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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyMay 18, 2024

Bearing witness to a confession of murder

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Nearly 30 years ago, two people told me they’d killed a woman they knew. I thought the truth would come out, that others would tell it. In the end, I had to. 

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Fact: in 1995, Angela Blackmoore was 21 and pregnant when she was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in her Wainoni home, while her two-year-old son slept down the hall.

Fact: in 2019, online news platform Stuff published Dark Secret, a feature detailing what was known about the 23-year-old murder and announcing that police were offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. An informant, Witness X, came forward and was paid an undisclosed sum after providing evidence which pointed to Jeremy Powell, who later confessed. 

Memory: in 1995, my first year living away from home, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my flatmate’s room, directly opposite Rebecca Wright-Meldrum, who I knew as Bex, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Powell. We were setting up to play Dungeons and Dragons. Jeremy was the Dungeon Master, the one who told the story of the campaign and read the die to tell us the outcome of our actions. I was learning to chit-chat so I tried, “How’s your week been? Do anything exciting?” Bex laughed. “You could say that.” They told me they had murdered someone: a woman they knew, in her own home. 

There is no undoing murder. There is no point at which someone has done “just a little” murder. Once someone murders, they are a murderer. This is one of the things I would’ve said to the defendants, both now, almost thirty years afterward, and given the chance, before the murder.

When I came forward, parts of my account corroborated Witness X’s, and I was asked to be a witness. To clarify, I wasn’t paid; money wasn’t my motivation. A friend asked what outcome I hoped for. I wanted the murderers to tell the truth, to repent, and to sit with the gravity of what they’d done.

In the week before the trial, I looked down from my first-floor window as a white ute pulled up and idled. The tray contained no tools and there was no visible business name. The driver has come to kill me, I thought, and this did not seem strange.

Late 2020, I received a text message from a close friend who was my flatmate back in 1995, and who knew the Powell family through her time living in Oxford. She informed me that Jeremy had been arrested and confessed to murder. This was the first time I heard the name Angela Blackmoore. 

Back then, I never seriously considered coming forward. I thought the murder was gang related and I did not want to invite that into my life. If Bex and Jeremy had told me what they’d done, someone they didn’t know well, then they would’ve told others. Bex was often over-animated, relating bizarre, inappropriate stories. I couldn’t imagine her keeping this to herself. The police would have better, more current witnesses.

At some point in 2021, I called the Christchurch police station and asked to give evidence in the Angela Blackmoore murder. When I refused to give my name, the officer told me to forget about it. I hesitated on the phone, wondering whether to press on. Instead, I told myself I had tried and hung up.

In other moments, I briefly weighed the idea of coming forward, but never truly considered it. I never thought it through; my mind tucked it away. Don’t do it.

Halfway through 2023, randomly I wondered what sentence Jeremy received. I found that in April the trial had been postponed so that both parties could consider new evidence. It had been rescheduled for November. Jeremy Powell was now the star witness for the Crown against the defendants, Rebecca Wright-Meldrum and David Hawken, a former debt-collector who was alleged to have offered $10,000 for the murder to free up a property deal. I was shocked that Bex hadn’t confessed.

I had to make a decision. It was now or never.

Did it really matter what I did now? Bex was in her 50s. She had had a life. She had gotten away with murder. 

I had thought the truth would come out, that others would tell it. 

I walked, blind to the streets and the light on the paperbark trees. What was my moral obligation?

I doubted the murder would’ve happened without Bex. 

I didn’t want her to go to prison. I didn’t want anyone to go prison. I don’t believe in carceral justice; it feels like an oxymoron. We know prison doesn’t work: recidivist rates sit at around 40% within the first two years of release in both Australia, where I live, and New Zealand.

But if I said nothing I would have to live with that. Forever.

There would be no justice. It was too late for Angela. Besides, what constitutes justice for the taking of a life? There was no justice, but there was the truth. I believe in the truth.

In this case, it was collective truth, which I came to see was what “witness” truly meant: one perspective overlapping with others. I did not want to live with myself as the sort of person who remained silent.

In November 2023, during the trial, Rebecca Wright-Meldrum’s counsel, Phillip Shamy, questioned why there were new details I had only remembered the day before. Although I had thought about this murder since coming forward, although I had tossed over and seen through the facts of it, I had compartmentalised the emotion of it until the day before the trial, when I sat down to read over my witness statement.

