Nearly 15 years after Mellory Manning’s battered body was found dumped in the Avon River mystery surrounds the identity of those responsible. Could a controversial DNA tool that helped the FBI catch a serial killer
and rapist in the United States help identify the elusive Male B? Herald senior crime journalist Sam Sherwood reports.
It was supposed to be just one more night working in Christchurch’s red-light district to raise some money to buy Christmas presents for her family.
Ngati “Mellory” Lynette Manning, then 27, was turning her life around following her sister’s suicide which had helped convince her to stop taking drugs. She’d also spent several months out of prostitution.
About 9.30pm on December 18, 2008, she was dropped off at her corner of Manchester and Peterborough streets wearing a distinctive pink skirt and a blue and white polka dot bikini top.
The following morning about 6.40am her body was found floating in the Avon River near Dallington Terrace.
Police alleged she was subjected to a horrific attack at a Mongrel Mob gang pad where it’s believed she was raped, stabbed and bashed by several people.
The only person to be charged in relation to her death, a former Mob prospect, had his conviction quashed and charges dismissed after it was found his Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder meant his statements in police interviews were unreliable as well as police conduct during the interview process.
During the police inquiry, a DNA profile from Mellory’s body was attributed to an unidentified person, referred to as “Male B”.
Despite extensive testing, Male B has never been identified.
Now, nearly 15 years on, police say they would consider using a controversial DNA tool that helped the FBI catch the “Golden State Killer” for the investigation, dubbed Operation Dallington.
The tool, never before used in New Zealand, compares the DNA of unidentified suspects with genetic profiles uploaded to popular genealogy websites.
Mellory’s brother, Rob Manning, told the Herald on Sunday the development gives him fresh hope his sister’s murder may one day be solved.
“These people that did this are still out in the public right now,” he says. “What they are capable of doing, what they did to Mellory, is brutal. Everyone is at risk around these people.”
Mellory was born in Nelson on Waitangi Day 1981. Her father left early on, and the family eventually moved to Southbridge where she, Rob, and their older sister Jasmine grew up attending Southbridge Primary and Ellesmere College.
“We had quite a troubled upbringing”, Rob Manning says.
“Mellory just got led down the wrong path basically. She wasn’t inherently a bad person, she was actually quite a caring, giving person. She didn’t choose to be a prostitute, it was just the way life ended up for her.
“She was a human being, just like us. She made some bad choices based on, in my opinion, our upbringing – she probably didn’t know a lot better.”
The siblings stuck together and were “kind of all we had”, Manning recalls.
“Through tragedy, we actually had each other there to comfort each other and probably, when I think back to tough times when we were kids, that’s sort of what I remember; older sister and I was younger brother and she was always there for me.”
He described his sister as a “bit of a tomboy” and a “good-spirited person”.
Mellory left school at 14 after ending up in foster care. Around that time she began taking drugs. She started working as a prostitute at 15.
In 1999, she was jailed for 18 months after stabbing a shop assistant with a blood-filled syringe during a robbery. She would go on to spend several stints behind bars.
Tragedy struck the Manning family in July 2008 when oldest sister, Jasmine took her own life aged 29 while in witness protection in Auckland.
Jasmine’s death rocked Mellory who decided to try to turn her life around, attending a methadone programme and moving in with her mum. She also decided to try to stay away from the streets.
Rob and Mellory grew closer after Jasmine’s death, while she tried to get clean.
“I felt quite excited for her, that she wasn’t having to do the things that she was doing to keep on living,” Rob said.
“She’d all but stopped heroin and using hard drugs, and then she basically just went out for one night and that was it.”
Rob saw his older sister earlier in the day on December 18, 2008, as he was driving along Riccarton Rd.
“She was walking down the street with her partner and I was going to pull over but I didn’t actually have time because I was running late from another appointment.”
The following day Rob was out with friends when he got a phone call to say he needed to go home.
“I’d read in the paper earlier that day they’d found a woman in the Avon River, and for a split second I thought it could’ve been her… but she’s sort of too tough, she’s someone who wouldn’t go down without a fight and I thought, nah, it won’t be her. But as soon as got the call that the police were at home, I knew.”
The police confirmed his fears. His sister’s body had been found by a kayaker in the river. He had to go with the police to inform their mother.
Rob then saw his sister at the funeral home.
“That was pretty tough… that’s when it really hit home,” he recalls. “She was quite disfigured from what had happened, so that was quite tough to see her like that, in some ways I wish I didn’t because that’s my last memory of her.”
He was struck with remorse about what more he could have done, and what might have happened if he’d pulled over and spoken to her when he drove past on the day of her murder.
A large-scale homicide inquiry – Operation Dallington – was launched following Mellory’s murder.
It was not until two years later that police revealed extremely rare mutated grass pollen found on her clothing had been matched to samples from the Mongrel Mob’s Galbraith Ave gang pad.
