A successful paternity case against John Banks captured the nation's attention last year. But the former Auckland mayor's refusal to acknowledge his illegitimate son reopened old wounds for an Auckland woman misled for 16 years about the identity of her real father. Lane Nichols investigates the incredible story of Angie Richardson.

AT least he had the grace to cry.

It's Richardson's most telling memory of the moment she met her biological father Michael Whitehead in the late 1980s, a man she would later take to court.

After years of betrayal, she needed to know what he looked like and to hear the sound of his voice. She needed to know her real identity.

Advertisement

"He wasn't as I imagined and it was disappointing," she told the Herald.

At least she finally knew the truth.

Following that meeting, she and her father had sporadic and secretive contact for nearly 30 years, but the relationship now lies in tatters.

A handwritten letter from Whitehead to his daughter illustrates the falling out.

"Angie, Do not contact me. I don't want to hear your take on it. Mike. However, Good luck in your endeavours."

Now a 51-year-old expressive arts therapist and mother of three based in Sandringham, Richardson grew up believing a man named Graham Taylor was her dad.

Though violent towards his wife, Taylor had been Richardson's father figure and his name was on her birth certificate. She adored him and was crushed when he left when she was aged only 7.

It was not till Richardson was 16 that she learned everything she believed about her father was a lie.

Angie Richardson took her father to court in 2013 and won a declaration of paternity. Photo / Dean Purcell
Angie Richardson took her father to court in 2013 and won a declaration of paternity. Photo / Dean Purcell

She wanted to attend the Sweetwaters music festival in 1981 but her mother, Averill Richardson, refused to let her go.

A fierce argument ensued and Richardson, who says she had never once consciously suspected Taylor was not her real dad, suddenly demanded answers.

"I was really upset. The words just popped out of my mouth and I just said, 'Graham isn't my father is he?'

"She said, 'No he isn't'.

"The earth fell away from under my feet. I had a real physical reaction. It's like a traumatic response. Everything's broken. What's true, what's not true? What's real, what's lies?"

Richardson's mother revealed that her biological father was a man named Michael. They'd had a relationship in 1964 and she'd fallen pregnant at the age of 18.

But Whitehead wasn't willing to accept responsibility for fathering his daughter, she'd later say in a sworn affidavit.

"Michael did not want the pregnancy to continue and offered to pay for an illegal abortion," Averill wrote.

She says she refused, and like John Banks, Whitehead was gone from her life.

And like Banks' son, Antony Shaw, Richardson would take legal action to force her father to acknowledge his paternity on official records.

Pregnant, still a teenager, and with no DPB or state child support system, Averill had to think fast.

She was an unmarried woman in 1960s New Zealand. Conscious of societal prejudices but unwilling to put her baby up for adoption, her options were limited.

She did what she had to do.

Taylor had dated Averill when they were both at high school - she at Epsom Girls Grammar and he at Dilworth.

A chance meeting in 1965 would alter the course of all their lives.

Taylor visited Averill's workplace to say hello. She was pregnant and desperate for legitimacy. He was willing to oblige.

"Graham Lindsay Taylor (now deceased) proposed marriage in the knowledge I was carrying Michael Whitehead's unborn child, and I accepted," Averill's affidavit states.

The couple married and Taylor agreed to say he was the father, entering his name on Richardson's birth certificate and stepping into the vacuum created by Whitehead.

"There was total family agreement," Richardson says of the arrangement. "His family knew about me. I think it was kept fairly quiet. The wedding went ahead very quickly and they were married in the Dilworth chapel.

"I think my mother's family would have been relieved. That solves the problem nicely. [Averill] gets to keep the baby and she's married and nobody needs to know. It keeps the family's reputation in tact.

"Nothing is as it seems."

In a strange parallel, Taylor had his own "father mix up story", Richardson recalls.

His mother had an affair with a boarder while her husband was at war "so he was raised thinking he was the son of someone else".

Maybe that's why he agreed to the arrangement. Perhaps it was his working class background and he saw Averill's respectable middle class family as a step up.

Richardson will never know. Estranged from her and Averill, Taylor moved to Australia and later died.

After learning that Whitehead was her father, Richardson eventually got 'a bit interested" and looked him up in the Whitepages.

A builder by trade, who'd moved here from the UK after a stint in the army, he'd built a house in Te Atatu and was living there with his own family.

She scribbled down the address and phone number and stashed the scrap of paper in a jewellery box.

English language teacher Antony Shaw successfully sought a court declaration that John Banks was his biological father. Photo / Supplied
English language teacher Antony Shaw successfully sought a court declaration that John Banks was his biological father. Photo / Supplied

Several years later, Averill remarried and bought a house in West Auckland.

Richardson asked for the address. It matched the one in her jewellery box. Her mother had inadvertently bought Whitehead's old house.

Richardson later moved into the property with her then partner and baby daughter. She learned that Whitehead owned another house on the street and plucked up the courage to knock on the door.

Whitehead did not live there but the occupant provided his details.

At the age of 22, Richardson picked up the phone and the pair finally met face-to-face.

"He knocked at the door and he just knew. He didn't deny it. He accepted it. He did have the grace to cry. It's one of the few decent things he did."

They kept sporadic contact, but Whitehead was "very clear that his daughter wasn't to know", Richardson said.

"Mike's family had no idea. The wife he married, his children, his parents. Nobody. The Whitehead family did not know that I existed."

Richardson believes her biological father was too ashamed to tell his family and that he always suspected she was after money.

He did give her several cash gifts, she says. One after she had breast cancer and the most recent in 2011. The largest was a $2000 loan towards a house deposit in 1992 which Whitehead later said did not need to be repaid, Richardson recalls.

