TONY WALL reports on the chain of crime linking the deaths of two young mothers, savagely murdered in front of their children.



Behind the razor-wire-topped walls of New Zealand's toughest prison in 1992, an evil alliance was formed.



Christopher John Lewis, a psychotic anti-royalist serving time in Paremoremo prison for armed robbery, and Travis Burns, a sexual predator from South Auckland, became unlikely friends and confidantes.



The career criminals - Lewis, a bookish type with short-cropped blond hair and glasses; Burns, tall, athletic and good-looking - shared an interest in marijuana and martial arts.

Advertisement


They hung out constantly together, smoking joints in maximum security as they hatched plans for their futures on the outside. That future was written in blood.



Two young Auckland mothers, Tania Furlan and Joanne McCarthy, living quietly in suburban Auckland, became their victims, dying in a flurry of hammer blows beside their children in separate but strikingly similar crimes.



After the Furlan murder in 1996, the Lewis-Burns alliance was an evil that turned against itself, the pair becoming sworn enemies.



Burns became a police informant, crossing the most dangerous line a criminal can take, to name his former friend Lewis as the killer of Tania Furlan. The police gave Burns a new identity and settled him into a safe house in Orewa.



Two years later Joanne McCarthy was murdered in her home in nearby Whangaparaoa, and police were forced to confront the nightmare scenario that they had placed their informant in the area where he had found his victim.



Lewis was beyond suspicion, having killed himself in bizarre circumstances in Mt Eden prison before he could stand trial for the Furlan murder, a trial in which Burns' evidence would have been crucial.



In October of 1996 Burns had just finished a prison term for attacking a police officer and was staying at the Waipareira Trust's Rehabilitation Centre at Massey as a condition of parole. He was the newly established centre's first resident.



On the night of October 24, he placed rolled-up towels under his bedding in the shape of a body and slipped out into the darkness.



Guards soon discovered his deception and when he was found hiding in another room at the centre several hours later, manager Charles Hohaia told him the parole breach meant he would be discharged. The next morning a police van arrived and took him to Mt Eden prison.



There, facing a return to Paremoremo to serve out his previous sentence, Burns revealed a secret he hoped would keep him a free man.



He told police he knew who killed Tania Furlan, the mother of three whose murder in her Howick home three months earlier had shocked the country.



She was bashed to death with a hammer and her baby daughter Tiffany abducted and left at a church 18km away.



Police had no idea who killed her - their main theory was a crazed woman trying to get to Tiffany - until Burns told them he knew who committed the crime: his old friend Lewis.



The Travis Burns who drove up to the Massey rehabilitation centre out of the blue some months later on a new Ducati motorbike - (he later fell off and broke his leg) - was a different man. He was $30,000 richer. He was collecting a benefit under a new identity.



He was on the witness protection programme. He was living in a safe house at Centreway Rd in Orewa and had been given a driver's licence despite being a disqualified driver.



Suddenly Burns, despite his past, was a Very Important Person to Auckland police.



He had told detectives that Lewis confessed the murder to him just days after it happened.



Lewis had wanted to kidnap Tania Furlan to extort money from her husband Victor, manager of his local supermarket, Burns said.



He hit her on the head with a hammer to knock her out but blood began "pissing out" so he "just finished the job".



Burns said Lewis did not know why he picked up Tiffany, "but he said this was the best move he ever made because the pigs are off on the wrong track".



Police knew Lewis all too well.



He had embarrassed them in a string of crimes that included firing a shot at the Queen during a royal visit to Dunedin in 1981, a series of bank raids, one committed during a school lunch break, and crashing through a police barricade on the West Coast while on the run.



Soon after Burns' tip, Detective Sergeant Richard Middleton of Otahuhu flew to Christchurch after learning that Lewis was staying there with his mother.



When Middleton approached Lewis, he saw he was wearing a pair of Reebok Aztrek Plus sneakers - the type identified by a forensic scientist as having left a footprint at the Furlan home.



Police later found indentations from a ransom note in Lewis' property.



Lewis claimed Burns was the real killer, and had stolen his shoes and worn them during the murder to frame him.



Burns testified against his old friend at a preliminary hearing but there was no trial.



On September 23, 1997, Lewis sat on a chair in his Mt Eden prison cell and wrapped a wet cloth around his head to hold in place the bare ends of a television cable.



He attached the other end to a 240-volt power supply and sent a fatal jolt of electricity into his brain. He left behind a suicide note proclaiming his innocence and the draft of an autobiography blaming the murder on Burns, who he called Jimmy the Weasel.



