Patrick Tarawa. Picture: New Zealand Herald
Patrick Tarawa. Picture: New Zealand Herald

The one-punch killer not in jail

Patrick Tarawa's return to Kaikohe made him statistically likely to have a worse life than most New Zealanders.

And then, at age 21, he killed a man.

In January this year, he punched Chris Vujcich in the head then left him sprawled on a rain-soaked footpath, dying in the dark, the New Zealand Herald reports.

Convicted of manslaughter, Tarawa is still in Kaikohe, a town in the far north of New Zealand, around three hours from Auckland.

His sentence this month of 10 months' home detention and 400 hours' community service is the talk of the Far North.

Murderer, they call him. Easy time, they say. Not justice, says Chris Vujcich's family.

They don't talk about how Kaikohe is statistically doomed to live through such tragedies.

Or how the judge's sentencing calculations included a specific geographical consideration when it came to Tarawa's driving and petty theft convictions.

"They are symptomatic, regrettably, of problems which young people - particularly in this part of the country - suffer through deprivation," Justice Kit Toogood said.

As exceptional as a loss of life through violence can be, there was almost an inevitability to everything which followed Patrick Tarawa's return to Kaikohe.

Talk to the mayor, local Member of parliament and others - they all know Kaikohe and similar communities are riddled with problems which will dramatically skew the lives of its citizens for the worse.

Isn't it about time someone did something?

 

Chris Vujcich fishing. Picture: New Zealand Herald
Chris Vujcich fishing. Picture: New Zealand Herald

 

STRAIGHT OUT OF KAIKOHE

He had escaped, says Tarawa's aunt, Evelyn Tarawa.

She helped raise Patrick Tarawa when he left Kaikohe to attend Wesley College in Auckland, the fortunate child in a family of six children to break out.

With an athlete's natural grace and a fast-growing build, excellence at rugby league helped ground Patrick Tarawa.

It lasted until his parents David and "Gin" separated in his late teens, which drew him back to Kaikohe to care for his siblings.

"I would have done anything to keep him down here," says Evelyn Tarawa.

"He had to go back to co-parent. He carried a big burden on his back looking after those kids."

She grew up in Kaikohe yet says it's a different town to the one she knew as a child.

Ask the difference and she talks of discipline and morals, opportunity and work, and the role of the marae, the focal point of Maori communities throughout New Zealand.

"These days now in Kaikohe, there is nothing there for the youth. Kaikohe is a run down place. These last 25 years, Kaikohe is nothing but a ghost town."

There's no getting past the punch or the death of Chris Vujcich, says Evelyn Tarawa, but what unfolded - at least the way it was explained to her - is a more complex, nuanced series of events.

"Patrick was trying to defend himself. Patrick got scared of him. The way he got out of his van was scary. Patrick parked his car down the road - he only wanted to see where he lived."

The plan, she claims, was for her nephew to tell police. It didn't happen that way, of course.

"He killed somebody and that's the biggest burden a young fella, aged 22, will carry for the rest of his life."

Court documents record the awful way in which their lives intertwined on January 18, 2018.

HOW A LIFE WAS LOST

Patrick Tarawa and Chris Vujcich, 58, knew each other only moments.

It was about 9.15pm on a Thursday night, the middle of a wet summer in the warm north of New Zealand.

Tarawa had not long found out his partner, Tui Rihari, 17, was pregnant.

Turning out of Kaikohe's Mobil service station in his Subaru Legacy, he had to stand on the brakes when Vujcich came around the corner, swinging wide onto the wrong side of the road.

Evidence gathered by police showed alcohol in his system, although his sister Megan says he rarely drank.

Police were told how Patrick Tarawa was concerned, startled, over his unborn child. As Vujcich's van swept by, Patrick Tarawa spun the wheel and headed after it.

It was no distance at all - from the top of the road where Tarawa braked hard, it was just 200m to Vujcich's home.

Rihari was scared, Tarawa later told police, and all he had wanted was to confront the driver and "see what his problem was".

One neighbour, watching out the window, says she saw Tarawa's car race down the dead-end street then reverse back quickly. It then pulled up outside 19 Kowhai Ave.

 

Where the fatal fight began. Picture: New Zealand Herald
Where the fatal fight began. Picture: New Zealand Herald

 

Vujcich must have spotted Tarawa. He parked his van in the driveway at 21 Kowhai Ave and marched down the road to the Subaru.

"You got out and argued with him about the near miss," Justice Toogood told Tarawa.

Vujcich broke off the argument long enough to tell his son Matthew, 24, to park the van further up the driveway.

The argument continued - who did what, who was to blame. Rihari got out of the car and told the pair to leave it. She would later say she could smell alcohol on Vujcich.

Justice Toogood: "This tragedy could have been avoided if either of you had followed her sound advice."

