It was one of the ugliest incidents of the 1981 Springbok tour. Twenty years on EUGENE BINGHAM investigates the bashing of three protesting clowns and why police closed ranks over the incident.
Former police inspector Tyrone Laurenson wants to talk about the best-kept secret in the police.
In 1981, he was a sergeant in the police Red Squad when three Springbok tour demonstrators dressed as clowns were bashed, one left unconscious, in one of the most notorious events of an explosive period.
Long afterwards, the assault would loom in the public conscience, raising questions about whether the police got carried away that afternoon. Twenty years on, he reveals: "I was the suspect for it."
Laurenson, now registrar at the National University of Samoa in Apia, is ready to speak out about an incident of police brutality that has left lasting scars for the accusers and the accused.
"I was clearly one of the suspects - they were looking for a male Polynesian, six foot tall, slim build, and I fitted the bill," Laurenson says of the incident on the day of the last All Black test in Auckland.
"But I didn't have a fat clue what the hell they were talking about at the time.
I really didn't know what they were talking about. I said to them at the time, 'I was facing thousands of people who were throwing rocks ... and you expect me to be looking for people dressed as clowns?' "
Like others who served in the notorious squad during the 1981 rugby tour, Laurenson is adamant he has no idea who was responsible for bashing the clowns.
"Having been the focus of that inquiry ... I've wracked my brain and wracked my brain.
"If it is [the Red Squad] it would have to be the best-kept secret in the police. Policemen are notorious for rumours and in this particular instance, there has not been one scrap of information that I've ever, ever heard."
During a two-month investigation into the clowns incident, the Weekend Herald has tracked down former police officers, the man who led a gruelling internal inquiry into the assaults, one of the clowns themselves, and a witness to the events that afternoon in Dominion Rd.
What have emerged are some frank admissions about the lengths to which the squad went to avoid one of their number being singled out. In the face of a top-level internal police inquiry, they clammed up, denying all knowledge of the incident. To this day, they have never deviated from that denial.
Some would say the strategy has worked: the identity of the culprits remains a mystery. But the incident has had a long-lasting effect on everyone involved.
September 12, 1981, had some of the most violent civil unrest the country had ever been through. On the streets around Eden Park, the protest escalated into a riot. Late in the day, police had begun to restore order, particularly through the use of its crack Red and Blue Squads, specially trained for the tour protests. The Red Squad had been involved in a series of charges along Onslow Rd, where some of the worst violence raged.
In a tactical move designed to whip around behind the mob, members of Red Squad peeled off after one charge and ducked through properties that eventually took them on to Dominion Rd. They reformed in skirmish lines and marched down the road with their backs to the central city.
It was in this stretch that the clowns incident happened. Standing on Dominion Rd that afternoon, journalist Pekka Paavonpera saw several policemen break away from their group.
"They came running towards me and I thought, shit, this is going to be me. Then they saw these clowns and something set them off, so they headed for the clowns."
Throughout the day, a group of 11 protesters, mostly students, lurked around the fringes of the confrontations dressed in costumes. Most were clowns, others were bumblebees. Some handed out flowers and lollies to police and protesters, others brandished french bread sticks and staged mock battles using the baguettes as batons.
Their presence, says one of the clowns, was supposed to be peaceful. "We wanted to present a different face from your standard protester who had a crash helmet and a baseball bat ... [we wanted] to defuse tensions."
Whatever their intent, three of the clowns, two men and a woman, had become isolated from the rest of the group and were standing on the side of Dominion Rd by a hedge when three policemen rounded on them.
Paavonpera, who was covering the tour for the now-defunct New Zealand Times newspaper, watched as the policemen loomed over the clowns. The police were dressed in their greatcoats and wore full-face helmets. No identification badges were evident. They drew out their batons.
"They were vicious, raining blows all over them. The girl, she was on the ground and they just kept going. I ran over ... and yelled out, 'Stop it, for fuck's sake, stop it.'
"One of the [police] turned around and I shoved my press card forward but he took a swing at me and missed. The other two just kept beating," says Paavonpera. "I was convinced the girl was dead. I thought they had busted her neck.
"I went over to the [police] line and grabbed the most senior-looking guy and took him over to the girl. I pointed out the guys who had done it and he just dismissed me."
Lying on the ground, the three clowns had bruising around their torsos. The woman was lying unconscious. As the three policemen rejoined their colleagues, medics began treating the clowns while witnesses milled around, shocked by what they had seen.
