Homes with murderous pasts
Revisiting the scenes of brutal killingsALISTAIR BONE
Jason Kerr's old flat is empty. It's on Maori land and it will stay vacant until at least February next year. Because then it will be two years since he was kicked to death outside its door.
The block is not well appointed. Eight flats stacked like shoeboxes, white concrete inside and guarded outside by ancient hatchbacks and old couches left to decompose in the weather.
The rent is cheap; $180 downstairs, $200 up. What you get in the city if you are on parole, battling out from under mental health problems, or shipwrecked after divorce.
Someone steals mail. Neighbours say the noise goes all night. It's not all bad. It's been painted lately, there's mould and spider webs creeping back on some but not on others, and a rugby team's jersey is on the line. It's a transit point, up or down.
Steve was here when it happened in February last year. He heard Andron McDonald ranting and raving. He heard the 28-year-old rip out the tacky wooden fence bordering the driveway. He thought it was just another domestic. He heard Jason landing with a thump.
Andron came in and asked Steve for a cigarette. He calmed down. The police arrived, had a look and took Andron, threw him on the ground and cuffed him.
It was chaos; the scene unguarded for a while. Steve went up the stairs and had a look. Jason was lying face down. Right where he died is the best view in the block. Out over the leafy and low-rise Norton to the promise of things in the city.
But you have to lift your eyes for that. Witnesses said the pair had been drinking, separately, all day. Andron was downstairs at one end and Jason upstairs at the other.
They couldn't have lived further apart and still been in the same block. Andron, already enraged over something, went to Jason's door in the late afternoon and laid into the older man. Knocking him down and then stomping on his head until he died.
There's nothing to feel on the spot. It's mildly depressing. The door is screened by a tapa cloth and colourful fish transfers. There are jemmy marks by the lock.
The bottom pane has been kicked in at some time and replaced with plywood. A hole has been made in this for a cat door. For some reason that's the saddest part of the scene. Solidified black gunk chokes a cooking fan outlet from an ancient stove fire.
It was only after the killing that Steve found he was distantly related to Andron. He says the influence of the day spread across the spectrum. Andron's friends versus Jason's friends.
For a while, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife but the court case gave everyone some closure. He says a lot of potential renters are put off. They realise where they are and just say no. It was surreal at the time, but there is no fear of living here for him.
There is nothing to feel. Just the sad, bare concrete where the court heard two men drank all day, before one of them destroyed them both. Andron was found guilty of murder in May and is awaiting sentence.
In a landscaped section over in Fairfield, there is a very different home. It's set back a bit from a main road. There's a nice, semi-private sunken yard and autumn trees dropping golden star-shaped leaves on the deck. There's wandering jew curling around the base of a thin-barked mountain totara.
Twenty-year-old Jun Jie Ying used to hide here. Listening to his ex-girlfriend Jia Ye (known as Cathy) and her new boyfriend Wenbin Sun (known as Ben).
Ying and Cathy had dated for about two years in China and had come to Hamilton together in 2002. He hit the books and didn't want to go out. She did. They argued, violently, and witnesses said he was abusive to her. Cathy met Ben, a big gambler and party animal.
She left Ying in March 2003 and moved into Ben's basement flat fronting the pleasant garden. Ying was caught lurking there and trespassed. He came back and stabbed himself in the leg, begging Cathy to come home to him. She took him to the hospital.
On a Saturday night in May 2003, he broke in while the 20-year-old couple were out and waited for them to return. Some time around dawn on Sunday he emerged from hiding and, in a frenzied attack, stabbed Ben 35 times as he lay in bed, nearly severing the other man's arm.
Unbeknownst still to the upstairs flatmates, Ying kept Cathy hostage downstairs with the body for most of Sunday. Around 4pm they went for a drive, over the next few hours visiting the places where they had lived together. Ying finally stopped the car at Resthills Park in Glenview, got into the back seat and strangled Cathy to death with his belt.
He drove around with her strapped into the passenger seat for the next few days. When she began to decompose, he put her in the boot.
Five days after the killings Huntly police noticed his car being driven erratically in the early hours of the morning near Ngaruawahia. They stopped him and he told them everything.
Word is the flat was sold cheap after the murder. It is more upmarket than most. Back in 2003 it held well-heeled Chinese students. Now it's got youngsters on the first low-paid rung of what will be good careers. They know about the history and they're not bothered. There are no ghosts and no sounds.
Friends are sometimes a bit spooked, but they tell them it was a long time ago. No psychic residue for them. There were no supporters in court for Ying and no one came from China, but his mum wrote a note to the judge.
She said he planned to repay his debt to society through future good deeds. She said he was guilty of "loving a girl too much". He's in his 30s now and it will be another decade, at least, before his minimum 20-year sentence is over.
The last place is a state house in Fairfield, about which it's important to relay the sequence of events.
I approached tenant Chevaz Karena and told him that we were looking at houses where strange things had happened. With no more information than that, he launched into a tale.
The kitchen can't be seen from the lounge. When he's in the lounge he keeps thinking there is someone in the kitchen. Then there's the banging.
A rhythmic thumping on the wall reproduces it exactly. It comes from the wall where a lounge suite now rests, and the floor, and under the house. It's not bass from the surrounding state units. It's not the kids that run around. It's not cats or dogs.
It's a "big thumping" and it's every night and he and Shelley Timu and baby Shantay don't stay in the house after dark any more than they have to. He can't sleep because of the banging. "The security light doesn't stay off for more than five minutes," he says.
Several times Shelley has been sure there is someone standing behind her in the kitchen. She whips around. There's no-one there but she has seen some kind of shadow on the washhouse door. It's only after that I tell them what happened here.
In 1993, 23-year-old Stanley Smith lived here with his partner, 21-year-old Angelina Poli; his baby, 18-month-old Natalia; and Angelina's child from another relationship, 4-year-old Tiana.
Stanley was insane, believing the Mongrel Mob was out to get him and that Angelina was in on it. He thought the gang would kill him and take the children to abuse.
On September 30 he cut all their throats. Angelina in the bedroom. Tiana in the sunroom outside the kitchen. Natalia in her bed, the dummy still in her mouth. He rang the police and told them he had "slaughtered his family" and sat on the floor and waited for them to arrive.
He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994. In 1996 an appeal found he was insane when the murders happened and he was sent to the Henry Bennett centre. He was eventually released and last heard of in 2006, living in the community under another name.
The house is kept dark and about as tidy as you would expect by any young couple with a baby. It's impossible to look at objectively, knowing what happened here.
But there's something in the air, projected or not. Shelley and Chevaz are friendly and open with a stranger. So it's not them, but floating around, like a blur on the edge of your vision, is something like a species of anger.
The shadow Shelley sees is a consistent height, but as she describes it, too short to be Angelina and too tall to be Tiana or Natalia.
It's probably all nonsense. We were poking around the day before looking for the house and they may have heard why and decided to have some fun.
But when I go to leave and walk down the drive Chevaz and Shelley turn to go inside. Out of sight I hear him say softly to her "Far out!" The second consonant drawn, his voice full of wonder. If it's a performance, it's a good one.
I'm supposed to go back the next day with a photographer, but later they text; they've cleared out, won't be back for weeks, at least.
- © Fairfax NZ News