Aug 7, 2014 Schools
A distinguished principal and her husband repeatedly stole from a South Auckland school and then blew the cash on good times. What possessed them?
Photos: Stephen D’Antal.
In the spring of 2009, thieves kicked down a wall at Mayfield Primary School on Otara’s Pearl Baker Drive and made off with 12 computers. The school’s principal, Colleen Murray, leaned against a bench in the emptied IT room and posed for a newspaper photo. She wore a look of concern, gold bracelets and a rather smart black and white jacket. She told the paper, “The students’ learning is suffering because of people’s greed.”
But the principal also knew her students had sustained a separate series of thefts amounting to more than $30,000. The thief in this case was the principal herself, who had no need to kick down walls, though her approach was almost as simplistic. In 2006, with Bruce Gray, the man who had become her boyfriend the previous year, Colleen formed a business called Teach-Me. When the pair wanted some cash, they simply invoiced the school. Over two and a half years, big wads of seven grand here, 10 grand there, made their way via Teach-Me into Colleen’s bank accounts — paying off small credit-card debts, providing spending money on overseas trips and contributing to the spectacular personal grooming for which the principal was widely renowned.
“The Maggie Thatcher of South Auckland,” says Phillip Logo, a former chair of Mayfield’s board of trustees.
“A common thief,” said Judge Robert Ronayne at her sentencing in May.
Colleen and Bruce received 12 and 10 months’ home detention, respectively. She also got 150 hours’ community work.
The couple — now married — sat side by side. His hand was on her knee. She was 66 and, in two days’ time, he would be too. With their short grey hairstyles and smart clothes, they looked like the kind of well-heeled baby boomers you might see queuing for tickets at the film festival, yet they were both pleading guilty to stealing from a South Auckland school. “Repetitive, sustained, multiple offending,” said the judge. And to Colleen: “Cynical, hypocritical and mean offending by someone who well knew the challenges of the people in that community.”
Mayfield Primary is at the lowest point on the socio-economic scale — a decile 1A. Lower deciles are graded more finely with letters; A represents the very poorest. To the teachers who lobbied Colleen to start a breakfast programme but were told the school lacked the funds, $30,000 would have fed a lot of kids. The Grays didn’t appear to use the money in a life-changing way. “We know it wasn’t sitting in the bank,” said the judge. It was frittered.
Why did this driven woman — famously concerned with appearances — risk everything for a bit of shopping?
As a principal, Colleen had been distinguished. For more than 10 years, right up until the police investigation, she was on the national executive of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation — an elite group of 10 principals elected by their peers each year. As secretary of the group, Colleen was “exemplary”, says the current president, Phil Harding. “Very efficient, very focused, thumping away, getting everything down… She was immaculately presented, always beautifully groomed.”
Why did this driven woman — famously concerned with appearances — risk everything for a bit of shopping? Did the man she met halfway through her decade at Mayfield change her course? Apart from a few traffic offences on his part (mostly as a young man), both had clean records. Bruce had a logistics background. When they met, he was the director of a company called Kaizan Investments. They were two professionals, both pushing 60. Which of them first suggested that they rip off a school?
In the weeks leading up to sentencing, I attempted to interview Colleen but the closest I got to her was at the Auckland District Court. We shared an elevator. I was nervous about introducing myself — Colleen had a reputation for being brittle and not big on confiding. It was the morning of the sentencing, the prospect of prison still hung in the air and she looked extremely tense and drawn. Then, just as I was readying myself to speak, the elevator filled with Pink Floyd. Colleen Gray pulled out her phone and stalked off. Her text alert was the Pink Floyd song: “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone…”
Colleen Margaret Mildon grew up in Ohaupo, halfway between Hamilton and Te Awamutu. From the mid-1960s, she taught for 14 years at small rural schools in the Waikato region — Tirau, Ohaupo, Kihikihi, Korakonui. She married a man called Percy Lawn and they had two sons. Her second husband, Ron Murray, says Colleen never talked about her first marriage, except to say that she wanted to leave Te Awamutu, and Percy didn’t.
“Colleen always wanted to get on,” says Murray.
In 1980, Colleen moved with her younger son to live in Hastings and work at Flaxmere Primary School. Her older boy stayed behind with his dad, who later collapsed and died after running a marathon. By that time, Colleen was married to Murray. They had met through a mutual friend. “I just thought, ‘What a nice lady,’” recalls Murray, who is now aged 70 and working as a cashier in a service station. Their first date was dinner at Vidal’s in Hastings. Murray, a recent widower and single dad, enjoyed the company of the school teacher with the professionally blow-waved hair and acrylic nails. “She wasn’t like some of the teachers who are fairly sloppy Joe.”
