Published: Sunday Star-Times, May 2017
One of the country's worst sex offenders, Stewart Murray Wilson, is living in limbo on the grounds of Whanganui Prison, as it emerges he's being investigated once again by police for historic rape allegations. But the ageing Wilson still denies all of his offending, and is demanding more freedom. Harrison Christian meets the "Beast of Blenheim".
Stewart Murray Wilson never goes anywhere without two pairs of eyes on him.
"See I've come away from the bloody idiots?" he says on my arrival, looking cagily over my shoulder.
He's fishing on the pier – a windswept jumble of rocks where the dirty waters of the Whanganui River meet the ocean swell.
Two men are observing us from a car at the pier's base. "They watch all the bloody time," he says. "That's why I come out here."
The minders accompany him whenever he leaves his cottage on the grounds of Whanganui Prison. He also wears a GPS ankle bracelet. He lifts up his jean leg to show me the lump in his woollen sock. Then he casts a line out into the swell, not far from a line-up of surfers.
The 70-year-old could be mistaken for any old fisherman. He's a small man, and looks quite harmless. Greasy locks of mullet spill out the back of his black beanie. His face is drooping, his mouth sunken. He says "hello" to a man passing us on the pier, but they don't appear to know each other.
Wilson would not be a resident of Whanganui if he had his way. But the area has been his home for five years, since he was released from Rolleston Prison under the strictest parole conditions ever imposed on a New Zealander. He spent two of those years back behind bars, after phoning a woman he'd been warned not to contact.
Whanganui was one of few places in the country where, as far as the Department of Corrections could tell, he had no victims.
Aside from escorted trips off the prison grounds, he lives in relative isolation, sticking to a timetable laid down by probation.
Monday is fishing. Tuesday is grocery shopping, then Catholic Mass, which he attends twice a month. Wednesday is more fishing. Thursday is a trip to the garden centre and a visit by his probation officers. Friday is fish and chips.
If his schedule seems heavily skewed towards catching and eating fish, that's because those are his favourite pastimes. He spends a total of eight-and-a-half hours a week at the river mouth.
Aside from growing vegetables, there's little else he can do. He is still catching up with the technological advances of the 21st century, as you'd expect of someone whose 20-year incarceration saddled the turn of the Millenium. He has two cellphones, and enjoys watching The Chase and Home and Away on TV. But he's never used the Internet and doesn't have a computer.
"I'm still a prisoner," he tells me. "I've done all my time and I've got a supervision order for reintegration, but the probation officers think that they've got to keep control and keep on saying 'no' to anything I ask for."
CRIMES THAT SHOCKED THE COUNTRY
It's not an accident that Wilson finds himself stuck in a kind of institutional limbo, neither fully imprisoned nor free. His criminal history is so horrific it's difficult to condense into a couple of paragraphs, and harder still to read.
The son of an alcoholic couple that later divorced, Stewart Murray Wilson was born in in 1946. He was the eldest of four, with two brothers (one who died in a car crash) and a sister.
Wilson's mother, Win Wilson, said in an interview in 1996 that her son was a "dear wee boy" who "started to go a bit wayward" when he hit puberty.
Wilson tells me he has fond memories of his childhood.
"I had a job as a sweet and ice cream boy in a picture theatre," he remembers. "And I learnt how to use a projector and all sorts of other things like that. I used to go up to this fish and chip shop for my tea, and they used to say, 'here comes sixpence'."
He fell in with the wrong crowd and started stealing. "Because I was the smallest I could climb in windows and I could do all sorts of weird and wonderful kid things."
He was sent off to live in a children's home and a psychiatric hospital.
His mother has claimed that in his early teens, her son suffered brain damage which caused him to lose control occasionally.
"It's possible," he says.
Was he physically abused when he was young?
"Only when I was in Child Welfare. That's when they sent me out to a farm at Methven and the farmer there beat the living Christ out of me. And other actions were done to me."
Win Wilson also said her ex-husband, a staunch army veteran, refused their son affection and disowned him because he was short.
But Stewart Murray Wilson maintains his father was a decent man, who showed love in his own way.
