In 1981 a New Zealand teenager fired at the British monarch – and a new investigation claims the assassination attempt was brushed aside by officials
It may be the closest anyone has ever come to assassinating Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1981, Christopher John Lewis, a disturbed New Zealand teenager aimed his .22 rifle at the British monarch during her tour of the country, lining up her jade outfit in his scope.
The bullet missed, but according to an investigation by reporter Hamish McNeilly for the website Stuff, the 17-year-old became obsessed with wiping out the royal family, as the government scrambled to conceal how close the self-styled terrorist had come to killing the head of state.
Two years after shooting at the Queen, the teenager, planning to murder Prince Charles, attempted to escape from a psychiatric ward. In 1995, New Zealand police sent him on a taxpayer-funded holiday during the Queen’s November tour – believing him to be safer snoozing on a beach than anywhere within firing distance of the monarch. He killed himself in prison in 1997.
By the age of 17, Lewis had a history of armed robbery, arson and animal torture. He idolised the Australian bandit Ned Kelly and American serial killer Charles Manson.
On Wednesday 14 October 1981, Lewis pulled on gloves and loaded his rifle inside a deserted toilet cubicle in New Zealand’s oldest city, Dunedin, aiming his scope at the Queen’s motorcade five storeys below.
Later, police found clippings on the royal family in Lewis’s squalid flat as well as a detailed map of the Queen’s route that day, with the words “Operation = Ass QUEB” written on the paper.
The Queen had just stepped out of a Rolls-Royce to greet 3,500 wellwishers when a distinctive crack rang out across the grassy reserve.
According to former Dunedin police det sgt Tom Lewis (no relation to the shooter), police immediately attempted to disguise the seriousness of the threat, telling the British press the noise was a council sign falling over. Later, under further questioning from reporters, they said someone had been letting off firecrackers nearby.
According to Tom Lewis, the then prime minister Robert Muldoon feared if word got out about how close the teenager had come to killing the Queen, the royals would never again visit New Zealand.
The 1981 annual police report reads: “The discharge of a firearm during the visit of Her Majesty the Queen serves to remind us all of the potential risks to royalty, particularly during public walks.”
Police interviewed the teenager eight times, during which he claimed he had been instructed to kill the Queen by an Englishman known to him as “the Snowman”, of whom Lewis was frightened.
The Snowman allegedly told Lewis about the pro-Nazi, rightwing National Front in England, and said Lewis could be part of similar groups that were popping up in New Zealand.
Lewis later claimed to have been visited by high-ranking officials from the government in Wellington during his 13-day interrogation, and was told never to discuss the incident.
“If I was ever to mention the events surrounding my interviews or the organisation, or that I was in the building, or that I was shooting from it – that they would make sure I ‘suffered a fate worse than death’,” Lewis wrote in a draft autobiography found beside his body after he killed himself. It was published posthumously.
Further evidence of Lewis’s obsession with the royal family had emerged in 1983 when he attempted to overpower a guard at a psychiatric hospital where he was being detained in order to assassinate Prince Charles, who visited the country in April with the Princess of Wales and their young son, William.
Fourteen years after Lewis’s attempt on the Queen’s life, the monarch returned to tour New Zealand in November 1995.
Lewis, then 31, was deemed a serious threat to her safety, so New Zealand police dispatched him to Great Barrier Island in the north of the country, with free accommodation, daily spending money and the use of a vehicle. He was not, however, under 24-hour surveillance.
“I started to feel like royalty,” Lewis wrote of his 10-day exile.
Tom Lewis, who worked on the 1981 case, said police were eager to keep the troubled man out of the spotlight during the second tour and downplay how close he had come to the Queen on her earlier visit.
“You will never get a true file on that: it was reactivated, regurgitated, bits pulled off it, other false bits put on it,” Lewis told Stuff, adding that Christopher Lewis’s original statement to police was destroyed. “They were in damage control so many times.”
Murray Hanan, Lewis’s former lawyer, said police did not want to press ahead with a charge of treason – which in 1981 still carried the death penalty – and he believed they had received an order from “up-top, politically” to hush up the attempted murder.
“The fact an attempted assassination of the Queen had taken place in New Zealand … it was just too politically hot to handle,” said Hanan. “I think the government took the view that he is a bit nutty and has had a hard upbringing, so it won’t be too harsh.”
When Lewis faced court, his potshot at the Queen was downgraded to possession of a firearm in a public place and discharging it. The attempted assassination – an embarrassment to the police protection squad, and to the government – was being quietly and conveniently forgotten.
Lewis killed himself in prison at the age of 33, while awaiting trial for the murder of a young mother and the kidnapping of her child. Shortly before his death Lewis told his partner about his infamous attempt to assassinate the Queen of England.
“Damn,” he told her, “damn … I missed.”
The Snowman and the Queen: Christopher John Lewis’ young life of crime.
The Snowman and the Queen is a five-part series looking at the life and crimes of Christopher John Lewis, a self-styled teen terrorist and trained ‘ninja’ whose bizarre criminal antics kept police busy from his school days until his strange suicide in prison at age 33.
Christopher John Lewis was born in Dunedin on September 7, 1964. His life of crime started young, when he was expelled from kindergarten for pushing another child off a slide, and continued until his suicide in prison at age 33.
This crimeline covers major criminal incidents involving Lewis, starting from when he was just 16.
January 20: Sent to Cherry Farm psychiatric hospital in Dunedin for a risk assessment after a minor criminal matter. Later escaped.
