In the early hours of Friday 27 July 2012 I woke to something on my legs kicking it off it was my son trying to climb on our bed I then woke to him again playing on the lounge floor. Later learning this was around the time my daughter was killed in a freezing cold river no doubt kicking for her life!
It’s now difficult to fathom how we were living a normal life that morning on our family farm at Rangiahua, in the rural Far North of New Zealand unbeknown to us my daughter Ashlee lay dead with her murder investigation well underway. During our usual morning routine I heard on the news a body was found at the Lower Tawera Bridge in Whangarei just down the hill from where Ashlee lived I almost rang her and didn’t, not wanting to run late. I had no idea that body was my own daughter! Doing the farm chores I remember walking across the paddock in the dreary winter morning feeling uneasy about something I didn’t know what and couldn’t shake it off.
My partner Kris and I were going to a farming seminar as we were walking out the door to leave my mother rang she said my cousin messaged saying how sorry she was to read on Facebook about Ashlee drowning. I hit the roof swearing it was a stupid thing to say and that I’d ring her.
Ashlee had been in an on off relationship with Jimmy (Fats) Peter Akuhata for just over 3 years. She was only 21 with two young children, 2 years old and 4 months old. He spent time in prison for violating her, a protection order was issued against him and while on home detention for violating her again he threatened her numerous times. She laid two complaints with the police we had been waiting for him to be locked back up not knowing what was going on when he had been released. I knew I couldn’t contact the police and women’s refuge myself due to the privacy act I had been trying to get away to take Ashlee with me to talk with them it was our busiest time of the year on the farm. I learnt only as next of kin after her death I could access her private records. I had also been looking for a house for her to rent nearby so that she and the children would be safer near us. We had gotten her away from him several times before and were at our wits end with him!
I rang her landline phone Women’s Refuge had issued there was no answer I rang her mobile the whole time asking for her to just pick up! She didn’t! My hands were shaking I was panicking! I rang Akuhata’s mother, she bawled down the phone saying Ashlee’s dead. I was furious she was the last person I wanted to hear that from! She was at the police station I demanded to speak to the police! A detective rang back pacifying me I was told they’d been trying to locate me all morning. It was only through my family’s gun licenses that they managed to track me down dispatching police officers from our local station. A visit from the police with that sort of dreadful news is one that you never want however I would’ve preferred that to finding out through thoughtless people announcing our tragic news to the world of social media before we even knew! I was demanding to know what happened to Ashlee and where Akuhata was. She explained a body had been found they believed to be Ashlee and that he was a person of interest they were looking for him. I swore saying I knew he would’ve had something to do with it! I stormed up and down listening and talking feeling rage and disbelief. Kris tore off to tell my father, he swore saying this is all I need! I had been unaware of the deceit that had been unfolding that was also about to rip our family and lives even further apart in the months ahead!
We drove down to the Whangarei Police Station missing the media outside as I stormed in. Akuhata’s mother was there I felt cold towards her wondering why she was there I had tried talking to her months before about her son she had been too defensive of him putting the blame on Ashlee. I was angry we were now in this situation! Two detectives took us into the victim support office telling us what they could while consoling me explaining the processes at the appropriate moments. I wanted to believe it wasn’t Ashlee that this wasn’t happening I broke down crying. I asked why he hadn’t been locked back up. Ashlee’s stepmother had also asked. From there an Independent Police Conduct Authority Investigation went underway it was evident something had gone wrong after Ashlee had laid two complaints violating and threatening her. They soon informed us Akuhata had been apprehended while trying to take off on the run.
We were escorted to where Ashlee had been found. I felt my chest tighten like a panic attack they offered to take me to a medical centre I knew how to work through it. The streets were blocked off with police cordons in place, the forensic team were still working at the scene I noticed the empty car parks, the nearby shopping centre had been closed all day! The whole scene being there felt surreal, beyond words really. They took us to Ashlee’s aunts where her paternal family had gathered all in tears, shock and disbelief. Ashlee’s two children were safely there. I had made it clear earlier that I would take them into my care. As far as I was concerned everyone else had been completely irresponsible keeping things from me to what had really been going on as more sordid information came to light. Kris returned home to be with our two boys. My mum broke the news to my elderly grandmother before anyone else did arriving at the police station distraught! The previous strain in our relationship was suddenly all water under the bridge. We knew the bush telegraph was working fast asking for anything to be taken off Facebook we frantically tried to get hold of my brother working on Barrow Island North West of Australia, we were yet to tell his kids and other family.