A few years down the track, when that relationship ended, Colleen stayed for a few weeks with another Hawke’s Bay school teacher, Judith McInnes. They’d met in the late 1980s when Colleen was a counsellor with the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI, the teachers’ union) and McInnes, wanting assistance, visited her home.
The house was terribly smart and the woman who opened the door equally so in her grey dress and red belt, her hair rising high in the style of the decade. “She was like a little doll,” recalls McInnes. “A Barbie doll.”
McInnes’s new friend was fun, flirtatious, and ambitious. She broke through professional barriers for women in the Hawke’s Bay — first to join both the NZEI and NZPF, the principals’ federation — but greatly preferred the company of men. “She didn’t attract women.”
Colleen smoked cigarettes, had long red fingernails and small dogs. She read educational literature voraciously — though usually after McInnes had sent away for it and underlined the salient passages. Not long after she moved to Auckland in 2000, she gave the friendship the flick. “You’ve served your purpose and you no longer have anything to offer,” rasps McInnes, a former smoker; she also sounded like she was fighting back tears. Was she hurt by Colleen? McInnes regained her composure. “A mixture of hurt and just being a bit pissed off.”
When McInnes read in the newspaper that Colleen and her new husband, Bruce Gray, were accused of fraud, she was and wasn’t surprised. Colleen had always exhibited an ability to manipulate situations to her advantage. But McInnes never saw any dodgy behaviour around money — just that Colleen bought everything on a credit card and shopped a lot. “She was a flashy jewel in a very dull environment.”
That environment was Riverslea Primary in Hastings, which had a roll of about 50 kids — almost all of them Maori. Colleen was in her first principal’s role. “That kind of grooming — when you’re working in a low-decile school — is quite powerful,” says McInnes. “Because sometimes people don’t feel comfortable about approaching a Pakeha dressed like that, they’re in awe of you. Colleen was not one to jump up and join the kapa haka group — she was always that little bit apart.” McInnes concedes, “She did some good stuff for the school. Reorganised things. Got kohanga reo on the site. Some of her staff really liked her, some were ambivalent.”
“I got burned big time by Colleen,” says a teacher who was at Riverslea at the time. She remembers a staff culture of paranoia and fear, similar to the one Mayfield teachers would later describe in court. Colleen was “very domineering, very manipulative”, says the teacher, describing an event that, with its dishonesty and invention of documents, foreshadowed the Mayfield crimes. Colleen, she says, spread the word that she had received letters of complaint about her from parents — letters which later proved to be a fiction. “She did things for her own means — invented those letters and just about ruined my career.”
But at the Rotary Club and the NZPF, Colleen was a hit. Ian Holford, a fellow Rotarian and principal in the region, recalls: “She was social, she was a worker, you could rely on her pulling her weight… When she went to Auckland, I thought she’d rise to the challenge. It surprises me that things turned to custard.”
Many applied for the role of principal of Mayfield Primary but the immaculate Colleen Murray from Hawke’s Bay made the best impression. On all, that is, except Tipi Arthur, who was chair of the school’s board as well as the local community cop. The applicants had been scaled down to a shortlist of three when Arthur received an anonymous call from Hawke’s Bay. The caller identified himself only as a kaumatua. “He said, ‘You have Colleen Murray coming up for an interview. Don’t employ her at your school.’”
Says Arthur, “To be honest, I’d already made up my mind that she wasn’t the one for my school. It wasn’t because she was white. It was… nothing she said in the interview process indicated to me that she had a great passion for kids.”
But the principal was headed north. “I remember her saying, ‘Auckland’s just so cosmopolitan, so many opportunities,’” says McInnes. “Colleen was always looking for something.”
The current principal of Mayfield, Wayne MacGillivray, has groomed facial hair, tattooed forearms and a take-no-prisoners handshake. Mayfield has been healing in the wake of Colleen, he says, and it’s time to look forward. The day I visit the school, the sentencing is coming up and MacGillivray’s worried that Mayfield will be portrayed in the media as a sad low-decile victim. “People do the South Auckland-wide sweep but every school has its own particular flavour and character.”
He doesn’t deny there’s hardship at his school. “Some parents are doing multiple jobs and they’re still not breaking even. That is hard to see but, you know, those are people of integrity, doing the best by their families. My feeling is that our parents will do anything for their kids. As a principal, it just affirms that you should be in a service role.”
