The Southland city of Invercargill has been rocked to its core and families torn apart after the death of a local woman allegedly at the hands of her police officer husband. Laura Walters and Sam Sherwood report.
Ben McLean was a “well-liked” man in Invercargill – that’s the word people used to describe him.
The 47-year-old father-of-three worked as a teacher, firefighter and policeman, among other jobs.
“He just seemed like a nice guy,” a family friend says.
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He was the type of guy who took his kids on family outings to the river and helped out at local school fundraisers.
He wasn’t the type of guy who shoots his wife with a .22-calibre rifle before turning it on a man who was one of his close mates.
But that’s what allegedly happened on Tuesday evening – a complicated situation between 47-year-old Benjamin Peter McLean, his wife Verity Ann McLean and Garry William Duggan came to a tragic end at an industrial address on Otepuni Ave in Invercargill.
Police allege McLean entered the industrial building, where Verity and Duggan were living together, and shot his recently estranged wife and Duggan.
Duggan managed to wrest the rifle from the cop, leaving McLean with face and head injuries, before calling emergency services at 8.19pm.
Verity was dead on the couch when police and ambulance arrived.
Less than 40 minutes later, McLean walked himself into the Invercargill Police Station, 2.5 kilometres from the scene, and surrendered.
McLean was taken to hospital in a stable condition, where a bedside hearing was held on the following day. He was charged with murder and attempted murder. On Friday, he was transferred to Invercargill Prison.
Duggan, a truck driver in his 40s, remains in Dunedin Hospital in a stable condition, despite several gunshot wounds.
‘ROLE MODEL FAMILY’
The events of Tuesday night have shocked locals who described the McLeans as a “role model family”.
They have three children under 20, who attend the local Catholic high school, Verdon College.
And live on a lifestyle block in the semi-rural suburb of Tisbury. McLean’s mother Mary Poulsen lives next door.
Verity, known to her friends as Bert, is described as a “a very happy lady”.
The 40-year-old is the elder of twins and was born in Invercargill.
Verity’s father, Robert John (Bob) Barber, was a local rugby player who was selected to play for the All Blacks in Australia and Fiji in the 1970s.
Her mother, Katrina, was a nurse.
Verity was also an active member of the school community and was always willing to lend a hand.
Meanwhile, McLean graduated from the Royal New Zealand Police College in Porirua in December 2007, before starting work in Invercargill a few weeks later.
He has worked on road policing cases and road safety campaigns during his time on the force but has also taken time off from his police work from time-to-time.
As well as working as a teacher at a Southland High School, he also worked as an administrator for Geographic Information Systems before 2007.
And for a time recently he worked at the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter. While he was there he was also a firefighter for the Tiwai Brigade.
Duggan, who is still an employee at the smelter, worked alongside McLean.
The pair were good mates, and a family friend says they understand they had plans to go into business together.
The two families – the Duggans and the McLeans – went on family trips together with their children.
Videos on social media show the parents laughing as their kids immerse themselves in icy cold water.
In a video from 2011, McLean walks around with a beer in his hand and a smile on his face.
Friends say the McLean family unit seemed to be functioning fine until recently.
“Everything seemed good on the surface,” one friend says.
“They just seemed like every other couple, they had the lifestyle dream, seemed happy.”
‘NOT WHAT IT SEEMS’
But Rachel Duggan – Garry Duggan’s wife – says things are not as they seem.
Stuff understands Ben and Verity McLean separated about six weeks ago. And at some point during that time there was another altercation between McLean and Duggan.
On April 16, Rachel Duggan updated her Facebook profile picture to remove her husband.
The family pic has been replaced by a smiling Rachel and her two children, along with the comment “just me and my babies”.
When asked what led to such a tragic turn of events, Rachel Duggan refuses to elaborate.
“The only people that know what was going on was Garry, Ben and Bert … Garry is not up to telling his story and neither is Ben…
“No-one else was there apart from Ben, Bert and Garry, it’s their story to tell, not anyone else’s.”
She then swears at the reporter, telling him to leave her family alone.
McLean’s mother has much the same response when asked what happened.
“It’s a very, very long story,” she says.
When asked to elaborate, she hangs up the phone with a resounding “no comment”.
After the separation, Duggan and Verity McLean moved into the Otepuni Ave address together.
The property, which belongs to Phil Brocks, is listed as the commercial address for his business Fencing Around.
Brocks says he was leasing it to the pair but they aren’t related to the business in any way.
Brocks was in contact with Ben McLean, Verity McLean and Garry Duggan during the weeks leading up to the shooting.
“I was talking to Verity, and it was about lunchtime [on Tuesday]. She was good as gold,.”
“I am close to Ben, but I have been friends with Garry for a long time and he’s a really great guy,” Brocks says.
The area where the new couple was living, doesn’t seem like the kind of place middle-class Southlanders would live.
The building looks more like a warehouse than a home and the fenced-off yard is home to a stack of logs.
Stuff understand the couple was living in a unit at the rear of the building in recent weeks, since moving out of their respective family homes.
Now the property is cordoned off with tape and surrounded by police vehicles.
The scene examination continued on Friday, with the fire service having to park up in the driveway to stop the white gazebo from blowing away.
As well as the Otepuni address and McLean’s home on Scott St, Tweed St park has also been added to police’s list of scenes of interest.
It seems the tragedy has touched everyone in the small Southland city.
Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt looked visibly upset while talking about the incident on Thursday.
The double shooting is a “tragic, tragic situation” for the community, he says.
“Invercargill prides itself on being very much a family friendly city, a close-knit community, so this affects a lot of people.”
“I’ve been mayor for 23 years and we certainly haven’t had anything remotely similar to the tragedy.
“Everyone’s heart of course goes out to the children in the situation. It’s just a tragic, tragic situation.”
Verdon College principal Jarlath Kelly called the incident a “tragic event for all of the families involved”.
“We were shocked and extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Verity and our thoughts and prayers are with the family at this time,” he said.
Others expressed grief at the passing of Verity, who friends describe as a “caring, happy, great mum”.
‘ONE EVERY 10 YEARS’
While the shooting has rocked Invercargill, it isn’t a rare situation, according to University of Canterbury criminologist Greg Newbold.
Relationships often went wrong and someone can lose the plot and do something crazy, he says.
However, the involvement of a policeman is unusual, he says.
Police go through rigorous checks to make sure they are emotionally stable and suited to the profession, so the fact that McLean appears to have snapped at “lost the plot” is surprising.
“It’s one of those sensational crimes, which occur once every 10 years.”
The public understands this is a one-off and it’s unlikely to affect confidence in police. If anything, the professional way police have handled the case will instill further confidence, he says.
But no matter how they handle it, McLean’s colleagues will be “shattered”, Newbold says.