THE LESLEY CALVERT COLD CASE: 40 YEARS OF TORMENT
Forty years ago, Lesley Calvert’s body was found on a steep hillside within sight of the farmhouse she shared with her husband and three young children. She had disappeared seven months and 10 days earlier. Extensive searches had failed to find her. Suspi
Lindsay Calvert is a man of the land – a farmer and possum trapper, a one-time chainsaw-racing champion. For years, he ran sheep and cattle on the rugged, wind- scoured hills of North Taranaki. His back story is one many rural folk can relate to: long hours turning steep, unforgiving hill country into pasture; relentless financial pressure and isolation.
Lindsay Calvert, 78, is also a man tormented by the past and aggrieved by the present. For almost as long as he’s been taming those bluffs, he’s been trapped in a quagmire of grief, bitterness and frustration. He’s a stoic man, used to holding back emotion, but real anger surfaces from time to time. And it’s had 40 years to smoulder.
Lindsay’s real-life horror show began on February 2, 1977, when his wife Lesley walked out of their farmhouse at remote Waikawau, north-west of Awakino, and into cold-case history. It’s a sad saga that involves the loss of a wife and mother in bizarre circumstances and police efforts to pin the crime on Lindsay, although the evidence led to someone else.
Lesley Yeates and Lindsay Calvert were married in 1962. She came from Egmont Village, south of New Plymouth, while he grew up in Waikawau, with a single road in and out. Prosperity had largely eluded the Calverts, as it had many in that post-war era.
They met through a love of table tennis, a sport at which Lesley excelled, rising to national junior championship level. Their first encounter wasn’t promising: the young Calvert later learned Lesley had found him “too old” for her liking (there was a four-year age difference).
Three years later, they married. Their wedding night was spent in the tiny Urenui Hotel, a stopover on their way to Taupo, where they made a home together. Daughters Denise and Sandra were born in the lakeside settlement, where life revolved around Lindsay’s role managing a farming and forestry equipment shop, and raising a family. Lesley took time out to hone her tabletennis skills and Lindsay learned to fly, securing his private pilot’s licence. Enduring friendships were made.
Back at Waikawau, the health of Lindsay’s father, Doug, was deteriorating. Chronic arthritis hindered his ability to work the dry-stock property he’d spent his life carving from the bush. Lindsay and Lesley felt they had no choice but to move back to the family farm. They arrived in 1968, and the following year, son Greg was born. With hindsight, Lindsay can see their return was likely to pose problems. The family farm was rundown in parts, with few boundary fences, and those that existed were often not stockproof. And there wasn’t enough cash flow to feed one family, let alone two.
The farm properties at Waikawau then, as now, could be counted on one hand. Among them, Nukuhakari Station – once owned by early 20th-century Taranaki entrepreneur and merchant Newton King – stood out as a beacon of what real money could achieve. Surrounding this coastal spread stood a number of smaller family-owned, hill-country runs, one of them belonging to the Calverts.
Lindsay and Lesley made ends meet as best as they could, supplementing their skimpy farm income with possum trapping and fencing jobs; Lindsay also repaired equipment and machinery for neighbours. Social life centred on Whareorino School, the community hall and the pony club; once a month, they’d drive to New Plymouth to pay bills and
buy supplies – if the single-lane, unsealed road to Awakino wasn’t blocked by slips or floods, as it often was.
In 1970, Lindsay helped establish the Tainui Lions Club, where he served as charter president. His work for the fledgling club was recognised: in 1972 he was named an international Lion of the Year, the first time this had been awarded to anyone in the Southern Hemisphere. Dark clouds were looming, however.
As Lindsay tells it, the expectation that the family farm would become one of the best in the district always weighed heavily upon him. “Dad had this dream about the farm,” he says. “He put the farm first, second, through to 10th and everything else came after that. I tended to do the same, because the farm had to sustain two families.”
Long days on the farm, late nights in Awakino attending Lions’ meetings and a failure to pay enough attention to his wife took a toll. In early 1975, Lindsay learned Lesley was having an affair with the manager of Nukuhakari Station, John Gray. He says now he should have recognised the signs earlier.
In her history of 100 years of Nukuhakari Station, Adrienne Tatham records that, early in 1975, Gray made a move into quarter horses, buying a stallion he named Nuku Huarau. Tatham, a granddaughter of Taranaki merchant Newton King, writes that Lesley Calvert was one of the first in the district to line up her mare for a service from the new arrival. It wasn’t long after that Lindsay learned of the affair between Gray and his wife.
Today, Gray might be described as a serial womaniser. As long-time residents of the district recount, Nukuhakari Station was his fiefdom. He worked hard to develop the property for its owners, but also spent many hours drinking at the Awakino hotel, often boasting of his conquests.
Lindsay is still agitated by the affair. He makes no secret of the anger and hurt that came from having to sign documents agreeing to a termination after Lesley fell pregnant to Gray; his consent was legally required at the time. And the affair continued, despite Lesley’s resolute assurances to her husband that it would end.
