Today, Christchurch engineer Joseph McGirr was acquitted by a jury of giving ecstasy to a US polo player before she died in his spa bath – but found guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice by burying her clothing after her death. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer reports.
They had the world at their feet. The young flash crowd. A pretty fourth-generation American polo player, professional polo playing son of a former All Black, and high-flying civil and structural engineer, all partying at a $1.5 million clifftop mansion overlooking the Pacific blue. Booze, drugs, music, and bare-flesh bathed in a hot spa pool.
But in the snort of a line, it all turned to tragedy. What went wrong? How did a 22-year-old rising star in the “sport of kings”, Lauren Mikaila Biddle, come to die suddenly in Christchurch during a visit to New Zealand two years ago?
The amount of MDMA, or ecstasy, in her system was around 15 times greater than the “normal recreational use” of the drug. So where did the “party drugs” come from? Who tried to save her life? And after her shocking death, how did her clothes and bag end up tossed, half-buried down a hillside?
It came down to who to believe. Which mate – or former mate – was telling the truth about just what happened when all their worlds came crashing down. It was up to the jury to decide.
A few quiet beers
Joe McGirr was proud of his big, new house. It sat high on the Clifton cliffs overlooking the affluent Christchurch seaside suburb of Sumner. The views stretched along the curved Pegasus Bay coastline to the snow-capped mountains ragged on the horizon.
His good mate Guy “Higgie” Higginson, son of ex-All Black lock Graeme Higginson, had been there a handful of times. They’d known each other about a decade. McGirr had initially been close with older brother Cole Higginson – they played footy together. Cole died tragically while train-surfing a freight locomotive in 2008.
McGirr reckons he took on the big brother role in Guy’s life after Cole’s death, aged just 25. Guy Higginson was a pro polo player and McGirr had had a bit to do with horses, too. They got on well.
And so, after an overnight hunting and fishing trip up the remote Canterbury back country of Lees Valley, Higginson rang McGirr to see what he was up to. He was just chilling, watching TV and doing some chores, so sure, pop over.
Higginson had some visitors he wanted to show around. Lauren Biddle, an ex-girlfriend and fellow polo star from the United States, had answered his offer to come Down Under for a while, and work at his family’s farm in North Canterbury. They had met up in Australia where Higginson was working and flown together back to New Zealand – along with another of Higginson’s old buddies, Sam Chambers, who he knew through working at New South Wales polo figure Wal Ashton’s place.
After enjoying the two-day hunting trip, the trio were relaxing with a few beers and considering their options. Higginson suggested they go and visit Joe McGirr. He had a “nice house on the hill with a good view” and wanted to show them just how nice it was. He was overdue a catch-up with McGirr too, so they headed south into town.
It appears that Biddle was driving. Higginson says she was. Chambers originally thought Higgie was, but later said he might have got that wrong. And as he said, he’d already had “quite a few” beers.
They stopped to pick up more booze, including some Wild Moose bourbon cans mixed with ginger ale, and by the time they arrived, chilly bin in tow, Chambers was well on his way. Higginson had also had about five beers.
Higginson hugged his mate McGirr and gave him a small tin of cannabis as a present.
They sat around chatting in the lounge, catching up.
Biddle stepped outside onto one of the balconies with amazing sea views and made a phone call.
Meanwhile, Higginson asked to check out McGirr’s latest addition – a new spa pool.
It was outside on the wraparound deck and Higginson seemed impressed.
He asked if he could try it out, and getting the thumbs up, promptly stripped naked and plunged in.
McGirr chucked an old All Blacks game in the TV. Later he switched it to some tunes.
McGirr and Chambers didn’t know each other but were soon chatting away. Chambers says McGirr kicked off by saying “You Aussies know how to party” and started talking about drugs. McGirr mentioned seeing “heaps of cocaine” in Australia, Chambers said, and that the engineer said if he wanted anything, he could get it, including the amphetamine, speed. He’d just have to make some phone calls.
