Monica Cantwell didn’t have a chance. The English backpacker had been looking out to Matakana Island when Charles Coulam snuck up from behind, wrapped his arm around her throat and dragged her backwards into the bushes. Those terrifying moments were her last. The 24-year-old’s body was found raped and murdered three days later. The horror of the crime shook Mount Maunganui’s safe, seaside identity and has forever become etched in its history. Nearly 30 years later to the day Kiri Gillespie tracks down the then junior detectives who gained the killer’s confession and brought him to justice, the man using Cantwell’s death to create some good in the community, and those who nearly released Coulam back into the community this year.
The smoking gun
It was the love hearts that did it.
The tiny, playful love heart pattern on Monica Cantwell’s underwear inadvertently became the standout smoking gun in the case of her murder in Mount Maunganui 30 years ago.
No one but her and the man who attacked her could have described such specific love heart underwear and the manner in which they were criminally cut down each side in their removal. Against her will.
Cantwell, a 24-year-old English tourist had been visiting New Zealand and due to fly home to the UK in time for Christmas. She had been staying with a Tauranga dentist and his family.
On November 20, 1989, the dentist thought nothing of dropping Cantwell off at the Mount Maunganui hot pools for a walk up Mauao. When she failed to show for their pre-agreed pick-up time a few hours later, he became worried.
Police were notified of a missing person and search parties began scouring Mauao and the Mount Maunganui area. Three days later, Cantwell’s semi-naked body was found 50m from Mauao’s 4WD track near the summit. She had been raped and murdered.
The death sent a shock through the then quiet seaside community.
Retired police Detective Sergeant Peter Blackwell remembers it vividly.
‘Young woodchuck’ and the moment everything changed
Peter “Blackie” Blackwell sits quietly inside a Tauranga cafe as heavy rain falls from grey skies outside. As he reaches for his coffee, his eyes – which have seen so much through his 38-year policing career – drift off to another time.
Cantwell’s murder was one of his first he worked as a junior detective in Tauranga.
“I was a young woodchuck, in charge of exhibits. I have a very clear memory of being involved from day one. It was very sad and very unfortunate.”
For some time, people treated Cantwell’s disappearance at Mauao as just that – a missing person.
“It was a real unknown; had she walked around and fallen off the rocks and drowned?”
Blackwell’s deep and clear voice recalled visiting the dentist’s house that first evening and how devastated he and his family were that Cantwell was missing.
When Cantwell’s discarded and abused body was found, the community were reeling, also feeling anger and fear.
Blackwell and other officers tirelessly traced and interviewed everyone who visited Mauao that day, piecing together the puzzle of who could have committed such a crime. It was laborious and important work but the real breakthrough came from two people in Auckland.
“I do recall receiving a phone call at home one evening requesting me to go back to work,” Blackwell said.
“Some information had been received from Auckland Central CIB, dealing with some people who had come forward in relation to an associate of their’s making admissions of being involved with Mount Maunganui and the murder.”
Nineteen-year-old Charles Coulam, former Kings’ College student and adopted son of an Auckland lawyer, bragged to flatmates about information that involved details matching Cantwell’s attack.
Those flatmates told police and their statements were sent to Tauranga’s police station. As the fax machine spat the papers out, Blackwell and his boss couldn’t believe what they were reading.
“The detail was very, very clear in relation to items of the clothing he described to those friends – the description of patterns on her underwear and how accurate he was in how he had removed them; namely the damage he caused to them.”
Blackwell and his boss went through Cantwell’s items one by one as they were being described in those statements. The details were so specific they included those tiny love hearts.
“It was incredible, the accuracy of what those people were telling police.”
Blackwell knew they had their man. So did his boss.
A police taskforce including then Mount Maunganui Detective Carl Purcell was set up to travel to Auckland and make the arrest. Blackwell stayed behind.
“There was a meeting at Pilot Bay by the boat ramp and the concern, the tension, the fear with this small little community – as it was back then – was at a very, very high level. I’ll never forget that,” Blackwell said.
This “young woodchuck” was torn, knowing the arrest was happening but being unable to tell the fearful community police had their man.
Frustration from that memory etches onto Blackwell’s stern face as he explains: “I wanted to … but we could not because it was at a very early stage.”
“That fear and concern – it was rife in this community. It is a very strong memory I have. Of being present and showing our support and respect (for Monica). I so wished we could have informed them. Hundreds of people turned out,” he sits, slowly shaking his head.
“This community was rocked.”
Catching a killer
As Blackwell spoke to the hoards of worried Mount Maunganui residents, Detective Purcell knocked on the door of Coulam’s Auckland home.
“He came to the door. I introduced myself and said we were here to talk about this trip to the Mount and he sort of looked at us with a half-smile on his face.”
From his new home in Wellington, Purcell explains how this fresh-faced, well-dressed, well-spoken Pākehā boy did not resemble anyone police traditionally put in their suspect pool.
“But he was a sick man.”
Uncuffed, Coulam joined Purcell at a nearby station where, after a couple of hours of questioning, he still denied any involvement with Cantwell.
“It was a bit like ready-made answers. I pretty much l knew this was probably our boy,” Purcell said.