Over the next few years, the witnesses would be called to repeatedly describe what they had seen . As well as the intense media interest the case attracted over the following months, the incident was the subject of a formal police inquiry that would last until March, 1982. It would also lead to a civil trial where the clowns sued the police department for exemplary damages.
Presiding over the 1984 trial, which led to a $10,000 payout to each of the clowns, Justice Prichard said there had been numerous and serious discrepancies in the witnesses' accounts of what had taken place.
"But in one respect, they all spoke with one voice," Justice Prichard said in his summing up. "They all said it was a brutal attack in which repeated blows were rained on the helpless victims, whether or not, as some said, they were stamped on as they lay on the ground."
Appalled by what he had seen, Paavonpera, who moved to Australia in 1984 partly because of the tour, was determined to identify the attackers. "I thought it summed up the whole tour: big burly policemen beating up clowns. I wanted to be so sure about identifying these guys because it was so cowardly.
"I had hypnosis to refresh my recall and it worked because the faces became much more vivid than they had been. But when you had several people looking the same, you couldn't make a positive ID."
He attended two identity parades but found "there was a lineup of clones. It was virtually impossible to pick them out."
The clowns were also desperate to identify the attackers. These days, they have all moved on. The one who attracted most publicity, Jacques Munroe, moved to Australia soon afterward. The other two still live in Auckland. One spoke to the Weekend Herald on condition of anonymity. He has established a professional career and would not want the events of 20 years ago to jeopardise anything.
"There was a high degree of concern and frustration that at least [some] of the police knew who was responsible - probably the commander of the day knew," says the clown.
Like the other two, he was subjected to abuse and intimidation during the investigation. But time has softened some of his feelings towards the police.
"At the time, we all lost faith in the justice system, but I guess in hindsight we realised that the police were caught between a rock and a hard place. While some of the riot police appeared to want to almost be making the most of their last attempt to enforce law and order, the bulk of them were just doing their job."
Of the police who attacked them, the clown's view remains strong. "Given that these guys appeared to show some propensity to punish what were obviously non-violent protesters, I would be concerned if they were put into a position of power. They went beyond the call of duty and for that reason alone, I would be concerned if they were at the front line of a protest."
Perhaps oddly, however, the clown does not feel any strong need for the attackers to be publicly identified. "I would be comfortable if the police commissioner indicated by way of apology that these particular cops would not be involved in that type of work again. I don't think there is necessarily a public need for them to be identified publicly."
Former chief superintendent Jim Morgan had the difficult job of leading the police inquiry into the clowns' complaints. Long since retired, Morgan looks back on his career with pride. But the memories of two major cases still make him uneasy.
In 1979, Morgan led the police team that had the gruesome task of identifying the victims of the Mt Erebus disaster. Two years later, he was in charge of investigating Springbok tour complaints against police in the north of the North Island.
"Of those two incidents, if I had to go through one of them again, I would pick the Erebus disaster."
Morgan, who held the rank of chief inspector at the time, says he was caught in heavy crossfire between public and police expectations. "The job was difficult in that a lot of members of the protest movement who were complaining were anti-police." Then on the other side: "Any police officer who had the task of investigating a fellow officer relative to a complaint in those days, well, you were outside the pale."
Morgan vividly recalls the day he was told that he would be involved in the investigations. After pondering, "Why me?" he resolved that he would conduct the inquiries rigorously. "It had to be done properly because, in the end, the reputation of the police was at stake."
Of all the investigations, the clowns incident would prove the toughest, not least because the complaint had been made against the Red Squad which had been given the job of engaging in some of the roughest confrontations of the tour.
"I made it quite clear that I would not condone any wink, wink, nod, nod." This had been the attitude up until then, says Morgan. But the clowns incident was a circuit-breaker because of the level of apparently undue violence against a group of benign protesters.
Morgan says the squad closed ranks quickly, making his investigation incredibly difficult. He emphasises, however, there was no obstruction.
"The squad exercised their legal right which existed at that time, but they put nothing in my way. There was not, from my perspective, any conjuring up of stories."
Initially, the squad refused to take part in any identification parades, so Morgan took the bold step of calling for a meeting with them at the Auckland central police station. During the meeting one member of the squad was doing all the talking - senior sergeant Ross Meurant.
Meurant told Morgan the squad members had a right to silence. "I used the cliche that you can't fight city hall. Politicians were starting to adopt changes of attitudes because of it and don't forget that there was an election coming up. Certainly, a strong core of senior police officers and rank-and-file were changing their attitudes to the Red Squad because of this investigation."
