One of New Zealand’s richest men has been named as a possible suspect in the 1970 Crewe murders that saw Pukekawa farmer Arthur Allan Thomas convicted but later pardoned for – and in another shock development the lead detective on the case has been implicated as the man who married – then murdered – the woman who fed baby Rochelle Crewe
IAN WISHART reports
It’s already been made into a movie and been the subject of more than a half-dozen books, but the unsolved 1970 murders of farming couple Jeannette and Harvey Crewe continue to be the true crime mystery that keeps on giving.
Saturday’s New Zealand Herald carries the story of “a Scrooge” who gave his $122 million fortune to the Catholic Church because of a long-standing grudge against his stepchildren. What few knew is that the “Scrooge” in question – the late Harold Plumley – was once named as a potential suspect in the Crewe murders, and his brother-in-law was none other than Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton, the police officer who locked up Arthur Allan Thomas using planted evidence to get the conviction.
A tangled web? You don’t know the half of it!
In a nutshell, the Plumley family had farmed land around Mangere for generations, but as a young man Harold Plumley ended up disinherited of virtually everything except a few paddocks left to him in East Tamaki by his mother, while his sister Mary Plumley inherited virtually all of the family estate.
Harold Plumley eked out a living in the Pukekawa district selling agricultural equipment to farmers. At the same time, his wealthy sister Mary was capturing the eye of married Otahuhu police officer Bruce Hutton.
Former colleagues of Harold Plumley approached Investigate magazine more than a decade ago with bombshell allegations that Plumley had been sexually rebuffed by a Pukekawa woman he referred to as “Gee-net”, and that he was going to “get her”.
That conversation took place some months BEFORE Jeannette and Harvey Crewe’s bloodstained home was found empty in June 1970 except for baby Rochelle in her cot.
As the witnesses tell the story, they speculate that Harold Plumley may have killed the Crewes but his strong sense of Catholic guilt wouldn’t allow him to kill the child. Instead, sister Mary Plumley was roped in to feed baby Rochelle – while she was dating Bruce Hutton.
Here’s the statement Investigate was given in 2008 (names were redacted from what we published back then and in the 2010 book “The Inside Story” – this is the first time we have published the names):
“I have had information since 1970 that I have been far too frightened to release. I made an effort to inform the Police in 1970 and spoke to a Sergeant Johnston (I shall never forget his name) and outlined what I knew about some people that should be interviewed. Imagine my surprise when he went right off the rails and told me that if I ever rang the Police with that information again or made any attempt to have it made known, then I would be the next bastard found in the river. Further, now he had my name and I was to shut my bloody mouth forever over this matter.
“Sergeant Johnston is now dead, however, with the information that I have I am still a threat because all of his buddies are not dead. The main threat is Bruce Hutton and what I believe I know about him could see him jailed for the rest of his miserable life.
“I approached Mr [John] Carter our local MP about 18 months ago [around the end of 2006 or start of 2007] and he has been made aware of a snippet of my information. It was enough for him to send me the name of a certain Police District Commander, however I will not devolve [sic, divulge] any information unless I am 100% assured that anything I disclose will be given absolute confidentiality and my name, etc, is to also be 100% confidential. Something I was not given by the Police Commander at the time.
“I still have genuine concerns for my safety.”
After receiving that message, Investigate quickly made contact and promised confidentiality until we had discussed it further. We then met to discuss the revelation in greater detail, and he agreed I could run a story on the issue as long as I kept his identity confidential. He gave me both a written statement and a verbal interview, the gist of which is this:
“During my many visits to farms in the Tuakau area,” says the new witness, “I became aware of [an agricultural contractor] by the name of Harold Plumley who was actively engaged…[visiting] many dairy and other farmers in Tuakau, Onewhero and the surrounding areas relating to their farming needs and problems.”
The witness says he came to know Plumley, and his blonde-haired sister, through their mutual work in the farming sector covering the greater South Auckland and North Waikato areas. At one of their meetings, the man named as a new person of interest in the Harvey and Jeannette Crewe homicide investigation confided “about how the farmers’ wives often made advances towards him when their husbands were out working on the farms when he called, and [he] seemed happy to be able to talk or boast about this.
“However, on one of my last visits, he was very agitated over some woman by the name I thought sounded like ‘Gee-net’ – he pronounced it as Gee-net – who was not happy with him for some unknown reason and had evidently threatened to tell her husband about that matter.
“This obviously had infuriated Plumley as he stated that a woman like her could ruin his business and his reputation, and if it became public it would cause further alienation of his relations (that I had already sensed were not great) between himself and his family, and he wouldn’t let that happen. Plumley went on to mention that he would finally ‘get her’ – I presumed from past discussions that he meant he would win her over. However, at this time it was no concern of mine and it appeared to me he was letting this matter consume him, and the rejection of his advances (whatever they may have been) were definitely not appreciated.”
The witness described Harold Plumley as a man quick to anger, with “a very vehement nature” and prone to “violent, verbal” outbursts – although surprisingly he never swore.
