A Stab in the Dark: The Murder of Chattrice Maihi-Carroll

by Donna Chisholm / 19 November, 2013
When Chattrice Maihi-Carroll was stabbed to death in Napier, the murder case turned into a classic whodunit. Did police arrest the wrong man? Was she really expecting a high-profile visitor the night she was killed? And why was our much-vaunted DNA technology no help at all?

First published in Metro, March 2011.

The midnight blue kimono she’d won selling Avon is crumpled next to the stereo on the floor. A pace away, by her foot, are her black underpants, rolled up and seemingly kicked off. Under her right shoulder, her pretty peach satin and black lace chemise is darkened with her blood.

By her left elbow is the stainless-steel kitchen knife that has been used to stab her so hard through the chest that it’s bruised her back.

It’s as if her killer has ordered her to discard each item of clothing in turn in a chilling advance towards the single bed in the corner of the lounge where her body now lies, face down and naked on the patterned brown carpet.

Her head is under the bed, partly covered by the sheets she may have pulled towards her in her death throes. Her left foot perches awkwardly on a mattress she’s made up on the floor for when her grandchildren stay.

Her eyes are blackened and runnels of blood have trickled from her breast to her back. Blood is smeared on the backs of her thighs and the soles of her feet but there are no defence wounds.

Chattrice Maihi-Carroll, 46, lived and died in Cottrell Cres, Napier, just one street away from the homes of 1980s murder victims Teresa Cormack and Kirsa Jensen. In December, five-year-old Sahara Baker-Koro died in Riverbend Rd, just around the corner. But Maihi-Carroll’s killing one weekend in January 2008 was never going to stir the country’s passion the way those did. Outside of the police, her family and friends, few of us cared about her ordinary life and violent death.

Today, the police file on Maihi-Carroll’s murder remains open, but no one is assigned to the investigation. The case against the man charged with her killing, her neighbour Zion King, was thrown out of court in February last year when prosecutors agreed a conviction based on their evidence may be unsafe.

Not a single forensic test linked King to the crime despite months of pain­staking scientific work which turned up a wealth of ultimately useless DNA findings — indicating, perhaps, that the increasing sophistication and sensitivity of the technology can sometimes hinder investigations more than help them. The prosecution relied on only circumstantial evidence — what King may have said when, and to whom.

It’s clear police still privately believe he is their man, despite their case being so flimsy it didn’t even get to a jury. King says the officer in charge told him so when he went to collect his belongings from the Napier police station. “It’s you,” Detective Sergeant Tim Smith said. “You did it.”

But in this classic suburban whodunit, the only certainty is doubt.

When Chattrice Maihi-Carroll’s body was found by worried relatives around 36 hours after her death, police didn’t have to look far afield to find a couple of prime suspects — neighbours in the block of four Housing Corporation flats in Onekawa.

On one side was her friend Eddie Nathan, then 61, and Nathan’s 39-year-old son Michael, a heavily tattooed former Mongrel Mob associate on home detention for burglary.

On the other was cleaner Zion King, 43, also a former Mob associate, who’d moved in just before Christmas and met Maihi-Carroll for the first time only a few days before her death.

Police described Chattrice Maihi-Carroll, an epileptic and sickness beneficiary, as a “low-risk victim”.

But she was more than that. A loving mum, house-proud, an excellent cook, a careful budgeter, always neatly turned out. The crime-scene photographs depict strikingly the incongruity of the random violence against the orderliness of her home. Beds are made, clothes are folded, dinner dishes are washed and draining on the sink, crockery, pans, cutlery all neatly stored.

But like all of us, no matter how hygienic our habits, Maihi-Carroll lived in a veritable soup of DNA — scientists examined more than 150 samples from her home and those of her neighbours.

One problem with DNA testing is that some tests can now detect such tiny amounts of DNA it may be dangerous to draw conclusions about its relevance. Even tests with the highest sensitivity, for example, can’t tell us which cells the DNA came from: DNA taken from a couch, for example, could be semen from an attacker or dandruff transferred when the victim sat next to someone on a bus.

In this murder, many findings led investi­gators down tantalising but ulti­mately blind trails. The first was the bloodied carpet on which her body lay, which revealed full DNA profiles from two semen stains. One of these excited hopes of an early breakthrough when it returned a “hit” on the national DNA data­bank, until the match proved to be that of prolific Hawke’s Bay paedophile Barry Taukamo. The problem was that Taukamo was sentenced to preventive detention in 2000 and remains in jail. He was not Maihi-Carroll’s killer, but a previous tenant of her flat. The other semen, police speculate, may have come from one of his many victims.

The murder weapon yields nothing (unlike glass, stainless steel isn’t a good surface for retaining DNA, apparently) and neither does the knife drawer in Maihi-Carroll’s kitchen from where it came.