We dash through torrential rain to the school’s “technology suite” where Colleen once posed and where MacGillivray is hoping to splash out, if the court orders reparation from the Grays. “There needs to be a recording studio.” A lot of the kids at the school have a church background and music is huge. “A few of our older boys who you would typically term as ‘naughty boys’ have a bit of a multi-harmony thing going on,” says MacGillivray. “I’d like to get rid of these benches, get some nice kidney-shaped tables, a bit of a kitchenette…”
Driving home through Otara, I thought about Colleen arriving at Mayfield. The school roll was 10 times that of Riverslea and the ethnic makeup different — predominantly Pacific Island, with English as a second language common. MacGillivray, Logo and Arthur all described a community that was tight and proud. When it came to positions of authority, familiar faces were valued. Mayfield had two long-standing and adored deputy principals — Dubs Rae (who is still there) and Jill Evans (who left under Colleen’s reign). Many were disappointed that neither of them had been appointed principal. What sort of welcome did the flashy jewel who “held herself apart” receive?
Phillip Logo, a social worker, was chair of the board from 2005 to 2007. In court, he was a powerful voice for Mayfield. In person, he’s gentle and measured and prepared to agree that Colleen started out with good intentions. “I’d give it to her. A lot of people saw her get there early and leave late.” Did people appreciate what she was doing for the school? “No, because all the negative stuff outweighed that.”
Education is about relationships, he says. Colleen alienated her staff and kept the board in the dark, exploiting their financial naivety. And with the students? “She looked a bit awkward… You wouldn’t see Colleen out at playtime.”
Did she have allies on the staff? “A lot were very unhappy but I can’t think of any who were her allies,” says Logo. “It would have been quite a tough and lonely existence for her.”
Colleen rented her first home in Auckland with a woman who had once been Judith McInnes’s podiatrist. This woman was very pleasant on the phone until I mentioned Colleen’s name and she got agitated. “She really did the dirty on me with money and stuff — it was to do with living arrangements. She hurt me badly — financially and emotionally. I’m not surprised that she’s been [convicted]. I’m not pleased about it. I don’t care.” She hung up.
However grim her personal and professional life may have been, Colleen continued to excel at her great skill: keeping up appearances. Visitors to the school recall being struck by pretty details such as bouquets of flowers in the staff toilets. Mayfield teachers commented on the disparity between the attractive reception rooms and the “bombed-out, under-resourced shelters” that were the classrooms. Before Helen Clark dropped by, a teacher says, Colleen had the students out gardening. And of course her personal presentation, says a fellow Auckland principal, was “absolutely immaculate… Most of us make an effort for conferences and things, but she was like that every day.”
She recalls a conference where Colleen, who usually attended the evening events alone, showed up with a date. The night had a 20s theme and Colleen was with a tall man cutting a dash as Jay Gatsby. “People were saying, ‘Who’s she with?’ He really played the game and looked beautiful in his striped jacket, prancing around the place. He stood out — that’s why we noticed him.”
Colleen had met Bruce in 2005, the year before her offending began. Some of her smaller crimes involved buying personal items — flowers, restaurant meals, groceries, Koru Club parking and outdoor garden lights — on her school credit card and then, in an audacious move we’ll call the Colleen-triple-dip, also claiming expenses on those items. In the first year of their relationship, there was much whisking of her boyfriend away on trips — to Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane — on Mayfield’s dime. This was written off as “professional development”, but Bruce Gray had nothing to do with education. At least, not initially. In 2006, the pair formed their educational recruitment company Teach-Me, and it was via this nebulous little enterprise that most of the truly gob-smacking stealing from Mayfield occurred.
Their method was simple. Teachers who take on extra work are paid a bonus by the school from funds provided by the Ministry of Education. However, Bruce and Colleen claimed that they were paying teachers these bonuses through their own companies, which in turn would invoice the school. To explain the stream of money in their direction, they kept bogus payment records. They used the names of teachers who’d already been paid by the ministry for their extra units, teachers who had not done extra units, teachers who no longer worked at the school and — as time wore on — teachers who didn’t exist. Fictional character N Kirton received $3750, his imaginary friend J Read the same amount. Another $1875 went to a creation by the name of Sharma Lal. A real teacher at the school, Sunita Lal, received nothing, although her name was also used on an invoice for $3973.50.
