Survivor's fight for justice

COURT BATTLE: Susan Couch, who was left for dead by triple murderer William Bell at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA.
COURT BATTLE: Susan Couch, who was left for dead by triple murderer William Bell at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA.

Susan Couch received her $300,000 settlement from Corrections just days before the 11th anniversary of the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA massacre. She spoke to Neil Reid about her painful battle for justice.

Susan Couch has rightfully felt plenty of anger during the 11 years since William Bell's rampage.

Bell murdered Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA president William Absolum, 63, member Wayne Johnson, 56, and cleaner Mary Hobson, 44, during his botched armed robbery on December 8, 2001.

KILLER: William Bell.
KILLER: William Bell.

He also left Couch - at the time a young single mother - for dead with massive head and internal injuries. Ambulance officers who rushed her to hospital feared she had little chance of survival.

Her feelings towards Bell - serving a minimum non-parole sentence of 30 years - are such that she "felt sick to my stomach" upon hearing the triple killer was treated at Auckland Hospital in late 2007 after a fight in Paremoremo Prison's D Block.

There has been plenty of anger directed towards a succession of government departments that she and her support team claimed have hindered her progress and quality of life.

Couch is also angry she was even at the RSA working as a part-time clerk on the day of Bell's infamous rampage. She took the job only after safety fears over another part-time position she had been offered.

"The ironic thing is that I had turned down a job at the TAB because I didn't think it would be safe," said Couch, talking prior to last week's settlement.

"This [the RSA job] was a weekend morning job, so it was well-suited and I could get childcare."

Bell left Couch both physically crippled and financially shattered.

Her employment status at the time severely limited what financial aid she was eligible for.

About eight months before Bell's rampage, Couch had resigned from a fulltime job to care for her son, Jackson, then two.

She got the part-time accounting job at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA, and received the domestic purposes benefit.

But being on the DPB meant she was not eligible for future restitution of lost earnings.

She has been further hindered by the fact that at the time of the robbery, the lump-sum ACC compensation scheme wasn't in action.

"My problem with the government departments is that I was a beneficiary when it happened," Couch said.

"I was on the DPB and doing a part-time job. But it was only temporary . . . I would have had a fulltime job again."

Unable to work because of the massive injuries Bell inflicted on her, for the past 11 years Couch has had to makes ends meet on a sickness benefit.

One of her leading advocates, Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar, has consistently said the treatment of Couch by a succession of government departments was an indictment on the nation.

"We say we are a caring, compassionate country," McVicar said. "But we aren't - we aren't at all when it comes to our victims. She's destitute . . . all the systems that were supposed to look after her have been a disaster."

Her lawyer Brian Henry - who in the mid-2000s took on her case at no cost - said Couch's predicament was a "compelling case" for changes to the country's compensation structure.

B ELL'S HORRIFIC offending occurred after he had been paroled for serving two-thirds of a five-year jail sentence for a 1997 aggravated robbery.

He had more than 100 convictions, including for many alcohol-related offences.

On the morning of December 8, 2001, armed with a shotgun and wearing a stolen New Zealand Police shirt, he entered the Mt Wellington-RSA with murderous intent.

As well as killing Absolum, Johnson and Hobson, Bell unleashed a horrific beating on Couch, who suffered a broken skull, major brain damage and broken arms.

Medical experts estimated she lost up to 80 per cent of her blood following the bashing. Her lips had turned blue due to blood loss while she was being rushed to hospital, where she remained in a coma for several weeks.

Subsequent reviews were highly critical of how Corrections' Probation Service had monitored Bell upon his release.

That included the actions of the inexperienced probation officer handling his case after he was able to get a job at the RSA - which exposed him to alcohol and money - despite his background of alcohol abuse and previous robbery convictions. The officer, who was placed on extended paid leave following the massacre, was apparently unaware that he was working at the RSA.

Bell committed his offending just two months after being told his services were no longer needed at the RSA.

C ONFIRMATION OF Corrections' payment was last week welcomed by Couch's support team.

Tai Hobson - the widower of Mary - said the government department had "mucked" Couch around for too long.

"I am really, really happy for her," Hobson said. "After all these years she has been trying . . . she was the one that was really mutilated by Bell. To come through that is really amazing. They have mucked around a long time with that case."

But he said the payment "should have been a million bucks".

Henry said that Couch's fight for compensation was not over, stating that his client had been "done over by the system".

Both Couch and Henry refuse to describe the $300,000 payment from Corrections as compensation.

They now aim to seek that compensation from ACC.

The figure paid out by Corrections is $200,000 shy of what Couch had been seeking from the government department in her earlier lengthy court battle for punitive damages resulting from alleged wrongdoing of the Corrections and the Probation Service.

The fight for financial aid had been frustrating and mentally taxing.

But Couch said: "What it will mean is when I am 60 or 70, whatever, I will be able to look back and know I did everything I could to get some justice."

What had got her through her continual battle was the backing of her staunch support network.

"People have helped me out in many ways," she said. "If it wasn't for their support and help, then things wold be a lot harder for me. If it wasn't for Brian Henry and Garth McVicar I would be rotting on a benefit somewhere - no-one else would know about my case."

Her son Jackson, now 13, had also given her inspiration.

"He is an awesome kid," Couch said. "I have tried to keep it as normal as possible for him. I get really stressed but he copes very well . . . As he gets older he is understanding [more]. While Jackson is here, I will be here."

Sunday Star Times