Prior to the 1990s, his offending intensified from simple burglaries to assault on a child, assault on females and living off the earnings of a prostitute.
In 1996 he was jailed for 21 years for crimes that shocked the country. His offending involved at least 42 women and girls.
Among the charges covering rape, stupefying, bestiality, ill treatment of children and indecent assault were revelations he made his daughter eat from a bowl with the cats. He forced his de facto partner to have sex with other women and the family dog.
A mother of three told the court in 1996 that Wilson kept her a virtual prisoner for two years and forced her to have sex with him on a table in front of her three children while they ate dinner. Another victim spoke of beatings, forced hair-cutting and being forbidden to wear underwear. A doctor likened her to a concentration camp victim.
A beneficiary who never amounted to much, Wilson's modus operandi was to groom vulnerable women at a low ebb in their lives. He invited them into his house under the pretense of friendship, using a home pharmacy of sedatives and hypnotics to keep them numb and compliant. Alongside this stash of drugs, authorities also discovered 20 years' worth of pornographic Polaroid photos and samples of head and pubic hair.
"Here comes one of the bloody minders," he says on the pier, again looking over my shoulder.
I'm surprised he can see that far. His eyeballs have almost totally receded into puckered flesh. I can barely make out his pupils.
I see a man in black clothes walking towards us.
"You're just a visitor. Stopping for a fish," Wilson instructs.
The minder walks past, doing a trip to the end of the pier and back.
"You didn't see if he took a photo of you did you? I bet he took a bloody photo. And I bet he'll give it to probation."
LIVING IN DENIAL
His voice has the raspy, slightly whiny quality of a lifelong dropout. He talks about his living conditions with unrestrained bitterness. Indeed, Wilson feels he should never have even gone to jail. To this day he maintains his innocence, viewing himself as the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice à la Arthur Allan Thomas or "that Bain boy".
He denies every offence he was convicted of, bar a single assault charge against his long-term partner, known only as Lorraine.
And his police file has been opened once again. Wilson confirms he's under investigation for "a couple of [alleged] rapes." There are two historic rape allegations against him, one from Auckland 38 years ago, and one from Hamilton 42 years ago. He seems unfazed, and denies both of them.
I ask him why he pleaded "not guilty" to his raft of charges in 1996.
"Well hold on. Um, I'm not trying to be difficult here. But, isn't it my right to plead not guilty? For them to prove the case?"
Bizarrely, Wilson claims he was framed for his crimes, as part of a conspiracy by Lorraine and the lesbian lovers he alleges she had.
"You see, the wife, she was, what do they call it? Into females as well, and it was most of her gay girlfriends that were the people that were putting the charges against me."
He's made this claim before; decades ago, before his trial, he told a reporter for the Dominion that Lorraine and his mistress, who lived with them for two years, had set him up. It's unsettling to hear him repeat the same story, but he seems intent on dredging up all his old excuses.
Without prompting, Wilson mentions the death of his son, Mervyn, lamenting that nobody's ever talked to him about it or offered him counselling.
Mervyn was a brain-damaged baby, born prematurely on the day his father gave his mother such a severe beating she lost consciousness. The infant later died of brain damage.
The death ultimately led to Wilson's undoing, and its recollection was the only time he showed any emotion during his trial, the horrible details causing him to weep in the court dock.
Five years after his son died, he approached the Holmes show claiming the death was a result of drugs that doctors administered to a pregnant Lorraine.
A researcher for the show visited his house to assess the family's suitability for an interview, and was concerned about the welfare of Wilson's daughter. It led to a complaint that would eventually spark a nationwide inquiry.
If Wilson was ever upset about Mervyn's death, his behaviour would often seem to suggest otherwise. The court heard in 1995 how at the boy's funeral, his father was seen putting his hand up a woman's skirt in full view of the funeral guests and street.
He still stands by his claim that Mervyn's death was the result of a medical misadventure.
"Mervyn died in hospital and Lorraine nearly died as well. It's still raw after all this time."
Perhaps just as disturbing as the far-fetched explanations he offers for his convictions and the death of his only son, is that he's never appeared to show any remorse for his many victims. I ask him whether he believes he has any.
