By JAMES GARDINER
Like a ticking bomb, Steve Williams' life seemed destined to reach a ghastly climax.
His notoriously short fuse had got him in trouble so many times that those who knew him were resigned to the fact it was going to get worse.
After more than 10 years of alcohol and drug abuse, Williams' world was closing in.
He was out of jail, but only just - on bail with numerous criminal convictions and more charges pending.
On the day he drove Coral Burrows, 6, and her brother Storm, 8, to school, the unemployed sometime farm labourer had been up all night smoking pure metham-phetamine, the notorious drug known as P. His mother said he had gone close to five nights without sleep and barely eating.
He made the children breakfast and helped them get ready for school. He drove them in the white Lada stationwagon his partner, Jeanna Cremen, had bought from a neighbour in Woodward St, Featherston, stopping off to buy them each a packet of chips.
They arrived at the South Featherston School about 8.17am. It was pouring with rain. Storm got out and ran inside but Coral refused.
Williams later told police she got cheeky to him and he "lost the plot". The police summary of evidence records that he "flew into a rage such as he had never before experienced".
From the driver's seat he reached into the back, half climbing over the seat to punch Coral repeatedly, holding her with one hand while hitting with the other.
He broke her jaw in two places, just below the right ear and on her chin. Her jawbone was protruding on the left-hand side of her face.
Her blood was everywhere, including all over his hands and her face. The autopsy concluded that the bleeding from her mouth would have been "torrential".
When Williams' rage abated, Coral was collapsed on the car floor unconscious. None of the other parents arriving with their children apparently noticed what had occurred.
In a panic Williams drove off, heading south away from town.
Although he did not know whether Coral was dead, he later said he thought her injuries were too severe for him to seek medical treatment for her or to take her home.
He drove to a reserve near Lake Wairarapa, looking for a place to hide her.
But he saw that a farmer checking his stock had seen him and drove off again, heading further south.
About 9.15am he passed one of Jeanna's brothers, Grant Cremen, driving the other way and kept going until he reached the East-West Access Rd, which links Lake Wairarapa and Lake Onoke (formerly Lake Ferry).
Turning left on Western Lake Rd, he pulled into the first driveway he saw - a metal track which runs up a small rise into the bush and to a farm.
Williams pulled over and carried Coral into the bush. He had pulled off most of her clothes, leaving her in a small vest, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of ankle socks.
The rain continued to pour.
A few metres off the driveway he laid her on the ground. He thought she was dead but as he put her down she made a small noise like a groan.
To finish the job, Williams picked up a 60cm tree branch and bashed her over the head, fracturing her skull. "I didn't want her to suffer," he told police.
Pathological testing found Coral was alive at the time.
Williams hurriedly covered the body with branches and leaves before rushing back towards Featherston, about 40km north.
When he reached the town, he turned left towards the Rimutaka Hill Rd and stopped on the roadside near Double Bridges. There he hid Coral's clothing in long grass and drove back towards town, stopping again at a roadside lookout to throw her schoolbag into Abbott's Creek.
Back in town, he looked for more ways to hide the evidence. He stopped at a dairy near his home to buy bleach to clean the car but there was none.
Just before 11am, he walked to the Mobil service station and bought four litres of petrol, put some in the car tank and used the rest to try to clean up the blood.
But he could not get rid of a large pool on the carpet.
Soaking wet and reeking of petrol, he drove home, to find Grant Cremen was visiting Jeanna.
Pretending everything was normal, Williams said he had seen Grant on the road and explained that he had been out looking for work on a dairy farm.
Jeanna told Williams to get out of his wet clothes and have a hot shower.
She helped him wash his clothes, after which Williams said he was going to have to cut the carpet out of the car because he had spilled petrol on it.
On the back lawn he set fire to two pieces of carpet and a rag he had used to wipe blood off the seat.
His friend, Grant Adams, arrived just after noon. Williams told Jeanna he wanted to go out again in the car but she said she needed it to go shopping.
