Inside the four lines of security camera frames, fragments of Denver Chance’s life play out. The 43-year-old enters a clothes store to buy a pair of black pants, drives his red Skyline down a highway, stops at a garage near Jay Lingman’s house, then moves right, onto the road, and out of the frame.
Inside the courtroom, Lingman sometimes tilts his head down and to the left, sometimes looking pitiful but often just looking irritated. When accused of lying, he looks disgusted, his mouth forms a crescent, lips protrude and nostrils flare. Lingman seems fatter, paler, less hirsute than when he first appeared here two years ago. He’s at the High Court in Auckland now where the collision of two lives is dissected in a murder trial that partly sounds like a lesson in the illegal drug trade.
Lingman appears on the same floor as the Red Fox Tavern cold case murder trial. So mention the Chance case, and you might be told: “Oh, the guy in the freezer. The guy who got chopped up.”
Chance’s loved ones speak of a placid, kind, disciplined man. Discipline would be essential for Chance to evade scrutiny if he did navigate a dangerous and secret world, but there’s no agreement how deep he was in the drug business.
“To the contrary, everything he did as far as I was aware of was to get away from it,” his friend and housemate Greg Flannagan tells jurors.
Somehow, a man with no apparent legal problems since minor early 2000s drug offences, with multiple business interests, and a seemingly productive life travelling, keeping fit and exploring creative writing ended up dead and mutilated in a drug-dealer’s shed.
Beneath thousands of words from witnesses, thousands more in Lingman’s cross-examination, thousands more in police files so hefty they’re wheeled through corridors on a trolley, a question for Lingman lingers.
How could you?
And for Chance.
Who are you?
Flannagan says he met Chance in the early 2000s. He tells jurors Chance never offered him drugs and seemed to get most of his money distributing motorbike apparel.
In a 2017 YouTube video promoting Resurgence Gear’s Pekev® Lite gear, Chance holds up black jeans, explains the fabric’s qualities, gestures with his right hand, seems bashful, frequently saying “umm” before the video stops abruptly after two minutes and six seconds.
“He was super happy,” Flannagan says of the bike gear business. “He felt like he’d saturated the New Zealand market.”
But a different market is far from saturated, Lingman says. Giving evidence in his own defence, he reckons ecstasy and cocaine suppliers struggled to match demand in early 2019. After a summer of music festivals, no major new drug imports had arrived to satisfy his customers.
There is talk of ephemeral exchanges Chance and Lingman had on encrypted messaging app Wickr. Lingman says Wickr has largely eclipsed cheap pre-pay burner phones. The discipline displayed in shows like US crime series The Wire – buying burners with cash, limiting contacts and discarding phones quickly – has given way to one app which tells no secrets.
Lingman, two years younger than Chance, intricately describes ecstasy pill-pressing methods. He admits doing drug deals at home with a child present and discusses trade nuances, such as how the ecstasy racket has benign customers, unlike dodgier methamphetamine users.
“You’re dealing with people who live in Herne Bay, Botany…People aren’t committing crimes to buy that stuff. At that level of drug dealing they’re not dangerous people.”
But he says he was scared of Chance, and believed a syndicate or gang must be connected to Chance’s cocaine business.
It’s agreed the two men met at a Sandringham gastropub, probably in late 2017 or the year after.
Lingman says the two quickly started talking cocaine, Chance indicated he could source ounces of the drug, and he delivered – once offloading 25 ounces for $137,500. That’s $194 a gram when the average user was paying $340.
Lingman says he felt obliged to let globetrotting Chance store goods at his property. He says he didn’t know when Chance would return. He was desperate for products to sell by late summer, so opened the safe. He says 21 ounces of coke were inside, and he decided to get 12 ounces sold fast, so he’d have money ready whenever Chance resurfaced. The killer says by terrible coincidence, Chance arrived the next day and was most displeased to see drugs missing.
Lingman says he was pressing pills in the shed, hurried to the house to grab a spanner, but left a loaded shotgun outside. To his horror, he sees Chance at his door, armed with the shotgun. Lingman says Chance calls him a “c**t”. Lingman gets a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic firearm with a sound suppressor and the supposed stand-off ensues. Lingman says Chance raises the shotgun and he fears for his life.
“I just wanted to incapacitate him. I was surprised that Denver was there. I just wanted to get away.”
Prosecutors say Chance was never armed, had no interest in guns, and no way of confronting Lingman the way the killer describes. It was an ambush, they say, revolting in its cowardice, disgusting in its aftermath.
If you believe him, Lingman closed his eyes when shooting the shotgun-wielding cocaine importer. Defence lawyer Ron Mansfield acts out Lingman’s description, makes a gun gesture with his hand moving laterally, pointing at the jury, outlining the stand-off.
Three shots strike Chance in the head on February 24, 2019. The next day, Lingman buys a 295-litre chest freezer, paying $729 in cash. Chance’s body is stiff, his legs won’t bend, and the killer can’t close the lid. He takes a chainsaw to the body.
Lingman admits this treatment is horrific. But he says he does it out of desperation.
