I lived in the same town as Peter Holdem when I was a child. In May this year I received an email from Ingrid Leary, producer of Beyond the Darklands (BTD), which said:
‘we are making a documentary about a Peter Joseph Holdem who abducted and murdered a 6 yr old girl on her way home from her school, Louisa Damodran. Holdem had tried murdering another school people (sic) several years before this but did not succeed. He had only been released a short time from jail for that attempted murder when he murdered little Louisa. We have no doubt whatsoever that should he ever be released on parole, he will murder another child. So far, with media assistance, we have managed to have the Parole Board keep him in custody.’
The memo went on to say that Nigel Latta wanted to include an episode on Holdem for his new BTD series, and that Latta ‘too wishes to ensure Holdem stays in custody.’
The email was emotive in tone and contained an often-repeated inaccuracy. Holdem had not been charged with attempted murder prior to the Damodran killing, the charge was attempted rape. I sought clarification and Leary replied:
‘I have to admit that some of this email was originally written by the original detective inspector, working on the case. His name is Mal Griebel and he had done some emails out to his contacts, so I copied and pasted. We are working closely with Mal. It's true that my interest in doing this story is because of the public interest in keeping Peter Holdem somewhere we (sic) he can do no more harm, as everyone I have spoken to who knew him says he is at extremely high risk of reoffending.’
She went on to ask for any information that might help fill in the missing pieces of Holdem’s early life - especially ‘any personal hardships he may have suffered during his lifetime’.
When I questioned the programme’s ability to do justice to the subject and its tendency to sensationalise, Leary said they had every intention of achieving the impartiality and balance required by the Broadcasting Standards. She defended the programme against my charge of sensationalism by stating it is used by journalists and in the training of police officers. She acknowledged that Griebel does have an agenda but asserted Latta’s ‘only agenda is to do a professional analysis of (Holdem’s) psychological state.’
If that was the case, was Griebel telling a lie when he stated that Latta ‘too wishes to ensure Holdem stays in custody’? Did the use of Griebel’s memo lead contributors to believe that Latta was already of the opinion Holdem is so dangerous he needs to stay in jail and only wanted evidence to confirm that? However one looks at it, the memo was a poor start to Leary’s and Latta’s attempt to ensure balance and impartiality and to avoid the accusation of confirmation bias.
I declined to be interviewed but I watched the programme to evaluate whether accuracy, balance and impartiality were achieved and the extent to which, by using forensic psychology, Latta was able to take us into the mind of this ‘seriously pathological criminal’ to enable us to answer the key question of whether or not he ‘can be redeemed’. In considering accuracy, balance and impartiality we need to bear in mind that what is left out of a programme may be as significant as what is included.
In summary, I consider the issues relating to accuracy, balance and impartiality to be:
- a complicity in a politically motivated campaign to bring pressure to bear on the Parole Board;
- a heavy reliance on hearsay evidence;
- no evidence drawn from recent or current professionals;
- the failure to alert the viewers to the possibility that some contributors to the making of the programme might not be accurate in their recollections;
- manipulation of the viewer with the use of supposition stated as fact, and the use of emotive images;
- the failure to put what happened to Holdem into its socio-historical context;
- a failure to point out that almost all stories about Holdem that are easily available to the public, contain inaccuracies and are highly emotive in tone;
- a failure to acknowledge the limitations of its format.
I have a teaching qualification, a First Class Honours Degree in Social Sciences majoring in Deviancy, a Masters Degree in Social Policy and Deviancy, and a long-standing interest in crimes against women and children. I knew Peter Holdem as a child and I spent most of my childhood in the same social setting as him. I think I am well enough qualified to give Latta and Leary a Not Achieved in relation to accuracy, balance and impartiality.
At the very outset of the programme Latta made the statement that, in 1986, Peter Holdem abducted Louisa Damodran, ‘tortured her over several hours’ and then drowned her. In point of fact, it could not be established that Holdem had sexually assaulted the child, or that he had tortured her, which is why he was not given preventive detention. Torture cannot be safely inferred from his previous offending; a Judge had noted previously that Holdem had not seriously injured any of his victims. The prosecution claimed there was a sexual motive, and it may be argued that abducting and imprisoning a child is a form of torture, but this is not why Latta made that statement. Nor is it why, half way through the programme, while Latta describes how Holdem took the child to an abandoned house, the camera lingers on a large hook hanging from a ceiling. We are meant to believe that Holdem sadistically tortured and sexually abused the child for hours before drowning her.
