Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine

Des Thomas: a Jane Ussher photograph


He served 10 years banged up inside Paremoremo. Ten years of hell, but also loyal and fierce support; and then came the amazing pardon and immediate release, and the compensati­on of nearly $1m. A happy ending. But who killed the Crewes? Who put the bullets in their heads that winter’s night in 1970; who tied them with lengths of wire and dumped them in the Waikato River, their bodies rising to the surface this time 40 years ago?

“I know,” says Des Thomas. “Well. I think I know.” Des is a younger brother of Arthur. He lives in Pukekawa, east of the river, over the Caesar Roose Bridge from Mercer. That riverbank stretch of the Waikato heading south along SH1 from Mercer is strange country. Much of it’s extremely ugly: low and swampy, dark and grassy, good for sheep and dairy, a land of frost and fog, willowy and wet, bitterly cold in winter, unpretty all year round. It looks like hard work. You fully expect to see fridges and animal carcasses dumped in the river. You see a fridge and the carcasses of two dogs dumped in the river at Mercer. The river flows broad and sluggish. In 1970, at the time of the Crewe murders and two years before the Caesar Roose Bridge was built, a single-cylinder diesel ferry was the only way to cross the Waikato from Mercer to Pukekawa. Mercer Ferry Road, where the Crewes lived, and where Des Thomas lives now, was a metal road. It wound up the hill like a snake. It delivered the bodies to their lousy grave.

There are famous photos of Arthur Allan Thomas on his first night of freedom on December 17, 1979. He is pictured at a kitchen table with a mug of tea, wearing striped pyjama trousers and a white singlet, and he looks completely wired, manic with happiness. It was the kitchen at Des’s house. He put him up for the night so Arthur could avoid the press. Ever since, Des has remained determined to gather evidence against the man he believes is the culprit. He talks about the motive. He talks about the weapon. He talks about the most famous car axle in New Zealand criminal history, that submerged weight used to hide a dead man underwater 40 years ago.

Is the axle still in existence, stored in some official cellar of justice? Famously, or infamously, police did away with the incriminat­ing shellcase which they claimed they found in the Crewe’s back garden. After Thomas’s second trial, it was gathered up with other, small exhibits, and thrown out at the Whitford tip. Oh, said the inspector who gave the order, that was a shame, because he’d promised to give the shellcase to another officer as a souvenir.

A souvenir! But everything about the killings now plays out as a souvenir edition, as an anniversar­y special. Next month, author and Investigat­e editor Ian Wishart publishes his book (“significan­t new evidence!”) on the Crewe murders, and on Thomas’s sufferings, which began this time 40 years ago, when the Waikato River surrendere­d two bodies. Email:

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