He spends a night at SkyCity after the killing with a woman he meets on sugar daddy website Seeking Arrangement. In court, he insists he didn’t enjoy himself during his fortnight of freedom after killing Chance. Sometimes, when not trying to justify the shooting, he speaks of his place in society.
“Most of my friends are successful business owners, CEOs of companies. I can’t tell them what happened.”
Not for shame, he says, but because he doesn’t want to drag them into this. They’re respectable people. This crime cannot contaminate them. Who bought the 12 ounces off Lingman, if that deal happened? He won’t say, and doesn’t have to. It seems the high-flying customers who fill their nasal cavities with cocaine need shielding from the sordid side of the business.
“If I start breaking down, they’re gonna ask what’s going on. So of course I’ve got to put up a front.”
The defence says Chance also put up a front.
They don’t say Chance’s work selling motorbike gear or block-stacking game Giant Jenga were fronts for cocaine imports. No, they say the man friends and family knew and loved was different from the man Lingman knew.
Mansfield suggests drug dealing is only sustainable when it’s clandestine, so we shouldn’t be shocked Chance kept this world hidden from friends. The defence says Chance was stealthy, avoiding suspicion even when travelling to and from South America sourcing the drugs.
In the public gallery, Chance’s family and friends are in court throughout the trial. One day at least 13 turn up. They are almost always silent, composed, even when the most repulsive aspects of the crime are recounted. Friends including one called John Foreman speak of an honourable man.
“He hated the people in that world. People in that world are all shitheads and he had too big a heart,” Foreman says of Chance’s revulsion for the illegal drug trade.
After Chance vanishes, detectives hone in on Kingseat, in South Auckland’s outskirts near Karaka horse country, following the trail of CCTV footage and Chance’s Google location data.
A detective called Tim Williams approaches Lingman, who says he’s never met Chance. Lingman seems edgy, Williams says, and there’s a strange waterblasted area just outside his front door.
The next day, more police return. Lingman is away. Cops see a grow room with the sort of gear used to cultivate cannabis. They’re about to leave when a Detective Senior Sergeant called Callum McNeill sees blood on a chest freezer.
Scenarios race through his mind. McNeill tells jurors he thinks of rural areas and animals kept in freezers. His intuition says otherwise, and he lifts the freezer lid.
“It took me a few seconds for my mind to process exactly what I was looking at. But it was Denver Chance.”
Scenarios raced through my mind too, Lingman tells Mansfield, whom he calls Ron. “Everything was gonna change. Nothing was gonna be the same for so many different people as well. So many different scenarios – what if, what if, what if?”
At least six shots are fired. Somehow, Lingman fires all the shots and Chance fires none. Prosecutor Gareth Kayes says that’s because Chance wasn’t armed. Three bullets hit Chance in the head. Another strikes his arm. Lingman says he prods Chance with the Ruger. Chance is dead.
“I had blood on my hands and there was a pool of blood,” Lingman tells Kayes.
The cover-up begins, or at least the clean-up does.
“It wasn’t a clean-up, Mr Kayes.”
Chance is dragged behind a flatbed trailer. He’ll be dumped in the freezer the next day.
Yes, I felt horrible, Lingman says. But I was just waiting for my partner to come home from Britain and had to look after a child and maintain a semblance of normality.
He says he knew enough about “telecommunications and stuff” to realise it’s rare to murder with impunity these days.
“There was no way I was thinking I was going to get away with it. There was a time I had to come clean, but police arrested me first.”
Under cross-examination from Kayes, gaps and contradictions become more frequent. Wickr can’t be cracked, but Lingman is cracking. Maybe he does think he can get away with murder, or at least persuade people it was manslaughter. Maybe now, two years on, he believes the story he tells. The near-snarl when rejecting claims of deceit alternates with a dejected look. He claims the desire to confess had been immense.
“I just wanted to tell them everything,” he says in the dock with his eyes closed, the same eyes he says were shut in terror when he shot Chance.
“Despite having your eyes closed, you just happened to hit Denver Chance three times in the head?” Kayes asks.
“You shot him and took the cocaine from him or his car.”
Tuesday March 30 and jurors have a verdict. Twenty minutes pass before everybody who needs to be in court is present. Mansfield dons his black judicial gown and moves left, to where Lingman is held. So much silence fills the room, every footstep and shuffle of fabric can be heard. Time slows before the verdict is read out.
The guilty verdict elicits an explosive “ye-aaah! yes!” from someone in the public gallery.
Only that verdict could have given Chance’s friends and family anything close to consolation. But since the only person alive with knowledge of Chance’s last moments is a liar and murderer, we’re still left wondering how deep Chance was in the secret world of drugs.
We’re left with stilted images from that Sunday in February. Chance’s Skyline stops at a petrol station. At 5.27pm the Skyline leaves. At 5.46pm Lingman’s car is seen nearby.
Kayes says at a point within those 19 minutes, one man dies, another lives. At the point when jurors announce their verdict, one man is still mourned, and now another is despised.
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