Javed Fraser Mills arrived for his autopsy at the Auckland mortuary in two boxes. A day earlier a police officer had picked pieces of his bones out of a pile of rubbish and bagged them, one by one. He had been dead for three years.
The aspiring musician was 25 when he was killed by a friend who buried him in a grave less than a metre deep. He was later exhumed, tossed in a recycling bin among empty beer bottles and dumped in the garage of an abandoned Mt Wellington house two doors down. His friend, James Cooper, had wheeled the bin up the driveway before his 3am shift at a bakery. And then, he just forgot about it.
But six months later, about 4pm on Friday, September 30, 2011, Auckland regional pathologist Dr Simon Stables was told some bones had been found by demolition workers. Police couldn't be sure if they belonged to a person or an animal, but an hour later as he stood looking at an upper right leg, right shoulder blade and left pelvis, Stables had no doubt they were from a human male.
It would take another eight months for police to find out who he was. In that time, they would visit 75 houses, interview 220 people and distribute 850 fliers appealing for information. They would also regularly see Cooper, standing to the side of his father's two-storey house on Barrack Rd, rolling up a cigarette.
On the Saturday morning after Mills was found, Stables sifted through two boxes and and assembled the bones into the shape of the dead man. The bones were waxy, covered in adipocere - a small amount of altered fat - a tell-tale sign they were recent. They were blanketed in very dry dirt and had a darkish brown discolouration, an obvious sign he had been buried before being dug up.
Each darkly tinted bone was photographed before Stables softly brushed off the dirt and gently rinsed them with cold water. He then lay down both the dead man's arms, his shoulder blades and 11 ribs. Parts of his spine were set down on the cold slab before his lower pelvis and both his legs were added. Only two bones from his left hand had been found. The bones of his left ankle and foot, along with two toenails, were tipped out of a rotting dark blue woollen sock. They were found inside a limited edition size 8 Converse All Star sneaker.
The dead man was still missing his first ribs (but lead investigator on the case Detective Sergeant Graham Shand would later find one in a box labelled "rubbish") his left collar bone, his right foot and most of his hands. There was no neck to piece together and, most importantly, no skull.
A person's height can be estimated by measuring the upper right leg, the femur. The dead man's was 41.2cm meaning he was between 151cm and 164cm. He was short and well-muscled.
DNA was tested but there no match with the police national database.
One of the most unusual features of the skeleton was a square-shaped wound about 4cm wide on the right shoulder blade. It had to have been made with a spade. In this case, it was the grey spade with the green handle Cooper used to dig up his friend a year after he killed him.
Stables couldn't determine the time of death. If he had to estimate, he would say the body took about six months or more to decompose once it was buried, but to do so would be guessing. So he didn't.
Police also found several receipts along with the bones. One was for a trim latte and steak sandwich bought at Columbus Coffee at Sylvia Park on November 24, 2010, and there were several eftpos receipts, which would later match up with Mills' eftpos card.
Over the next two months, more bones would trickle into the mortuary to be added to the human jigsaw. It would be another 10 months, and only after Cooper's arrest, before police brought in four teeth and approximately 16 pieces of human bone, skull and an eye socket.
Yet there was still no way to tell how Mills had been killed because a significant portion of the skeleton was missing, most importantly, the skull.
The mystery was solved when Cooper volunteered his own story after calling Detective Ewan Gitsham on June 5, 2012, saying he was ready to talk. He said it was an accident.
He said he killed Mills on a Sunday morning in July 2009. He can't remember the date, but it was definitely before 10am.
Diary of a killer
On that Sunday morning, James Cooper rolled out of bed, had a cup of coffee and headed out to the 5m by 5m shed where he and his mates listened to heavy metal and smoked pot. He wanted to give his friend, Javed Mills, a push to sort his life out.
Mills had lived with Cooper on and off for six months because he had nowhere else to go. He was using P, drinking and smoking dope. Cooper felt sorry for him, and allowed Mills to stay in the den and sleep on the armchairs but Mills was not allowed inside the house and had to remain unseen and unheard by Cooper's father and step-mother.
That morning, Mills reacted badly to his friend's suggestion he look for a new place. He stomped his feet and started yelling. Cooper told him to be quiet, to calm down. He called him a big baby. Mills didn't like that. He shoved Cooper against the wall.
Cooper's nickname was "Zero", because he had zero tolerance, especially for people like Mills who used his drugs, ate his food and owed him money. Being collared made him angry. He lost his marbles. After a twice punching Mills, who was now growling, Cooper leaned forward on one foot and with everything he had in him, elbowed his friend in the head - a move he taught himself after being taunted by bullies at Penrose High School. Mills dropped, dead.
During Cooper's murder trial, Stables told the court that it was possible to kill someone in three strikes. It's unusual, but it is possible if the arteries in the neck are damaged. If someone is struck causing the neck to move rapidly to the side, it can tear the artery. It doesn't even have to be a king hit. The tear will cause extensive bleeding on the surface of the brain and the person will collapse and die extremely quickly.
Another way is if the person being struck falls to the ground and their head is stopped abruptly on a surface - the combination of the blow and the impact causes the blood vessels to tear. The subdural haematoma causes blood to smother the brain, confusing the breathing and heart centres and slowly killing the person.
Stables would not hazard a guess if this is how Mills died. Without a skull, it would only be guesswork.
Cooper told police he hadn't taken any drugs and no weapons were used in the killing. He said Mills' head hit the skirting and blood started pouring out of his ear. He checked his pulse, but there was nothing.
Scared, he panicked, thinking "Well, that's me in jail forever". He wrapped Mills in the blanket he had slept under and dragged his heavy body outside and under the den.
Cooper then used a cleaning agent and paper towels to wipe up the blood but he didn't hide anything else associated with the accidental killing. Out of sight out of mind, Cooper reckoned. After a few days, his friend's corpse started smelling. Some of his friends refused to visit him there because of the smell. So, when his family was out, he dug a hole, half a metre deep right outside the door of the den and chucked Mills in face down. He left him there for a year. He also started withdrawing Mills' benefit and pretended to be him on Bebo so his friends and family would think he was alive.
But after year Cooper began to get the creeps about a skeleton under his feet so he dug up Mills' body using a green spade. The body fell to pieces; the head came off. Cooper knew the skull would be crucial to solving the case. He carried it to the concrete slab underneath the washing line and crushed it with a mallet.
The rest of the bones went in to the recycling bin he had taken from an old mate's abandoned house at 137 Barrack Rd. He swept up powdered skull and added it to the bin. The bones sat outside the den for six to eight months.
One morning, before work, at 3am he wheeled the bin to his mate's old house, saw the garage door ajar, wheeled it in and closed the door. The bin has never been found.
Two demolition workers found Mills' remains in the pile of rubbish on the floor. One even picked up his thick mop of hair - the same hair he grew to his shoulders after finishing school so that he could emulate his heavy metal heroes. He used to wear it loose when he played his electric guitar.
Cooper knew what he did was dumb, but he didn't want to think about it. He was running away from his problem. He told his friends about it - one even saw the bones lying in the bin, but Cooper was fiercely protective of him in his police interview, swearing his friend was a good guy and didn't believe they were Mills' bones.
Last Thursday, James Cooper was found not guilty of murder after a five-week trial. The jury found him guilty of manslaughter. He will be sentenced on October 18, and also on a charge of perverting the course of justice.
This article is based on evidence given in court during James Cooper's murder trial.
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