When I policed in Henderson, West Auckland, a lot of the homicide cases we worked on involved victims who had been killed in other parts of the city, then their bodies brought out to the Waitākere Ranges and dumped in the bush, where the perpetrators hoped they’d never be found. Often, when they were found, it was by people out walking or running, so we’d be the ones called out to do scene examinations and to remove the victim’s body.

This became such a regular occurrence in the late 80s and early 90s that Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Franklin, who was in charge of the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) in West Auckland, became a well-known figure because he was always on TV talking about these homicides. And we were kept very busy.

A homicide in 1996 stands out in my memory.

On Friday, September 20, 18-year-old Nicola Rankin, who was pregnant, didn’t come home after she’d finished work. This was out of character for her, so her mother, Carol, who lived in Huapai, reported her missing the next morning.

I was with Mark Franklin when the report came through to CIB. We were up in Massey and it was a beautiful day. Mark got a phone call about the case. “VJ, we’ve got a missing person in Kumeū,” he said. “We may as well go for a drive.”

We drove out to the police base in Kumeū. Mark ran the investigation, and I was his second-in-command. I met with Carol, Nicola’s mother, and got a bit of background about her.

The breakthrough we needed came when we were given information that led us to believe that 21-year-old Hayden Joseph Taylor was involved. When I ran a check on him, I found out that he was on bail on charges of abduction and rape.

Just five months earlier, Taylor had picked up a 20-year-old sex worker on Karangahape Road and had driven her to the basement of a nearby building. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald on November 4, 2017, the woman – Amanda Watt – said of Taylor, “At first glance he looked innocent, friendly and cute even. I thought there is no risk here. I considered myself lucky because we usually meet dirty old men.”

Taylor raped her and held a knife to her throat in his car. As she begged him not to kill her, Taylor took her on a 40-minute drive to Muriwai Beach.

When they arrived, he tried to force her out of the car and into the sand dunes. But she was streetwise, and managed to talk him around to dropping her back to K’ Road. She was smart enough to drop a lipstick of hers in his car, so there would be some evidence that she’d been there if he did kill her.

Once she’d got away from him, she reported what had happened to the police, and Taylor was arrested for rape and abduction.

I got the file for that case, and I knew we had our man. It felt terrible to find out he was on bail for what he did to Amanda and we were now looking for Nicola.

We brought him in on the Sunday and he was interviewed. He took no time at all to tell us what he’d done to Nicola.

His lawyer got up and said, “My client wishes to plead guilty.” Everyone in the room was absolutely shocked. It was the first time I’d ever had a murder accused admit to it straight away

While he was on bail for the attack on Amanda, Taylor had befriended Nicola Rankin, who was working in a local shop. He’d picked her up after work then driven her out to Riverhead where he forced her to walk into the forest. Then he hit her over the head with a spade, removed her underwear, tied her hands behind her back and buried her in a shallow grave.

Hearing Taylor confess to what he’d done was challenging for me. Even though I felt enraged, I knew I had to be as professional as humanly possible because if I did even the slightest thing wrong, it could jeopardise the case against him. Discipline, professionalism, and a focus on getting the best outcome possible – even in dreadful circumstances – have helped me to compartmentalise my work.

After he told us what he’d done, we took Taylor out to Riverhead and he showed us where he’d buried Nicola. Details surrounding her death were heartbreaking.

He appeared in court on the Monday and we expected him to plead not guilty as most people do at these initial hearings. Then his lawyer got up and said, “My client wishes to plead guilty.” Everyone in the room was absolutely shocked.

It was the first time I’d ever had a murder accused admit to it straight away like that. They usually deny it and do their best to stay out of prison.

To this day, I still have the cover sheet that records his arrest date on Sunday and the next day on his first appearance at court, he entered a guilty plea. It’s just unheard of. It was such an unusual turn of events that the judge initially said, “No, I’m not going to accept that.” Because of the severity of the charge, and because Taylor had only been arrested the day before, the judge had to satisfy himself that the plea had been given freely and with full representation.

Taylor, however, was determined and the guilty plea was recorded. It was almost as if he’d fulfilled his fantasy and he was happy to admit it.

Taylor was given a life sentence for the murder of Nicola Rankin. But despite the fact he was already serving a life sentence, Taylor refused to plead guilty to what he’d done to Amanda Watt.

In December 1997, I took him to trial for that case. The trial went for five days, and he denied everything. The details of the Nicola Rankin case were suppressed, and when the foreman of the jury stood up and said “guilty”, there was stunned silence. The judge calmly told the jury Taylor was also serving a life sentence for the murder of Nicola Rankin. I was standing next to the jury box as Officer in Charge of the case and one of the women who’d served on the jury called out, “Oh my God!” and burst into tears. Her being so upset made me suspect that the deliberations must have been close.

The judge sentenced Taylor to preventive detention for his crimes in relation to Amanda Watt. Twelve years later, in 2009, when Taylor’s non-parole period ended, Nicola Rankin’s mother, Carol, contacted me and asked if I would support her and Amanda when they went before the parole board. It was at this point that Amanda waived her right to anonymity to fight to prevent Taylor from ever being released.

I’m part of a judicial process that granted Taylor bail to go on to murder Nicola Rankin, and for that I am truly sorry

Police officers aren’t involved with the parole board hearings apart from via any reports we might be asked to submit. By that time, I was working on the North Shore and I’d been involved in the preparation of a report by the police psychologist that was presented to the parole board regarding the case.

I didn’t go into the hearing itself. I was just there to support Carol and Amanda before they went in and after they came out. I hadn’t seen them for so long that I was quite touched that they wanted me to be there to support them. I’ve never been to a hearing, but I can imagine that it must be quite an intimidating experience the first time you have to go before one. This one must have been particularly difficult for the pair of them as it was there that details were revealed of another alleged attack – on a 14-year-old girl – just after Taylor had raped Amanda.

The following year, Carol asked me to support her again, so I went with them to the second hearing as well. Carol and Amanda continued to dedicate a lot of time and energy into pleading their case to keep Taylor in prison. After the 2016 parole hearing, Amanda told Radio New Zealand that Taylor had written her a letter “saying sorry, but it mentioned him 21 times and mentioned me three times – so he is more thinking about himself than his victims”.

In 2018, Taylor appealed his preventive detention sentence and the Court of Appeal ruled that it should be swapped out for a sentence of 14 years, which he had already served. In a parole hearing on November 23, 2022, 26 years after Taylor was sentenced to imprisonment, he was released under strict parole conditions.

I feel a great sense of sorrow and loss for Carol and Amanda, and I felt their grief particularly hard. I got to form close bonds with them over many years, from the initial investigation in 1996 through to the parole hearings in 2009 and 2010. I know I did my best but I’m part of a judicial process that granted Taylor bail to go on to murder Nicola Rankin, and for that I am truly sorry.

A mildly abbreviated chapter taken with kind permission from the new memoir (and sure bestseller) A Canoe Before the Wind: An immigrant son’s story of family, adversity and courage by Vitale Lafaele (HarperCollins, $39.99), available in bookstores nationwide.

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