The farmer, the dead wife, the escort and the murder trial

By JAMES GARDINER

She was a $1600-a-night Wellington call girl; he a prosperous Canterbury farmer who worked in local government.

They met in winter 1999 in his Wellington hotel room, where he was on business for the Selwyn District Council.

Kevin Harmer quickly became infatuated with the slim nursing student with blonde hair down to her hips.

Within eight months they were engaged. Last month they married in Christchurch - his third marriage, her second.

It could have been the perfect wedding except that he was on trial for murdering his previous wife, Jillian Faye Thomas.

The former prostitute gave evidence as a prosecution witness the day before the wedding.

Her name is subject to a High Court suppression order, as is her current occupation.

She worked for an escort agency called First Impressions from late 1998 until early 2000 under the alias Christie.

They met in his room in the Novotel after he called the agency. He paid $280 for an hour with her and re-booked her for a further hour the same night.

From what she told him about her nursing studies, Harmer was quickly able to track her down and convince her to meet him privately on future visits for cash payments of $800 a night.

"The idea of being able to have a guaranteed income for a night's bookings when you need medical textbooks was so appealing," she would say.

They spent nights together in August and September 1999 at the James Cook Hotel. She continued working up to five shifts a week for the agency.

At the end of September he sent her flowers with a card: "To an English Rose, your sparkling eyes, your gorgeous smile, that naughty little laugh; these flowers for you show how I feel while we remain apart."

A few days later, on October 4, 1999, Jill Thomas was dead.

Police and firefighters initially accepted Harmer's story that his 45-year-old wife was incinerated when the Land Rover she was driving, laden with fuel cans, exploded into flames so fierce he could not get her out.

Harmer appeared distraught. He told people first on the scene that it was his fault that petrol and diesel cans were in the cab. The Land Rover was known to have faulty ignition.

He suffered a minor burn on his hand.

Three days later he telephoned "Christie" with the tragic news.

"He was very distressed," she said. "He said he was opening a gate and heard a 'whoomp' like a gas barbecue.

"He kept repeating, he tried and he couldn't get her out."

A week later he telephoned, saying he was coming back to Wellington. They met again at the James Cook, dining in his room, drinking champagne and liqueurs, but there was no sex.

"I think I was more of a nurse that night," she told the court on July 10.

They were together again the following month, on Guy Fawkes night, staying at a hotel on Oriental Parade to watch the fireworks.

In December they went to the theatre.

He sent her more gifts: flowers, a gold pendant in the shape of half a heart - he kept the other half - and, at Christmas, a heart-shaped diamond pendant.

Despite that, he continued to pay $800 a night.

"We didn't have a relationship," she told the court. "It was still professional. I cared because he had been through so much."

At the end of January 2000, after another meeting in Wellington, where they dined with Harmer's daughter Kalina and her boyfriend, "Christie" went to Sydney, where she said her son lived and her daughter was planning to move.

Harmer paid her $5000 hotel bill for the month and stayed with her for about three weeks. He gave her an American Express card on his account.

She said the relationship by then had developed into a friendship. She decided not to pursue post-graduate nursing studies there and, in March, moved to Christchurch.

Harmer arranged and paid for a flat in the city and met her at the airport.

He had traded in his dead wife's Toyota and bought a Mitsubishi GTO sports car for her to drive. The number plates LTSPLA stood for "let's play".

He proposed to her before Easter and at the end of April 2000 she moved out of the flat and into his home at the farm on Selwyn Lake Rd.

Soon after they went on holiday to Africa for a month, followed by three weeks in Australia.

But police had become increasingly suspicious about the fatal fire.

There were a series of what Crown prosecutor Chris McVeigh would describe in court as "remarkable coincidences" before and after the Land Rover burst into flames.

Why had Harmer bought 58 litres of petrol and diesel that day, when he had been told they had enough for a month, and why did he transfer them from his Hilux to the Land Rover Jill usually drove?

The caps on the canisters were loose and the Land Rover's ignition switch and radio were known to be faulty.

Evidence in court was of the likelihood of a large build-up of petrol vapours in the cab and possibly a considerable quantity of fuel spilt on the floor.

Why would a cautious woman with a normal sense of smell not have noticed as she drove the Land Rover across the farm for half an hour or more?

The Crown's case was that Harmer set the fire after either killing or knocking out his wife.

His motive for the "sinister and murderous plans" was his infatuation with "Christie" and his concern that a divorce might mean he lost the farm.

The defence said it was nothing more than a terrible accident, that Harmer's statements from the outset had been consistent and were backed by witness reports.

Both sides brought in fire experts who reached opposite conclusions on how the fire broke out and spread.

The Crown's case was hampered by weaknesses in the police investigation. Exhibits, including the tape of Harmer's 111 call, were lost or not properly analysed.

One thing the fire experts agreed on was that the scene of the crime - or accident - should have been treated more carefully.

Harmer's lawyer, Nigel Hampton, QC, said that evidence would have proved his client's innocence and the lack of it certainly did not prove his guilt.

Harmer was arrested in December 2000.

The first trial was abandoned in March last year after two weeks and, although the judge gave no reason, it is widely believed he saw fundamental flaws in the prosecution.

It was more than year before the second trial, which ran for eight weeks.

The small public gallery was tensely divided between family and supporters of Harmer and those of Jill Thomas.

Harmer was on bail until the jury went out. He went home each night with his wife.

His daughters from his first marriage, who Jill Thomas helped raise, sat with his new wife and backed their father.

Kalina, the eldest, said outside the court she was due to give birth in a fortnight. "I've got enough stress without all this."

Harmer's father bought the sheep farm at Dunsandel after moving from Banks Peninsula.

Harmer himself lived in Christchurch until his first wife left him about a decade ago. She moved to Australia and apparently broke off all contact.

He then saw Jill Thomas at a school reunion. They had been head boy and head girl of Lincoln High School in the early 1970s. She was a teacher but gave that up when she moved in with Harmer and helped run the farm.

Although she suffered mildly from multiple sclerosis, she was a keen worker and was eager to learn from Mr Harmer snr.

They lived together for several years before marrying a few months before Harmer's father died.

Harmer continued with his job as planning manager with the district council; she ran the farm during the week.

After publicity about Harmer's arrest, he resigned from his job at the council. He has since sold the farm and moved to South Canterbury with his third wife.

Selwyn Mayor Michael McEvedy denied there was any payout or pressure put on Harmer to go, but other council sources said there were difficulties with him and the trial had put considerable stress on staff who worked with him.

"Christie" clearly resented the focus the trial put on her. She wanted the court to suppress matters relating to her previous life and her relationship with Harmer, but Justice Lester Chisholm agreed only to her name and that of her current employer being kept secret.

She even objected to being called a prostitute, telling a reporter she would agree to an interview after the trial only if she was described as an escort.

"My work as an escort was very much those shifts," she said in evidence. "It's not who I am and it wasn't a career."

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