But Detective Sergeant Middleton told a coroner's inquest he believed Lewis was solely responsible for Tania Furlan's death.



"I was unable to find any evidence implicating this witness [Burns] in the homicide. Indeed he was 40km away from Howick at the time," he said.



Burns had been signed in at the Massey centre at the time of the murder, where he was supposedly undergoing rehabilitation to break his 20-year cycle of crime.



Born in Auckland on June 14, 1968, to Charlotte and David Burns, Travis grew up in Papakura. When he was aged 3, his father left the family and moved to Australia, where he remarried and had another son.



Abandoned once, Burns felt devastated and replaced when he learned his father had called the new baby Travis.



Burns turned to crime, committing his first burglary - at a house down the road from his home in Tairere Cres - at the age of 8.



He attended Rosehill College, but left just a month into the fifth form and began living on the streets, appearing regularly in the Youth Court.



In 1984, Burns' career moved to a sinister new level while sniffing glue with a 15-year-old streetkid in Kirk's Bush, Papakura. He allegedly raped the girl.



She complained to police but ran away while the case was still before the courts.



In 1988, aged 19, Burns' car broke down while he was driving through Papatoetoe, so he went looking for homes to burgle.



He broke into a house using a skeleton key, took a knife from a kitchen drawer and went into a bedroom, where he found a 20-year-old woman sleeping.



He held the knife to her throat and raped her, but left his fingerprints at the scene and was eventually caught.



Justice Robertson told Burns he was like a wild animal and sentenced him to 8 1/2 years' jail.



A friend of the woman says the rape ruined her life and she left New Zealand. To this day, she breaks down when she hears Burns' name.



He escaped four years into his sentence, running off from a Kaitoke prison work party.



He was caught two months later near Hokianga and taken back to prison, this time to the country's toughest jail at Paremoremo, where he met Lewis.



Burns' talent for bone carving flourished, while Lewis enjoyed oil painting. Lewis, a self-styled "ninja", began teaching Burns martial arts.



In 1995 Burns was released and met West Auckland solo mother Terresa Brandon at a party. She later gave birth to his first child, a daughter.



Despite his new domestic life, Burns could not stay out of trouble.



In May 1995 he stole a car from Auckland city, and was chased by police to Papakura.



He tried to ram the police cars before running across a paddock, pursued by Constable David Templeton and his dog Saber.



Burns attacked the dog and officer with a fence post. He kept hitting them until the post snapped.



Constable Templeton told colleagues Burns seemed crazed and he feared he would die.



When Burns later appeared in the Papakura District Court, he escaped by duping court staff into thinking he was another man due to be bailed.



He was caught a few days later and was returned once again to jail, by now his second home.



In May 1996, he was released to the custody of the Waipareira Trust.



Lewis, paroled by this stage, visited Burns at the centre several times. After the Furlan killing, Lewis went to stay with his mother in Christchurch, and while he was away Burns tended his hydroponic cannabis operation when he got leave from the centre.



Lewis' mother, whom the Weekend Herald has agreed not to name, says that the pair were close during this time, talking often on the phone.



Burns' alibi for the Friday afternoon killing of Tania Furlan has been the crucial focus of detectives charged with reinvestigating the crime.



A Weekend Herald investigation has found that the alibi was not as airtight as it seemed. Burns had been granted weekend leave from the centre and was due to be picked up by Brandon about 1 pm, but she did not show up.



Burns was recorded as present in the centre's "verification chart" at 4.45 pm. (Tania Furlan died some time between 4.32 pm and 4.50 pm).



However, former manager Hohaia says the chart was misleading as checks were not precise. He said Burns was close to the guard who signed him in, Wayne Heremaia. Heremaia often gave up his weekends to take Burns to play rugby league.



Hohaia believes the last confirmed sighting of Burns was at 3.45 pm.



"I believe he could have been gone between 4 and 4.30 and still made it to Howick."



Heremaia, in an exclusive interview with the Weekend Herald, agreed he was on friendly terms with Burns.



"I used to try to help him out a bit because he was the first guy with us in the centre and we wanted it to work."



He does not remember signing Burns in while knowing he was elsewhere but does suspect Burns somehow "manipulated" him to gain an alibi.



Is it possible that Lewis arrived that afternoon to pick up Burns?



Could it be that Lewis, a notorious schemer, was the brains behind the planned Furlan kidnapping, and Burns the hitman who botched the job?



