A Pacific murder mystery that won't go away

Ten years after Janelle Patton was stabbed to death, doubts persist over her killer's conviction
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The Independent Online

As murder mysteries go, the killing of Janelle Patton, 10 years ago on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, rivals the works of Agatha Christie.

After four years of an investigation that stretched from the tiny isle 1,000 miles off the coast of Queensland to Sydney in Australia and Nelson in New Zealand, the police finally got their man. But this weekend the case is once again mired in doubt, with the convicted killer claiming he played only a minor role and naming a couple he claims are the real murderers.

What is not disputed is that Ms Patton, a 29-year-old hotel worker from Sydney, was killed by 64 blows and stab wounds on Easter Sunday in 2002 – the first murder on the island in 150 years. Thanks to its unique position as an Australian territory with its own government and immigration laws, police knew the identity of every person on Norfolk that day. It allowed them to conduct a voluntary mass fingerprinting of 1,632 people, although not everyone on the island co-operated.

After this, things got difficult. Norfolk, where descendants of the Bounty mutineers made their home after leaving Pitcairn Island on the other side of the Pacific in the middle of the 19th century, is a close-knit community. Even today there are so many residents with the same surname, such as Christian, Quintal and McCoy, that they are identified by their nicknames in the telephone directory.

At Ms Patton's inquest the police named 16 people of interest, some of whom had had affairs with the young woman and others who had fought and rowed with her in public. In time, all were exonerated.

Finally, investigating officers matched fingerprints on a sheet of black plastic used to wrap Ms Patton's body with those of a New Zealand chef, Glenn McNeill, who had been working on the island at the time of the killing.

After they arrested him at his home in Nelson, New Zealand, McNeill, who had a serious drug problem, admitted to the killing, originally telling police investigators that he had accidentally run over Ms Patton in his car, placed her in the boot and later stabbed her to death. However, the injuries on her body were not consistent with such an explanation. McNeill later retracted his confession but he was eventually found guilty four years ago.

Even some of the islanders believe the case against him does not add up. Derek Gore, who used to be joint editor of the local paper, said: "It's most likely that more people were involved who have yet to be brought to justice."

McNeill, now more than five years into an 18-year sentence, has named a man and a woman whom he alleges are the real killers. He finally broke his silence in a phone call broadcast on New Zealand television, claiming that the couple murdered Ms Patton because they feared she was informing the police about their drug activities.

He said the couple also accused him of stealing their cannabis plants and threatened to kill his then wife if he did not dispose of Ms Patton's body.

McNeill admits dumping the bruised and bloodied remains, which were found at Cockpit Waterfall Reserve, a popular local tourist spot. But he says he says he has kept the couple's identity secret until now because he feared for his family's safety.

The names, which were not made public, were handed to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) seven weeks ago. The police have sought to dismiss the allegations this week, saying there is no evidence to support claims made in a New Zealand TV documentary about McNeill's allegations.

But Bryan Bruce, who produced the TV investigation, believes new information has the potential to establish McNeill's guilt or innocence once and for all.

He wants the police to disclose whether they compared the DNA of the woman accused by McNeill with unidentified female DNA found on Ms Patton's clothing. "Did they [the AFP] locate the woman McNeill claimed was involved in Janelle's death and ask for a DNA sample to eliminate her?" he said.

Despite private assurances that the matter would be pursued and that an investigator would be in touch, the police have since dismissed requests for the investigation to be reopened.

"How do the AFP know the extent of the information I have if they do not bother to contact me?" Mr Bruce asked. "If they are not going to investigate further I certainly will."

A spokesperson for the AFP in Canberra said there was "no new evidence or independent corroboration" to support the allegations: "The AFP has finalised its assessment of the information provided by Mr Bruce. As a result, the AFP does not intend to reopen the case and the investigation remains closed."

Speaking from Wellington, New Zealand, McNeill's lawyer Tony Ellis said: "If it is a stonewall, the question is why? Is it some sort of cover-up going on, or is it some other reason that we don't know about? Whatever it is, questions need to be asked."