The Power of the Pen is Mightier than the Sword

It is one thing to face violence and its ramifications at the coalface, but it is an entirely different story to bring about real and lasting change in societal attitudes.

This is a challenge William (Bill) J. O’Brien has not shied away from.

The retired former police senior sergeant and author of over twenty books, has given voice to the often buried and long reaching effects of violent crime in New Zealand. His book Aramoana: Twenty-two  Hours of Terror (filmed in 2009 as Out of the Blue) documented the carnage a lone gunman wreaked on the sleepy suburb of Aramoana, killing thirteen people in his wake.

“When I saw inaccurate and incorrect reports about Aramoana I felt it was very important to record the events of those days and the police and community response as accurately as possible,” he says. In the aftermath of Aramoana and following extensive hours of research, Bill wrote another book entitled Agents of Mayhem in which he identified 35 behavioural traits shared by mass murderers. One preventative measure he champions are extensive and stringent background checks for people who apply for firearms licences; a policy he notes has recently been adopted in some states of America.

In 2010 he was moved to write the bestseller Sophie’s Legacy alongside Sophie’s mother Lesley Elliott, giving voice to her account of her daughter’s murder. The prolonged trial and focus on Sophie’s ex-boyfriend and university tutor Clayton Weatherston’s attempts to apportion blame on Sophie caused a wellspring of public revulsion and outrage. “Clayton’s claims were widely-publicised, and Lesley and I strove to redress the balance. It does not bode well to speak ill of the dead.” This call to action prompted legal reform regarding the use of the defence of provocation and it also planted the seed for the establishment of the Sophie Elliott Foundation.

The foundation developed a school-based programme run by the New Zealand Police to teach 16 and 17 year olds how to recognise and avoid abusive relationships. For the next ten years Bill and Lesley travelled the length of New Zealand to schools and communities sharing their story. They also coauthored a book, entitled Loves Me Not to give to students to augment their learning. This initiative was supported by grants from Westpac, four years of fundraising by the professional women’s organisation, Zonta International, and a generous deal with their publisher, Penguin/Random House. In recognition of their efforts, both Bill and Lesley received the New Zealand Order of Merit.

“From the hundreds of letters and emails we have received from parents, teachers, police and students, I know the Sophie Elliott Foundation has had far-reaching effects. Lesley’s intervention and influence has saved the lives of at least eight young women that I am aware of.” Bill’s obvious enthusiasm for writing spills over when he talks of his numerous writing projects, especially for younger readers, including a six month stint as Children’s Writer in Residence at the University of Otago.

He is currently working on his memoir. Bill and his wife Olwyn moved from Wellington to Dunedin in 1990 to give their two children the very best educational opportunities and start in life - a decision they have never regretted. After initially living in Roslyn and a move to Mosgiel where they stayed for fifteen years, they chose to retire at Chatsford. They were drawn by the village’s beautiful gardens and sense of wellbeing and security. Both he and Olwyn are lifelong tennis players and appreciate the sporting opportunities in the village. Bill enjoys a swim in the village pool a couple of times a week.

Olwyn has joined in with the village outdoor bowls team, walking group and enjoys a game of pétanque. Bill has accepted the role of President of the Chatsford Village Residents’ Association and aims to encourage people to move forward together. “My focus is on taking a positive look at life’s challenges and to find solutions rather than looking for problems,” he says. “It just takes one glance out of the window to appreciate how fortunate we are to be here.”

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