Cell ordeal devastated acquitted woman

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 05:00 11/02/2013
DIANNA HEAD: ''I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was bawling my eyes out.''
DON SCOTT/Fairfax NZ
DIANNA HEAD: ''I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was bawling my eyes out.''

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Dianna Head, a friendly, community-minded woman with friends and family in the police, never thought she would spend the night in a police cell and then spend the next 19 months fighting to clear her name.

Dianna Head is still haunted by the cold police cell - and for the first time in her life being treated like a criminal.

A cell was the last place she expected to spend the night only three days before Christmas, 2010, only days after her 63rd birthday and with her son flying over from Sydney for the holiday break.

"I aged 10 years in that cell. Even now I can't believe how I was treated. I would never have done what I was accused of. I help people; I don't hurt them."

She was in shock, crying, telling herself a terrible mistake had been made.

"As far as I was concerned, I hadn't done anything wrong. I was bawling my eyes out," she says.

On the morning of December 22, 2010, Head was arrested for arson.

A highly regarded worker at the Airport Gateway Motor Lodge in Burnside, Christchurch, she had put her cleaning basket on a stove in one of the units while she went to turn off lights and do cleaning.

Shortly afterwards the basket was alight, and motel manager-owner John Lankshear suggested to police Head had deliberately left her basket on a hot plate to get back at his father, Ian, over several incidents at the hotel in the early 2000s when Ian had been managing the complex.

Head says the incidents occurred when she had to step in on two occasions when Ian Lankshear had been abusing staff.

Lankshear denies the abuse and claims it was Head who abused him.

The incidents caused Head to resign at the time, but she took another job at the motel before the Lankshears became involved again in 2010.

In what her lawyer, Pip Hall, calls "absolutely extraordinary" conduct, Head was arrested 40 minutes after the fire and taken to the Papanui police station by Detective Richard Quested, interviewed in her distressed state for about two hours and then charged with arson.

In a judgment on a costs application by Head last month, District Court Judge Jane Farish described the investigation as "reckless" and "blinkered and coloured" by Quested's contact with Ian and John Lankshear.

Quested had arrested Head almost immediately and should have waited for forensic analysis, she said.

He did not analyse the motel owner's suspicions on an alleged motive, "which after the depositions became patently without substance".

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The unit in which the fire occurred did not belong to Ian Lankshear and he suffered no loss as a result of the fire.

Police agreed their case had fallen through last August when they did not oppose an application made by Head for the charge to be dropped.

In the previous 19 months, Head went downhill, was scared of police cars and even police uniforms, and became depressed to the point of thinking about suicide.

She was unable to work and her confidence was shattered.

Her insurance company cancelled her car and contents insurance because of the charge.

She did not get legal aid and has spent about $40,000 of her retirement savings on legal and private detective fees.

Judge Farish has awarded her the cost of the private detective - because he did the work the police should have done - and Hall's fees at senior counsel rates.

"I didn't initially tell many people," Head says.

"I was just a mess and got so depressed. Friends thought I had cancer because I had lost so much weight. I had to go on the benefit because I was in no fit state to work.

"The only thing that kept me going was at the end of the day I knew I didn't do it. I'm innocent.

"I will get through this whatever I have to do. If I was a weak person I could have given in, but it made me so angry.

''I keep busy, but it's always there. It stuffed my life up. I feel I can't focus until it's all over."

Quested's career does not appear to have suffered. He was promoted to detective sergeant.

"I would like him to look me in the eye and give me an apology. It probably won't happen," says Head, who has friends and relatives in the police.

One of her great supports during her ordeal was long-time friend and retired Detective Sergeant John Ell, who tried to get the case reviewed by speaking to two detective inspectors and a detective sergeant.

His approaches changed nothing.

Hall told The Press that his client's experience typified cases where police made an arrest and developed tunnel vision about other possibilities.

"I was absolutely convinced the first time I met her she was telling the truth,'' he says. "It shines through."

He had seen how devastating the experience had been for Head.

"It really tore her apart," he says.

The reaction of the police did not surprise him, he says.

"Unless there is a case where the police officer is dishonest, they tend to protect their own."

One of the important lessons for the police was competent supervision, which would have highlighted the avenues for inquiries that should have been followed.

"If the police had investigated the suggested motive, they would have seen it was illusory,'' Hall says.

"Police persisted in a prosecution which lacked an evidential foundation." 

Canterbury district investigations manager Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald says: "Although police may not agree entirely with the judge's description of the investigation, there are aspects of the inquiry that, in hindsight, might have been handled differently.

"However, the investigators involved in this case are skilled and experienced investigators and they continue to have the full confidence of police.

"The evidence was tested at the committal hearing, at which stage it was identified that there were shortcomings in that evidence.

"This is a good example of the system working correctly."

From his initial assessment of the file, "it would be unlikely for any formal disciplinary procedures to be pursued".

"I will personally review the file on its return from the Crown, and if an apology is warranted, then that will be made," he says.

Head is now determined to lodge a complaint with the Independent Police Complaints Authority.

Quested declined to comment on the matter.

- The Press

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