The Bain mystery

Although the David Bain retrial was billed as a contest between Robin and David, the question was also: who is the real David Bain?

The 13-week David Bain retrial spanned some of the best autumn weather Christchurch had seen in 20 years. Leaves of every hue carpeted the footpaths and road verges.

By the time the defence opened it case on May 8, southerlies were hammering the city and the leaves that had looked so pretty were turning to mush.

Those with duties in the Bain trial saw little of the weather for three months. Onlookers, reporters and lawyers would glimpse the real world on a quick dash across the road to the Coffee Smiths cafe, which did a roaring trade selling gallons of excellent flat whites during the trial.

Next door to Coffee Smiths is the Hemingway Wine Shop, and some wit had put out a sign saying, "Sod the pathologist. Has anyone asked Miss Marple?" The unassuming but brilliant fictional detective would no doubt have made short work of the Bain case and its essential question was it David or Robin?

However, even she would have struggled with a deeper and just as vital question who was the real David Bain?

The skinny 37-year-old seen in the High Court in Christchurch was 15 years removed from the young man at his first trial.

If Bain's trademark ears and height were not so well-known he could have been mistaken for one of his legal team as he helped with files and clutched the red lunchbox a supporter, Carolyn Davies, packed for him each day.

Only the presence of a prison guard at his side reminded onlookers that an alleged mass murderer was sitting in the court. Even that was difficult to believe, because lawyers in his legal team would often sit next to him, and on one occasion, Helen Cull, QC, during a particularly harrowing part of the trial, all but gave him a cuddle.

PATH TO A TRIAL: David Bain, with his legal team and supporters, head to court.
PATH TO A TRIAL: David Bain, with his legal team and supporters, head to court.

The media bench was no more than two metres behind Bain's seat, so reporters got to know rather well the back of his head, the acne scars around his jaw line and his big red ears, almost perpendicular to his skull. Unfortunately, they gave little indication of what makes him tick.

He wore the same smart dark suit each day, and his selection of ties ranged from an awful purple to a more elegant check. He was respectful to the jury, never needing any prodding to rise to his feet when they walked into the courtroom.

When he sat down he was a diminished figure as his height is all in his legs. The horrific scenes of his dead family and his anguished 111 call seemed to affect him, and he tended to look down at his bench when the more graphic images were shown on computer screens.

He seemed able to bounce back, though, and, even after a gruelling session, he would chat and joke with his lawyers.

They went through packets of sugar-free peppermints, but Bain stuck to his mentholated lozenges, which he reckons kept him cold-free in prison.

When prosecutor Kieran Raftery stoically continued with a rasping cough after a bout of flu, Bain suggested, through an intermediary, that Raftery try his lozenges.

Such consideration was reflected in other odd ways. When Justice Panckhurst and the lawyers were discussing some form of stress advice for the jury, some of whom were having problems with sleep and switching off at the end of the day, Bain's lawyer passed on his recommendation that the court should adjourn early each day so the jury could have a debriefing session before they went home.Had the 15 years made the difference? Probably not. Supporter and Dunedin pharmacist Patti Napier knew Bain through musical productions before the killings and she, like many who knew him, could not reconcile the David of her acquaintance with the brutal killing of five people.

"It didn't really make much sense. It didn't sound like the person we knew. The more time we spent with him and the more time spent dealing with the judicial system and trying to work our way through screeds of information ... it didn't fit," Napier says.

Bain has attracted a large band of supporters, including many who knew him at university and who echo Napier's sentiments. She and husband Lindsay, who have four adult children, tried to visit Bain at least once a month while he was in prison, driving up from Dunedin, where they live. The expense of petrol, accommodation and meals had been onerous, but there was more.

"We've set up our lives around what we do day to day on how we support David," says Napier. "I never thought it was too hard."

However, a former classmate, Kelly Gillan, was not surprised Bain was eventually arrested for the killings at Every St. "The first one I thought of was David," he told The Press.

But it still seemed unbelievable to others. As Raftery put it, neither "Robin nor David were natural-born killers".

