One Question Quiz

SocietyNovember 13, 2019

A search for the truth behind the strangest news story of the year


One journalist’s quest for a silly answer leads to a desperate search for the truth behind the most bizarre news story. 

A woman was reading a book, her husband was driving, and their son was asleep in the back seat when an axe flew through the windscreen. The short-handled axe – otherwise known as a hatchet – struck the book the woman was reading. The woman received minor bruises and cuts, the driver and the child were uninjured.

That’s it. That’s the whole story.

At least according to the brief write-up in the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday, October 29. The incident happened outside Dargaville on State Highway 12, and Sergeant Lance Goulsbro said it was unclear if the axe had come from a passing vehicle or if it had bounced up from the road.

The most fascinating news story in the country took up all of seven centimetres in the paper.

I first came across the story because of a tweet. “Book story”, wrote Steve Braunias, captioning an image of the report. A book had saved someone’s life, it seemed. The incident was reminiscent of the many stories told of pocket bibles stopping bullets during the war. It was a modern day miracle, and the overwhelming reaction to it was what book was she reading?

“We need to know the title!!” one person yelled through text.

“This story is incomplete without the title!!!” screamed another.

I wanted to know the title too. And thanks to my profession, it made sense for me to find out. So on the morning of October 29, I set out to answer one question and one question only: what book saved a woman’s life outside Dargaville?

I eventually found the answer, but in the process, I uncovered many more questions.

L: @stevebraunias on twitter, R: my outbox

Sergeant Lance Goulsbro knew what I knew and nothing more. He declined my call using one of the pre-written message rejections: please text me.

“Hi Lance… I have just two pressing questions you could really help with…
1) How long was the axe?
2) What book was she reading?”

He called me to say that he couldn’t help, he was just the officer on desk duty that day. “Try the Dargaville police station,” he said.

After 13 minutes on hold with the police, I did my own investigating and found the number of detective sergeant Jonathan Tier from Dargaville Police. I asked for details on the axe that went through a windscreen.

“How did you know about that?”

My heart rate picked up. Why did he sound defensive? I waited for Tier to go on, a classic reporting trick.

“Apparently it was Daniel Boone that threw it.”

I scrambled for a pen while gasping “it was thrown?!” down the line. There was a pause which, listening back to the recording, was actually Tier sighing.

“Oh my goodness, how old are you? He was a TV character in the 70s.”

I put my pen down, disappointed and embarrassed, and wondered whether the entire story was some sort of weird police prank on the media. But Tier assured me the story was real and that the officer on duty at the time, Gavin Cyprian, would be back on duty that afternoon and would call me. I thanked Tier and Tier thanked me, then asked me what the hell The Spinoff was and told me to Google Daniel Boone.

Cyprian did not call me.

I called the police again the next morning and they redirected the call to the Dargaville station. Nobody answered. I tried again an hour later. Again they redirected and again nobody answered.

After 37 minutes on hold with the police during my fourth attempt, I debated whether it would be quicker to drive to Dargaville and ask in person. Instead, I did my own investigating and found Cyprian’s email. He told me to contact his boss Shane Pilmer.

Shane Pilmer told me to contact the police media team.

The police media team told me exactly what I’d read in the paper three days earlier.

No one would tell me what book the woman was reading. Or anything else for that matter. But two lines in their statement jumped out.

“It’s not know [sic] where the tomahawk has come from but a ute drove past around the same time however so it could have possibly come out of the back or flicked up off the road.

“Police do not believe anyone has thrown it or there are any suspicious circumstances.”

They’d given me little to no information, but they sent through some images to prove it was real. I couldn’t help but note the incorrect use of the word ‘tomahawk’. While it’s objectively a much cooler word, a tomahawk is a small throwing axe identified by both sides of the metal head being sharpened. The image of the implement showed not a tomahawk but a hatchet, or short-handled axe.

Images: police

Second only to my burning desire to know the name of the book was my burning desire to know how exactly an axe went through a windscreen on a highway. There didn’t seem to be any clear explanation, and the two possibilities offered up by the police offered no closure.

I never failed physics in school because I never did well enough to take it in the first place, so I sought expert opinion. My question was simple and, in my opinion, concisely worded:

“Like is it possible for an object of xx weight to be lifted off the ground to xx height after being run over by an object of xx weight travelling at xx speed?”

Surely someone could answer that.

Forensic scientist Angus Newton from ESR (the Institute of Environmental Science and Research) was recommended. I was soon told that he worked more with firearms cases than basic high school physics equations. Was there anyone there who could help?

“I don’t think that anyone at ESR is going to be able to help you…”

I browsed the science faculty at the University of Auckland and asked Nicola Gaston and Richard Easther. They had many questions about the details of the case, most of which I couldn’t answer. I just want to know, I said, if it is physically possible for something as heavy as an axe to bounce off the road and into an oncoming car, or to fall off the back of a ute and pass through a windscreen.