Was this a case of a lonely workaholic losing her head in a romantic whirl with a crook? The police officer in charge of the Grays’ file, Dave Fransham, says he’s wondered, too. Colleen didn’t have an avenue for the bigger frauds, until she met Bruce. Fransham says one Mayfield teacher described a change in her personality when he entered her life — a hardening and an arrogance. To me, Bruce was described variously as a good-natured guy and a repellent creep. But whether he brought a criminal influence is hard to gauge because the year he met Colleen, 2005, is also the year the investigation started. Police didn’t examine Colleen’s first five years at the school.
“We decided to draw a line in the sand,” says Fransham. “We were expecting it to be a jury trial and we didn’t want to confuse the issue.” For this reason also, they dropped many charges involving “hundreds” of questionable expense claims made by Colleen and approved by her secretary, who was never able to examine what she was signing. Only the triple-dip ones were pursued.
Police also investigated Colleen’s claim that almost $1000 was stolen from her car after a school fundraiser, but police ultimately couldn’t prove that she had any involvement. Logo and a former Mayfield teacher say thefts from Colleen’s car after such events occurred two years running. Wads of cash left in a car in an area notorious for vehicle break-ins — twice?
At the very least the principal was guilty of running a school with shonky, amateurish treasury systems. In fact, when it came to her major offending, says Fransham, she relied on them.
“I think she thought she was operating a confederacy of dunces,” says former Mayfield teacher Robin Taylor-Lyons. “And we were the dunces.” Taylor-Lyons had been at Mayfield less than six months when Colleen called her into her office, shut the door and offered her extra management units. The payment could be through Colleen’s partner’s company, tax free, she said. “It was almost surreal. She sat me down in the nice fluffy chairs and offered me a deal under the table. She said, ‘Think about it overnight.’”
Taylor-Lyons declined the offer, but Teach-Me still invoiced the school $1875, on behalf of a supposed payment to R Taylor-Lyons, and the Grays pocketed the cash.
Staff morale was at an all-time low when Colleen decided to throw a staff Christmas party at the Pakuranga house she now shared with Bruce. “Colleen talked about ‘the east wing and the west wing’ of the house,” recalls one teacher. “It was a small house, there were no freaking wings!” Bruce made his touchy-feely way around certain women in the group. “He was very inappropriate.”
Colleen, too, was beginning to teeter on the edge of propriety. Logo cups his hands in front of his chest to illustrate her accentuated cleavage, which was offending some church-going parents. A teacher says, “She would wear white pants with — I’ll be quite honest — a visible G-string. Hot pink. I mean, you’re not going on a hot date.”
In 2008, during a routine audit of the school by PricewaterhouseCoopers, questions were raised about Teach-Me. In response, Colleen committed her most serious crime. She produced two forged documents supposedly bearing the signatures of former Mayfield teacher Andrea Craig and the fictitious Sharma Lal. “She would have to have been a little naive to think an auditor wasn’t going to dig any deeper,” says Fransham.
As the investigation continued, a temporary statutory manager was put in place to work alongside Colleen. Now, joining the staff’s discontent, there was a brewing sense of rage among parents. They knew nothing of the major fraud but had heard rumours about the principal’s misuse of her credit card. There were her frequent trips overseas, an incessant staff turnover. Former deputy Jill Evans’ resignation was felt as a huge, grievous loss; Logo believes she was “systematically bullied out of the school” by Colleen. “We were so incensed,” says Arthur.
Colleen agreed to a meeting for parents at the school marae. “Once the word got going, there was an overwhelming response,” says Arthur. “The place was jam-packed. Parents outside wanting to get in. Close to one hundred people, screaming comments. They wanted to know about the credit cards she was using.
And why did Jill Evans go? Why was the morale of the school so low?
“The questions were always answered by the statutory manager. We said, ‘We don’t want to hear from you, we want to hear from her!’”
The marae at night, 100 furious parents… How did the principal seem? “Very, very confident. Really extremely confident. We were always looking for some sign of remorse,” says Arthur. “That is the trigger for Maori and Polynesian forgiveness. Colleen never said a word.”
Within months, Colleen had left Mayfield under a private agreement with the school. About this time, Ron Murray was summoned to Auckland to quickly sign divorce papers so that Colleen and Bruce could marry. He understood they had plans to move to Dubai and that this entailed their marriage. The Dubai plan was possibly stymied by the fact that, by 2010, the investigation had passed into the hands of the police and there was a border alert on the Grays — though they wouldn’t be arrested until 2012.
