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Melanie Reid: We all failed Peter Ellis

The death of Peter Ellis last week had particular significance for Newsroom’s investigations editor, Melanie Reid. Reid was the only reporter to interview the Christchurch child care worker before he was found guilty of sexually abusing children at the Christchurch Civic Creche and sent to jail in the early nineties.

Reid is in no doubt Ellis was innocent. She sits down with Newsroom’s co-editor Mark Jennings to discuss this long-running legal saga and her friend Peter Ellis. 

Were you still in touch with Peter?

The last time I talked to Peter was via text a few weeks ago. I was in hospital in Auckland with a suspected typhoid infection I’d caught in Southern Indonesia and he was in the hospice in Christchurch. He found it quite amusing, I am told that I couldn’t travel down to interview him. The strange unknown infection I had made it too risky for both of us.

I am really upset he has passed and that he went without his name being cleared. 

His convictions are a travesty and as an investigative journalist and someone who knew him and the case very well, I feel a sense of shame too that I “should have, could have” spent far more time proving his innocence and hammering away at the system to clear his name.  

It is almost as if the legal fraternity, the journalists, the academics and the general public have all just accepted that there has been a massive miscarriage of justice when it comes to Peter Ellis, yet we have just let it sit there for decades. Does it take poor old Peter Ellis to die before it is finally addressed? How did it just slip away and become a great big ugly hole in our legal history? 

When did you first meet Peter Ellis?

It was just after he was charged in 1992. I was a young reporter working at TV3 in Christchurch. Peter Ellis dominated my world throughout the nineties. The ‘Civic Creche Case’ as it became known was a sensational story that gripped the city, the country and received international coverage.  

I also got to know the four women daycare workers who were originally charged along with Peter. The allegations against them were patently ridiculous and were eventually dropped before going to trial. Peter wasn’t so lucky, he was very flamboyant and could be wildly theatrical. I think his effervescent nature made him a target.

So leading up to his trial, there’d been a year of media coverage, more than 50 child evidential interviews, 40 families had by then been awarded $10,000 from ACC for allegedly being victims of abuse. The police child abuse unit was in full swing and the momentum against Ellis was building. It very much felt like a runaway train and there was no stopping it, despite how ludicrous some of the allegations were and how flimsy the evidence.

Peter, quite rightly, was wary of trusting anyone during this ordeal but over time we got to know each other well.  

It’s been over 25 years of letters, texts and phone calls. I grew very fond of Peter Ellis, he taught me a lot about forgiveness, human decency and courage.

More than anyone I have ever met he displayed incredible strength to stand for his truth.

When he was on trial he would always walk up the street, on his own, or sometimes with his mother, with his head held high. He would never make any attempt to avoid the cameras.

There’s a television interview I did with him in 1993, that same clip has been played over and over for nearly 30 years. 

Ellis: “Something went wrong and it's nothing to do with the sexual abuse of children.”

Me: “What's it to do with?”

Ellis “It's to do with people who decided it happened ... the police, the social welfare ..." 

Me: ”There are a lot of people ... who are convinced you abused their children.”

Ellis: “Probably for a long time they will. I hope one day they are actually going to say, ‘Hello Peter, can you tell me did we get it wrong?’ And I’ll tell them they got it wrong, because it didn’t happen.”

Did they get it wrong?

Yes, no question. I have covered lots of big cases as a reporter and I have been unsure whether the person was innocent or guilty. But in Peter’s case I have no doubt that he was innocent, no doubt at all.

I have spent a lot of time with some of the child complainants who are now all grown up. They’ve told me in no uncertain terms that they made it up and how they were coerced as little kids into the whole saga.  

One of the complainants even admitted [at the time] that she had made up evidence but when that evidence was given to to the court of appeal, the “expert authorities” said the girl was “in denial”.  

Then in 1997 I did a major investigation into the lead detective on the creche case, Colin Eade. 

We revealed that Eade had displayed signs of obsessional behaviour, and during the investigation senior police were so concerned over his mental state they sought advice from a psychologist. During the investigation he was diagnosed as having a number of mental health issues. The story also revealed that he had propositioned a former creche mother during the inquiry and had sexual relationships with two other mothers after the trial. He also had an affair with a Department of Social Welfare employee involved in the case.

The story caused outrage among complainant parents, CYF and the Police Association. Six months later Eade would be cleared following an internal police investigation. 

When you look back at the evidential interviews that led to Peter Ellis’ conviction they are so bad - it is embarrassing. 

For example, he was found guilty of being party to an offence that an unknown man molested a child at an unknown address, on an unknown date.  

Back in the 90s you were the only journalist to interview Peter - how did that come about?

Peter is a very loyal person and I spent a lot of time with him before he eventually did these interviews. In short, he chose me, he got to know me and trusted me. 

I interviewed him three times during his three-month trial. We did the interviews in secret because we didn’t want to impact his bail conditions or do anything that would be negative to his chances of a fair trial.

I became good friends with him, and I would often go to his house and drink cheap sherry with him on Friday nights after long weeks spent in court. 

These were very tough times for Peter. He had no income and not much support, although his mother was a rock. Despite what was going on, Peter never lost his sense of humour,

He was so funny, so entertaining. He loved animals and had lots of them. The Friday nights I spent with him still rate as some of the most entertaining nights I have ever had. 

In your interviews with Peter Ellis he never showed any animosity towards the kids and families whose evidence convicted him. Did you find that strange?

No, it was the sort of person Peter was. He was always adamant that the kids and the parents involved in the case against him were all just victims of the frenzy that had taken hold of police, psychiatrists and social workers. He felt no malice and that the children must be protected all costs.

Did you have contact with him when he was in prison?

Yes. Normally someone like Peter would be lucky to survive prison but I think he was sort of protected because nobody really believed he was guilty, not the inmates and not the prison guards. He spent most of his time in prison trying to help other prisoners.

He dominated many of my Christmases once he was in jail. Under his strict instructions he had me supplying Christmas presents, hundreds of them, for the male inmates at Paparoa to give to their kids. He could not bear the fact that these men who were locked up could not give their kids a gift at Christmas, so I was given clear instructions about ages and genders. It still sticks in my mind, 17 two and three-year-old girls, 18 five -six-year-old boys and so on. I would then enlist everyone in the TV3 newsroom to help me buy and wrap the presents.

Then there were books and newspapers I had to get organised for the library he was setting up inside. 

Peter could’ve got out of prison sooner if he had admitted guilt, did you ever discuss this with him?

Yes. He could’ve got out much earlier but that would have been against everything he stood for. When I put it to him he hissed at me.

“Are you insane ... why on earth would I say I‘m guilty Melanie when I am not.”

When Peter Ellis was released from prison, 19 years ago in February of 2000, this is what he said at a press conference.

“I do not intend to stop until my name is cleared and the truth is out for everyone’s sake, including the children.”

It is a case that has never really gone away, has it? 

There were two unsuccessful appeals through the late 90s, and in 2000 we had a ministerial inquiry led by former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum ... a year later it concluded with: “I have found nothing like a borderline judgment." Another fail for Peter Ellis. 

To quote author Lynley Hood from her book A City Possessed: “To many involved in the debate, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum’s ringing endorsement of the conviction of Peter Ellis seemed like an attempt to bury the debate instead of facing up to it.”

For those of us who have followed this case for nearly three decades, what would be more on point would be to have an inquiry into the misconduct of officials that actually led to the Christchurch Civic Creche case and the prosecution and conviction of Peter Ellis.

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