Auckland's Ascot apartments were a pretty strange place in the mid-1980s, when my mate Paul and I took up residence there. Big trucks graunched up Newton Road through the night. Periodically, the night would be rent with a scream as the LPG hose came adrift at the service station opposite. A youth worker who lived there was hauled out one day on child sex charges, and we fancied that at least one female resident was paying the rent in kind, direct to the fat man from the letting agency.
And then there was Gummy. Gummy always announced himself as the caretaker, but he actually wasn’t. Nonetheless, he succeeded in exercising some authority over the place simply by asserting it. He had a weirdly persuasive nature: he got people to do things they didn’t really want to do.
I once loaned him my car so he could tow his one from out by the Bombay Hills where it had broken down. He smashed an indicator light and patched it up with spray paint and insulation tape and stuck a fraudulently obtained WOF on the windscreen. I knew I shouldn't have accepted that, but I did. I felt oddly helpless.
We thought that he was also the Phantom Sweeper. On Sunday nights, during the Sunday horrors after Radio With Pictures, we would often hear someone downstairs scratching away furiously with a broom. No one ever felt like going down to suss it out.
One night, I came back from a trip to Wellington, Paul wasn’t there and I was locked out. Gummy spied me and insisted that I come over and sleep on the couch at the flat opposite, where his lived with his wife, Lorraine. We’d heard that the pair of them had been under-Grafton-Bridge-type alcoholics, and I wondered if they suffered either a mental illness or an intellectual disability, but the flat was tidy enough. He told me they owned a racehorse. I’m pretty sure I ate with them. I didn’t hang around long in the morning.
Eventually, the darkness and the road noise took its toll on my friendship with Paul. I moved out (whereupon we resumed our status as the best of mates), and the next time I saw Gummy was more than 10 years later, on the national news.
It took a little while before I could really be sure about it, but when I saw his wife, Lorraine, on TV, that settled it.
He was Stewart Murray Wilson, aka ‘The Beast of Blenheim’, the bullying brute who drugged and raped a Danish hitchhiker, terrorised his family, intimidated welfare staff and was eventually sentenced to 21 years in prison after being convicted of rape, attempted rape, indecent assault, stupefying, wilful ill-treatment of a child, and bestiality. It is thought that he offended against at least 42 women and girls over the course of 25 years.
Last night's Sunday programme, I'm fairly sure, took us back to the Ascot apartments, where the programme's protagonist Darlene Dalton, laid into him with a softball bat in retribution for his beating of Lorraine. If I was living there at the time, I have no recollection of the incident. I didn't know that the reason Lorraine had no teeth was that Wilson had smashed them out of her skull. I felt sick when I heard that last night.
But I couldn't join in what Sunday presented as the rich memory of Dalton beating him until he whimpered. It reminded me too much of what I'd seen on the news earlier: a couple of hundred citizens of Whanganui being led by Michael Laws -- so much in his element -- into public threats of vigilante violence. We all ought to be better than a man like Wilson, yet here he was, with Laws' able assistance, dragging us down to his level.
It is a simple fact that Wilson had to go somewhere after he had stayed in prison as long as the law under which he was convicted could keep him there. Whanganui will not be made the new dumping ground for perverts and psychopaths; it simply happened to be a place where none of his victims lived and a place where he could be held far from town, in the grounds of a prison, GPS-monitored under what amounts to house arrest.
But I can't quite bring myself to the belief that the system has failed by not allowing him to re-integrate into the community. It is long past the time when Wilson might have given some sign of an ability to live safely alongside others. He never did. The small, bitter taste I had years ago of his ability to intimidate and manipulate stays with me yet.
I don't live in Whanganui, let alone near the prison (which is 10 kilometres from town), but if I did I'd like to think I wouldn't be having public fantasies about killing him. And that I wouldn't be reaching for the easiest cliche: that he's not a human, he's an animal. No, he's human all right. He's a reminder of quite how dark and damaged a human can become.
We, too, are human -- and thus should we behave. Let's protect others from him, and let him live out the days until he dies, unmourned. Let us demonstrate, as we believe, that we are better than Stewart Murray Wilson.