Graeme Burton – untreated drug addict set up to fail

Graeme Burton has murdered two people. In 1992 he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Paul Anderson who was working as a lighting technician in a nightclub. Burton had been drinking and was found to be under the influence of six different drugs at the time.  He was released on parole after 14 years in prison without attending treatment for his drug addiction.  He soon relapsed, and during the next six months he used stand-over tactics against known drug dealers to obtain methamphetamine. He shot and killed Karl Kuchenbecker in the hills of Wainuiomata apparently hoping that police would then kill him. He was shot in the leg which subsequently had to be amputated.

Burton’s Background

Graeme Burton was adopted as a baby by an older couple.  His foster father died when he was only three, leaving his foster mother to raise him on her own.  As a result of put downs and constant criticism, Graeme grew up feeling insecure and angry with little sense of attachment to his adopted mother. He began using drugs at the age of 15 – and no doubt found they relieved much of his underlying distress.

The TVNZ documentary, ‘Beyond the Darklands’, also highlighted Burton’s use of LSD, cannabis, alcohol and prescription pills;  he used to break into chemist shops looking for benzodiazepines and committed burglaries to get money for drugs. From the age of 17, he was using drugs almost on a daily basis; by the time he was 21, he had 91 convictions for property, fraud and other drug-related crimes.

Burton’s frustrations came to a head in 1992, after he was refused entry to a nightclub. He took his resentment and rage out on Paul Anderson who worked at the club, stabbing him to death in an alcohol and drug fuelled frenzy. He was said to be ‘out of it’ on six different drugs at the time.

Burton was sentenced to life and continued using drugs in prison.  He spent 14 years behind bars but managed to avoid returning positive drug tests in the last three years before he was paroled.   He was released into the care of his biological mother whom he barely knew. She’d been living in Australia but agreed to come back to New Zealand for one month to assist her son’s ‘reintegration’.

This plan was doomed from the start. Soon after he was released, Burton started using methamphetamine and anything else he could get his hands on. His mother went back to Australia and he spent the next few months using stand-over tactics and assaulting drug dealers to feed his addiction.  Burton’s last assault on a Wellington drug dealer to obtain more methamphetamine was only three days before he killed Karl Kuchenbecker in January 2007. Altogether, his drug-fuelled rampage lasted six months before it came to an end in the hills of Wainuiomata.

Mistakes made while Burton was in prison

While in prison, Burton attended a rehabilitation programme targeting his propensity for violence – but was not required to attend treatment for his drug addiction. Numerous psychologists and psychiatrists who interviewed him before his release pointed out that his addiction had not been addressed. At the Parole Board hearing in June 2006  (at which he was released), the Board had six different reports all of which recommended alcohol and drug assessment and treatment, or identified relapse to drug use as a risk factor.  The Corrections Department refused to provide one.

The Department even ignored Section 43 (1a) of the Parole Act which requires it to provide the Board with all relevant information about factors which contribute to an inmate’s offending.  Since the Department was well aware that Burton’s offending was alcohol and drug related and since six different reports all recommended further alcohol and drug treatment, in Graeme Burton’s case,  the Department clearly neglected its statutory responsibilities.

Burton’s drug addiction was not the only factor involved in his offending. The psychologists who assessed him said he had a psychopathic personality which pre-disposed him towards violence.  To address this, in 2004, he was required to attend the Violence Prevention Unit (VPU) in Rimutaka, and some of the psychological reports indicated he made some progress on that programme.  But even if Burton had learnt anything in the VPU, whatever he learnt would have been forgotten as soon as he got drunk or took methamphetamine. Because his drug addiction was never treated, other attempts at rehabilitation were a complete waste of time.

The flawed focus of subsequent investigations

Once the subsequent investigations began into what went wrong, the focus was mainly on the mistakes made by the Probation Service and the Police after Burton’s release.  Mistakes were certainly made, but the crucial ones happened long before Burton was paroled. They were made over the entire 14 years that Corrections had him in their custody. The Department failed to treat his drug addiction, ignored the recommendations of six expert reports and failed to provide the Board with an alcohol and drug assessment despite a statutory obligation to do so.

In other words, the Department released an untreated drug addict into the community without a reintegration plan which addressed one of the main factors in his offending. Since Burton wasn’t treated in prison, on release he should have been sent to a residential treatment centre  where he would have been under constant supervision by staff for up to 18 months and drug tested regularly; if he relapsed, or misbehaved, he could have been recalled to prison immediately. If a proper reintegration plan such as this had been put in place, the outcome of this case could have been very different.

In saying that, Burton’s case is not unusual. Ninety per cent of prisoners have problems with alcohol and drugs and most are released without attending any treatment. The recidivism rate in New Zealand is 52% (return to prison) within five years. The lack of addiction treatment in prison and the failure to provide accommodation and support on release leads almost inevitably to relapse and re-offending. It sets prisoners up to fail. Graeme Burton is one of thousands of prisoners released every year who are set up to fail.

8 thoughts on “Graeme Burton – untreated drug addict set up to fail

  1. Another great post.

    The internet is designed for linking to references. I suppose they’re in your book, but it would be nice if they were here too so your blog posts could support themselves.


  2. Personally, I don’t provide treatment – either in prison or in the community.What I do is assess people to try and determine their needs and make recommendations accordingly. The point is that without an assessment there will be no treatment – and that’s what was missed with Graeme Burton.

    I have already indicated what treatment I thought Graeme Burton should have got – long term treatment at a residential centre. If you want to know what model of treatment they provide, that’s another discussion.


  3. It depends where he went for treatment. At Moana House in Dunedin he would attend: group therapy, work skills training, daily living skills and organisational skills. Many rehabs utilise the therapeutic community (TC) model for the treatment of drug abuse and addiction. In general, TCs are drug-free residential settings that use a hierarchical model with treatment stages that reflect increased levels of personal and social responsibility. Peer influence, mediated through a variety of group processes, is used to help individuals learn and assimilate social norms and develop more effective social skills.

    TCs differ from other treatment approaches principally in their use of the community, comprising treatment staff and those in recovery, as key agents of change. This approach is often referred to as “community as method.” TC members interact in structured and unstructured ways to influence attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors associated with drug use.


  4. Burton should have received treatment in prison followed by aftercare in the community. Research published in the 1990’s by psychologist Dr. Harry K. Wexler, a leader in prison reform in the US, found that prison-based substance abuse is effective – if combined with aftercare – and leads to major reductions in recidivism. His 1999 study involving 478 prisoners at a state prison near San Diego, California found that after three years, only 27 percent of the prisoners involved the prison’s drug treatment program with aftercare returned to prison, compared to a recidivism rate of 75 percent for those not involved in the treatment program.


  5. Hi. Please re release this post via the media. It’s the most informative and compelling piece I’ve read on Burton. Timely given the “anniversary ” the media are going on about.
    Biggest issue here is that there are another 100 potential Burton’s in the wings right now……


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