“Although he discussed his farm meetings and meeting farmers’ wives openly to me, I cannot recall him swearing and can’t remember him doing so during any of his conversations with me, and I thought that was rather odd at the time given the nature of his ramblings.”
The witness told me he paid no further attention to the man’s exploits, until Jeannette and Harvey Crewe were found to have been murdered at their farm in June 1970, a little while later.
“As I had worked in the area and down the same road as the murders, I took an interest in the proceedings. I personally never visited the Crewe’s farm and I could not honestly say if they were milking cows or running dry stock.
“However, I was more than surprised to learn that Arthur Allan Thomas had been charged with the murders. I had met briefly with Mr Thomas on two occasions, once…in Warkworth when I visited a neighbour of his [father’s] and once when I called at his farm… On each of these meetings, although brief, I found Mr Thomas to be an extremely polite and quietly spoken man, and if anything a little naïve, but in no way would I have ever expected him to be a man capable of murder.
“As the information started to roll in over this case it was public knowledge that a blonde woman was seen at the Crewe’s house, and it was openly reported that she had possibly been the person who fed the baby Rochelle.
“Who was she? This has been one of the most-asked questions and one of the conundrums of this most infamous murder mystery. The 18 month old baby was found in her cot at the Crewe’s farm, and there was evidence that she had been fed and had had her nappies changed during that time.
“Harold Plumley’s comment to me about a woman named Gee-net threatening to tell her husband about some matter…came chillingly back to me, especially due to the fact I had seen [his] previous violent verbal outbursts.”
The man’s sister, a woman who doted on her brother despite his status as “black sheep” of the family, was fair haired. The witness, who knew her personally as well, has exceptionally good reason to believe the woman agreed to help her brother after the fact, because of the shame it would bring to their prominent family name. He believes the sister was undoubtedly the woman who fed baby Rochelle Crewe, and who has never been identified by police, at least publicly.
“Having thought about this matter,” the witness told me, “I then phoned the police. I asked to speak to the senior officer in charge…and I relayed my suspicions to him and the names I had.
“Instead of showing any interest, I was shouted at over the phone – told ‘never to ring the f**king police again about this matter, and if you do you’ll be the next f**king person to be found in the river!’.
“I was also told that the police knew who the murderer was and to ‘butt out completely, or else!’.
“To say I was s**t-scared over this reaction would be an understatement,” records the witness.
Which is why it took him 38 years to come forward with the information.
But the shock value does not end there. Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton married Mary Plumley, the woman the witness speculates fed baby Rochelle, putting him within a heartbeat of the Plumley family millions if she died.
Serendipitously, on 15 February 1985, that moment arrived.
Mary and Bruce Hutton were visiting close friends in Whitianga, one of whom was her doctor. Mary advised she was going inside to wash sea salt out of her hair.
A while later, Bruce Hutton told the inquest, the doctor’s wife, Anne Kellaway, found 53 year old Mary naked and unresponsive, curled up in a bath with only 1 ½ inches (4cm) of water in it. The plug was in, the tap was turned off.
Who runs a 4cm deep bath to wash their hair? It’s a question that has never been credibly answered.
Bruce Hutton told the coroner, “Gavin and I ran inside and found Mary curled up in the bath. We got her out and Gavin started external massage and I did the mouth to mouth. It was no use as she had already gone.”
Her family doctor – Gavin Kellaway – pointedly provided absolutely no evidence to the coroner’s inquest beyond his signature on the 15/2/85 death certificate where he stated he had last seen Mary alive at 14.20 that afternoon and she was in “good health”. There was no witness statement corroborating Hutton’s version of events, describing the scene they found or the resuscitation efforts. Nothing. Nor was there a witness statement from Ann Kellaway – purportedly the woman who discovered the body.
Perhaps his evidential silence was deliberate, given what we now know. Better to say nothing than lie on oath. And after all, who could Kellaway have turned to? The Police? Bruce Hutton was “the Police” – a man so revered that police commissioner Mike Bush was still singing Hutton’s praises at his 2013 funeral.
A Waikato Hospital pathologist was the only medic to testify, ruling Mary had suffered a heart attack, loss of consciousness and drowned, even though the autopsy found no water in the lungs to corroborate the “drowning” in an inch of water claim.
Again, who climbs into a 4cm deep bath, turns off the tap, assumes the foetal position, THEN drowns, simultaneously causing a myocardial ischaemic event, yet without inhaling water?
The autopsy found “no external evidence of violence or external injury”. That’s odd, because if a naked woman was genuinely standing in an inch of bath water and keeled over with a heart attack you would expect the falling body to collide with taps or the side of the bath on the way down. Yet there was not a mark on her.
Bruce Hutton was the sole heir of Mary’s fortune – around $10 million in today’s money.
One man who wasn’t buying the death by drowning claim was Harold Plumley. I knew this because when I rang him seeking comment on the allegation that he had killed the Crewes (which he denied), he instead begged me to investigate what he insisted was the murder of his sister by former police officer Bruce Hutton.
