As It Happens

How a New Zealand teenager tried to assassinate the Queen in 1981 ​

CBC Radio

March 06, 2018

Queen Elizabeth is shown during her 1981 visit to New Zealand. (Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

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Journalist Hamish McNeilly speaks with As It Happens about newly declassified documents that give details of a troubled teen's attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.  6:37

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A New Zealand teenager was the person who "possibly became the closest ever" to assassinating Queen Elizabeth, according to a reporter who has been investigating the 1981 case. 

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New Zealand's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) released newly-declassified documents to journalist Hamish McNeilly at the online publication Stuff.

They detail 17-year-old Christopher John Lewis' assassination attempt while the Queen was on a country tour more than three decades ago.

'This is a kid that could shoot seagulls out of the sky. So he was quite a good shot by all accounts.' - Hamish McNeilly, journalist

The revelation has some asking whether officials at the time covered up the incident.

Police in New Zealand  there will be an examination of relevant case files, "given the interest in this historic matter."

Here's part of what McNeilly told As It Happens host Carol Off about what he learned.

On the day of the assassination attempt, what happened?

It has taken a while to piece together what has happened. I trust my sources now in that we understand his original plan was to shoot Queen Elizabeth when she was in the Octagon, which is the central part of Dunedin's central business district.

He was planning to go up on a building [and] shoot down with a .22, which he had stolen a month or so earlier. The range would have been about 50 metres.

Bear in mind, this is a kid that could shoot seagulls out of the sky. So he was quite a good shot by all accounts. 

However, when it came to the Queen's visit, he couldn't get access to the top of the building.

He ended up going to a slightly elevated place in a doorway, lined up a shot … was about to pull the trigger. Then two policemen, still some distance away from him, appeared between him and the shot. So he had to go to his Plan B.

That was when he jumped on his 10-speed bicycle and biked about two kilometres north to the university area, which she was to appear again for another opening after her lunch.

He entered the fifth floor of a university building … accessed the toilet block, stuck the gun out of the window and just waited.

In this Oct. 14, 1981, photo, Queen Elizabeth walks past protesters during her visit to Dunedin, N.Z. (The Associated Press)

And he got one shot off?

Potentially two. We've had one confirmed.

The public statement, initially, was that some billboard fell over or that there'd been a firecracker. The authorities would never say that there had actually been a gunshot.

No, they didn't. But secretly, it turns out, they were looking at this. It actually involved the secret service in New Zealand as well.

Media were asking the questions. Police officially told them, "Hey, it was a council sign falling over or it was firecrackers."

But, unbeknownst to the media, the police are taking statements from witnesses and they're investigating reports of this gunshot, but they didn't have a clue where it came from or who the perpetrator was.

The Queen pictured in January 1981. (The Associated Press)

About 10 days later, they caught him, is that right?

They were investigating an audacious armed robbery. They were looking for hardened [criminals]. And they couldn't find anyone who did this.

Turns out, it was three 17-year-old school kids, of which Christopher Lewis was the ringleader.

Suddenly, they've got this kid saying ... "Oh, yes. I shot at the Queen. You can find the missing weapon on the fifth floor."

They found the weapon. They found a spent cartridge. Then they knew they had a 17-year-old potentially who shot a gun at the Queen.

'It reads like a movie that you wouldn't believe the plot.' - Dunedin journalist Hamish McNeilly

But the public did not know this had happened. Why did they go to such lengths to cover this up?

It was downplayed in court.

When the three appeared on the armed robbery charges, media asked, "Are these guys being held in connection with the attempted assassination of the Queen?"

Police denied it. Looking back, they were sort of right, but they were also playing semantics as well.

There's a suggestion there from a former cop who claims he interviewed him first and their transcript was destroyed. He claims that police just didn't want to know.

They had received orders from up top and that implies that it was the prime minister at the time. ... That has been confirmed by a former lawyer who acted for Christopher Lewis — that just enormous hate came on the case.

The charge was suddenly downgraded from treason or attempted treason … to just discharging a firearm.

Queen Elizabeth and husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in the Royal Carriage in 2005. (Getty Images)

And so he did some time. What, three years?

Yes. Three years.

What became of [Christopher Lewis]?

It reads like a movie that you wouldn't believe the plot.

He said he became a trained ninja. He went on the run. Spiked a massive manhunt. Did more armed robberies. Spent most of his twenties in prison. Then seemed to go clean.

Then, suddenly, he is fingered for a murder — which he has always denied. He has accepted all the other crimes he has done in his short life.

He killed himself three days after sending his memoir off to be published.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more of our interview with New Zealand journalist Hamish McNeilly, listen to the audio above.