2 10 YEARS ON: LIAM ASH­LEY MUR­DER

North & South - - Contents - DONNA-MARIE LEVER IS A NORTH & SOUTH CON­TRIBUT­ING WRITER.

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.” +

Ian and Lor­raine Ash­ley at home on the Gold Coast (top), and a pho­to­graph of their son Liam as a lit­tle boy (above).

Pic­tures of Liam are dis­played among those of other mem­bers of the fam­ily.

Left: TVNZ footage of the van Liam was trav­el­ling in when he was killed in Au­gust 2006. Chubb, the se­cu­rity com­pany that op­er­ated the van, faced crit­i­cism in the af­ter­math. Changes to pris­oner trans­port were im­ple­mented that month.

A mo­saic of Liam, given to the fam­ily by a stranger.

Liam’s killer, Ge­orge Baker, dur­ing a 2009 hostage drama in prison (above) and in court (be­low).

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