The men were of a similar size, although 36 years apart in age at the time.

Tarawa was a good league player and Vujcich had years of involvement in rugby. Neither would have been unfamiliar with the consequence and cost of physical contact.

"The argument escalated", said Justice Toogood, "with Mr Vujcich pushing you in the chest".

Police evidence notes the push didn't move Tarawa, who told Rihari to get back in the car.

Tarawa told police Vujcich was lining up to give him another push.

Right then, he punched the man.

The first punch, with his left first, was a glancing blow. Tarawa's fist shaved the left-hand side of Vujcich's head.

The second punch, with his right fist, connected. Vujcich went over backwards. His head hit the concrete, fracturing the base of the skull and causing a bleed at the base of the brain stem.

Tarawa told police he left Vujcich snoring although, really, Vujcich was dead already. The damage to his head was irreversible, fatal.

Tarawa left without checking on Vujcich. When Matthew Vujcich came out to check on his father, he found him there on the wet footpath, unresponsive.

Ambulance and police were called about 9.30pm, which is what Tarawa saw when he and Rihari drove past the street a short while later.

The young couple had talked, police were later told, and Tarawa was preparing to hand himself in. If that was the case, he didn't do it before being pulled over and arrested on an assault charge about 10.15pm.

Vujcich was taken to Bay of Islands Hospital in Kawakawa. His condition worsened and he was put on a ventilator to assist breathing. Nothing could be done. The ventilator was removed on Saturday and then, at noon on the second day after the altercation, Vujcich was allowed to die.

 

A tribute to Chris where he died. Picture: New Zealand Herald
A tribute to Chris where he died. Picture: New Zealand Herald

 

'I WANT TO GO TO JAIL'

Evelyn Tarawa has spent a lot of time in prayer since then, as has her nephew.

"He has come to me and said he is sorry. If the big man upstairs could rewind things, he wishes he could."

They had prayed together, during that time on bail, asking for forgiveness, for support for the Vujcich family, for his as-yet unborn child.

"He wanted to go to jail and do his time. He was happy to do three years, so the (Vujcich) family would have something.

"I said, 'it's not going to change anything. They are going to hate you - you took their father, their grandfather. They are always going to hate you'."

She stood in court as Patrick Tarawa's whanau representative with three letters in her hands to read.

"I turned to the victim's family and said 'I know my words will never bring your loved on back'.

"Then I cried and cried. When I turned to the family, that's what got me."

The Vujcich family also spoke to the court, one by one telling of their loss.

Chris Vujcich's sons, Anthony and Matthew, prompted the greatest of sorrow, Evelyn Tarawa says.

"I understand where the hurt is coming from. If that was my family, I would just want blood for blood. They were just so calm and so hurt."

A FAMILY BEREFT

Megan Vujcich is still calm and still hurting. She watched Tarawa stand in court, accused.

"He looked like an ordinary man," she says. She sat there and thought, "how could anybody do this to another person".

She searched Tarawa's face for remorse. Tarawa stood, seemingly emotionless.

Their perception of a lack sorrow by Tarawa - however that is meant to be displayed - has only reinforced the hurt suffered by the Vujcich family.

The attack cost her brother's life, and her nephews lost their father. One of their sons, Nick, seven, was being raised by his grandad.

"He definitely wants his DadGran, as he called him."

When Patrick Tarawa's remorse was eventually clearly stated in court, it came at the sentence indication hearing where a guilty plea is considered as punishment is negotiated.

The context, to the Vujcichs, made it feel like a cynical bid for a lighter punishment.

"To us, it didn't feel like someone who was remorseful," she says.

The guilty plea came with an agreed summary of facts - a series of events which the defence and prosecution have collectively arrived at.

It includes the claim Chris Vujcich got physical first by pushing Tarawa in the chest.

Megan Vujcich: "My brother (David) only believes he would have done that if someone was in his face."

 

Chris with his grandchildren. Picture: New Zealand Herald
Chris with his grandchildren. Picture: New Zealand Herald

 

Claims of alcohol - not in the summary of facts - are also dismissed although the NZ Herald understands medical data from the hospital show it to be true.

"Only three people know what is true," says Megan Vujcich. "We don't have Chris here to defend himself.

"The thing that got me most was Patrick Tarawa hit him twice. There was intent there. Chris fell to the ground and Patrick Tarawa left him there. 'Snoring' was his word. How many people go to sleep from a punch?

"What makes us so angry is not only did he punch him twice but he left him there to die."

The sentence of home detention and community sentence didn't seem right, she says. It was met with "stunned disbelief".

"To us it was farcical. Nothing is going to bring Chris back, I get that, but this person deliberately followed my brother, punched him - not once but twice. He intended to cause harm. And then having caused harm, he left him alone."