Faced with the squad's refusal to line up in an identity parade - for now at least - Morgan switched tactics. In a move that still rankles with Red Squad members, Morgan had one of the clowns escorted to a position overlooking the meeting. Unbeknown to the squad, the clown was there in a secret attempt to spot the culprits. After some time, however, he was spotted and some squad members placed towels over their heads as they left the building.
Early in 1982, the squad was ordered to take part in another informal identification parade, this time a run around the Auckland waterfront. Squad members were ordered to run in pairs, 10m apart for an hour. Clowns and other witnesses were at strategic positions along the route. The attempt to identify police, however, turned into a farce. Colleagues joined in the run, surrounding the Red Squad members.
Laurenson admits the whole thing became a joke. "Unbeknown to the investigation team, everyone in the police got to know about it so we were joined by squads, Otahuhu police, my police rugby league team, every man and his dog joined in," says Laurenson. "You would dive in the bushes to get changed and dive out again just to be ... well, if they were going to get smart, we would too. We thought, 'Since when are people ordered to take part in an identification parade?' "
Eventually, the squad agreed to take part in formal identification parades, but no one was singled out.
Morgan says in the end, the investigation could not be taken any further. "All we had was the evidence of the clowns. We had no evidence of identity. You needed some forensic evidence, you needed an eye witness or statement of admission or you needed some corroboration, and we had none of that.
"Had we had any evidence, we would have taken the course that we normally took and recommended either a warning or prosecution. Probably more likely a prosecution, because the situation was such that [a court] was the forum it should have been decided in."
While he believes that people within the squad would have firm beliefs as to who probably carried out the assault, Morgan accepts that whoever did it may not even know they had done it. "We did investigate other incidents, equally serious, where the police had no recollection of what happened."
There was, after all, a riot on. It was a tumultuous situation, summed up by Justice Prichard at the civil trial. "These were young men who had been subjected to several hours of nervous tension, and no doubt, real fear. And they had responded, as those films amply demonstrate, with disciplined courage. They were tired to the point of exhaustion, both physically and mentally."
Morgan says that generally during the tour protests, police discipline held. But he believes the Red Squad had begun to assume a life of its own. The clowns incident brought things back into perspective.
"The lack of co-operation relating to a serious complaint by what I would refer to as benign or inoffensive protesters did not do their professional reputations any good."
He has no doubt the Red Squad were responsible. "They were the only organised group on the streets. The clowns had enough recall to be able to describe an organised group of police officers coming down Dominion Rd.
"We had no evidence against any individual members of the Red Squad but we had opportunity, location, to a degree motivation - and if it wasn't one of them, then their stance relating to the inquiry is difficult to explain."
Early in the planning for the tour, police administrators decided to set up two groups of specially trained officers who would accompany the Springboks around the country. One, called the Blue Squad, was drawn from the ranks in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Red Squad members came from Whangarei and Auckland and were led by Inspector Phil Keber. Of the two groups, this squad gained the most notoriety, partly because one of its two senior sergeants, Meurant, wrote a book about the experience and achieved prominence as an MP and, later, a local body politician.
These days, the Red Squad members have been scattered around the country and the Pacific. Keber, who is a manager at the Sky City Casino, politely declined to be interviewed for this story. Meurant spoke about the clowns incident, but said the Weekend Herald would be better off talking to other members of the squad.
However, he did comment on the way the squad was treated. "The rules that police have to follow in dealing with offenders were not always followed by senior police who were investigating the incident," he says.
Pressed about who he thought was responsible for the assault, Meurant says: "To the best of my knowledge, it was not Red Squad."
Others are even stronger. Paul Lacey, a sergeant in the squad who now runs a business in the Hawkes Bay, does not even believe the incident happened, let alone that the Red Squad was involved.
"In my mind, I know it didn't happen, but how do you prove a negative? I'm pretty sure it didn't happen. I'd be very surprised if in fact it happened. I think they're lying."
On the day itself, Lacey doesn't think he was even in the vicinity of the incident. But the reason he says he can be so sure that no one else in the Red Squad was responsible is that there has never been a whisper about it in 20 years.
"We shared everything. We had only each other to unload on to and if anything happened, we would have a few beers and have a yack about it. I am absolutely certain in my mind that nobody in the Red Squad assaulted the clowns."
Talking to Lacey, it becomes evident that he, like others, felt victimised throughout the internal investigation.
In the days immediately after the tour ended, the squad felt a sense of pride in the job they had done. In their minds, they felt they had seen off a threat of wide-scale civil unrest. To then be subjected to the investigation brought about by the clowns left them feeling betrayed. "We were devastated, to tell the truth," says Lacey.