The day before the trial, I fell apart.

I had not imagined standing with Angela while she answered the door to her friend Bex, Jeremy appearing from around the corner. Angela’s partner had been called into work. It was dark, not long after nine at night. Angela was frightened. She was embroiled in a battle with her ex over property and the custody of her son. She had received threats. I imagined the rush of cold over her skin, her hesitation, Bex chattering and cheerful. I pictured Jeremy’s long, black trench coat – a coat I had seen him wearing – the baseball bat tucked snugly within. I pictured them coming in the back door beside the kitchen.

I pictured Angela, politeness overcoming fear, offering a cuppa and turning away to make it. I imagined Bex urging Jeremy on, him stepping forward, pulling out a baseball bat and heaving it down on Angela’s head. I imagined her pain, her fear. I imagined cream-coloured linoleum, blood plunging toward the cupboard under the sink where she kept the Sunlight liquid and the steel wool in its little yellow box.

This young mother who’d finally found a safe, loving partner and built a home for her child.

What would they have done if Angela’s two-year-old son had woken up?

The hair.

I remembered them both having great hair. Jeremy possessed long, dark, glistening locks and Bex a silky, flaxen mane. She was petite, snub-nosed and pixie-like and he, a dark warrior. These descriptions were the observations of a 19-year-old, fresh out of home; of a young person who primarily knew them through their roles in Dungeons and Dragons. 

This morning, I read a post in which someone complained that they took a long time trying to take a friendly, professional selfie for some job applications, and still ended up looking like a serial killer. A comment said, “I feel like that confirms you *aren’t* a serial killer then; they’re usually too charismatic and would find selfies easy.”

Back in July, in the interview room after I gave my statement, I chatted with the chief investigator and mentioned Jeremy’s long hair. I had very long hair at the time too, I added. “Yeah, what’s with that?” The force of contempt in his words and face made me study him. He was the type of person who saw long hair on a man as a symbol, or simply put, wrong. I was surprised that his contempt extended to me. I was one of them: the type of person who mucked around at uni, played Dungeons and Dragons, and knew murderers. I supposed it was true that I was the artsy type, quirky and intense. On my walk home, I wondered about his assurances regarding my safety, the formerly polite, casual manner of the man behind the job and the stark contrast with this brief, blazing contempt.  

I tried to settle the moral dilemma of being a witness in a system I do not think benefits anyone. I weighed the void between someone who accounts for themselves through their art, who choses to hold open, and someone who believes in absolutes, and acts for them. 

Here’s something I’ve learned: the world does not fall apart when we learn that we are not right. Being right is stative; altering from moment to moment. Learning that you cannot catch “right” in a net and contain it does not let chaos in. It lets life in, and holds you open to the world – so open that you not only enter into the world, you become it.

The trial. In November 2023, I went to the local police station and did the trial via video link from Australia. In an email, the chief prosecutor advised me not to rush and to answer only when I was ready. After the trial, I realised I did not think about this enough. I was not nervous, not at all. Lately, I have come to this way of being in the world, where each moment is just that, and I am whole and full in it. No part of me is resistant, no part holds back. I am both a sensor and the world itself. We all are.

So, there I was, in the semi-dark in a police control room. A bruised banana and a half-empty water bottle sat on top of a nearby computer tower. I was thankful there was a jury because I had just finished reading This House of Grief by Helen Garner, in which she quoted Janet Malcolm saying, “Jurors sit there presumably weighing evidence but in actuality they are studying character.”

I think about this a lot, and the notion of collective judgement, because collective judgement should be representative judgement, and isn’t that also the reason for the push to highlight more diverse voices in the arts and politics, so that what we see and hear and read around us reflects our communities? So that those who are not inclined to question their worldviews have them extended by what’s represented around them? I would like us to view identity more collectively. 

My large, reddish face loomed on a screen above the courtroom. My view was of glass partitions and wood panelling; rows of desks, mostly empty. Two right-facing desks were occupied by the Crown’s lawyers; facing them was the woman operating the video link – the court clerk, I assumed.

