Maria was strangled and died in a ditch – but her killer walked away

When Shaun Fretwell’s mum hadn’t come home one evening, he decided to duck down the road to the local dairy and buy himself some treats.

The 10-year-old wasn’t worried about where she was and it was only a two-minute walk.

As he left the dairy with an icecream, caramel corn, chocolate bar and chips he noticed police cars across the road, but didn’t pay much attention to the flashing lights.

Little did he know, as he made his way back home, that he’d just walked right past his mother’s body.

It’s been 53 years since that fateful night.

A pathologist ruled Maria Fretwell was strangled, but the man responsible was found not guilty of her murder.

For Shaun and his siblings, that’s been a hard verdict to accept as they believe the evidence proved otherwise.

Now, more than half a century after the 43-year-old’s death, Fretwell’s three children are speaking out about what life has been like without a mother — and knowing the man who killed her walked away without even serving time for manslaughter.

“I know the police were very shocked with the acquittal, as was I. He should never have been acquitted,” her eldest son Derek told the Herald. “You can argue there was provocation for manslaughter, but I even doubt that today. He should be in jail for murder.”

Derek, Shaun and their younger sister, Karen, believe the police bungled what could have been a major piece of evidence in securing a conviction against their mother’s boyfriend, Selwyn Clarke — a possible confession but he wasn’t read his rights so it wasn’t introduced by the Crown in court.

They also feel it was wrong for the judge to tell jurors before they even deliberated that there was no premeditation and he shouldn’t be found guilty of murder — despite Clarke having told a cellmate he was going to kill someone as soon as he finished serving time for assaulting her. She died a week after he got out, in a violent struggle on the side of the footpath.

Clarke died last year, taking the truth behind what really happened to his grave. He also took with him any chance of closure for the Fretwell siblings, who say they have suffered all these years while he led a “relatively normal life” following his acquittal.

“He had no right to do what he did. None,” said Shaun. “He’s deprived so many, the kids, the grandkids, his own family — I think it’s affected them heavily. And they’re innocent in this as well, he’s just a bad, bad person. I had to wait and watch this guy surviving.”

A violent affair

Fretwell and Clarke, a 28th Māori Battalion veteran who falsified his age to enlist, met at a gathering organised by mutual friends in the mid 1960s.

She had moved to New Zealand from Ireland with husband Jack after World War II but he was in the Navy and frequently away from home. His absence put a lot of strain on the relationship and they separated.

Clarke, on the other hand, was married with children when he met the young mother, who was doing odd jobs, such as working as a seamstress and for a clothing company to support her family.

“She did whatever she could to put food on the table,” Derek recalled.

The couple hit it off at the party and they dated on and off for three years — trying unsuccessfully to hide their affair from Clarke’s wife, Rose, who turned up unannounced at the Fretwells’ place one afternoon looking for Clarke.

Fretwell and the children told her he wasn’t there, when he was in fact hiding in his underwear in a wardrobe.

Rose was furious and Derek recalls her looking like she might hit Fretwell so the 15-year-old stepped in.

“He was scared s**tless of his wife,” Derek recalls.

The siblings often reflect how different things might have been if they had dragged him out of the wardrobe. Instead, the relationship continued. It also became violent.

Shaun Fretwell said he had seen Clarke hit his mother on multiple occasions.

Just six months prior to her death, Fretwell was travelling back from Thames when she was pushed out of the car by Clarke. She ended up in North Shore Hospital and needed 120 stitches. Clarke was charged with assault.

Jack, Fretwell’s husband, said at the pre-trial hearing that Clarke had said to him “I am the culprit” and that he had finished “giving her a hiding”. This evidence, which her children say is further evidence of how violent he was, was ruled inadmissible for the trial. But, even without it, he was still held accountable for his actions.

Clarke was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and was released on June 23.

A cellmate would later tell police Clarke said he was going to kill someone when he was released and that he had tried to kill someone once before by throwing her out of a car.

The defence said that was simply the talk of a man trying to sound tough in front of his cellmate.

Bravado or not, Fretwell was dead a week later.

The night of her death

By June 30 the relationship had deteriorated to the point Clarke and Fretwell decided to end things.

Fretwell’s colleagues were by this stage concerned for her safety, as was she, and they decided to meet in public.

Inside the Naval & Family hotel on the corner of K Rd and Pitt St, they had a few drinks but it was Clarke who did most of the talking, according to witnesses who later spoke to police about the events of that night.

They left at 6pm, catching two buses and a taxi to Manuka Rd in Glenfield.

Clarke indicated to the taxi driver that he would hop out and walk home. But, when the driver pulled over, Clarke didn’t get out and, as the driver was blocking traffic, he kept going with them both still inside the car.

Had Clarke got out, it’s unlikely Fretwell would have ended up in a ditch that night.

Once they got out of the taxi on Manuka Rd, the couple started fighting.

The taxi driver told the court he saw the couple standing very close together through his rear-view mirror as he drove away.

It’s unclear what happened in the following moments but witnesses described seeing things turn physical soon after.

One motorist described seeing Fretwell run into the middle of the road screaming: “Help me, help me”.

When he stopped and got out of the car he approached Clarke and asked what was going on.

He said, “we are just having a domestic”.

