The tourist and the fatal car crash – the investigation that crushed the police case

The knock on the door came before dawn. Below Steve Samuels’ home, brilliant moonlight washed across the sands of Northland’s Matauri Bay.

Samuels answered to a police officer with the worst of news. His son 26-year-old James Hamiora was dead, the passenger in a car driven by Samuels’ nephew, Yvarn Tepania, who had also died.

They were killed, he was told, by a young American, Reiss Berger, who had arrived in New Zealand from a university semester in Australia to spend time with his girlfriend, who was on a university transfer to Auckland.

The officer said how Berger was driving on the wrong side of the road in a rented budget Happy Camper when 24-year-old Tepania, Hamiora and two others came around a corner, over a blind rise and straight into the couple.

Berger – aged 21 at the time – was under arrest and would face charges in court, the officer said.

The crash happened about 11.15pm. The charges were laid at 3am. The knock on the door came two hours later.

In just four hours, police constructed a narrative that, at first glance, held true.

But there was a different story to be told. It was a darker and more complex tale than a tourist driving on the wrong side of the road.

The crash

It was a clear night, that Easter Monday in 2018, when Constable Julian Trinder turned out of Kawakawa police station.

The end of the long weekend saw Auckland visitors head back down State Highway 1, leaving it relatively empty. Trinder’s 30-minute drive to the Kerikeri police station happened on dry roads lit by an almost full moon.

Turning on to State Highway 10, Trinder was just north of Puketona Junction when he slowed. Three cars were stopped in the road ahead, one with its hazards on. Trinder slowed thinking there might be stock on the road.

As he closed, Trinder saw two of the cars had collided. Mashed together in the south-bound lane was a Happy Camper and a red Subaru.

A motorist ran to the police car, telling Trinder three people were trapped. Grabbing his car’s first aid kit, he ran to help.

The first person he came across was Troy Sabine, then 31, lying by the side of the road in the lane heading north, seemingly thrown from the Subaru.

Sabine was conscious, loudly complaining of chest pain. Trinder moved to the Subaru where he found Tepania unconscious and, although breathing, pinned to the steering wheel. In the back of the car, where the seats were down to make room for a mattress, was Ash Adams, then 20, awake and also complaining of pain.

Trinder had to make choices. He tried to ease pressure on Tepania’s chest, reaching into the car to move the seat back. When it wouldn’t budge he moved to help Hamiora, who was in the front passenger seat. Neither man was wearing a seat belt.

Hamiora wasn’t breathing. Trinder pulled the door open, slid Hamiora to the road and started on CPR. After a time, someone else took over as fire and ambulance staff arrived, and Trinder took a moment to step back and take it all in.

Looking inside the Subaru, he saw beer bottles and cans of bourbon and cola. In front of where Hamiora was sitting was a large bong and a bag of grass.

Trinder turned to the other car, its occupants standing at the roadside. Pulling out his notebook, Trinder took down Berger’s name and that of his girlfriend, New Yorker Dita Cavdarbasha. When Berger explained he was the driver of Happy Camper, Trinder recited to the young American a Bill of Rights caution – “you have the right to remain silent, anything you say will be recorded and may be given evidence in court”.

By now, the intense industry of a serious accident was in high gear. Ambulance workers had Adams and Sabine in ambulances bound for hospital. The formal investigation began almost 90 minutes after impact when serious crash unit investigator Senior Constable Hermanus Hubner arrived from Whangārei, almost an hour south.

Trinder watched as fire crews cut the door and roof from the Subaru to remove Tepania. Like Hamiora, he was no longer breathing.

Hubner was about his work, noting the Happy Camper in the wrong lane, slightly apart from the Subaru. There were no skid marks. The smashed up front showed a slightly off-centre head-on crash that hadn’t thrown the vehicles apart. They sat where the impact occurred.