It means scientists could find unequivocal DNA evidence of a man who lived in the flat eight years previously, but no sign of the killer who had executed Maihi-Carroll just two days before — despite the murder being a particularly grisly one. It was her injuries and the patterns of blood on the carpet and hearth that gave forensic examiners clues to the last, appalling minutes of her life. Investigators believe she was knocked out, stabbed six times while prone, then somehow regained consciousness and sat up, or even crawled a short distance, before succumbing to her wounds.

There is no sign of forced entry. Maihi-Carroll was highly security conscious, suggesting she knew her killer and invited him in.

Eddie Nathan’s house, as well as Zion King’s, is painstakingly combed. Eddie and Michael Nathan voluntarily provide DNA samples. King refuses, but allows police to examine his house. He later explains that he knows his DNA is on the databank after the 2003 robbery of the Maraenui TAB, for which he was jailed for six years. They had his samples even earlier than that, he told Metro — he was one of the 900 men tested in the hunt for Cormack’s killer more than 20 years before.

But the forensic search does not draw a complete blank. One of the most intriguing clues is the DNA of an unidentified man found on one of two drinking glasses on Maihi-Carroll’s sink — glasses that logically were put there after dinner on the night she died, given she’d already washed the dishes from her evening meal. After friends and relatives are eliminated, the DNA remains unidentified — it does not match any other sample on the national databank. So who put it there? It is not Eddie or Michael Nathan’s DNA and it is not Zion King’s.

Maihi-Carroll had told her daughter she was expecting a high-profile visitor that night — the man’s name is later suppressed by the court. Could he have turned up and shared a drink with her? After all, her nightie was “special occasion” wear, as if she was indeed expecting a visitor.

Although the man was not DNA tested, police checks on his credit-card receipts, as well as CCTV footage and alibi evidence, put him hundreds of kilometres away that weekend. It seems Maihi-Carroll was simply making up a story to get out of the babysitting duties she’d already agreed to. Even the defence ultimately accepted the pair probably hadn’t met, but that Maihi-Carroll had seen and fancied him.

So whose DNA was on the glass? Did Maihi-Carroll invite another mystery visitor into her home, give him a drink and then reject his sexual advances?

Police accept this is the likely scenario for the killing, but maintain that visitor was King, and the DNA on the glass was unrelated, despite the possibility — or even likelihood — that it was put there that night. After all, Maihi-Carroll was known to use one glass for water and another for beer, and her DNA was the dominant profile on both, suggesting she had drunk from them or held them.

Here’s what they think happened: King comes home drunk and stoned from a party a couple of streets away shortly after 11pm. Maihi-Carroll goes outside to complain to him about his pitbull barking. She invites him in to talk. King remembers that when he’d first met Maihi-Carroll a few days before, she was a bit pissed and ended their conversation with “Love you”. She often did that, her family says, but perhaps King misconstrues the invitation, and attacks her when she rejects him. He stabs her to death because she can identify him.

They point to testimony from Michael Nathan, who sees Maihi-Carroll outside in her dressing gown at that time and hears her talking to someone. He says she is facing in the direction of King’s flat. And 65-year-old Neri Shelford across the road sees Maihi-Carroll come outside about 11.30, check her letterbox and look left and right up Cottrell Cres. About five minutes after she goes back inside, he glimpses what he thinks is a man’s leg entering her front door. He sees the fridge light go on and off.

The problem is that, apart from King accepting he got home that night around 11, there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to put him in her house. Ultimately, when King is charged, police have built a circumstantial case based on evidence from a number of co-workers at Hatuma Foods who claim — weeks after the murder — that King told them about the killing on Monday morning before he could have known about it innocently. They say he told them before her body was found that he had to go home to talk to police because his neighbour had been murdered.

Their recollections seem to become more precise as police reinterview them about the all-important timings, but the defence secures a vital breakthrough when it’s able to show that the overalls some witnesses recall King wearing when he told them about the murder hadn’t been delivered to the factory by the drycleaning company until Monday afternoon. Eventually, even the prosecution accepted the statements were potentially unreliable and a conviction based on them would be unsafe.

Police arrested King on March 26, 2008, but six weeks later, on May 13, a forensic fly appeared in the DNA soup. A speck of blood on a gold satin pillowcase on Maihi-Carroll’s bed, just above where her body lay, was identified as being Eddie Nathan’s. It is elongated, as if projected rather than dripped. So how did it get there — and would the investigation have taken a different course if the result had come through before King’s arrest?

At this point, it appears police look for ways to exclude Nathan, and tests are done on swabs from Maihi-Carroll’s cheeks — perhaps the assailant’s punch left DNA. Scientist Heidi Baker from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) reports Nathan is excluded from both samples, a result which is later presented at court as excluding him from the killing.

