Exclusive: After 33-year wait, Red Fox widow says guilty verdicts were ‘wonderful news’

Gaye Bush waited 33 years for justice. When she heard on Monday that guilty verdicts had been returned for the two men accused of murdering her husband, Chris, at the Red Fox Tavern in 1987, she could hardly believe it.

“Guilty, Penny, guilty!” Bush yelled across her Taupo living room to her youngest daughter. “Oh my God!”

“I have been feeling so numb for days,” the widow told the Herald in one of severalinterviews about the case. “This is the most wonderful news. It is amazing. So good.”

On 24 October 1987, Bush’s husband, Chris, a publican, was at work at the Red Fox in Maramarua, in north Waikato. Just before midnight, two intruders burst through the unlocked back door armed with a sawn-off shotgun and a baseball bat. They shot and killed Chris, tied up three bar staff and made off with around $36,000 from the safe.

On Monday, Mark Joseph Hoggart and another man who cannot be named for legal reasons were found guilty of aggravated robbery and murder after a seven-week trial at the High Court in Auckland. The verdict brought a long-awaited end to an infamous cold case.

During the trial, Gaye Bush spoke exclusively on several occasions to the Herald about her recollections of the night her husband was killed, her relationship with Chris, and the devastating impact that the murder had — and still has — on their family.

“They destroyed our lives,” Bush told the Herald in one of those interviews. “Nothing was ever the same again.”

Bush, now 76, is physically frail. She needs a walker to get around and relies heavily on her youngest daughter, Penny Comparini. She is gracious, softly spoken, and steely. In conversation with the Herald, Bush was open and frank even when discussing agonising family dynamics.

Bush met Chris in 1965, in Wellington. She was a receptionist; he was an accountant for the National Airways Corporation, then New Zealand’s domestic airline. Gaye was engaged to a doctor at the time, but she was attracted to Chris. “He made me laugh,” she said.

One day they were walking in Wellington when Chris surprised her with an engagement ring. “It was a wee bit awkward,” Bush recalled, but she ended the relationship with the doctor and married Chris two years later.

The Bushes had two daughters, Jodie and Penny. Chris took a job at the Lion Tavern in Palmerston North, and over the years earned a reputation for turning around rundown and underperforming hotels. His job meant that their young family moved frequently, and in 1980 they settled in Maramarua, where Chris took over the Red Fox.

Maramarua was small and isolated, but the community was close-knit and welcoming, and there was plenty of space to keep horses. “We both fell in love with it,” Bush said. Chris became a respected figure in the area, known for his kindness to customers even when they owed money.

The night before the robbery, Bush recalled Chris telling her he noticed two men in a car “casing” the property while he was locking up the bar.

“He came home in quite a state on that Friday night and I’d never ever seen him scared or worried. He said there was a car there with these two guys in it that really intimidated him. I think they might have driven across his path as he was leaving,” Bush said.

On the day of his death, Chris, then 43, was in a good mood. It was Labour weekend and the pub was understaffed, but Chris was on a high after a “big win” that morning at the TAB. And he was looking forward to travelling to Australia for the Melbourne Cup, after winning a trip in a company-wide competition. He had spent the day drinking and chatting with customers and his bar staff, who were also good friends.

That evening, Chris came home for dinner, had a bath, and went back to work. “He rang me around 11pm and said he hoped the staff didn’t want a drink [after closing] because he was really tired and wanted to come home.”

They discussed whether Penny could go to a party; Gaye said no, but Chris said she could. “That was the last time we had a conversation.”

The Red Fox hadn’t been robbed in the time that Chris ran it. Occasionally there were problems with aggressive customers, but Chris wasn’t someone who was easily intimidated — and nor was Gaye. They knew how to handle a confrontation.

“I can remember one particular guy who had Chris by the tie around his neck,” Bush recalled. “He broke a beer bottle so I walked between Chris and the man and took the bottle off him. It was often easier for me to diffuse a situation. Chris would send me into the public bar and restaurant if there was trouble. It was easier for a woman to say, ‘Hey cut it out.'”

Bush waited up for him to get home that night, as she did every time he worked late.

A friend arrived at the house and told Bush that Chris had been killed. Bush was stunned. She wanted to see Chris, to “sit with him quietly while he was still warm”, but the pub was a crime scene and so the police wouldn’t allow anyone to enter. “I never saw Chris again,” she said.

In the days before the funeral, the funeral director advised “very strongly” that the family did not view the body. Gaye and Penny didn’t go to see him, but Jodie, their eldest daughter, 17 at the time, insisted. “It wasn’t until a few years later she said to me it was the worst thing she’d done,” Bush said, “and she wished she hadn’t.”

When Bush learned about what happened in the pub that night, she was “amazed” to hear that Chris had thrown a beer mug at one of the intruders. She put it down to him having been drinking all day to celebrate his win on the horses. “It’s not the way he behaved had he not been very drunk. He probably would’ve just quietly given the key to let them take what they wanted and think about the safety of the staff,” Bush said.

