The mysterious death of a Wellington bachelor

by Denis Welch / 05 August, 2019
Norrie Triggs, a 51-year-old bachelor living on his own, was widely assumed to be gay, but that was far from the truth.

Norrie Triggs, a 51-year-old bachelor living on his own, was widely assumed to be gay, but that was far from the truth.

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When quiet, likeable Wellington bachelor Norrie Triggs was killed in 1994, there were sensational revelations about his sex life, but his death remains a whodunnit mystery.

It would be fair to say that when Norrie Triggs was found bashed to death in his Wellington flat two months ago, most people around the town assumed that he must have been gay. A 51-year-old bachelor, living alone in a bedsit, who frequented pubs and clubs? It had all the hallmarks of a homosexual crime passionnel. And Wellingtonians should know: after all, it’s they who have raised the art of jumping to conclusions to the level of an Olympic sport. At about the same time, many were dining out on the rumour that Eugene and Gene Thomas – the father and son gunned down in their business offices on The Terrace – had been executed by a Mafia hitman because of Eugene’s “Sicilian connections”.

It turned out, of course, that the Thomases had had nothing to do with Sicily or the Mafia; similarly, the police swiftly established that whatever Triggs was, he wasn’t gay. Quite the opposite. Among his few possessions they found a battered old address book containing 980 names – all but 30 of them female – going back to the 1960s. There was also a separate list of women’s names without either addresses or telephone numbers. It looked pretty much like a list of sexual conquests. Further inquiries confirmed that there were hundreds of women around who at one time or another had had a relationship, however brief, with Triggs. Suddenly he was in a new league: up there with the great heterosexual lovers of history, an Antipodean Don Juan. The tongues wagged again.

What particularly fascinated people, as revelations about his lifestyle unfolded, was the contrast between the public man – mild-mannered, quietly spoken, his very name the epitome of normality – and the apparently insatiable private sex life he led. By day a deskbound computer programmer at the Public Trust Office … by night so given to flitting around after women that a friend had nicknamed him The Moth. (“He used to do the rounds tapping on windowpanes till he found one of his lady friends who was ready to entertain him,” explains Hugh MacRae, a detective involved in the case.) It was not so much that he would get his way every time – he certainly had his share of rebuffs – as that he kept coming back till he did.

Then there was this: whereas Don Juan left plenty of broken hearts behind him, the remarkable thing about Triggs’ sex life was the lack of collateral damage. His women, says MacRae, were of all ages and types – “and none of them, and we’ve spoken to a lot who say they’ve had affairs with Norrie and to a lot who say they were friends of Norrie and went out with him but didn’t have a sexual relationship with him – not one of them has an unkind word to say about him”.

Some would call Triggs an old-fashioned male chauvinist, with his love-’em-and-leave-’em approach; and certainly eyebrows go up when you learn that he never cared much for contraception and that he fathered six children by different women without ever apparently feeling the need to involve himself in their upbringing. Against that are the encomiums on all sides, from women and men, about his basic decency and likeability. As far as can be established, the man had no dark secrets, no jealous rivals, no bitter enemies. It would be generalising wildly to say that he hurt no one in his rake’s progress through life, but by all accounts he was genuinely well liked, with a charm for women.

Which leaves us with one burning question about his life: who ended it so abruptly, and why? Triggs was what his old friend Kerry Green calls a professional bachelor, with certain ingrained habits so distinctive as to be eccentric. He collected hundreds of parking tickets, for instance. (The police found 13 piles of them in his flat.) He paid up, but that was the price of a private game he played, always trying to outwit the meter wardens. At the Public Trust, you could set your watch by him, as several times a day he went out to feed the meter and sit in the car and smoke while listening to the news on the hour.

Triggs’ address book: all but 30 of the 980 entries are for women.

Triggs’ address book: all but 30 of the 980 entries are for women.

Mr Fixit

Triggs was a fixer, in the most practical sense of the word. “He loved fixing things,” recalls his sister, Judi Schwass. “Whenever he turned up at anyone’s place, he’d fix anything that needed fixing.” Green confirms this, recalling the time when Triggs took a car engine apart, spreading thousands of parts on the garage floor, and put it back together again with the worn parts replaced. When he came to stay, he would even fix the kids’ toys.

