2 10 YEARS ON: LIAM ASHLEY MURDER
Ian and Lorraine Ashley’s decision to “scare their wayward son straight” ended in his death. Donna-marie Lever talks to the Ashleys about guilt, forgiveness and seeking absolution.
In 2006, Ian and Lorraine Ashley made a decision any parents of a wayward 17-year-old might have made. A night in the cells, they reasoned, would give their son the fright he needed to stop his drift into petty crime. A day later, Liam Ashley was dead, murdered in the back of a security van by a violent repeat offender. Donna-marie Lever met with the Ashleys on the Gold Coast on the 10th anniversary of their son’s death, and asked if there will ever be absolution for them.
It’s late morning and the dark green sedan slows to a crawl, pulling off the main road into a near- empty carpark overlooking long stretches of white sand and wild ocean. There are few people down this end of Surfers Paradise on a Thursday: the odd runner, some couples strolling, and a lone office worker ambling past. The temperature’s already pushing the mid-20s as sunshine pours through the car windows.
The digital clock on the dashboard clicks over to 10.45am. It’s time.
Ian Ashley turns off the engine. “It’s always 10.45 somewhere in the world,” he says looking over to his wife, Lorraine. “We’ll just take a minute for Liam.”
He bows his head and his eyes flicker closed. It’s the very moment, 10 years ago, that his 17-year- old son took his final breath as he lay bashed and beaten in hospital. Life support had been switched off 15 minutes earlier and Liam clung on for as long as he could before his body shut down.
Without breaking the peaceful silence in the car, Lorraine grabs Ian’s hand; she squeezes it, with her eyes shut tight. They had observed the same little ritual two hours earlier, to honour their son on New Zealand time.
Lorraine looks up, taking in the sweep of blue horizon. “Right. Time for a coffee.” She’s direct, but her voice is warm and welcoming. This is not how they thought this day would unfold. But then, how do you mark 10 years since your child was murdered?
Later, Lorraine clutches her coffee cup on the balcony of their apartment. “Ten years on... goodness me. I think that’s why they say time is a wonderful healer. Ten years is a long time and you do have to get used to that feeling inside of losing someone close. It’s not a gnarly pain now, it’s just with you. It’s not as raw.”
Ian and Lorraine Ashley left Auckland for Queensland five years ago to make a fresh start. Their new home is nestled in Surfers Paradise suburbia. Palm trees and a small private beach border their apartment block. Pelicans glide and swoop above the sea, and there’s a glimpse of the resort town’s high-rise buildings, glowing in the Gold Coast sun.
Liam is everywhere in their home. His ashes sit by the sliding glass door, which opens to the sea. Ian recalls how they carried the ashes over in the box from New Zealand and how he put Liam through the X- ray machine at airport security, hoping no one would ask what was inside. They didn’t.
Pictures of Liam, his brother and sisters are scattered across every wall of the house, in every room. Paintings of Liam, paintings for him and about him, hang on the walls. One fragmented mosaic picture came from a stranger who seemed to connect with the family and understood what Liam was like. Lorraine lingers in the spare room. She opens a cupboard and pulls out a brown cable-knit jumper, drawing it into her chest. She leans down and presses it to her face. “It’s gone,” she says. “It used to have his smell, but not now…”
The Ashleys have kept Liam’s clothes, poems he’d written, pictures, and many of his things. “You look at photos and think, ‘What would you have looked like now? What would your opinions be? Would you have a girlfriend? Would you be married?’ I’m sure he would have had babies; I’m sure of that. Although he was only 17, he did love children, he did love the wee ones.”
Lorraine smiles. Liam would have been 27 now – a man. And his parents are certain he would have been a good one. “I’m sure with the love from his family and the people he knew, there would have been a time when Liam’s life would have taken a turn for the better. It’s just that he didn’t get that chance. He didn’t get the chance of life, because we were the ones that took it from him.”
