The first episode Black Hands series screened on TV1 on Sunday night. The series is based on a book by Stuff investigative journalist Martin van Beynen who has followed the case for over 20 years. He reports on the story behind the episode and how elements figure in the case for and against David Bain.
COMMENT: Robin Bain, 58 and Margaret Cullen, 50, their children Arawa, 19, Laniet, 18 and Stephen 14, were found dead at 65 Every St, Dunedin, on June 20, 1994.
David Bain, 22, said he had come home from his paper round to find his family fatally shot, raising the strong possibly Robin had shot the family and then himself. David was charged with the murders but after a second trial in 2009 was acquitted. His defence revolved around showing Robin was more likely to have been the shooter.
Episode one of Black Hands depicts the Bain family in February 1993, about 18 months before the shootings. They returned from a 14-year stint in Papua New Guinea, where Robin taught at a teacher’s college in Port Moresby, at the end of 1988.
In early 1993, the family were all living in the Every St house although Robin Bain used a caravan parked at the back of the house as his bedroom. He still had meals with the family when he was home.
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By early 1993 he had a permanent job as principal of the Taieri Beach School and lived in his Commer van at the school for most of the working week.
The school had accommodation for a teacher but the house was used by a family whose children were vital to keeping the roll over a threshold to justify a certain staffing level. Robin slept in his van on the school grounds until someone complained, and then he simply moved the van on to the roadside like an early freedom camper.
Each Monday he drove home after school, so he could go to choir practice with David. They were both members of the Royal Dunedin Male Choir.
Already in this first episode, some Bain family foibles, talents and troubles are revealed as they go about their mainly mundane lives.
Often forgotten are the many talents harboured in what many regard as New Zealand’s most dysfunctional family.
Robin was loved by his school community even if his paperwork was usually overdue and organisation was not one of his strong suits. He and David were excellent singers and Margaret was a very good pianist. David was a good runner and, although the paper run seems an odd thing for a young man of his age to be doing, it was good training and supplemented his unemployment benefit. Arawa was not sporty but was an excellent student at teachers college and was highly regarded by everyone. As the first episode shows, Laniet was rebelling against the family culture and also struggling at school but never lacked friends.
Some of Margaret’s passions are in evidence. She was a committed bottler and preserver and used a pendulum to channel guidance from the supernatural. She believed in natural medicine and thought, as the episode reveals, that colds could be cured by a mixture of phlegm and urine.
Margaret and Robin were notoriously frugal. Note the scene where Robin leaves the home at night to pay the credit card balance so as not to incur interest.
The episode reflects the tension between Margaret and Robin. Margaret wanted Robin to leave the family unless he came on board with her beliefs in the spiritual and dream world and messages from God. Her diary reveals she was disturbed about a perceived presence of Belial, a force of darkness in the Hebrew bible, in her husband and children and also in the house and objects.
The actual house at Every St, recreated in the episode, was nearly 150 years old and had been badly neglected. It was barely liveable and the Bains had talked for years about building a new house. Margaret had ideas about building a retreat where people could escape from the rat race and was designing the new mansion herself. Robin appears to have been sceptical about the grand plans but Margaret and David, always close, were united in their dream of a sanctuary and beautiful garden at 65 Every St.
Some parts of the episode mirror pretty much exactly what happened. For instance the police found Stephen’s body last because his room was behind a curtain in Margaret’s room. They had to smash a window to open the door to the house and David was reported as having a fit.
Other scenes are fictional and there are numerous references to items of evidence that featured in David’s two trials. Viewers will note David told the 111 call taker that “my family, they are all dead”.
Within hours, he was telling police in a formal statement that he had seen only his father and mother dead.
The episode shows David delivering a newspaper to a house where a woman asks him to stop putting her paper on her porch because it makes her dog bark. She would later say David adhered to her request for about a year but made a point of coming on to her deck on the morning of the shootings.
In the programme Margaret asks David if he remembered to separate the woollens from the other clothes when he put on the washing. David actually put a blood soaked woollen jersey in with non-woollens on the day of the murders.
Robin’s troubles, as a depicted in the episode, were used by the defence to depict a man who was the verge of a breakdown. He was being called evil and a failure by his wife and his presence in the family caused tension and fighting. He was being turned down for jobs and sleeping in a dilapidated caravan at home and in a rusty van at work. Margaret and David appeared to be adamant he was not wanted yet needed his agreement to build the new house and his income.
Black Hands, a five part series on TVNZ, Sunday 8.30pm.