But she is adamant the relationship was never about cash and says she only took legal proceedings for the sake of her children.

"It's not that I wanted Mike on my birth certificate. It was quite a painful decision to have Graham taken off, even though we were estranged.

"But my middle son is an actor and was wanting to go to the UK to attend theatre school and do his masters, and I wanted him to be able to apply for ancestry visa-ship."

Richardson says Whitehead initially agreed, but then went cold and dropped out of contact.

She "waited and hoped", then eventually got angry.

"It's the one thing you could do for me.

"I knew that I had enough of a story [to prove paternity]. I had some letters and some things that would show to the court that he was my father."

She filed proceedings in 2012, asking for a declaration of paternity.

Like Banks, Whitehead took no part in the proceedings. On July 4, 2013 a Family Court judge declared that Whitehead was Richardson's legal father.

And though she'd like to see him again, Richardson thinks it's unlikely given his letter and the court action.

"I guess after all those years you think you've kept a secret so well for so long and now it's come out and it's caused disruption."

Richardson's father is now retired, nearing 81 and living in Pakuranga.

He told the Herald he had no desire to rekindle a relationship with his biological daughter.

"I don't know why she's continually bringing this up.

They'd had a rocky, fractious relationship, he said.

"Some years ago I told her to stop contacting me because she was just a bloody nuisance."

Whitehead denies offering to pay for an abortion all those years ago, saying he did not have enough money back then.

He also said his late wife knew about his illegitimate daughter, and that he had agreed to sign the birth certificate documents without the matter going to court.

"Averill wrote to me and said she'd be an intermediary so I wouldn't have to go through Angie.

"I had the papers here, had them all signed, they only had to go through her mother and then for some reason her mother backed out of it.

"It was a messy situation and it shouldn't have been like that. Initially it started off alright and then Angie, I suppose she wanted to get her own back so that's the way it went."

Whitehead said he first met Averill at the Oriental dance hall on Queen St. After learning she was pregnant he considered taking her to Melbourne to provide for her.

"Then she rings up and says she's getting married. So in a way I was let out. I didn't feel anything about it one way or the other."

John Banks during a media conference at the Stamford Plaza, Auckland. Photo Brett Phibbs
John Banks during a media conference at the Stamford Plaza, Auckland. Photo Brett Phibbs

He said Richardson somehow felt he owed her. He hadn't spoken to her in years and preferred not to dredge up ancient memories. The events were now "hazy" and happened so long ago.

Regrets?

"Not really. When all this was going through, I suppose you get stirred up, you get certain emotions and you think about it. But since all this business settled, it hasn't crossed my mind really.

"Why would she want to broadcast it all over the nation? What's the point? I think she's foolish playing around with it. I haven't got any real feelings about it one way or the other."

Avril, now a trained counsellor living in Matamata, told the Herald she had found herself in an impossible situation upon falling pregnant.

She regretted not telling her daughter the truth.

"I had been sworn to secrecy right from the beginning by both sets of parents. It was to be a secret.

"It took a long time for the trust to be reestablished. I had huge regrets. I would do it so differently now with what I know. It was a mistake on my part. Secrets can really hurt."

Avril said the pressure on young woman who fell pregnant in 1960s New Zealand was extreme. Her parents were involved in the National Party and members of Right for Life.

"Not only was the shame on the girl for getting pregnant, it was shame on her family.

"You didn't have a choice. You either got married or your baby was adopted quietly in a place where no one knew you, and there was no DPB. It was a very different world."

She remembered sitting in a car with Whitehead after telling him she was pregnant with his child.

"He said, 'We haven't known each other too long and I'll pay for an abortion'."

When she told him Taylor had proposed, Avril had hoped Whitehead would object.

"I was hoping he'd say, 'No that's not fine', but he accepted it. He didn't fight for me."

While she had agreed to be an intermediary to have Whitehead recognised on Richardson's birth certificate, she later pulled out "because I felt that Angie was being played along".

"I didn't want any more game playing."

She felt sorry for Whitehead, who had missed out on a relationship with his wonderful daughter and grandchildren.

"The poor boy."

Richardson is seated in her therapy room at the back of a Sandringham bungalow.

She pores through a file of paperwork relating to the paternity case, including Whitehead's letter, and her mother's explosive affidavit.

"It's a really fascinating story."

So now with the benefit of hindsight, how does Richardson view her mother's 16-year deception?

There is no animosity, and the pair share a close relationship.

"I have huge compassion. I've had questions about why I wasn't told but I certainly haven't been angry. I can understand why that was done and how it was done. When do you tell someone? How do you say it if it's always been hidden away?"

The choice her mother made was likely faced by countless other young women in the deeply conservative 1960s.

Richardson wondered how many other secrets like hers were yet to be told and said it was time for men of that era to "man up".

"John Banks and my father have both been given an opportunity to do the right thing - to do the respectful and honourable thing - to finally act with some integrity which they were unable for whatever reason to do back then. An apology of sorts. Just to say, 'Yeah, you are mine, this is the story. I'm sorry for what happened to your mums'."

The Banks case stirred up painful emotions due to its parallels with her own life.

Richardson felt for Banks' son, who was now estranged from his mother because of the lies perpetrated for 27 years about his real father.

"I imagine she would have done what my mum did. You try to maintain the respectability around your child. You want to keep this child and you've been left in really untenable circumstances.

"I have a lot of compassion for Antony Shaw, just wanting his father to say, 'Yes, I'm your dad', and to have a knowledge of his background. You have a right to know who you are. It makes up your identity."