December 13: Lewis burgled his former school, Otago Boys’ High School, stealing five .22 rifles.
January 20: Lewis is committed under the Mental Health Act to Cherry Farm, after taking a vehicle at gunpoint. Released in May.
August 5-October 9: Dunedin crimespree of arsons, burglaries, vandalism and an armed robbery, with his guerilla group N.I.G.A claiming responsibility for most.
October 14: The Queen and Prince Philip walk around Dunedin’s Octagon as part of their royal tour of New Zealand. After lunch their motorcade heads to the Otago Museum Reserve, arriving just before 3pm. As they exit the car, a shot is heard.
October 22: Lewis is brought in for questioning.
October 23: Lewis takes police to Dunedin’s Adams Building and they recover a missing .22 rifle. Under questioning, Lewis confirms he took a shot at the Queen.
November 2: Lewis is charged in connection with firing a weapon on the day of the Royal visit.
November 17: Lewis pleads guilty in court to 17 charges including aggravated robbery and unlawfully discharging a firearm.
December 10: Lewis is sentenced to three years imprisonment.1982-1985
Lewis serves time at an Invercargill youth institution and at the maximum security Lake Alice Hospital in Whanganui, where it is revealed he was behind a detailed plot to kill visiting Prince Charles. He serves the last part of his sentence at Dunedin’s Cherry Farm psychiatric hospital.
He is jailed for further burglary and theft offending.
April: Lewis, after four robberies, sparks a major West Coast manhunt and flees via the underside of a bus.
June: Lewis is captured in Auckland trying to buy a car. He appears in court on aggravated robbery, attempted aggravated robbery and burglary. He is sentenced to eight years’ jail.
Days after his release he is sentenced to four years for the hold-up of a bank at Waikanae.
November: Lewis and his then partner sent to Great Barrier Island by authorities worried he may threaten the Queen once more.
July 26: Tania Furlan found bashed to death in her Auckland home.
November: Lewis sent to jail for six months over making a false statement for the purpose of procuring a New Zealand passport. He is later charged with Furlan’s murder.
September 23: Yet to face trial, Lewis, 33, electrocutes himself in his prison cell at Mt Eden.
The schoolboy with the strawberry blonde hair goes unnoticed as he walks up the stairs carrying a gun wrapped in a pair of old jeans.
The wannabe assassin leaves his 10-speed bike outside the seven-storey Adams Building; chosen at the last minute.
He enters a deserted toilet cubicle on the fifth floor, removes the stolen .22, puts on gloves, opens the window, and waits.
After a nerve-racking five minutes, the teenager spots a Rolls Royce driving down the closed road.
A few hundred metres away a large crowd of people erupts in cheers as the motorcade stops outside the Otago Museum Reserve.
This is the moment. After this, he’d be New Zealand’s greatest criminal.
He puts the rifle against his shoulder, and aims at the Queen of England.
THE BOY CRIMINAL
This is the story of how a 17-year-old from Dunedin made the world’s closest attempt to kill Queen Elizabeth II, our longest-living reigning monarch, and how police allegedly covered it up to save face.
As far as assassins go, Christopher John Lewis hardly looked the part. The short, bespectacled teen with a slight frame was described by police as “something out of the Boy Scout manual” and having a “Joe 90” appearance – after the 1960s spy character.
But a note on his file read: “Not to be trusted.”
Born in Dunedin on September 7, 1964, Lewis’ life of offending began with his expulsion from kindergarten. According to his memoirs, Last Words, published after his death, he was kicked out for pushing a child off a slide.
His father left after a few years and his mother remarried. According to Lewis, his stepfather was a harsh disciplinarian who frequently beat him with a strap.
“This taste of violence made me resentful and turn inwards,” Lewis said.
A self-described loner, he struggled at school and was unable to read or write until he was 8.
Expulsions became a way of life. At Anderson Bay Primary it was for “stirring up teachers”; at Tahuna Intermediate for taking a porn magazine to school; at Otago Boys’ High he was “always having fights and getting in the s…”.
“I had the most detentions and the most canings of anyone in the high school,” he would tell police.
As his criminal ambitions escalated, Lewis, who idolised cult outlaws such as Ned Kelly and Charles Manson, styled himself as the leader of his own guerilla army: the National Imperial Guerilla Army (N.I.G.A.). He enlisted former primary school buddy Geoffrey Rothwell and friend Paul Taane to join.
Taane, who now lives in Christchurch, said Lewis often appeared “angry at the world, people were afraid of him”.
Lewis, simply, had no regard for human life, he said.
Taane remembers Lewis sticking pins into a kitten for fun. Once, Lewis pointed a loaded shotgun in his face.
In late 1980, the three-man army launched a crimewave in Dunedin, beginning with the theft of five .22s from Lewis’ former high school, a church burglary and the arson of a video store. The boys claimed responsibility for four-break ins and a safe cracking. A letter to police during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour claimed that N.I.G.A. would “continue to steal, rob or even kill … unless if the Springbok team leaves New Zealand”. [sic]
Rothwell, now a lawyer, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The burglary of a secondhand sporting store and then a gun store gave the fledgling army an arsenal of weapons, some of which were later found buried at Lewis’ Albany St flat in the heart of Dunedin’s student quarter.
As Taane recalls, the trio would bike on their 10-speeds to a park for target practice with a sawn-off shotgun.
With an eye on sourcing cash to expand their criminal activities, the burgeoning teen terrorists embarked on their most daring plan yet: the armed robbery of the Anderson’s Bay Post Office.
