Wellington's unsolved Trades Hall mystery

COLD CASE: The old Trades Hall in Vivian St, Wellington, where caretaker Ernie Abbott was killed by a bomb on March 29, 1984. Despite an investigation matched in size only by the Rainbow Warrior inquiry, the case remains unsolved.
COLD CASE: The old Trades Hall in Vivian St, Wellington, where caretaker Ernie Abbott was killed by a bomb on March 29, 1984. Despite an investigation matched in size only by the Rainbow Warrior inquiry, the case remains unsolved.

It is Wellington's great unsolved murder mystery - and now police fear the killer is dead and his secrets are buried with him.

On March 29, 1984, Wellington Trades Hall caretaker Ernie Abbott was killed as a bomb inside a battered green suitcase exploded, hurling him and his dog, Patches, across Vivian St.

Police at the old Knigges Ave station raced across the road to find the caretaker dead, his watch frozen on 5.19pm. Patches was badly burnt, but alive.

As many as 80 detectives worked on the case at its peak, making it an investigation whose size was matched only by the hunt for the Rainbow Warrior bombers the following year.

But no arrests were made and the prime suspect - a middle-aged man in a suit, carrying a suitcase - has never been found. Some of the 3000 pieces of evidence gathered have been destroyed, though police insist they were irrelevant.

The case remains open, but the $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest no longer stands.

Detective Inspector Mike Arnerich, who as a young officer was tasked with identifying Mr Abbott through his tattoos, now believes that if the bomber was the man identified by witnesses, he might never be found.

"That person was about 50 at the time, so would now be in their 80s. So it's possible they are no longer alive."

But Abbott and the bombing remain fresh in the memories of those who were involved. To this day, the terror of the blast haunts Wellington Trades Hall secretary Graeme Clarke. "I never pick up suitcases," he said.

Just before the bomb went off, he had been in a meeting with Wellington Trades Council president Pat Kelly. They saw the green suitcase but, with their hands full of pamphlets, carried on. After they left, Abbott picked it up, triggering the explosion.

Abbott, who was vice-president of the Caretakers and Cleaners Union, lived with Patches upstairs at the hall.

Kelly's daughter Helen, the current Council of Trade Unions president, remembers his hurt at the death of his friend. "It could have been anyone who picked up the case and, if it had been picked up during the working day, it could have hurt many others."

Two of the more intriguing pieces of evidence suggested possible foreign links to the bombing. One was an Ecuadorean Rica banana sticker on the suitcase - an unusual find at a time when Bonita was the dominant import.

Another was the mercury switch used in the bomb - a rare feature that narrowed the investigation to expert explosive-makers.

The unions' own investigations have long focused on a barrage of hate mail leading up to the event, union figure and now Porirua councillor Ken Douglas said. They also identified a British military bomb expert, supposedly on the run from the IRA and tipped to be in New Zealand at the time. He moved to Perth the day after the bombing.

Arnerich said that, to his knowledge, police did not know of any such person.

Mysterious events since the bombing have brought no fresh leads. In 2006 the bomb squad was called to the hall, where another battered suitcase had been abandoned. It turned out to be a hoax.

A private commemoration for Abbott will be held this evening at Trades Hall, with a minute's silence at 5.19pm.

Police say they will reconsider the case if any exceptional information should come to light. Anyone with fresh information should ring 04 381 2107.

Former Suspect Fears Another Raid

Police turned over Peter Dijkstra's Hataitai home twice in an effort to link him to the Trades Hall bombing.

Thirty years on, he still fears they will do it again - which is why he has not done any work on his house.

"For years afterwards I expected them to come back and search the place again," Dijkstra, now 82, says. "There was no point me doing it up because I thought they would come back and trash the place again . . .

"On the second occasion they did as much damage as they could. After that I thought this house is not a home any more. I have no feelings for this place. I've not done anything to it since then."

He says he was singled out because of his military background in Holland, and because police thought he was against the Carpenters Union which was in Trades Hall. He was ruled out as a suspect in 2001.

The Dominion Post