Slipping through probation cracks

By PATRICK GOWER

A disorganised probation office has been blamed for the lax practices that left RSA triple-killer William Bell free to murder when he could have been locked up in prison.

The Mangere office that dealt with Bell for five months did not have a manager when he arrived in July 2001, just a "reluctant" probation officer sitting in the chair.

Bell was paroled in July 2001, part-way through a five-year sentence for an aggravated robbery so vicious the sentencing judge told him he was lucky he was not going down for murder.

The officer assigned to Bell had been in the job for only 10 months. She was the most senior officer in the office - two others had been officers for four months and the other two had been officers for only weeks. The office also had a number of temporary officers.

It was dealing with more than 400 offenders - 45 on parole, 160 on supervision and the rest doing periodic detention.

The findings of a Government-ordered review into the management of Bell's mishandled parole management were made public after Bell's sentencing this week.

The review blamed "systemic failings" for a series of problems, including the failure to invoke a recall application that could have put Bell back in prison before the murders.

And Bell was not alone. The review says there were a number of similar cases of serious offending by other parolees.

The review shows Bell walked into an office that was a shambles.

So William Bell screwed up his parole conditions and threw them in the rubbish bin.

His probation officer didn't even blink - she viewed this as a "common occurrence", so common that it didn't even warrant a note on his new file.

Within five months, this file would become one of the most read in the Community Probation Service.

Not only had Bell committed several breaches of his parole - also not uncommon in the Mangere office - but he had reoffended in the most heinous of ways by bashing three people to death at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA.

The review does not blame Bell for the breaches, but more his probation officer, who did not set up required appointments. That led to the breaches - making it her fault.

She also did not make a basic check on his home address.

And she believed Bell - known to be a pathological liar and con-artist - when he said he had given up drinking.

He has since admitted to drinking heavily and smoking large amounts of "P", the drug crystal methamphetamine.

The officer let Bell do a bartender's course even though the tutor had told her it was unlikely he would get a manager's certificate because of his criminal record. It appears she had no idea he was doing work experience at the RSA.

His weekly reporting conditions were relaxed to fortnightly well before they should have been.

When the officer was off work for an extended period, it was arranged that he did not have to report for five weeks.

When the office heard that Bell had reoffended and faced assault charges a week before the murders, it missed the chance to have him recalled to prison.

And it did not register him on a high-tech "offender warning system" by the required date of November 16. It took a hurry-up from head office to have Bell put on the list on December 9 - a day after the murders.

The Probation Service will not say if the officer involved has been sacked, but the review says the problems at the office were "systemic" and have been resolved.

It says the Mangere office "is now operating efficiently and effectively"."

PSA national secretary Richard Wagstaff says probation officers should not be blamed for mistakes in the system,

He said South Auckland had a turnover among probation officers above the national average, meaning it had a high number of inexperienced staff.

"They have insufficient resources at their disposal and high caseloads to get through, which leads to significant amounts of pressure and stress, which in turn leads to low morale."


Full coverage: the RSA murders

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