THE UNLIKELY ROBBERS
On the day of the robbery, Taane and Rothwell left nearby Bayfield High School at morning tea break, so they wouldn’t be missed.
They joined Lewis and pulled on camouflage coats to hide their school uniforms, before cycling to the target.
The trio donned balaclavas and Lewis – wielding a sawn-off shotgun and with an ammunition belt slung across his skinny frame – burst into the post office.
“This is a f….. hold-up,” he yelled at the startled postmistress and female clerk.
Lewis leapt over the counter and ordered his large backpack filled with cash.
Two terrified teenage girls waiting outside were forced into the building and ordered to sit on the floor by the shotgun-wielding Taane, who was acting as a lookout.
When Lewis jumped back over the counter his shotgun went off, missing a post office worker by centimetres.
With $5244.31 in cash, the boy robbers then made their getaway on their bikes.
Bizarrely, as he rode back to his flat with his stolen loot, Lewis stopped to help a police car that had crashed on the way to the scene. The cop suspected nothing.
Back at school Taane and Rothwell sat an exam, alongside their unwitting classmates.
Former constable Frank Van Der Eik was one of the officers called to set up a cordon around the post office.
He and other officers were amazed to discover it was schoolboys who carried out the brazen daylight armed robbery.
“You would never think to look for a high school kid in school clothes,” Van Der Eik said.
Ten days after the robbery a letter posted at Otago University said “N.I.G.A. claimed responsibility for the Post Office robbery and the Centrefire Sports shop”.
Taane recalled telling Rothwell in the days after the robbery, “normal life will be boring after this”.
Lewis had never been one for boring. In later years, he boasted to his lawyer, Murray Hanan, that he would be “New Zealand’s greatest criminal”. What he planned next was his ticket to notoriety.
Christopher John Lewis is only 17 when he finds himself perched inside the Adams Building, with a rifle cocked and aimed at Queen Elizabeth II, on Wednesday October 14, 1981.
The eight-day royal visit, her sixth to New Zealand, is a short one, just a month after the divisive Springbok rugby tour.
Hundreds of police, fresh from clashing with anti-apartheid protesters, are tasked with protecting the Queen.
Security is tight, or so they believe.
Wearing a jade-coloured wool dress, coat and hat, the Queen steps out of a Rolls Royce and onto the sunny Otago Museum Reserve, while the Duke observes police shielding about 15 demonstrators.
Then a loud crack echoes around.
How close did this sandy-haired boy burglar come in his attempt on Queen Elizabeth’s life?
What made New Zealand police so afraid of Lewis that they sent him on a taxpayer-funded holiday 14 years after the assassination attempt during another of the Queen’s visits?
And who was the mysterious ‘Snowman’ whom Lewis claimed gave him the order to shoot?
At just 17, Christopher John Lewis fears nothing. Nothing except one person.
“I have no unnatural phobias at all. I am scared of the Snowman,” he tells police.
The Snowman is English, about 22 years old, 172 centimetres tall, of average build, with short black hair and a “rough temper”, teen criminal Lewis says.
He first meets the Snowman by chance at Dunedin’s Manor House Coffee Lounge.
Snowman tells Lewis about the pro-Nazi, right-wing National Front in England and says similar groups are “sprouting up” across New Zealand.
Lewis is keen to get involved, and has visions of leading his own local terrorist cell.
When the Snowman asks Lewis whether the Queen should be “knocked off”, the young bandit knows this is his chance for a promotion.
He starts planning to kill Queen Elizabeth II.
One might have expected panic among the 3500-strong crowd when the crack of gunfire rang out across the Otago Museum Reserve on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 14, 1981.
Engraver Garth Simpson and two workmates had just downed tools to watch the Rolls Royce cruise along Malcolm St.
Garth Simpson was in Dunedin when the Queen visited the city. As she was driven past, he remembers hearing a gun-shot nearby.
They waved, but Queen Elizabeth II did not return their greeting.
Annoyed, Simpson turned his back. That’s when he heard it.
“It was clearly a gunshot.”
A former territorial soldier for more than a decade, Simpson was adamant the shot came from a .22 calibre rifle.
“I assumed it was a shot at the Queen.”
Sue Cutfield, who was near the reserve, heard the shot as the Queen, wearing her trademark matching hat, coat and dress, emerged from the car.
Former Constable Frank Van Der Eik, one of hundreds of officers at the scene, described it as a “crack”.
“You hear that noise and all the cops are looking around: scanning, scanning, scanning,” Van Der Eik said.
But nothing happened. “The Queen just carried on.”
Media reports later quoted police saying the noise was merely a council sign falling over, but an inquiry was launched.
Eight days later, police stumbled across 17-year-old Christopher Lewis by chance.
Officers were going door-to-door to find possible witnesses to an unrelated armed robbery, when they discovered nervous schoolboy Geoffrey Rothwell, wearing a camouflage jacket matching the description of the robbers.
Rothwell, Lewis, and another mate, Paul Taane, were taken in for questioning.
Soon the boys were talking – none more so than Lewis.
Described by police as looking like “something out of a boy scout manual”, he admitted to a string of burglaries, and to being the supposed head of the National Imperial Guerilla Army (N.I.G.A), which only months earlier had sent letters to police threatening violence over the Springbok tour.
Officers seized a cache of weapons from the teen’s flat, but something was missing: a BSA .22 bolt action.
Later, Lewis led police to the non-descript Adams Building, to a toilet overlooking the Queen’s route through Dunedin. There police found the weapon, along with a spent .22 cartridge.
