On the evening of October 4, 1999, a Land Rover burst into flames in a farm paddock in Dunsandel, near Christchurch. Inside was Jill Thomas - former schoolteacher and the second wife of Kevin Harmer, Regional Manger at Selwyn District Council and Perendale sheep farmer.
At the time Jill's death was considered a tragic accident, but two years on and after two trials Kevin Harmer was found guilty of murdering her. And why had he done it? Sex - said the Crown. Harmer had fallen in love with a Wellington prostitute named Penny who is now the third Mrs Harmer.
Late last year Harmer's case was brought to the attention of The Investigator's writer and presenter Bryan Bruce.
So Bruce visited Harmer in jail and had an off the record conversation with him.

Like many of the convicted murderers he had met he was a thoroughly pleasant man. "He looks and sounds like your typical Canterbury farmer bloke - except these days he's wearing an orange jumpsuit," says Bruce. " I found him very co-operative, he welcomed my independent inquiry into his case and gave me free access to all his files.
"I found it curious that the police originally believed Jill's death was an accident and then, on the same physical evidence, decided a year later that it was murder," says Bruce; "what had changed?"

What had changed was that, some months after the fire, two of the firemen who had been at the call-out to the scene went to a Conference where the guest speaker was Dr John De Hann - an American forensic fire expert. After his talk the firemen went up to De Hann and showed him some photographs of the Harmer Land Rover fire.

"It was the moment the Harmer investigation turned," says Bruce. "Because shortly after that meeting the two fire officers filed reports with the police alerting them to the possibility that Jill's death might not have been an accident after all."
In this episode of The Investigator, Bruce systematically unpacks Kevin Harmer's statement of what happened on the Harmer farm the night Jill Thomas died, and the events that led to his eventual arrest and conviction.
Harmer said he had put 20 litres of petrol in the passenger foot-well of the farm's Land Rover. He'd put another 20 litre container full of diesel on the passenger seat and on the vehicle's tray just behind the driver's side of the cab was another 10 litres of petrol.

He said he had purchased the additional fuel that afternoon for use in their farm machinery. It was just laziness that he hadn't taken the fuel out of the cab at the implement shed before Jill drove the vehicle around the farm that night.
After having tea on the fateful night, Jill drove the Land Rover while Kevin Harmer checked for cast ewes and picked up dead lambs.
Harmer claimed that after slowly driving around the farm for about 40 minutes, checking for cast ewes and picking up dead lambs, his wife got out of the cab to pick up some rubbish. He said in his statement that he was walking ahead of her at that time to open a gate.
A that point he said he heard Jill get back in the truck and seconds later heard something that sounded like a gas fired barbeque being lit. He said he turned around and saw the cab full of flames.


"Everything rests on establishing the truth of what he said," says Bruce. "And much of that, it seemed to me could be tested. Do plastic petrol containers explode when you put a match to them? Would Jill have been able to drive around in a cab full of petrol fumes?"
"So I spoke to a whole lot of experts from forensic fire experts to a toxicologist at our own National Poisons Centre in Dunedin. And while that was all very interesting and told me a lot, in the end I felt compelled to get two old Land Rover's - fill them with 20 litre petrol and diesel containers just as Kevin Harmer said he did, and set them on fire to see what would happen."

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