He borrowed Mr Adams' car - another Lada - dropped him off in town and went to see his mother, Robyn, publican of the Tin Hut Hotel at Tauherenikau.
When she did not answer his knock he drove back to where he had left Coral's body.
He put her in a stock-feed sack, drove another 9km further south and turned off on to a track that runs about 2km along a stopbank on the northern shores of Lake Onoke.
At the end of the track, beside the mouth of the Ruamahanga River, he threw the sack containing Coral into a large clump of toe toe, and drove back to his mother's pub.
This time she was there and she had news. Mrs Williams told her son the police had raided his home and wanted to speak to him about some cannabis they had found.
She dropped him at home and Jeanna told him about the police visit.
About 3.30pm Williams reminded Jeanna it was time to collect Storm and Coral from the school bus.
When Storm got off alone, Jeanna raced out to the school, to find that Coral had not been there.
Her absence had been noted, but because of a reporting error the school had not tried to contact the family.
Searches started immediately. Police and volunteers worked through the night, which was cold as well as wet.
By morning, the country knew Coral was missing, and volunteers poured into the school as the rain - and hopes for the little girl - fell.
Police knew only too well that Williams was a menace.
Robyn Williams said her son had committed his first major crime, a home invasion, at 12.
She said his early years were happy and normal, until he got into a bad crowd as an 11-year-old.
Her son and a youth aged about 18 broke into the home of an elderly Wanganui couple and tied them up.
When the other youth was caught driving the couple's car he led police to Williams.
She said armed police surrounded her house and were "dumbfounded" to find their quarry was a little boy in a Donald Duck T-shirt.
It was the beginning of 17 years of troubles that spiralled out of control.
Williams never knew his father, described by Mrs Williams as violent and an alcoholic. He left for Australia when Williams was about one.
Williams, who has three older sisters but to a different father, was born in Wanganui and lived there until he was about 5, when Robyn remarried and they moved to Auckland.
"He was a thoroughly lovable, respectful, thoughtful child."
Things started to go wrong when that marriage broke up about seven years later and she and the children moved back to Wanganui.
After the home-invasion incident, Social Welfare took custody of him.
It was arranged that he become a boarder at Dannevirke High School, but he was expelled after setting fire to the town's rubbish dump and a paddock.
He lived in a series of boys' homes and Mrs Williams believes he was a victim of abuse, although he has never spoken of it.
"Social Welfare said to him, 'Your mother isn't your mother, we are'," she said.
"I fully believe this caused a deep-seated anger in him."
By the age of 29, Williams had about 90 criminal convictions and the justice system seemingly held no fear.
Fines, community-based sentences and stints in jail were merely interruptions to a life of boozing, drug-taking - and committing crimes to pay for the sprees, which in turn led to more crimes while under the influence.
Worse still for police, no matter how often they locked him up, Williams kept getting out.
The only reason he was living at Woodward St was that it was a condition of his release from prison on home detention that he have a permanent address.
Twice bail was granted despite police opposition. One of his bail conditions was that he not drive. Another was that he not go out at night.
So when police arrested him for crashing a car into a power pole while drunk at night, they expected the bail breaches might curtail him. Not for long. New bail was granted.
Williams' drug of choice was usually cannabis but about midway through this year he began using and dealing in methamphetamine and its pure form, known as P.
He was being hassled and threatened by another local drug dealer, who said Williams owed him money.
Charges of threatening to kill have been laid against a man after an incident outside Williams' home the weekend before Coral died.
Police knew almost from the outset who their man was. A local constable who was the first to tell Williams that Coral was missing and a search had started told his supervisor, Sergeant Ben Offner, that because of Williams' reaction he thought he should be treated as a suspect.
Williams was still playing the innocent. He went out to the school to join the search but was soon being interviewed by a detective.
He said Coral had reluctantly left the car and gone into the school, and he had then gone driving around dairy farms looking for work.
After more than an hour of questioning, he asked to be taken home because he was tired and wanted to comfort Jeanna.
But when he got back to Woodward St, he ignored many of the friends and family who had gathered and lay on a couch with a blanket over his head.
