Jarrod Gilbert: For every case gone cold, guilt's hot needle burns

Chris Bush, owner of the Maramarua Red Fox Tavern. He was shot dead by two masked gunmen. Photo / Herald archive
Chris Bush, owner of the Maramarua Red Fox Tavern. He was shot dead by two masked gunmen. Photo / Herald archive

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications. He can be reached at jarrod.gilbert@canterbury.ac.nz

Chris Bush ran a pub in Maramarua until one day a man shot him dead. That day was October 24, 1987. A shotgun emptied pellets into Mr Bush's heart and lungs. We don't know who pulled the trigger.

You might say it was a robbery that went wrong, except it didn't. The robbers got away with $25,000 in cash. A Labour holiday weekend in the days before Eftpos, it's the equivalent of nearly $50,000 today. Not a bad haul.

As a kid driving from Auckland to the Coromandel I remember the pub. It was often a part of spotting games designed by parents to distract young minds from long journeys. It was often a place where family friends would rendezvous; a time before cellphones and drink-driving concerns.

If there was no reason to stop, it was a time check. "We're passing the Red Fox". It was never the Red Fox Tavern, always just the Red Fox. After 1987 it was the place the murder happened.

All murders are tragic but few are so meaningless. Chris Bush didn't resist the robbery. Neither the loot nor the getaway was dependent on his death. Just before midnight he was sitting with bar staff after closing when two masked men burst into his pub. As the publican rose from his seat but before he could say a word: boom.

Murders have a high clearance rate in New Zealand. Statistically, fewer than one in 10 goes unsolved. Perhaps because they are rare, many unsolved cases stick in the consciousness of the country. I suspect I could guess your age based on whether you know the names Jeanette and Harvey Crewe, Jennifer Beard, Kirsa Jensen or Kirsty Bentley.

Cold cases like these will likely never be solved. The one thing successful homicide inquiries tend to enjoy is a swift resolution. As more time passes the likelihood of charging an offender falls. Advances in science, particularly around DNA, have been able to assist with some cases; young Teresa Cormack was abducted and killed in 1987, but a conviction only gained in 2002. Cases like Chris Bush's, however, will require people to come forward. And here, at least, time can actually be of assistance. As time changes, so do attitudes and allegiances.

While two men robbed the pub, there's a fair chance a getaway driver waited outside. To have two or three criminals with the professionalism not to brag about a heist is rare; despite the obvious dangers, criminals often boast.

And in a case like this, the desire to talk has even greater motivation; the murder was almost certainly unplanned. The need to speak with somebody about what happened - the psychological desire to unload - would have created a relentless anxiety.

Even if the perpetrators' lips were tight, people close to the robbers may have noticed an influx of cash around that time or noticed them acting oddly when the case was discussed or in the media. For them, Labour weekend may bring up these old suspicions in the same ways it will flicker fading memories and sadness for the family and friends of Chris Bush.

Clues at the time of the killing were scant, and at one point a man falsely claiming knowledge of the case led the police up the garden path. It was one of numerous fruitless leads. But despite a lack of hard evidence, there is a belief among the cops they know the identity of the killer. I have no idea how credible their information is, but rumours swirl in the underworld around the same man.

But rumours are rumours and they could just as easily have all stemmed from one unreliable source and be completely false.

Something more solid is needed. For 29 long years, who killed Chris Bush has been a mystery. But who knows what another year might bring? Just because a case is cold doesn't mean it's closed.

- NZ Herald

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