This possibility still haunts and hurts Louisa’s parents, so why would Latta choose to restate that as a leading fact even though that forces the child’s family to imagine the worst-case scenario? From an entertainer it would be exploitative and tasteless; from a clinical psychologist it is unprofessional. It is a suggestion that is regularly trotted out by people who want to keep Peter Holdem in custody and, in my view, Latta and his producer deliberately chose to do this to set the scene for a depiction of Holdem as an escalating and unredeemable sexual sadist.
Latta and his production team interviewed a number of people, none of whom had had any dealings with Holdem for at least 26 years. Some had an almost comically tangential relationship to him. The only person with any sort of professional connection to Holdem as an adult was Mal Griebel, the retired police officer who was lead detective on the Damodran case. A teacher, a cousin of Holdem’s father, a friend of the woman Holdem had been living with for a few months before the murder, an ex-cell mate and an ex-school mate and the owners of a trailer park made up the list of those who appeared on camera. So, what did these people have to say that helped Latta ‘unveil’ this particular ‘predator’?
One thing is made very clear by being mentioned so often - Holdem is Maori. He was said to be a polite, mild-mannered, apparently normal child and a good-looking, personable young man. His mother was said to be a sex worker who died giving birth to him in 1956. We are not told the source of this information, or how it was known to the person who provided it. His adopted parents were Linda, ‘a Chatham island Maori’, and ‘Dennis, from Canterbury’. As with the Damodrans, only the one parent’s ethnicity was specified. Peter was said to be the ‘second of three adopted children’ and to have ‘congenital problems’ ie was ‘deaf in one ear’ and had a ‘border-line IQ’.
Linda Holdem is reported as having said she ‘knew there was something wrong with him the moment she saw him’. She was also said to ‘be in charge, to wear the pants’, and that she ‘had a temper’. In relation to this, Latta made the odd statement, ‘but you do have a recollection that she was at times normal…’ We are left to ponder whether it was the temper or the pants wearing that was considered to be abnormal.
Latta states that, ‘at the age of 9’ ie 1965/66, Holdem was displaying ‘some unusual behaviours’. Jeff Taylor, a teacher at the school between 1967 and 1971, said on camera that Holdem was 'found in the school baths offering younger pupils 50c to pull down their pants’. Taylor made a point of saying how much money that was. According to the time line implied by Latta’s script, an educational psychologist was called in after this incident and ‘took what, even in those days, was considered an extraordinary step’, of putting such a young child on anti-androgens to control his libido.
If Holdem was born in 1956 and if the baths incident took place when he was 9, as Latta states, it was before Jeff Taylor was at the school. Also, 1965/66 was before decimalisation, so either Taylor was converting 5/- or his, or Latta’s dates were wrong. Taylor has told me subsequently that he was unclear about the date that Holdem was in his class but thought it ‘might have been 1968’ and he ‘assumed the baths incident was at the end of 1968.’ Furthermore, he says he assumed Holdem was placed on medication after that incident and was possibly taken out of school the following year. According to an email from Ingrid Leary, the baths incident was also reported by a teaching assistant who is now in her 80s, and by a former pupil. She said Holdem was in and out of care from the age of 11 (1966/67), which also does not fit with what Taylor says.
Latta says other informants were ‘too frightened of Holdem’ to appear on camera but they spoke of ‘even more alarming behaviour’. He did not give either a source of, or a date for a sexual assault on a boy at a Scout Camp, or the killing of some kittens, but Leary told me in an email after the programme was aired that the scout camp incident was ‘gleaned from an interview with a relative of the boy Holdem assaulted, who himself went on to become a paedophile’.