When his mother came to the house and suggested to him that they should join the search, he replied: "She's long gone, Mum, you know that. You know yourself that they can't last long in this weather." He then lay back down on the couch.
The next morning, Williams had to be persuaded to join the family as they prepared to resume searching.
At 5.30am, he joined a search party that included Coral's father, Ron Burrows, who drove through the night from Te Puke after hearing on the news that his daughter was missing.
Four hours later, Williams gave up and got a ride home. Later that morning he visited his mother and told a family friend: "I think something terrible has happened to Coral but I can't tell her mother."
It was that afternoon that Williams' story began to fall apart. Police again wanted to talk to him about where he had gone the day before and this time Williams admitted he had not been seeking employment, but was looking for hallucinogenic magic mushrooms.
The questions continued and after several hours Williams refused to answer any more.
He was taken home, where he again ignored the many people in the house and went to bed.
That night he began shaking, having panic attacks and saying he wanted to die. A doctor was called and Williams was admitted to Masterton Hospital under sedation.
His mother and Jeanna's brother, Karl Cremen, accompanied him. In the hospital Williams tried to smash his head through a plate-glass window.
That evening he was discharged from hospital and police drove him back to Featherston. On the way he had to be restrained after smashing his head against the car window.
He was then charged with assaulting Jeanna's brother, Terry Cremen, two weeks earlier and with using the white Lada as a weapon in the assault.
He has been in custody since.
At his court appearance the next day, Williams was defiant, giving the finger to the crowd outside and glaring around the public gallery from the dock. He appeared intense, angry but also confused.
His lawyer accused police of trumping up the charges, saying that if they had foundation they would have been laid 10 days earlier.
Within a week of being confined to Rimutaka Prison, Williams confessed.
"I lashed out, I think I hit her," he told Detective Sergeant John Gualter. He was hazy on the details, claiming anger and drug-taking had affected his recollection.
But he was able to recall exactly the events after that - where he went, and where he dumped Coral and her clothes and schoolbag.
Late that night, he was driven to the spot where Coral lay and pointed it out to the inquiry head Detective Inspector Rod Drew. He was formally charged with murder.
A very different Steve Williams appeared in Masterton District Court the next day after being led past the crowd baying for his blood.
The aggression was gone, the head bowed. He was abused from the public gallery by Ron Burrows, who told him, "Fry in hell, you piece of shit".
Yesterday, he was back in court again, looking as if he had been doing just that. This time there was no angry mob outside the courthouse, just a silent public gallery consisting of Coral's large extended family and her mother, Jeanna.
Judge John Walker warned everyone present before Williams was called that if they could not control their emotions they should leave the court. No one moved.
Williams, dressed in the same clothes he wore at the first appearance on the charge two months ago, raised his head slightly when the charge was read, barely opened his mouth and said one word: "Guilty."
He was remanded in custody for sentencing in the High Court at Wellington in February and is likely to face a term of about 17 years even with credit for his guilty plea, which will save the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars in trial costs.
One police officer said outside the court: "It's the first decent thing he's done." Members of the Cremen family appeared to agree.
Coral's family sat frozen in the court as the gruesome details were read, but Williams was excused after his guilty plea.
Jeanna Cremen sat, head bowed, and grandfather Tom Cremen could not hold back a gasp when he heard of the child's final moments.
Mr Cremen leaned on son Karl's shoulders. He fought back tears, occasionally dropping his head into his hands. The pain was visible on his face as the prosecutor detailed Coral's injuries.
Although they grimaced and wept during Prosecutor Grant Burston's reading of the police evidence summary, afterwards there was palpable relief.
Wearing a T-shirt reading, "We love you, Coral-Ellen - She loved you too", her uncle, Karl Cremen, said the family were pleased with the guilty plea.
"Hopefully it'll bring some more peace to us all."
He said the family were still receiving support from throughout New Zealand and wanted to thank everyone.
"Now we can go away. It's another step towards the sentencing, and that's really all we want to say."
By JAMES GARDINER