“He killed her,” he claimed, “to get his hands on the money..he manipulated the Will, he was only after her coin”.
Intriguingly, the majority of bath electrocutions leave no visible marks, and pathologists have difficulty distinguishing them from ordinary heart attacks. One of the signs of a bathtub electrocution, reports one 2018 medical study[i], is “left ventricular failure due to cardiac fibrosis after electric injury”, which is interesting because the Mary Hutton autopsy found “in the myocardium of the left ventricle there is interstitial fibrosis…and fragmentation of fibres is also seen”.
Another study found 90% of electrocution deaths show signs of myocardial fibre break-up: “The frequency of MFB was maximal in cases of electrocution (90%). The findings show that MFB is an ante-mortem change and may be a distinct finding in electrocution.”[ii]
Yet another study backs that up, saying myocardial fibre damage is much more common in electrocutions than ordinary sudden deaths: “Pathologic changes in internal viscera included disarray of myocardial fibers. Rupture of myocardial fibers was [more] readily identified than in non-electrocution death.”[iii]
Yet inexplicably, the implausibility of “drowning” in 4cm of water, even though the lungs were found to be “dry”, doesn’t seem to have crossed the mind of the pathologist examining Mary Hutton’s body. Nor does the heart damage she found that is now regarded as a biomarker of electrocution.
But then again, they didn’t know as much back in 1985 and neither the family doctor whose home the tragedy occurred at, nor Mary’s former police officer husband, mentioned anything about a hairdryer or a heater being found in the bath, so the pathologist had no reason to suspect foul play.
Bruce Hutton, meanwhile, was busily counting his millions.
Why wasn’t there a police investigation? Well maybe there was. Arthur Allan Thomas’ brother Des told me in 2008 that a Pukekohe man who he knew had contacted him at one point to tell him Bruce Hutton had killed Mary Plumley Hutton:
“He rang me up once and told me that Hutton had thrown an electric heater in her bath…this fella that told me, he’s got cops that he’s friendly with and they told him.”
Des Thomas says he told TVNZ’s Sunday programme of the Hutton allegations but nothing eventuated.
In a 2008 phone interview, Harold Plumley told me that he and Bruce Hutton had “antagonism” toward each other caused by Hutton’s relationship with Mary, and he believed that was why police had never questioned him about the Crewe murders. “I didn’t have anything to do with it, didn’t know them, although I did drive past their farm every day at the time – still do occasionally – because of my work as a farm consultant.” In a later phone interview, despite initially saying he didn’t know them, Plumley would emphatically describe Harvey Crewe as “just a bum…no money..a pipsqueak cattle agent who married into money”, and when I asked if the Crewe farm was dairy or dry stock, his answer was instant: “dry stock”.
But Plumley’s next revelation was earthshattering. “I know what led to Mary and Hutton going away to that break in Whitianga – our father told me after her death.
“He said that four days beforehand, Mary came to him and said ‘I’m very worried’. Dad explained that she and Hutton had been really rowing. Father said she told him ‘it’s got to end! It’s got to end, and when I come back I’m going to the lawyers. I’ve got to get rid of him, I’ve got to get him out!’ That is absolutely clear cut, that I’ve given you, gospel truth,” Plumley told Investigate.
So here’s the lie of the land: days before her mysterious “drowning” in just over one inch of bathwater, wealthy heiress Mary Plumley Hutton told her father she was planning to divorce former Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton.
She never got to see her lawyer, and she never survived the weekend getaway where she planned to thrash things out.
Plumley says he tried to talk to Mary’s Fijian maid Miriana after the death, but found himself hauled in for questioning by Otahuhu CIB for “harassment”.
“I really gave [Det] Mitford Burgess a lashing in front of the whole CIB,” Plumley recalled, “but that’s what happened – Hutton found out I was asking questions and suddenly the police were investigating me”.
Plumley got the last laugh, however. While Hutton inherited Mary Plumley’s estate (worth around $10m in today’s money) left to her by her father, Harold Plumley’s paddock in Ormiston Rd East Tamaki, given him by his mother, was sold to Lion Breweries for $66 million in 2007 as the site of its NZ headquarters. By the time he died in 2016, Plumley’s fortune had ballooned to $122 million which he bequeathed to the Catholic church in NZ’s biggest ever charitable donation.
Do I believe Harold Plumley killed the Crewes? Although Plumley’s former colleague believed it, and Plumley knew more about the Crewes than he originally let on, there’s insufficient evidence.
As for Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton, the top cop who conspired to plant evidence to gain a conviction in the Crewe murders, the man of whom police bosses famously remarked at his 2013 funeral “his integrity is beyond reproach” – a new stain now clouds his legacy: did he murder his own wife to seize her fortune?
[i] Death Due to Low Voltage Electric Shock Induced Myocarditis, Cardiology and Angiology Journal, DOI: 10.9734/CA/2018/39585