“I have to accept some responsibility for what went on between Lesley and Gray,” he says. “I do think Lesley felt neglected… that she was playing second fiddle to the farm. She was a social person. I wouldn’t say that being on the farm inhibited her interests, but something was obviously missing in our relationship.”
Lindsay says the affair, the pregnancy and the mistrust led to arguments. “We’d talked of separating. It’s not a secret. It was an untenable situation for me. I could have left her, but I thought things would settle down, and we had three kids.”
On the morning of February 2, 1977, the couple had a disagreement over whether to buy a new lawnmower.
“I do think Lesley felt neglected… She was a social person. I wouldn’t say that being on the farm inhibited her interests, but something was obviously missing in our relationship.”
Lindsay insists it was nothing significant and rejects any contention it was the catalyst for what followed.
The day had begun as normal. Lesley got the children, then aged 11, 10 and seven, ready for school and dropped them off there, a few kilometres down the road toward Awakino. When she returned, she and Lindsay drank coffee together.
When neighbour Tom Moetu arrived around 10am to get a tractor tyre puncture repaired, Lindsay left the house and walked down the driveway to his implement shed. Lesley was standing in their son’s small bedroom. He says that was the last time he saw her alive.
When Lindsay and Moetu returned to the house around 11am, Lesley was nowhere to be found. At lunchtime, there was still no sign. Lindsay drove up Mangatoa Rd to where a bulldozed track led to Nukuhakari Station, thinking his wife might be heading there. At 3pm, he collected the children from school – something that usually Lesley would do – and, as dusk descended on the little valley, he phoned the police at Awakino.
Over the next five days, police, search and rescue, local farmers, friends and family combed the district. A search centre was established in the old cottage next to the Calvert family home. A dog squad was brought in. A light aircraft spent two days sweeping the dense bushland surrounding the Calvert farm and along the coastline.
Police believed, in those early days of what was to be an extensive search operation, that Lesley Calvert was someone who did not want to be found. The source of this belief appears to be a statement from Gray’s wife, Nancy, who reported that the day she disappeared, Lesley had phoned her at 10.15am to apologise for the hurt she’d caused and to say she was “going”.
Three days earlier, Nancy said, she’d told Lesley – a woman with whom she was otherwise on “good neighbourly terms” – that the affair had to stop.
Nancy’s deposition to coroner Arthur Middleton in November 1977 about Lesley Calvert’s state of mind the day she disappeared is revealing. “Lesley sounded her usual, normal self and I spoke with her in a friendly manner. I did not honestly believe Lesley meant what she said to me on the phone about leaving. Apart from anything else, I believed she loved her children too much to do anything like that and, in fact, she made the comment on the phone that she loved her kids.”
Nancy, her unfaithful husband John, and the senior Calverts were all subject to police scrutiny while the official ground search went on, day after day, with no result. Lindsay Calvert, however, came under the most pressure.
Two days into the search, he drew the wrath of police bosses. During the evening debrief, they were advised that a good friend of his, Taupo helicopter pilot Rusty Nairn, would be there at 7.30 the next morning with enough fuel for a day’s flying – at no cost – to assist in the search. The police response angers Lindsay to this day.
“[District Commander Superintendent Jim] Waugh started shouting and told me this was a police control zone and no helicopters would be allowed in. Things got pretty heated and I think that’s where I got offside, but I did phone
Rusty to tell him he couldn’t come.”
By Sunday of that week, six days after Lesley’s disappearance, the official search was over. The big police contingent headed back to New Plymouth, leaving a sergeant in the Calverts’ cottage, a few metres down the driveway from their house. The local farmers and search and rescue volunteers dispersed, and life returned to normal in the Waikawau valley – for everyone but the distressed and bewildered Calverts.
New Plymouth’s Daily News reported that 40 people had been involved in the ground search. Lindsay says this was only the official contingent. With family members, friends and volunteers from all over Taranaki, the number was more like 100. But to all intents and purposes, Lesley had vanished, taking no possessions, no money, no personal items, no food and only the clothes she was wearing.
The inquiry appears then to have moved to a much lower gear. While friends and relations kept searching the farm and surrounding areas, the Calverts campaigned to have what was then a missing person inquiry elevated to a homicide investigation. When Taranaki MP David Thomson began getting heat from the senior Calverts, the Criminal Investigation Branch became fully engaged.
In April, two months after Lesley disappeared, New Plymouth detectives drove into Waikawau and spent a week taking statements from everyone with any connection to the missing woman. Among those interviewed were John and Nancy Gray, those who had seen and talked with Lesley in the days before she disappeared, and a very regular visitor to the family home, a worker from a nearby farm who had suddenly and inexplicably stopped coming.
It appears police dismissed this local farm worker from the inquiry quickly. A statement from lead investigator Detective Bob Stevens observes he was a “weak character” and had nothing to do with Lesley’s disappearance. (For a more detailed examination of the man we’ll call X, see the supporting article, A Stone Unturned?, on page 56.)
