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Sophie Elliott – Her Dad’s Story

Wednesday the 9th of January 2008 will be forever etched in my memory, that was the day Sophie was murdered. She was murdered by an ex-boyfriend who was a tutor in Economics at Otago University.

It was a beautiful summer day in Dunedin, although I was 200 km away in Clyde, Central Otago at the time where I worked.

Our two storied house in Dunedin has two lots of French doors on the ground floor and Lesley my wife and Sophie’s mother had these wide open. Lesley was helping Sophie to pack her things for her trip to Wellington the next day. That was to be for a new life and job for Sophie, as a graduate analyst at The Treasury.

Sophie had worked really hard at university and was rewarded with a first-class honours degree in Economics. Earlier at St Hilda’s Collegiate she had been Proxime Accessit. She was brilliant, although she didn’t think so herself and had completed two first year university papers in Economics while in year 13. This was an unusual accomplishment at this school.

During her last year at university she had been interviewed in Wellington for a job at The Treasury and was rewarded with the offer of a position.

At around 12.15pm there was a knock on the open front door of our house. Lesley went to see who it was and was surprised to see Clayton Weatherston standing there. He asked if he could see Sophie because he had something for her. Lesley then called to Sophie who was upstairs in her bedroom.

What Sophie and her mother thought ‘the something’ that Weatherston had to offer, was perhaps a going away gift to perhaps make amends for his previous bad behaviour towards her both psychologically and physically. Instead it was a knife with which he intended to kill Sophie.

I was in my office at the hospital in Clyde. It was mid-afternoon and the General Manager appeared and said there are two people here who want to talk to you. I said please send them in. She said no, they want to meet you privately.

I went to a room and was confronted by two police officers in uniform. They said they had some bad news for me. I immediately thought something might have happened to one of my two sons who were both living in Australia or perhaps my wife. When they said your daughter has been killed, I simply could not comprehend what they were saying. We had always been worried about our sons in Australia, but never about Sophie who lived at home with her mother.

I asked in my shocked state, what had happened. The officers were pretty vague about the details and only said they thought she had been stabbed and had no information on the offender. A Victim Support lady appeared, but I wasn’t in the mood for what she had to say unfortunately.

I went back to my office, called the staff around and told them what had happened. I then had to prepare a contingency plan for them, which I did with some difficulty. The police didn’t want me to drive anywhere, although I did drive my vehicle back to my flat in Clyde where I packed a few clothes and was then driven to the police station in Alexandra where I spent and hour or so. An officer then drove me the 200km to Dunedin. We didn’t talk, it was a really awful trip.

Even when I got to Dunedin and a motel about 7pm, Lesley was so upset that I couldn’t get much of what had happened from her. It turned out that Lesley had witnessed at one stage Weatherston stabbing Sophie, although I didn’t know that for some time. The police were however quite helpful, although they were not saying much. It wasn’t until several weeks later at Depositions in front of two JP’s, that I learned most of the awful details of Sophie’s last few minutes and what had actually happened. All Lesley would say to me was that when she managed to get the locked bedroom door open, all she could see was a white Sophie lying on the floor in a sea of red – her blood!

To hear that she had been stabbed 216 times and mutilated was almost beyond comprehension. Not only had he killed her but her heart apparently according to the pathologist was almost cut in two, her head almost severed, her lovely hair cut back, her ears and nose cut off and part of her vagina cut away. All this in perhaps 5 to 10 minutes. The pathologist said it was a “deliberate, intentional, brutal and focused attack” and could be described as a frenzied killing.

These things are so hard to hear and you feel so helpless and sad, really really sad.

Our house was a crime scene and so we were not allowed to go there for about a week. Lesley had no clothes, other than what she was wearing at the time, and I had brought very little in from Central Otago, expecting that as most of my clothes were in Dunedin it would be okay. We had to try and remember what we wanted and where they were and get the police to retrieve them from our house.

We had to arrange a funeral with pictures and music that Sophie would have liked from a motel room. Everything from a motel room. Relatives and friends were contacted, death notices prepared, newspapers to contact, eulogies to write, my workplace to contact, Lesley’s workplace to contact. Sons in Australia to contact and arrange flights for them, undertaker to organise, chapel to organise and a priest. Far too much in unfamiliar surroundings with our state of mind. But with the help of the police, friends and relatives and neighbours it all fell into place.

We had to cancel Sophie’s flat in Wellington and her airline tickets and also arrange for her new bed delivered to her Wellington flat to be sold. We also had to phone the Treasury Secretary and explain what had happened to Sophie.