At Lewis’ flat, officers found newspaper clippings on the royal family and a hand-drawn map of the Octagon with the words: Operation = Ass QUEB.
They realised this sandy-haired schoolboy was not just a robber, but a would-be assassin.
Lewis was officially interviewed eight times over a 13-day period, on suspicion of attempting to kill the Queen, the police file shows.
The teen potentially faced a charge of treason. The penalty? Death.
Lewis claimed the order for the assassination came from the Snowman.
Transcripts of those interviews, obtained for the first time under the Official Information Act, said Lewis portrayed “a real fear” of the Snowman.
“He … considers him to be very powerful, with access to firearms,” a detective noted.
According to Lewis, school mates Taane, 17, and Rothwell, 16, were directly under his command in N.I.G.A, with another person, the Polar Bear, higher ranked in the group.
The Snowman was the leader, and under his orders the fledgling army aimed “to terrorise Dunedin” and police with “fear tactics, terrorism, firearms and explosives”.
He told police he thought killing the Queen would get him promoted within N.I.G.A.
Detectives had “grave doubts” about the existence of the Snowman and the Polar Bear.
One interviewing detective put it to Lewis that, if the Snowman wanted a person of such international prestige as the Queen assassinated, he wouldn’t get a boy to do the job for him.
“I … suggested that he was the Snowman,” the officer said.
But Lewis put on a convincing show.
In one interview, he asked to sit away from the window over fears he would be shot by a sniper. If the Snowman found out Lewis had exposed him, he would be killed, he said.
Lewis said his last meeting with the Snowman was on Monday October 12, 1981, two days before the royal visit.
“It was his idea that I shoot the Queen.”
In several statements to police between October 22 to November 3, 1981, Lewis gave varying versions of how he carried out his plot to assassinate the Queen.
He first said he originally planned to shoot the monarch in the Octagon, but aborted the location because there wasn’t an escape route.
“I wanted to find a good place to get her from. I wanted to find a place where I wouldn’t get caught.”
When he realised the Octagon wouldn’t work, he biked to the Adams Building, his Plan B.
With no-one around he walked up to the fifth floor and then into a toilet block.
There he found a window facing towards the museum.
“The window was open just a fraction, I didn’t open it any further, just a fraction was enough for what I wanted it for.”
Lewis told detectives he waited a few minutes for the Queen to arrive before letting a shot off.
“I don’t know if I hit anything or not.”
Lewis left the rifle in a locker just outside the toilet, and took the lift to the ground floor, before cycling back to his flat.
Two days later he gave another version of events. This time he told detectives that on the day of the attempt he went to scope out the museum before playing Space Invaders in the foyer of the nearby University Union.
Walking back to his flat he changed into his dark blue suit trousers, jersey and gym shoes.
He then went to his garden, dug up a stolen .22 rifle, and gave it a clean.
Wrapping the rifle up in a pair of old jeans he placed it on the handlebars of his green 10 speed Healing and headed to the Adams Building.
“Right up until this stage it was my intention to kill the Queen by shooting her with the loaded .22 calibre I was carrying.”
“At about the fifth floor I changed my mind.”
Lewis told police that he could no longer see the museum reserve, and developed second thoughts.
“My mind was in turmoil. I was tearing my insides out. I didn’t know what to do.'”
Regardless, he unwrapped the gun, putting gloves on to avoid fingerprints.
Opening the window a fraction, he waited in the locked toilet area with his gun aimed at the street below.
“I was going to make a spur of the moment decision if I saw her.”
Five minutes later that opportunity came.
A car travelled down Malcolm St.
“I had no idea who was in this car,” Lewis said.
“I never thought it was the Queen.”
He put the rifle against his shoulder, sighted the road and fired a shot.
Lewis maintained he had no idea where the Queen was when he fired the shot and he “definitely could not see her”.
Later, when shown three photos in order to pinpoint the location of the bullet, Lewis could not orientate himself and asked to be taken to the Adams Building.
In the toilet cubicle, he demonstrated how he latched the window, before simulating firing a gun.
Lewis told police he was confused and uncertain as to where he had fired the shot.
Eventually, Lewis gave the police the true identity of the Snowman: his imagination.
“I have been telling a number of untruths… I now wish to correct a few things.
“The major issue concerns two persons I have code-named the Snowman and Polar Bear.
“These persons do not exist. They are a figment of my imagination.”
On November 2, Lewis was charged with the possession of a .22 rifle in a public place, and another charge of discharging it.
He seemed disappointed.
“Only two charges, what?” “S…,” Lewis said, before letting out a long whistle.
“Had the bullet hit her, would it be treason?” he asked.
“I ignored the question,” the officer wrote.
The bedroom is bare apart from a bed, and bullet holes from a .22 rifle peppering the walls.
It is the day after Lewis is charged and he guides police working on the case outside to a small shed at the rear of his ramshackle villa in the heart of Dunedin’s student quarter.
It’s in this shed, where the budding scientist carries out experiments, the 17-year-old tells the officers.
Among the books and chemicals he uses for his correspondence schooling are his mice which he uses for testing.
Lewis, concerned that no-one will be able to look after the two mice while he is in prison, says he will have to kill them.
Without hesitation he picks up a live mouse and pulls its head clean off in front of his guarding officers, before doing the same to the other.
Police have the boy who took a shot at Queen Elizabeth II, but they’re discovering this young, bookish criminal is more fearsome than he looks, and they don’t want the world to know about him.