This, Hubner told Trinder, showed the Happy Camper was in the wrong lane. He photographed the vehicles, used spray paint to mark where they had come to rest, then headed back to Whangārei.

As quickly as the accident scene filled with people, it emptied. Fire crews headed back to Kerikeri. Berger and Cavdarbasha, after being checked over by ambulance officers, were taken to the town’s police station. She would later receive treatment for a wrist broken by the Happy Camper airbag.

The cars were hauled on to a flatbed truck and carted away. Trinder, too, left, following Hamiora and Tepania’s bodies to Scott’s Funeral Home in Kerikeri before returning to the police station.

There, he again read Berger his rights. The young American asked for a lawyer, and – after taking advice – told Trinder he would sleep before deciding on making a statement.

While Berger slept, Trinder updated Sergeant Rob Williams, who had also attended the crash scene. Williams considered the evidence – Berger driving north on the wrong side of the road and two dead people in the car heading south.

“Based on this evidence I was satisfied the evidential test had been met,” Williams later said in court, “and as lives had been lost as a result of the crash, it was in the public interest to charge [Berger].”

It was Trinder who told Berger he was being charged with two counts of careless driving causing death. Further charges were likely, Trinder said, then released Berger on police bail into the still dawn of the Kerikeri morning.

That was about the time a knock sounded on Steven Samuels’ door a half-hour drive north to Matauri Bay.

In the days that followed, the shock of Hamiora’s and Tepania’s deaths ground hard into the small Matauri Bay community. So, too, did the life-changing impact of what had happened become evident to Berger’s parents, Eric and Marci.

Eric Berger caught the first plane from his home in New Jersey on the East Coast of the United States.

When the first court hearing was held on April 5 – a little more than two days after the crash – there were family there for those who had died and for the young man accused of causing their deaths.

At that first hearing, the charges Berger faced were upgraded to “aggravated” careless driving – two counts of causing death and three of causing injury. The altered charges carried the implication Berger was “deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road” and pushed the potential sentence out to a maximum three years in jail.

Police tried and failed to keep Berger in New Zealand until the case was finished.”He’s going to face up to this,” Berger’s lawyer Mike Dodds told the court. “There is no running away from this.”

Berger pleaded not guilty.

“Mr Berger and his partner are adamant they were on the left-hand side of the road,” Dodds said.

Those denials of guilt are in statements from Berger and Cavdarbasha sworn the day of the hearing.

Berger spoke of how he “only swerved into the other lane” when confronted by the red Subaru barrelling towards the Happy Camper.

Cavdarbasha was detailed and specific in her account. She was “100 per cent sure we were on the left-hand side of the road”. “As we came around the left-hand corner, I saw very bright lights directly in front of us. I started yelling. I was conscious that after seeing the bright lights, our car moved or swerved.”

There were no technicalities pleaded. It was a defence that told police, “this did not happen”. In court, Berger said “not guilty” but what he meant was “innocent”.

Much of the police investigation came after charges were laid. Only two of the four in the Subaru on the night of the accident were left alive. Adams told police he couldn’t remember anything, which made Sabine’s recollection vital.

Ten days after the crash, Sabine sat down with Trinder to run through a narrative that would have given police comfort.

Hamiora was drunk that night, Sabine tells Trinder. “James was out the gate, he was 40 ounce, out of his brains. He was giving everyone shit.” And Tepania? “Yvarn seemed straight as.”

Sabine stepped the cop through the route the Subaru took out of Kerikeri, how a mattress lay across reclined seats in the back, how he and Adams stretched out in the back and they all head down SH10, apparently to find a bottle shop.

“We were laying in the back with my head facing forwards towards the windscreen, I noticed a car on our side of the road heading towards us.”

Go around, he told Tepania. Nah, the driver replied, they should get back to their side of the road. “Nah bro,” says Sabine, “it’s not moving.” In just seconds, Sabine says, “I was staring right at its bumper, it was right in front of us”.

