Stop-go verdict: 'The dead have no voice'

In an exclusive interview, Helen Taiaroa, the widow of murdered stop-go worker George Taiaroa, tells David Fisher why the crime won't break her family, despite major frustrations with the justice system.

"We are superficial," says Helen Taiaroa of her whanau's role in the drama which played out in the High Court at Rotorua.

"There was a murder on the 19th of March, 3 o'clock. That person is dead and buried. He has left a whanau, a hapu, an iwi."

In the wake of George Taiaroa's death in 2013, the Taiaroa whanau have been pulled through almost four years of anguish to become spectators in a show in which they had no role. Yet it was one that would never have happened without a man they desperately miss.

The trial of Quinton Winders is over. A jury in the High Court at Rotorua delivered a guilty verdict about 3.50pm today. Winders was charged with murder, accused of exacting revenge on George Taiaroa with a .22 rifle in 2013 at Atiamuri, about 30km north of Taupo.

George Taiaroa was the "stop-go" man who was murdered - a face of the anonymous roadworkers passed by thousands of motorists every day.

For a month, the court obsessed over the end of the man Helen Taiaroa met in 1968.

The man she went on to marry, build a life and a family of four children with.

The trial could not have happened without George Taiaroa and yet she is adrift and searching for an anchor to explain her presence and role.

The prosecution speaks for the evidence while the defence speaks for the accused. Who speaks for the stop-go worker shot in the head and left to die on the road where he was controlling traffic?

"That's because the dead have no voice," she says. "It's written in certain Acts that the dead have no voice. If that's the case, and it's evident - you only have to stand in the system and see it - what are we doing there? What's the purpose in us being there?

"What is exactly George's role in this? Because of the jurisprudence system in this country, if I could use the word prejudicial or flawed, he doesn't (have a role). What's his role?

"He's dead now - he's played his part. They say it's a crime against the state but it's a crime against us as whanau. It's a crime against us as a whanau, a hapu and an iwi."

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'I have to be strong for my children'

They sat, every day, in the same seats. The trial started on August 8 and finished 33 days later as winter eased to spring.

Every day, court security officers ushered queues through metal detectors. Monday to Friday, the jury trooped in and assumed the same seats they had taken on the first day. Day after day, Rotorua belched sulphur and left no one in any doubt where they were.

"This is not being awful but I'm looking forward to next week," says Helen Taiaroa. "Every day you wake up and think, 'How are my kids? how are my mokopuna?'."

Helen Taiaroa, left, and one of her daughters, Rochai Taiaroa, at a police media conference in 2013. Photo / Alan Gibson
Helen Taiaroa, left, and one of her daughters, Rochai Taiaroa, at a police media conference in 2013. Photo / Alan Gibson

Ask her how she is and too quickly she responds with: "I'm fine."

And she has to be, because the alternative isn't the woman she is.

"I have to be strong for my children. I have to get them back into normality. My son gets married in March. Mels [their second child] is having a baby.

"When they described his injuries my kids silently cried. I felt for them then. I'm okay. I'm a nurse. I've been in those situations. You have sympathy [in those times] but empathy comes when you're on the receiving end."

And it did, as they all felt and shared each other's pain. After court, when they went back to the apartment building where Victim Support was covering the cost of rooms, where she shared her bed with one of her daughters.

"I don't want my children to be bogged down with this. They have got to live. Let me put it this way - Quinton Winders ain't going to win the war."

2.4 grams of lead: The ballistics evidence

George Taiaroa was born in Bluff to Moana Whaitiri and Turumaka Taiaroa. She was local but he looked back to Otakau Marae on Otago Peninsula.

George Taiaroa came from the line of chiefs - the name of his great-great-grandfather Te Matenga Taiaroa was on Tiriti O Waitangi and his great-grandfather Hori Kerei Taiaroa went to Parliament to make sure the Crown kept its promises to Ngai Tahu.

Hori Kerei had also shouldered the instructions in his father's final testament - to live in peace with Pakeha.

Generations later, George Taiaroa lay dead on Tram Rd. The injury which ended his life appears so slight to the eye as to invite disbelief it could be fatal. Slightly above the left eyebrow, the bullet wound which killed him is nothing more than a dark hole, crusted red at the edges.

The pathologist who studied George Taiaroa's body immediately after the murder removed about 2.4 grams of lead. Photo / supplied
The pathologist who studied George Taiaroa's body immediately after the murder removed about 2.4 grams of lead. Photo / supplied

It wasn't much of a hole but then it wasn't much of a bullet.

