Identity crisis

You don't have to declare your criminal history when you change your name.
Illustration: Pam Templeton
You don't have to declare your criminal history when you change your name.

IT WAS a crime that appalled the country and added to Christchurch's list of macabre murders.

Pretending to be interested in buying her car, Liam James Reid, 36, lured deaf woman Emma Agnew to a park north of the city, raped her and suffocated her with a sock stuffed into the back of her throat, leaving her body 20m off a track in a pine forest.

Except that Reid didn't start out with that name. He was born Julian Heath Edgecombe, and notched up a string of convictions under that identity. In 2002 he was tried, as Edgecombe, on charges of abducting a woman, sexually violating her and attempting to murder her during a session of experimental sex. He was acquitted of the most serious charges.

About two years before Reid killed Agnew in 2007, he mustered the $125 needed to register a change of name, and in an apparent attempt to escape his past, filled out the necessary forms (see below), becoming Liam Reid.

When details of Reid's subterfuge became public, then opposition justice spokesman Simon Power said it was too easy for criminals to legally change their names and reinvent themselves.

"The ministry needs to look closely at its processes to make sure it is not being abused by criminals trying to hide their pasts," Power told the Sunday Star-Times in November 2008, just before National won the election and he became justice minister.

More than a year later, Power has yet to do anything. Theoretically, a person with an extensive criminal history can simply change their name, and avoid police scrutiny. In other words, their criminal record is not automatically transferred to their new name.

Of course, police usually get to the bottom of a person's true identity using fingerprint or DNA technology, and they can also request birth records held by the Department of Internal Affairs.

But there are cases where a person slips between the cracks. In 2006, Nelson woman Debbie Ashton, 20, was killed when a speeding car driven by Jonathan Allan Barclay smashed into her vehicle. Barclay was on the police witness protection programme and had been given a new identity.

Two months before the smash, Barclay appeared in court under his old name, was disqualified from driving for 18 months and was warned he would go to jail if he offended again. A few weeks later he appeared in court again, this time using his new name, and was fined for drunk driving as a first offender.

Subsequent inquiries established that police, a probation officer, the Corrections Department and a lawyer had kept Barclay's past offending secret because of his status as a protected witness.

A spokesperson for police national headquarters told the Star-Times "the system has been changed to correct the situation", but Judy Ashton, Debbie's mother, worries that it remains too easy for criminals to fool the system, using a change of name statutory declaration.

"Other than getting it signed by a Justice of the Peace or somebody like that, you don't have to declare your criminal history, that is absolutely ridiculous. How many more people are out there who have changed their name, who, for all intents and purposes, have no history? They go before the courts under another name, no history. Unless DNA and fingerprinting has tracked them, the system has got no idea who they are, there's no flag."

Ashton has been told that when Barclay is released from his five-year prison sentence for manslaughter, he will be given yet another fresh identity.

"I said, `can you assure me that when he comes out, police and Corrections systems are such that he won't fall through the system?' They haven't addressed it specifically."

It's an issue that also concerns Garth McVicar, whose Sensible Sentencing Trust is helping Debbie Ashton in an attempt to prosecute police and Corrections for failing to keep her daughter safe.

McVicar says that criminals have been changing their names for decades, and points to the example of Paul Joseph Dally, who kidnapped, tortured and murdered Lower Hutt schoolgirl Karla Cardno in 1989. Dally was born Wayne Clarence Tepaea and had a long criminal history under that name, but changed it in the early 1980s.

"There's a lot of cases where their names have been changed, the problem has been entrenched for a long time in our society," says McVicar. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix it.

"At present our whole system works the other way, it's an excuse-driven mentality and giving everybody a new chance, a new opportunity. Well, how many are we going to give them?"

The problem, it seems, is all to do with privacy. At present, the Privacy Act means information about a person's identity is not automatically shared between agencies.

A spokesperson for Power says he is waiting on a report from the Law Commission, due at the end of the year, on the Privacy Act and public registers, before taking any action.

Simply changing the law to make it illegal for anyone with certain criminal convictions to change their name does not appear to be an option. In New Zealand it is long-standing custom and common law right to use any name you like, and strong restrictions on name changes could impinge on freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights, says a spokesman for Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy.

This approach creates some risks in terms of possible identity fraud and other criminal activities, the spokesman says, but that is mitigated by a range of initiatives, such as allowing anyone to pay to access another person's birth certificate, which records all name changes. A new data validation service, if approved by government, would make it possible for private sector agencies to check whether identity information matches that held by the DIA.

John Scott, general manager of credit management firm Dun & Bradstreet, says one of the "challenges" facing credit providers and other agencies is that, in New Zealand, we do not have the same identity requirements as some other countries.

"We have no social security number or single point of identity. Because of the Privacy Act, you're having to rely on being able to match to a certain number of other data elements, be it full name, address, date of birth. Any matching [software] is going to be dependent on the quality of information put in."

One politician who is not pushing too hard for changes to name-change law is Labour's Iain Lees-Galloway, MP for Palmerston North. He was born Iain Whiteley, but changed his name by statutory declaration about 10 years ago, when he was 21, to Galloway, his grandmother's maiden name, then again to Lees-Galloway when he married. He was reluctant to say why he had changed, but when pushed, said it was because of a major falling-out with his father.

