17 May 2021

Killer Conductor: the story of Eric Mareo - Part 1

From Black Sheep, 5:00 am on 17 May 2021

On June 17th, 1936 a single word appeared on the screens of movie theatres around Auckland. 


The audience were in a hush for a moment. Then they rose to their feet and cheered.

It was the end of a year-long saga, the case of 45 year-old orchestra conductor Eric Mareo. He was, not once, but twice convicted of murdering his wife, 29 year-old actress and singer, Thelma Mareo. 

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A portrait of bandleader Eric Mareo who was twice convicted for the murder of his wife, Thelma.

Bandleader Eric Mareo who was twice convicted for the murder of his wife, Thelma. Photo: Creative Commons

The Mareo trials had gripped New Zealand. People followed the news headline by headline. It had everything you could possibly want in a crime story: Sex, drugs, and lies. 

Plus, the characters were all so interesting. Mareo was a flamboyant figure who walked up and down Queen Street in a tailcoat with a long cigarette holder. He conducted his orchestra using a giant tinsel-covered baton. His wife Thelma was a glamorous actress said to have been in a lesbian relationship with professional dancer, Freda Stark.

Stark would later become one of the most famous figures in the history New Zealand show-business.

At  the time of Eric Mareo’s conviction, most kiwis thought justice had been served. That’s certainly what the newspapers said. 

But looking back on this case 85 years later, the verdict seems less certain.

High Court Justice Rebecca Ellis and Victoria University social historian Dr Charles Ferrall re-examined the Mareo case in their book, The Trials of Eric Mareo. 

“[Mareo] must have felt guilty about so many things,” Dr Ferrall says. “But killing his wife was not one of them”. Not because he was heartless but because, to Dr Ferrall’s mind, he probably didn’t do it. 

As Justice Ellis and Dr Ferrall explain, the medical evidence used to convict Mareo was thin. What’s more, a key prosecution witness had been in regular correspondence with the mother of the victim, and one-sided media coverage may have unduly influenced the jury. 

In fact, the judge in Mareo’s second trial was so concerned by the guilty verdict that he wrote to the Attorney General effectively saying the jury got it wrong. 

“Which I have never heard of ever happening in any other case,” Justice Ellis says. 

So was Eric Mareo wrongly convicted? In this episode of Black Sheep, we re-examine the case.