Lewis, his lawyer, and a senior officer-turned-whistleblower, claim the truth never came out. Why was Lewis allegedly told by police officers he would suffer a “fate worse than death” if he talked?
If they didn’t believe he had really tried to assassinate the Queen that day, what were police trying to protect by sending Lewis on a publicaly-funded island holiday during a future royal visit?
And what other criminal exploits meant Lewis spent most of his 20s in and out of jail?
It has been 14 years since Christopher John Lewis took a shot at the Queen in Dunedin, when the teen terrorist-turned-Buddhist finds himself on a taxpayer-funded holiday.
He and his partner are fishing and kayaking on Great Barrier Island, with free accommodation, daily spending money and a 4WD – courtesy of the New Zealand police.
“I started to feel like royalty,” Lewis writes in his memoir of the 10-day trip in November 1995.
So great are police fears that the now 31-year-old will again try to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II, their solution is to exile him while the monarch and a swag of heads of states are in Auckland for the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) talks.
“My name came up on a list which the police drew up, of suspected radicals with political ideals that had seen them (at some point or another) clash with the law,” Lewis writes.
While police later confirm Lewis was sent to the island for security reasons, he is not under 24-hour surveillance.
Lewis writes: “All in all I had a great holiday and wasn’t at all fazed to spend 10 days away from Auckland.
“Of course had I wanted to shoot someone from CHOGM it would have been a simple task to just fly back to Auckland and do so.”
Given how paranoid police were about Lewis’ threat to the Queen’s life in the 1990s, their subdued response to his 1981 assassination attempt in Dunedin was surprising.
Former Dunedin Detective Sergeant Tom Lewis, who is no relation of Christopher Lewis, has no doubt there was a police cover-up.
“You will never get a true file on that, it was reactivated, regurgitated, bits pulled off it, other false bits put on it . . . they were in damage control so many times.”
According to Tom Lewis, who was initially the officer assigned to the case, orders to cover up the assassination attempt came from the top – then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.
It was feared New Zealand would never get another royal tour and that police would be the laughing stock of the British press.
Paul Taane, a childhood mate of Lewis who carried out several burglaries and arsons with him, said Lewis confided in him about the plot.
When asked if the assassination attempt was covered-up by authorities, Taane replied “guaranteed”.
“You don’t hear about it. And they don’t want to talk about it.”
On October 14, 1981, the day a shot was heard across Otago Museum Reserve as the Queen greeted thousands of Kiwi fans, police downplayed the incident, telling reporters the sound was merely a council sign falling over.
However, rumours persisted, fuelled by a tip to the British press from within the royal entourage.
Police later said it may have been a person letting off firecrackers near the Medical School Library.
Despite these public denials, Christopher Lewis was in police custody just over a week later.
Tom Lewis alleges the 17-year-old’s first statement to police was destroyed.
Under questioning, Christopher Lewis claimed he had the Queen lined up for a shot as the royal couple met fans, the former detective said.
“He was just about to pull the trigger. He was just tightening the trigger, he could just see her hat and was lining up the hat.”
Now based on the Gold Coast, Tom Lewis claimed a “very accurate” hand-drawn map recovered from the teenager’s bedroom showed how he planned to shoot from the Octagon.
But that plan was thwarted when two policemen walked in front of the teen’s view.
The Adams Building, where Christopher Lewis let off a shot from his perch in a toilet cubicle on the fifth floor, was his “Plan B”.
Tom Lewis said he was with the suspect when police re-enacted his assassination plans in the Octagon, and later from the Adams Building.
And the teen got close. Very close.
“If he had waited until she walked a wee bit closer . . . it could have been less than 50 metres.”
Tom Lewis wrote extensively about the cover-up in his book, Coverups and Copouts, published in 1998.
Some years earlier the former cop had gone public, prompting top brass to deny allegations of a cover-up while claiming all details of the incident were made public.
The 1995 police statement said the case was widely reported at the time, with the incident referenced in the 1981 police annual report.
That report, obtained by Stuff, reads: “The discharge of a firearm during the visit of Her Majesty the Queen serves to remind us all of the potential risks to royalty, particularly during public walks.”
Christopher Lewis, in his memoir Last Words, claimed that, while in custody, he was visited by “high-ranking police officers” from Wellington.
“The Dunedin police were rocking from the pressure the ‘top-brass’ were putting on them from Wellington.
“Many heads rolled because of this.”
“And the cover-up did not stop there,” Lewis wrote.
Interviewed by senior NZSIS officers, Lewis claimed he was offered a “new deal”.
“That if I was ever to mention the events surrounding my interviews or the organisation, or that I was in the building, or that I was shooting from it – that they would make sure I ‘suffered a fate worse than death’.”
Police job sheets released to Stuff reveal that Christopher John Lewis initially faced a charge of treason, or attempted treason.
Tom Lewis, who was later taken off the case, said he was dumbfounded to learn the charge was downgraded.
Lewis’ former lawyer, Murray Hanan, said police did not want to hear any talk of his client shooting at the Queen.
“They kept on saying ‘oh no, oh no’.”
Hanan believed a message had come from “up-top, politically” to downplay the incident.
“The fact an attempted assassination of the Queen had taken place in New Zealand with a nutcase who later said he was trying to establish a new IRA movement . . . it was just too politically hot to handle.”
Hanan was puzzled as to why Lewis was never charged with treason, with capital punishment remaining on the government books until 1989.
“I think the Government took the view that he is a bit nutty and has had a hard upbringing, so it won’t be too harsh.”
