A blue Jeep
the tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it settlement of Pohokura near Whangamomona in Taranaki, who had some intriguing information about a neighbour, Quinton Winders, known as Quin.
Winders owned a Jeep Cherokee, the caller said, and had also allegedly fired shots towards people hunting near his property.
‘‘That pricked our ears up,’’ Anderson says. ‘‘That put him into the suspect category, and then we started looking at him quite solidly.’’
Winders had no criminal convictions though – in police terminology he was a ‘‘cleanskin’’.
If there was a Eureka moment early on, it was the discovery that there was a connection – albeit tenuous – between Winders and Taiaroa.
There’d been a minor crash at roadworks controlled by Taiaroa on SH1 a week before his murder, and his employer HEB Construction had kept records of the vehicles involved.
Number plate searches found a Land Rover, towing a trailer, that had over-shot the stop-sign, reversed and caused $989 damage to the trailing Ford was owned by none other than Max Winders, Quinton’s elderly father.
Not only that, but Quin was a passenger in the vehicle that day, and had been heard to say that the crash was the road worker’s fault because he hadn’t been displaying his sign.
In later interviews with police he insisted the incident was no big deal, and other witnesses said he’d even laughed at his father’s notoriously poor driving.
The crash did cause a few problems with the insurance, however, Max failing to return repeated calls from the other driver and initially telling insurance assessors the accident wasn’t his fault, before coming clean. But it was all sorted out and a couple of weeks later the insurance was paid.
Police were convinced they had their motive, or ‘‘catalyst’’, and by early May Anderson was telling media it would ‘‘appal’’ most people.
The defence says police had tunnel vision from this moment on, unwilling to consider other scenarios.
Anderson admits that Winders had become the ‘‘core suspect’’ and was put under surveillance.
‘‘If you couple the fact there was a connection with the traffic accident with Quinton Winders, with him having a blue Jeep Cherokee, the information that we’d received on his previous behaviour around his use of firearms in very highly unusual circumstances, all of those things, made him quite likely.
‘‘But we were still guarded, everyone was keeping an open mind that it could be someone else.’’
Detectives set about finding out everything they could about Winders over the following weeks and months, serving ‘‘production orders’’ or search warrants on his banks, insurers, university – even his old high school. They made inquiries with authorities in Australia, Canada and the UK, where Winders had spent time, and placed listening devices in the homes and vehicles of family members.
Winders was brought in for questioning on April 4, supposedly for reckless driving, but really to quiz him about the murder.
Asked if he’d been in Taumarunui on that day he said no, then accepted he was.
‘‘But then after that, when he was challenged on his next movements, when it came closer to the time of the homicide, he said ‘this is all getting a bit serious, I need to speak to a lawyer’,’’ Anderson says.
‘‘Other suspects had alibis that we could corroborate – he didn’t have that.’’
Other breakthroughs for police came when dairy farmer Corina Walker was able to identify Winders from a photo line-up as the ‘‘crazy’’ driver who sped erratically past her near the murder scene, and the discovery of a tow-bar assembly and spare Jeep wheel in bush across the road from Winders’ Pohokura property – evidence, police believed, of attempts to change the vehicle’s appearance.
(The Jeep had been found in a shed on Max Winders’ property during a search on April 4.)
There was still a big hole in the police case – they didn’t have the murder weapon.
When they searched Winders’ property, they found only two of his four guns. A .22 rifle was one of those missing. Winders claimed the others had been lost, then he said they’d been stolen in 2009.
Not having the gun believed to have killed Taiaroa wasn’t as big a set-back as it could have been, thanks to the meticulous work of a retired Taranaki cop called Ray Whittaker.
After he left the police, Whittaker, now 73, was a firearms vetter for many years and had visited Winders when he went for his firearms licence in 2008. Winders handled guns appropriately, and gave no cause for concern, Whittaker said in a statement.
‘‘He gave no vibes or feelings he was untoward in any way...a solid sort of bugger.’’
He wasn’t required to, but Whittaker noted down the serial numbers of Winders’ firearms, including a Winchester Cooey model 39 .22 bolt action rifle, a decision that would help the police considerably several years later.
A bullet fragment removed from Taiaroa’s head came from the same type of gun.
Local experts ran tests on weapons with serial numbers just three or four away from Winders’ missing rifle, and then firearms experts from New South Wales police were asked to carry out further tests.
They were from the same team that had studied the ballistics evidence left behind in the Lindt Cafe in Sydney after the shoot-out with Man Haron Monis in 2014.
The experts found markings on the bullet fragment recovered from Taiaroa matched indentations on bullets fired from the test rifles.
The defence argued that serial numbering provided evidence of the sequence the numbers were stamped on a gun after assembly, not the manufacture of the various parts.
But for police it was the final piece of the puzzle and Crown prosecutor Amanda Gordon would tell the jury it was ‘‘highly likely’’ the fatal bullet was fired from Winders’ missing gun.
What does he think happened to the gun?
‘‘He’s a fencer, he’s been right across the North Island, so it could be in any tomo, hole, cave, wherever.’’
During the inquiry, when it seemed to reporters that police were struggling, Anderson said he
‘‘We’ve got everyone from Bilbo Baggins to Andre the Giant. ’’
was happy to bide his time.
He raised the spectre of the Scott Guy murder, where the victim’s brother-in-law Ewen Macdonald was acquitted, and said he didn’t want Winders walking because there wasn’t enough evidence. ‘‘You only get one shot.’’
He finally got to arrest his man in November, 2015.
Asked during the trial how he’d feel if Winders was found not guilty, he said: ‘‘It’s just the system we work with, that’s the adversarial system we’ve got.
‘‘I often talk about this within my team and also with the [Taiaroa] family. The way I look at it, we’ve put the best possible case before the court, that’s all we can do, we respect the court’s decision.’’
Defence lawyer Jonathan Temm is a gifted orator and held the jury spellbound at times when his cross-examinations.
He found particularly fertile ground in the varying descriptions of the Jeep driver, some witnesses believing he was a large Maori. ‘‘We’ve got everyone from Bilbo Baggins to Andre the Giant,’’ Temm said.
And there was a dramatic moment in the first week of the trial when Temm extracted a confession from the other lollipop worker on that day – he’d exposed himself to a five-year-old girl and been confronted at home by the girl’s Mongrel Mob relatives. Could the murder have been a botched mob hit?
Another man with gang connections who owned a Jeep with what appeared to be doctored number plates was visited by police but not properly investigated, Temm said.
It was all aimed at sowing doubt in the jurors’ minds.
But reporters questioned Temm’s decision to call two goat hunters who’d had a frightening run-in with Winders at Whangamomona about seven months before the murder.
They’d shot goats on or near Winders’ property and he’d chased them, pulling up in his Jeep with a gun.
It was meant to show that Winders had been involved in confrontations where no shots were fired and was not prone to over-reacting, but only served to reinforce his unpredictable nature and left an image of an angry Winders, gun across his lap, confronting someone in his Cherokee.
Detective Superindendent Tim Anderson was happy to bide his time.
The damage caused by the nose to tail cost more than $900 to repair.
Quinton Winders accused police of a "fabrication".
The road in Atiamuri where George Taiaroa was murdered.