Police confident in stop-go murder case
Tim Anderson is in no hurry to slap handcuffs on his suspect for the George Taiaroa murder. The detective inspector is biding his time, making sure the case is watertight before bringing him in.
In an unusual move, Anderson revealed in April that police believed they knew who shot Taiaroa as he operated a stop-go sign in South Waikato on March 19, and later said he also knew the "misguided" motive.
Observers assumed an arrest would follow quickly. But more than two months later, the suspect is free to go about his business, and the murder remains unsolved.
Rotorua-based Anderson has even had time to take a couple of weeks' leave - he returned to work last week with his "batteries recharged" - giving the impression the Taiaroa case will be a long-haul inquiry.
So does that mean the killer has outfoxed police?
"Certainly not," Anderson says.
"I can't speak for what the killer would think, but I don't think he'd be feeling confident."
The spectre of cases where murder-accuseds have walked because of deficiencies in the police case - think Ewen Macdonald for the Scott Guy murder - looms over the Taiaroa inquiry.
"In terms of the legal system we work with, we get one shot at it and we want to make sure the Ts are crossed and the Is are dotted when we go to court, because you don't get another shot," Anderson says.
"You see some of the cases that get trawled through courts of appeal or even the courts of media opinion - it's just about being thorough and getting the job done properly, for the family and for the public - we want to get it right."
New Zealanders have become numb to grisly murders, but the Taiaroa killing stood out because it was inexplicable.
A 67-year-old family man gunned down as he worked on repairs on a remote road. Why would anyone do such a thing?
Fairfax Media revealed earlier this month that police are investigating a minor collision at the roadworks a week earlier as the possible catalyst for the shooting.
A driver of a vehicle involved in the collision blamed Taiaroa because he was sitting on the back of a truck with his stop-go sign and wasn't visible.
Fairfax Media understands police do not believe that man returned a week later to shoot Taiaroa, but have focused intensely on one of his relatives.
Does a trivial motive shock Anderson?
"It appalled me. Usually a motive is associated with greed or need or some sort of emotive response, maybe anger, someone sleeping with someone's wife... that sort of thing. [This] is not your standard type emotive response that a reasonable person would understand."
Anderson admits it would have been easier if police had been able to find the murder weapon.
"That's not to say that I'm not comfortable with where we're at in this investigation in terms of evidence."
He says a truck was driving over the bridge where Taiaroa was controlling traffic, just as Taiaroa was shot by the driver of a blue Jeep Cherokee, and another vehicle passed the Jeep seconds later. Did either motorist get a good look at the driver?
"I can't comment on that at this stage," Anderson says.
Do police need a few small pieces of evidence or a big breakthrough to make an arrest?
"There's still a bit of both to be had."
He says the decision to go public with the fact that police knew the motive, and had spoken to the killer, was all part of a media strategy aimed at keeping the case in the spotlight.
Members of the suspect's family have complained of police harassment, and that their phones have been bugged. The suspect is believed to be at the family farm near Rotorua.
Anderson rejects the suggestion police have been over the top.
"We just get out there and talk to a lot of people, we gather evidence, and hopefully people will tell us the truth and be honest with us. Unfortunately that's not always the case."
He says people have been withholding information that could help the inquiry, and he can't rule out that charges might be laid against others, although he believes only one person was present when Taiaroa was shot.
Relationships change over time, Anderson says, and it takes only one person to alter their allegiance for a case to change significantly. Does this case need something like that?
"Personally, I don't think so."
Police came in for criticism this month when an advertisement appeared in a Taranaki deerstalkers newsletter naming the suspect and asking for anyone who had heard rumours about him, or had run-ins with him, to come forward.
Anderson was on holiday at the time. He acknowledges it was a stuff-up, but he refuses to criticise the officers involved.
"I wasn't overly upset. It was actually a miscommunication between the police and that [newsletter]. It was not our intent to have it printed. The officers hadn't done it intentionally, they did it in good faith, and they'd worked their arses off on the inquiry, so it's not a matter of banging them on the head."
He does not accept that police have "tunnel vision", chasing one suspect.
"We've got an open mind. We have looked at heaps and heaps of suspects who drive Jeep Cherokees and we've ruled them out."
Anderson met with Taiaroa's family, including his widow, Helen, two weeks ago, and reassured them that police were making progress.
"They are a pretty strong family. We've had a good relationship with them.
"I guess it is difficult... we have to be patient. I'm always confident we'll get a result."
He says the conviction in May of Menzies Hallett for the murder of service station attendant Rodney Tahu, in Turangi in 1979, shows how cold cases can be solved.
"But this is not a cold case, it's still hot."
Sunday Star Times