It was not until scientist Arie Geursen reviewed the files more than a year later that the defence found Zion King was also excluded but that this had not been reported to the court. While the prosecution then conceded the exclusion, King’s lawyer, Peter Williams, QC, says it downplayed the result when it revealed the swabs were taken after Maihi-Carroll’s body was washed and the DNA could have come from people who handled her corpse.

Police are aware of the potentially explosive impact of Nathan’s blood being on the pillowcase. On May 29, Tim Smith seeks clarification from ESR scene examiner Steve Cordiner. “Basically,” the detective sergeant asks by email, “what would be your scientific response to the obvious question by the defence lawyer that the blood spot is likely to be that of the killer?”

There is no response on ESR files, but Smith told Metro it was impossible to know when the blood was put there, and where the pillow was at the time. Eddie Nathan was often in Maihi-Carroll’s house and had slept there as recently as a fortnight before.

Would a house-proud woman have left her pillowcase unwashed for that long? No one knows.

Eddie Nathan appears unfazed when police quiz him about the blood, saying he has high blood pressure and occasionally his nose bleeds when he gets too hot, or he might have cut himself shaving. At King’s depositions hearing, Nathan is asked again about the blood. “Probably when I had a shave I probably had a cut; that’s how it probably got on the pillow,” he says.

Neri Shelford tells the hearing that he’d gone to lunch with Eddie Nathan at the local RSA the day after Maihi-Carroll was murdered, but before her body was found. Shelford recalls Nathan told him, “I heard the silly bitch screaming,” something Nathan hadn’t told police.

Smith points out to Metro that Shelford had been interviewed twice before recalling the alleged comment of Nathan’s. Nathan variously tells police that he didn’t hear anything on the night of the killing, that he heard a child screaming something like “Aunty, aunty”, or that he was dreaming.

When Metro visited Nathan in December, he told us he hadn’t heard anything; he’d simply had a dream. When we asked if he was in love with Maihi-Carroll, he replied: “I’m her uncle, her mum’s my aunty. I’m not a sex maniac. The detective suggested I was in love with her and I told them to get stuffed.”

Nathan also told police he was Maihi-Carroll’s uncle, but police iwi checks found they were unrelated.

While much of this looks suspicious, Smith points out that for Eddie Nathan to be involved, his son Michael would have had to be lying — Michael says Eddie was asleep in the bedroom on the night of the killing, while he was in the lounge.

While Eddie’s evidence contradicted that — he says both he and Michael slept in the lounge — Smith says there is no evidence either Nathan lied. They had been co-operative, readily allowed their home to be searched, and had voluntary medical examinations and DNA tests. Further, Michael Nathan wore a home detention ankle bracelet and obviously believed it would sound an alarm if he entered Maihi-Carroll’s property — he sometimes borrowed her phone, reaching for it over the fence rather than going to her door.

When police took Eddie Nathan through Maihi-Carroll’s flat a few days after the murder, watching his reactions, he appeared “oblivious” to where her body had lain, or what had gone on there, says Smith. “I got an impression of him then, that this wasn’t a person who two days beforehand had done some horrific act in there.”

Particularly not to a woman of whom he was supposedly so fond. Nathan, an orchard worker, and Maihi-Carroll had been buddies since Nathan moved in next door in 2006. Some of Maihi-Carroll’s family reckoned Nathan wanted to be much more than that, but though she’d tease and flirt with him, they’d never been intimate, despite sometimes staying the night at each other’s homes.

She and Nathan would drink together — always 440ml cans of Double Brown for her — several times a week. He drove the courtesy van at the Meannee Hotel, where Maihi-Carroll socialised and played darts, and he’d always take her home. Because of her epilepsy, she didn’t drive.

Maihi-Carroll moved in to Cottrell Cres in 2004, after separating from Don Poipoi, the man she’d married when she was just 18. Poipoi says despite the fact they lived apart, they considered each other husband and wife and were still intimate, although not regularly. She’d moved out because she “needed space”, her family said.

The couple had four daughters, who had children of their own, and frequently the whanau would stay in the small family home.

After her separation, Maihi-Carroll changed her name from Iraia to Chattrice (pronounced Katrice) after consulting a numerologist and replaced Poipoi with the hyphenated surnames of her parents.

“But I think when she changed her name, she changed her destiny,” sister Papara Pere told Metro.

Zion King’s destiny was set in 1965, when he was just three. His uncle had come home from duck hunting. Didn’t get any ducks. Never took the bullet out of the gun, either. Young Zion, thinking it was a stick, picked up the gun, pulled the trigger and shot his dad dead.

“I used to play cowboys and Indians with my dad,” he says in his video interview with Maihi-Carroll detectives. “See, that’s the best memory of my life. I can remember every exact thing with my father. Everything. And then that one split-second took my whole life, you know.”

