In June of 1994, a family was brutally put to death. Margaret Bain, Robin Bain, and their three children, Arawa, Laniet, and Stephen, were discovered dead in their run-down and shabby house in Dunedin, New Zealand. All of the victims were related to the Bain family. They had all been shot with a firearm from rather close range. In the living room, the father was discovered laying on the floor with a weapon by his side. There was a letter on the computer that read, “Sorry, you are the only one who deserved to stay.” The only person who should have been allowed to survive was presumably the eldest son, David Bain, who was 22 years old at the time of the murders and was out delivering newspapers when they occurred.
At 7:09 a.m., David was so scared that he called 911. He yelled to the operator, “They’re all dead!” “Everyone in my family is dead.” The police came soon after. Even though the scene looked like a clear case of murder-suicide at first, some parts of David’s story didn’t make sense. Importantly, David couldn’t figure out what happened to 20–25 minutes between when he got home and found the bodies and when he called the police. He also couldn’t explain why his hands and face were hurt. David was charged with and convicted of the murders in 1995. In June 2009, he was found not guilty after a new trial.
Even though it’s been more than 25 years, the murders of the Bain family continue to haunt New Zealand and remain one of the most interesting and debated topics in the small country. Martin Van Beynen wrote a podcast about the murders in 2017 called Black Hands. It was very popular in New Zealand and around the world. Now, a TV show with the same name as the podcast is being made. The fact that David didn’t have a good reason to do the crime may be the thing that interests people the most. Robin, the father, was said to have had an incestuous relationship with one of his daughters, but David didn’t seem to have a good reason to want his whole family to leave. In the first trial, the prosecutor’s claim that David killed someone to get an inheritance was unlikely, out of character, and made up on the spot.
From the morning of the murders until now, David has always said that he is not guilty. But almost all of the evidence points to David, as anyone who has looked into the case seriously knows: the missing time, the fingerprints on the rifle, the fresh bruises and scratches on David’s body, Stephen’s blood on David’s clothes, and David’s admission before the murders that he could use his paper run as an alibi for rape: all of these point to David. On the other hand, the evidence doesn’t point towards Robin. The father brought in the morning paper, had a full bladder, and didn’t leave any fingerprints on the gun. He must have waited about 30 minutes between killing the others and killing himself. It would have been hard for him to reach the trigger when he killed himself, and most suspicious of all, every drop of blood found on Robin’s clothes was found to be his own. Also, the killer had done the killings while wearing white opera gloves. This is more like the behaviour of a man trying to avoid being caught than of a man who is about to shoot himself in the living room. If Robin did it, he wanted as much proof as possible to point to David.
I have no problem saying that my mind is pretty much made up: David did it. But I’m not sure David has made up his mind. That is to say, even though I think David was the killer, I think David thinks he had nothing to do with the murders. Let’s make it clear: David hasn’t forgotten what happened. David hasn’t pushed the events out of his mind. David thinks that the crimes were done by his own body. But I think David also thinks that someone or something other than David took over his body. If we can talk about souls for a moment, David thinks that on the morning of June 20, his soul left his body and was replaced by a bad person, the devil, or a demonic force. This person used David’s body to do bad things, but it wasn’t David doing them.
This idea has been brought up before. Most of The Mask of Sanity, a popular book about the murders by James McNeish, is about the family’s 16-year stay in Papua New Guinea, where Robin taught at different schools and universities. McNeish says that you can’t understand the murders without understanding some of the occult ideas that come from Papuan beliefs and folklore as well as the mother Margaret’s interest in the demonic and other “new age” spiritual ideas. I agree with him.
What I want to stress, though, is how important David’s different “partial confessions” are to proving this theory. I think that many of David’s half-confessions show that he knows that his body did it, but that his soul wasn’t the one who did it. David says that he had nothing to do with the killings. But many of the things he has said directly imply that he was the only person who could have killed the people, that he planned the killings, and that he was there when the killings happened. All of these half-confessions make sense if you assume that David thinks he wasn’t there when the murders happened.
