The first we knew of the fire was when D S Sam Bindon of Kerikeri Police rang us at 9.00am on the morning of the 10 September, we were at a motel in Hamilton almost 400Km away from the house. He told us that we should return home, the house had burnt down and that the damage was very severe, little was left standing.
In total shock, we struggled to pack the car and head for home. The receptionist tried to assist us, finally offering to keep some of our stuff in a store at the motel to collect later rather than continuing to waste time trying to get it into the car, we accepted without hesitation and got on our way. I cannot really recall the trip back, my wife Ali, and I shared the driving and we hardly stopped at all.
We arrived at the scene at around 4:30pm on the the day after the fire, we were in severe shock, nothing could prepare you for what we faced there. Fire Service officer, FSO, Craig Bain was quite forthright, telling us the fire had been caused by ‘Vandals’ and the attending Police officers were also very sympathetic.
I walked around the devastated scene, visibly shocked, using a shovel as a support to prevent me collapsing, it was dreadful, everything had gone. I helped the Fire Officers identify items in the debris, they had been confused by the upside down layout of the house, with the main living rooms on the first floor all the debris was upside down and in totally different places to their expectations.
D S Bindon asked me to walk down to the barn with him, it was around 50m from the house and had survived without any apparent damage. I immediately pointed out some beer bottles inside the door that were alien to our life, we drink wine but never beer. As we left I noticed some cigarette butts outside of the barn door, again none of the family had ever smoked and these looked very fresh. Sam confirmed that he had also taken my daughter Ellie down there, it was where she worked with her horses and that she too had pointed out the same things.
We were all too shocked and upset to ask any more questions, a neighbour had called around earlier and told the Police that she would give us a room for the night. We retired to her house and sat, open mouthed in disbelief, why would vandals attack and destroy our beautiful house?
Attitudes would change dramatically when the IAG investigators arrived at the scene.
The Loss Adjuster arrived on the day after the fire, almost immediately he asked if we would accept around a million dollars just to get away from the dreadful scene! I was shocked and surprised once more, not even aware that a cash offer like this could be made. The State Insurnace Policy was a ‘rebuild as new policy’ with the options of a cash payout at the discretion of the insurance company, these had been introduced around the world since it removed any potential gain from arson. I was still in severe shock due to the fire and probably turned down the offer out of hand in far too rapid a manner. I told him that we had been offered almost $3 million dollars just months before, a proper sale offer through Ian Knox of Ray White estate agents, contracts had even been produced.
Investigator Maurice Fletcher arrived the next day, I met him at the fire scene and was immediately accused of starting the fire before he had stepped foot in the remains. My wife, Ali and daughter Ellie were grilled and questioned by Fletcher about it all,he was trying to make them say I had done it. Fletcher interviewed me whilst I was clearly in distress, seriously ill with the effects of my heart disease increased significantly due to all the stress and it must have been clear to him that I could not live very long at this stress level. He however, found nothing at the fire scene to point to my involvement.
We were confused and strangely felt guilty, convincing ourselves that we must have inadvertently caused the fire in some way. Could we have left something turned on, was it all my fault, as Fletcher had insisted, we discussed it endlessly, replaying and role playing the accusations endlessly, unable to understand how a stunning nearly new house like Killara could be destroyed. The fire service had said vandals but Fletcher didn’t even mention them.
At this point I guess somebody at IAG or possibly their lawyers decided they could probably avoid paying out a very large claim. I was seriously ill and it would not take a lot to increase the stress level to a level seriously detrimental to my health. They could claim they had evidence that I committed arson, a standard and easy to do false accusation.
The ‘A’ Team of investigators were drafted in, Russell Joseph, seen above at the graduation of his daughter to the NZ Police Force. He later introduced his associate at Corporate Risks Limited, Martin Jorgensen to the case.
I think the first parts of the investigation were reasonably honestly done, after three days he had also found nothing to link me to the fire and in fact hadn’t been able to find any evidence as to where the fire started, he worked in the remains of the library endlessly but failed to find anything that could have caused ignition. He did find significant other evidence that pointed very strongly to intruders breaking into the property, forced entry, valuables removed. Taken along with the along with the Police evidence of petrol in beer bottles and cigarette butts in the nearby barn it should have closed the case – intruders had caused the fire!