Hanan did not believe anyone else was involved in the assassination attempt, with Lewis ultimately claiming full responsibility.
“That was typical Christopher.”
On December 10, 1981 in the Dunedin High Court, Christopher Lewis was sentenced to three years jail, after pleading guilty to 17 charges from his exploits in the months leading up to the royal visit. They included aggravated robbery, arson and burglary.
He was never charged with attempting to kill the Queen. Instead, it was possession of a firearm in a public place and discharging a firearm.
“From their investigation the police were satisfied that at no time could the accused have been close enough to the Royal party to have been within effective range of any member of that party and, in fact, when he discharged that rifle, the Royal party would not have been visible to him,” the official police summary said.
“Subsequently, the accused admitted that he had in fact discharged the firearms directly into the ground.”
Five days after his arrest a confidential letter, obtained by Stuff under OIA, was sent to the then Commissioner of Police about the incident.
“Because of the lack of the physical evidence and Lewis’ psychiatric history, we may never know exactly what happened.”
‘FREED – The BOY GUERILLA’ screams the
headline on The Truth in June 1984.
Christopher Lewis’ release from custody does not go unnoticed.
Having tried to escape youth prison and then finishing his sentence in a psychiatric hospital, his freedom sparks a flurry of official correspondence between government departments.
One letter, seen by Stuff, cites a visiting psychiatrist warning that the former teen terrorist has the “potential to plan and carry out criminal activities on a very large scale”.
They are right to be worried.
“I don’t think that anything before or after, has ever made me feel so happy as when I finally drove out the gate of the hospital and headed south to Dunedin,” Lewis writes in his memoir.
He is finally free, but far from reformed.
A trained ninja, Christopher Lewis is still to rob a handful of banks, spark a major West Coast manhunt, fake a passport and allegedly, to murder.
He will spend most of his 20s inside some of New Zealand’s harshest prisons.
Does his ‘enlightenment’ through Buddhism and yoga change his criminal course?
Christopher John Lewis steps into the hot bath, takes a sip of brandy and lights a cigar.
On the television in his motel room is a news report of a large police manhunt for the fugitive.
The problem for police is they are searching on the West Coast, but Lewis is in Wellington, watching the drama unfold.
A week earlier, the 23-year-old had grabbed his pet kitten and the $20,000 in cash he robbed from a Christchurch bank and gone on the run.
Armed police and an Iroquois helicopter comb rugged Buller Gorge bush looking for Lewis, but he escapes by using his ninja skills to wedge himself into the underside of a bus for 200km to flee the area.
Now, as he savours his drink and his criminal success in equal parts, he has another destination in mind: Australia.
By the time Lewis finds himself holed up in a Wellington motel in May 1987, the young man has already been jailed three times.
His longest stint was more than three years in custody for a crime spree in 1981, which ended with the then-17-year-old firing a shot at Queen Elizabeth II during her Dunedin visit that year.
Lewis narrowly escaped a treason charge for the assassination plot – instead police charged him with possession of a firearm in a public place and discharging a firearm, adding to the other 15 charges he admitted to, including aggravated robbery, arson and burglary.
Lewis served the first year of his sentence in an Invercargill youth detention centre.
He was later given an extra three months inside, after an hour-long prison break (he made a run for it while bringing in milk containers from outside the wire) which landed him in solitary confinement for weeks.
In 1983 he was transferred to Lake Alice psychiatric hospital, near Whanganui, where he planned another attack on the Royal family.
After he tried to overpower a guard with a knife, staff found in Lewis’ room detailed plans to murder Prince Charles, who was at the time touring New Zealand with his then-wife Princess Diana and their young son, William.
That prompted justice officials to try to have Lewis committed under the Mental Health Act. One letter between government departments, seen by Stuff, noted Lewis could “be a real danger to others”.
Regardless, the bid failed and Lewis spent the latter part of his sentence in Otago psychiatric hospital Cherry Farm, before returning to Dunedin to live with his parents.
Lewis remained on the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) watch list.
After serving more time for burglary (including that of his former primary school) in 1985, Lewis was in his 20s and ready to make headlines again: It was time to put his ninjutsu training into practise.
The former boy burglar appeared to be going straight.
Now living in Christchurch, the 23-year-old had a partner, regularly attended church, and had set-up his own ninja dojo.
But his new civilian life did not last.
“Robbery was the only area of crime that I felt fitted my disposition,” he wrote in his memoir.
First, he hit a Christchurch BNZ bank and three post offices – two in Dunedin – netting about $20,000.
Armed with a fake pistol and a ninja sword, he eluded police and headed for the West Coast.
Posing as a writer, he rented a small flat in Westport, where he hunkered down for the next six weeks with his adopted kitten, Tiger.
Running out of cash, he returned to Christchurch to rob another bank.
In a stolen Ford Telstar, Lewis fled back to the Westport flat. But three days in and with police hot on his trail, Lewis packed his belongings and put Tiger in the front seat of the Ford, planning to drive to Dunedin and then fly to Auckland.
He was soon being followed by police, and after a high-speed pursuit in torrential rain through the Buller Gorge, Lewis deliberately drove off the road, plunging 10 metres into dense bush and coming to a stop metres from the flooded Buller River.
Grabbing a radio, provisions and $20,000 cash, he abandoned Tiger and went bush.
Ninja skills may benefit fugitive’, The Dominion reported on May 5, 1987.
Dozens of police, including the Armed Offender Squad and an Iroquois helicopter scoured the gorge.