A man fitting Burns' description - he had long hair at the time - was seen acting suspiciously in bushes next to the church shortly before Tiffany was found, but it was dark and the witness could not positively identify the person.



But why would Burns tell police anything about the Furlan murder if he was involved? And it was Lewis' footprint found in the Furlan home.



After Burns agreed to testify against Lewis, he and Brandon and their child went into hiding in Orewa.



Burns tried to go straight, getting jobs at a dump, as a pipe welder and later as a mortgage "eliminator".



He is said to have bragged to friends that he was "untouchable" as a police informant, but he continued to get in trouble with police even while the Furlan case was before the courts.



In July 1997, he stole a car from Quay St in the city and was caught in West Auckland.



Arresting officer Constable Don Baillie took a voluntary blood sample from Burns and it was stored in the DNA profile database.



Following Lewis' suicide Burns began flatting with friends in Red Beach and Little Manly, Whangaparaoa, before eventually shifting back in with Brandon in Titirangi.



He continued to prowl around Auckland looking for homes to burgle.



It was while living at an address in Zealandia Rd, Little Manly, around July of 1998, that Burns is believed to have come into contact with Joanne McCarthy.



It is thought he might have seen her from across a park bordering their properties.



On the morning of November 12, 1998, Burns arrived at the McCarthy home in Whangaparaoa Rd.



It was obvious someone was home - it was a hot day, windows were open and children's music was playing.



Police never established a motive for what followed but McCarthy was about to share the terrifying experience that had hit Furlan two years before.



When she opened the door, Burns exploded, attacking her with a hammer, spraying blood around the walls and on to her baby son Marcus and a friend's child.



She fought valiantly for her life. The attack continued throughout the house, and at some point she scratched Burns' chest, getting his skin and DNA under her fingernails.



Soon after the murder, police received an anonymous letter suggesting they check Burns, and three weeks later he was interviewed for the first time as a suspect.



But the Institute of Environmental Science and Research had mislaid the fingernail clippings and it was not until March of 1999 that police were able to arrest him.



It could have been a disastrous lapse - in December Burns had been caught preparing to break into another home.



When the ESR finally put the male DNA profile from under the fingernails into the database, the computer produced the name Travis Burns.



After Burns' arrest, police reopened the Furlan murder inquiry, but were unable to find any more evidence linking him to the crime.



The Crown contended in a hearing before the McCarthy murder trial that the killing was a "copycat" version of the Furlan murder, "modified to make improvements to the original blueprint". It said Burns' special knowledge of the Furlan case through his role as a witness had helped him to plan the McCarthy slaying.



Former Paremoremo inmate Dave Mohi, a kidnapper who knew both Lewis and Burns, said he always considered Burns a threat.



"I'd never trust Travis out in the community ... it's just the way he moves and doesn't say much. He's got a slimy way."



A police officer who has studied Burns and Lewis believes both were capable of the Furlan murder.



The officer, who asked not to be named, says Lewis had told a psychiatrist he wanted to know what it would feel like to take a life.



And Burns too was psychotic - a loner with a personality disorder.



"I think Burns has got a dark side that surfaces from time to time. I think he made a genuine effort to go straight but he couldn't.



"It's so much a part of him to be a villain, he just couldn't make it on the other side so he's gone back to the black side."



His family sees a positive side to Burns. Girlfriend Terresa's mother Lorraine Brandon told the Weekend Herald that Travis was a good father.



"What I can't understand is how a guy who is so protective and loving of his child could beat a woman to death in front of two kids. The Travis I know wouldn't do that."



Burns' arrest for the McCarthy murder was not the end of the saga - he had at least one more surprise in store.



Desperate to get out of Mt Eden prison, where he had been beaten numerous times, Burns escaped in April last year, leaping over a wall to freedom.



He severely injured his back and was recaptured by the armed offenders squad four days later.



The High Court at Auckland saw a well-dressed young man take the stand and try to worm his way to freedom with a series of bizarre and outlandish explanations for his actions around the time of the murder.



But the jury returned a verdict of guilty.



The officer in charge of the McCarthy case, Detective Senior Sergeant Bruce Shadbolt, says of Burns: "He's very dangerous, he's clever, and he's shown he has a propensity for violence. It will be good to have him off the streets."



Burns is now back behind the razor wire at Paremoremo, where the story began. Unless he escapes or dies inside, he could be out in 15 years.



*