In 1997, William Bell was sent to prison for five years nine months after he attacked and almost killed an attendant at a petrol station. At the time of this assault, he already had 102 convictions for a raft of offences including theft, fraud, burglary, aggravated robbery, assault, trespass, and possession of drugs. He was released in July 2001 after serving 3½ years. Based on the law at the time, he was set free after serving two-thirds of his sentence, and the Parole Board had no say in the matter, other than deciding what release conditions to impose on him.
Bell managed to find work experience at the RSA in Panmure – without the permission of his probation officer. However, staff at the RSA apparently didn’t trust him and after only two weeks, he was ordered to leave. Bell had experienced rejection for most of his life and couldn’t handle it. Two months later, he came back and stole $12,000. In the process, he bludgeoned and shot three people to death, and seriously injured a fourth – Susan Couch.
What the investigation missed
The investigation which followed blamed understaffing, low morale and poor management within the Mangere Probation Service. It also blamed the police for failing to act when he committed a minor offence a month before the murders. The focus of the investigation was on what happened after Bell was released. The fact that he had been incarcerated for 3½ years and not been required to do any rehabilitation programmes in prison was completely ignored. The most significant oversight was that he was not required to attend treatment for his alcohol and drug problem.
He obviously had one. In addition to telling prison staff about his drinking, Bell came from a family with gang connections where binge drinking and drug use were part of daily life. According to witnesses who testified at his trial, Bell was up all night drinking and smoking cannabis before the murders which occurred at about 8.00am the following morning. He admitted he was using methamphetamine and apparently told his family he ‘blacked out’ while inside the RSA.
In other words, Bell had a history of alcohol and drug use which began long before he was sent to prison for attacking the service station attendant in 1997. Presumably, he continued smoking cannabis in prison. At the time of his rampage at the RSA four years later, he was drunk, stoned and high on methamphetamine – and had been awake for over 24 hours. Such conditions are clearly not conducive to impulse control. The combination of three different drugs in his system, combined with a lifetime of abuse, abandonment, and low self-esteem turned out to be lethal.
What Corrections failed to do
The most damning part of this story is that the Corrections Department was well aware that Bell’s offending was alcohol and drug-related – but did nothing about it. He was supposed to see a psychologist and have alcohol and drug treatment when he got out. Common sense dictates that Bell should have seen a psychologist and had alcohol and drug treatment while he was still in prison – rather than leaving this up to an understaffed and demoralised Probation Service to organise once he got out.
But no treatment was provided, and the Corrections Department failed to provide the Parole Board with an alcohol and drug assessment describing the extent of his addictions. At his hearing, the Board members were effectively in the dark – ‘flying blind’ to quote Judge Carruthers. If an AOD assessment had been provided even at that late stage, the Board could have released him directly to a residential treatment programme in the community. Instead, he was released to unsupervised accommodation in Auckland where he was free to drink and take whatever drugs he could find.
The point is that the mistakes made once Bell was released may never have occurred had the Corrections Department made better use of his 3½ years in custody. The Department’s failure to address his problems with substance abuse in prison far outweighed subsequent mistakes made by the Mangere Probation Service on his release. The failure to monitor Bell in the community simply added to a long chain of errors – and highlighted a systemic failure by Corrections to address addiction issues in prison. If he had been required to attend treatment in prison, and/or if he had been released directly into a residential programme in Auckland, William Bell’s victims might still be alive today. And Susan Couch wouldn’t have had to waste ten years of her life trying to sue the Corrections Department for damages.