Lindsay believes the original squad of detectives came with a fixation that he was the likely murderer, and that this had been perpetrated by CIB boss Bruce Ramsay (who died in 2009). An old-school cop, Ramsay had only just become the top detective in Taranaki. “I’m bloody sure Ramsay decided very early on that I’d killed Lesley,” says Lindsay.
Police tactics in the inquiry that followed seem, at best, questionable, especially considering a family was still grieving for a missing wife and mother.
Several months after Lesley disappeared, the King Country Chronicle reported her body had been found washed up on a local beach. When Lindsay contacted the newspaper, he was told the information for this report – which was untrue – had been provided by the police. Furious at this disclosure, he drove to the New Plymouth station. There, he says, Ramsay told him he had police watching the farm as he was convinced Lindsay would lead them to his wife’s body once he read the newspaper report.
The focus on Lindsay – and what he claims was a distinct lack of action on information about other potential suspects – was revealed by two particular police operations.
On July 12, 1977, a contingent of 17 that included police with dogs, a fire engine and crew from the New Plymouth brigade and a local doctor arrived at the Calvert farm. Prompted by a report from the council hydatids officer that flies had been seen swarming around the Calverts’ offal pits, the squad brought in a 20-tonne digger and spent most of the day excavating. Fences were pulled down and the yard left a sodden mess, with no attempt to repair the damage. The pits offered no evidence of Lesley. Apparently blood-stained lightshades were then seized from a bedroom during a search of the Calvert house. Testing showed the “blood” on them was not blood at all.
Some weeks later, a dawn raid was executed. More detectives arrived, with a water-divining exponent in tow. Lindsay says he was never told the reason for the water diviner’s presence. He’d been to Bulls for a seminar for honorary fisheries rangers the day before and arrived back at Waikawau in the early hours of the morning. “I’d only had a few hours’ sleep and was still in bed when they turned up. I offered to help but [Detective] Bob Stevens told me in no uncertain terms I wasn’t wanted, so I went back to bed. They headed up the hill behind the house and came back after searching the bush for most of the day, with no result.”
On September 12, there was a dramatic development. “I’d been over at Kiritehere further up the Mangatoa Road, skinning possums,” Lindsay recalls. “I got home and a local possum trapper, Darryl Hicks, walked out from my house and asked what sort of a day I’d had. I said I’d had a bastard of a day as the pigs had found my [ possum] line and eaten them all, leaving just the skins. Darryl said he’d had a bastard of a day, too – he’d found Lesley.”
Amid a fresh surge of grief came disbelief. Lindsay learned that Hicks, who’d been laying cyanide baits for possums up the southern boundary fence on the Calvert farm, had found Lesley’s remains within 700m as the crow flies of the house – and in an area that had been repeatedly searched. She was clad in the remnants of the clothes that she had been wearing the day she disappeared, including a bright orangecoloured jumper. What stood out – yet was bizarrely dismissed by police – was the footwear on the body: two size-nine men’s gumboots, one old and one new. Lesley never wore gumboots, and the brown leather shoes Lindsay says his wife had on the day she disappeared were never found.
Grief and disbelief soon turned to anger. “The kids were asleep so I decided I’d tell them in the morning. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Then I sent them to school. I wanted them at school because I knew the place was going to be overrun by cops.”
On November 15, two months after Lesley’s remains were recovered from the hillside overlooking the farmhouse,
coroner Arthur Middleton convened an inquest in New Plymouth.
Sworn statements were received and witnesses cross-examined. At the end of that day, Middleton delivered his finding: “That Lesley Mary Calvert died in a paddock off the Mangatoa Road, Waikawau near Awakino on or about the second day of February 1977 from causes which cannot be demonstrated.”
The evidence put before the coroner on that day was contradictory. His finding has caused anger in the Calvert family ever since. Detective Sergeant Bert Lowen told the inquest: “Upset over her affair, Lesley had gone to the rear of the property with no food. Worry and lack of food caused her to come out of the bush on the [immediately adjoining] Anselmi Block along the cattle track. She was so weakened she slipped and collapsed or simply laid down and died.”
This statement appears to be at odds with the thrust of the investigation prior to the finding of Lesley’s remains. From April to September, investigators had homed in on Lindsay, using all means available to pressure him into a confession. Lowen’s statement also runs counter to evidence available before the coroner opened his inquest, some of which was not put in front of him by police.
Several weeks after being forced to stand down, Rusty Nairn had flown his helicopter from Taupo to the Calvert farm, with the fuel required to spend the day searching. With the doors off and Lindsay by his side, he flew the farm for five hours. The fence line that marked the southern boundary between the Calverts’ pasture land and the Anselmi bush block came in for special attention, as the search controller in February had expressed the view that had Lesley intended to hide out in the bush, she would have crossed this fence line.
Recalling the helicopter search, Lindsay says: “We flew up that steep fence line low and slow. I was looking straight down from just above the height of the manuka. I can tell you that Lesley was not there, just as the original searchers and others told the coroner later.”
Over successive weeks and months, others had also crawled their way up the same hill, an exhausting process given the one-in-three gradient.
