Murderer Alfred Benning buries wife under apple tree in Karori - 150 years of news
From freshly dug soil under an apple tree to murder-themed books by his bedside, a hapless killer left a clumsy trail of clues after burying his dismembered wife in their Karori garden in 1977.
Alfred Benning, a retired SPCA inspector, lived the high life for 11 days before being arrested for strangling his wife, Elizabeth. The 65-year-old met prostitutes at transvestite Carmen's notorious cafe in Wellington, and hired one of them to be his housekeeper. She soon dobbed him in to police after noticing his suspicious behaviour.
When friends of Elizabeth asked where she was, Benning said she had flown to Canada to help her sister, who had been in a serious accident.
Friends had a right to worry: a month before she died, Elizabeth told them Benning was "up to something" and they might not see her again. She said Benning, who euthanased animals in his basement for his work, had made "a sort of gas chamber" under the house in Standen St, and she worried he might put her in it, The Evening Post reported from the sensational trial.
Benning killed his wife on September 12. The next day he asked his neighbour, Karori crematorium manager Jesse Earp, if he could borrow the cemetery's wheelbarrow. Earp declined to lend council property but offered his own barrow – which Benning refused as it was not big enough for his purposes.
Police investigating Elizabeth's disappearance noted Benning increasingly referred to his wife in the past tense. When visiting his house on September 23, they found Benning working an outdoor incinerator, but he told police to stay away because the ground was muddy.
They arrested him and investigated a freshly planted apple tree in the garden, with a large pile of soil lying next to it. In the hole was Elizabeth's body, cut into six pieces and wrapped in newspaper.
"Dr Alexander, pathologist, and two constables scraped soil from the twine-tied parcel. A larger parcel was found which was about half cleared when blood started running from it," the Post reported.
A denture plate and metal corset fittings were found in the incinerator ashes.
The Bennings married in 1957, both having been married before. Although the relationship seemed perfect at first, Benning told detectives he didn't know his wife's maiden name and asked nothing about her past.
"All I can say is that you would not meet a better woman. Always nice and always kept the house nice," the Post reported from his police statement.
After a few years the pair stopped speaking, however, and Elizabeth eventually moved into the spare room. In the last six months of her life, Elizabeth's lawyer sent Benning letters demanding more weekly money and joint ownership of the house.
In September, things came to a head. Benning said Elizabeth was acting suicidal one day, then burst into the lounge at night with a carving knife in her hand. He kicked her in the stomach, then strangled her with a sash cord, he told police.
"I just got a bloody shock when I saw that she was finished. I just got that much of a shock I was just walking around and collapsed in the chair."
The next morning, Benning realised he was in serious trouble and tried to get rid of the body.
"Seeing that I was not strong enough to lift the body, I dragged it from the bedroom out into the laundry and cut it up with a meat chopper."
His lawyer, Mike Bungay, insisted the killing was self-defence.
"If he carefully planned this, he did a very bad job. Surely if you had got an interest in this subject – if you are planning a murder – would you really bury the wife in the back garden?
"Anybody would know that would be the first place the police would go to search – with a freshly planted apple tree to mark the spot."
Bungay pleaded with the jury to ignore Benning's library books, five out of seven of which were about homicide.
After just three hours' deliberation, however, Benning was found guilty of murder and jailed for life.