Police told media the chance of Lewis surviving was “very slim” given the cold and wet conditions, but noted a diary found in his crashed car showed he previously survived in the bush for days on end.
That was thanks to his ninja skills, Lewis wrote in his memoir.
He’d first learnt the martial art Tae Kwon Do as a 14-year-old, but was drawn to the art of the ninja under the tutelage of the so-called Master Leong.
His martial arts training showed him “how to injure, or even kill someone with my bare hands”.
He eventually ran his own “terrorism” courses in Christchurch under the guise of a Ninjutsu class, telling students he was a black belt, first dan.
According to reports in the Christchurch Press from his time on the run, lessons included using darts, knives and spikes, poisons, world politics and bush survival.
He expected students to run hundreds of kilometres cross-country, tread water for three hours, swim 5km by breast-stroke and swim under 30 logs.
“He professes to be a ninja, but it is highly doubtful,” a martial arts expert told the newspaper.
“There is no governing body. If you wanted to start a ninjutsu school you could call yourself a ninja.”
Trained ninja or not, Lewis remained at large following his daring plunge in the Buller Gorge.
After a week evading police in the bush, he came to a road where he spied an empty bus he hoped would take him south to Greymouth.
Placing his cash-filled backpack under the bus, he nestled on some pipes to make his escape. Unfortunately for Lewis, the bus travelled 100km to Karamea, and he was forced to return to Westport the same way.
Lewis then walked along railway tracks and at the Inangahua Junction he hitched a ride to Blenheim and flew to Wellington the next day.
After securing passage to Melbourne by boat in a month’s time, Lewis flew to Auckland and stayed in a bedsit to await departure.
After a tip-off, he was finally captured at gunpoint by police while buying a Mini.
He pleaded guilty to eight robberies and burglaries and was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years’ jail.
Considered a security risk, Lewis was sent to the toughest prison in the country – Paremoremo – where he found enlightenment.
Monks visit the young criminal who once tried to kill the Queen, and he writes to The Truth newspaper in 1989 about his “newfound enlightenment” in prison.
The self-styled terrorist has converted to Buddhism and is working on his rehabilitation. He writes that he regrets his offending and asks that prisoners who “show initiative to clean up their life” are let go.
Five years into his sentence, he is released on parole.
It takes just four weeks before he is back inside following another bank robbery.
Freed again in 1995, Lewis and his then-partner move to Karekare, a small coastal settlement west of Auckland, to practise yoga and start a business selling herbal medicine for dogs.
He finds a studio in an old warehouse on Auckland’s North Shore and starts teaching the Korean martial art Hapkido, and later Ninjutsu.
But in a year, he will be awaiting trial again. This time the stakes are higher than ever: he is accused of murdering an Auckland housewife.
Lewis maintained he was framed for murder by a former cellmate dubbed ‘Jimmy the Weasel’, who was paid $30,000 by police for his information.
Did Lewis really bludgeon 27-year-old Tania Furlan to death in her own home? How did his shoe print end up at the murder scene?
And how did the young criminal manage to take his own life while under prison watch?
The final chapter
It’s 1pm at Mt Eden Prison when guards unlock the room of murder-accused Christopher John Lewis and his cellmate.
It is a chance for them to stretch their legs in the small exercise yard, after lunch.
But Lewis wishes to stay in his room with a newspaper and biscuits for “some time” to himself.
Earlier that day, his girlfriend visited. The woman, who calls him “Chris”, is deeply in love with him, and doesn’t notice signs of anything out of the ordinary, despite her lover turning down an offer to put money in his account.
Lewis’ shared cell in the maximum security wing has artist’s paints set up, a TV and a typewriter in the corner, where Lewis has been working on his memoir.
About 3.15pm, when a Corrections Officer checks the cell, Lewis is slumped in a metal chair “in a lifeless state”.
The guard initially thinks Lewis is asleep. Then he notices his colour.
At 33, the man infamous for attempting to assassinate the Queen in Dunedin, is dead.
It came down to a pair of shoes: Reebok sneakers that would connect Lewis to the murder of 27-year-old Auckland mother-of-three Tania Furlan, though he always denied killing her.
Furlan was bashed to death with a hammer in her Howick home in July 1996.
Her then 6-week-old daughter, Tiffany, was later found at a church, some 18 kilometres from her home.
Police were puzzled over the brutal death, but their investigation soon zeroed in on Lewis, after they talked to one of his former Paremoremo cellmates.
Lewis had served five years in Paremoremo – the country’s toughest prison – from 1987, for a string of robberies and burglaries.
Although Lewis, a bookish, sandy-haired man who wore glasses, had a police record spanning two decades back to his early teens, extreme violence was not his usual MO. He was most well-known for plots to kill the Queen and Prince Charles, as well as numerous bank robberies, arsons and elaborate escapes from authorities.
During pre-trial depositions hearings, his former jail mate, who had name suppression at the time, claimed Lewis confessed to murdering Furlan.
He alleged Lewis posed as a delivery man, with a hammer in a cardboard box. When Furlan answered the door, Lewis asked for a pen and then hit her on the head, intending just to knock her out.
“He said he must have hit her too hard because the blood was p…ing out,” NZPA reported the witness saying.
“He hit her another five times, because he knew he had f….. up.”
The informant alleged Lewis, who was a self-proclaimed ninja and survival expert, needed money for a martial arts centre. As part of the plot Lewis wanted to take Furlan hostage to extort money from her husband, Victor, who managed his local Big Fresh supermarket in Glenfield.