Bain's defence was not short of glowing testimonials that depicted him as polite, gentlemanly, considerate, good company and talented. One of the more important was from his psychiatrist, Phil Brinded, who told the trial that when he examined Bain shortly after the killings, to assess whether a defence of insanity was available, he could find no mental illness or personality disorder. So Bain was sane, and would a sane person murder his family?

Geoff Swift, a shop assistant who also worked with him in Dunedin Opera Company productions, found him "cheeky, always smiling and polite".

The resource consultant for Otago University's German department, Catherine Spencer, remembered him as outgoing and motivated to start a professional singing career.

Crown witnesses also had to concede that Bain was likeable and gentlemanly. His fumbling attempts to court a young woman studying in Dunedin were poignantly retraced in the evidence by the woman, who, 15 years on, still gave him a broad smile as she left the court. Her talk of the card "giving her his heart", the red rose and a sparkling ball where they danced all night and then looked at the stars did not fit the normal murderer's profile.

Bain's lawyer, Michael Reed, QC, told the jury that only a psychopath could have killed the Bain family, and David was not one. His psychiatrist said so.

Was there anything in the week leading up to the murders to suggest David was about to shoot his family?



He attended his lectures, went to his music lessons and even recorded a successful compact disc of songs from a production of The Tempest.

On the day before the killings, he took part in the Dunedin Polar Plunge at St Kilda beach with his brother, Stephen, went to rehearsals of the play Oedipus Rex, had coffee at the Museum Cafe, helped his sister get some items from her flat and got fish and chips for dinner.

He was relaxed, chatty and talked of the future with a music friend.

For evidence that suggested something may have been going on inside David Bain, the jury was invited to go further back.

About two or three weeks before the killings, fellow music student John Mouat was in a compulsory choir session with him. During the singing, Bain had suddenly become upset and climbed over him, kicking him in the shoulder as he left his place.

"He did not say anything. He went straight over the top," Mouat said.

Bain had then sat alone at the back of the room with his hands clenched "like he was pacifying himself, rocking himself".

On June 11, Bain had gone to a Dunedin Sinfonia concert with his new girlfriend and zoned out for a whole movement, not responding to his girlfriend's elbow prod.

On the Tuesday before the deaths, he had visited another music friend to talk mainly about his love life, it appeared. They had arranged to meet at 11am and Bain arrived while the clock was still chiming, bringing four muffins two blueberry, two pizza for them to share over a cup of tea.

Over several hours, Bain told her of not having any real friends and said, "Anyone I have ever loved I've ended up hurting." As he left that day, he stood in the lounge and said he thought "something horrible" was going to happen.

Bain also told his confidante he had regular episodes of deju vu. He said he saw something happen and "he would know he had seen it before" and "he knew exactly what was going to happen next".

Later, he confessed the deja vu was happening every second day in the week before the deaths of his family.

A more sinister suggestion emerging from the trial was that he planned a family meeting for the weekend before the killings.

Although it would not have been hard to get his parents, Robin and Margaret, and siblings Arawa and Stephen together with him in the same house, Laniet had left home more than a year earlier.

Marcella Nader-Turner, a friend of Arawa and who also knew Laniet, said she had seen Laniet outside the Playhouse Theatre in Dunedin about 1.30pm on the day before the murders. She had been at school with Arawa and Laniet and they had chatted about general things. When they began to talk about family, Laniet had become stressed and intense. The conversation was along the lines of her disliking David and "how he was freaky and how she was scared of him", Nader-Turner said.

He had called a family meeting for that night, and if she did not go he was going to take her "kicking and screaming" to the meeting if need be, Laniet had told her. When Laniet talked of the meeting, "her face changed and she became quite intense".

A defence witness said she met Laniet in the Octagon in Dunedin on the Thursday before the murders and they had talked for about half an hour. Laniet told her she was going home that weekend to "blow the whistle" on her working as a prostitute and about having an incestuous relationship with her father.

But Laniet had also said David wanted to see the whole family the weekend before the killings, but she did not know why.

It will never be known if any such meeting took place. But there can be no doubt the Bain family was heading toward some big decisions. To understand the collision course the family was on, we need to delve into a little Bain family history.

Margaret and Robin Bain were married in 1969 after meeting through the Presbyterian First Church in Dunedin. The church would also host the funerals of the Bain family in 1994.