It was this aptitude that landed him the Public Trust job – probably the most satisfying of his life. Born and raised in Napier, he never had a settled career until, in his early forties, he got into computers. While working for a chainsaw firm, he discovered a flair for tinkering with data systems that led, four years ago, to his appointment as senior programmer with the Public Trust. Peter Rahr, head of information services at the trust, can’t speak highly enough of Triggs, describing him as very professional and meticulous in his work. He had no idea of the extent of his late employee’s sex life.

Secretary Lynda McGlinchey echoes Rahr’s praise and recalls Triggs’ penchant for wordplay and practical jokes. “He was a really nice all-round guy. I don’t know if he’d be someone I’d take my problems to, but if you talked to him, he’d listen. You felt like you could talk to him about anything.” Like most people, she knew that Triggs was something of a ladies’ man, but the posthumous news of his wanderings around the windowpanes of Wellington was a revelation to her.

Triggs worked hard at the trust, often coming in at weekends, worried perhaps about being overtaken by a younger generation of computer aces. Ironically, in view of his pub habit, he rarely joined other staff at Friday night drinks. Nor was he much interested in politics or sport, though he sometimes played what a friend calls “non-serious” golf. (“He had a way of strolling up to the golf ball and hitting it on the run,” recalls Rahr.) His one obvious vice, if it can be called that, was Lotto: having programmed the Public Trust computer to analyse the weekly draws, he developed a system that saw him shelling out at least $40 a week on tickets. But he never, it seems, won more than minor prizes.

Detective Hugh MacRae: “My impression is that he was a man who didn’t really like where he had ended up. He was not a happy man.”

All in all, the picture of Triggs by day is of a laid-back, good-humoured type who could be extremely loyal to friends, but scathingly sarcastic about people he didn’t take to. There was a touch of aloofness and arrogance about him, but no macho brag or swagger. He was very much what you might call a quiet achiever.

Then there was Norrie by night. For a start, he ate out every evening, usually at a pub such as the Loaded Hog, just off Willis St. He had been going there for five years and made a point of always eating the same meal (steak and vegetables) at the same table. Pointing to the table, Loaded Hog manager Sarah Tansley says: “Whether there was a whole crowd of people sitting there or not, he’d still sit there.” Other pubs and clubs around town knew him well, and all testify to his unassuming manner and regular habits.

As for alcohol, he would spend hours at a time in the pub, back to the wall, watching the action, drinking draught beer or whisky and smoking steadily. Bars are not allowed to serve quadruples of spirits, but he would get around that by ordering two doubles and pouring them into one glass. No one ever knew him drunk, however; nor was he necessarily a brooding loner in the corner. He would often be seen with companions, usually male, and always carried plenty of cash. But he came and went alone.

“That was a characteristic of Norrie,” says MacRae, who seems to have taken a liking to this man he never knew. “You never saw Norrie come and you never saw Norrie go; but he was there. You never saw him drunk; but he used to drink. He was an unusual fellow who almost seemed to live two lives … you never see a moth coming, do you?”

There were other contradictions. He was always neatly dressed, but seemed to take a perverse pride in the appalling appearance of his car, a dark green Mitsubishi Sigma. “Norrie ran around in a bloody old heap,” says MacRae bluntly. “It was a rusty junkbox. The upholstery was dirty, it had done a lot of service. Yet, you opened the bonnet and everything was in its place. You opened the boot and Norrie’s tools were all tidy and in place. They were all in honeypots – small pliers, big pliers, electrical components, ring spanners, jack, cans of beer, too. All in old honeypots.”

Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

What would Sigmund say?

No doubt there is a tremendous amount of Freudian symbolism there, but, for all his qualities, it is still hard to see why so many women welcomed Triggs into their beds. What, to coin a phrase, was the secret of his sexual success? Green has a go at explaining.

“He was very gentle in his approach, he just started talking to women. If they were with a guy, he would never ever interrupt and cause a problem. If there was a problem, he’d just back off. He would back off from a woman married or in a relationship, too. He said you’ve got to be careful about that, because you might end up owning it [the problem]. He was not a lounge lizard; there was no public bar stuff with Norrie. He was chivalrous, gallant, he opened doors.”

A woman friend of long standing, who saw him just a few days before he died, remembers his gentleness and understanding. “He was an old-fashioned man in the way he dealt with women. Just his general way of treating a woman with a lot of respect, a terrific amount of respect. He was great company.”

So, why did he never make a long-term commitment – that is, do the ultimate old-fashioned thing and get married? Once or twice, the friend recalls, he might have come close, but the argument he used against it was even more old-fashioned. He could never, he said, “earn enough money to keep a woman in the way that she should be kept”.