“I remember Yvarn letting go of the wheel and saying, ‘”sorry cuzzies’. I saw what was going to happen.” Sabine says he lunged to grab the wheel but it was too late.

The toxicology report came back. If Tepania had a full licence, he would have been five times the legal driving limit. As it was, he was on a learner’s licence that demanded zero alcohol tolerance. And there was methamphetamine in his blood.

Not “straight as”, like Sabine said. And there were other problems with Sabine’s statement. Their apparent destination that night – a bottle shop – was clearly false. In the Far North, nothing would have been open after 11pm on a Monday night.

And the route the car took wasn’t as Sabine described. When Trinder was prompted by Berger’s lawyer to track the Subaru, he could find no sign of it on CCTV cameras in Kerikeri.

And the car itself? It had no warrant and no registration. The tyres were mismatched, three weren’t up to Warrant of Fitness standard and one was bald.

It later emerged police had other reasons to consider Tepania’s role. At the time of the crash, he was facing his third drink-driving charge and had no valid licence.

He was on the road when he shouldn’t have been in a car that had no business being driven.

Falling down

In the months before the crash, Tepania was down a hole and digging deeper.

When those who love him look back, the whole scene was a swirling mess. Burnout was inevitable. He saw it coming. He didn’t want it. He tried changing direction but couldn’t.

Meth was at the centre of it. Troy Sabine, who survived the crash, remembers Yvarn talking about getting on the pipe first when he was 13 or 14. Tina Alison, who was mum to his two children, talks of P twisting his behaviour.

Elias Hardiman grew up with Yvarn out Matauri Bay and tried to get him off it when he came out of prison three years before the crash. It was like paddling around a whirlpool and they got sucked right in.

“We all got in deep over the last couple of years before the crash. Using, scoring and smoked out all the time,” he told former police detective turned private investigator, Mike Sabin.

It was Sabin, hired by Berger’s lawyer Dodds, who unpicked the knot of the case police packaged up for court with Berger in the dock. It was Sabin who found Tepania was at the wheel in the grip of an addiction that wouldn’t let go.

“Over the last year or so before the crash, Yvarn was getting real bad,” Hardiman told him. There was always a session – the boys who grew up together were men who would get on the beers and the bong and there would be a pipe going around. They pooled their money to score and Yvarn was always a part of that. Sometimes he sold.

It wasn’t good for any of them, they knew. Candyce Hardiman remembers Sabine, her long-term partner, smoking P under the coffee table “because he was paranoid that drones were spying on him”.

“He was going down hard,” she said. “We both were. Yvarn was the worst though.”

Adams talked of Yvarn being “unsettled” in the months leading up to the crash. “He drank all the time. In the beginning, he was always drunk. It was just a box [of beer]. Then it was like a box and a tinnie. Then it was a box, a tinnie and a bag.

“But then it was just a bag. The P was changing him.”

“I think he was trying to stop his use and get away from it but he couldn’t,” Candyce said.

Yvarn became a dad for the second time a month before the crash. He was “hard out” then, says Tina Alison. “Out for days at a time, wanting to go out drinking.”

It was stressful with a new-born and their son, 2, and a daughter from an earlier relationship. Tina and Yvarn were home in the middle of March when she asked: “Baby is two weeks old today. Do you realise how many days you’ve been drinking since then?”

That became an argument so he left. He came home with someone else and they spent the night in his car, parked in the drive. He spent the next day in the kids’ room, kept asking if Tina was okay then after their babies were asleep, she said: “You can go now.”

Then when he went to leave he couldn’t with three tyres slashed. That was the day, Tina told Sabin, some guy came around angry Yvarn had ripped him off.

He couldn’t leave but his stuff did. It got loaded into the car. I don’t want you driving, Tina told him, because I want our children to have a father. So he left on foot, came back the next day, found tyres for his car and shot through to Auckland.