Local farmer Grant Thompson and his former police dog stood within five metres of the exact location twice in one day on March 17, 1977, watched by Lindsay and a friend. Bob Calvert, Lindsay’s uncle, walked the boundary fence in April. Local resident Nawton Telfer was another: “Two or three months at least after she went missing, we again went up that fence line and she wasn’t there.”
It’s accepted that the coroner did not have the benefit of testimony from these witnesses. But Middleton did have the sworn statements of three of the original searchers.
Alec Draper was a 40-year veteran of search and rescue operations and a Taranaki Alpine Club leader. He served as search advisor and field controller at the Calvert farm for the five days of the initial, massive hunt. “I’m now aware of where the body was finally discovered and it is correct to say this area was considered to be the second greatest area of probability during the search,” records his deposition to the coroner in November 1977.
“To that end, I had directed searchers to cover that area on more than one occasion. On the first day of the search, February 3, 1977, the fence line where the deceased was later found was searched, as it was on the second and third days. Staff were instructed to walk all the boundary lines of the Calvert farm, to look for signs where the deceased may have left her own property to go into the bush. I am of the opinion that during the search, the deceased was not in the position where her body was later found. There is no doubt in my mind that if she had been, she would have been found.”
Volunteer searcher Martin Hawkes and Constable Pete Saunders also climbed the same fence line and testified similarly to the coroner. So, multiple, meticulous searches by police and volunteers up and
down this fence line in February, March, April and the middle of June found no sign of the missing woman. Lindsay also searched the area during this time, sometimes alone, sometimes with others.
In a sworn statement produced for the coroner’s inquest, Detective Bob Stevens provided scenarios that continue to be questioned. New Plymouth-based Stevens joined the Calvert inquiry on April 11, 1977, travelling to Waikawau and spending a week on inquiries in the district. After that, his statement records, he was actively engaged in the investigation.
The three possibilities police initially considered were this: that Lesley Calvert had left the district of her own free will and was living in parts unknown; that she had removed herself to some place where she had either taken her own life or died from exhaustion; or that she had been murdered.
“It has not been possible for the police to reach a definite conclusion as to how the deceased died,” Stevens concluded. “There are two likely probabilities that could be reached from reconstruction of what has been found upon discovery of the deceased’s body. The pathologist has suggested the deceased chose this spot, where she died and took her own life by use of some rapidly-acting poison. [The deposition of Dr Dennis Allen, who performed the post- mortem examination, was perfunctory at best, with no evidence provided as to what this poison might be.] This is offered as a hypothesis and is certainly one that is considered a probability by the police.
“The only alternative to that would be the deceased died from exhaustion and exposure, or she was murdered. There was no evidence of homicide, therefore the first two possibilities are considered the most likely.”
The Ministry of Justice says that no pathology report was presented to the coronial inquest in November 1977 and Lindsay says he was recently advised by police that none exists. It seems incongruous for there to be no official pathology report – only a deposition relating to the post mortem carried out on September 14, 1977, two days after Lesley’s remains were found.
Contradicting the “suicide” scenario is that the body was not in the advanced state of decomposition one would expect had it lain outside through that hot summer and on through autumn and winter. A local farmer told North & South stock that die in the summer in this area are reduced to a skeleton within weeks. Lesley’s soft tissue, though disintegrated, was still present. And if she had killed herself closer to the time her body was discovered, where had she been since early February?
Coroner Middleton determined, nevertheless, that Lesley died where she was found, in the Anselmi bush block, on or about February 2, 1977. This prompted the inevitable question: given the location had been repeatedly searched and was in sight of the farmhouse, how had it taken seven months and 10 days to find her body?
Stevens sought to explain this in a statement dated October 5, 1977. “There was plenty of evidence to show that within a few days immediately prior to her being found, stock had been grazing around the area of Lesley Calvert [and so exposing the body].”
Stevens, who was present at the post mortem, also records that there was no evidence to suggest foul play. “The
pathologist was able to find all skeletal remains except a small portion of the hyoid bone. In view of the movement of stock and the clear evidence the head had been knocked by a beast (and this is supported by hoof marks around the body) the pathologist did not consider this particularly relevant,” he wrote.
Allen, the pathologist, is no longer alive, but Stevens’ statement raises a new raft of issues. Lindsay believes it points strongly to murder, not away from it.
Evidence collected by police throughout the seven months of the Calvert inquiry in 1977 reveal a woman who, while caught up in her ongoing affair with Gray, showed no signs of being suicidal. Nancy Gray observed that Lesley was her normal self the day she disappeared. Others who spoke with her in the days immediately preceding her disappearance made similar observations. Her mother, Eileen Yeates, told the coroner that while her daughter may have been considering a break from Waikawau with her children, there was no hint whatsoever that she intended killing herself.
Damage to, or the absence of, a hyoid bone is recognised as a potential symptom of manual strangulation. This U-shaped bone is fractured in one-third of all homicides by strangulation, according to the Journal of Forensic Sciences. A recent study by Y.M. Jehng, published by Science Direct, a website dedicated to scientific, technical and medical research, records that “hyoid bone fracture is usually the result of direct trauma to the neck because of manual strangulation, hanging, blunt force trauma or projectiles. However, hyoid bone fracture caused by a fall has seldom been reported.”