The issue of dates and correct sequence of events may just be evidence of sloppy research but, what stands out most in relation to these revelations, is that, far from questioning the rationale for, or wisdom of, using anti-androgens, or the effects that the adult response and/or the medication may have had on the child and his subsequent behaviour, Latta concludes that the fact someone felt the drugs were necessary ‘suggests (Holdem) was already engaging in compulsive sexual behaviour in a number of different contexts’.
Given the standards of the day, and the attitude to Maori that I was aware of as a child, it might equally suggest that a working class Maori boy asking younger white girls to pull down their knickers elicited a grossly disproportionate response that today, would be viewed as unprofessional to the point of criminal. Psychiatrists used anti-androgens in the 1960s to treat parafilia in adults (just as they used psychotropics in New Zealand institutions catering for disturbed young people.) The use of antiandrogens today is controversial for adults and the only time they would be used for young boys would be as a (very rare) treatment for prostate cancer.
Assuming the use of the hormone treatment and its timing is accurate, it’s interesting that a clinical psychologist and self-professed child rearing expert, would neither question the ethics nor consider the possibility that this might have exacerbated or even been the catalyst for the pathological behaviour. Instead, Latta chose to present it as categorical proof of the existence of a very serious level of sexual pathology by a very young age. Given the agenda betrayed in Leary’s initial email, it came as no surprise to me that Latta showed little empathy with, or sympathy for a low IQ, hearing-impaired Maori boy in a largely white rural town in 1950s and 60s Canterbury, but his attitude towards the administration of anti-androgens to a 9-year-old is harder to understand.
Leary told me ‘the fact of the medication was pretty well known to all the teachers and most of the Culverden community’. This in itself was worthy of note in that it may have impacted on the way both adults and peers related to Holdem given he would, by the standards and attitudes of the day, have been publicly branded as a ‘sexual pervert’. However, Taylor says he does not recall it being widely known.
There is also the question of informed consent. Holdem could not consent to the treatment and, unless the state had taken sole guardianship, his parents would have had to agree to it. It is unlikely that they were in a position to understand the implications or to question the authority of the experts.
It was not made clear in the programme but Leary told me that Holdem was ‘in and out of care from the age of 11’ until he was sent to Campbell Park in Oamaru, a residential special needs school for boys. She did not have the actual dates nor details of his guardianship status when there. No comment was made on the effects, on a young boy of 11, on hormone treatment, with a hearing impairment and low-IQ being sent a long way from his family to a residential special school.
Significantly, Latta does not consider the possibility that Holdem himself was a victim of physical and/or sexual abuse when in care which is a curious omission in light of Leary’s statement in an email to me that Campbell Park ‘had a notorious culture of sexual abuse by teachers and pupils…. and has been the subject of compensation claims by former pupils….’ including the one interviewed for the programme.
On the contrary, Latta states, as a matter of established fact, that by his teens, Holdem was ‘regularly offending against younger fellow students’ at Campbell Park. The evidence for this comes from an ex-pupil who, according to his entry on a public website, was a ward of the court at CPS on and off in 1973, then permanently between 1974 and 1978. He also says publicly that he was abused by Catholic Priests at Marylands Boys School and sexually abused when in Templeton Hospital in 1973. He stated on the programme that Holdem befriended him at the age of 10, and sexually assaulted him until he ‘grew hair down there’, when Holdem ‘moved onto really little kids, like 5 or 6 year olds’.
According to my information there were no 5 and 6-year-old boys at Campbell Park at that time. This may just be a lapse of memory as it was almost 40 years ago and we cannot attach blame to the contributor. However we can censure the producer and presenter for leaving it in.
The programme does not say at what age Holdem left Campbell Park but the school-leaving age was 15 and Social Welfare typically ceased involvement with boys by the age of 17. According to Latta, Holdem had committed 10 sexual offences against girls by the age of 18. By 1974 he was imprisoned for sexual offences against girls so there was a fairly narrow window of opportunity for the offending referred to above.
In Latta’s stated opinion, Holdem has a ‘script that he plays over and over with different girls’ but he made no comment on the switch from a compulsive fixation on pre-pubescent girls, to sexually assaulting boys. Nor did he mention the fact that Holdem has never been charged with a sexual assault on a boy.