Robin taught in Dunedin while he finished his degree and had spent a few years teaching in Papua New Guinea. In the early 1970s, Margaret taught at the Dunedin Kindergarten Teachers' College, where she was known as loud, a little cruel in her comments and had an overpowering body odour.

In 1974, Margaret and Robin, with David in tow, went to Papua New Guinea to train teachers at a college in Gaulim on the narrow, mountainous island of New Britain.

The main occupants are the Tolai and the Baining people, who are traditional enemies. The Baining are famous for their spectacular fire dances.

Arawa was born in June 1974, Laniet in March 1976 and Stephen in January 1980. Margaret seems to have become increasingly distracted by an all-absorbing interest in astrology, reincarnation and the unseen universe.

She home-schooled the children, but let household duties slip, so visitors were confronted by a chaotic and dirty home the family trademark.

In January 1979, Robin moved to a new post as lecturer at the government teachers' college in Waigani, Port Moresby. The family moved to a big, colonial-style house in a compound for expatriate staff.

David was six and his home-schooling continued until he was 11, when he attended an international school close to the compound. He did well at music but was unhappy, the butt of teasing and bullying.

James McNeish, in his book Mask of Sanity recounts an incident where "David was set upon by two boys, slapped, kicked and thrown into a ditch by the school gate. A model plane he had been holding fell to the ground and one of the boys urinated on it. David was splashed. He didn't fight back".

Margaret withdrew him from the school in 1987 and David amused himself in the Waigani compound. Residents describe an aloof, solitary and emotionally blank teenager.

Margaret was gradually deteriorating. Paul Morris, head of religious studies at Victoria University, read her diaries from Papua New Guinea nine years ago.

Morris told The Press that Margaret appeared to be interested in only three things - bottling fruit, video movies (popular American) and demons. She referred to her husband as Belial or Beelzebub, both terms for the devil.

"She was a very committed Christian of a very enthusiastic sort and part of her faith as manifested in the diaries was an ongoing concern with the demonic. She worried about the devil in her family and the devil leading people to behave in particular ways," he said.

"He [Robin] was failing to do all sorts of things he should be doing. My impression was that they were deeply estranged. There is a kind of distanced feel about the way she wrote about all of them. Lots of negativity.

"What you get is a sort of toxic family environment. Seeing the devil being active on a daily basis in your own household can't be conducive to family life.

"She was concerned for all the kids. She was estranged from her family to the extent of seeing an utterly alien force there. I got the sense she wasn't there for them.

"My impression at the time was a terribly unhealthy psychological environment and she was progressively getting worse. This unseen parallel world was more and more dominant. It wasn't just a bit weird. It was an all-consuming weirdness."

The Bains returned to Dunedin in December 1988 and settled in the Every St house they had bought before they left in 1974. The chaos evident in their PNG homes was soon repeated in Dunedin.

David and Arawa went to Bayfield High School, and although Arawa threw herself into school life, making many friends, David struggled. He was teased about his lankiness and his ears, and sat alone at lunchtimes.

In his seventh-form year, things improved when he joined the school's choirs, started running and took a lead role in the school production of The Sound of Music. By 1990, Margaret's relationship with Robin had deteriorated to the extent she moved to the caravan at the back of the house for a few months. Her sojourn did not last long and soon Robin was banished to the caravan.

After a couple of years, during which he struggled to find a permanent teaching position, Robin became (in 1991) principal of Taieri Beach Primary School. He would drive his old Commer van out to the school at the beginning of each week and sleep in the van, which he parked in the school grounds or beside the road. Then on Friday, after school, he would drive home for the weekend.

Only months before his death, the school house at Taieri Beach was vacated and he moved in, but still went home at the end of each week.

In 1991, David had a disastrous year at university, failing all his papers, and spent the next two years on the dole, working around home and doing his paper run, while continuing his singing and acting through Dunedin Opera and Opera Alive. He turned down a job as a forecourt attendant offered by his uncle because he wanted to work at home.

By 1994, David appeared to have his life on the rails again, having enrolled at the University of Otago in some classics and music papers. He was making new friends, heavily involved in opera productions and was also in the classics department production of Oedipus Rex. He had begun taking an interest in German, which he wanted to study privately to further his budding opera career.