“Having to say ‘guilty’ those 11 times. That’s basically her whole life crashing down around her. She looked like a broken woman.”
Meanwhile, the Grays moved into a downtown apartment, started a telecommunications company called Kingfisher Connexions and became popular members of the Takapuna branch of Business over Breakfast (BoB). It’s a networking group for positive-thinking, like-minded entrepreneurial types. Some BoB members noticed that Bruce seemed “prickly — not someone you’d want to cross”, but Colleen showed her usual nous for networking in useful circles, inviting BoB members to dinner and giving no hint that she was under stress. “They seemed like the type of people that Kiwis respect — innovative, leaning in, forward thinking,” says BoB member Wendy McKenzie. “I like it when couples like each other — they were really positive about each other.”
When the pair were finally taken into the Manukau police station and arrested at the end of 2012, Bruce’s demeanour was quite arrogant, Fransham says. “Colleen seemed more scared and timid — yeah.” Their responses to the long list of charges were identical. “No comment, no comment, no comment.”
They were more forthcoming with media, posing together for the New Zealand Herald, Colleen vowing, “We are completely innocent. We have nothing to hide. We will fight these charges.”
How, when their records were so helplessly, obviously rubbish? “I don’t know how they were going to try and fight this,” says Fransham.
Was the immaculate façade of Colleen Gray so polished that she believed it too? “I’ve thought about it,” says Fransham. “I think she wasn’t prepared to admit to herself that what she’d done was wrong.
“It was a lot easier for her to deny it than to turn around and admit that she’s been lying to the media and all of her family and all of her friends.”
Colleen started the trial wearing what a former Mayfield teacher describes as her usual “perma-grin”. But lying to Judge Ronayne, who added some incisive questions of his own to those of the crown prosecutor, proved difficult.
After just two days, the Grays’ lawyer, John Tannahill, announced that his clients would be changing their plea to guilty. The grin was gone. “Having to say ‘guilty’ those 11 times. That’s basically her whole life crashing down around her,” says Fransham. “She looked like a broken woman.”
Two months later, at the sentencing, Colleen and Bruce appeared to have changed their minds. They weren’t guilty — not exactly. Just confused. The judge skimmed through the letters the Grays had written him. Colleen claimed her offending was the result of “disorganisation” and Bruce lamented not having “asked more questions” about the invoicing.
By pleading guilty (and potentially reducing their sentence) but denying guilt, the Grays appeared to want it both ways. The judge wasn’t buying it. “This was not a bugger’s muddle,” he said. “This involved forethought, the creation of paper work, insertion of detail, the hiding of transactions, bare-faced lies.”
Tannahill had arrived at court with a $25,000 cheque from the Grays for Mayfield.
“Why is it not $27,000?” asked Judge Ronayne.
“Well, according to Mrs Gray’s calculations…”
“I don’t care about Mrs Gray’s calculations! Do the couple own a property?”
“No, Your Honour. And in fact to obtain this money they had to…”
“I’m not going to have Mayfield School chiselled out of $2000,” said the judge. “This couple have given every indication that they’re dishonest. That’s why I want to see the money, $2001 and however many cents… It will probably make the difference between prison or not.”
While the court waited, Tannahill and Bruce ran down to the bank to get another cheque. There was a chuckle in the corner from Joe Iosefo, a grandfather and former Mayfield parent there to represent the community.
It felt fitting that the school’s presence was reduced to one small man with a beard halfway down his chest and a kind face, sitting alone in the corner. In the minds of the two criminals, Mayfield didn’t seem to feature. “There is not one mention of the school or the board of trustees,” marvelled the judge about the letter he received from Mrs Gray. “She wrote that she was deeply humiliated by the prosecution process… Her so-called remorse, in my view, is self-serving. It is remorse for her own situation.”
Clever, manipulative Colleen, striving to convince a judge of her remorse, forgot to mention her victims.
The school. The board. The confederacy of dunces.
The judge said, “Mrs Gray and Mr Gray, in my view, humiliated the school.”
Outside the court, Iosefo was looking forward to getting back to Otara and calling a community meeting. “We’ve been waiting so long.” He wondered what the Grays would be doing that night before they got their home detention anklets in the morning. “I bet you they’ve gone to a hotel on Ponsonby Rd. I’d love to know which one. I’d love to walk in there and say, ‘Hey!’”
Tannahill was holding a cab for his clients. The unbelievable Mr and Mrs Gray exited the building and scuttled to the car. It was dusk on Albert St. Two crooked lovers vanished into the city lights, heading any way but south.