Joseph left the fire scene after his first three days, he spoke to us on his way to the airport in a friendly and open manner, he told us that he believed, as we did, that the fire had been deliberately set. He gave no indication that he suspected me of doing this.
He obviously submitted a report, probably on the 4 October since a report of his bears this date but the report bearing this date disclosed later contains images taken in November so it has obviously been edited after the initial submission.
Joseph was dispatched to Killara again in November, he said, to search the library debris for the laptop that I had reported on the blog. We saw him in the debris whilst we were tending to our horses, which were still grazing at the property. His attitude was a little different complaining that he needed a lot of assistance since the fire scene was so large.
During this period we heard nothing at all from the IAG companies, State Insurance and AMI. Our policies for the house and contents were with State and the two cars destroyed in the garage were insured with AMI. We didn’t receive anything from the insurers, not even a single letter acknowledging that they had received the claim forms, it was weird, weeks passed and we had no idea what was happening. We expected to get help, renting a property and support but all we got was silence.
In late November 2011, we went to see lawyer, Andrew Hooker, an Auckland based insurance law specialist. He told us that the situation we found ourselves in was far from uncommon, he had tens of similar cases and many of them would take years to resolve, IAG, he suggested, would go to any length to prevent meeting the claim. He would write to them to try to find out what was happening.
Weeks passed, Andrew exchanged letters with IAG’s lawyer Chris Hlavac who was representing them in our case, the letters just kept repeating that the investigation had not finished and said no more.
We had moved in with some friends in Kaikohe, on the 13 December 2011 the Police arrived to serve a Search Warrant, they wanted to take our laptops away for examination. Within 5 minutes, Fletcher arrived too, stating that he had just been in the area.
He told us that he and Joseph had revisited the fire scene the day before and had found the ‘PRINTER.’ I looked at him in total puzzlement, so what? We had several printers and I couldn’t see any significance in the finding of one of them but he said the investigation was nearly over. During our conversation, one of the Policewomen poked her head around the door and asked ‘Is there anything else you want us to do Maurie?’ which rather blew his position of just being nearby, out of the water.
The Police took two of our laptops and one of our friends too, we couldn’t stop them. We assumed they thought we had removed them from the house prior to the fire, we knew we had no connection with the fire so knew that there would be no evidence to prove it. We were not overly concerned, trust in your own innocence is misplaced in New Zealand as we would find out very quickly.
After two weeks I got a call from D C Bill Dawson at Kerikeri Police station saying that we could collect the laptops from the station, my friend from Kaikohe drove in with me and we recovered the systems. Dawson said little.
On 5 January 2012, I visited the fire scene once more, our horses were still grazing there, daughter Ellie and wife, Ali went most days staying away from the house remains. I hated going since it upset me so badly. The 12 and 13 December had been very wet, the investigators had made a massive mess of the site with a big digger, the tracks of which surrounded the main areas of the remains
The image above, shows how the whole area had been cleared down to bare concrete, the library is centre right, any evidence that had existed had been totally destroyed, huge piles of debris had been formed and loads of damage done to the standing remains of the far end of the building, much of the interior had collapsed further. Compare this to the Fire Service image shown below to see the scale of the clearance.
After the Police raid, our friends in Kaikohe were clearly uncomfortable so we decided to move, renting a house with space for one horse at a lovely, if remote, spot on the Coromandel Peninsular, Tapu, two hours away from Auckland.
Andrew Hooker was not getting anywhere with IAG, he said that they seemed to be wasting time deliberately and that the only answer was to issue proceedings against them in the High Court for repudiation. The papers were prepared and the case was filed in mid March, Andrew explained to us that IAG would have 25 working days to file a defence and that would give him something to work with. The deadline was around the 21 April 2012.
Nothing was heard until on 17 April, D C Dawson and another officer arrived at our Tapu house, I was arrested for Arson!