The Ashleys’ guilt is immeasurable. It weighs heavily on top of their pain and sadness. Last year, Ian and Lorraine sent a handwritten letter to Liam’s killer, George Baker, forgiving him for murdering their son; offering him hope for the future and wanting to see him make something of the life he has left. But they stop short of bestowing the same act of kindness on themselves.
Lorraine shakes her head. “That’s a lot harder to do. Forgiving someone in your heart of hearts is a lot easier. It’s a lot easier to forgive other people, but when it comes to yourself, it’s wholly different... I know Ian feels the same. We won’t forgive ourselves. We don’t deserve to forgive ourselves.”
Ten years ago, as a family, they’d decided Liam’s behaviour had to stop. He’d been stealing from their North Shore home, and dealing in alcohol and cigarettes. Without a driver’s licence, he’d take his mother’s car for days at a time. “We decided to give Liam a fright more than anything – just to shake him out of the path he was going down, which was just petty stuff, really. He wasn’t a major criminal or anything like that,” says Ian.
It was August 2006; Liam had been picked up by the Orewa police after he’d been driving around the North Island for four days in Lorraine’s car. Ian says they got the call and went to the police station. “The officer looked at us and said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ We took him aside and said, ‘Can you just give him a bed for the night?’ He said he could, and we thought that would teach Liam a lesson.” Ian says Liam’s faced dropped when he realised he was staying in the cells. “I thought, ‘Right, here’s the shock you need.’”
The next day, Liam was taken to the Auckland Central Remand Prison in Mt Eden, awaiting transportation to his court appearance at the North Shore District Court. “He rang me from the remand, when I was at work. He said, ‘How are you, Dad? I’m really, really, really sorry.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know you are, son… Everything will be fine by the end of the day.’” Ian assumed Liam would go to court; they would have another word with him and he would be home later that night. “He said, ‘Okay, love you, Dad,’ and I said, ‘Love you, too.’”
It was the last time Ian Ashley spoke to his son. “I expected him home. We made a mistake of not giving a bail address that day in court so he could be released.”
Instead, Liam was taken back to the remand prison. Inside the Chubb security van, handcuffed to the teenager, was a towering 25-year- old, George Baker. Somewhere between Albany and Mt Eden, Baker beat, strangled and stomped on Liam until he was unconscious, barely clinging to life.
It would be more than two years before David Olds, the third remand prisoner in the van, came forward to recount how Baker snapped, without warning or reason – one minute, conspiring with Liam in a doomed escape plan; the next, switching viciously to psychotic killer.
Back at the family home that evening, a knock on the door marked the beginning of the Ashleys’ hellish spiral.
“Two young policemen were there,” says Ian. “They said, ‘There’s been an incident.’ They put us in the car, and I said, ‘Where are you taking us?’ They told us to Auckland Hospital. I said, ‘Why? What’s happened? Has he been hurt or knifed… what’s going on?’”
Still unsure what had happened, the Ashleys were ushered into intensive care. The gravity of how serious things were for Liam was obvious in a heartbeat. “He was lying on a hospital bed… it was a few hours after the attack and he was on a machine. It was a terrible night we spent in the hospital, a real shock to the system. Then we had a man walk in and say that we had to turn the machine off.”
Lorraine says they didn’t feel they had a choice or were even given a real reason for that decision. “I still feel terrible agreeing to turn off the machine when we did, but in my heart I know Liam would not have thanked us for keeping his body alive.
“For me to have had Liam in a wheelchair, having to feed him and dress him, well, it would have been far better for me... I would have still had my son. But it would not have been the better thing for Liam.”
Says Ian: “Ten years down the track, we’d dearly love to have him in a wheelchair and incoherent; we’d have looked after him. But we weren’t really given that choice.”
