The next major episode in the timeline of the murders revolves around the administration and management of Maisie’s estate after her death in February 1970. There were issues with carrying out the provisions of her will while processing her probate . . .
In attempting to explain these issues please remember that a probate is a legal document. Probate is the certificate granted by a court to confirm that the contents of a will of a deceased person has been officially proved. It gives the right to administer, in this case, the estate of May Constance Demler by her trustees, whom she had named as her husband, Lenard and her daughter, Jeannette Crewe.
Legally both trustees were required to act together and their decisions had to be unanimous. I don’t believe for one minute that their decisions were harmonious as each appeared to have their own agendas.
As already explained in earlier chapters Len had openly hassled his wife over the contents of her will and Jeannette was now digging her toes in to abide by what her mother had instructed.
I think that Keith Hunter had correctly assessed the situation on page 247 of his book The Case of the Missing Bloodstain when he wrote that Len was “an absolute bastard while his wife lay dying in hospital” and Jeannette knew he had “pestered her mother about the will because staff at the hospital who detested Demler for it had told her.” Maisie had been adamant that Len could not have her half of the farm outright as she was leaving it to Jeannette.
Hunter goes on to say that Len had previously asked Jeannette to be reasonable about the will and let him have the proceeds of his life’s work so he could retire. “She wouldn’t have a bar of it. Her mother’s will was what her mother had wanted and she was not going to change it.”
Maisie had really put the boot into Len and Jeannette was obviously keeping to a promise she had made to her mother.
Len must have been hyperventilating at times and it may appear that it was more about Maisie not giving him back her half share of the farm than cutting Heather completely from her will. But there was a larger issue that was tormenting Len over the division of Maisie’s estate. This will become self explanatory in due course.
THE PROBATE PROCESS
The “Copy Probate” I have for Maisie Demler was dated 24 March 1970 and while the process is usually straight forward I will note here that it is what happened after the double murders that showed Len in his true light. I will deal with Maisie’s probate first and check off the procedures that should have been followed.
Regardless of any likely disagreement amongst the two trustees, they were now obliged to carry out the administration of Maisie’s estate. The basics of closing bank accounts, paying funeral expenses and dealing with specific gifts in the will are generally handled first. Identifying her assets would be the big one and it would be time consuming especially if some of those assets were overseas.
There were no problems with Clause 4, 4a & 4b of her will where Maisie’s jewellery, silverware and personal items were concerned or the $400 Maisie gifted to the Tuakau Anglican Church. I understand that the $2000 gifted to Rochelle on attaining the age of 21 in 1989 wasn’t verified.
Clause 4c of her will concerning her assets in total as to her residuary estate is where I feel any dispute would occur. From Jeannette’s knowledge of her mother’s estate plus certain verbal instructions she had been given, she would have been wide awake to what should have been accountable to her estate and quite separately, what assets belonged to the original Chennells Family Trust.
It would be worth reminding readers again of the major difference between a will and a family trust. Regardless of how the the trustees interpret the will, the trustees (Jeannette and Len) determine who receives what from the family trust.
Providing the “true and full perfect inventory” asked for in the probate document depended on how it was interpreted but an asset under Maisie’s control that was to cause so much strife had to be dealt with quite separately as it was in the name of a family trust and not part of the will nor part of her estate.
I am sticking with this understanding with confidence because certain facts did come to light after the murders that gave me several likely motives why the murders were committed.
PREVENTED FROM SIGNING
Jeannette most likely realised she had thrown the cat amongst the pigeons but she was prepared to stand her ground. Her demise was still around 11 weeks away and I imagine, in the intervening period, that a lot of activity was going on and that would include those involved in the eventual crime.
In trying to unravel these events, it becomes obvious that Jeannette had not put her signature on all the legal paperwork. In fact, despite statements from the Police to the contrary I currently believe she was murdered before she would agree to her mother’s probate. Again, the absolute proof will be found a year later when certain transactions were being carried out to tidy up the legal paperwork.
This basically means Jeannette did not have time to transfer the dual assets of her mother (that she was entitled to) into her name. The questions that need to be answered are basically what assets and investments were in dispute and more seriously why had she stood up to those with other interests in her mother’s estate/trust.
ATTEMPTING TO FIND THE ANSWERS
It becomes clear that the paperwork had still not been finalised in the few days before 17 June 1970 and obviously, in hindsight, the process was nearing the point of erupting.
Where was this going to leave Len and others with vested interests? It would become apparent to Len (and others) that the options of settlement within Maisie’s probate were quickly becoming fewer.