First, let’s think about the “missing time,” as it’s called. David says that when he got home the morning of the murders, around 6:40, he found his family dead. Give or take three minutes. Let’s say David got home at 6:43 a.m., found his family dead a few minutes later at 6:50 a.m., and called 911 at 7:09 a.m. We can guess that it will take David nearly 20 minutes from the time he finds the bodies to the time he calls New Zealand’s emergency number, 111.
David says that he “lost track of time” because he “spaced out.” One way to look at this explanation is that this was a response to being shocked. David may have lost consciousness, fallen to the floor, woke up, and then called the police. David’s own idea, though, is more like the idea that he was having an epileptic seizure. David talks to the police about this possibility during the first time they question him. When asked about the lost time, he says, “I’ve been spacing out lately. When it happened before, it was at the Symphonia. I don’t remember two movements.” David’s friends who were also at the Symphonia nine days before the murders remember how unresponsive he was. “He didn’t know what was going on around him,” they said.
In a later court decision about how much money Bain should get for being locked up, the Hon. Ian Callahan also said that during the Symphonia:
“one witness said that he had suddenly risen from his place in the audience and bumped, not intentionally, but inexplicably, a person or persons beside him as he struggled to leave his seat.”
So, David was also acting in ways that he said he couldn’t control.
Since this happened so close to the time of the murders, it’s possible that David had already planned to use his new habit of “spacing out” as part of his alibi. I think, though, that David was already starting to think that his body and soul were not in sync. Six weeks before the murders, David took a used motorcycle out for a test drive and crashed it. He owed the manager of the shop $2,000 for the damage. Could this have been another time when he didn’t have full control over his body?
David’s claim that he didn’t know where he was on the Symphonia and that he “spaced out” might be better explained by his belief that a demonic spirit was taking over his body more and more. In fact, it’s not clear how David could have thought that his “spacing out” at the Symphonia would later help to back up his alibi and explain any time he might have missed. This is especially true because David might not have known for sure before the murders that he would have time to make up.
David’s trance states are a key part of understanding his behaviour, and the dissociation that results helps to explain why he claims to be innocent. In the weeks after the murders, David and the same friend with whom he went to the Symphonia had the following conversation about who might have done it:
“If it was my father, I could never forgive him. And if it was me…”
“David, you could never have done that.”
Of course, it is strange for people to wonder if they have done something wrong. Most of the time, a person who kills someone knows what they are doing. Also, in this case, David or Robin were the only two choices. If David didn’t do it, Robin did, and if Robin didn’t do it, David did. David knew Robin was to blame because he knew he wasn’t to blame. But there’s another, more complicated possibility: David killed the people, but he didn’t know if it was him or his father who was morally responsible. So, when David asks himself who did the killings, he is really asking about something more important than who pulled the trigger. The question is whether the spirit of David or Robin is to blame.
Did David think that his father’s spirit might have used his own body to commit the crimes? To understand why David might think this, we need to know a bit about how the family’s spiritual beliefs are different from those of most people. David’s mother Margaret, who had a long-term mental illness that was never treated, was the only one to blame for these ideas.
Margaret’s most persistent delusion was that Robin was possessed by the Devil, whom she called Belial, a Hebrew name. In her diaries, she often puts family members in order of how much “Bel” she thinks they have. Robin was always ranked as having the most Bel. In these diaries, she also called Robin by his nickname, “Bel.” In other words, Bel was both Robin and a spirit that could have different effects on the rest of the family.
Margaret’s false beliefs were getting stronger and harder to shake, and Robin had been forced to sleep in a caravan in the backyard on weekends for a long time. During the week, he was supposed to sleep in a camper outside his place of work, which was in a small town called Taieri Beach, about 35 km from his family’s home in Dunedin. Margaret thought that Robin’s presence in the house was evil and dangerous. To get Bel out of Robin, she did exorcisms on him. Bel stayed, though. Margaret didn’t think her relationship with Robin was tense; she saw it as a battle between good and evil.