After Ashlee’s body had returned from the post mortem in Auckland, we were taken to the hospital chapel for me to formerly identify her. Up until that point I still held on to the hope that it wasn’t Ash as soon as I saw her I broke down crying feeling heart wrenching sobs coming from the pit of my stomach! This was the worst day of my life all my worst fears come true! We were booked into a motel avoiding unwanted media attention. I only had the clothes I was in and stayed awake all night talking on the phone and with Mum our thoughts racing trying to piece together what we’d been told so far. The next morning I picked up the local newspaper with a front page photo of my daughter’s body under a tarpaulin at the bridge. I broke down I couldn’t believe we were going through this!
We met the team of detectives assigned to Ashlee’s case Operation Rua they shed more light on the investigation I felt at ease with them starting to restore the faith I had lost in the police.
We visited Ashlee’s aunt’s Akuhata’s mother was there then we found her trying to get into Ashlee’s house when her father and I went to organise clothes to dress her in. She packed clothes for the kids it worried me she thought she was going to take the children. I wasn’t going to let that happen after what we learnt they’d done! I thought of telling her to leave I couldn’t face any animosity I stayed polite and later regretted it! The next few days we dealt with the police, victim support, the investigation, family and friends, finally getting hold of my brother who flew straight over, organising the kids and arranging Ashlee’s funeral we were advised to bury her quickly as she would’ve been deteriorating rapidly from being left in the water. Forever grateful our local community stepped in arranging the hall and catering as well as others who helped us in many ways.
When Ashlee’s body had been released we arranged for her to lie at her aunt’s for her paternal family to grieve and her children to have their last night with their mother. Akuhata’s mother turned up everyone in a state of grief she took Ashlee’s oldest child denying her last night with her mother. I was furious asking the police to help get her back when I found out the next morning. Then infuriated being told Akuhata’s family suggested taking Ashlee to their marae at TeTi near Kerikeri. I made it very clear this was not happening how inappropriate it was given he’d taken her life!
We escorted Ashlee in the hearse to the funeral home in Kerikeri where I arranged her to lay for everyone to visit on neutral ground. I wanted to take her home to our family farm however our privacy and security were now imperative. I realised Akuhata’s mother hadn’t returned the kid’s bag I took it from her when they arrived she looked nervous showing me no trust by what she’d done we kept a close eye on the children! The chapel was full with people visiting all afternoon.
The day before the funeral as I was getting the children ready to spend the afternoon with Ashlee I received a phone call to say that Akuhata’s family were coming to take her to their marae. I swore saying they weren’t to take her and to ring the police! My mother stayed back with the kids while I tore off getting there as fast as could. My brother had just arrived he was running to keep up with me as I stormed into the chapel Ashlee’s great aunt had calmed the situation down. They had come in on mass being given a heads up they planned to take her even without their elder’s consent from their marae. Ashlee’s family stood together tightly protecting her casket we made it clear they were not taking her! I was also upset they denied Ashlee’s children to be with her. What they had done was disrespectful and insulting given that one of their own had killed her! I was alarmed at their possessiveness and sickened being told they wanted her buried with him when his time came. We now had to be vigilant protecting Ashlee’s body! With the inconvenience they caused I spent hours late into the night still arranging Ashlee’s funeral even my own speech. I hadn’t slept those 4 nights only getting a few hours in when I had everything organised.
The morning of Ashlee’s funeral the lack of sleep and trauma had taken its toll on me bawling in the mirror trying to put make up on just wanting this nightmare to stop! My brother drove Ashlee’s children and I to the funeral chapel. Ashlee’s father and I laid the covers and casket lid over her while I bawled my heart out not wanting to be doing this!
