A year after road worker George Taiaroa was gunned down in cold blood on a remote road, police seem no closer to solving the puzzle. Tony Wall went in search of Quinton Winders, named by police as the main suspect.
"Welcome back to New Zealand," the sign says as you leave "The Republic of Whangamomona". It's fitting because this Taranaki backwater feels like it belongs to another time, another world.
To get there you have to drive a couple of hours from Taumarunui down a narrow road, much of it shingle, called the Forgotten World Highway.
It's a relief to finally emerge, car covered in dust, from the enveloping bush into the village, its main street like something from an old western.
Gumboots are lined up outside the hotel, "home of the Republic". It's steamy hot - people have left their doors and windows open and buggered off for the day.
One guy has left a water blaster on the footpath outside his house. I rouse an old timer and ask directions to Quin Winders' property. He points to a bush-shrouded peak, the Whangamomona Saddle, and says he's over the other side.
What's he like? "Cool. Just another human being."
I traverse the saddle and emerge in a primordial, forested valley. A huge corrugated iron barn sits atop a hill, the surrounding land dotted with defoliated ponga stumps that look like they've been napalmed. This is Winders' place.
The property is deer fenced, the gate unlocked. Up the steep hill, past the remains of a concrete driveway smashed to pieces by police looking for clues I arrive, breathless, at the barn.
A cowboy-hatted figure emerges paintbrush in hand.
"Have you come to help me paint?"
And just like that, after several months of on-again, off-again searching, I'm face to face with the private-school-educated scion of a respectable deer farming family who says he is the number one suspect for the George Taiaroa murder.
We chat for a few minutes before I cut to the chase. "For the record, did you shoot him?"
He laughs. "No, no. What they [police] are doing is this big fabrication."
Winders describes himself as well educated - he went to King's College in Auckland and studied business at Massey University - and can happily move between worlds.
"One minute I can wear an Armani suit, down here it's different. I've got a Lotus Esprit Turbo, the yuppiest car you could drive."
But it was his Jeep Cherokee that brought him to police attention. Detectives went on a nationwide hunt for blue Jeeps after one was seen being driven erratically from the scene of the murder in south Waikato on March 19 last year.
Winders had had his Jeep about a year. "Mine was purple, it wasn't blue, it's a different colour."
He says the Jeep, and the fact his father was involved in a minor incident at the roadworks a week or so before the shooting, put heat on him and his family.
"But there was no accident. It was just some guy had to put his brakes on too hard. It didn't do any damage . . . which is why it was all pretty stupid."
It was enough for police to focus on Winders, visiting his property twice with specialist search teams and removing various items. He says he was taken in for questioning a couple of times. Was he grilled?
"Nah, you just say ‘either charge me or [I'll] walk out'. The last time I was there I said, ‘That's it, I've said my bit, I've got nothing further to say.' "
He wants to know if I've been receiving "funny emails". He's convinced that police send fake emails, pretending to be him, to reporters to stir things up.
"They get up to a lot of crap, eh. It's definitely harassment."
He points to thick bush across the road. "They put their cameras up. There's one over there, or there was but they moved it. There's still one here. They always put them on Crown land, under the Search and Surveillance Act."
Winders doesn't bother with a cellphone but says police bugged phones of his family members. "My parents' phone was tapped. They tapped the media as well."
Can you tell when your phone's tapped? "No, not always. Sometimes when it's real obvious. I think when you sent those texts to my brother once, that was tapped. It's the whole Dotcom thing, they [police] now control the whole network."
He says detectives followed him in the early stages of the inquiry. "They used to do that, but I think they're running out of money, I think that's the guts of it."
Winders believes stories in the media about him are the result of police plants.
"They are definitely using the media. They make me out to be right wing. No response, so they change it, now I'm a 'cowboy dude'. Rubbish about doing my bootlaces up with barbed wire. They've tried everything. They say you're racist, they try the race angle and then go and harass everyone you know.
"I'm working for a Maori gentleman, that was the end of that argument. This is what they do, when they're stuffed they just fabricate. It's just bollocks."
A low point in the police inquiry came last June, when a Tokoroa police officer placed a notice in a deerstalkers newsletter naming Winders as a suspect in the shooting of the "stop-go man" and asking if anyone had seen him with a firearm or had "run-ins" with him.
"If it ever goes to court, they're f....d. That's how desperate they are."
He plans to take defamation action and will claim for damage to his property. He also wants to appeal the police revocation of his firearms licence. His guns were locked away, he says, and were legal. He says he's never hurt anyone and has no criminal convictions.
What would he say to Taiaroa's family if he met them? "It's just a fabrication. I feel sorry for them."
On legal advice, he won't comment on his whereabouts on the day of the murder but says police have got nothing on him.
"They just go off the Jeep Cherokees - a 5-year-old child can look that up on the computer."
Winders says that despite the best efforts of police to rile him up, "they've had no impact on me".
He thinks his rural upbringing has helped him deal with the experience.
"The whole police thing is to turn up with their guns, well, we're familiar with firearms, it's no big deal. City people would probably be a bit stirred up by it all. What's happened to me has happened before and they're doing it right now to somebody else in another part of the country."
He expects police to have another go at him around the time of the first anniversary of the killing next month. Does he think he'll be arrested?
"I'd be surprised. I don't think they've got anything. If they did you look forward to your day in court. I'm not losing any sleep over it."
Police announced last year they believed they knew who killed Taiaroa, the motive was bizarre and would appal most people.
More police games, Winders says. "They're the ones who are misguided. It's so bizarre they can't tell anyone?"
His life over the past year has been solitary, quiet. He spent six months in Auckland helping renovate a property in Orakei belonging to his brother.
He reckons a police group called the SGI was "sneaking around in the bushes".
He does fencing and building work for farmers and is working as a guide on the Great NZ Trail Ride through Taranaki starting this weekend.
Winders believes that because police have "tunnel vision" on him, the real killer is "long gone".
What does he think of someone who'd shoot a person in cold blood?
"Well obviously I don't approve of it, what can you say?"
Does it shock him?
"I don't know the circumstances. I don't think anyone knows the facts."
I say goodbye and as I get near the bottom of the hill, Winders calls out: "Watch out for those [police] emails!"
Footnote: The Sunday Star-Times put Winders' allegations to the officer in charge of the case, Detective Inspector Tim Anderson, who said he had no comment. Anderson said he would not be drawn on details of the investigation "suffice to say it is still very much active and ongoing".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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