When all other avenues have failed, Mr Big stings can help the police get criminals to confess.
Used in New Zealand, and elsewhere around the world – including Australia and Canada – these sorts of operations have attracted controversy.
Typically, they involve the police creating a fake criminal gang, which they encourage the suspect to join. Once they’ve built a relationship with the suspect, they will try to elicit a confession to any past crimes.
A new RNZ podcast, Mr Lyttle Meets Mr Big, lays bare how Mr Big operations work – and how they can can go awry.
The podcast centres on David Lyttle, who in 2014 was arrested and charged with murdering his friend Brett Hall in 2011.
Lyttle had long been considered a suspect, but it wasn’t until he was the subject of a Mr Big operation – during which he confessed to killing his friend – that the police had sufficient evidence to charge him.
In 2019, he was found guilty by a jury and jailed for life, with a minimum non-parole period of 11 years.
But in 2021, the Court of Appeal quashed Lyttle’s conviction and dismissed the charges against him. In that court’s judgment, the police were criticised for the “significant psychological pressure” they put on Lyttle.
Mr Lyttle Meets Mr Big is written and presented by lawyer and journalist Steven Price.
He tells The Detail he became interested in the case after he read a blog post by his friend and Otago law professor Andrew Geddis about Mr Big operations.
Price discovered the police in New Zealand were using the technique and that there was a case making its way through the courts.
That case involved Tarewa Wichman, who was jailed in 2016 for killing his baby daughter in 2009. He was arrested in 2013, after a Mr Big sting.
Price asked Wichman if he was interested in being part of a podcast, but he said no.
Price then came across the Lyttle case – and started following it five years ago, as it progressed through the courts.
He sat through Lyttle’s nine-week trial in the High Court at Palmerston North in 2019, taking about 1000 pages of notes.
Most of the people who pop up in the podcast gave evidence during the trial, “so I had this rich source of material about exactly what had gone on”, Price says.
“Not just the evidence against David Lyttle and the evidence suggesting that he didn’t do it, but also the jury got to listen to 30 hours of this sting, so I got to hear all of that as well.”
Price spoke with Lyttle and his wife Helen, who initially agreed to being interviewed for the podcast, once the trial was over.
They later decided not to, but Price did interview Lyttle’s legal team.
He also interviewed Brett Hall’s mother, Levona.
“She’s lovely … I think she’s just a very straightforward person, I’m sure not all people who’ve suffered like that would be like that and I would’ve respected it if she didn’t want to [talk],” Price says.
The police would not be interviewed for the podcast.
But executive producer Justin Gregory tells The Detail how they were able to recreate parts of the Mr Big operation with actors. While they have the actual audio of the operation, they aren’t able to use it for legal reasons, to protect the identities of the undercover police officers involved.
With the podcast finished and ready for release, Price says he’s “torn” about whether Mr Big stings should be used.
“It does do really horrible things to the people involved, they surveil them to work out all the sorts of details of their lives, to work out which things they might be able to exploit,” he says.
But equally, Price points out, there are examples – both from around the world and New Zealand – where people have been brought to justice for crimes that would not have been exposed without Mr Big.
Figure out where you stand on the use of Mr Big tactics by listening to the full episode.
Check out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.