Red Fox Tavern murder trial: Police officer explains how investigation eliminated another suspect

A police officer says he was satisfied it was right to charge the two men on trial for the infamous fatal Red Fox Tavern robbery and has detailed how another suspect who was nominated by several prisoners was eliminated from the inquiry.

A man with name suppression and Mark Joseph Hoggart are on trial for the 1987 aggravated robbery of the pub and murder of its owner, Christopher Bush, in Waikato.

The Crown says two heavily disguised intruders, clad in balaclavas and gloves, burst in through a back door of the Maramarua tavern on Labour Weekend.

It is alleged one fired a sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun, killing Bush before his three staff members were tied up and just over $36,000 was stolen.

Detective Sergeant Michael Hayward began reading his 53-page signed statement to the jury today, chronicling an investigation that spanned several phases.

“Notwithstanding extensive public interest and a very large police investigation in mid-1988 the inquiry was wound down without anyone being charged,” he said.

Some 230 individuals, including the defendants, had been investigated as persons of interest as a result of information received, he said.

The two defendants on trial in the High Court at Auckland had initially been nominated by Philip Dunbier on Christmas Eve, 1987.

Both of the accused were interviewed in the following January and addresses linked to them were also searched, the court heard.

A review of the file began in 1999 and further investigation undertaken which included new leads.

“Again, police made the determination that there was insufficient evidence to charge any person at that time,” Hayward said.

In October 2016, Counties Manukau Police opened a new investigation dubbed Operation Lion, inheriting about 100 Eastlight files of previously recorded information.

As a result of the fresh investigation, the two defendants were charged in August the following year.

“I was ultimately satisfied it was appropriate to charge the defendants with murder and aggravated robbery and that none of the other nominations affected that assessment,” Hayward said.

He said he found many of the other nominations had been made without cause, “sometimes on no more than hunch” and some further were made maliciously.

For the purposes of the case, he detailed how Lester Hamilton – who is now deceased – was eliminated as a suspect in late 1987.

The court heard that later, in November of 1980, Hamilton was sentenced by a High Court judge to six years’ imprisonment for the aggravated robbery of a Manurewa post office.

He was the getaway driver while two other perpetrators were armed with a sawn-off shotgun and a baseball bat.

In the days that followed Bush’s death, Hamilton was nominated as person of interest – a suggestion that picked up some momentum after police spoke to two of his friends.

One said a suggestion of pulling a job at the Red Fox Tavern had been vetoed by Hamilton who said it was “too local and there was no place to hide”.

The other associate said Hamilton’s plan to rob the pub involved taking Bush hostage at his home on a Sunday night and threatening to cut his wife’s toe off.

In November 1987, Hamilton called police saying he knew he was “the number one suspect” for the Red Fox Tavern homicide and wanted to talk, the court heard.

He told police he was with friends that night, who he then visited to ask to corroborate his story, the court heard.

Hamilton later told police he was elsewhere, stating he had mixed up his Saturdays and did not want his wife to know where he was.

He denied he had “jacked up” this alibi.

Claims against Hamilton

In 1991 and 1992, a “considerable amount” of police time was spent investigating a claim made by a prisoner that three men including Hamilton had each separately confessed to him.

All three men had earlier been eliminated by police at that point.

There were many fanciful aspects to it, Hayward told jurors, with the account not matching the facts of the Red Fox Tavern offending.

There was evidence that the prisoner had been trying to be moved from Paremoremo prison to a lower security prison, the court heard.

It was one of several nominations made for Hamilton, with another prisoner suggesting him in March 1993.

This tip eventually led officers to speak to an associate of Hamilton’s in prison.

“I’ve never heard or seen or heard any hard evidence it was them,” he told officers.

Another nomination was made in August 1994.

This person claimed to have overheard Hamilton tell an associate he had shot Bush while they were drinking at a tavern in Papatoetoe.

However, Hamilton was in Mt Eden prison when this was alleged to have occurred, the court heard.

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