In September 2011, they revealed that semen found on her body did not match any of her clients that night. The semen belonged to an unknown person, who would become known as “Male B”.
Rob said the wait for an arrest was hard for the family.
“Most murder cases are solved and it’s usually someone known to the person, so I was a bit frustrated: why out of all the cases was it this one? It was just the circumstances around it.”
Three years and three months after Mellory was found dead, former Mongrel Mob prospect Mauha Fawcett, known within gang circles as “Muck Dog” was arrested and charged with her murder.
His trial began in the High Court at Christchurch in February 2014.
During the trial, the Crown alleged it took less than 20 minutes for the Mongrel Mob to take Mellory off the street to the pad where she was raped, bashed, stabbed, and murdered before her body was dumped in the river.
At his trial, Fawcett claimed police pressured and “coached” him into making false confessions that he was present when Mellory was killed over an alleged debt.
The Crown argued Fawcett – then 21 – either took part in the killing or was there as a party to her murder.
They said he was supposed to carry out the hit, but when the time came, he couldn’t do it.
During a series of police interviews, he implicated himself in the killing, saying he’d been there while others carried out the vicious fatal assault.
He told police during one interview that he had shut his eyes and hit her with a crudely fashioned metal pole weapon.
Mobsters barked and said “Sieg Heil,” as they killed her, he claimed.
But, in giving his own closing address at the end of the trial, Fawcett said he lied throughout the police interview.
“I stupidly implicated myself into a serious crime,” he said.
“I lied. People lie for many things… but I did not take part in this lady’s death.”
He denied knowing who Male B was.
“I’ve described other patched members who seriously assaulted Miss Manning.
“I’m wanted by the Mongrel Mob. I’ll never protect ‘Male B’. I’ve got nothing to gain from it.”
Just over a month after the trial began the jury found Fawcett guilty of being a party to Mellory’s murder and he was sentenced to at least 20 years in jail.
Rob says it wasn’t until the trial that he heard the full details of what allegedly happened to his sister.
“It was honestly like a horror movie, the stuff that happened to her … it almost doesn’t seem like it would be possible,” he said. “It was absolutely atrocious.”
He recalls having mixed emotions at the verdict.
“I actually felt sorry for Mauha a little bit, I knew his upbringing was quite hard and it felt like it was all being pinned on him…,” he said, adding that he contemplated going to visit him in prison.
However, he was happy to have the first of what he thought was going to be many convictions to come.
Following the trial, police said their investigation remained open.
Then Detective Inspector Greg Williams, who headed the inquiry, said the investigation team was continuing to gather evidence relating to all the individuals involved in the case.
DNA samples were taken from a large number of people, including members of the Mongrel Mob, but they did not find a match for Male B.
Williams, now a Detective Superintendent heading the National Organised Crime Group, said at the time he believed Male B was probably closely associated with the Aotearoa Mongrel Mob or wider Mongrel Mob.
“We started this investigation with no identified crime scene, limited forensic evidence, and efforts by some of those involved to destroy some evidence that might link them to this murder.
“It has been a painstaking process over five years to gather evidence and build a picture of what occurred.”
He added there was “no support” among the gang community for the people behind Manning’s murder.
In 2017 the Court of Appeal quashed Fawcett’s conviction after it was found his Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder meant his admissions in police interviews were unreliable as well as police conduct during the interview process.
“His IQ is within low to normal bounds but test results show extreme variability of function,” the Court of Appeal ruling said.
“He has very weak verbal reasoning and memory deficits and is prone to confabulate to fill gaps in memory. His capacity for abstract thought is weak and his response times very slow.
“Importantly, he is very suggestible.”
The case had “certain parallels” with the Teina Pora case, the ruling said.
In 2021, Justice Rachel Dunningham dismissed the murder charge under Section 147 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011.
Following the hearing, Fawcett declined to comment to the media but his lawyer Christopher Stevenson spoke on his behalf.
“Mr Fawcett always maintained that he had nothing to do with the really terrible and tragic killing of Mellory Manning,” he said.
“His trial miscarried and he had around a decade of his life taken away from him including years in jail, so he’s just incredibly relieved and happy now it’s over that the High Court judge had dismissed the case.
“He said to me, ‘I can finally sleep’.”
Rob Manning said he felt it was “rough” what happened to Fawcett and had no resentment towards him after the charges were dismissed.
About a month before the charges were dismissed Canterbury CIB District Manager of Criminal Investigations Detective Inspector Greg Murton made a fresh appeal for information from the public with a particular focus on identifying “Male B”.
Murton described Mellory as “a street-wise feisty young lady who knew all about the dangers of her business. This investigation has now been going for approximately 13 years and it has been a complex and challenging investigation,” he said.
Police believed that due to the nature of her injuries “a number of persons” were involved in her death.
