King's Birthday Honours: Tragedy leads to lifelong career for forensic expert Thomas Coyle

10:58 am on 3 June 2024
Forensic expert Thomas Coyle.

Forensic expert Thomas Coyle. Photo: Supplied

Thomas Coyle was a teenager working the nightshift in a bakery in Leicester, England, when a commotion outside resulted in the murder of his best friend.

That tragedy sparked his career as a forensic expert - which ultimately led, on Monday, to him being made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

He has been recognised for his services to the New Zealand Police and for identifying disaster victims, along with services to theatre.

"There was a person lying near the clock tower and he died there and then and that was my best friend of 18 years," he said, describing the Leicester murder.

"I had known him all my life and the person who stabbed him just ran off and left him there for dead.

"It was a turning point in my life, I actually wanted to do something to identify what had happened and to try and give closure to the family. I just wanted to catch the person."

At the same time, Scotland Yard was advertising for a new position, a combined fingerprint expert and specialist crime scene examiner.

Until then, the role had been done by several people to reduce cross-contamination of crime scenes.

There were 400 applicants vying for 10 positions, which required five years' training.

Coyle went to London and did two days of tests, followed by an interview with a panel of police officers. He was starting to think he did not have a shot. Then, he was asked to describe a pencil.

"I described a pencil, but just a bit more in depth. I said it was a carbon-based shaft, encased with wood, you sharpen one end, you write with the implement and then once it goes blunt you sharpen it again until you get to a certain point when it is no good and you replace it."

He was one of only four people who answered the question in such detail, which saw him get the job.

"They said that I got that job because it was very difficult to find someone that could describe the scene.

"They wanted somebody who could go in there and have the sixth sense to describe the scene in detail, because they could teach you the black and white part of the job, the academic part, but they couldn't teach you how to visually examine an item in depth."

Coyle said his career was one that was simply meant to be - but he had to go through a bereavement to recognise it.

Forensic expert Thomas Coyle.

Thomas Coyle at work. Photo: Supplied

After emigrating to New Zealand, he became one of the first civilians in Aotearoa to be trained by police to be certified as a disaster victim identification expert.

He was part of a team that travelled to Thailand in 2004 after 240,000 people died in the Boxing Day tsunami.

"I was there for many weeks in the mortuary, trying to identify people, using their fingerprints."

Coyle was also on the official board of identification with Thai authorities, to release people after they had been identified so they could be repatriated to their families.

He also identified victims of the Fox Glacier air crash in 2010 and the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.

The job brought stress with it. Coyle said he was thankful to have a supportive wife, with whom he could debrief from the the trauma of the job.

His involvement with theatre in Auckland's performing arts sector also played a part.

"It can be incredibly stressful, dealing with those disturbing scenes, so volunteering at the theatre became my sanctuary. It became the place I could escape from the real world and give something back to the community as well."

It came about after his daughter became involved with the theatre while at school.

"Instead of just sitting around in the car outside waiting for her to do her part, myself and my wife decided to volunteer and it just built from there."

Coyle has volunteered in Auckland's performing arts sector since 2008, first building sets before co-managing Centrestage Youth Theatre and supporting workshops for youth.

He was a judge for the Northern Area Performance Theatre Awards from 2015 to 2017. He has been stage manager for several major theatre productions including The Producers, Beauty and the Beast, Kids on Broadway and Hair.

Coyle semi-retired from the police and started his own business, Forensic Insight Ltd, in 2019. He also does consultancy work for the police.

He teaches forensic science to students around the country for the Ministry of Education, from year twos (who learn about honing their observational skills through clue hunting) right up to year 13s (who learn about fingerprint identification and DNA analysis).

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