Adam Dudding goes in search of the ‘baying wolves' of Whanganui.
They're like a “Mississippi lynch mob”, criminologist Greg Newbold told a radio interviewer. They're “a pack of wolves baying away”, said prison reformer Peter Williams QC. There's “hysteria” abroad, lawyer Andrew McKenzie added.
Whanganui's response to the pending release of serial sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson to the grounds of a prison 10km away has been vigorous.
Hundreds attended a public meeting on Wednesday. On Thursday an extraordinary council meeting resolved to look at ways to block Wilson's arrival, including a community “shunning”.
From a distance, it doesn't look good. You might wonder if this once-grand but economically stagnant lower North Island city is about to ape Britain's paedophile panic of the late 1990s.
But on Friday, when the Sunday Star-Times visited, the responses were more complex. While no one was thrilled about the arrival of Wilson, a rapist Corrections deems so unrehabilitated it has imposed release conditions including bans on driving and church-going, there were no pitchforks on Victoria St, and no gallows being knocked up in Moutoa Gardens.
From busker to bus-driver, saleswoman to teacher, citizens were taking a balanced view. There was an admission that if it wasn't Whanganui it'd be somewhere else, and there was little string-him-up ranting. It was, everyone agreed, a tricky situation.
THERE ARE razor-wire spirals on the fences around Wanganui Prison's low-rise sprawl, but when Wilson and his house arrive, they'll be outside the wire. He'll be closely watched, but technically not a prisoner.
It's farmland - sheep, a few people, a mountain-bike track and a small lake where Whanganui Intermediate students ride and sail. Teacher Lisa Clark, says: “But now we need to review what we do for student safety. The issue isn't that he's living here. It's what we can do when we are close to him.”
The prison road snakes north through scrappy farmland up to State Highway 3. Turn left and you reach tiny Kaitoke, where resident “Erica” (a made-up name to avoid getting hassled) has a 14-year-old daughter. “I should be more concerned than most.” But she thinks “the law's the law” and it's unlikely to be changed.
The 42-year-old says criminals like Wilson get released all over the country all the time. “The media has blown this out of proportion.” And at least everyone knows who Wilson is, which can't be said of every predator. There was a case a few months ago that made only local news, "some guy who had snatched one girl in College St and tried to snatch another”. She's not sure if he was caught.
Wilson will be walking distance away, so yes, she worries - about her daughter, Corrections getting sloppy, even about Wilson's effect on house prices. “But I don't think Michael Laws is going to get any laws changed. If the Beast of Blenheim was sent to Gisborne or Tauranga, those communities would be up in arms, and would be going through what we are."
Further along SH3, on the edge of town, school bus driver Kevin, 57, is waiting at the roadside for repairs to a broken-down bus. He knows little about Wilson, but reckons “he's done his time”. Then again, “a lot of people are saying he's still quite dangerous”. He manages rental properties, and has mentally ill tenants. Sometimes they flip and go bad, but they get looked after. Wilson could be similar.
“There's something wrong, and he obviously needs help. Surely the mental health system must know. They should get off their arses and do something.”
One of Kevin's friends is less touchy-feely. “I hear it all the time, castrate him, cut it off, shoot him.”
IT'S 1PM on Victoria St, the main drag, where $2 shops and kebab joints sit in the shadow of colonial brick, and you can distinguish the workers at lunch from the unemployed by the speed they walk. On the sunny side of the street there's a healthy collection in the guitar case of busker Wiz, 26.
His reaction when he heard about Wilson? “My reaction was we got enough crazies here! But I'm merciful. I've got forgiveness, but this is a lovely place, and the last thing you want is bad vibes.” He hopes Wilson will be well watched and managed, but if it came to it, he'd sign a petition against him.
“If Whanganui doesn't want him, I have to jump on that waka. Can't go against it. No one would chuck money in my basket,” he says, as he launches into Bob Marley's Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright.
In the mall, Telecom sales assistant Katie Stephenson, 33, fears for her daughters, aged 7 and 10, and has heard rumours Wilson has already been banned from Pak'n Save.
Also in town is Margaret, 54, a caregiver. She's a big believer in second chances - used to be with the Prisoner Aid and Rehabilitation Society. But Wilson appears to be without remorse. “There was one prisoner I visited who was a murderer and he was very sorry. I would rather see someone like that out, to be honest.”
She thinks her home town gets a raw deal. There's not much work. There's poverty. The fuss over gang patches gave it an unwarranted reputation for trouble. And now Wilson. But does he make her afraid?
She starts to answer but pauses, smiles and starts again. “I was a rape victim when I was 27. I had lots of counselling, so it doesn't stem from that for me. But if I found out he was living down the street, I'd have to go back to sleeping with a knife under my pillow, which I did for years. It was an intruder that did it to me - broke into my house. There are a lot of people out there like me. And it can happen anywhere. That's why I say he shouldn't be released.”
She wonders if Whanganui may have more than its share of victims though, because it is a lower socio-economic area.
Mayor Annette Main sees that same link between public policy and private hurt. Wednesday's public meeting was striking for the sheer number there who'd suffered abuse, and who'd been stirred up by Wilson. Corrections chose Whanganui partly because none of his victims live there, “but we do have victims of the same crimes”.
In a dark way, there may be positives, says Margaret. “Good has come from it. It has stirred up people's memories of things they've gone through. But it's also stirring up what as a society we're going to tolerate, and we're not going to tolerate that sort of thing.”
- © Fairfax NZ News
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