Murton said the investigation team was “extremely hopeful” early on that Male B’s DNA sample would be matched to someone on the criminal DNA database.
“Unfortunately, that was not the case.”Considerable time and effort has been spent by the investigation team to obtain DNA samples from persons of interest over the last 13 years who were not on the criminal DNA database.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to identify Male B.”
Last month, the Weekend Herald revealed police had made the decision to allow detectives to use genetic genealogy testing to try and solve the murder of Alicia O’Reilly in 1980.
The decision followed an 18-month wait for expert advice to navigate the complex privacy and legal considerations.
A spokesperson earlier confirmed that New Zealand Police had approved the use of genetic genealogy testing, but the “next steps” were still being worked out.
“Police have carried out a thorough process to date to carry out due diligence on security, privacy, legal and ethical implications from this tool.
“Relevant considerations have since been through a governance process and it has been agreed this will now move to the next phase.
“Police are continuing to work through the next phases, including work with external stakeholders. We will be in a position to comment further around next steps in due course.”
Genetic genealogy would allow police to cast the net much wider than they are currently able to.
Tens of millions of people worldwide have shared their profiles online, meaning the likelihood of law enforcement finding a genetic relative to a suspect has vastly improved.
Detectives can then use the results of a genetic genealogy search alongside other records to construct a family tree, to then identify the most likely suspects for further investigation.
The technique has been used to solve cold cases overseas, most notably the capture of the “Golden State Killer” who committed at least 13 murders and 51 rapes between 1974 and 1986.
Adding another layer of complexity to whether genetic genealogy can be used, is that the current law governing the use of DNA in criminal investigations needs to be overhauled.
A review by the Law Commission, published in November 2020, found the Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Act was “no longer fit for purpose” and made 193 recommendations for change.
Given the significant privacy concerns around turning users of ancestry websites into unwitting “genetic informants” against their relatives, the Law Commission said any new legislation needed appropriate safeguards for police to use genetic genealogy.
“Our view is that genetic genealogy searching should be used as a last resort and only in relation to offending that, when considered in its full context, is sufficiently serious to warrant the use of such an intrusive investigative technique.”
Following questions by the Herald on Sunday, Murton recently said there was work going on in the area of genealogy DNA at Police National Headquarters.
“Obviously there are a whole lot of legal and other issues that have to be worked through before any New Zealand cases can go through the same process, and if that is the case it is something that New Zealand Police would consider for Operation Dallington.”
Rob Manning said the idea that police could use genetic genealogy testing to try to identify Male B was “great”, and supported the move, saying it gave him fresh hope the case could be solved.
“At the end of the day if you’re not going to do the crime you’ve got nothing to worry about… I think it’s a really good thing.”
He’s surprised Male B has been able to avoid police detection and believes police should be able to access the DNA from New Zealanders living in Australia.
He finds it “frustrating” to still be waiting for those responsible to be held accountable.
“There are people that obviously know, people talk… I always think about the safety of other people because what these people did was so brutal… It’s in everyone’s best interest to actually get these people off the streets.”
He admits it’s hard for him to have a lot of confidence given the amount of time that has passed.
“I know that the police have tried to do everything, but after 15 years what are you meant to think? Like how long is it until you know the people are actually put in prison for what’s happened.”
Rob said he hears from police involved in the investigation from time to time and is confident they’re still determined to solve the case.
“When I went through the court case with Mellory I realised how complicated our legal system is where it is actually very hard for the police… they want to solve the case as well and I guess if they could they would.”
Nearly 15 years on from his sister’s murder, Rob says he talks to his wife from time to time about Mellory. The memories come back to him on Waitangi Day (Mellory’s birthday, which is a week before his own), and at Christmas, as the siblings made an effort to catch up even when they lost contact.
“Sometimes things will just pop up into my head randomly. As time goes on it does fade out a little bit because you’ve got to get on with your life… but from time to time I think about when we were kids – we were just innocent little kids and I do replay things over in my head, I can’t help it, it definitely has an effect on me,” he says.
“We were all just kids, we didn’t choose to be in the family that we had. I got sent off with my grandparents to live and my two sisters didn’t, I could’ve been exactly like them. I’ve got a lot of sympathy and respect for her based on that we were brought up like sh**.”
Mellory’s death signified to him how cheap life can be for some groups of society.
“Really at the end of it, what actually was the end result of it all?”
On a shelf in his living room is a black and white sketch of Mellory.
He often thinks about what life could’ve been like for her if things had gone differently, if she had made it home that night.
“I do feel like she would’ve turned her life around. I know she was really into her art as well so that might’ve been an avenue she could’ve gone down. I don’t know if she wanted to have kids.
“I think she could’ve done a lot better with herself, she didn’t enjoy the life she was living.”
As he ponders what might have become of his older sister, the sad reality strikes home.
“It’s just sad she never got that opportunity.”
Sam Sherwood is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers crime. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2022, and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.
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