Later we had support from the Sensible Sentencing Trust and in particular Garth McVicar, especially during the trial about 18 months after Sophie was killed. The police told us they were ready for a trial about 4 months after Sophie was killed. That is the Criminal Justice System however, not designed with victims in mind at all, but just so that an offender can have a fair trial.

The trial when it came after two late postponements for who knows the reason, but very disruptive for our family and friends who had to book and unbook and rebook motels and flights twice. And also, it meant that our sons flew over for the trial when it was first set down for, which meant that they had to wait around for about 6 weeks until the trial was finally held. Our sons had to give up their jobs in Australia and their flats. Does the Criminal Justice System care about that…not one bit. The trial was in Christchurch, much against our wishes rather than in Dunedin where in our view it should have been.

If the trial had been in Dunedin, then we could have helped to accommodate family and friends from out of town at little cost.

The trial was a nightmare and although I had done a few law papers at Otago University including Criminal Law, what followed was much more than I was prepared for and pretty awful for us as a family. The defence team of Judith Ablett-Kerr and Greg King decided to admit that their client was guilty of manslaughter (he was arrested by a police officer at the scene admitting that he killed Sophie), but tried to use the partial defence of provocation in order to avoid a conviction for murder.

Sitting there in court day after day, hearing what an awful person Sophie was and seeing Weatherston in the body of the court (not in the dock where he should have been), passing endless notes to the defence was really hurtful.

Anyway, Weatherston was found guilty of murder after a trial that lasted four and a half weeks and was sentenced to 18 years non-parole. The defence suggested 12 years and the prosecution 19 years. The prosecution based this on several (spurious) like cases of which there were in effect none. There had never been such a horrific case as this before in New Zealand and this was a precedent case in its own right in my view.

Justice Potter the presiding judge at the trial said at sentencing that she did not consider that Sophie was a vulnerable woman.

Sophie was vulnerable all right – ambushed in the supposed safety of her own room, her mind on packing, her new job, leaving home for the first time, going to a strange city and flat mates only some of whom she had met briefly. Thinking probably at least her mother was home and that would provide protection form a person who in a short on and off five-month relationship she had with him, including his psychological (fat and ugly, you will never amount to anything) abuse and physical abuse shortly before he killed her, that she would be safe.

Sophie was one of nature’s loveliest young women who always went out of her way for others, Weatherston on the other hand is one of nature’s nasties – ‘the epitome of evil’ in fact (as I ended my Victim Impact Statement with at sentencing).

All in all, the cost to us (family, friends and neighbours) of Sophie’s death has been immeasurable in terms of grief, but also the cost of everything has been pretty difficult and awful. This was a completely unforeseen happening that started our journey through a criminal justice system that simply does not care about victims.

Cost to the murderer: loss of freedom that is all, everything else covered by the legal aid system.

STATISTICS

Numerous hearings

Depositions (four and a half days) to see if there was a case to answer!!

Trial in Christchurch with related extra expense for victim’s family and friends.

Trial delayed twice and lasted four and a half weeks.

Partial defence of provocation (according to defence, Sophie attacked Weatherston with scissors)

Sentencing – 18 years non-parole

Appeal, one day (12 months after the trial in Wellington) – dismissed.

Leave to appeal to the Supreme Court – declined.

APPROXIMATE COST TO TAXPAYER

Trial – $400,000

HC appeal – $44.000

Incarceration – $100,000 pa x 18 years = $1.8 million.

OTHER COSTS

Costs to us as a family – immeasurable.

Costs to society – immeasurable (Sophie would have been an Economist and no doubt would have contributed much in this role)

Cost to Sophie – her life and any family that she might have had.

Cost to Weatherston – loss of freedom for 18 years but at least he is still alive. It was Sophie who got a life sentence not him.

TODAY AND FROM THAT TIME ON

Lesley and I have separated although we are still married. It was impossible to talk to Lesley about the murder of Sophie, we have never talked about it, because each time when the subject was broached Lesley would begin to cry. Her witnessing the murder is something I can not imagine. The whole thing has been difficult enough for me and for our sons Nicholas and Christopher, but Lesley bore the brunt of it.

Lesley started up the Sophie Elliott Foundation and has talked to groups, especially year 12 girls (and boys) throughout New Zealand in a tireless journey to spread the word about relationships, especially equal vs unequal relationships and what to do when faced with an unequal relationship.

Sophie unknown to her was in a controlling unequal relationship.

I have talked to a number of community groups over the years about ‘anomalies’ as I describe it with the Criminal Justice System and also the New Zealand Bill Of Rights Act that offers little to law abiding citizens.

Ten years after Sophie’s death, nothing has changed – it could have happened yesterday. She was only 22 when she died and had been denied graduation from university, something she deserved and something I know she was looking forward to.

Gil Elliott
July 2018