The struggle for Ōpōtiki, the homicide capital of New Zealand

The struggle for Ōpōtiki, the homicide capital of New Zealand

Pat Rowe lives in a family home in Ōpōtiki. He loves the town, its people, and the proximity to local beaches and bush. But despite its sweeping landscapes, the East Coast district is one of the most impoverished in the country. It also harbours a dark secret: it’s the homicide capital of New Zealand. Donna-Lee Biddle reports for The Homicide Report.

Pat Rowe takes a drag on his cigarette and crushes the butt on a wooden paling. He opens the door of a discarded microwave that sits hidden on the back porch and tosses it in an ashtray. The stash reveals Rowe is a one-pack-a-day man but it’s also a bleak insight into his community, where residents hide cigarette butts from scavengers.

Rowe lives in a white weatherboard house in the coastal town of Ōpōtiki. It was his father John Rowe’s home until he was murdered in 2008.

Head bowed and eyes closed, Rowe recounts the night his father, a retired school teacher, was clubbed to death in bed. One of his killers, a girl just 14, lived next door. She knew him as the “old man through the fence”.

Cousins Courtney Churchward and Lori-Lea Te Wini, aged 16 and 14 at the time, broke into the home in search of items they could sell or trade for drugs.

Churchward was already an experienced thief and knew people kept valuables in their bedroom. Upon entering John Rowe’s bedroom, the girls armed themselves with a wooden staff and a rod.

The 78-year-old sustained severe injuries to his head, face, right arm, elbow and hands. He died of respiratory failure caused by head injuries, and blood loss.

“It can only be hoped that he lapsed into unconsciousness at a relatively early stage of the assault,” the sentencing notes read.

In 2009, Churchward and Te Wini were charged and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 17 years.

However, in 2011, Churchward successfully appealed her sentence and it was reduced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 13 years.

Te Wini, who claimed she took a lesser role in the murder than her cousin, also appealed her sentence. A retrial was set for 2012 but Te Wini pleaded guilty to murder before it took place. Her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 10 years.

During the murder trial, Rowe says the focus was on the killers’ upbringings – something he takes umbrage at.

“I guess in short, the trial was far too focussed on them and their upbringings and the situations they were in that affected the outcome,” Rowe says.

“They both get chucked into jail and looked after, paid a small daily allowance and get fed with somewhere to sleep. We battle on with bugger all.”

Te Wini’s childhood was marred with abuse. She was assaulted by an older relative and lived in an abusive relationship with a man who at the time had just been released from prison.

At 13, she was expelled from college because of disruptive behaviour, spending her time either sleeping or smoking cannabis. By the time she was 14 she had had two relationships with men with gang affiliations and suffered from a stress disorder.

But neither girl was a victim of society, Justice Geoffrey Venning said during the 2009 trial.

“You are victims of the failure of your own families to provide any sort of direction, support or encouragement to learn any sort of values. … They failed you in the most basic of ways.”

John Rowe brought his family to New Zealand from the UK for a better life and had been living in Ōpōtiki for about 50 years.

The girls brought to an end what should have been a long and full retirement for the 78-year-old school teacher.

Rowe picks up a collection of photos that have gathered dust. He breathes hot air on the glass frames, wiping them clean with the underside of his t-shirt.

In one frame, his father is standing in front of a tropical fern surrounded by blue and purple hydrangeas.

The family home at Windsor St, once a green oasis, is now weathered and tired. Overgrown vines cover the perspex roof on the back porch, weaving their way around the posts before disappearing to the side of the house.

Rowe has a myriad of health problems which mean he is often laid up for hours, and sometimes days at a time. He admits the garden has got away on him a bit.

When well, he volunteers at the local budgeting office and manages an opportunity shop in town.

He enjoys his work, but it’s the people he meets that keep him in Ōpōtiki.

“The town’s not without its ratbags, but there’s a good community spirit here.

“They just need a bit of a hand up.”

HOMICIDE AND DEPRIVATION

John Rowe’s killing was one of 11 homicides in the Ōpōtiki district between 2004 and March 31, 2019, according to data collected for The Homicide Report. With a population at the last census (2013) of 8780, it had 1.25 homicides for every 1000 people between 2004 and 2019 – the highest rate in the country.

Kawerau follows with 0.6 per 1000 people, then Ruapehu (0.56), South Waikato (0.56) and Taupō (0.55).

It’s a stark reality for these former blue-collar towns, now gripped by gangs, crime, and unemployment.

But it’s deprivation that drives the homicide rate, mayor John Forbes says.