At the time, Lacey led a controversial approach the Ombudsman to request an investigation into the investigation. The Ombudsman ultimately decided not to become involved, but Lacey believes it was worth it.
"We regained a little bit of credibility. We found that we had taken a step forward."
Lacey is not alone in contesting the clowns' version of events. Tim Carter, who was a Red Squad constable, says the clowns were not as passive as they would make out.
Carter, who has been out of the police for nine years, says he saw at least one of the people dressed as clowns throwing a rock at the Red Squad. And he admits that he used his baton to push one of them to the ground. Thanks to a rock that hit him in the foot, breaking several bones, Carter spent the last part of that September day hobbling along behind the rest of the squad.
"I saw our guys who had gone through and they [the clowns] were still fine. A couple of them started picking up rocks and chucking them. I yelled out for one of them to cut it out and one of them picked up a rock and was about to biff it."
Carter drew his baton and pushed it across the clown's chest. "It was not a swing of the baton or anything. I did it to look after the guys. I just kept going because I didn't want to get isolated."
During the investigation, the police concluded that the encounter described by Carter was a completely different incident. Carter is unsure where his encounter happened, but from his point of view, it demonstrates that all the events of that day need to be looked at within the context.
"I think our squad became the target of any allegations. In the heat of the moment, there were things done that we're probably not proud of but things had to be done."
Back in Samoa, Laurenson remembers the ugliness of the riots and the utter unpleasantness of being under investigation. He recalls feeling the pressure come on him after a holiday on the Gold Coast in December 1981.
"I was walking back through customs and there was a big [newspaper] billboard saying, 'Suspects identified'. I got home and about 10 minutes later, I got a phone call and I thought, 'Here we go'."
The formal identification parades were among the lowest points of his career. "I was dressed up in this uniform that I was once really proud of and I thought, 'Jesus, I'm wearing it so I can get picked out by some arsehole and get charged with assault.' I happened to be the last of the suspects to be paraded out. I came out of the building and went to walk up on the ramp and there were two of my typists out there crying ... it was like going to the gallows."
Laurenson says he was questioned over the next three years, including on one strange occasion during the 1984 civil trial.
"In the middle of the night ... I was called up to the Crown Solicitor's office by some high-ranking officers. They took us up to be interviewed and they said maybe I should be saying some things the next day as a witness that I hadn't said during the investigation. "I said, 'I'm not changing my story now - I never will.' They said, 'If you don't, we'll lose the case.' I thought, 'Not my problem, see ya.' They lost the civil case."
Asked if he thought he was being pressured into confessing to the assault or that he had seen it, Laurenson says: "By saying that I would have made myself to look an absolute liar for the previous three years and I thought, 'Get real'."
As for who did baton the clowns, Laurenson agrees that it is a possibility whoever it was may not even recall the incident - one of his fellow sergeants cannot remember one whole street of battle. But he is adamant that there is not even a possibility it was him and he does not remember.
"No. I can remember going down Dominion Rd and I can remember taking a shot at one person - he was not a clown. I saw him about to launch rocks, so I used my baton, whacked him and he fell back into the hedge.
"I looked back at him to make sure he wasn't going to whack me and kept running down the hill. I would have known if I had seen three people dressed [as clowns] in that short space of time. I didn't see them."
Out of everything that happened 20 years ago, there are some positives to be drawn, even for Laurenson. From a personal perspective, he became more involved in police union business, which he believes helped him win promotion through the ranks. He rose to the rank of inspector before leaving in 1997 alleging racism within the police.
The other positive aspect, he says, was the development of the Police Complaints Authority. The man who led the inquiry into the clowns incident, Morgan, agrees.
Over the past 20 years, the characters in the incident have bumped into each other in some strange circumstances. Paavonpera, the eyewitness, for example, jumped into a Sydney taxi one day a few years back and recognised the driver. "It was one of the clowns, Jacques Munroe," says Paavonpera.
Laurenson was reunited with Morgan after the tour, and it was no coincidence - as commander of the police college in Trentham, Morgan asked for Laurenson to be transferred there as an instructor. Laurenson says Morgan quickly made it clear there were no hard feelings.
"He said, 'You had a job to do in 1981 and it was unpleasant. So did I. Let's get on together and do our job where we are now.' Any pent-up frustration just went," says Laurenson.
He is unsure what would happen if he ever met the clowns.
"If I came face to face with the clowns, I wouldn't punch their lights out or anything. I'd say, 'Ah, you're the guys who complained.' But the memories of what went on, how it went on, are very, very strong."