They worried, those who knew him, when he started posting Facebook messages on his way south. “I’ve had enough,” was the gist of it, says Elias. It wasn’t the first time Yvarn had talked suicide, either.

They rallied around, friends and whanau, sending messages asking what he was up to, who he was seeing. Just keeping an eye on him, she says, “to make sure he didn’t do anything”.

Candyce Hardiman saw those messages. “I took it to mean he wanted to end it. He was in such a bad way, we were all really worried about him.”

He made it there, he made it back. Sabine talked to Yvarn about it. “He did some serious P while he was down there. Like ounces, he said.”

Candyce saw Yvarn about a week after he returned. “He was so depressed. He was so lost. I gave him a hug and he was like, not even there, like no soul. He was hollow.”

No one seemed to be able to get through to Yvarn. He didn’t sleep, spoke in grunts. There was a desperation creeping in. He wanted to get clean, spoke to James about it, went to Work and Income to ask about counselling.

Allison tried to connect with Yvarn. No, she told him, you can’t come back – we always said if we went with anyone else then that was it – but he was still father to two of her children, still her friend.

He arrived back in time to celebrate their daughter’s birthday. It wasn’t easy. Allison told Sabin of Yvarn’s mood swings. Caring and warm one minute, then blowing hot with anger, then calm again.

And across it all was Yvarn’s feeling he was sliding away. Allison thought it the worst she had ever seen him.

“I’ve seen him upset and talk about suicide before but this was different. It seemed to me like in his head he had f***ed up so bad that nobody loved him anymore, that he had no one and he had nowhere to go.

“He was like real depressed, just so far down it was like he was stuck in a well, like he was so far down he couldn’t see his way out.”

A few days before he died he visited. She remembers him holding baby, taking the kids for a drive, kissing his son and saying: “Daddy loves you, son.”

“Then he rubbed my forehead with his thumb and said, ‘stop being angry’ and ‘I love you’. Then he left. That was real weird. It was too affectionate.

“When I look back at it now, it was like he was saying his final goodbyes to us.”

The night of the crash

Yvarn’s final night out began with a visit to Adams. They had some beers, got on the bong, chilled. Yvarn’s showing Ash the back of his car – the mattress, everything he owns – and how it’s home now.

Then they’re laughing and fishing out a beer from the box of Waikato stashed under the car seat.

Yvarn wanted to get moving. And he wanted to “get on it” so he got Ash to drive. They cruised the town, parked up at Puketotara River near Kerikeri’s golf course and had a few more beers and bongs.

Off again. They cruised past Troy’s but he didn’t want to come – not the first time and not the second so they went to pick up James, parking up in a friend’s driveway, chopping up a fat bud for the bong.

“That’s when it came up about wanting to score some P,” says Ash. “I think it was Yvarn that brought up about going to get some P. They were talking about it and money and how they could get it and pay for it.”

That was the argument raging when they swung back to pick up Troy. James got out and pissed on the driveway, driving Candyce to fury. Go, she told Troy, and he did, climbing in the back and stretching out on the mattress next to Ash.

Yvarn drove, James next to him, hammer-and-tongs fighting about scoring P. They stop at Waipapa for petrol, squeezing $3 into the tank, and drive away with James saying he’ll stand over the dealer and Yvarn hitting back that they’ll wind up in the boot of a car.

“Shut up bros,” says Ash, but they don’t. By the time they’re south of Kerikeri on the sweeping corners down Bull’s Gorge, Troy’s trying to get out but Yvarn’s going only faster.
“They were really going at each other,” he told Sabin. “I was trying to calm them down but they wouldn’t listen.”

He looks over at the speedo and it’s 120km/h down the hill then even faster along the straight. “That was worrying me because Yvarn never drives fast. He’s always a slow driver because he’s not confident.”

“Pull over and let me drive,” Troy says. Not this night. “I couldn’t get through to him because Feisty [James] had already worked him up. There was no getting through to Yvarn.”