“Joe did tell me he could get drugs if I wanted it,” Chambers said.
Chambers said he’d never touched speed so said, “No thanks, mate. And [McGirr] was like, ‘No worries. I can get it, like, now’.”
“I didn’t think it was going to be that big a night to be honest”, said Chambers, who thought they were just having beers.
McGirr and Chambers were encouraged to join Higginson in the spa and they stripped to their undies or put togs on.
Eventually, Biddle got off the phone, changed into her bikini, and joined them in the spa.
“We were just chatting, having a good time, telling stories,” Higginson recalled.
He says McGirr rolled a marijuana joint and they passed it around in the spa.
A bottle of Kraken black spiced rum that Higginson brought was also cracked open.
Somehow the topic of Biddle’s breasts came up. Someone suggested she take her bikini top off.
Another mutual mate of Higginson and McGirr’s phoned to see what was happening. Amberley farrier Michael “Stories” Demmocks had just been fishing off Kaikoura and was keen for a beer. He headed straight there and arrived with a freshly-caught kahawai about 7.30pm, with Higginson, Biddle and McGirr relaxing and drinking in the spa pool. Chambers, admittedly “pretty pissed” by then, was outside talking to his girlfriend on the phone.
“Lauren seemed very drunk. Guy was pretty drunk. And Joe actually seemed quite sober at the time,” said Demmocks who prepared some sashimi which he shared with the others. He didn’t notice any drugs.
Demmocks got into the spa briefly but said, “Bugger this, it’s too hot.”
McGirr was trying to fix the spa’s temperature, he said, while Biddle, who had a bikini top on then, stayed in pretty much the whole time.
Darkness settled on a cool spring evening. Demmocks left shortly after 9.30pm, just after Chambers, who looked like he was nearly nodding off in the spa, was picked up by his girlfriend.
That left just McGirr, Higginson and Biddle.
Two mates – two stories
Just what happened next depends on who you listen to. Higginson’s version went like this.
Sitting in the spa, 6ft 3 in tall (190cm) Higginson saw McGirr standing in the kitchen “grinding something up” in a bowl.
McGirr returned to the spa with a chopping board and small silver steel tube, according to Higginson who asked what’s up.
“I’ve got some E, mate,” Higginson recalls him saying.
There were, he alleged, three lines about 3cm long of ground up “kind of blue… bluey” powder. Higginson, who says he’d never taken ecstasy before, snorted some, saying he knew how, he’d watched the movies. And then the board was alleged to have been put in front of Biddle who also sniffed some. Higginson didn’t see McGirr partake, he said, but heard a sniffing sound and assumed he did. They went on “chatting normally, laughing”.
Pretty soon, Higginson’s memory starts to fade. Another three lines were produced by McGirr, he claimed. That disappeared and the next thing Higginson remembers is standing near the spa and saying to McGirr, “What the f*** did you give me?”
“Just E,” McGirr was said to have replied.
“No. What the f*** did you give me?”
“Just E, man.”
Higginson felt like his head was going to explode. Noises sounded like they were coming through a cylinder.
“It was very strange. I’ve never felt like that in my life… and I don’t know what happened after that.”
He was sure Biddle was still in the spa – as she had been for most of the night – apart from frequent bathroom breaks.
At some point in the night, Higginson says he returned to the spa and found McGirr in the far corner of the pool. He says McGirr looked at him and said: “Lauren’s dead.”
Higginson says he looked at Biddle. She had her head tilted back and wasn’t moving. He went over, shook her shoulder and said her name. Again, McGirr allegedly said she’s dead.
Higginson felt for a pulse, couldn’t feel one, and pulled her out of the spa.
He says he placed her on her side and shook her shoulder. He claims to have patted her on the back in case she’d swallowed any water – she wasn’t breathing. Again, no pulse.