Things seemed to change for Norrie Triggs in the last year and a half of his life. Up until then, he had tended to share flats with others, but in late 1992, he ran into Margaret Galvin, an old friend who had a converted garage flat to let in Sandhurst Way, Chartwell – an outlying suburb whose streets are named after aspects of Winston Churchill’s life. From this house Galvin, 50, has for some years run a home-help/nurse-aide service. The flat was poky and concrete-lined, but the rent was cheap and Triggs had been chafing for some time at the responsibility of having his name on the lease at his previous flat, so he moved in. He used it strictly as a crash pad, however, hardly ever receiving visitors or taking calls – which in any case was awkward, because the only phone in the house was upstairs, via an internal staircase, in the part of the house occupied by Galvin. He never ate in, of course; there were no cooking facilities, nor would he have used them if there were. “He could do anything except cook,” says Green. “He couldn’t even make a cup of bloody coffee.”

In the two weeks before his death, Triggs took a rare spot of leave from the Public Trust. He doesn’t seem to have gone far; he was never one for exotic holidays. He went up to Napier at the end of January to see his sister and 85-year-old stepfather, but headed back south again on Tuesday, February 1, stopping in Waikanae to visit Green. The next day, troubled by a severe migraine, he went to see his doctor; an appointment was made for a brain scan at the hospital the day after that, but he never showed up for it. This was not atypical. According to Green, Triggs hated doctors and preferred his own method of treatment for any ailments, namely, a couple of aspirin and a good night’s sleep.

Severe migraine or not, he resumed his usual Wellington round, spending most of Wednesday night at the Loaded Hog and being seen at Shed 5 on the waterfront the following night. When he walked into the midcity Dada bar at about 6pm on Friday, February 4, he was a familiar sight to bartender Jay Hirst, who had not only often served him there but also waited on him many a time at Pierre’s restaurant in Thorndon (another of Hirst’s regulars there was Gene Thomas).

This time, however, Triggs was not alone: he was with a woman of about 50 who, unusually for a woman in his company, ordered the drinks and paid for them herself, pulling cash straight from her handbag. She got wine for herself and Coke and cloves for Triggs, presumably because he was still suffering from the migraine. They then sat down and nursed their drinks for a long time at a window table.

Triggs’ last sighting was at 1990s Wellington’s fashionable Opera Bar.

Triggs’ last sighting was at 1990s Wellington’s fashionable Opera Bar.

“She was a bit hard-faced”

Hirst did not form a favourable impression of Triggs’s companion, who seemed to be giving him some sort of lecture. “I thought it was his wife,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Poor guy, no wonder he usually comes out with his workmates.’ She was a bit hard-faced. She did the ordering and butted in for him when he tried to do it.” When the pair left, Triggs seemed subdued. Despite repeated appeals from the police, the woman has not come forward, so whatever story she has to tell about Triggs’ state of mind that night remains untold.

Triggs was sighted in three other places that night – buying Lotto tickets at a Lambton Quay shop early in the evening; drinking at another bar mid-evening; and walking alone into a downtown service station at about 12.20am to buy cigarettes. None of these sightings, however, appears to provide any clues to his fate later that night. The last definite public sighting occurred at about 1am at the Opera, a fashionable restaurant/bar near Downstage Theatre in Courtenay Place. He was seen drinking and watching the action from his usual spot, a small table against the wall. The next the world knew of him was when his landlady called the police three days later to say she had found him dead in his flat.

When the police got there, they found Triggs sitting on the floor, slumped up against a chair in dressing-gown and underpants, his head back over the armrest. He had been severely beaten about the head and down one side of his body – with what, they still aren’t sure – and had died of a brain haemorrhage that took two and a half days to kill him. The pathological evidence indicates that he received the beating in the early hours of Saturday morning – that is, after coming home from the Opera – but survived through the weekend before dying sometime late on Monday afternoon.

“During the early part of his demise, he would have been quite capable of moving around and doing all sorts of things,” says Hugh MacRae. “He might have had quite a headache, but he’d been complaining several days before of having severe headaches, so he may not have been able to tell the difference.” Had he sought medical help, Triggs might be alive today. By the Sunday morning, however, he was probably in a coma, so that when the landlady says that she heard him snoring at about 2pm on the Monday, he may have been close to breathing his last. It was a lonely, drawn-out death for such a gregarious man.