After taking baby Tiffany instead, and leaving a ransom note, he changed his mind, dropped the girl at the Royal Oak Baptist Church and returned to the house to retrieve the note.
The police case centred around a shoe print forensic scientists found at the crime scene, which matched a pair of Reebok Aztrek Plus sneakers Lewis owned. Police also recovered a notepad from Lewis’ home with indentation, indicating a ransom note had been written.
Lewis and his partner were staying with his mother in Christchurch when police came for him.
The couple were planning a sailing holiday to South America, but were struggling to get a passport for Lewis due to his criminal convictions. They offered money to a mate to get one under his name, but the friend got cold feet.
When the cops came knocking, Lewis was wearing his Reeboks. Both Lewis and his partner were initially arrested on passport charges, but police soon began asking about Lewis’ whereabouts on the night Furlan was bludgeoned to death.
On Friday November 1, 1996, Lewis was sent to jail for six weeks after admitting making a false statement for procuring a New Zealand passport.
His partner, a first offender, was fined $350 plus court costs.
Later that day, after he was taken to Addington Prison, a police officer with results from testing his pair of Reeboks visited.
“You killed Tania Furlan,” the officer said.
Lewis, who avoided a charge of treason as a teen, was charged with murder.
The next day he was transferred to Mt Eden Prison, Auckland.
In his memoir Last Words, Lewis maintained his former Paremoremo cellmate, who he dubbed “Jimmy the Weasel”, framed him.
“Words alone cannot express the feelings of fear and anxiety that weigh upon me as I write this book,” Lewis’ opening sentence read.
“I have tossed and turned, sleeping briefly then staring blankly into the cell ceiling wondering how I can possibly cope with this accusation levelled against me by an ex-inmate and former rapist and violent thug.”
That “thug” informant was later revealed to have been paid $30,000 by police for accusing Lewis of Furlan’s murder.
The man who pointed the finger at Lewis to police was later revealed to be Travis Burns, a former Paremoremo prison mate who shared Lewis’ interest in martial arts and cannabis.
Lewis, who claimed he could smash bricks and punch concrete blocks without flinching, argued his ninja training meant he would not have killed Furlan by battering her with a hammer.
“If I had wanted to kill her, I could have done so in a hundred more able, efficient and cleaner ways,” he wrote in his book.
Lewis’ mother, who declined to be named, said her son was no killer and “got hung out to dry”.
“He told me he didn’t do it.”
The now Christchurch-based woman said her son was diagnosed with a mental disorder as a pre-teen, and was involved with criminal activity, but “never hurt anyone ever”.
Lewis maintained his innocence. He believed Burns, who had the same shoe size as him, wore his sneakers during the murder and secretly returned them to Lewis’ flat.
Lewis claimed he and his former cellmate “often borrowed each other’s shoes and prison clothing anyway, so it wasn’t such a big thing to do”. Lewis alleged Burns wrote notes on a pad at his home, but took the piece of paper with him.
Those impressions on the note pad included the references “come alone”, “when you get money you will get child 36 hours later” and “no ringing pigs”.
Lewis’ ex-partner believes in his innocence. She told Stuff she would have taken the stand in his defence.
The woman, who Stuff is not naming, said Lewis was driving her to a yoga class at the time police say Furlan was murdered.
“Potentially he orchestrated it, but did he do it? I still don’t believe that.
“I think that would have been beneath him to do something so stupid.”
Two years after Furlan’s murder, Whangaparaoa mother Joanna McCarthy was battered to death in front of her two children in a flurry of hammer blows, kicks and punches in November 1998.
DNA later identified Travis Burns as her killer.
In August 1997, Lewis wrote in his memoir a message to Furlan’s husband and family: “May your hearts be softened by my sincere words, and I hope to one day look you in the eye and say with infinite truth that I did not commit this crime, not ever would I do such a thing.”
A month later Lewis would take his own life.
THE DEATH OF CHRISTOPHER JOHN LEWIS
A Mt Eden prison guard finds Lewis in a “lifeless state in his cell” about 3.15pm on Tuesday September 23, 1997.
The inmate, who has a Japanese Kanji tattoo on the right side of his chest and a wizard on his thigh, is sitting on a metal chair, slumped forward towards his bed.
“My first impression was that Lewis was asleep,” the guard said, according to the coroner’s report.
But noticing the murder-accused prisoner looks off-white, he calls for help.
Attempts to resuscitate Lewis fail and he is declared dead at 4.10pm.
With permission from the coroner, Stuff can report that Lewis committed suicide in his prison cell by tampering with a junction box and electrocuting himself.
Other details of his death remain suppressed.
After his suicide at Mt Eden the coroner made three recommendations to reduce the chances of further deaths occurring in similar circumstances, which led to a nationwide change to ensure prisoners were unable to access the junction boxes.
A suicide note was recovered from the cellroom toilet, next to Lewis’ body.
Lewis’ ex-partner, who visited him that morning, saw a copy of the note and said it “stated that he had nothing to do with the [Furlan] crime”.
She described Lewis as a highly intelligent but manipulative person who was damaged mentally and emotionally by a violent upbringing.
“He could have done really good things, but he chose to do really bad things.”
She said with Lewis, it was always “hard to tell what is true and what isn’t true”.
That included his notorious attempt to shoot the Queen in Dunedin, back in 1981.
Lewis confessed to her he did not shoot at the road, or at some seagulls, but at the Queen herself.
“Damn,” he told her “damn . . . I missed.”