"At the time I didn't want to have anything to do with him, and so I ditched his surname. It's been repaired now, we get along fine."

Lees-Galloway says the process was "very easy". "I think at the time it was about $75, I think I had to go and get a JP to witness it."

Does he think it should be made tougher for criminals to change their names?

"It's a good question. To have made it any more difficult for someone in my situation I think would have been unnecessary. You've obviously found it quite easy to discover my previous name, so I suppose it's incumbent on people to do a quick search on people if they're worried about what they might have been up to in an earlier life."

Naming rites: it's so easy

Changing your name is simple, so much so that one person did it 17 times, according to official records. Name changes are no longer done by deed poll – since 1995 they have been done by making a statutory declaration. A New Zealand-born citizen over 18 simply has to fill out a form available on the Department of Internal Affairs website and sign it, witnessed by a lawyer, JP, notary or registrar. At that point, the name is changed.

The Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act does not require people wanting to change their name to indicate their reasons, and criminal records are not taken into account. To have the name registered, the applicant pays $125 and sends the form to Births, Deaths and Marriages, and for another $26 is issued an updated birth certificate, which records the birth name and the new name.

The act sets out the conditions under which the registrar-general can disclose the change of name to other agencies. Police can request it to help with investigations, and the Ministry of Social Development, which deals with beneficiaries, can access birth records, which show any name changes. Other government agencies, such as the departments of health and education, may also apply to access the information.

Statistics show that since records began in 1848, there have been 143,336 recorded name changes (this does not include people whose name changes because of marriage, those changes are recorded on the marriage register). Of those, 136,128 people changed their name just once. Another 6489 people changed their name twice, and 567 people changed three times.

The number of name changes recorded in the past few years has stayed steady at between 6000 and 7000 a year, peaking at 7163 in 2007.

What's in a name?

WHAT TO call her? Gabrielle? Karps? Kalaydy? Even her mum isn't sure.

She was born Gabrielle Megella Rakatau on August 15, 1987. She may be only 22, but already she has had three official names. Her birth certificate shows she changed to Karps Kyah Nikora, and is now Kalaydy Rewa. She may be planning another change – her cousin told the Sunday Star-Times she wanted to change back to her original name because she was planning to marry.

Name changes run in the family. Her sister, Huriana Nikora, pictured right, also goes by Julliana Beale and Julliana Poole. The Star-Times wanted to ask Rewa (or Nikora, or Rakatau, take your pick) why she had changed her name, but she was avoiding the paper last week.

Her mother, Apikaira Nikora, says she calls her Gabrielle, but her daughter refers to herself as Karps, which is short for Kapiera, a Maori translation of Gabrielle. Asked why her daughters, who are both on the domestic purposes benefit, changed their names so often, she shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know why they do it." Was it because they wanted to make a fresh start? "I think so, yeah."

Another source, who asked not to be identified, said it was for financial reasons. The sisters had boasted about how easy it was to change name by statutory declaration, the source said. "It gives them a new chance at credit, new loans. As soon as the debt collectors start knocking, they're on to the next name."

It is likely that the Ministry of Social Development is aware of the sisters' name changes, as it is the only government agency at present which can directly access birth records. The sisters have also rented various properties under different names, making it hard for landlords to know about their tenancy history.

A Tenancy Tribunal ruling from 2008 ordered Karps Nikora (now Kalaydy Rewa) to pay $4078 in rent arrears and damages to the landlord of a property in Takanini, South Auckland. John Scott, general manager of credit agency Dun & Bradstreet, said technology was available, known as "fuzzy logic", which enabled credit agencies to match common details between names. "What some of the software programmes now do is, they look for pattern recognition, the same address coming up, the same mobile number coming up, the same guarantor being used."

EVEN EASIER than changing your name by statutory declaration, is having an alias, and there are thousands out there. Police try to keep a record of a person's alias, and some people can have dozens. The insolvency register provides an insight into how common aliases have become, especially with those wanting to escape debt. The register records "alternate names" of all those who have been bankrupted – information the person provides voluntarily at the time of bankruptcy.

The Star-Times chose to investigate one person at random. Regan Dale Alford (pictured right) was declared bankrupt in the High Court at Auckland in 2007 and was discharged from bankruptcy in January this year. His "alternate names" are Trace Chambers, Christopher Clark, Tane Hampton, Nathaniel Jackson, Adam Zeigler and Schi Ziegler.

He is 39, listed as a chef, and was the director of a company, RD Alford Ltd, which has been struck off the companies register. Attempts to find him were unsuccessful. We visited addresses he had previously given in Ponsonby and Freeman's Bay, inner Auckland, but he had long since gone. He had also not been seen for several years at an address in Whangaparaoa, north of Auckland. Neighbours described him as "elusive".

Birth records show Alford was born in Westport, and the Old Friends website says he attended Francis Douglas Memorial College in Taranaki. Emails sent to two addresses bounced back as no longer active, and a telephone number had also been de-activated.

Sunday Star Times