We escorted Ashlee in a long funeral procession to the hall in Okaihau for her service. I was overwhelmed by the people lined up on the street and packed into the hall. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone as I knew I would lose it while we were taking her casket in! A local celebrant took the service my cousin delivered the eulogy, myself, my mum, a family friend and Ashlee’s father briefly, paying our tributes as we spoke about her life and the lovely child, woman and devoted mother she was. Avoiding the circumstances it was difficult to hold it together as it was. I had made it clear to Akuhata’s side they were to stay in the back ground and behave none of them were invited to speak. I felt secure knowing there was a police presence. Our family and community were angry at his family I demanded that everyone kept it dignified. Ashlee’s funeral was sad enough the strain worse having to keep a vigilant eye on his family and Ashlee’s children, not letting us to just grieve! I broke down crying as Ashlee was laid to rest at the nearby cemetery I didn’t want her to go into that deep cold wet hole. As most people left I was alarmed Akuhata’s family were still there with a station wagon parked up at the front gates! I feared they were still going to take her body and her oldest child who was with me. I asked the grave diggers to start filling in her grave as my brother and I took Ashlee’s daughter back to the hall. Other’s at the hall were also concerned about Akuhata’s family and kept a close eye on them.
Condolences poured in during the following weeks rearranging our lives! Unable to work on the farm now taking care of four children, dealing with Ashlee’s affairs, her house and all sorts of things I had no time to grieve! I also dealt with the police while they continued the investigation preparing for Ashlee’s murder trial, informing us of the events that lead up to her death how Akuhata had enticed Ashlee out to a nightclub, aggressively trying to take her phone barging into the toilets after her and as she tried to walk home possibly having an altercation at the bridge he threw her over then ran in holding her under, leaving her for dead he ran off trying to flee from town the next day he was caught. Several months later a witness described Akuhata telling him that he held her under until the bubbles were gone I lost it breaking down in the courtroom. With Ashlee’s paternal family and some of my friends we faced Akuhata at his first court hearing where he entered no plea. The angry energy surge in the room that day was immense that he didn’t admit his guilt this could have been dealt with straight away saving us the agonising wait and stress!
The following November it was reported Akuhata was beaten up in prison. I was angry this delayed the murder trial that had been set the following July. I was sceptical he may have instigated the beating or harmed himself to delay the trial or perhaps in his deluded mind to try and get off the hook. Apparently nothing came of the investigation into his beating. The media reported Akuhata was seeking compensation for the beating from Serco, the private company running the prison. I was furious I was suffering financially he had the right to seek compensation! Through journalists I learnt as a victim I had a right to claim that compensation for Ashlee’s children and being on the Victim’s Notification Register I would’ve been notified. Through another journalist I found out nothing came of his claim. I was still concerned whether a deal was made discreetly being a private company.
The police investigation team remained incredibly supportive to my numerous queries I was in awe of their compassion and professionalism. Keeping me well informed I also kept myself well informed keeping crucial information to myself and only a few trustworthy mature family members. Others had lost my trust talking too openly distorting the truthful facts not mindful of jeopardising the trial. Northland was a small community! As these others complained and argued on social media I was disappointed it divided our vital family support. I had been warned of long lost friends or relatives coming out of the woodworks jumping in the limelight and being possessive of someone in their death. Sadly some did creating drama and problems also dividing the families.
Haunted by the accused acquitted in Scott Guy’s murder trial the defence lawyer’s theatrical performance yet plausible argument in court I was left with little faith in our justice system and that it went to trial without crucial evidence needed to prosecute him beyond all reasonable doubt. I felt like a fox terrier at their heels ensuring Akuhata was going to get justice. Leading up to the court hearings, two detectives walked me from the nightclub where he had left with Ash that night to the bridge explaining what may have happened. Still needing assurance it wasn’t until I asked if they could place him at the scene the time of the crime they informed me of the crucial evidence in the video footages and forensic evidence that I knew they had him!