Higginson started to do CPR and says he yelled for his mate, still in the spa, to “call a f****** ambulance”.
“She’s dead,” McGirr allegedly repeated.
Again, Higginson urged him to call an ambulance but says he was told: “F*** off. The police aren’t coming around here.”
Higginson was taught CPR at Scouts when he was a boy. He was trying to remember how, and also recalled his Dad saving someone’s life who had their tongue in their throat and so Higginson checked if Biddle’s airway was clear.
He reached for a phone but says McGirr was by now becoming aggressive and told him not to ring the police and that he had to take her somewhere else.
“You’ve got to take her somewhere else,” McGirr allegedly said.
Higginson pulled his shorts on, picked Biddle up by the armpits, grabbed her phone and went out front door. He placed her in the front seat of his car and reversed up McGirr’s tricky, steep driveway, hitting the wall while trying to call 111.
At the top of the driveway, he got through to emergency services who took his details and talked him through chest compressions.
Shortly after 1pm, members of the local Sumner Volunteer Fire Brigade arrived on the scene. Volunteer senior firefighter Jessica Percasky took over from Higginson and tried to get some information out of an uncommunicative Higginson who seemed stressed out, with his head in his hands.
She found the female patient – Biddle – to have been completely dry. St John soon arrived but Biddle was pronounced dead at the scene, around 1.20am.
Meanwhile, McGirr, “freaking and peaking”, was back in the house “tidying evidence of the party”, the Crown told the jury at Christchurch District Court this week. Seven cannabis plants still attached to garden stakes were uprooted and tossed into the bushes. He’d admit a charge of cultivating cannabis on the first morning of his trial.
He placed the lid on the spa pool, put alcohol cans and bottles into recycling bins, and when he was taking fish guts in a bucket outside, he stumbled across her clothes and bag. He saw her passport photo and a “huge amount of sadness” came over him.
McGirr went down the steep slope of his property “threw her stuff on the ground”.
After witnessing someone just die “in front of my eyes”, the act of burying Biddle’s clothes and belongings was “spiritual reconciliation”, he claimed. He had an “innate desire to do something reverential” with her belongings, he said, and wanted to “commemorate her life”.
He used a shovel to cover Biddle’s items with “leaves and what not” and pushed them into a cross formation. He said a prayer, repeating the psalm ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and then “kind of felt like she lifted”.
He said it might sound a bit weird but “when someone dies in front of you feel like you need to do something”.
“It was just a peaceful moment actually, down in the native bush with her stuff … I was pretty upset to put it mildly,” McGirr said.
“I just had an innate desire to find some kind of spiritual reconciliation immediately after the event.”
McGirr then slept wrapped in a duvet on the ground of his hillside property before coming up to his house at 3.30am and being met by police officers. Detective constable James Leah – the officer in charge of Operation Polo – would later describe McGirr as appearing from the bush in his underpants “dirty, dishevelled … as if he’d been running around naked in the dirt”.
McGirr claims he told a police officer about Biddle’s clothes immediately – and later led them to exactly where they were, although her bikini top has never been found. He denies ever trying to hide anything from the police.
“I was very upset and shocked, affected by alcohol and drugs,” McGirr said.
He was charged with supplying Biddle and Higginson with the Class-B controlled drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy, and attempting to pervert the course of justice by burying Biddle’s clothing after her death.
McGirr pleaded not guilty and went to court.
Joe McGirr's version
McGirr’s story went very differently to Higgie’s.
Yes, he admitted having four party pills at his house that night. Someone had given them to him at a party, he says, and didn’t know “whether it was ecstasy or some kind of herbal”. To this day, he says he’s not sure of the pills’ “exact composition”.
After crushing one up on a chopping board in the kitchen, he snorted the pill’s powder before returning to the spa pool where he, Biddle, and Higginson had been drinking and hanging out.
Higginson’s claims that he’d come out of the house to the spa presenting three lines of ecstasy were “absolute rubbish”.