They are thankful they held his hand until the end. “We were there all night with him; we were talking to him, and all the family was there…”
In many ways, though, the Ashleys’ nightmare had just begun. Thinking they would go home to grieve, the couple was instead thrust into the national spotlight. The decisions they’d made were debated; their entire family was dissected publicly. Their faces became so familiar they were stopped in the street by strangers.
“The 10-year toll it’s had on my family is now showing in our other kids, especially with Bailey, because she was like a mother to Liam as well as a sister,” says Lorraine. “Ian, Bailey, Downee and Logan would always read the comments in the paper and on the computer.”
Lorraine refused to look, but decided this year to see what had been written about her and her family. “I didn’t want to know what people thought of us at
the time,” she says. “The thoughts I had about myself, that was painful enough, without adding anyone else’s tuppenceworth… That would just have knocked me over.”
She spent the days leading up to this anniversary of Liam’s death reading comments posted 10 years ago, including cruel statements such as: “How come the government should be bringing up Liam and sorting him out, and why can’t you be bothered doing it yourselves?” and, “A lot of people have children with ADHD and they didn’t rely on other people to sort their kids out.”
Lorraine says it would have done her no good reading that at the time.
“Now I can see how damaging it was to my family. I didn’t understand the severity of what people were saying. Liam still had a good heart... his problems were a bit more than the average kid playing up, but there was no way we didn’t love him. We will always love Liam. And we miss him.”
It’s time for lunch. Ian and Lorraine take her elderly father, Gordon, to the local garden centre. They settle at a table at the cafe surrounded by pot plants and water features. Rounds of drinks are ordered, a rosé for Lorraine, a cider for Gordon and a Coke for Ian. Ian hasn’t touched alcohol since he hit rock-bottom five years ago. They raise their glasses for a toast. “To Liam.”
It’s a contemplative moment among the greenery, but slowly the conversation turns to regular banter – how Gordon’s drink isn’t like the scrumpy he remembers from Scotland. They’d hoped to have their daughters and son Logan gathered together this year for the anniversary, but life – other commitments – got in the way. One of the kids was moving house, the others had work and family demands of their own.
Lorraine’s gaze settles on the ocean horizon. “You can have maybe three or four fairly normal days with your grandchildren coming around, when you forget your woes, but there are still days where you think of what could have been. I try not to go to the ‘if onlys’, because what’s done is done and it cannot be undone.
“You never get used to the absence, though, and in the time that’s gone you wonder what could have been… what would have been.”
Liam was the youngest of the four Ashley children – the final addition to the clan. But even as a toddler, he wasn’t like his siblings. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by a specialist at three years old, he also suffered a brain injury from a fall he had when he was two.
“He fractured his skull,” Ian explains. “It left him slightly imbalanced, different from his brother and sisters. We knew he was a bit special, so we did as much as we could to find out exactly what was going on.”
Liam was asked to leave the first of many schools at age five. “The first thing was a drawing he’d done. We were called to the school and shown a couple of stick figures. I think one had breasts and the other had a willy... It was perceived to be not a good thing for any child to be doing,” Lorraine remembers.
With Ian busy running the family carsales business seven days a week, Lorraine and her parents dealt with Liam. “With a problem child, you can’t go through schooling without being summoned to the school on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis.”
“[After Liam’s rude drawings] they asked us to find another school,” says Ian. “It was back in the day when the government was funding special needs teachers and teacher aides. At the next school, Liam got a teacher aide and started doing okay. But the funding was taken away when he was about seven and he was put into mainstream schooling. That didn’t last long.”
The Ashleys laugh at how many times they were called to Liam’s schools to discuss his behaviour, but they add much of it was fairly innocent naughtiness.
“He had a really short attention span and he couldn’t understand why he was in this classroom when all he wanted to do was go out and play football,” says Ian “Sometimes he just wanted to dance. It was very difficult unless it was oneon-one with Liam. It was hard for the teachers to manage him in a classroom of 30 to 35 children.”