The pathologist who studied George Taiaroa's body immediately after the murder removed about 2.4 grams of lead. Evidence was later given it was of .22 calibre - that means the bullet measured across its width just .22 of an inch, or slightly more than half a centimetre.

The lead was removed in three small fragments, leaving only microscopic specks. There was no exit wound, which means those three fragments likely rattled around inside the hard casing of George Taiaroa's head, carving a path through his brain as he fell to the place he would die.

Detectives knew that Quinton Winders had a rifle of that calibre.

In 2008, a firearms licence officer checked out Winders suitability for a licence (it was granted) and diligently noted down the model and corresponding serial numbers of each rifle he owned.

Among those was a .22 Winchester Coeey Model 38 which carried the serial number 02236. When police came to investigate George Taiaroa's death, the rifle was missing - stolen, said Winders - but the prosecution drew testimony from it through the fragments left in the victim's head.

The detectives turned to ballistics experts in New South Wales, Australia, who tested the fragments and found there were markings on the bullet distinctive enough that they could be matched to a particular rifle.

But there was no rifle against which to test the bullet markings.

Luck then played its hand. The police armoury had a rifle of the same make and model which bore a strikingly similar serial number - 022339.

In April 2015, the New South Wales ballistics team were asked to examine bullets fired by the rifle to if there was any connection to 022336 - the missing firearm.

"I saw some detail there that there was some agreement," Detective Senior Sergeant Edward Schey told the court.

The areas with a match were beyond the area ballistics experts usually studied. They don't match a bullet to an exact rifle but to a "sub-class", by marks created by a "cutter", one of the tools used to drill out the inside of the barrel. The cutter wears out and needs replacing so the sub-class "refers to every barrel that was manufactured using that cutting tool" rather than a specific weapon.

It meant, in Schey's opinion, that the bullet which killed George Taiaroa was fired from a .22 Winchester Coeey Model 38.

Police investigating George Taiaroa’s murder search a property and surrounding bush in Whangamomona. Photo / Christine Cornege
Police investigating George Taiaroa’s murder search a property and surrounding bush in Whangamomona. Photo / Christine Cornege

Schey and his team set about scouring the world for more rifles of the same make to see if further matches could be found. They obtained a rifle with the serial number 022341 and tested it alongside 022339.

Test fires resulted in bullets with markings Schey believed showed they had been cut by the same tool - and they carried the same marks as the bullet taken from George Taiaroa.

"There's massive amounts of agreement on this," he told the trial. "I have not seen something like this from test fires discharged from two known different guns before."

The case against Quinton Winders was almost entirely circumstantial.

There was evidence he owned the same sort of Jeep Cherokee seen stopped next to George Taiaroa when he was shot, that Winders had been party to a minor car accident for which the road worker had been blamed, that items missing from the vehicle were found neighbouring the accused's property.

Significantly, the prosecution lacked a murder weapon. It is known in legal circles that a jury without a murder weapon struggles to reconcile the court process with what is seen on television.

It gets called the "CSI effect", named for the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

With the evidence from Australia, the prosecution offered the jury a murder weapon without having the actual weapon.

'Dudey' - a man with few friends

Quinton Winders does not sit large in Helen Taiaroa's thoughts.

He grew up outside Rotorua, went to King's College in Auckland, as did his brothers, and then to Massey University.

All that talk of King's College - Helen Taiaroa wondered at that, how Pakeha men accused of crimes come to court draped in a cloak of respectability different to that usually draped across Maori.

Murder accused Quinton Winders didn't socialise well, according to former landlord Chris Robinson. Photo / Stephen Parker
Murder accused Quinton Winders didn't socialise well, according to former landlord Chris Robinson. Photo / Stephen Parker

Quinton Winders' father Max farms near Rotorua and, like his father, it was the land from which Quinton Winders sought to wrest a living.

He is said to have worked in Australian mines, intending to save to buy land but instead buying a Lotus sports car when he returned.

What land he did buy, in Pohokura (between Taumarunui and Stratford), was part-funded by his father, covered in scrub and more suited to mountain goats than stock.

Winders spent 12 months after the loan-deal with his father ran out in 2009, working as a fencer for a former university flatmate Kieron O'Dwyer on land outside Benneydale.

His landlord there, Chris Robinson, told the Herald how "Dudey", as he called him, didn't socialise well. "He was the sort of fella that didn't have many friends."

Robinson recalled Winders living without power in his property for about six months, not wanting to pick up the bill after O'Dwyer stopped paying it.

