Barrister and Queen’s Counsel Mike Bungay’s experience on the country’s leading crime cases meant he was a natural fit to present a television series that shone a light on some of New Zealand’s most intriguing cases.
In the 10-part TVNZ series, broadcast during 1992, Bungay offered his perspective on nine of New Zealand’s most notable police investigations and criminal trials.
For each episode over 23 minutes, Bungay would introduce the tale in front of an imitation Roman site with standalone pillars. Reconstructions with New Zealand actors are used for dramatic scenes and there’s interviews with the main players.
Among the most intriguing cases was a double episode on the mysterious ‘disappearance’ of American tourist Milton Harris, entitled A Ferry Tale.
Part one focuses on 39-year-old Harris’ apparent loss overboard during the evening trip of the Arahura Cook Strait ferry in 1985. Bungay notes that just days after his disappearance Harris’ supposedly grieving wife Sheila began filing for insurance claims and reveals that Harris had life insurance policies worth more than US $2,500,000.
Some paid out but the holder of the largest policy, Lloyds of London, didn’t, suspecting that something fishy was going on – and not just the ones in the Cook Strait Harris would have encountered on his apparent late-night drop into the water.
Chartered loss adjuster David Denton was brought in to investigate by Lloyds and he soon determined that conditions on the night were no worse than for most trans-Strait trips and wasn’t buying into the theory that an experienced seaman like Harris could simply have fallen off the ship.
Some other things didn’t add up. For example, Harris earned modest earnings but spent 20% of it on insurance premiums. And four days before his disappearance in Cook Strait, Harris had fallen off a ferry in South Australia. Denton relates the almost fantastical tale of Harris, dressed in a rubber wetsuit, riding a motorbike, with diver’s lead weights around his waist and a big pack on his back, hitting the ferry linkspan and being catapulted into the water. The brave soul who rescued him, a reverend, said he thought he saw Harris wearing a diver’s mask as he helped him to shallow water.
The chase for Harris unearthed nothing until, four years later, a shoplifter was caught in the act on Auckland’s Queen Street taking some items including underwear. This shoplifter had a Spanish name and claimed to be a political refugee who had escaped the regime in Chile. He managed to escape from the police station but his freedom was short-lived. Despite Harris’ use of various aliases and alibis he had been rumbled, and the net was closing in – to Whangarei to be precise where he was hiding.
Episode two figures out how Harris concocted his incredible con using a man he had met before the ferry trip, and his life on the run with a parcel bomb and a fear of nuclear war part of the strange tale.
Other episodes included The Paekakariki Murder, in which circumstantial evidence led to a conviction in one of New Zealand’s most notorious murder cases; Undercover of Darkness – which looked at New Zealand’s first spy trial, that of William Sutch; The Inglewood Murder – how a vicious double murder in rural Taranaki was painstakingly solved; and But Is It Art?- the final episode which looked at art forgery in the Goldie forgeries case.
Bungay the man
Michael Anthony Bungay was born in London on 28 September 1934. A wartime evacuee, he served briefly in the merchant navy before joining the Royal Marines in the 1950s. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1956 and joined the Army, studying part-time at university until he graduated in law in 1961 and began his legal career.
Bungay became a barrister sole in 1983 and was appointed a QC in 1986. He appeared in well over 100 murder trials and was in demand as an after dinner speaker, media commentator and host on talkback radio. In 1983 he co-authored Bungay on Murder with media commentator Brian Edwards.
Mike Bungay died on 10 August 1993.
In 2017 Bungay’s life story was brought to life in a five-part drama series with Mark Mitchinson playing the role of the QC.
The series encompasses his early history, his loves, career, and the legal and personal exploits that made him a prominent barrister and QC.
Bungay’s determination to serve as a QC prevailed, despite his deteriorating health and growing pressure from those who were resentful of his celebrity. It would eventually see his demise.
However, the TVNZ drama was criticised by his daughters, as Stuff reported, for being inaccurate, “blatantly wrong” and making their father “look like a drunken clown”.
Robyn and Sue Bungay told the website they weren’t consulted by the makers and weren’t aware it was being made until it was being recorded.
Dear Murderer was based on the book of the same name by Bungay’s widow Ronda, who had been supportive of the programme.