The inference the viewer is meant to draw is that Holdem was always the aggressor, that at a very young age, and presumably due to some hormonal imbalance or, as Mal Griebel repeatedly says, because he is ‘evil’, Holdem went from being a normal, mild mannered little boy from a normal family, to being an indiscriminate and compulsive sexual offender who, by the time he was 18, had racked up 10 convictions for sexual assaults and by the age of 30 was imprisoned for murdering a child.
At one point, the commentary refers to the extensive nature of Holdem’s offending and we are shown several sheets of paper being tossed sequentially onto a desk. The implication is that these many pages list all of Holdem’s offences. In fact, the pages are all identical. Like the image of the hook, it is a cheap device to manipulate the viewer.
Latta says that ‘not long after leaving school, Holdem was sent to prison for 3 separate sexual attacks on small girls’. No date is given for this so I have to assume it was 1974 when, aged 18, after having assaulted a 6 year-old, Holdem lured a 7 year-old girl into Hagley Park with a promise of giving her a rabbit, indecently assaulted her, bound and gagged her and left her in a ditch. She freed herself and was found by a member of the public. Despite many subsequent claims that Holdem had intended her to drown, there was no charge of attempted murder and Holdem was jailed for 2 years for the indecent assaults.
After release from prison, ‘for 9 years Holdem drifted in and out of labouring jobs and took to the streets engaged in petty theft and burglary’. Once again the time line does not make sense. Presumably Holdem was sent to prison for some of these offences where, in the very early 1980s, he encountered another prisoner who described him as a ‘tidy looking Maori boy, always friendly’ but said he had no idea Holdem was a paedophile. Latta does not comment on how unusual that is given paedophiles are typically at extreme risk in the general prison population and the nature of their offences usually becomes known to other prisoners.
Latta says ‘there was a gap of almost a decade without sexual offences’ but that it would be a ‘mistake’ to think Holdem did not offend in that time because offenders like him typically commit many more assaults than they are charged with. He offers no explanation as to how Holdem, who would have been a very high profile sexual offender in Christchurch, with a very specific pattern of offending and who had displayed a consistent lack of care in covering his tracks, managed to offend for between 8 and 10 years without being either reported or caught.
In 1982, after release from prison, Latta says Holdem went to see his mother who ‘rejected him’. Latta did not identify the source of this information but stated categorically that this ‘adverse life event’ resulted in an overpowering urge to offend as a ‘distraction’, possibly combined with a ‘sense of entitlement’. These are all key words in the forensic psychology lexicon and in the typification of an offender as a psychopath.
Holdem approached a group of three 10 year-old girls with a story about his rabbits and guinea pigs having escaped. He took one of the girls into a shed in a park where he sexually assaulted her. He was charged with attempted rape and sentenced to 5 years. Preventive detention was not used as he had had 8 years without any sexual offences. But, says Latta, the escalation – abduction, binding and post-arrest statements - ‘should have rung alarm bells’.
The information about the post-arrest statements comes from Mal Griebel who regularly claims Holdem had said to an arresting officer that he would offend again and next time he would not leave witnesses. It’s unclear as to which offence this often repeated assertion relates to, or whether the statement was entered into evidence at a trial. If it had been, it is hard to understand why it did not result in a longer sentence in 1974, and in preventive detention in 1982.
In an odd coincidence that is a serious indictment of the Prison Service at the time, the ex-schoolmate mentioned above said he shared a prison cell with Holdem after the 1982 offence. Despite his requests, he was not moved until Holdem got hold the address of his parents and wrote to them expressing concern for the safety of their daughter. This was interpreted as Holdem ‘grooming’ the girl. Another contributor also ascribes a sinister motive to Holdem trying to get members of her family to visit him.
Latta says Holdem’s marriage whilst in prison contributed to his early release in 1985. He fathered a child in the short time the marriage lasted and then met and moved in with a woman who lived in a trailer park in Kaiapoi. Latta states that ‘within 1 year and 1 day of his release, Louisa Damodran was dead’. The trigger for Holdem’s offending on that occasion was being told by his (now deceased) girlfriend to leave the trailer because social workers were coming to visit her and as she was claiming a benefit, they must not know he was living there.