He tells the cop how he still goes up to the local library to read about the case. “It’s in all the papers, in the archives. But I got shit right through my whole life. I got fucken beaten up, you name it, the lot. Got teased, everything.”

Police believed King was their man because of three things — he had a motive, and the opportunity, and he lied. The motive was sexual; he lived next door and had no alibi; and his lies after the murder were deeply incriminating. But were they?

King had plenty to lie about, but maybe not murder. He told Metro that the Saturday night of Maihi-Carroll’s death, he’d left the nearby party around 10 and then driven — yes, he says, he was pissed on bourbon and had been smoking dope — to a workmate’s place, where he’d stayed about an hour. After driving home, he decided on impulse to visit his estranged wife, the mother of his seven children. Though she’d had a protection order out against him — he’d been briefly jailed for allegedly breaching it only a month earlier — he says he’d spent the night with her a week before and believed they were back together.

But King says she told him to “fuck off”, so he did. He says he told police he’d gone straight home from his mate’s because he didn’t want to be locked up again for breaching the protection order.

On the morning Maihi-Carroll’s body was found, police claimed, King told another lie, asking his boss if he could leave work briefly that day to collect his dog from the pound, when it had in fact been collected days before. The defence believes the boss was just confused about the day and police “made a meal” of it.

King told Metro that on the day the body was found, he’d nipped home and picked up a cannabis bud for a Hatuma workmate who was turning 50. When he discovered police at the flats, he thought his wife had dobbed him in for his Saturday night visit.

A bugged call from the workmate’s partner — whom police had set up to phone King to try to elicit incriminating information — supports King’s story. The woman acknowledges her partner was “rapt” with the bud and King repeatedly denies any knowledge of the killing. “I didn’t even know her from a bar of soap,” he says. Despite the fact this conversation takes place just two days before his arrest, and it might help him by explaining his crucial trip home that workmates told police about, King asks the woman not to divulge that he went home to get the cannabis.

Police suggest that Maihi-Carroll’s killer may have been “forensically aware”. If he did have a drink with her, he might have taken the can with him. If he’d had a smoke with her, it might explain why the heavy glass ashtray on the hearth in the lounge was overturned when there didn’t appear to have been a struggle. Three lipstick-stained butts of Maihi-Carroll’s remained, but no others.

The implication, of course, is that King’s criminal history makes him just such a person. After all, he burned his clothes to get rid of the evidence after the Maraenui TAB robbery, and he has admitted assaulting his wife. The police even dug up his backyard looking for evidence of a fire this time.

King later tells Metro that after the judge threw out the case against him, he burned something else — all 2500 pages of his copies of his defence files, and his video interview with police. It made him feel better.

It took more than a year of work by King’s defence team — lawyers Peter Williams, Heeni Phillips and Russell Fairbrother, private investigators Mike Crawford and Suz Pearce and scientist Geursen — to get the case against King thrown out. It was not until prosecutors themselves expressed doubts that the charge was dropped.

Napier Crown solicitor Russell Collins — the man who prosecuted Jules Mikus, Teresa Cormack’s killer — says the discharge was ultimately triggered by the Crown. He says he asked prosecutor Jo Rielly to go through the statements of King’s Hatuma colleagues as if she were a defence lawyer. “She came back and said, ‘Some of this isn’t as good as we thought it was.’ ”

Collins says police and the Crown should get credit for this. “The easiest thing to have done for Jo and I in those days leading up to the trial would be to say, ‘Let’s proceed, and if the jury finds him not guilty, so be it.’

“That would have been quite wrong in my view, but someone else could come in now and say, ‘You shouldn’t have changed your mind, you should have proceeded.’ ”

Maihi-Carroll’s family, though, have no such comfort, and with only the police view to go on, fear that somehow the system has let her killer go.

Daughter Karla Poipoi says that at a meeting after the discharge, former inquiry head Detective Inspector Sam Aberahama told the family that police “do what they call ‘bricking in’. They try to get all the evidence so there’s no way out for that suspect, and I think one of the questions we asked was, ‘Do you feel like you bricked him in enough?’”

One murder. Four men in the frame. Or is it five? And no compelling evidence.

Not enough against Zion King, who after 18 months in prison on remand now lives in poverty, trying to earn a living selling kina at a Maraenui fleamarket. Nor Eddie Nathan. Despite his blood on the pillowcase, he had an alibi and helped investigators from the start. Nor Michael Nathan. Despite his criminal record, he, too, had an alibi, was helpful and co-operative and DNA does not link him to the scene. Nothing against the high-profile man who was probably Maihi-Carroll’s friend only in her dreams. But who drank from the glass — and is that even relevant? Could the mystery DNA have been there for some time?

Chattrice Maihi-Carroll has joined Kirsa Jensen in Napier’s “unsolved” files. But who will remember Chattrice?
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