Almost 80 per cent of residents in the Ōpōtiki district live in areas of high deprivation. A lack of education, unemployment, low incomes and high rates of crime perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) uses data from government agencies to break the country up into almost 6000 areas – or data zones – usually a neighbourhood of 700 people. It was developed by a team at the University of Auckland, including Dr Dan Exeter from the School of Population Health.

Exeter says accurate measurements of socioeconomic deprivation are vital for planning and ensuring resources are allocated fairly and effectively, and ultimately, to provide better outcomes for Māori and those most in need.

In the Kawerau district, the measure suggests all of the residents live in areas of high deprivation. Like Ōpōtiki, their top drivers are employment, education, income and crime. In South Waikato, 78 per cent of residents live in areas of high deprivation.

Forbes says he can’t remember a time when there wasn’t high levels of deprivation in his community. He’s been in local government for 32 years and for him, deprivation and dysfunction go hand in hand.

“When you go into a neighbourhood where the floors are rotted out at the bottom because they could never afford to seal the floor and the chipboard’s got wet, and rotted – there’s a real stink to it, eh?

“That’s an outcome of deprivation. The homicide rate is only one outcome of a high level of deprivation – there’s a number of them.”

One night, about 20 years ago, councillors walked the streets with police and iwi leaders. There were hordes of young people out roaming, drinking, causing amok.

Police picked up kids off footpaths, comatose on drugs and alcohol. Lying on the pathway was sometimes safer than if they were to go home, Forbes says.

“To me, that manifests itself in communities not having a sense of hope, and if communities don’t have a sense of hope, then drugs and alcohol are outlets.

“When you start getting into drug and alcohol abuse, you enter family violence and spousal abuse and then further down the track it’s homicides. Now a homicide is an extreme outcome – there’s a whole lot of interim steps that go on in there.

“We’ve got kids that are born addicted to drugs, but it’s also what’s led to high deprivation and dysfunction.

“We also lost a lot of the jobs that kept the community together.”

Forbes says the district was once booming, but the loss of employers in the area since the 1980s has been the biggest cause of social change.

“We’re now moving into a fourth generation of unemployment, and these people don’t think life is going to deliver them anything.

“When you look at it all, homicide is only one part of our reality.”

The solution, says Forbes, is all in the East Coast’s world-class water.

MAKING GOOD

Everyday at 4am, townsfolk make their way to the mussel farms in Whakatāne. For some, it’s their first job, for others, it’s their first job in 30 years.

The farm was established in 2001 when Eastern Sea Farms Limited – a joint venture between Whakatōhea Maori Trust Board, Tasman Mussels and New Zealand Sea Farms – made an application for consent to farm 3800 hectares of water space 8.5 kilometres off the coast of Ōpōtiki.

In 2009, resource consent was granted to farm the site for 20 years with the right to renewal.

When it’s fully operational, the initiative has the potential to create more than 200 jobs in the region year round.

“It’s taken a hell of a long time and it’s almost beyond our wildest dreams,” Forbes says.

“There’s a couple boats out there working and we’ve got kids training up to be boat crew.

“People are starting to see that there’s some hope coming out of the big sea farming operation.”

As well as economic ventures, Whakatōhea, the local iwi, runs programmes for families impacted by domestic violence. They know they’re working in a deficit, dealing, on a daily-basis, with families affected by housing issues, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and a lack of opportunities.

And in a small town such as Ōpōtiki, the effects of a homicide are felt far beyond immediate whānau and friends, it also impacts the community.

Whakatōhea operations manager Louisa Erickson says domestic violence is prevalent in the town.

“Domestic violence is a symptom of a town that has not had employment for a very long time, a symptom of a town in deprivation,” she says.

“[It’s] time for our people to be awakened to the fact there is a lot of opportunity coming and we don’t want them to miss out.

“As an iwi organisation, we cannot do it on our own.”

Iwi social services manager Ian Linton says the problems are intergenerational.

The median income for households in the district is around $25,000. It forces people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do to feed their families, Linton says.

“Some can’t live single lives on that income – now try raise a whānau on that.

“So they go back to what they see as management – and that is do everything that’s illegal. Whether it’s grow marijuana, or deal in that meth space. To them, that’s survival.

“We want to take them away from that and back to what’s healthy and what’s normal. We want our children educated around that. There have already been a few generations that have lived like that so the challenge now is to change that.”

The iwi has a 50-year strategy. It’s an approach that will see their people prosper, be well-educated, economically and commercially sound, and healthy.

“This generation is just about a lost generation. But if we work towards this strategy, the next generation will see it and live it.”