The argument is raging in the front as Yvarn cuts the next corner, the car drifting across the centre. Then he starts swerving back and forth across the line, swinging back and just missing a car heading the other way.

“You all good,” Ash asked Yvarn, and James takes that as a spur to grab the wheel and jerk it. “Yeah, you all right cuz?” he asks, taunting Yvarn as the car slews through gravel on the roadside. He was always a wind up. “I’ll drive,” James tell Yvarn.

“Eh,” Yvarn says back, “you wanna die?”, like it’s a challenge. Troy shoves James’ arm away and holds the steering wheel to steady the car for Yvarn. He’s just let go when headlights fill the windscreen.

And there’s nothing he can do. He can’t get to the wheel. The car is heading straight for the lights and he thinks: “F***, we’re going to crash.”

Yvarn lifts his hands from the wheel. He leans straight back. As Troy watches, he watches his friend relax, completely, slumped back in his seat. Then Yvarn says the last thing he’ll ever say.

He says: “Sorry cuzzies.”

Troy lunges for the wheel and yanks it, hard, to stop a direct hit. The last thing he sees is the oncoming car on the centre line.

“In my mind, at that last moment, Yvarn drove at that car,” says Troy. “When we drove towards the oncoming car it was out of anger. It was like, “yeah c***t, I’ve got the last word.

“It was like he had no control over the situation. It was like he had f***ed up so bad there was no getting out.

Getting to the truth

The truth was always there. It just took time to find its way out.

It began with a phone call from Mike Dodds, Berger’s defence lawyer. As whānau grieved their loss, and long days turned into months without Hamiora and Tepania, Dodds had set about testing the police case.

From the outset, he had Berger’s insistence he was on the correct side of the road and Cavdarbasha’s supporting evidence. On that, he had built a defence case around a crash analyst’s report that aimed to show holes in the police investigation. There was the medical reports showing just how wasted Tepania had been that night and how drinking and driving was behaviour developing as a pattern.

Our system of justice pits one side against the other in an adversarial court battle. It’s a system in which the crime is against the state and police – as agents of the state – prosecute that wrongdoing.

It often leaves victims of crime caught between the prosecution and defence. Where injury or death has happened, it unfolds in a gruelling and traumatising way.

So Dodds called Samuels, who remembers being told “Reiss did not want to shock our whānau and community with some of the evidence that would come up at his trial”.

They knew each other by then. In the aftermath of the crash, Samuels turned to tikanga as a way through the tragedy. In contrast to the adversarial court system, tikanga offered a pathway with less conflict and a shared destination.

It was a pathway that led, just a few weeks after the crash, to Berger standing at the graves of Hamiora and Tepania with their parents. There on the coast, the young American was exposed to the grief he was accused of causing.

And then a month later, Ngāti Kura again called on Berger. With guidance from Ngāti Kura kaumatua and kuia, a gathering at the Matauri Bay marae was organised.

Berger went – along with his father Eric, Cavdarbasha and Dodds – and sat in the marae at the centre of Ngati Kura’s anger and grief. Those present spoke of Hamiora and Tepania, and they spoke at the man police blamed for their deaths. At times they shouted, even screamed, their anger and pain at Berger.

There were moments during the purge when some present feared for Berger’s safety, such was the force and passion directed his way. There was a raw and emotional honesty that Berger caught and carried away, all the while not raising a voice to claim innocence. It struck a chord with Ngāti Kura.

After, Steve Samuels put to the court and police an unsuccessful request that the charges being dropped, saying Berger and those with him “had followed our customs and had helped the whānau to heal”.

Even then, at that gathering, there was a truth working to find its way out. Sabin’s notes record Ashton Adams, one of the two survivors, later recalling how he was one who “acted very aggressively”, doing so “almost as an act of outrage to detract from the truth”.

There were other moments in the months ahead. As the immediate pain of loss eased, enough to catch breath, family and friends began thinking back on how they had lost their young men. Thought turned to talk, and that talk started to make its way among whānau.

