New Zealand’s intelligence agency has released documents confirming that a 17-year-old anti-royalist tried to assassinate the Queen during a visit to Dunedin in 1981 in a mysterious incident that has prompted a fresh police investigation into an alleged “cover up”.
The previously classified documents revealed that Christopher Lewis, a member of a right-wing terror group which he set up with friends, hid in a toilet cubicle on the fifth floor of a building overlooking the Royal Parade in Dunedin, a city on the South Island, on October 14 1981 and fired a single shot with a stolen .22 rifle as the Queen exited her vehicle.
The shot missed and may not have been aimed directly at the Queen, according to a 1997 memo by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.
“Lewis did indeed originally intend to assassinate the Queen, however did not have a suitable vantage point from which to fire, nor a sufficiently high-powered rifle for the range from the target,” said the memo, released after a freedom of information request by Fairfax Media.
“Although an anti-royalist, Lewis had absolutely no connections with any Irish republican groups.”
In an unexplained turn of affairs, police arrested Lewis but failed to charge him over the attempted assassination. Two of Lewis’s friends were also arrested.
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Lewis was later charged only with unlawful possession and discharge of a firearm.
He claimed to be in command of a shadowy group called the National Imperial Guerrilla Army, which included a higher-ranked figure called the Polar Bear and another called The Snowman who issued an order to “terrorise Dunedin”.
Intelligence officials investigated the claim, though police doubted the existence of the Polar Bear or The Snowman.
Lewis later told the police: "They are a figment of my imagination.”
The group was apparently an outfit that Lewis founded with two friends.
Adding to the intrigue, journalists and onlookers who heard the gunshot were told by authorities that it was caused by a falling street sign.
The lack of public comment about the assassination attempt has prompted speculation that authorities – under political pressure – tried to cover up the incident to avoid embarrassment during the royal visit and to ensure that future tours would not be jeopardised.
A memo in 1981 from the intelligence service stated: “Current police investigations into the shots have been conducted discreetly and most media representatives probably have the impression that the noise was caused by a firework of some description.”
It added: “There is a worry, however, that in court the press may make the connections between the date of the offence and the Queen’s visit.”
The memo, marked “Secret”, was titled “Possible Attempt on the Life of Queen Elizabeth II by National Imperial Guerrilla Army”.
The release of the documents have prompted police in New Zealand to launch an investigation into the handling of the incident.
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"Given the passage of time, it is anticipated this examination of the old file and its associated material will take some time,” a police spokesman said.
“NZ Police will share the outcome of this examination once it has been completed."
Allan Dick, a radio journalist in 1981, recalled a meeting with a senior detective who insisted no shots had been fired.
"We all left that meeting more mystified about what had happened," he told Fairfax Media.
"I have no doubt the matter was covered-up, the cops were embarrassed – they didn’t want the media to know and we got embarrassed that we allowed ourselves to be snowballed to such a degree."
The documents describe Lewis as a “severely disturbed” youth. He was sentenced to three years in prison over the firearm offences and was closely monitored during a visit by the Queen to New Zealand in 1986.
In 1996, Lewis was charged with the brutal murder of a woman in Auckland and the abduction of her baby daughter, who was left at a church.
Lewis, then 33, took his own life while awaiting trial in prison in 1997 and left a suicide note in which he denied committing the murder.