The motorist then climbed back into his car and drove away. He told the court he looked out of his rear-view mirror and saw Clarke pick Fretwell up above his head and throw her into a ditch.

Clarke didn’t deny picking her up but said in his defence that he dropped her because he had a bad back.

A teenage motorist driving by heard Fretwell screaming for help and told police he saw Clarke on top of her. He went over to her and could see Clarke pinning her down by the throat but by this stage she was no longer screaming.

Two boys coming out of the dairy also saw Clarke lift Fretwell up and her landing on the ground and rolling into the ditch.

Minutes later a paramedic, Dudley Barnett, arrived.

“What happened to her?” he asked the crowd.

“Someone assaulted her,” they said.

When Barnett asked who did it, they pointed at Clarke who stood silently nearby.

In what the siblings say is another frustrating aspect to the case, which could have made a difference to the outcome, this evidence was never heard by the jurors — it was prohibited after the defence argued it was improper for the paramedic to ask the crowd who did it, when it wasn’t part of his job.

Detective Francis Hogarth, who knew both Fretwell and Clarke, took him into his patrol car to ask what had happened and the following conversation would become one of the make-or-break pieces of evidence.

When asked how long he had kept his hands around Fretwell’s neck, Clarke replied “for some considerable time”.

A confession is one of the most damning pieces of evidence the Crown could receive but instead, it would play into the hands of the defence.

Hogarth admitted in court that he hadn’t applied the level of caution to Clarke he should have. He wasn’t read his rights and was not aware that he wouldn’t have been able to leave the vehicle. Clarke was also intoxicated, so not in the right state of mind to submit formal answers.

It meant the confession — which should have been a key part of the Crown’s case against Clarke — wasn’t presented at all.

Instead, the defence introduced it, but only in a brief and negative way to suggest the officer failed to do his job properly rather than as evidence of what Clarke had actually said.

Dr William Devan found that the cause of Fretwell’s death was a “reflex stoppage of the heart, the result of forcible grasping of the neck, a form of manual strangulation”.

In more simple terms, this finding suggested Fretwell suffered a heart attack, as a result of the grasping of the neck.

During cross-examination the defence challenged Devan about the extent of force that would be needed for such strangulation, suggesting it could happen with very little force and just a “momentary tightening” on her neck.

That, combined with very little bruising or marks on Fretwell’s body, would have introduced an element of doubt for the jurors as to whether Clarke had really held her down for long — rather than a “considerable time” that was in his confession.

Although Shaun accepts Clarke should have been cautioned in the car, he doesn’t believe the confession was coerced and if introduced by the Crown would have made a real difference to the outcome of the case.

“[I believe that] police officers attending the scene that night were friends of Clarke’s. I would have thought when you take someone in the police car at the scene of what is a possible homicide, you should caution them.

“[But] I believe that if Clarke made those comments within the confines of a police cruiser to an officer, those comments were given free of his own will and not coerced.”

Regardless, even without the confession, the siblings believe Clarke should have been found guilty of manslaughter as there was no doubt he held his hands around their mother’s throat.

Instead, he walked free while the Fretwell siblings grew up without a mother or any sense of justice.

Trying to move on once Maria had died

After her death, Jack Fretwell put his children into a “cocoon” to protect them — so much so that they never went to their mother’s funeral.

“I never got the chance to say goodbye,” said Karen. “We hid it. I didn’t want Dad to be upset that I was upset.”

For Karen, the years ahead were tough without a mother.

“I had a baby when I was 16, who I probably would have kept if I had a mother.”

Until earlier this year Karen had spent the past 53 years believing that Clarke went to prison for her mother’s death.

That was partly because of her age at the time — she was just 9 — combined with the fact she knew he had been in prison and didn’t realise the time served was actually from the earlier assault because she hadn’t been in court for the trial.

It also wasn’t a topic that was discussed as she grew up.

“I got it all mixed up . . . we’ve never really talked about it till now.”

It was only when Shaun decided he wanted to tell his mother’s story that he and Derek talked to Karen and she was shocked to discover what really happened at the conclusion of the murder trial where Clarke was acquitted.

Shaun says he has never stopped thinking about his mother’s death and what he sees as a lack of justice. Over the years he considered pursuing a civil case against Clarke, however he abandoned those plans when his dad died in 2004. He said he couldn’t do it without him.

As the oldest, Derek has felt the need to continue the protection of his younger siblings that his father started. His pain and anger is still raw today.

“You know how much counselling I got [zero]. You know how much my brother got – he was just 9 years old and his mother’s been murdered [zero]. How much Dad got [zero]. Selwyn Clarke [got a] pat on the back, quid out the till and see you later — ‘sorry for taking up the last three months’. I still feel bitter about it.”

Clarke went on to lead a long life — he died last year at the age of 91 after spending many years in Ahipara before moving into a home in Kaitāia.

He is believed to be survived by eight children, and a large number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

None of the relatives the Herald could reach wanted to talk about his history with Fretwell.

Because Clarke was found not guilty, the case was never considered an unsolved murder, which the siblings believe it is.

It has also recently become a closed file — something that happens automatically after 50 years. Police said no one who worked on the case still worked for the force and they had no further comment.

Shaun says it’s hard knowing the file on her death has closed without there being any closure for his family.

“They have closed the case. That’s not what happens to us, [it] carries on until the day we die.”

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