Death in the shadows

The unsolved murder of Lois Tolley

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Murder victim Lois Tolley.

The late train from Wellington paced into Wallaceville shortly before midnight. The walk across Ward Street was quick, and the residential street was empty. Quiet.
Work was over for the day. There was no reason to be afraid. But as the clock approached midnight, Lois Tolley was screaming for her life.
At unit three an older woman living alone was watching television when she heard the bloodcurdling screams. Further up the driveway a young mother and her partner having a few drinks on their stoop watched the nightmare unfold. The next day, they made plans to leave.
Thirty year-old Lois Rita Tolley was living alone at her place on Ward Street in Wallaceville, Upper Hutt, when she was killed. It was a Friday night, December 9.
Four men were caught on CCTV after the killing. One was visibly distressed. They left the small brick unit and then, to all intents and purposes, simply vanished.
Eight months on, police have not made an arrest in the shocking murder that neighbours of Ms Tolley describe as “overkill”.
“Nobody deserves to die like that,” they repeated, one by one, along the street this week.
Detectives say Tolley’s death was planned, carried out by at least four brazen young men who forced their way into her brick unit by smashing the glass in the front door, then shooting her at point blank range and stabbing her viciously. Police later said they believed “at least” one woman was involved.
The attack was carried out just steps from the street, a main thoroughfare, and with neighbours either listening or catching glimpses of it. CCTV cameras caught the men running off, lit up by street lights.
The men were described as in their 20s or 30s. Two were described as tall and wearing baggy clothing. One was carrying a large rectangular object. The third male was shorter and skinny, and also wearing dark, baggy clothing. The fourth heard crying out afterwards was thought to be younger than his co-offenders.
As descriptions go, it is scant.
Vehicles in the area at that time have been identified and police have repeatedly asked the public for information. No arrests were made in the weeks following, but police denied they were stymied.
This week detective senior sergeant Glenn Barnett declined interview requests but responded to questions by e-mail. He said progress had not stalled, and 12 full-time officers were still working the case.
The recent airing of a Police Ten-7 episode had brought new information to light and police were following up tips. It was a “long-term investigation,” he said. “Police are very confident this investigation will be brought to a conclusion.”
Upper Hutt mayor Wayne Guppy says the Wallaceville community is worried. “They’re concerned about the victim and they’re concerned about the family. It causes a little bit of anxious moments for people when they think, ‘Just what happened on that particular night?’ We are led to believe it wasn’t a random attack, but that only allays some fears.”
Those living in the aftermath are divided on whether anyone will be caught. There are other divisions some say the case does not perturb them; others say they fear for their lives.
“They’ll solve it,” a Ward Street dairy worker says. Thieves who robbed his store and left masks behind were arrested years later. Ms Tolley came into his store two or three times a week. The shop is close to the station and sells train tickets. Sometimes she bought food.
Ms Tolley’s mum, Cathrine Macdonald, is also optimistic. Speaking from Australia she says she has “100%” faith in the police. She is hesitant to say why she is so definite. She does not want to compromise the investigation by revealing sensitive details and is protective of Ms Tolley’s friends. They are traumatised and frightened. Worried about who might have disliked Ms Tolley enough to kill her. Also about the possibility it was someone in their circle.
“We don’t know why. Nobody knows the fact why,” Ms Macdonald says.
“People are out there saying all sorts of things but it’s not a fact. And most of (the talking) was people who didn’t even know her, and that’s so cruel.”
The rumour mill has spouted theories linking Ms Tolley’s murder to drugs and gangs, but Ms Macdonald seems genuinely baffled about who would want to kill her daughter and says Ms Tolley had no known enemies. Police have not publicly theorised on a motive, except to say the killing was probably planned.
Ms Tolley had a large group of friends and hundreds attended her funeral. Occasionally her friends still drive past her home, Ms Macdonald says, hoping for a glimpse of light to imagine Ms Tolley is still there.
“Even talking about it, they still cry all the time,” Ms Macdonald says. “She was such a great girl. She had a big heart. That’s where everybody went to when they had problems.”
Ms Tolley, known to friends as Loiey (Low-ey), was the youngest of four siblings and spent most of her life in Upper Hutt. “Aunty cheesecake”, some called her, because of her flair for making the dessert. After a short stint living overseas with her mum, Ms Tolley returned to Upper Hutt, living most of her adult life at the rundown unit on Ward Street she called home.
She was a chef but planning to study, hoping to work in event management. She was destined for the hospitality industry, because of her love for people, her mum says. Colleagues thought of her as a hard worker, and one of her claims to fame was serving Elton John in his hotel room.
“She rang me and said, ‘You’ll never guess what?’,” Ms Macdonald says. “I said, ‘What’s that, darling?’ She said, ‘I went into Elton John’s room.’ I said, ‘What did you say to him?’ And she said, ‘I asked him what he wanted for his breakfast’.”
Ms Tolley enjoyed living alone, but often people with nowhere else to go stayed with her. That was her nature, Ms Macdonald says. Always willing to lend a hand. She routinely checked on elderly people living nearby and when her grandmother was dying she took care of her.
Every October Ms Macdonald visited Ms Tolley. Last year they decided to wait for Christmas, and Ms Macdonald was due to arrive just days after Ms Tolley’s death.
It stings how close they came to seeing each other.
“I would have seen her, and held her,” Ms Macdonald says.