“Small but sudden changes in motion going up or down a hill, or around a bend, could certainly make even a quite heavy object airborne off the back of a ute,” said Gaston.

For an object to generate enough sideways velocity (terms I learned from Easther in our email thread) to cross from a ute bed on one side of the road to a windscreen on another (approximately two metres) it would likely need to have fallen off a turning vehicle. An object sliding off the back of a truck travelling straight would most likely continue travelling straight.

Was the ute going around a bend? I scrambled back to the sparse police statement.

“On Monday at around 2pm, the victim was a passenger in a vehicle heading south on State Highway 12 approximately 1km north of Mamaranui Road.”

That meant the ute was travelling north on the left-hand side of the road. Which meant a left hand turn, even a slight one, could theoretically fling an axe across the centre line and into an oncoming vehicle. A study of a map of State Highway 12 shows only one very slight turn in the road in the kilometre travelling north of Mamaranui Rd. It’s a right turn. There are two more further along but they too are right turns. The first left turn is a little over three kilometres north of Mamaranui Rd.

In other words, the road was straight.

Maybe it was exceptionally windy that day?

The weather report on the afternoon of Monday, October 28 showed 12km winds.

Google street view shows what appears to be a bitumen seal on State Highway 12 in that area, meaning it was smooth. However, a foreign object could have been on the road, creating a small but sudden change in movement. In the two kilometres travelling north of Mamaranui Rd, there is both a steady incline and a steady decline. The axe would still need to generate sideways velocity somehow.

Perhaps it had been on the road, as the police had theorised, and deflected up off the tyre of the ute as it drove by.

“It seems less probable for a heavy object to come up off the ground at rest, but the shape of an axe might make that possible, under quite specific circumstances,” said Gaston. “I don’t think the physics alone can tell you what happened, with the limited details we have.”

2km North of Mamaranui Rd, and the surface of the highway (Screengrabs: Google Maps)

On Friday, four days after the incident, the couple from the vehicle that had been hit appeared on Seven Sharp with their son. They were driving home to Auckland from the Kai Iwi Lakes when the incident happened. The woman was reading a book. Their son was sleeping. The man, who had been driving the couple’s Subaru Forrester, described the incident as “almost like a horror movie”. He spoke of a ute coming towards them on the highway and then “I saw something fly out of the right-hand back end of that vehicle. And started coming, twisting, coming right at me. I initially thought it was a piece of stick.”

In the split second following the axe passing straight through the windscreen, the handle hit the man on the upper left arm and then struck the book the woman was reading, which in turn struck her face, before falling at her feet (the axe, not the book). It happened so quickly that neither of them were fully aware they’d been struck until later when bruises appeared.

Neither Hilary Barry nor Jeremy Wells asked the woman what book she was reading.

I found a contact for the woman and spoke to her for half an hour about the incident. She walked me through the whole thing, largely reiterating what her husband had said on Seven Sharp as well as providing more specific details, none of which pointed to a definite cause. A week later, she abruptly asked not to be named or quoted in this story.

I had every last detail of the case and was left with a brand new burning question: how did the police declare the case unsuspicious so quickly?

In 2013, Rutger Telford Hale was also driving a Subaru on a State Highway when a mysterious object crashed through the windscreen. The object struck Hale on the head, killing him, then exited through the rear window. The object was never found or identified.

The incident was initially described as a “suspicious death” by police. Witnesses, namely Hale’s partner who was in the passenger seat when it happened, described seeing a truck or ute driving erratically towards them before an object flew out from somewhere between the driver’s window and the back of the vehicle. After a coroner’s inquest, Hale’s death was ruled accidental.

There are many similarities in the two cases, the major difference being that, by luck and luck alone, one ended in a tragic death and the other ended in minor cuts and bruises. Had the axe caused a serious injury or death, there would be a thorough investigation happening right now. The driver of the dark ute on State Highway 12 travelling north of Dargaville at 2pm on Monday, October 28 would be a person of interest. The end result determines the scope of the investigation, regardless of how narrow the miss was.

I had been investigating, but I was just me. Maybe the police did know more. I asked them one more time how the cause was determined and if the case was closed. The response was swift.

“Police at this stage haven’t been able to determine what the cause of this incident was.”

A woman was reading a book, her husband was driving, and their son was asleep in the back seat when an axe flew through the windscreen. The short-handled axe, otherwise known as a hatchet, struck the book the woman was reading. The woman received minor bruises and cuts, the driver and the child were uninjured.

According to seemingly everyone, that really was the whole story.

The woman was reading Turning Point by Danielle Steel.

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