"Well you can call them victims if you like. I just don't really think that nymphomaniacs and lesbians are victims."
I let him know that readers will likely perceive him as deluded or insane.
"Maybe I've said too much," he admits.
A CHAINED ELEPHANT
Wilson wants to live in the community and visit his 90-year-old mother in the South Island (something the Parole Board has previously suggested, but Corrections won't allow). He wants real freedom, and he's worried the story I'm writing won't be in his best interests.
"By keeping me locked up like this, and the ankle bracelet, and the two minders and the two probation officers that see me at a time, it's like putting a chain around an elephant's leg, and around a tree and saying well, that's your lot, y'know?"
He pauses, then says quickly: "But you know about that don't ya?"
Wilson could be right in saying the conditions in his 10-year extended supervision order, which he has unsuccessfully challenged in court, can hardly constitute a release from prison.
And there is some support for the idea he should be able to get on with life after serving his time.
"He probably has less freedom now than when he was in prison," says Victoria University professor John Pratt, one of the country's eminent criminologists.
In the past, Western societies usually had no power to detain prisoners likely to commit further crime on their release.
Now, the risk of someone committing a crime is sufficient to limit their movements or keep them in prison indefinitely.
"Wilson did some bad things, and he paid the penalty. He, like anybody else, should be allowed to get on with his life, if he's not doing any harm to anyone else."
But what about Wilson's refusal to acknowledge his offending?
Pratt is resolute: "You can't continually punish someone just because they're maintaining their innocence, however unfounded that belief might be."
'NOBODY IS BORN BAD'
Wilson has caught 84 fish against his minders' eight in the running tally he keeps. He says he's been sending clothes, money and letters to a female prisoner who "wants to come and see" him, not seeming aware this could be perceived as grooming behaviour and compromise what little freedom he has.
Listening to all this bravado, it's clear Wilson has trouble filtering himself. I wonder whether his 20-year incarceration has interfered with his ability to interact with people from the outside. But his crimes suggest his mind was warped long before he was locked up.
In my experience, dinner-table talk about crime and punishment in New Zealand usually arrives at the idea that some people are just "born criminals" and should be "locked up forever". There's a weird satisfaction in talking this way. Maybe, short of picking up pitchforks, it helps us feel buttressed against elements in society we can't comprehend.
Wilson has been diagnosed as a psychopath. Traits on the checklist include superficial charm, a parasitic lifestyle and a lack of guilt or remorse.
One of New Zealand's leading experts on psychopathy, Waikato University professor Devon Polaschek, tells me no one is "born bad".
"The more we know about genes, the more we know that people's inherited genetics are turned on and off by the environment."
Polaschek says meeting these criteria doesn't necessarily dash a prisoner's chances of being released. However, reducing the risk they pose is only possible if they're willing to participate.
"If someone refuses to be engaged in the best methods we've developed for helping them, whether they're a psychopath or not, there's nothing much we can do. They're going to be in the small category of people who we will perhaps never want to let out to society."
I ask Wilson if he agrees with his diagnosis.
"What the hell d'ya call a bloody psychopath?" he responds.
"People like putting labels on things, and they basically don't even know what the hell they're talking about."
He offers me a cigarette, which I decline. He still gets through half a pack of 20s a day.
We watch a wild cat slinking around on the pier, pulling its black belly over the rocks.
"That little cat there, he came down the other day," Wilson puffs. "And it just sat there and stared at me, so I ended up giving it some bloody steak. Is that what a psychopath would do?"
I tell Wilson it's time for me to go. I leave him alone on a rock, pulling bits of seaweed off his line. We haven't caught anything.
STEWART MURRAY WILSON TIMELINE:
1996 - Jailed for crimes against at least 42 women and girls
2012 - Paroled to a cottage on Whanganui Prison grounds
2013 - Recalled to prison for phoning a woman he'd been warned not to contact
2015 - Re-released to a cottage on Whanganui Prison grounds
2017 - Under investigation for historic rape allegations
2026 - Wilson's extended supervision order is due to end