Over the next two years the several court hearings were extremely daunting, stressful and emotionally draining. Throughout our ordeal I had incredible professional support from the police, victim support, court advisors, grief counsellors, lawyers and several others even the media were compassionate to deal with. I was let down by Legal Aid approving the grant for legal custody they withdrew it as we had made applications to the family court before applying for legal aid. I argued it they still refused causing me further financial hardship. Resentful Akuhata has had full legal aid. Immediately after Ashlee’s death her lawyer arranged for me to apply for guardianship, day to day care and for Akuhata to be removed as guardian. I was overwhelmed dealing with it so soon she knew the family and knew it was imperative to start proceedings. Ash had been upset his family denied her in court relocating to Australia to get away from him just before her death. I was also arranging for her younger daughter’s birth certificate to be issued through court. Akuhata’s mother intercepted those proceedings. It turned into several months of added stress, financial strain and legal costs. Alarmed at the lies and manipulation I defended myself factually, sensibly and honestly with supporting evidence. My main concern was the children’s welfare, their best interests and to fully protect them from the harm they had caused already evident in Ashlee’s oldest. I came to realise one of Akuhata’s family used me in the ruse of sending gifts to Ashlee’s children to get information out of me which became evident in a legal document. No gifts came. Horrifyingly Akuhata had to be served in prison with the right to defend these proceedings fortunately he didn’t! The family court ruling was sensible I was awarded guardianship, the parenting order and the details required for my grandchild’s birth certificate to finally be issued. This had prevented the unsupported orphan’s benefit being paid also causing financial strain. Later on Akuhata was removed as guardian. Months after I learnt of a lawyer who stated that he only knew of one case in Northland where a parent had been removed as guardian. That was our case!
The IPCA report issued found that Ashlee’s two complaints to the police against Akuhata whilst a Protection Order was held against him had been grossly and inadequately managed. Apparently the officers concerned underwent disciplinary action. The Police apologised and assured me they were stepping up their family violence policies and procedures in Northland. I acknowledged that informing them how extremely angry I was this had happened costing Ashlee her life, and that they should step up all around the country! Nothing cut it really Ash was still gone. As I’ve supported victims I’ve noticed that some cases have been dealt with by the Police more adequately yet heard of other horrific cases there has still been deaths, I believe we still have a long way to go! I helped a mother petition to parliament for harsher penalties on breaching protection orders. Whilst nothing eventuated from that what was even better was that the current government introduced an overhaul of the family violence laws in NZ! It was long overdue!
With the delays of Akuhata’s beating in prison, in mid 2014 we endured a two day hearing to determine whether it was murder and if he was fit to sit trial. The police, crown prosecutor and court victim advisor kept us well informed nothing prepared us for the spectacle he and his family caused. It was the first time any of them showed up at court a horrible situation to be in sitting alongside the family who supported my daughter’s murderer angry at what they had done to us! His brother’s behaviour created tension trying to get his attention with gangster signs, being disruptive in the court room and shoving past us to sit right behind Akuhata. We listened to the witnesses distraught at what more we learnt. We watched in disgust as Akuhata turned around to his brother making the gun to the head gesture after a particular witness spoke. During one of the professional’s witness statements I realised another lie from that family. The judge placed a suppression order not allowing any information from the hearing to be published. I was comfortable with that I didn’t want anything jeopardising the trial. I was concerned Akuhata may have been feigning insanity and whether the trial was going to proceed. I worried about some discussing the case or putting anything on social media I asked for it to stop and be removed when they did. It turned nasty causing more division amongst Ashlee’s families. I was hurt they weren’t being sensible not concentrating on justice for Ashlee! The judge later deemed Akuhata fit to sit trial it was finally set for April 2015, almost 3 years after he had killed Ashlee. The months ahead were an agonising wait preparing for the trial organising the kids at school and childcare, commuting to court for 3-5 weeks and everything else that needed to be done. Two weeks out from the trial Akuhata finally pleaded guilty! I was relieved as well as angry that he could have done this in the first place knowing he had killed Ashlee putting us through all the anguish he caused! Our lives had been completely turned upside down!