This raises another question, “Would Jeannette and Harvey still be alive if she had co-operated?” The hypothetical question also has to be asked, “What if the investments and assets of Maisie had been settled and what if Jeannette had received her full inheritance and gained the responsibility of resolving past debts and land arguments?”
The short answer to these questions is that, either way, Maisie had unknowingly signed the death warrant of her daughter. I now explain more about the responses to Maisie’s estate as the journey nears the fateful date of 17 June 1970.
The section of Maisie’s will that needs interpretation appears in Clause 4 and subclause (c) where it talks about what will happen to her land. The words “of whatsoever nature and wheresoever situate” simply refers to her “residuary estate” but purposely gives no detail as that is how the legal system has always done it.
The legal meaning of a residuary estate is that part of a deceased person’s estate which remains once all the specific distributions, gifts, and bequests have been distributed to the named beneficiaries, and after all the person’s debts and claims have been satisfied.
The land that Jeannette had inherited at the age of 25 from her Uncle Howard Chennells along with the land Harvey had purchased from Heather is not the issue as it was already in the name of Crewe.
It was other assets that Jeannette would inherit from her mother’s estate that would cause intent to murder. This would have included any investments, mortgages or leases regardless of any terms or agreements made by Maisie or by Alf Hodgson and his successor, Len Demler on her behalf as trustees of the original Chennells Family Trust. Also in the mix is the role played by Colin Sturrock as family lawyer and trustee of Maisie’s estate.
The pathway to the fate suffered by the Crewes is complex in the sense that readers will need to be able to get their heads around why they were really murdered and when that is understood, it should in principle lead to the guilty parties. To do that one has to completely erase from the mind the reasons given against many others whom the Police had previously accused of this crime.
In the instance of the Crewes, the real reason was simply a form of power struggle over ownership. For Jeannette and Harvey it had everything to do with the ingredients of land and money along with both verbal and legally worded instructions from the will of the deceased that would allow them to basically expand their farming operations either in Opuatia or elsewhere.
My feeling is that the Crewes were going to cash up and move elsewhere to start afresh, quite likely in the Wairarapa where Harvey’s family originated. This was their original intent and additional funds would have made this possible.
WITHIN THE INHERITANCE CHAIN
On the assets side of the ledger one has to remember that in Maisie Demler’s lifetime she had inherited estate shares in New Zealand and England from her father, Newman Chennells, in 1938; from her mother, Nellie Chennells, in 1948 then from her brother Howard, in 1952 with the next in line to receive the family jewels being her daughter, Jeannette Crewe (remember Heather had been disinherited).
Within the inheritance chain are assets and income that is potentially exceeding more than a million dollars. I have been unable to come up with anything more accurate but it does involve a lot of money and whether it was enough for other related family members to kill for remains debatable.
Again there were two sides to the coin. While one side would gain, the other was going to lose big time so which side were the murderers on? Again, there’s a short answer. People from both sides actually had motives and that is what makes this case so complex.
COLLECT OR FORECLOSE
Of note are the Deeds of Arrangement made between the families and/or their farms that would legally come to an end upon the death of Maisie. In other words some of these “arrangements” were likely to have been overdue which meant that when the probate of court released Maisie’s estate to Jeannette, the Crewes would end up having the power to collect all debts or foreclose on any Deed of Agreement.
Just how many people held these deeds is not known as nothing has been found in accessible archives or elsewhere that is recorded on paper. The crucial minute book/s I mentioned earlier, may not have ever existed. I am not saying that nothing has ever existed but for me, after more than three decades of research, I can only give a reluctant “only God knows the truth” answer.
However, little snippets here and there have given me enough clues and apart from “a certain Deed of Family Arrangement and Mortgage” mentioned in the will of Howard Chennells, there is no other documentation that will hold up as absolute proof.
This has been by far the biggest setback in my research and indeed the most frustrating and testing of one’s patience.
However, I have personally been involved with a “Deed of Arrangement” where it was basically a contract between myself and another person related to the case. This deed was a pure and simple contract witnessed by a lawyer. The only reason this deed would ever come to light is from a dispute. I suspect, this deed of arrangement would be similar, if not the same, as those issued by the Chennells Family Trust.
I know that the Chennells Family Trust would have had detailed records and I would have no reason not to believe that their ledgers somehow disappeared into an incinerator or most logically into the open fireplace at the Crewe home on or shortly after 17 June 1970. The situation was so serious that all evidence had to be destroyed.