Lindsay insists that rather than confirming the presence of cattle in the location where his wife’s remains were found, photographs that captured the scene the following day, on September 13, 1977, prove the inaccuracy of police statements in this regard.
After struggling to secure access to these photographs, Lindsay was able to view them for the first time in April 2011. He was accompanied by Cinna Smith, an Auckland TV producer who had worked on a Sensing Murder programme on the Lesley Calvert case two years earlier.
“These detailed photographs, some of them extreme close-ups, show no evidence whatsoever of stock movement… no evidence of hoof prints, cattle manure or recently eaten foliage,” says Lindsay. “The grass is long and appears undisturbed. There’s no evidence an animal stepped on Lesley’s throat – or that cattle were ever present in the area where Lesley’s body was found.”
North & South has also viewed the original scene photographs taken in September 1977. These clearly show the position in which Lesley was found, lying on her back on an angle away from the fence. Some of these photographs provide measurement from the fence line traversed by numerous searchers, including experienced police officers, in the seven-and-a-half months she was missing. One hand was within a metre of the fencing wire at ground level, her head less than a metre away.
There appears to be no clear evidence stock were in that vicinity in the days before the body was found. Thick, wiry manuka in this location, just inside the boundary fence, would prevent cattle movement. And the “cattle track” referred to in Detective Sergeant Lowen’s statement doesn’t exist, either.
Lindsay believes police withheld evidence of the missing part of Lesley’s hyoid bone from the coroner. “They deemed this insignificant and chose not to put it forward in evidence. But to me, it’s a matter that should be examined through a new coronial inquiry.”
It is clear bad blood exists between Lindsay and Stevens, who retired from the police 26 years ago, although Calvert concedes, “Stevens only carried on down a path that others had established.”
Calvert has a litany of grievances against the police: for the way that they handled the inquiry into his wife’s disappearance and their unwillingness to pursue evidence he believes points to an offender. One particular incident is etched into his memory.
“Stevens accused me of killing Lesley and did so in front of my daughter, Sandra. His words were, ‘No matter what happens, you will always be the number one suspect for murder.’ I’ll never forgive him for that,” says Lindsay. “It had a devastating effect on Sandra. She was 10. She used to wake up in the night screaming in her boarding- school dormitory. Hearing from a policeman that her daddy had murdered her mummy had a profound effect on her for many years.”
Sandra also seems to remember the incident keenly: interviewed on the 2009 Sensing Murder programme, she said she heard the policeman telling her father he knew he did it and was going to prove he did it.
Lindsay’s strong objection to these remarks allegedly made by Stevens was put to the detective as part of a wide-ranging complaint to the ombudsman, relating to the police inquiry. However, chief ombudsman George Laking accepted the police response on all counts. His written report to Lindsay, dated June 8, 1982, included this from Stevens:
“There is no doubt that I made it clear to Mr Calvert that he had to be considered a suspect, as did other people who had been nominated as such until the inquiry had been successfully concluded. If I made such a comment to him in the presence of his daughter and that has in any way upset the child, then I would be the first to regret it.”
By the early 80s, Lindsay was a broken man. He still is. He says he was driven off his family farm by stress, false accusations and rumours, coupled with the agony of looking up, day in and day out, to where his wife’s remains were found. His hopes of being a Justice of the Peace and an intention to seek election as a Waitomo County councillor dissolved before his eyes.
By then, John Gray was also dead. On October 21, 1981, he disappeared in the Tasman Sea while fishing off the rocks alone. The official finding was one of accidental drowning in “rough seas”, but questions remain over the circumstances. Lindsay says the Waikawau rumour mill soon had him responsible for Gray’s death, but his cast-iron alibi
DAMAGE TO, OR THE ABSENCE OF, A HYOID BONE IS RECOGNISED INTERNATIONALLY AS A POTENTIAL SYMPTOM OF STRANGULATION.
came in the form of the local fisheries inspector. The two of them were 10km to the south that day, fishing from a tiny dinghy on a sea Lindsay describes as being flat as a pancake.
Leaving the farm in the control of his parents and a farm manager, Lindsay moved first to Waitara and then to New Plymouth ( by then Denise and Sandra were at boarding school in Stratford, Greg in New Plymouth). He secured a job he was good at and that gave him a new sense of purpose: tutoring students at Taranaki secondary schools on how to be safe around farms, particularly when using chainsaws.
“I’d finally found my chosen path in life,” he says. “For the first time since Lesley had disappeared, I felt a real sense of ease and contentment. I felt I was making a real contribution to the community.”
When the branch manager from Agriculture New Zealand (now closed) informed him the organisation could not afford to have a “sexual predator” anywhere near students, he was devastated. There had been no warnings, no convictions, not even allegations. He blames police for covertly spreading the rumours that destroyed his career.