Two things struck the police straight away when they arrived at the scene of the crime. One was the state of the flat. It was extremely untidy, not to say chaotic. Though Triggs had been living there for 17 months, he had never fully unpacked. The place was strewn with suitcases, boxes and bags, not to mention a motor mower and a rubbish bin. A pile of records spilled out across the floor, but there was nothing to play them on: the stereo had never been assembled. There was only one book (Murray Ball’s The Sisterhood), one magazine and a couple of papers; no TV set, just a small radio. About all he had in the way of supplies was bread, butter, jam and tea, but even the tea packet had to share bench space with a container of gorse spray. This was the man who was always tidying up in the flats he had shared with others.

The other significant point was the disposition of the body. It was clear, says MacRae, that someone had propped it up against the chair. “It was a totally unnatural position for a collapsed body to be in – the way the ankles were crossed, the way the hands were, the way the dressing-gown was folded across to cover the genitals. There were also marks on the dressing-gown that clearly showed that he had to have been moved. On the lapels it was quite obvious that he’d been grasped, and forensic evidence confirms that.” It seemed on the face of it to be a classic whodunit, possibly involving two different people. After officers had swarmed over the house for several days gathering evidence, and the investigation had widened to the point where up to 30 detectives were on the Triggs trail, the police came up with the following likely scenario:

A woman came back to the flat with Triggs, or joined him after he got home, and had sex with him.

She left, and shortly afterwards somebody laid into Triggs in what was probably a fit of jealousy but not an intentionally murderous one.

After he died, somebody entered the flat, arranged his body and tried to tidy up a little – a bloodstained cloth, for instance, was found folded over a towel rail.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with this scenario, as the police would probably be the first to admit. For one thing, Triggs never took women back to his flat. It was his way of making sure that they didn’t get too close. He always went to their places or booked into a downtown hotel.

Then there is the question of who would have been jealous enough to attack him. A partner, perhaps, of the woman Triggs had had sex with – someone who knew where she had gone and followed her there? But, what with the woman first, and then her partner, there must have been quite a coming and going in Sandhurst Way that night, and neighbours have told police that they didn’t hear any unusual vehicle movements.

A question must also be raised as to whether or not there was a woman visitor at all. “We have this information that very strongly suggests to us that there was another person involved in a sexual capacity – in other words, a woman,” says MacRae. He won’t say what that information is, however, nor can he say with absolute certainty that the woman was there on that particular night. The sexual encounter may well have taken place days or weeks before.

Finally, the identity of the person who tidied up. There are echoes here of the “Who changed the baby’s nappies?” mystery in that other Thomas case – the Arthur Allan one. Would the jealous rival, who presumably fled into the night after bashing Triggs, return later to fold the victim’s hands and cross his ankles? It hardly seems credible. The police interviewed Margaret Galvin who, as Triggs’ landlady, was probably the person best placed to see or hear something, but nothing emerged from her statement to throw any further light on what happened.

The poky flat where Triggs’ body was found by his landlady, Margaret Galvin.

The poky flat where Triggs’ body was found by his landlady, Margaret Galvin.

No hint of trouble

Did Triggs know he was in danger? Were things building to some sort of crisis in his life? His sister and Kerry Green say he seemed perfectly normal a few days before, but then there was the onset of migraines, the behaviour of his mysterious companion in the Dada bar … and another mystery. Says a friend: “One of the most puzzling things to myself and his regular group of friends is that he didn’t make contact with any of us after getting back to Wellington. I thought he must still have been away. I expected him to be enough of a creature of habit to get in touch.”

Above all, why would he break the habit of never taking a woman home? That was not The Moth’s way at all. Maybe he no longer felt that it mattered, as he had been meaning to move out of Sandhurst Way any day: friends say he was tired of flatting and wanted somewhere better to live. He had never intended to stay there long anyway, which appears to explain why he hadn’t unpacked: to do so would have been to make a commitment to the place.

“My impression is that he was a man who didn’t really like where he had ended up,” says MacRae. “He wasn’t a happy man.”

So the case rests. The investigation has been scaled down, and the police are playing a waiting game. They have got their list of suspects down to a “pretty narrow range of people”, but, without enough evidence to lay charges, they must rely on the pressure of time to do its work … someone’s guilty conscience shifting them just that little bit closer to confession.

Ironically, all the headlines are not what the intensely private Norrie Triggs would have cared for at all. He would have been appalled, says his sister, at the amount of publicity he has received.

No one has ever been charged over the death of Norrie Triggs. Anyone with information that might help police find his attacker can call Crimestoppers free on 0800 555 111.

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