Louisa Damodran went missing on her way home from school and her body was found 3 weeks later near the mouth of the Waimakariri River. It could not be established precisely when she drowned or if she had been sexually assaulted. Other evidence included: a bag, containing items of Louisa’s, that had been left near a fish shop in Kaiapoi around the time that police established Holdem had been in a nearby bank; items of clothing of hers found under the trailer Holdem shared with his girlfriend, and a sighting of an ‘angry dark skinned man’ with a small girl in a car similar to the one Holdem drove.
The trial was always going to be an emotionally charged one. It had to be moved to Dunedin because a fair trial could not be guaranteed in Christchurch. A petition was circulated calling for Holdem’s execution, which Louisa’s mother had said she and her ex-husband were pressured to sign. She chose not to because of her religious beliefs.
Mal Griebel figured as prominently in the programme itself as in the decision to make it. Since 1997 he has been involved in lobbying to ensure Holdem remains in custody. He tried unsuccessfully to have himself put on the register of Holdem’s victims so he could speak to the Parole Board directly and says he keeps tabs on Holdem via contacts in the Prison Service. He refers to Holdem as the ‘evilest man’ he has met, and dismisses any signs of stress, distress or remorse as an act. Latta concurs with this, describing any signs of stress as ‘just bollocks’.
In an article in the Canterbury Star in 2007, as part of the free sheet’s ‘Keep Peter Holdem in Jail’ campaign, Barry Clark wrote that Holdem was,
“a prolific sex offender, and Mr Griebel believes it is only good luck that the 10-year-old girl he abducted in Hagley Park in the early 1980s survived the ordeal. ‘He bound her and left that little girl for dead. Only for a member of the public coming and freeing her, did she survive. Holdem then went on to murder little Louisa Damodran. He showed absolutely no remorse for this murder. My understanding is during his term of imprisonment to date, he has not altered his character one iota,’ Mr Griebel said.'”
This conflates the 1974 and 1982 incidents and is inaccurate in other respects. The 1982 offence is regularly transformed from attempted rape, to abduction and attempted murder, an error of fact which is still on the Sensible Sentencing Trust website at the time of writing this, despite it having been pointed out to them. A prominent website that pops up on Google states Holdem ‘abducted, raped, and murdered six year old Louisa Damodran’. The website also has a link ‘a perfect example of why predators should be executed or incarcerated permanently’ that takes you to the SST website.
Griebel stated in a Radio New Zealand interview in May 2011 that he had ‘mucked up’ because at the outset he had not known Holdem had been released from prison so initially had not seen him as a suspect. When he found out he had been released, Holdem became the prime suspect. Griebel said in BTD that, during questioning, Holdem demonstrated odd behaviour and kept asking for his girlfriend. Despite not having found Louisa’s body or having sufficient evidence to arrest Holdem at that point, Griebel says ‘we convinced’ the girlfriend that Holdem was guilty so she would help them get information out of him.
Latta made no mention of Griebel’s extraordinary admission in a Radio New Zealand interview, that, at some point in the interrogation, he, another detective and Holdem’s girlfriend went with Holdem to where ‘he had put the girl in the river’. Then, because he ‘did not have enough evidential reasons to arrest him’, Griebel booked them both into a motel room for the night.
It seems logical that, if Holdem had said he had taken the girl to the river, he had admitted her abduction so there was sufficient evidence to have arrested him on that charge at least, and if he had been under arrest, there could be no possible justification for holding him in a motel room. That action only makes sense if Holdem had not confessed to the abduction and that Griebel, believing that Holdem had taken the girl to the river because he knew he went fishing there, took him there with his girlfriend, to try to elicit a confession. When he did not get one, he kept Holdem overnight in the motel ‘to keep an eye on him’.
Griebel may be forgiven in 1986 for not being aware of the well-established fact that people of low intelligence, especially when they are deferential to authority figures, are easily pressured into making incriminating statements and confessions as a way of relieving emotional pressure. However, a forensic psychologist will be well aware of it, and this may explain why Latta was at pains to concur with Griebel that Holdem was such an old hand he would not have been phased by any aspect of the police interrogation, that any manifestations of stress were ‘just bollocks’.