North & South invited Stevens to respond to Lindsay’s allegations. It appears age has softened his attitude toward the man he once accused of being a murderer. Pressed for comment, Stevens politely opted out, saying the answers could be found within the police file on the Calvert case.
“I have no desire to return to that inquiry that took longer than any other I was involved with,” he says. “I have always been upfront with Lindsay and he didn’t always appreciate what I said, but I was a detective and those people have to often ask direct questions... This matter has been ongoing and will remain ongoing for so long as Lindsay is alive. If he is innocent, as he may well be, I would not blame him... I have no regrets about my 30 years as a police officer. Of course there are things I would have done differently on occasions, but that applies to all of us.”
Forty years after police developed their hypothesis that Lesley Calvert committed suicide or “simply lay down and died” on that windswept hillside, they have nonetheless made one major concession. Current Taranaki CIB head Brent Matuku accepts Lesley’s body was not in that bush-block location when police searched the area in February 1977. He also agrees the only explanations are that she was murdered and placed there by someone, or that she took herself to the hillside months after disappearing from the farmhouse and committed suicide.
On the evidence now available, the latter seems implausible. What mother, Lindsay asks, would kill herself within sight of her children? And where was she from February 2 until at least June 12, 1977, when the last recorded search of that fence line took place? After all, his wife was found in the clothes she was wearing when she went missing, apart from gumboots that didn’t belong to her.
The exact status of the Calvert inquiry today is unclear. Matuku says it’s an “inactivated missing person inquiry”. It’s an interesting description, as Lesley Calvert is not missing: her remains were interred at the Waitara cemetery on September 17, 1977, five days after they were located. Taranaki Police Area Commander Inspector Keith Borrell has another interpretation. He describes the case as “an active police file”.
Police denied North & South access to that file, citing the privacy of those who have given statements over the years. This criteria was not, however, applied to an identical request from Sensing Murder’s Cinna Smith in 2009.
She was allowed to spend almost five hours – mostly unsupervised – going through its contents.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Denise Calvert – the oldest of Lindsay and Lesley’s three children – categorically rejects the notion of her mother committing suicide. Nor will she entertain the possibility of abandonment.
Aged 11 at the time, Denise’s memory of February 2 1977 is clear. It was her last year at Whareorino School and she was excited to be back in class after the long summer holidays. “Mum dropped us off at school that morning as she always did,” she recounts. “I don’t think there was anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing different to any other day. What I do recall was Dad came to pick us up from school. That was unusual; it was always Mum who did so.
“Any suggestion of suicide or suicidal behaviour does not sit right with me. I think there would have been some sort of sign and we would have noticed. I’d have thought, ‘Oh, she was funny this morning’, but there was nothing like that.
“I’m also sure Mum wouldn’t abandon us kids. I always believed that, but it was reinforced when I became a mum myself. The maternal bond is strong. I can imagine her maybe taking us to stay with Nana and Grandad, yes, but not abandoning us.”
Denise says police portray her father as a slightly loony old man obsessed with the disappearance of his wife. That attitude, which she insists prevails to this day, overlooks the fact the three Calvert children and wider family also want to know what happened to their mother, sister, aunt and grandmother.
“This has affected us all profoundly,” says Denise. “How could it not? We lost our mother and also lost a good deal of our father. My kids have missed out on a grandmother. Whenever there’s a special occasion, there is an awareness that someone is missing. I think all of us kids have managed not to let this define us or wear the victim label too much, but it’s unresolved and there can be no closure until it is. Having the police acknowledge that their original investigation was a failure would be a worthy first step in that process.
“The original investigation was flawed and people know that. It’s not just us bleating… That’s why they’re thwarting everything. That’s how I see it.”
A scientist now living in Australia, Denise is trained in forming a hypothesis and then looking for the evidence to support it, or alternatively, to disprove it. “If it [the evidence] is there, it’s there. But that is not how you should do police work. You should look at the evidence first and see what it suggests, not the other way round.”
She is resolute in her view that her mother was murdered – and equally adamant in her belief that the neighbouring farm worker who spent so much time at the Calvert house knows a lot more than he has ever admitted.
“You can’t disregard the evidence that doesn’t fit your hypothesis. You can’t be selective about what you choose to have weight. You must use the evidence you have available. In Mum’s murder, the evidence points in one direction. The
concept of unrequited passion seems to fit in this instance.”
On a clear, crisp day in May 2017, Lindsay returned with North & South to the spot where his wife’s remains were found. He had planned to visit earlier but spent two years recovering in hospital and then rehabilitating after being crushed by the branch of an old pine he was cutting up.
The journey, across gullies and up a steep slope, was agonising, both for Lindsay and those witnessing the progress of a frail man who could barely walk on the flat with the aid of a crutch. On reaching “ground zero”, he collapsed on his back, staring upwards as wispy clouds slid across the sky. Lying only a metre or so across the fence from where his wife’s body was found, he said nothing for a long time. His shallow breathing was the only sound.