Reading Lesley Elliott’s and David White’s books about their daughters both also killed by their former partners I felt like I was in their heads going through the same as they did. I spoke with them both they got me on to the Sensible Sentencing Trust I gained another incredibly supportive network with other victims of serious crime. Through David’s book I learnt to write my victim impact statement to be read out in court without parts ruled out like some of his had been. It seemed ridiculous that these offenders had committed the most inhumane act and we weren’t freely allowed to express what we really wanted to say to them! I worded my statement appropriately saying exactly what I wanted to say. The only part the crown prosecutor advised to leave out was about the family court. At Sentencing I delivered my 6 page victim impact statement packed with all the punches everything Akuhata did causing horrific impacts on our lives, Ashlee, her children, our family even losing my grandmother earlier than we should have! I faced him telling him that I would never ever forgive him for what he did to Ashlee and her children! His lawyer said he was going to write a letter to the family. That never happened. He clearly showed no remorse! He was issued a life sentence with 15 years non-parole. I told the media afterwards we were relieved yet the sentence didn’t cut it really as Ashlee was still no longer here! It felt wrong that two years were discounted for pleading guilty when he took almost three years to admit his guilt only then because most probably the evidence presented to him was overwhelming, and also for apparently feigning insanity! Quite frankly I believe those three years should have been added on to the 17! Preferably he should be locked up for life anyway!
It hurts deeply Akuhata senselessly and selfishly taking my precious daughter’s life. I’m resentful of everything this has caused us and that in less than 10 years I am going to have to face the parole board to ensure he remains locked up hopefully indefinitely as I firmly believe he will always be a risk to society while he clearly shows no remorse now appealing his conviction and sentence I seriously doubt he ever will! His claims for appeal seem inconsistent with the thorough investigation and court process leaving us under further strain now facing the Court of Appeal!
The cost has been immeasurable! Akuhata taking my daughter’s life; raising her children without their mother; his family causing problems and legal costs; the stress and grief; two women ripping our family apart, my relationship with my partner breaking up, my father selling our family farm, the deceit, abuse and bullying I lost my home, stock, work, income and my paternal family; raising four children on my own forced on a benefit not being able to work due to health problems; losing the various positions I held in organisations no longer being able to contribute back to our community who helped us during Ashlee’s death; friends and others not understanding my grief I had to stand up to the bullying and abuse, even cyber bullying I was further bullied and ostracised adding further hardship with losing my home, friends and community support. I tried to keep as practical and sensible as possible it didn’t make any sense why these people tore our lives apart with what they did as well! They only showed me the greed, power and control doing what it takes for their own gain. I learnt about the insidious extent of narcissistic abuse. Their cruelty only ruins families and lives. There was also the extensive cost to the tax payers of the murder investigation, legal and court costs, victim support, grief counselling, medical care amongst a whole lot more.
Soon after we lost Ashlee another woman was murdered in Whangarei through her family and various organisations I have campaigned against family violence, sexual violence and child abuse, also supporting other victims. I learnt the true extent of what abuse actually is. It’s not just the wife bashing and visible bruises. It’s the insidious nature of verbal, mental, emotional and sexual abuse that escalates into physical abuse even death! We had severely underestimated the dangerous situation Ashlee was in! Being down played, vital information kept from me, victim blaming and lack of sensibility I felt Akuhata and his family were heavily manipulative and dominating of her. We were unaware of the extent of their violent background. I also learnt the abuse we had lived with ourselves robbed us of our self esteem we were heavily dominated being susceptible to poor partners and poor relationships. The generational cycle Ashlee, myself, my mother and grandmother had lived with we were expected to shut up and put up with it living in fear of what we’d lose. As I have spoken out about abuse, family violence, Ashlee’s death and my grief I have helped many yet also hit raw nerves being bullied and ostracised by some family, friends and supposedly decent people in our local community. It should never have been condoned! Living behind a façade like we did being ignored or brushed under the carpet too many people are still not fully aware of what domestic violence, bullying and abuse is and the damaging repercussions destructing families and communities in our country. There needs to be more education, advocacy and awareness within families, schools, tertiary facilities, work places and wider communities.
People just need to get it! They need to know what bullying and abuse is! Ignorance, taking sides and not doing anything is only perpetuating it. They need to overcome their fear and stop the vicious cycle! Speak up and make a stand. We need to stop this age old cycle that still continues to happen!
By Karen Edwards.