“I asked had he seen Monica, then he said ‘no’ at first. Then: had he seen any other people that didn’t fit the scene he goes ‘no’. He asked the question ‘was she a tourist?’ I said ‘yeah, she was from England and her parents are heartbroken’. About four to five minutes later, I pretty much said to him ‘you need to tell me about it Charlie’.
“He said ‘yeah, yeah, I did see someone’.”
Purcell had his confession.
Not only that, but once back in Tauranga, Coulam guided police in a walk-through of his movements on Mauao that day. Everything he said matched forensic reports detailing what police believed had happened.
“We went up the stairs and he said he saw a quite nice looking tourist lady there. He had the urging to grab her. I said ‘why didn’t you?’ but by the time he thought about it and formed a plan she had gone past him.
“He went up to the top and was going down the other side then he saw Monica perched on the side of the 4WD track, looking over Matakana Island.”
“‘you need to tell me about it Charlie.”
From where her memorial rock sits today, Cantwell was 30 to 40 metres away.
“He saw her and decided he was going to grab her. He came up from behind, grabbed her around the throat and went backwards across the 4WD track and up into the bush where he … strangled her to death,” Purcell said.
“He was pretty much telling me all of this with very little emotion. He went into a bit of detail as to what happened when he got her in the bush. He said the words ‘I’m sorry I did it’, but there was no empathy behind it.”
Coulam left Cantwell’s body, and Mauao, behind and went for a swim at the Mount’s main beach before walking to his accommodation and leaving for Auckland.
Purcell said that as an officer, he worked hard not to get swept up in emotions of a case but in this instance “you couldn’t help but feel it”. The matter-of-fact delivery and actions from Coulam was something that still disturbed Purcell today, all these years later.
“He did all of this and talked about it like a game of rugby the next day,” Purcell stated in disbelief.
The seasoned policeman transferred from Tauranga’s police station a few months ago to a senior road policing role in in the greater Wellington area.
The memory of Cantwell’s case is never far from his mind.
“There are always the ones that stick with you because of how and what happened and that was one of them. She was a tourist. It happened at the Mount, a reasonably sacred place for iwi or any person living in and around the Western Bay of Plenty.
“At least once a year I walk up to where it happened to pay my respects. I told Blackie I’ll take him next time.”
A large rock sits at the north side of Mauao’s summit looking out to Matakana Island. On it, a small silver plaque reads: Dedicated to Monica Cantwell, Nov 1989.
On top, a bunch of freshly placed manuka flowers bask in the sun.
Mauao Trust member and Ngāti Pukenga representative Buddy Mikaere sits on a seat nearby. The local historian walks past the memorial rock and plaque on most days. He’s lost count of how many times exactly but it would be in the hundreds.
In 2016, the plaque inspired Mikaere to try to make some good out of the tragedy. Mikaere began a mission of sponsored climbs to the summit for Tauranga Women’s Refuge.
Three years and thousands of dollars later he hasn’t stopped.
The early morning silence is broken by people’s footsteps on the gravel track and the call of tui, landing and taking flight in trees above the rock. The moment is peaceful. Mikaere takes in Cantwell’s memorial.
“That’s such a brutal act, what happened to her,” he said.
Cantwell’s murder was made more heinous because of its location. Mauao, especially the summit, is a sacred spot for Māori. For many, the mountain is a boundary marker and part of their whakapapa.
“You kind of feel you have a connection with the land but you feel this has been besmirched by this,” Mikaere said.
“This was a visitor to our land and some animal did that to her?
“There’s that question of identity, and the idea of someone doing something like that is takahi – it’s trampling on the mana of the maunga and the mana of the people.”
Mikaere has thought of Cantwell a lot over the years. This month, he is organising a service to mark not only Cantwell’s death but a stand against domestic violence. The gathering, with speakers, will be held at the memorial rock on White Ribbon Day, November 25.
“It’s not so much about commemorating the event but taking the opportunity, domestic violence is still going on. Men in particular need to stand up and put their hand up. This is not good enough. We need to do something about that.”
Mikaere refers to those manuka flowers. He didn’t bring them up, someone else did. Flowers on the rock are a regular thing, he said, even 30 years later.
Fate of a killer
Charles Coulam was just 19 when he killed Cantwell. Thanks to the work of Blackwell and Purcell, he was convicted of murder less than a month after the attack and sentenced to life imprisonment.
But this year, Coulam was very, nearly released.
Coulam had faced several parole hearings since he became eligible in 1999. Last year, the New Zealand Parole Board stated Coulam had been “well for many years”, receiving medication and support and it looked to transition him back into the community.
However, in the board’s August 2019 decision, Sir Ron Young said Coulam was found accessing “increasingly explicit” pornography during a series of night releases.
Access to such material went against Coulam’s “safety plan”; conditions of his night releases.
Sir Ron stated in the decision that Coulam’s pornography viewing, especially that he subsequently tried removing this condition from his safety plan, was “concerning”. Despite this, the board will see him again in May 2020 to discuss his future.
Cantwell’s future was cut short 30 years ago.
Thick bush masks the location of her terrifying last moments. Other tourists and locals walk by unaware. But her memory lives on in those manuka flowers, the minds of Purcell and Blackwell and the actions of Mikaere’s White Ribbon Day service.
Monica Cantwell may be gone but she is not forgotten.