"He always moaned about his debt to the bank. He was always talking about his debt."

He worked hard and spent little - even using pieces of wire to keep his shoes together so as to avoid buying a new pair.

The nurse who questioned everything

Quinton Winders' family sat behind him, across the aisle from the Taiaroa whanau.

Criminal trials are black and white. One side versus another. Guilty and not guilty. He did it or didn't. Prosecution and defence.

For Helen Taiaroa, though, nothing in life has ever been that two-dimensional except, perhaps, consideration of life in Aotearoa for Maori when compared to non-Maori.

The distinction was there from the moment George Taiaroa was murdered, in her impressions of how police approached the family and how the media reported the crime.

Helen Taiaroa says she wanted to be assured someone else's child wasn't being falsely accused of murdering her husband, George. Photo / Mike Scott
Helen Taiaroa says she wanted to be assured someone else's child wasn't being falsely accused of murdering her husband, George. Photo / Mike Scott

Her life is solidly rooted in being Maori and governed by whakapapa, whanau, hapu and iwi.

Trying to transplant that into a court setting is jarring. It doesn't fit because, for all that Maori occupy the business of the court, it is a strictly Pakeha system.

A grieving widow? Yes. A mother who needs to be strong for her children? That too.

But for all that Helen Taiaroa is many people, she will always be the nurse who questioned everything and pursued answers to a doctorate and a position at Ako Aotearoa, the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence.

She sees the world through analytical, critical eyes that seek evidence.

"One of the things I had in my mind is I wanted to be reassured someone's child wasn't being charged falsely for murder. I had to be 100 per cent sure. I couldn't live with myself, no matter what."

Importantly, those are Maori eyes and when Helen Taiaroa's judgement is applied to the process she has watched unfold these past weeks there is much found wanting.

The Westminster-based process her family has endured is baffling, alien. "I believe in what Moana Jackson talks about... the parallel justice system."

Other countries have investigated and introduced parallel justice systems for indigenous peoples.

For Helen Taiaroa, who worked first in the health system and then in education, the experience of the trial showed a further mismatch between Maori and Pakeha worlds.

"We know from experience and history the justice system isn't working, the health system isn't working, the educational system is working.

"Nobody wants to say and admit there is another way of doing things because then they admit they are failures. But that's not the point."

The point is it's not working, she says, and something which does work is needed.

"You won't get 100 per cent of it but you'll get a higher percentage of it. It's a win-win situation if everyone sits down and talks about this openly and sees the value but you'll have those die-hards who don't want to do this.

"I realise law is governed by politics, but you have to be really worried when you see who the politicians are that determine.

"Not one Maori politician has ever bothered about Maori homicide survivors. It has to start from the top, which is to say politically. Unless it happens to politicians personally, homicide, there won't be a change, neither Maori or Pakeha."

Tales of 'uncle' lift 'toxic' environment

Jonathan Temm did a stirling job for his client. Temm attacked the carefully constructed prosecution case as if it were some game of legal Jenga.

His cross-examination was sharp. Amazement crossed his features when the Crown pushed its case into areas of difficulty, an expression which invited all who saw it to refuse to believe. He dresses well, is tall and handsome and has presence in the courtroom.

Perhaps for all those reasons, he has no fans in the Taiaroa whanau.

"You look at the defence lawyer - he has to play-act," says Helen Taiaroa. "It's a bit like a play on wheels really."

It is an aspect of the system she struggles with. It invites conflict and not, perhaps, enlightenment.

An example, she says, was the cross-examination of Michael Wayne Pengelly. He was a co-worker of her husband's and controlled the southern end of the one-way bridge where the murder took place.

Temm asked Pengelly if he had been accused of a sexual offence. Yes, he said - a claim he had exposed himself to a 5-year-old girl from a Mongrel Mob family. There were threats but, said Pengelly, the men were "all talk".

Quinton Winders, second from left, at a visit to the murder site during his trial. Photo / Stephen Parker
Quinton Winders, second from left, at a visit to the murder site during his trial. Photo / Stephen Parker

"He knew he had a past history, a chequered past," says Helen Taiaroa. "He came into an environment that was toxic and threatening to him around his 'chequered past' [Temm's words] yet he was prepared to stand up and let that dirty laundry be aired. What do you say about someone like that?"

That sounds like someone with morals, she hazards, and courage. And yet, he was thrown to the sharks to create a possible alternative scenario.