In her black, winged robe, the judge sat high up in the far right corner of my screen. She was one of those thoughtful, kind-yet-sharp New Zealand women. On the left, behind a glass partition, were the two defendants. A uniformed police officer separated them. Closest to the door, Bex pressed headphones intently to her ears. In my view, the defendants’ counsel occupied two desks directly below the judge. At first, my audio was delayed, and the counsel for the defence stood and addressed the judge in a booming voice. I was slow to realise this was Phillip Shamy, Bex’s lawyer.

At one point, I was asked why I didn’t go to the police back in 1995, and I didn’t explicitly say that I don’t like the police, but I did explain that it would’ve taken me a lot, that I didn’t have a great trust of the police. In the small town where I grew up, a local officer was prosecuted for molesting his two daughters. It seemed a strange thing to say and I sort of skipped over it, but it was true. It was one of the seminal events of my childhood, further evidence that figures of authority did not automatically warrant respect. I knew the two girls and my sister had been to their house. Once, that same police officer had tried to get me into his car, but that’s another story. 

At the time of the trial, I was reading Lucy Treloar’s novel Days of Innocence and Wonder. Its themes of culpability, long-ago memory, bearing witness and trauma all felt relevant to what I was working through. It was not easy to get across to men how early young women learn that men wielding authority are not safe, especially large, institutionalised groups of them, like the police in the 1990s. You do not seek them out. I did not explain this. I did state, again, that the main reason I didn’t go to the police is that I did not believe Bex and Jeremy.

It’s a shame you don’t get a practice go at the trial. Immediately afterwards, I realised that under questioning from Anne Stevens, KC, David Hawken’s counsel, I had agreed to something that was incorrect. I was not sure of the relevance to her narrative, but she asked, as a player of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s you who decides on your character, isn’t it? That didn’t sound right, but I didn’t remember. After a few times saying I wasn’t sure, I ended up agreeing with her. If she had only asked how you made decisions in Dungeons and Dragons, I would’ve remembered. When you begin a campaign you roll the dice for certain criteria: strength, wisdom, agility and personality. Sometimes when you decide to do an action, the Dungeon Master will pull you up and remind you, “Your character only has this level of intelligence, would they really do that?”

This is the game: the lawyer carefully words their questions to elicit the answers they need for their narrative. Both sides stick to strict narratives that they have constructed long ago; their case. Neither seemed to have any interest in the truth. I came away disheartened and a little disgusted, thinking we needed an additional lawyer whose only aim was the truth. 

As it turned out, there was somebody else interested in the truth.

Narrative. As a writer, you are eternally carving narratives out of the chaos of life. Pretty soon, events, memories, emotions, a character’s motivations, intelligence, era – the whole gamut – become your tools; limitless items you select from in order to shape your story. No matter how precisely, how intentionally you select, two things will happen. The first: no two readers will read the story in exactly the same way. One reader will read your story set in a sunny place as being Hawaii, since they visited last winter; another will assume the protagonist is a man, since they only think of men doing the particular job featured in the story. 

The second: sometime, someplace, a reader will corner a writer and say, “By the way, that thing you wrote is wrong, it just would never happen. I am a cardiothoracic surgeon/marine biologist/electrician/dog breeder/policeman and trust me, that could never happen.” Your narrative has alienated them. I’ve been that reader, shocked out of an otherwise fine story by something implausible. Yet that’s what fiction is. Surely we read fiction because it tells us a story about life, it categorises impossibilities, takes the minute and extends into the universal. Fiction kneads the dough of life.

Despite this story not being fiction, I have selected a narrative to shape. I have made meaning by omission and attention; I have baked my bread.

On the day of trial, the station chief met me downstairs and walked me through the building. He was soft-spoken, direct and kind. He confronted my bias about police officers. Once, I went on a date with an ex-military Mexican-American. He was brought up by a single mother in a middle-of-nowhere shithole and joining the military was the only option for kids like him; a free education, decent pay and benefits, and a ticket out of there. I consider that when I wonder why people chose to join the police. There is an element of snobbery, of intolerance, in my wondering. I want to think others want to act, to go forth and do a good job.