As Liam got older, things got worse. If kids teased him or called him names, his reactions could be extreme. “Liam knew he was different,” says Lorraine. “If you try and put yourself in his shoes, at that age you don’t want to be different – you just want to be the same as everyone else. As he grew older he knew he didn’t fit in, and what do you say? Apart from trying to make him feel better.”
Lorraine says very little was known about how to deal with ADHD children back then. “The [teachers] are trained differently today and I’m sure there’s more compassion for the children,
instead of the behaviour being treated as the naughty boy syndrome.”
Lorraine and Ian look at each other knowingly as they speak. Often, they finish each other’s sentences, or rest a hand on a shoulder, looking to each other for reassurance, or nodding along in agreement. They’ve been married 37 years; their bond is stronger than it’s ever been. But there was a time it could have gone very differently.
Ian began drinking heavily soon after Liam’s death. He had a complete breakdown in 2010 before seeking help and spending time in rehab. He’s been sober for the past five years.
“It came to the end, the anger and the emotion, of not being able to see any way out of the situation the family was in,” he says. “Lorraine had to determine the direction [of our marriage]. Were we going to split up and go different directions and stay miserable for the rest of our lives, or were we going to get back together? That was the second time in our marriage she’s reminded me of the commitment, the family, and our relationship.”
The couple credit a big part of their bond to being able to sit down and talk about what’s really bothering them. “We’ve had a lot to contend with, so it takes a lot of talking,” says Ian. “We talk about the awkward things. We talk about everything. There are no secrets between Lorraine and me. We are completely open and honest about everything that goes on in our lives.”
Lorraine agrees their marriage hasn’t always been easy, regardless of what they’ve been through. “We have our ups and downs, the same as everybody else and, unfortunately, our life was laid bare for everybody to comment on. That was because of a decision we made – that was the wrong decision. Our child was murdered through a huge mistake we made.”
She sighs, pauses and takes a deep breath. “We still work at our marriage. It’s a lot easier as you get older, and the children are all grown. It’s just Ian and me and my dad; life does get easier. Then you have a second chance with your grandchildren. I’m sure most parents do a far better job with their grandchildren than with their own children.”
While they still have good days and bad days, the Ashleys are finally on a better path; they believe they’ve taken back the power over their lives.
“There are a lot of people who have had awful things happen to them,” says Lorraine. “But you know, it comes down to that one question: do you want to be happy? Or do you want to carry on being sad, miserable, angry, guilty? Those feelings will bring you nothing but heartache. They ruin who you could be; they ruin who you once were. And I don’t like now to let people have that much power over me. We try and be as happy as we can.”
Happy means counting every blessing, they say, looking towards the light. A new-found faith in God has also taken them to a place where they were able to forgive George Baker.
Lorraine smiles: “I’ve got four beautiful grandchildren, four beautiful children and had wonderful parents. I’m still in love with my husband. I’m very lucky.
“Look, today there are other people in our position, other people facing tragedy like we did. You have to learn from your mistakes and try and turn them around. Life is okay. There’s beautiful sunshine every day and we have a home, people who love us; we’re not in a queue of thousands trying to flee one country to another.”
Although Liam is gone from their lives, their boy’s killer is very much still in it. “The journey hasn’t ended with George,” says Ian. “Even though we think we can cut him out, he’s part of our lives.” Lorraine breaks in: “But he doesn’t have power over us and I don’t know that he ever did.”
“You have to feel sorry for George, for the state of mind that he’s in,” says Ian. “If he really had taken notice, and taken to heart the letter we wrote to him, then perhaps this year he wouldn’t have been put on suicide watch and lockdown.”
It’s no surprise Baker was recently back in the news. The end of August – the anniversary of Liam’s death – seems to have become a trigger.
From holding an elderly prisoner hostage in Paremoremo with a shank ( a homemade knife) and two razor blades in 2009; to threatening prison officers; to claiming he’s in a relationship with a guard; to writing a romantic letter to a juror in one of his trials – there seems no end to the stunts Baker will pull to stay in the headlines.
