October 14 marks 40 years since Christopher Lewis tried to murder Her Majesty as she and the Duke of Edinburgh were getting out of their car in Dunedin during an eight-day visit to New Zealand.
It was the Queen’s sixth trip to the land of the long white cloud – and one she’d never forget.
In an incident regarded as the closest anyone has ever come to assassinating her, the 17-year-old gunman hid in an empty toilet block on the fifth floor of a building near the royals’ route with his .22-calibre rifle at the ready.
There, he waited for the Queen and Philip and their royal parade to arrive before pointing the weapon out a window and firing it towards the monarch as her motorcade stopped outside the Otago Museum Reserve.
Thankfully, he was wide of the mark.
Witnesses who were present on that fateful day in 1981 told journalist Hamish McNeilly that they heard a loud shot ring out – but, incredibly, the cavalcade proceeded and the majority of the gathered throng were blissfully unaware.
The would-be assassin was arrested but never charged with trying to murder the Queen in broad daylight.
At the time, Kiwi officials told the media the loud bang was actually a falling sign or perhaps firecrackers going off – and there was no need for concern or alarm!
Fast-forward to 2018 and declassified secret documents released by New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service finally confirmed that the noise people heard was in fact an attempt on Her Majesty’s life, and that the police and government of the day colluded to cover it up.
The documents, according to Hamish, proved members of the public heard “what they took to be a shot” and that the police had played it down. Why? Out of embarrassment and fear, Hamish believes.
“They were worried that they would never get another royal tour,” the investigative journalist for news site Stuff explained in his five-part series The Snowman and the Queen: The story of a Kiwi terrorist and would-be assassin.
“They had no police officers on buildings, keeping an eye out for the Queen. Bear in mind this was the same year where there was an assassination attempt on [then-US president Ronald] Reagan,” the reporter says.
“They should have been on heightened alert, but that didn’t happen.”
Additionally, royal author Matthew Dennison writes in his new book The Queen: “Elizabeth herself may not have known what happened: New Zealand officials explained the distant sound of a gunshot as a falling council sign.”
According to Stuff, the secret files also concluded that the bullet likely “passed high above the crowd.”
Another memo read: “Lewis did indeed originally intend to assassinate the Queen” but “did not have a suitable vantage point from which to fire, nor a sufficiently high-powered rifle for the range”.
‘Don’t you ever breathe a word’
The government was accused of covering up the incident by ex-cop Tom Lewis in 1997. He told Stuff he doubted the full truth would ever emerge.
He also contends that Christopher Lewis’s statement had been destroyed, and police decided not to charge the disturbed teen because of orders from “up top”.
Murray Hanan, the perpetrator’s former lawyer, said, “The fact an attempted assassination of the Queen had taken place in New Zealand… it was too politically hot to handle.”
Lewis later claimed in his unpublished autobiography that he had been told in interrogation to never speak about the event, and that police had threatened him should he not comply.
“If I was ever to mention the events surrounding my interviews of the organisation… they would make sure I ‘suffered a fate worse than death’,” he wrote.
‘Damn… I missed’
It wouldn’t be the only time he’d attempt to take out a member of the royal family.
In 1983, he tried to escape from a psychiatric ward in an attempt to bump off Prince Charles, who was visiting with Princess Diana and an infant Prince William.
It is also believed that the police squirrelled him away on a paid-for beach holiday when the Queen returned for another tour in 1995, just to be safe!
Two years later, Lewis, 33, committed suicide in prison while awaiting trial for the murder of a young mother and the kidnapping of her child – but not before apparently making a shocking confession to his ex-partner.
According to Stuff, Lewis admitted to the attempted murder. “Damn,” he said. “Damn… I missed.”
Serve and protect
There’s an old saying in protection and security services: “The bad guy only has to get it right once.”
“You always try to stay ahead of the game but, in reality, you can control many factors but you can’t control what the bad guys are going to do,” former royal protection officer Simon Morgan tells Royals Monthly.
On top of that, identifying a potential risk isn’t always so straightforward.
Simon says, “For example, you have a crowd of 100 and 99 of them are waving flags and smiling but there’s one person who isn’t. You think, ‘Why isn’t this person enjoying it like everybody else? Is that someone here to do harm or are they just not understanding what’s going on?’ ”
An individual’s body language is also key to determining their probable intentions, the security expert explains: “You may think, ‘I’m not happy with this person. I’m going to have this person removed’. Or if the Queen is only a couple of feet away, you may have to put some mitigation in place to make sure this person can’t get near her or she can’t come near them.”
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