Although a mere 20 minutes by car from the country’s capital, Wallaceville is a suburb that keeps to itself. Railway lines cut through the streets and it is adjacent to State highway 2 and the Hutt River, shadowed by bare trees. It would be easy to drive past.
On Ward Street houses sit on one side, businesses on the other. Heretaunga College and a daycare is down one end and opposite Ms Tolley’s home is an abandoned Agresearch building with mossy signs displaying its faded glory.
The street is shadowed by Pakuratahi Forest, and bush in neighbouring Whitemans Valley tracks up a mountain that towers over Ms Tolley’s old unit, casting a pall even when the sun shines.
People who live here say it is safe. Only those who shared Ms Tolley’s unit block are scared. Everyone else says the rumour mill has told them her death was “targeted”, lulling them into feelings of safety. Yet nobody wants to be named in this story while alleged killers are on the loose.
One man who has lived on the street in the same house for 17 years believes the police trail has run cold. “It has been too long,” he says. “I said to a cop the other day, ‘Get your thumb out of your backside and solve it’.”
Ms Tolley’s neighbours are terrified. One mother who inadvertently became a witness to the attack says she just wants out. She and her partner were the first to call the police, after hearing Ms Tolley scream. The woman claims one of the assailants overheard her call and approached her.
“He saw me, and said, ‘Who the eff are you?’.”
The woman scrambled inside, switched all the lights off and locked the door. They could hear Ms Tolley screaming for help and afterwards an upset voice saying, “What the f have we done?”
When it went quiet two neighbours checked on Ms Tolley and found her dead.
“It was very frightening. Me and my partner couldn’t sleep until about five in the morning.”
She believes Ms Tolley was targeted, and alleges Ms Tolley’s friends told her she received a nasty message from a friend just days before her death.
Afterwards, police combed the house and driveway for a week while security guards maintained surveillance on the property. A month ago a family moved into Ms Tolley’s unit, and the neighbour was irritated to see brand new carpet and furnishings were installed.
“If you want insulation you have to be murdered or move out,” she says.
“Our flat should have been done. We’ve got black mould. I have asthma and so does my partner.”
A few doors down, the neighbour who discovered Ms Tolley’s body is traumatised, and undergoing counselling.
“It’s a sight I’ll never forget,” she says.
She just wants an arrest, to bring the saga to a close.

The adage goes that if you have not solved a crime within 72 hours the chances of doing so plummet. Those early hours are critical for evidence-gathering and witness recall. However, criminologist Professor Greg Newbold says it “is not true at all” that a crime will not be solved unless it is immediate.
Police usually spend months analysing evidence to build a case against a suspect before making an arrest, he says.
“They quite often have somebody in their sights and spend months gathering information against that person so they can bring a prosecution,” he says.
It is not unusual for pieces of information to come together much later.
A year after Kim Richmond’s disappearance in the Waikato, her partner was arrested and charged with murder, days after her body was pulled from a lake. In Auckland, police solved a double murder cold case after surveilling their main suspect, Kamal Reddy, for months.
The murder of six-year-old Teresa Cormack was solved 15 years after her 1987 death, after advances in technology lead to the arrest of Jules Mikus.
Still, eight months is a long time, and given police’s repeated requests for information from the public, it was possible detectives had run out of leads, Prof Newbold says.
“They’re starting to get desperate when they do that. They don’t do that early on in an investigation, they normally do that when the trail is going cold and they’re trying to find something else out there. It must be frustrating for them.”

After Ms Tolley died her landlord replaced the carpeting, refurnished the unit and put in a new blue door where smashed glass once lay. Helen Curry lives at the flat with her husband and two sons. They found out about the murder when they were shifting their belongings in.
Finding housing is hard, so Ms Curry felt she had no choice but to stay. As a “spiritual person” Ms Curry felt more at ease when it was confirmed the house had been blessed a ceremony organised by Ms Tolley’s family.
She does not feel unsafe. “I have my wits about me.”
“They done it up apparently,” Ms Curry says. “It sounded like it was pretty sh before we got here. It’s warm and cosy now. The girl involved (Ms Tolley), she had some friends come and visit us before.
“They just wanted to say that they had been here, and they’ve come here to pay their respects or something, and see who we are and stuff.
“But I told them they can’t do that any more.”
Ms Tolley’s mother is taking each day as it comes, taking comfort from her daughter’s friends, who stay in regular touch. Ms Macdonald proudly says her daughter is all over the world her friends have photographs of her in China and the United Kingdom. Some have new tattoos commemorating their friend.
“My life has just changed so much,” Ms Macdonald says.
“They didn’t just take Lois, they took a huge part of me. What would I say (to the assailants)? I don’t know. I mean, what can you say?
“They obviously have no remorse for what they’ve done, because if they did they would have come forward by now, and if you’re talking to people who have no remorse, what do you say to them?
“They’ve taken her future away. They’ve taken a part of her family away.
“It’s not something you’re ever going to get over.” New Zealand Herald

Armed police outside Lois Tolley’s home on Ward Street, in Wallaceville, Upper Hutt.

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