Griebel argues that Holdem is capable of maintaining a consistent façade of deference and compliance as a form of calculated manipulation. But, he is not so slickly manipulative that he can fool the people who administer the PCL-SV test, the results of which form the basis for his continued incarceration. If Holdem was such a hardened criminal and so cunning, why did he allow Griebel to keep him in a motel room over night, or ask for his girlfriend instead of a solicitor, and why did he leave such an obvious trail of evidence?
In the BTD programme Griebel referred to Holdem’s second trial for attempted rape where his solicitor made a plea for psychiatric treatment, and said with a smile ‘I think he needed some other sort of help’. After the trial, when asked about the life sentence, Griebel said that he thought Holdem deserved to be killed. He has repeatedly stated his belief that Holdem is ‘evil’ and that he has ‘absolutely no doubt that he will kill again if released’, even if he is castrated or ‘has his legs chopped off’.
This is a man on a mission - to do whatever is necessary to ensure Holdem is never released. For whatever reason, Griebel cannot let go of a case he investigated 26 years ago – with the BTD episode, Leary and Latta provided him with his most high-profile platform yet.
A professional analysis is only as good as its inputs, however clever and insightful the analyst considers himself to be. Forensic psychology is not magic, like good police work it relies on the meticulous gathering, ordering and analysis of information within a strict legal and ethical framework.
Latta’s most damning conclusion was that Holdem was unsalvageable even as a 9 year-old. His programme proceeded from that ‘fact’ to build a case to prove that, at 56, Holdem remains unsalvageable.
That may well be true but, as a clinical psychologist, Latta knows better than most that, doing justice to the complexities of the human being who was formed within the intersection between his biology, the circumstances of his birth, his formative years in small town Canterbury in the 50s, his experiences in the social welfare, educational and criminal justice systems in the 60s, 70s and 80s, plus his experiences in prison over the past 26 years, is beyond the scope of 50 minutes of populist television. It would require extensive interviews of the subject himself or at least of the professionals who have worked with him, and meticulous analysis of all the documentary evidence such as trial transcripts, school and medical records and current psychological assessments.
Latta did not refer to any data or opinions gathered from independent experts. He did not remind his audience that forensic psychology is not an exact science and that the analyst is largely dependent on the quality of the information s/he has to work with. He does not caution the audience that his analysis will necessarily lack the precision and thoroughness one would expect of an academic or a proper clinical analysis. And, he does not clarify the interface and critical differences between forensic psychology and criminal profiling.
We have a justice system for a reason. Imperfect though it is, it provides some protection from those people whose response to certain crimes committed by certain individuals is to want to do the same or worse to the offender. These people are often so blinded by their own rage and desire for vengeance they are oblivious both to the harm they may do to the real victims, and the harm they do to the justice system.
In a trial by media, or in this instance in a Parole Hearing by media, all the normal standards of proof and rules of evidence are dispensed with. Hearsay, decades old recollections and opinions, inputs from people with an axe to grind – all are treated equally and are granted legitimacy by virtue, not just by the presenter’s professional expertise, but also his celebrity.
The more unpleasant the crimes, the less sympathetic the criminals, and the more friendless they are, the fewer controls there are on what is said about them. There can be no more unpopular criminal than a recidivist sexual offender who abducts and kills a child. It is hard to see through such acts to the human beings who commit them, and it is made impossible when there are people with a vested interest in demonising them.
Latta concludes his journey through Peter Holdem’s mind with the statement :
‘I have never come across an offender that I am so unreservedly convinced will reoffend.’
He goes onto to say that Holdem,
‘cannot be rehabilitated, not now, not ever; there are no psychological therapies that can change what this man is and no medications that can control him.’
He states that, if released, Holdem will sexually abuse more children and will kill again. He has nothing to say about what should be done with the 56 year-old whose life has been formed within the state machine since he was 9. Latta couched his conclusion in cleverer language but he essentially answered in the affirmative, the question posed on the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s website, ‘is it easier to lock the beast up for life and be done with it?’
It was badly done Nigel, badly done.