It may be the closest anyone has ever come to assassinating Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1981, Christopher John Lewis, a disturbed New Zealand teenager aimed his .22 rifle at the British monarch during her tour of the country, lining up her jade outfit in his scope.
The bullet missed, but according to an investigation by reporter Hamish McNeilly for the website Stuff, the 17-year-old became obsessed with wiping out the royal family, as the government scrambled to conceal how close the self-styled terrorist had come to killing the head of state.
Two years after shooting at the Queen, the teenager, planning to murder Prince Charles, attempted to escape from a psychiatric ward. In 1995, New Zealand police sent him on a taxpayer-funded holiday during the Queen’s November tour – believing him to be safer snoozing on a beach than anywhere within firing distance of the monarch. He killed himself in prison in 1997.
By the age of 17, Lewis had a history of armed robbery, arson and animal torture. He idolised the Australian bandit Ned Kelly and American serial killer Charles Manson.
On Wednesday 14 October 1981, Lewis pulled on gloves and loaded his rifle inside a deserted toilet cubicle in New Zealand’s oldest city, Dunedin, aiming his scope at the Queen’s motorcade five storeys below.
Later, police found clippings on the royal family in Lewis’s squalid flat as well as a detailed map of the Queen’s route that day, with the words “Operation = Ass QUEB” written on the paper.
The Queen had just stepped out of a Rolls-Royce to greet 3,500 wellwishers when a distinctive crack rang out across the grassy reserve.
According to former Dunedin police det sgt Tom Lewis (no relation to the shooter), police immediately attempted to disguise the seriousness of the threat, telling the British press the noise was a council sign falling over. Later, under further questioning from reporters, they said someone had been letting off firecrackers nearby.
According to Tom Lewis, the then prime minister Robert Muldoon feared if word got out about how close the teenager had come to killing the Queen, the royals would never again visit New Zealand.
The 1981 annual police report reads: “The discharge of a firearm during the visit of Her Majesty the Queen serves to remind us all of the potential risks to royalty, particularly during public walks.”
Police interviewed the teenager eight times, during which he claimed he had been instructed to kill the Queen by an Englishman known to him as “the Snowman”, of whom Lewis was frightened.
The Snowman allegedly told Lewis about the pro-Nazi, rightwing National Front in England, and said Lewis could be part of similar groups that were popping up in New Zealand.
Lewis later claimed to have been visited by high-ranking officials from the government in Wellington during his 13-day interrogation, and was told never to discuss the incident.
“If I was ever to mention the events surrounding my interviews or the organisation, or that I was in the building, or that I was shooting from it – that they would make sure I ‘suffered a fate worse than death’,” Lewis wrote in a draft autobiography found beside his body after he killed himself. It was published posthumously.
Further evidence of Lewis’s obsession with the royal family had emerged in 1983 when he attempted to overpower a guard at a psychiatric hospital where he was being detained in order to assassinate Prince Charles, who visited the country in April with the Princess of Wales and their young son, William.
Fourteen years after Lewis’s attempt on the Queen’s life, the monarch returned to tour New Zealand in November 1995.
Lewis, then 31, was deemed a serious threat to her safety, so New Zealand police dispatched him to Great Barrier Island in the north of the country, with free accommodation, daily spending money and the use of a vehicle. He was not, however, under 24-hour surveillance.
“I started to feel like royalty,” Lewis wrote of his 10-day exile.
Tom Lewis, who worked on the 1981 case, said police were eager to keep the troubled man out of the spotlight during the second tour and downplay how close he had come to the Queen on her earlier visit.
“You will never get a true file on that: it was reactivated, regurgitated, bits pulled off it, other false bits put on it,” Lewis told Stuff, adding that Christopher Lewis’s original statement to police was destroyed. “They were in damage control so many times.”
Murray Hanan, Lewis’s former lawyer, said police did not want to press ahead with a charge of treason – which in 1981 still carried the death penalty – and he believed they had received an order from “up-top, politically” to hush up the attempted murder.
“The fact an attempted assassination of the Queen had taken place in New Zealand … it was just too politically hot to handle,” said Hanan. “I think the government took the view that he is a bit nutty and has had a hard upbringing, so it won’t be too harsh.”
When Lewis faced court, his potshot at the Queen was downgraded to possession of a firearm in a public place and discharging it. The attempted assassination – an embarrassment to the police protection squad, and to the government – was being quietly and conveniently forgotten.
Lewis killed himself in prison at the age of 33, while awaiting trial for the murder of a young mother and the kidnapping of her child. Shortly before his death Lewis told his partner about his infamous attempt to assassinate the Queen of England.
“Damn,” he told her, “damn … I missed.”