A week after the verdict came in, at 10 o’clock on Saturday night, I was coming home from the city in the back of an Uber when the traffic snagged. I was exhausted and craned my neck trying to see past the trail of brake lights warning in the dark. We inched forward, cars desperately merging three lanes into one. In the rain, the ground was slick with ribbons of pink and blue light. The tires purred and peeled over the wet tarseal, the rain drummed, the wipers swept and clunked.

Slowly, my eyes focused an outline of dark shapes on the other side of the road into a crowd. Some of the people were yelling and breaking off. Doors flung open; an abandoned police car’s lights flashed. In a clearing in the road, a lone officer knelt over a figure in the wet. His shoulders lurched and jolted. He was performing CPR on a dark shape lying on the road.

I thought of the station chief, and of my mother who had been a paramedic for most of her life. I pictured all the moments when they had been the only thing standing between a person and disaster. I thought of 115, which is the number of people affected by every suicide. How many are affected by murder? I thought of the faces of the radiographers at work when they returned from X-raying the body of a two-year-old backed over by his uncle, because the parents wanted to know exactly what happened – the silent, distant way they moved throughout the rest of the day. I thought of writing a thank-you card to the police; of nurses and the yelling of patients at work, the particular kind of synchronised action that falls into place in a medical emergency.

Later, I messaged my mother, the ex-paramedic, and told her about the police officer doing CPR. I was full of the image and couldn’t get through the sadness. “How do you let it go? How do you not take it with you?”

“You don’t, you can’t,” she said. “You carry it with you.”

I think that’s true. But how you carry it is up to you.

For months after that, I started to notice how easily vanquished all my petty biases were, how life’s a bit of a bitch, and just as soon as you think you have it sorted, life tips its hat and smiles, “Not so fast.”

Coda. My closest friend since high school called me. She was a botanist, a hands-on, gentle, hardy type, who loved nothing more than meandering in nature. Over the last few years, she’d purchased a block of land and built an exquisite garden. After bringing up her daughter as a solo mum and dreaming of working with plants, she’d finally achieved not one but two of her dream jobs. The first involved going out to remote, mountainous plots and mapping native plant species, and the second was working with her partner, who was an apiarist, in and around the honey factory at Mount White. 

She told me she was carefully ferrying a bumble bee outside, in her palm, when she was stung. The sting didn’t hurt much, but by the time she’d walked a few paces to the outside toilet, the world was spinning, her head was aching and she couldn’t breathe. It was the most incredible pain she’d ever felt, searing and sharp. It roared through her head. Her veins ached and the world was blurry and hot. Her partner gave her two antihistamines. She threw up the first two, but managed to hold a couple down. She was taken to hospital, where they said she was very lucky and issued her with an EpiPen. 

She will never again be able to do the job that she has wanted for her whole life. She will never again wander careless and whole and barefoot through her beautiful garden. Such a perfect little creature, she says lovingly.

For me, the trial became this strange reckoning with meaning, memory and how we construct narrative. My role was to recall a conversation that took place almost 30 years ago. Back when Bex and Jeremy told me, I fled the room to report their behaviour to my flatmate, who didn’t remember me telling her. Later, we discussed why. She thought it was because she wasn’t in the room. 

I think that I remember for the same reason I write: the emotion. I was incredibly uncomfortable. I couldn’t work out why Bex and Jeremy were saying it. I thought there was something I hadn’t understood. That’s how memory works: we recall events that hold strong emotions. In movies, scenes are the moments that depict strong emotions. As writers, these are the events we work with and try to understand; a strange, intensely uncomfortable conversation from nearly 30 years ago.

I was relieved when the trial was over. The process had made me see myself through others’ eyes. As a fairly articulate person, I made a plausible witness. I realised that not everybody makes decisions based on moral considerations, and that I am a very moral person. I was careful with my opinions, but I gave them.

I was not silent. Perhaps I can leave off torturing myself about being better, since surprisingly, the truth seems to be that I am already the sort of person I’ve always wanted to be.

I tried to imagine what a prosecution might mean for Angela’s family, but I couldn’t. Not really.

On December 8, 2023, the jury returned a guilty verdict for both David Hawken and Rebecca Wright-Meldrum. Only then did I understand that the verdict could bring closure. Knowledge of what happened that night allows Angela’s loved ones some peace. The truth still means something.

And the jury knew it.

Keep going!