The family continued to live frugally, with Robin's salary of about $500 a week the only family income.

Laniet left home when she was 16 and supported herself with prostitution, as she was not eligible for the dole, and her parents, she told friends, refused to sign the forms for her to get an under-age living allowance.

Margaret continued her spiritual journey.

Barbara Short, a friend of the family who knew them in PNG and understood the difficulty of reintegrating to society after a long stint there, visited in 1991 at Robin's request. Margaret and Robin were polite and reasonable with each other, she said.

"She [Margaret] wanted Robin to accept her beliefs and her God. The problem was spiritual. It was a situation of spiritual warfare. Both were praying for each other to change."

Short believed the children had come to terms with Margaret's "madness" and David had told her the children stayed away from home as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the Every St house, which was more than 100 years old, was falling down around the family. It was damp, cold and dirty. The Bains' deplorable housekeeping did not help and Margaret, who liked to stay in bed until lunchtime, was loath to spend any money on the house because she wanted to tear it down.

In its place she planned to build some kind of retreat, with several bedrooms where people could come to meditate and find peace. The refuge, which Margaret had designed, would also house the family, with two master bedrooms to be joined by a bathroom on the upper floor. The bedrooms were said to be for her and David, but that was only a joke, David said.

As David pointed out to friends, Robin was not involved in the project and was not wanted in the new house, or the family for that matter.

Although David told the court in his first trial he had a wonderful relationship with his father, shortly after the killings he told his aunt he hated his father, who was "sneaky and listened to conversations that did not concern him".

David, who had been at home with his mother for two years, was probably the strongest and most enthusiastic convert in the family to the sanctuary plan. He was the apple of his mother's eye, it was said.

Although his life was changing in 1994, when asked why he did not leave home, he replied that if he did, the new house might not be built. He worked on the garden in readiness for the new building project and this caused several upsets. Robin had tipped out a trailerload of soil on the "wrong" part of the garden and they also squabbled over the use of the family chainsaw.

By the time of the deaths, the plans for the house were apparently well progressed. Margaret told her sister, Jan, that the council had approved the plans "in principle" and all she needed to do was transfer them to draughting paper.

Contrary to the dire poverty image that Robin and Margaret liked to cultivate, they had substantial assets that, if sold, could have funded a new house. Whether there was sufficient to fund Margaret's grand plan is not known, but at the least they could have afforded a more than modest dwelling.

The Bains owned a section in Whangarei and another in Bundaberg, near Brisbane. They had about $60,000 invested with some friends and a substantial amount in an overseas bank account. In 1994 that was enough to buy a couple of reasonable second-hand homes in Dunedin.

However, the fly in the ointment was Robin, whose agreement was needed to liquidate the assets to get the sanctuary built. He still held the trump card and may have been insisting on at least his fair share of the proceeds. That would not have left enough for the sanctuary.

David admitted to being concerned about his mother relinquishing their joint dream and simply moving into town with Stephen. However, he didn't think she would. Sooner or later the issues were going to come to a head. If Robin wanted a divorce, the sanctuary would not be built. He was hardly going to agree to selling the assets to be left with nothing. It is possible he had reached an agreement with Margaret and was back in the fold.

We have only David's word for what occurred on that Sunday night before the Bain family was shot. According to David, no family meeting was held and only at his first trial in 1995 did he remember hearing "raised voices" from his bedroom. According to his statement, he was in bed by 9pm, leaving his parents watching a television programme together. By 7.10 next morning, the Bain family had been brutally murdered.

We will never know exactly what happened at 65 Every St in those 10 hours before police arrived about 7.30 on that freezing Monday morning of June 20, 1994, when the sun would not rise till 8.20am.

On Sunday, June 19, the Bain family appeared a slightly odd but by no means disastrous family. They had produced a head girl (Arawa) and, in Stephen, a brave and talented boy respected by his peers. But by the next morning they were well on their way to being New Zealand's most notorious dysfunctional family.

Where David fitted in this family can only now be speculation. But a young man who tries, as David did, to depict this family as loving and normal did not have a grip on reality.

Even if that is agreed, it doesn't help much to dispel the murk around the real man.

The enigma of David Bain might always be with us as only he holds the key.

The Press