It seemed a cathartic moment, not one to be hurried, a chance perhaps for a final farewell. And then, as the breeze began to build and the late afternoon sun dipped behind the hill to the west, he said: “I’ve waited 40 years for this moment.” It was time to leave this place, for the last time.
Anyone watching him wind gingerly down that steep decline would wonder, what guilty man would put himself through four hours of this hell just to prove a point? An answer emerged the next day when North & South spoke with a former Waikawau resident who knew the community and its dynamics. When Lesley went missing, this one- time neighbour thought Lindsay may have been involved in some way. Now she’s convinced he was not. “Lindsay goes on and on about this case and has never let it go, which makes me think he is innocent,” she says. “It has ruined his life.”
The personal statement that Lindsay insisted on writing for this story underscores the pain and frustration of these past decades: “Over the last 40 years, I have been vilified and victimised... My family and I have lived under a cloud. I am still branded a ‘murderer’ by some in our community. Not long ago, a young man hurled abuse at me in the street in New Plymouth, shouting out, ‘Murderers should be hung.’
“My wife’s death and the subsequent botched police inquiry have ruined my life. I’m now 78. I have had several health scares, but while I have breath in my body I will continue to fight to clear my name and restore my reputation,” he writes. “For the sake of my children, grandchildren and future generations of our family, I want the record to be set straight. Above all, I want justice to be done for Lesley. She did not deserve to die at that age. Our children did not deserve to have their mother taken from them in such diabolical circumstances, or to be robbed of 40 years with their mother at their side.”
Lindsay Calvert’s plea for justice – for a new coronial inquiry – certainly begs the question: who would spend 40 years drawing such attention to their claims and their cause if they were guilty, when they had every opportunity to slip silently and surreptitiously into the backblocks?
Crucial questions remain as to why the police did not pursue a “likely suspect”. In 1977, a farm worker in the Waikawau district carried a torch for Lesley Calvert. The man we’ll call X was 33 when Lesley went missing. He was single and had few, if any, close friends. Those who knew him say he was a loner. Some distrusted him and mention his liking for books on “assaults and weird things”.
Police files reveal X had a strong interest in Lesley and was a regular visitor to the Calvert home. Statements he made to police later downplayed the frequency of those visits, many of which were made when Lindsay Calvert was away. However, statements made by police investigators at the time clearly record this interest:
“By all accounts X carried a torch for Mrs Calvert though there was no evidence that she returned his affection.” – Detective Sergeant Brendan Mcfadden.
“X was known to have had a crush on Lesley.” – Detective Bob Stevens.
This was supported by Lesley’s brother, Ross Yeates, who gave a statement to police. “As soon as Lindsay left the house, X would arrive. X would get a shock if I was there.”
And further: “I did notice X hanging around a lot. He always seemed to be there. He gave me the impression of just hanging around watching. I gained the definite impression that he had some attraction for Lesley, but I don’t think she had any for him. In fact when he’d turn up she would comment, ‘Not him again.’”
Lindsay knew of X’s attraction to Lesley and says he was told by a local pig hunter that the farm worker regularly used to ride through the adjoining bush block and tether his horse out of sight before walking down the hill to the house. “This usually happened when I was out the back of the farm,” he says.
X’s behaviour immediately after Lesley’s disappearance raised flags with locals, including his employer, the manager of a nearby farm.
“For about a month after Lesley went missing, X was very quiet, like a closed book, and it has been only recently that he has come out of his shell,” the farm manager told police on April 14, 1977.
Police learned that on the day of Lesley’s disappearance, X had been late for work, and had asked to take a week’s holiday. In five years with a previous employer, he’d never asked for a holiday.
Others living in the district at the time tell of disturbing behaviour by X. Animal cruelty is the primary allegation. “He is a probable suspect only because of his alleged cruel streak, observations of people in respect of his cruelty to animals,” Detective Sergeant Mcfadden recorded at the time of the original investigation.
X no longer lives in Waikawau, but this alleged cruelty to animals is still fresh in the memories of locals who lived there at that time. A local farmer had cause to regret taking on X as a worker. He says he asked X to feed his dogs while he was away for a weekend. He returned to find his huntaway writhing in pain on its chain. He rushed the dog, weak and in agony, to the vet in Piopio. A rubber ring used for removing lambs tails had been put on the dog’s testicles. The vet had to complete the castration and the dog survived.
The vet made a report to the police, who later told Lindsay that X had admitted the incident but was not prosecuted. His employment on that farm, however, came to an end soon after. The Calverts also experienced a series of animal cruelty incidents in the period immediately prior to Lesley’s disappearance. Their house cow was shot through the eye, and three sheep were shot and left to die in agony. In each instance, a .22 firearm was involved (X had a .22 rifle). Then their children’s pet goats – two adults and two kids – disappeared from their back yard, never to be seen again.
“Stock worth $30,000 also went missing from our farm,” says Lindsay. “In one instance, when X was working on the neighbouring farm, seven of my beef calves disappeared. I found rare 00 horse prints at the scene of the theft. X’s horse had size 00 shoes.”
