In 1994 my Mum and Dad, John and Josie Harrisson were murdered in the middle of the night in their home in Te Akau, a remote area of the Waikato.
We were woken at midnight by Police at the door. They said my parents had been found at 4pm that day by a neighbor. They had been shot dead and the house ransacked. This was the day of their 50th wedding anniversary and we had celebrated the occasion the week before. I told the Police they had the wrong people, that my parents lived in a remote area with a 100mtr drive and no street lighting. I refused to believe what I was being told so I rang my sister in Hamilton and when I heard her crying it all started to sink in.
The Police wanted me to be at the station at 7am to go with them to tell Dad’s brother and wife.
No sleep that night or many nights following, and the tears flowed non-stop. I had to tell our daughter and son before I went to the police station, leaving my husband to be with them. Back home I rang all Mum & Dad’s friends who had been to the party to let them know before the 6pm news. T.V reporters and the Herald made contact that day, but I wouldn’t speak to them, it was all too raw. The Police suggested we speak to the media with our story otherwise they can get things wrong and we will be upset. We organized the funerals and the day before we spoke to the media. The Church was packed with family, friends, neighbours and my work mates.
A few weeks later we attended the depositions hearing and because they had pleaded guilty there was space for their sentencing to be given in the High Court that afternoon. That saved a lot of upset and emotion, being held on the same day.
The murderers Gresham Marsh, who already had 68 previous convictions and Leith Ray who had a few minor convictions, were on a burglary spree in the area and were in possession of a stolen gun. My parents sold home grown produce in a little shop beside their house and Marsh and Ray visited the shop earlier that day and bought some produce.
Little did Mum and Dad know Marsh and Ray were looking for easy targets. Marsh and Ray left Mum and Dad’s property and went down the road to set up camp at Waingaro Hot Springs, then cruised the area before returning to my parents’ house after dark. They waited until Mum and Dad went to bed then broke into the house.
Ray had the gun and when dad got out of bed to see what the noise was and told them to clear out or he would call the police and moved towards the kitchen to the phone, Marsh said to get him, so Ray shot Dad in the back. Mum called out “What’s going on?” and Marsh said for Ray to come and deal with her. Ray shot Mum in the stomach while she sat up in bed. Marsh then grabbed the gun and shot Mum in the head. He then went to the kitchen where Dad was still alive, so he shot Dad in the face.
This was pre meditated murder. When caught by the Police they said “We wanted to see what it was like to kill someone and these old people had lived long enough anyway”.
Note: Details of the sequence of events which took place including what was said by my parents was related to the police by the killers. They ‘got off’ on their crime – they said they wanted to know what it was like to kill someone and they had accomplished their wish. Both Marsh and Ray were sentenced to Mandatory Life – which, in 1994, meant only 10 years before they were eligible to apply for parole.
Justice had not been done. Mum and Dad had lost their rights to speak, so I became their voice and along with my husband Jock, we started pushing for tougher sentences, mainly for Life to mean Life. If Life imprisonment actually meant for the remainder of the offenders natural life, then we would feel justice had been done.
The big problem we had was, like most people, we thought a Life sentence actually meant Life. When it was brought to our attention it only meant 10 years with non- parole, we started campaigning for Tougher Sentences. The number of people they murdered did not add anything to the length of their sentences, meaning one murder was in effect a freebee.
We had many TV appearances and newspaper articles with a member of Marsh’s family joining with us. They did not want him released ever. We supported Brian Neeson,s 3 Degrees for Murder Bill and went to Parliament a few times to speak to our submissions.
Trying to get changes made to the Justice system has made me a stronger person by speaking up. It is hard to do at times, but it helped me through the grief and pain process. The pain does get easier as time goes on, but what happened to my parents is always in my mind.
We have had two parole hearings each year for the past 15 years so it all gets brought to the surface each time. The first 3 to 4 years were the hardest to get through as birthdays, Christmas and their anniversary rolled around. Leith Ray was released this year (2018) after serving 24 years in prison. Gresham Marsh is still in prison. At his last parole hearing, he was assessed as being at high risk of re-offending.
When the Sensible Sentencing Trust was formed we joined in with them as the more voices trying to make changes to the Justice System the better and there have been a good number of changes over the years, but still a lot to be done. Sensible Sentencing has done so much for victims by supporting them through the difficult times and beyond. We are forever grateful to this wonderful and unique organization.