Looking for justice, Megan Vujcich reads of other sentences in the media. Eighteen months prison for paua (abalone) poaching "versus someone's life - it just doesn't add up".

"Manslaughter should never be considered for home detention. I personally don't believe home detention is the right choice for this."

And what benefit will home detention have? "In prison, he will have more ability to get help… from counsellors who are in prison."

Of course, she says, she is biased. "He was my brother. Nothing would be long enough."

TWO LIVES LOST

The Vujcichs' dissatisfaction with the outcome of the court is not unusual.

"Victims of their offending are often not confident that justice has been served nor safety improved" by a prison sentence, the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser found earlier this year.

Sir Peter Gluckman's report - Using evidence to build a better justice system challenged many assumptions on crime and justice - confounds Megan Vujcich's assumption prison will "fix" Patrick Tarawa.

According to Gluckman, it makes it more likely the person jailed will reoffend.

What's more, he found it was likely to perpetuate the cycle. "Once a mother or father is in prison, children are more at risk of poverty and social deprivation, and of engaging in crime themselves."

How do you measure the cost of a life? Or two lives?

Megan Vujcich is convinced the attack led to the early death of their mother, Patricia Vujcich. When told what had happened, the devastating news hospitalised the older woman.

As her mother's condition worsened the court process got under way.

Like many families, they attended hearings and watched "justice" unfold.

"We saw her deteriorate."

Three months after the assault, Patricia Vujcich died. "For the family it was a double impact."

Oh God what a year, she says. "The emotions have varied depending on the day. Anger. Disbelief. Being extremely upset down to depression."

Nothing which sounds like justice, by her definition.

THE DESOLATION OF KAIKOHE

Kaikohe is an uncomfortable medley of the triumph of human spirit and the awfulness of its absence.

Town heroes embark on renewal plans, energising efforts and schemes which offer the possibility of certain footing in a place where the ground sinks beneath the feet of so many who attempt to set forth in the world.

The desolation of Kaikohe resists their efforts.

Once, Queen Elizabeth II visited. She flew into Kaikohe airport, met by an adoring crowd.

Now, there is no airport. The pub which hosted a queen has been torn down. The rail spur has gone. Mills have closed, local dairy factories gave way to regional hubs.

Many of those spoken to mark the beginning of the slide as the 1980s. Work dried up and nothing took its place.

The town's hearty people lost heart and the generation which found itself jobless then had children who grew up watching parents looking for opportunities in a world offering little beyond the promise of a trickle down which didn't happen.

In its absence came those curses which afflict communities without hope or opportunity.

Crime rose, domestic violence became more common.

Nearby Ngawha prison was built partly so locals convicted of crime would not be separated from family, which is a key aspect of reducing reoffending.

The absence of wealth can be seen on street after street - empty shops, houses parched by northern sun with cracked and flaking paint, weeds winning wars in places gardens once grew, cars on blocks still waiting for parts which will never arrive.

The absence of wealth can be seen in the presence of those at the roadside, hitchhiking to Kerikeri for seasonal work and unable or unwilling to compromise a pay cheque by paying for petrol, or a warrant of fitness, or car registration. And then there's those who drive regardless.

Statistically, Kaikohe has all the worst indicators.

For 2013, it sat highest in the deprivation index for the Far North, which itself was high in national rankings.

It features at the wrong end of all statistics. It has the least qualified, most unemployed people in the Far North.

In 2013, there were 126 people of the 2679 people measured who had been to university - around 3 per cent of the population against 12 per cent nationally.

People are far less likely to be employed - of a 2013 workforce of 1272 people, there were 55.7 per cent with full time jobs against 72 per cent nationally. The percentage of those not in the workforce is also much higher.

Those who do work are in infrastructure industries - they teach or work in training course, or are in health care and social work, or for government departments. Other parts of the country feature far greater numbers of people employed in private industry.

For the work done, those in Kaikohe sit far down the table of earnings nationally.

In 2013, a large majority of households earned less than $40,000 a year.

It is one of the least connected parts of the country - low internet access, low telephone connections.

Kaikohe also features prominently in crime statistics, although police would be interviewed about it or other communities with high levels of deprivation.

In a 2015 data analysis of crime, the town was found to have the greatest number of assaults, robberies and sexual assaults among all "small urban areas" in New Zealand.

Four of the top 10 "small urban areas" plagued by assaults, robberies and sexual assaults are from the Far North.

A MAYOR'S REGRET

Far North mayor John Carter spent 24 years as the MP for the region, half of which was in government with lengthy spells as a minister.

Parliament - whether Labour or National led government - made decisions which had unforeseen outcomes and failed to take steps which could have set New Zealand on a better path.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Now I look back and think, 'we could have done something 20 years ago that would have made a difference.