"And it leads onto your colleagues who report on that to sell papers. That's why I say I liken them to traffickers. They deal in human deprivation. How toxic that system is for everyone involved."

Pengelly was not the only witness to feel the sharp edge of Temm's cross-examination.

But in some of those witnesses there wasn't much to challenge.

They described their recollections of working with George Taiaroa, calling him "uncle" with affection.

One witness, outside court, spoke of baking him an apple pie and her concerns that generosity might emerge when she testified.

George Taiaroa had not long had Type 2 Diabetes and been put on a strict diet by his wife.

"I said 'you keep on eating that, dig a hole'," remembers Helen Taiaroa, adding "never thinking he would ever be shot".

They were the lighter moments, the people who came to testify with fond memories of a man who loved working on roading gangs with people half or even a third his age.

"They were describing him to a tee. If he thought you needed money or anything because you had issues he would give it to you and you could pay it back whenever because he's been through that it in his life. But he was a generous man anyway."

For all the criticism of the system, Helen Taiaroa has come to admire many of those who work inside it.

There was the initial jarring encounter with police but rapprochement came through the efforts of Detective Superintendent Tim Anderson and Maori liaison officer Brian Nichols.

They thanked the police for the work done on the case before they heard the verdict.

Likewise, the Taiaroa family appreciated the work of Rotorua Crown prosecutor Amanda Gordon and her colleague Chris Macklin.

Gordon and Macklin got involved only after charges were laid, another layer of the system to encounter.

Helen Taiaroa reckons it was about five minutes into a meeting with police and Gordon when she said: "Thank you Amanda. Could you stop? I'll tell you why we're here."

And they did. "She needed to know who we were. Well, who George was. Because she didn't know who George was. His children were his voice.

A construction hat and flowers mark the isolated spot where George Taiaroa was murdered. Photo / Christine Cornege
A construction hat and flowers mark the isolated spot where George Taiaroa was murdered. Photo / Christine Cornege

"I wouldn't want anybody's child to be guilty of something they are not guilty of. I think of my own children if something like that happened. Couldn't live with myself."

There's no peace at the end, no matter the outcome. "It's not going to bring George back. There's no winners and there's no losers in this.

"No human being should be killed in the manner... no one. I think about it. At least we had 68 years of George. There are those who only have 15 years, 4 years, 12 months old. We had a good 68 years. But it never brings closure, I don't think."

Four years in March. "Once this door is closed I'm going to get out there and live a bit. I might find someone. I don't know."

How are the kids about that? She smiles. "They're coming to grips with it. I said 'I'm going to get on with my life'. I said 'if it happened in reverse your father would already have someone'.

"And they said 'we'd make him because he would drive us insane'."

She grins and laughs, setting herself up as the stern matriarch and poking fun. This self-deprecating humour has permeated her musings in the years since George Taiaroa was killed.

There may well be a book. Many who have supported the whanau could write chapters.

She wants to be involved in Victim Support - a group which does so much and seemingly with so little.

"They have to go begging for their money. What is with that?"

Really, though, she's not sure. "Getting on with life. But I'm not going to dwell. I'm not going to be angry. I can't. It would destroy me."

THE SHOOTING AND THE AFTERMATH

1.

George Taiaroa was killed at a one-way bridge on Tram Rd on March 19, 2013. A blue Jeep Cherokee was seen leaving the scene.

2.

Police believe the Jeep travelled to Kakaho Rd, a little-used rural road leading into Pureora Forest Park.

3.

The forest park is the sort of place where travellers are noticed. Police interviewed logging crews who saw the Jeep.

4.

A ranger was the last person to see the Jeep leaving the forest park, heading towards Benneydale.

5.

Police searched a property outside Benneydale where prime suspect Quinton Winders worked and occasionally stayed.

TIMELINE

2013

March 19: George Taiaroa is shot and killed at Tram Rd, Atiamuri.

April: Police say they have a "suspect". A blue Jeep Cherokee is seized from a property outside Rotorua.

May: Police say the "suspect" targeted George Taiaroa as a result of a "misguided" motive.

June: A police bungle leads to Quinton Winders being named as the suspect.

2014

February: Winders tells Fairfax he didn't shoot George Taiaroa and it is the police focus on him that is "misguided".

October: Winders sells his Whangamomona property and moves to Stratford.

2015

• November: Winders is arrested in Stratford and charged with the murder of George Taiaroa.

2016

August 8: Winders goes on trial in the High Court at Rotorua.

September 9: Winders is found guilty.

- NZ Herald

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