This means that those who owed money to the Chennells Family Trust or had leases that were going to be called in, regardless of “mislaid” documentation, could be happily let off the hook. I can almost hear the reader exclaiming, “The remaining trustee must be the culprit!”
DEMLER AND THE CHENNELLS ESTATE
I won’t go there just yet with Len Demler but to carry on, it also took me a long time to realise why the gobbledegook found on wills only made sense to those in the know.
Len Demler, as the eventual sole surviving trustee of the Chennells Family Estate, was only one of a number of others who knew what the wills really meant. For instance, their favourite terms were “as far as the law will allow” and when referring to land it was invariably “wheresoever situate”. Sadly, those references were only there to shift the heat elsewhere. Basically, a different set of rules would apply if, for example, land was held in a family trust and it was the control of these trusts that will cause two people to ultimately lose their lives.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
It’s not hard to see where it all started when one looks at the events leading up to the fateful evening of 17 June 1970.
Trouble had been brewing in the Demler household from the early 1960s, first from Len’s brush with IRD in 1961 closely followed by the death of Alf Hodgson, then the following year Len was appointed a trustee by Sturrock to replace Hodgson on the Chennells Family Trust.
Later in the same year Len was forced to give Maisie half his farm with Jeannette returning from a trip to Europe soon after to find a disgruntled father that had found himself as a trustee in an unsavoury position.
By the time Jeannette had turned 25 in 1965 and gained her inheritance, her father and Sturrock had specifically done an earlier deal on a further allotment of 80 acres to which Jeannette inherited half share with Heather on the same day.
Sturrock, as trustee, also did another land deal for Honetana Farms shortly after they were incorporated in September 1965.
HEATHER DEPARTS AND FIRES START
Jeannette and Harvey were married in June 1966 and around the same time Harvey “acquired” Heather Demler’s inheritance share although she kept her half share of the 80 acres before her departure to USA with Bob Souter early 1967.
Due to this relationship, to use a common phrase, battle lines had already been drawn between Heather and her mother and by mid 1969 Maisie Demler had cut her youngest daughter from her will. The real reasons have never been made public and the family were quite happy to let the public speculate.
The vandalism, thefts and fires against the Crewes started shortly after the Crewe’s first wedding anniversary. This deeply seated grudge continued after their daughter Rochelle was born in December 1968.
On top of all this were the bickering of words between Len and Maisie during her period in hospital and that wasn’t always about Heather losing her inheritance because I believe Len’s continual haggling over the will was to stop any further argument or claims on all Maisie’s inherited property.
I’m absolutely certain that Maisie was trying to perpetuate the family dynasty through Jeannette and had instructed her accordingly.
In addition, and this will add more confusion, were the antics of Norma Eastman not long after the murders when she jumped in boots and all supposedly battling for Len, yet at that time, was neither a trustee nor married to Len.
COMING TO A HEAD
I will repeat again, I’m certain this horrendous crime wasn’t committed on the spur of the moment.
In 1966 when Jeannette and Harvey made a decision to stand by Maisie, the heat then started to come on about who was going to govern or manage all the investments. It became apparent that the governing powers were being tested as Maisie now had two other allies.
Coupled with Len’s seemingly devil-may-care attitude and with the covering up of a mass of sins related to other secret little deals here and there by the trustees, the situation was fast coming to the point of no return. Something had to happen and it was with the death of Maisie Demler, and with the non-disclosure of all her estate (some of which was held in trust), that left the trustees and others with few options.
These people also knew the contents of both Jeannette and Harvey’s wills (basically, they had each left everything to the other) and in their minds the unacceptable outcome, should they be alive to inherit all of Maisie’s fortune, was going to cause damage to those on both sides of the coin.
One doesn’t need to try very hard to guess who, as trustees, would actually know the total account of all the estate at the time of Maisie’s death.
EXACTLY WHO STOOD TO GAIN?
I believe that Maisie’s will, handwritten by Sturrock in an almost unreadable scrawl, has distracted, if not fooled hundreds of people for years as only a lawyer’s mind would be able to interpret its true meaning in relation to a hidden agenda of assets.
The value of Maisie’s estate had not been accurately recorded and I do know that it was deliberately minimized as, for example, there is no mention anywhere or even a hint that Maisie was a beneficiary of land in England.
It is this land that has been smuggled away in legalese and it doesn’t take too much thought to narrow down the field of who is benefiting from it today (Ed: 2016).