Lorraine believes he is desperate not to be forgotten. “It’s that infamy thing; he wants people to remember him. Would George Baker’s name mean anything if it wasn’t linked to Liam’s?”
Baker was serving life with a minimum non-parole period of 18 years after pleading guilty to killing Liam. After the hostage drama at Paremoremo he was sentenced, in 2010, to the country’s toughest penalty, preventive detention (where prisoners are held for an indeterminate sentence and, if released on parole, remain managed by Corrections for the rest of their life and can be recalled to prison at any time).
Baker’s life of crime began at 14, and turned violent at 18, with aggravated robbery and wounding with intent convictions added to his burgeoning teenage rap sheet.
He was jailed in 1999 for a violent home invasion and had been out of prison for only three weeks when he reoffended. While on remand for that offence – and already with more than 80 previous convictions to his name – he bashed and strangled Liam Ashley to death. He will be eligible for parole in 2026.
Ian says they’ve never had an apology from Baker and don’t need one to get on with their lives. “I think deep- down he knows he’s done something wrong, but then he needs to process how to move on from that.
“We’ve moved on from a great hatred – an unbelievable hatred – to a place where, when we hear what George is doing, we have to be concerned. It’s 10 years down the track for him, too. He’s 36 now. We still pray he’s going to change his ways and change his attitude towards whatever demons are still chasing him.”
The day has stretched into dusk. The Gold Coast begins to light up. The Ashleys are glad this August day is over. Lorraine found it easier than she expected, but Ian has struggled.
“It’s been difficult for me,” he admits. “I guess I had come to the realisation that 10 years have passed and I really don’t know where it’s gone… Life seems to have been a bit of a blur, but we’ve come a long way and we’ve achieved a lot in our own lives. We’re counting on the next five years for us being a new phase – and a lot happier as well.”
The phone rings. Its dance-ditty ringtone breaks a pause in the conversation.
“Hi Mum… Hi Dad!” It’s “the boys” – Liam’s friends have all got together for a drink at a pub on Auckland’s North Shore to mark this anniversary of loss. Beers and rum, that’s their poison, and it was Liam’s, too. They’re slightly drunk. “We love you guys!” they chant, as Lorraine reminds them not to drive home. “Don’t worry,” they shout, “we got the bus!”
They were known as “the pirates”, a tight-knit group of Kiwi lads kicking around together. They’ve grown into adults now, all in their late 20s and many with families and children of their own. “Argghhh..!” they growl loudly, like pirates, before hanging up. Lorraine and Ian smile at each other and chuckle. Liam’s friends all stay in touch; they visit, they ring and they always take time to remember their mate in August.
It’s been a day of reflection and remembering. But it’s also time to stop reliving events and just live. This is the Ashleys’ final interview. “It’s enough now… I think so,” Ian says. “We’ve come to a point after these 10 years when we are truly free – we truly have been set free – which means it can only be a journey or adventure from here.
“Lorraine said to me, ‘Why don’t we just pack up everything or give everything away – put Gordon in the back of the car and go strawberry picking, and live off our wages for gas and food.’” Ian laughs as he looks at Lorraine; his face has lit up. “Maybe we could work in a bar or hotel. There’s plenty of casual work available. Go and see the world – go and see life. We’ve only seen a little bit of this country.”
While they haven’t ruled out returning to New Zealand one day, the timing isn’t right. The anonymity of Australia is still appealing. “Will we have any worries or cares when we’re travelling? Well, I think it will be the ultimate road trip!”
Lorraine smiles. She looks tired, ready for a cup of tea and then bed. “Be kind to each other,” she says. “Smile at someone who doesn’t have one. There isn’t always another day. You just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Always tell your children, or anyone, how much you love them and always get the last, ‘I love you, seeya later’ in – just one last time before they leave.” +