Lindsay says he reported these incidents to the police, as he believed they could have been connected with Lesley’s murder, but initially they refused to investigate. He says two detectives later travelled from Hamilton to investigate the stock thefts, but police now claim there is no record of this visit ever occurring. The thefts remain unresolved.
A link between animal cruelty and more serious crimes against people is well established. “Acts of cruelty to animals are not mere indications of a minor personality flaw in the abuser, they are symptomatic of a deep mental disturbance,” says Robert K. Ressler, who developed profiles of serial killers for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Research in psychology and criminology shows that people who commit acts of cruelty to animals don’t stop there, many of them move on to their fellow humans.”
Rejection can be a powerful motive, as has been demonstrated in any number of high-profile tragedies in New Zealand over recent years. In an analysis of the profile of the killer of Jeanette and Harvey Crewe at Pukekawa in 1970, police criminal profiler David Scott examined this issue: “When an infatuated individual finally realises the futility of their love, they can become dangerous to themselves or others. Some become depressed and suicidal. Others act vindictively, destroying what they cannot have.”
Following Lesley’s disappearance, X provided differing accounts of his
movements to police and others. He is alleged to have told members of his family he could not attend a reunion because he was involved in the search. This contrasts with evidence from those involved in that huge ground and air operation. His absence from the search parties was noted by the Calverts, locals and police.
“It appears unusual that although he [X] saw Lesley just days before she went missing, he was late for work on the day she did go missing and then asked for his holidays on that date and never offered any assistance in searches which took place,” Detective Stevens recorded on the police file during the investigation. “From the discrepancies in his statements, we are interested in charting his exact movements whilst he was on holiday.”
It’s not known if further inquiries were made into these matters. But Lindsay is adamant X never came to his house again, despite the hundreds of visits – often three or four times a week – he had made in the nine preceding years.
Lesley’s remains provided a clear lead, one her husband believes establishes a link between X and the disappearance of his wife. When she was found, Lesley was wearing two size- nine men’s Red Band gumboots, mismatched in that one was old and had no grip and the other was new. These gumboots are shown clearly in the photographs taken by police photographer Don Buttimore.
Police noted Lesley only ever wore brown leather shoes that produced a distinctive tread pattern; their statements record she didn’t wear gumboots. Her brown leather working shoes have never been located. So, how did she come to be wearing mismatched men’s gumboots when she was found seven months later? And who did they belong to?
In December 1977, two months after her body was discovered, the farm manager who employed X at that time recovered four gumboots: two were stuffed behind the washing machine in his farmhouse and two others in the cottage occupied by X.
The farm manager’s wife told North & South she found the gumboots behind the washing machine. “I showed them to my husband and he got two more from the veranda at the cottage where X lived, just down the road. We thought they were important as we had heard Lesley was wearing men’s gumboots when she was found. We took the four gumboots down to Lindsay and told him where we’d found them.”
Lindsay insists that among the four gumboots, two were a match for the two odd (mismatched) ones found on his wife’s body. He sent them into the New Plymouth police on the service coach from Awakino with a note about where they’d been found.
Lindsay claims the following encounter happened as he was driving toward Awakino a few days later. “The police car I recognised as the one used by [Detective] Bob Stevens came around the corner. We both stopped and had a conversation on the side of the road. Stevens seemed angry. He told me he intended charging me with breaking and entering and theft for taking the gumboots. He told me to return the four gumboots to X and to sign an authority for the destruction of Lesley’s clothing and the two gumboots she was wearing when found, claiming they were a health hazard.”
Lindsay says he reluctantly agreed and signed the destruction order. However, he did not return the gumboots as instructed, instead throwing them in a drain near X’s cottage. The farm manager’s wife confirms this chain of events: “Absolutely correct… what Lindsay says. Lindsay never broke into anywhere.”
North & South put this to Detective Stevens, who chose not to respond.
Our attempts to locate X have also been unsuccessful. However, when a private investigator commissioned by Sensing Murder interviewed X in April 2009, he denied any involvement in the disappearance of Lesley Calvert. +
Above left: Lesley Yeates and Lindsay Calvert were married in 1962. Above right: Lindsay’s dedication to the local Lions Club was recognised when he was named an international Lion of the Year in 1972. He believes his long hours working on the farm and Lions’ commitments caused Lesley to feel neglected.
Above left: Lindsay at home. He now lives in Rahotu, south of New Plymouth. Above right: New Plymouth’s Daily News reports on Lesley’s disappearance on February 4, 1977, two days into the search.
The kitchen in the old family home, where memories of Lesley still haunt Lindsay.
May, 2017: After Lindsay’s painful, two-hour trek up the bluff to the spot where his wife’s body was found, and an equally slow descent, his son Greg ferries him by quad bike to the old family home.
Lesley on her wedding day. The Calverts spent that night at the tiny Urenui Hotel on their way to Taupo, where they started married life.
Dr Dennis Allen’s one-page deposition relating to the post mortem carried out on September 14, 1977. It seems no official pathology report was produced.
The Calvert farm, looking back up the valley from where the body was found. The Calverts’ house is hidden behind trees opposite the small white building.