By Rob Kidd
Joyce Eileen Blondell was proud of the roses growing outside her small Oamaru unit.
After a desolate couple of decades, there was finally some colour creeping back into the 70-year-old pensioner's life.
She would get out of the house to go bowling with friends once a week or so.
It was nothing serious, just a roll-up, a cup of tea afterwards and a chance for a chat.
But after four years in the sleepy town there was a natural yearning for something more, a deeper connection; some romance.
Then Blondell received a friend request on Facebook.
"Joe Weimer", a US-based businessman, was the man she had been waiting for.
"Guess what? I've met a man and he wants to marry me," Blondell told her family.
Two close relatives, who spoke to the Otago Daily Times on condition of anonymity, said they knew what was going on immediately.
"To Joyce, he was a knight in shining armour on a white horse taking her away from the life she had," one said.
"The whole family warned her it was a scam." But Blondell clung on, trusting Weimer and his fantastical stories.
Several times she drove to Dunedin Airport to pick him up from a long-haul flight only to find out he had supposedly been kidnapped or detained by authorities.
Being gullible is not a crime.
Money-laundering is. The smooth-talking Weimer was a Nigerian cyber-criminal. Within weeks of their online connection, Blondell agreed to him depositing money in her bank account, which she would in turn move to offshore accounts as directed.
By the end of April 2016, more than $100,000 had passed through the pensioner's KiwiBank account before reaching its overseas destination. Whether she knew it or not, she had become a vital cog in an international racket.
Weimer also set her up as a "money mule" in a sophisticated scheme of deception known as "Business Email Compromise" fraud.
The system sees a hacker gain control of a business' mail account before messaging customers to divert their payments to a new bank - in this case Blondell's.
An Otago construction firm, a Tauranga housing company, a Christchurch architect and an Auckland glazier were all targeted.
The money made a brief stop in Blondell's account before she sent it wherever she was told.
On occasions she withdrew cash, bought iPhones and posted them to Nigeria, as instructed.
By July, Weimer told her he was moving to New Zealand so they could be together but weeks later he informed her he had been abducted and was being held hostage for ransom.
Blondell went to the police who, like her family, told her she was being hoodwinked.
But it made no difference.
By the time she was finally arrested this year, she had been banned from using four banks, blacklisted by two international money transfer companies and charged with two counts of money-laundering, two of obtaining by deception and one of causing loss by deception. Blondell pleaded guilty in the Timaru District Court in June and Judge Joanna Maze sentenced her to 14 months' imprisonment.
While the defendant may have been "reckless" at first, by the end she knew the gravity of her actions and carried on regardless, the judge said.
One of Blondell's bowling mates, Gordon Robb, wondered why he had not seen her for some time.
"The only thing we were told was she was caught up in something undesirable regarding the computer but I didn't realise anything else," he said. "We were told she was the innocent party." Robb was similarly surprised when he learned Blondell had other convictions to her name - for murder and attempted murder.
She had spent 12 years of a life sentence behind bars before being released on parole in June 2012.
"Wow. You have just blown me away." The woman he saw every week for a couple of years and described as "a good, honest bowler" clearly had some secrets she was not willing to divulge over a hot drink.
"That's not the Joyce I know," Robb said. "I'd describe her as a quiet, gentle lady."
Her family gave a comparable account. "She's actually quite considerate as a person," one relative said.
That's not the Joyce I know. I'd describe her as a quiet, gentle lady.
One of five siblings, Blondell grew up in Dunedin before moving to South Otago where she went to school.
There was always a penchant for trouble. And bearing five children did not change that. Yet despite accruing 55 convictions for what the courts call "dishonesty offending", Blondell had managed to evade a prison term.
That was until December 20, 1999, when she went to the Dunedin Police Station with her lawyer and confessed to murder and attempted murder.
Three months earlier, on September 17, 1999, Dunedin man Murray Louis Childs travelled to Christchurch, where he shot Alec Rodgers twice at close range. It was the deadly culmination of a drug deal gone wrong, according to Childs (although police found no evidence of narcotics).
Blondell was never even in the frame. But Childs' confession to murder prompted police to reopen the investigation into the death of Doreen Muriel Middlemiss (63), who had lived in a care facility in Lees St in June 1998. Childs had worked at the hostel and cared for the woman.
Blondell had also been employed there as a casual worker. She went for a walk with Middlemiss the night before her death.
The women were close, by all accounts.
According to the first post-mortem, Middlemiss' death was the result of natural causes. Yet when police reviewed the file, they found a slew of evidence pointing to more suspicious circumstances.
These included abrasions to the victim's face and the backs of her hands; and her dentures being found on the floor.
However, there was no evidence incriminating Blondell - until she told stunned officers she had argued with Middlemiss during a game of Housie, had waited in the woman's wardrobe until she was asleep before punching her at least twice and shoving a bathrobe into her mouth for a prolonged period.
That was not all.
Blondell also admitted she provided Childs with the weapon used to kill Rodgers.
She promptly pleaded guilty in court to the murder, as a party, of Rodgers and the attempted murder of Middlemiss.
Although police accepted her confessions, an extensive Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) inquiry, released in 2014, suggested officers should have done more to corroborate Blondell's story.
While the IPCA report found shortcomings in the police investigation, Judge Sir David Carruthers stressed the IPCA could not address the issue of the legitimacy of the convictions against the defendant. Thus Joyce Blondell is a convicted murderer.
A letter Blondell recently sent spoke of her embarrassment at how she had been taken in. She would only trust family from now on, she wrote.
Last month, at a Parole Board meeting, Blondell said she did not want to discuss her latest fraud convictions.
Her earliest release date would be December.
If and when it happens, her family will be there again. Oamaru will wait.
So, too, will the roses.