RSA assault and aggravated robbery - this one at the Hobsonville RSA in West Auckland.

A masked man had entered the clubrooms and had viciously punched and beaten the sole female attendant before tying her up and fleeing with cash.

The victim was traumatised and severely shaken by the incident, said police.

Greg Johnson was the same age as Bell when that man went on his deadly spree. He knows the date when Bell is eligible for parole.

"For a number of years now, I've said, 'I can't wait for that bugger to get out because I'll be waiting for him'."

Jeanene agrees: "If he ever walks free I'll be old and so it won't matter to me what I do to him."

When I interviewed Couch last month for the Listener, she spoke about how the past 10 years had been ones of rehabilitation, rebuilding and recuperation. But now, she is more into survival mode.

She will draw on those survival skills when her case for exemplary damages against the Department of Corrections goes to court next year. Bell was on probation when he killed her three colleagues and grievously maimed Couch.

After a protracted legal battle, Couch won the right to sue the department.

It has been a long, long wait for the court case. But time had been on her side, says Couch. "The longer it takes, the stronger I'll be."

The legacy of Bell's assault is still visible. The severe head injuries she received caused a stroke, which effectively shut down the left side of her body.

She has a paralysed vocal chord which impacts on her speech. She has no function in her left arm and she walks with a stick to aid her disabled left leg. But there is a burning defiance in her functioning eye. "I'm not scared to confront things now," she says. "I don't class myself as severely disabled. I've come a long way physically." Her focus for the immediate future is the forthcoming court case and her son, Jackson, who was just 2 when the attack took place, and with whom she had to re-bond after a lengthy period of hospitalisation.

During that time, he was cared for by her mother, Judy, who attended Thursday's service.

The RSA now has a piano dedicated to the memory of Wayne Johnson, who often played at the club. But fewer ears are listening now - and that, too, is partly because of Bell, says Leon Matthews. "Ten years ago we had a total membership of 1300 to 1400; now it's 600. That's partly down to the stigma of the club: everyone remembers it as the one where the murders were."

Couch prefers not to dwell on Bell, who was described by police as "callous, cunning and calculating, a psychopathic murderer". Matthews and his mates choose otherwise. "We talk about Bell a lot, about the absolute charming personality he's got. And we talk about how he charmed people out of their lives."

TRIPLE KILLER COULD SPEND LIFE IN JAIL

William Bell is serving a 30-year non-parole jail term for the RSA murders. The sentence was reduced on appeal from 33 years without parole - but it still makes it the longest minimum prison sentence imposed on an offender.

He will be eligible for parole in December 2031, at the age of 54, but the prospect has already been raised that he may never walk free.

Bell committed the triple homicide at the age of 24 while out on parole for another serious crime. He had already amassed more than 100 convictions.

The Court of Appeal raised the notion of Bell remaining behind bars for the rest of his life. "The psychiatric reports before the court suggest that he represents, in the words of one of them, a high and persistent risk of violent offending.

"Unless that risk can be convincingly dispelled, Bell ought to be kept in custody for the rest of his natural life."

Prison, however, has not been enough to protect the killer. In December 2007, he was stabbed in the eye by a fellow inmate, murderer Dean Joseph Shepherd.

Shepherd, who had fashioned a shank out of the sharpened lever arch of a folder before attacking Bell, pleaded guilty to wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. He was sentenced to 10 years for the attack, to be served concurrently with the life sentence, with a 17-year non-parole period, already imposed for the 2004 murder of his landlady.

This means his prison term is, in effect, not changed at all.

During sentencing for the stabbing, the court heard Shepherd attacked Bell because Bell kept bragging about what he had done to his victims and made derogatory remarks about them.

Who knows who he talks to now, or indeed what he talks about. Bell's mother, for one, does not visit her son. Nor does she speak to him regularly by phone. As she marks the anniversary of the deaths of the RSA victims, Bell's mother says her thoughts are with the families of the victims. "There's not a day goes by that I don't think of those families and the lives that have been taken," she says.

Bell calls her occasionally, but she has the rest of her family and grandchildren to think of. "I would rather carry on living and doing what I need to do for my family."

Bell's mother said she only knew her son had been stabbed in the eye when she heard it on the news.

Part of the reason she does not visit is because she cannot afford to. It's also because there are strict visiting limitations. Maximum-security prison inmates are entitled to one visit, from an approved person, of 30 minutes a week. In addition, they can make one five-minute phone call a week, again only to an approved person.

And Bell, like his fellow inmates, will not be receiving any visitors on Christmas Day. Visiting is forbidden on all public holidays in maximum-security institutions.

His mother says her Christmases are like any of the other days of the year - thinking about what her son had done to his victims and their families. "There's nothing I look forward to. It's just another day."

Bell's co-accused, getaway driver Darnell Tupe who left the scene before Bell completed his rampage - received a 12-year sentence for manslaughter and armed robbery. He is up for parole next month.

- Herald on Sunday

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