A week after the killing, she told the Herald, a group of Black Power members arrived at the tavern. “There were a lot of them. They introduced themselves to me and shook my hand. They wore jackets with patches on, and they wanted to come inside the bar. I said, ‘No, sorry, you will have to remove your jackets.’ It was a nice day and I said, ‘Why don’t you sit outside and chat?”

“They had come to pay their respects to Chris,” she continued. “I got them some jugs of beer and we sat and talked.” That was when she first heard the name of one of the accused — the man who can’t be named for legal reasons. The Black Power members told her they’d heard rumours that he was involved in the robbery.

Bush relayed the tip to Bryan Rowe, the detective in charge of the investigation at the time, who confirmed the man was a suspect. The man had an alibi and the police didn’t yet have enough evidence to charge him in connection with the murder, but Rowe said he was confident they would, Bush recalled, which boosted her hopes. “In hindsight, I think he should have done more.”

The case went cold. Bush struggled to put her life back together. For a year after Chris’s death, she managed the Red Fox on her own, but it was challenging. Bush withdrew into herself. “I became very much a loner for a long time,” she said. “I was just happy with my own company and the dog’s company.”

She decided to leave Maramarua and took the girls to Taupo, where she got work as an administrator for a timeshare property. Chris loved Taupo; they had talked about retiring there.

It wasn’t until 13 years after his death that she finally accepted that Chris was gone.

It struck her one day in a session with a psychologist, who asked her to paint a picture expressing her grief. “It was totally black with red paint dripping down the page,” Bush said. “That’s when I had processed what had happened. Up until then I just worked and worked, I never had time to think — well, I didn’t give myself time to think. I had the bar to run, the girls to look after.”

Three decades later, her memories of Chris are still complicated.

In Bush’s account, Chris was often absent as a husband and father. He could be considerate, bringing her flowers, and gentle, holding her hand while they drove and before he fell asleep. But they rarely said that they loved each other, he was distant emotionally. He conformed to the masculine stereotype of the era — keen on rugby, racing and beer, seemingly happier spending time with his male friends in the pub than with his family.

The year that Chris died, Bush recalled, they spent six weeks with friends in Fremantle, Western Australia, following the America’s Cup. The husbands spent most of the holiday away from their wives, drinking during the day and at night. On the night before they were due to return, Bush was in tears, but Chris couldn’t understand why she felt abandoned.

After he died, Bush discovered that Chris had gambled away money they had put aside after selling a house. He told her it had been invested. “I believed him right up till he died,” she said. “But there was nothing.”

“It was a very lonely life,” Bush said.

The Bushes’ daughters have also been profoundly affected by Chris’s absence.

“This hasn’t been easy for the three of us.” Neither of the girls had children of their own. They struggled to hold down careers. “Their lives would be so different if Chris was still alive. Both girls were extremely intelligent and would have had good futures. That all changed when Chris died.”

Penny, 48, is care worker for a health provider. She commutes between Taupo, where she cares for her mother, and Paraparaumu, where her husband lives. Asked about her memories of her father, she said: “To be blunt, we didn’t really see him. He was always working. Dad was very kind, but when he wasn’t working, he was at the races or the rugby. We didn’t have any time with him.”

“What do you miss about him?”

“I don’t.”

Jodie, 51, is estranged from her family and could not be reached for comment. According to Bush, Jodie began spending time with members of the Head Hunters a motorcycle gang after her father died. Her mother believes that Jodie became part of that nefarious world in a misguided attempt to get justice for Chris’s murder.

“I believe Jodie was so determined to find out who did it and I admire her tenacity for doing that,” Bush said, but their relationship broke down years ago and they no longer speak.

In February, Bush travelled to Auckland and sat in court for the first four days of the murder trial.

It was hard to relive the trauma. Bush stopped getting newspaper alerts on her phone because she didn’t want to hear about the case. But she felt compelled to sit through the opening statements and the testimony of the bar staff who had been with Chris that night. Seeing Bill Wilson, one of the witnesses, at court, Bush said, “I gave him the biggest hug and he gave me the biggest hug and I don’t know if he had ever been hugged before but it was just lovely.”

When the accused were led into court, Bush was enraged.

“Oh, I was irate,” she said. She tried to make eye contact with the two men. Hoggart was visibly unnerved by her presence and at one point asked a security guard to stand between them so he couldn’t see Bush glaring at him.

Her view of the other man was obscured, but he was constantly in her thoughts. “I will never forgive him. That guy has no conscience, no empathy. He’s an absolute psychopath. He will bathe in the glory of what he’s done until he dies.”

When the verdicts were handed down on Monday evening, Bush was at home in Taupo with Penny. She had not heard the news. “I want to thank the jury and say, ‘Well done,'” she told the Herald. “Also a big thank you to [police detectives] Albie Alexander and Mike Hayward for a fantastic job they’ve done. They’ve put so much work into it. What a result. They will be so pleased.

“We are elated Chris has got justice,” Bush said. “We will try to move on with our lives, but it is always with you.”

Asked if she had anything to say to the accused, Bush said: “Rot in hell, psychos. You are going to where you belong.”

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