David could not have been unaware of Margaret’s delusions, since he had grown up with them all. David was becoming more and more protective of his mother and suspicious of his father’s efforts to, as David put it, “rule the roost.” David saw Robin as a force that needed to be defeated so that he could take his rightful place as king next to his mother. Plans for a new house to replace the old one showed that David and Margaret’s rooms would be next to each other. Bel would have nowhere to go.
I think that David’s other half-truths show that he knew that it was his body that did the crime:
- David says that he was the only one who knew where the trigger-lock key was kept. If this is true, then his body alone could have killed the people. If David was the only one who knew where the key was, then only Bel, who used David as a tool, could be to blame.
- David says that in the weeks before the killings, he had a “premonition.” He tells a friend later that the dream was about the murders. If this is true, then he thought that his body got a message about the killings from a supernatural source outside of himself. David’s plan to kill the people is recast as a message from the supernatural about Bel’s plan.
- David says that when he saw Laniet’s dead body, he could hear her “gurgling.” During the trial, forensic scientists were asked if this could be true. They said that it could only be true if David was there when the murders happened. It was an odd detail for David to give, and it fits better with a picture in which David knows he was there in some way but wasn’t the person who pulled the gun.
Anthropologists have seen other cases of spirit possession around the world that are similar to some of David’s actions. In particular, as soon as the police arrived at the murder scene, David started to shake violently. The officers thought he was having a seizure or “fit” because he had epilepsy. After David went to jail while he was waiting for his trial, he still had these fits from time to time. But paramedics who saw David’s first known seizure decided that it was not a seizure and that David was aware of what was going on. This is exactly what happens in possession trance states, which are more common in possession cults in Papua and other places: erratic body movements, dissociation, and saying they don’t remember what happened afterward.
David’s most telling case of what seems to be a related possession state happened when he was staying with an aunt and uncle shortly after the murders. David insisted on reading the local newspaper so he could see for himself what had been written about the murders and about him. Soon after, he broke down and said that the police had lied to him and that the killer must have looked the victims in the eye before pulling the trigger. He then goes into what seems to be a dissociative state. Just like in other cases of possession, his voice changed, making it sound like it belonged to someone else, and he spoke in a jumbled way. As his aunt told the following story in court:
“He started to speak in a really slow, deliberate way. His words were almost as though they were being dragged out of him. He started saying ‘black hands’, and that they were taking him away, ‘black hands’ … and just repeated this over and over… black hands, dying … black hands taking them away … It’s just like Schindler’s List … black hands, taking them away, dying, dying, everyone dying.”
“Did you see them dying David?”
At this point, David comes out of his trance. His voice goes back to normal, and he can talk again.
“No, I only saw mum and dad and they were already dead.”
Why do they have black hands? I think they are David’s way of explaining what is going on with his body. Bel, the dark and evil force, had moved from the father to the son, even though Margaret’s exorcisms had not worked. David had gotten the curse from his father. David was now being controlled by the black hands, who did what Bel wanted them to do. David’s sister Laniet said she saw “black auras” before the murders, which added to the family’s theme of dark and scary supernatural events.
David has said that these black hands are what? In an interesting speech he gave at the International Justice Conference in Perth on March 10, 2012, David said that he didn’t think “black hands” took his family away until he found his father’s body in the living room. He saw his mother, Stephen, Arawa, and Laniet, but it was seeing his father’s dead body that gave him the image of “black hands.” He saw the black hands as soon as he saw Robin.
This is the last and most important partial admission, I think. For the same reason he said he heard Laniet gurgle, he had no reason to tell anyone about this. So, why does he think that the audience needs to know that he only started thinking about “black hands” as a supernatural theme when he found Robin? Why should you tell us that the idea of Robin and the idea of black hands are even similar?
From what I can tell, David thought that Bel’s hands were black. Robin was Bel. But Bel was also a spiritual illness that could spread to anyone in the family. Bel killed Margaret, Arawa, Laniet, and Stephen. He also killed Arawa. Bel also killed Robin through David’s body. The family was taken away by Bel’s black hands, and David, who was wearing white gloves, was the one who did it.