On Thursday morning at his house on the Te Atatu peninsula in West Auckland, 75-year-old Errol Shute stood up and looked through one of the windows of his sitting room, and said: "I believe she was murdered in there".
He meant the upstairs bedroom at the house next door in the cul de sac of Glenvil Lane, where 69-year-old Cunxiu Tian was sexually violated and killed with stupendous violence on a hot Friday morning last January.
The curtains to the bedroom were open and there was a green motormower out front. The house has stood empty since the murder. Errol used to see her now and then at the letterbox, a shy, sweet woman who evidently didn't speak much English. Pretty much her only other public appearance was when neighbours saw her cutting back the hedge that ran beside the long paved driveway to her front door. A couple of clumps of lovely white lilies are in blossom right now, their flowers leaning out of the hedge.
A 19-year-old called Jaden Lee Stroobant walked down that driveway and stood by the letterbox after killing her. As getaways go it appears kind of casual but it's likely he was freaking out, that the things he'd seen and done that morning were pounding in his brain and making him sick, afraid, desperate. But he must also have figured the odds, made the calculations. If he ran, it would attract attention in the quiet little horseshoe-shaped cul de sac with fewer than 20 houses, and cook his goose. And so he stood there for a while, perhaps plotting his next move. It cooked his goose.
He stood there long enough for a woman who lived nearby to notice him and wonder about the fact that a stranger was just standing at the end of the driveway belonging to an elderly Chinese woman. She gave police a vital description of a young guy, part-Maori, tall and thin, wearing a green and white tracksuit. It was an important break in Operation Nepal, the police investigation that ended with Stroobant's arrest six days later.
He appeared at the High Court of Auckland on Wednesday morning. He had a handsome, intelligent face, and held his head up high. He wore a black and white checked shirt and his hairstyle featured a braided rat's tail at the back of his head. Three tormented-looking women, including his mother, sat directly behind him.
The murder trial had been set down for four weeks. It lasted 18 minutes. "Guilty," said Stroobant, in a soft, quiet voice, to the charge of murder. "Guilty," he said, lifting his head, facing up to it, when the registrar read out the two charges of sexual violation. The language of the charges was very precise. The horror they described was something depraved, something mongrel.
The rest of the brief appearance was taken up by an attempt by Stroobant's lawyer, Emma Priest, to suppress certain explicit details of the sexual assault. It was a matter, she said, of his personal safety in prison. Justice Graham Lang, a shaggy-haired fellow with a deep tan, seemed a little vexed by the plea to suppress, and said it was up to the prison authorities to manage his physical safety. Well, yes, said Priest, but there was also the issue of Stroobant's mental state; it'd be better, she argued, to wait until a psychological assessment could be made. Justice Lang sighed, and upheld the suppression at least until sentencing, set for March 13.
The summary of facts was released to media afterwards and you had to wonder what difference it made to suppress certain explicit details, because the rest of it was bad enough. To read the document was to scarcely believe it, with its catalogue of wanton cruelty and sadistic impulse. Worse, he seemed to take his time.
In the summary of events, the police reconstruction of the crime begins with Stroobant entering his victim's property on the morning of Friday, January 15, 2016. "As was typical of any weekday, her daughter and son-in-law left home at around 9am to work in the city. The victim began her usual gardening tasks around the house. The defendant [Stroobant] was at his home address next door."
He was living in a somewhat battered wooden rental property, on Kotuku St, across the road from Rutherford College and Rutherford Primary School. There are two houses side-by-side, divided into four flats. A few householders were around on Thursday morning. "The people he was with, they've shot through, eh," said a cheerful Maori woman whose grandchildren came to the door licking the jam off their toast.
"I don't know nothing about it," said a rather stern woman at another flat. She was wearing a dressing gown and slippers, and sucking hard on a cigarette. "And don't bother talking to them next door. They've got phobias." What kind of phobias? "They never answer the door or open the curtains."
Something loomed over the ugly back fence of the two houses: Cunxiu Tian's townhouse. It's a big place and it takes up a lot of room. It's really the only thing to look at in the back section. The lawn is bare, no trees, no garden, just a clothesline, and the top storey of the townhouse kind of looks like a ship, a luxury liner, clean and white. Stroobant would likely have seen his neighbour in her upstairs windows, pottering about, alone.
Summary of facts: "He struck the victim about her head with sufficient force to knock her to the floor. He struck the victim about the head numerous times when she was on the ground. During the assault he stood up and stomped on her face and head. This caused the fatal head injuries that eventually killed her."
Yes, said Errol Shute, the man who lived next door to Cunxiu Tian, he'd known numerous killers in his time. He worked as a prison guard at Mt Eden from 1974 to 1984. He was in sole charge of the old Eastern Block and something called The Pound, "where they locked up mentally ill and dangerous prisoners". What did he make of lunatics and psychopaths as people? "I've got no time for them at all," he said. "You can't rehabilitate bred-in bloody traits. A lot of it's handed down from father to son. It's a sad fact of our society, an indictment of it, really."
How did he regard the killing of his neighbour? "That's straight-out low-life carry-on," he said.
Shute had led a colourful life; there were the years as a professional wrestler and boxer (his opponents included Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's father), when he was billed as "The Battling Blacksmith" on account of his long practice of shoeing horses. As for his prison experience, he said he had gained a lot of respect from inmates after the time another guard slapped him for not wearing the regulation tie and cap, and Shute gave him a boxing lesson: "I laid him out as cold as a maggot". The reason he never wore a tie or cap, he explained, was for protection. "The least you had on the better, because it was the least something people could grab. It was a threat to your safety, really."
He was describing the kind of world Stroobant will experience for a long, long time. The severity of his crimes guarantees that, but consideration will be taken of his guilty plea. Police were going to call 21 witnesses, including the woman who made the crucial sighting. She said she was relieved she doesn't have to go to court. It would have been only the second time she'd ever laid eyes on Stroobant; she'd never seen him until he paused at the end of Cunxiu Tian's driveway.
"I have an autistic son, and he's always looking out the window at things," she said. "He was doing that on that morning, and I said, 'What's out there today?' That's when I saw the guy."
Stroobant could have climbed back over the fence. But he left at the front, and there were two ways out: the faster way of returning to his flat was along an alley to Old Te Atatu Rd, but he chose the slower option of going up Glenvil Lane, in full view of the street.
And so off he waltzed, a teenage killer with the things he stole from that big white ship docked over his rotting fence: an iPad, a gold watch, and $370 in Chinese yuan. To disguise his movements, he later dismantled his phone by removing the SIM card, and rode in the boot of someone's car. It was too little, too lame, the last exit for someone about to go down.