Red Fox Tavern murder trial: Two men found guilty after 33-year wait for justice

Two men have been found guilty of the infamous aggravated robbery of the Red Fox Tavern and murder of its owner, Christopher Bush, ending a 33-year-old mystery.

A man with name suppression and Mark Joseph Hoggart have been on trial in the High Court at Auckland for the past seven weeks.

The Crown argued they were the two heavily disguised robbers who burst in through a back door of the Maramarua tavern in the Labour Weekend of 1987.

It was alleged the unnamed accused fired a sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun, killing Bush before his three staff members were tied up and just over $36,000 stolen.

The prosecution of the notorious cold case has been led by Manukau’s Crown solicitor Natalie Walker and Ned Fletcher.

Deliberating into the early evening, the jury returned verdicts of guilty for both men on both charges of aggravated robbery and murder.

A key prosecution witness and friend of the Bush family, Sherryn Soppett, who was in the bar when the murder took place, was delighted to hear the news.

“I am absolutely over the moon, the police team, (Detective Senior Sergeant) Albie Alexander and (Detective Senior Sergeant) Mike Hayward have done a marvellous job,” she told the Herald.

“I am quite emotional actually; it’s been 33 years waiting for justice.

“I was really scared giving evidence, but the prosecution was absolutely brilliant and made it a lot easier for me.”

She said she wanted to thank the jury, who returned the unanimous result after 18 hours of deliberation.

“It was difficult to move on with my life after the shooting, but I had a wonderful husband Peter who died two years ago.But I had two teenagers, so I had to get on with it.Chris definitely got justice today, I am so pleased for his family too. Chris and Gaye are close friends of our family.

“I want to say to the two men: Justice has been done, you’ve run around for 33 years and justice has been served at long last. I hope the judge will throw away the key.”

The fatal night at Red Fox Tavern

On October 24, 1987, sunset had fallen at 6.45pm with the rural tavern emptying into the night several hours later, the court heard.

After counting the takings, Bush was having a drink with three staff members; Sherryn Soppet, Stephanie Prisk and William (Bill) Wilson.

There were two choices of drink that night. Kahlua, Southern Comfort and milk for the women, and half-pint beer handles for the men.

Suddenly, the two intruders burst through the back door of the country tavern. The man wielding a gun was said to have shouted that it was an armed hold-up.

Bush stood up from his bar stool and hurtled his glass at the gunman, leaving behind a ring of liquid on the bar and seemingly projecting fragments of glass seven metres, the court has heard.

But in those same moments the gunman pulled the trigger of a sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun.

The 43-year-old father of two did not have a chance, prosecutors told jurors, as the shot pierced his chest cavity, lungs and heart.

Walker said the two offenders hardly seemed to pause to take stock of what they had done.

“Instead they both swung into action,” she said.

During the trial Prisk, now aged 66, recalled the moments that followed.

Soppet’s glasses were still on the bar and Wilson was in total shock.

“He just couldn’t move,” she said.

“There was only one alternative and that was me.”

She was forced to search for the keys in Bush’s pockets, holding them up when she found them.

The intruders demanded she help access the safe but Prisk had never seen the keys before and did not know which one to use.

The offender brandishing the bat ended up kicking down doors to reach Bush’s office so the pair could rob the safe, the court has heard.

One by one, those who had survived the fatal robbery were tied up.

It was yellow twine, Prisk told the court.

“I remember that distinctly.”

The incapacitated group were told not to move for eight minutes, otherwise the offenders would hear over a radio. The offenders fled.

Prisk described herself as likely numb at this point.

“I remember saying to Sherryn we can’t move until we hear a car leave and we waited and there was no car.

“There was no noise. We never heard a car.”

Soppet, now 70, also recalled in court the sudden violent intrusion. They were all scared.

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen in our little community,” she said.

When the offenders were gone she called her husband Peter so they would not be alone while waiting for emergency services, and he woke to the call about 12.20am.

In a statement Mr Soppet, who is now deceased, said he did not notice any other cars as drove his old J1 Bedford truck to the tavern.

“If there had been anyone around, I would have seen them. I did not see any car lights at all.”

He joined those at the tavern but thinking of Bush’s widow, he assumed the grim task of going to tell her the news.

“We told her what had happened as gently as we could.”

He stayed with her at the house until 5am. The Soppet and Bush families were close family friends.

The trial

More than three decades after the crimes, the circumstantial case was being tried in court.

Defence lawyers, Christopher Stevenson for the unnamed accused and Craig Tuck for Hoggart, said repeatedly throughout the trial that the wrong men had been accused.

Justice Mark Woolford likened a circumstantial case to a rope when he summarised the case on Thursday.

Any one strand alone might not support weight but all strands combined can, he said.

“The logic that underpins a circumstantial case is that the defendants are either guilty or the victims of an unlikely series of coincidences.”

The Crown argued the men were prison mates who made no secret of associating when back on the outside, he said.

The prosecution case alleged they could place the pair in the area, with movements either side of October 24 consistent with the offending.

Further, prosecutors argued the defendants had lied when recounting their whereabouts that night for police.

Another strand of the Crown case was financial motive. Both defendants “inexplicably came into money” after Labour Weekend to buy motorbikes and cars, the judge said in summation.

The unnamed man also had a prior conviction for a “very similar” aggravated robbery that took place in Auckland in the early 1980s, he said.

Further the unnamed accused had been in possession of a sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun, which he had disposed of, the court heard.

Justice Woolford said the defence countered that the fact the pair were friends was not probative evidence.

Witnesses may place them in the area that weekend but there was no direct link to the crimes, he said.

When interviewed by police, the defence argued, the pair had recounted their movements as best they could three months on, he said.

Stevenson also argued there was no real similarity between the earlier aggravated robbery committed by his unnamed client and the fatal Red Fox Tavern robbery.

Justice Woolford said in the defence case the unnamed accused did have a few thousand dollars when he left prison and had a means to make more.

Possession of firearms also was relatively common in the unnamed man’s circle of friends, the court heard.

Of the gun’s disposal the defence said he freaked out as “he did not want to be wrongly accused”.

Stevenson pointed the finger at Lester Hamilton as one of the real culprits.

The theory was opposed by the Crown, which argued that Hamilton’s alibi ruled him out. Stevenson disputed this.

Justice Woolford said before the jury could even consider the defendants, they had to rule out a reasonable possibility that Hamilton was one of the offenders.

He was initially the “prime suspect” who police say they eliminated in the course of their investigation.

The two men were remanded in custody and will be sentenced on May 7. Justice Woolford excused the jurors from serving again for a period of five years.

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