"I look back and think, 'goodness - not just me but we - we could have but didn't. At least I have this opportunity now."

As Mayor, and someone living full-time in the Far North, he sees it differently now.

Those in parliament, connected as they might be, shuttle in and out and, he says, don't see the need as clearly as those who are immersed in it.

Many in New Zealand would not believe it.

Take the conversation he had with a principal who had organised Chromebook devices for children at the school. Some children rejected the offer as pointless.

"Why," he asked. "Don't you have wi-fi?"

"No sir, we don't have power."

Carter agrees with Toogood's comments about criminal convictions as a by-product of deprived communities.

"There are children living in families where there has never been employment. They don't know about school. They don't live in our society, in that sense."

There are communities which "not just don't know how to work, they don't know what it means".

"For their sake and for our sake, we need to bring them back into society."

The issue, he says, is not just Kaikohe. And it's not just the Far North or even Northland but "it's right across our nation".

Still, in the Far North "we've got serious deprivation".

Communities bereft of hope, ingrained intergenerational despair.

"There are people we need as a society to be part of us who aren't part of us."

Carter has been talking with the Prime Minister's office finding ways to turn the tide. It needs to happen at a community level, says Carter.

"You can't make it work from Wellington or Whangarei."

There's one-on-one guidance, training courses, study support and thoughts about lifting young people from the quagmire which threatens to perpetuate the cycle.

"People are going to say 'what's the cost?'. I'll say, 'you go find out what it costs to put them in Ngawha (prison)'. And it's more than the prison cost. It's the opportunity cost."

The cost of the human potential unrealised, the cost in meeting social needs, the cost to businesses in not having a stream of energised and engaged people working, the cost of taxes not paid.

WHO WILL SAVE KAIKOHE?

If John Carter couldn't see it in 24 years, what of the vision of current Members of parliament?

Northland MP Matt King grew up with Kaikohe as the hub of the north. It was the primary service town and centre of industry.

Those were the days before Kerikeri boomed. Just 25 minutes away, Kerikeri is now a wildly different, healthier, more prosperous town when compared with Kaikohe.

The consequence for those living in Kaikohe is clear to King, who is also National's spokesman for rural communities.

Those in Kaikohe now have a different view of the world, he believes, and it has become filled with "no hopers".

"We have to change the philosophy. If we're going to do this, it's a 10-20-30 year plan. It's expensive but when you look at the other end of the conveyor belt, we're saving big bucks there.

"That's what every government - red or blue - has to do."

It's not easy. King calls it a "big, long hard haul of a job".

"I see us spending lots and lots of money, one by one, showing them a different life."

The sense of spending is the savings it creates, he says. Fewer people in prison, families which are not broken, children who grow to realise their potential.

King, a former police officer, has seen Northland's communities at their worst. Those communities which have much less have different crime.

"You just attend more alcohol-related incidents, more domestics. No one has any food. Yelling at each other and the kids is acceptable.

"I would see kids who didn't have a chance. They were toddlers but I'd see their parents… they're not going to have a chance but to be like mum and dad."

King has recently met with and seen a tourism focused training scheme which has brought in young people from Northland's deprived communities. It requires those involved to live where the training is, which removes them from their communities so they don't "get dragged back down by their families".

The change is remarkable, he says. Young people who, at the outset, couldn't summon the wherewithal to speak to him now engaged as the adults they are.

"When they get introduced to a different way, they really take off. They were totally different from what they were a few months ago."

Minister of Regional Development Shane Jones lives about 20 minutes from Kaikohe. He knows the town, visited it regularly when young and recalls its glory days as the bustling service centre of the North.

"Kaikohe has become degraded. It's the epitome of how many of New Zealand's rural towns have become retarded because government walked away from them.

"Kaikohe is the epitome of how Rogernomics enriched some and discarded others."

For Kaikohe, it is tragic. It was the centre of Ngapuhi leadership - "the largest tribe in New Zealand, and in the day, the most powerful tribe in New Zealand".

Jones - who has one billion dollars to invest through the Provincial Growth Fund - says there's a role for government to provide the infrastructure which would allow Kaikohe to develop economically.

There's no irrigation system, such that with which Kerikeri was blessed when Sir Robert Muldoon was Thinking Big. He didn't start it but helped plenty.

"The Crown needs to provide townships with long-term endowments."

The trickle-down of Thatcherism created towns like Kaikohe and Kaitaia, he says. Part of it is economic abandonment. Part is the message it sent to those communities.

"It's how they believe the state sees them."

Change is a long process for this town steeped in history and endowed with natural resources such as active thermal vents and rich soil.

"The first thing is people like myself have to have the courage to commit the Crown to the redevelopment of Kaikohe. To be honest, we haven't had that courage."

This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald and was republished with permission.



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