McGirr says he suspected Higginson found a second pill left on the chopping board, crushed it up and snorted it.
“He would’ve snorted up anything that he could find,” said McGirr.
He then suspected that Biddle “licked up the crumbs” on the board.
“Lauren was pretty interested in everything that was going on and recreational drugs was by no means an unusual item in polo type association,” McGirr said.
“As far as the party pills are concerned, I didn’t give them anything,” he added, saying any drugs they took was “under their own free will” and didn’t come with any instruction or influence from him.
Two other pills had been left in a container and put in a bread bin, McGirr says.
He suspects others must have taken them.
And McGirr says it was him – and not Higginson – who tried to save Biddle’s life.
He told of turning around at some point and seeing an unconscious Biddle “head down in the pool”.
“I immediately pulled her out and started performing CPR,” McGirr said.
After a while, he thought CPR was “futile”. But when he looked back to the spa and saw Higginson “gurgling water”.
“He was, in my opinion about 30 seconds away from drowning,” said McGirr, who claims he pulled him out and put him into the recovery position, saving his life. Higginson was “very inebriated” and unintelligible, McGirr says.
When Higginson’s “adrenalin kicked in” and he took an unconscious Biddle away to try and get help, McGirr says he was “in absolute shock … I was very upset, to put it mildly”.
Biddle was dead before she left his house, McGirr believes.
The Crown says Biddle was very drunk – nearly four times the drink-driving limit – and found with a high concentration of MDMA in her system around 15 times greater than the “normal recreational use” of the drug.
A post-mortem found her cause of death was most likely a drug overdose that caused a sudden cardiac arrest.
'Let's stick together'
Weeks after Biddle’s death, Stories Demmocks was walking in Amberley when McGirr spotted him, hooked a U-turn, and pulled over.
They chatted and Demmocks said McGirr wanted to talk to Higginson because “they all need to stick together”.
Demmocks also said that McGirr asked if Chambers had stolen any drugs that night – and if not, then Biddle must’ve taken them.
When McGirr’s defence lawyer Rupert Glover suggested to Demmocks during the trial that McGirr never talked about drugs that day, he replied: “Maybe you should ask your client to stop lying.”
Glover suggested that McGirr’s statement they should all stick together was obviously in reference to the tragedy of Biddle’s death.
But Demmocks replied: “It seemed to me more like he was trying to cover his own arse.”
The next day, when McGirr took the witness stand he took a moment – surprising his own lawyer – to refer back to Demmocks’ account. Demmocks, one of his oldest mates, going back to at least primary school, was right about that drugs chat in Amberley. He said he felt embarrassed that he’d even brought it up. He said Demmocks was “probably the only true and credible witness” that trial had heard from to that point.
After hearing all the evidence and deliberating for 12 hours over two days, the jury acquitted McGirr of supplying ecstasy to Biddle and Higginson – but found guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice by hiding her clothes from police.
McGirr will be sentenced for attempting to pervert the course of justice and cultivating cannabis on March 10.
'I don't think we're ever going to get the real answer'
Biddle’s family were shocked by the death of their “vibrant, fun-loving” girl.
Devastated father Tommy Biddle Snr welcomed the charges after McGirr first appeared in court and said the family wanted justice.
“I’m happy that they’re taking action against the guy,” he said.
Polo was all-consuming for the family, Biddle Snr said, and his daughter was a fourth-generation player.
Biddle Snr plays the game professionally in the States and Lauren Biddle’s mother plays alongside her work with horses in Florida.
Lauren Biddle had travelled to New Zealand from Australia – her second trip to Aotearoa – and had been playing across the ditch for around three weeks prior to her arrival here.
She was not only an accomplished polo player, but was also into show jumping and equestrian.
“She was an amazing rider,” her father said earlier.
“We’ll never get over it but we’re trying to move forward, and figure out ways to cope with it.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to get the real answer as to what happened.”
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