It was about this time – April 2019 – that Dodds rang Samuels, inviting him to visit and read what the defence would put before the court. After that meeting, Samuels found himself thinking back to his “first thoughts of what had probably happened”. He started asking questions, learning of Tepania’s collapsing mental health.

When Constable Trinder rang a week or so later, Samuels’ shared those thoughts. “I was concerned that there was a reasonable possibility from what I had learnt, that Yvarn Tepania was in fact committing suicide in the accident.” By Samuels’ account, there was no interest from police. Again he asked the charges be dropped and was told police would not do so.

Samuels felt so strongly a deeper wrong was in play that he told Trinder that if police would not listen, then Berger’s lawyer might.

That was what had Samuels again visiting Dodds, one morning in early May 2019. He sat with Dodds and laid it out – how his inquiries led him to believe that late-night run was to score meth, that his nephew was suicidal, and what Sabine had told him in the days after the crash.

It was a different story than the police narrative about to be tested in court and led to Dodds hiring Sabin to investigate the case, collecting statements that undermined the police’s case.

It also cast a light back to that meeting a year earlier at the Matauri Bay marae where Berger was exposed to such anger and grief. On reflection, Samuels saw the police version of events as one that provided whānau an escape route from an awful truth.

He later told the court: “This conveniently allowed my whānau to forget about what myself and others suspected might have occurred.”

Now so confronted, the kaumatua and kuia of Matauri Bay marae were moved again to invite Berger back. And he did, with his parents, meeting Samuels and his wife, and Tepania’s mother.

This time, it was to receive a formal apology.

The aftermath

Throughout the course of the case, defence lawyer Mike Dodds pushed police to step back and look at the evidence. In early 2019, he forced the issue with an application to have the case tossed out of court.

Dodds was planning to show there was no way police could gain a conviction.

When the hearing came in May, it was after a month in which the police case weakened and then collapsed. It did so despite being reviewed and approved by at least two senior police officers.

With just a month to go to the hearing, the case was handed to police prosecutor Duncan Coleman.

Coleman’s initial take was that Berger had a case to answer, although not at the level the charges had been laid. Coleman’s assessment was that the “aggravated” had to go, reducing the seriousness of the crime of which Berger was accused.

It was an assessment made without even seeing the full police file, which wasn’t provided to him until late April.

Through that month and early May that year, Coleman was aware of furious activity by Dodds. There were requests for copies of information police held of which he knew nothing. He had to find and then provide details of the drink-driving charge Tepania was facing, deleted from the police computer system. When it came to finding photographs of the P pipe and other personal belongings handed to Tepania’s family from the car wreck, he couldn’t. They had been deleted.

In a detailed statement to the court, Coleman told of how he learned an investigator – Sabin – was asking questions and how it might be to do with Tepania’s state of mind. Then Dodds alerted him to their interest in police witnesses, including the crash survivors. Of Steve Samuels’ concerns, he said he knew nothing.

There’s no sense of creeping doom in Coleman’s statement. On May 17, 2019, he said, he was confident the court would reject the bid to have the case tossed, and the case would go to a judge-alone trial in June. He was, by then, aware of the statements from the couple in the car, and that a defence crash expert would testify on “faked left syndrome” in which drivers swerve across the road to avoid wrong-lane crashes.

Six days later, the statements Sabin had collected from Adams and Sabine were sent by Dodds to police and the courts. Coleman was stunned, describing himself as “shocked, surprised and immediately taken aback”. Then the other statements landed “which further undermined the police case”.

With four days to go before the hearing, Coleman realised the police case had collapsed. In his testimony to court, he couldn’t recall if he described the impact of the statements as a “hammer blow” or a “fatal blow” but it was the end of the police case.

When it got to court, Judge John McDonald agreed. It wasn’t a trial but a judicial check to see if police had sufficient evidence. For that reason, much of what was said of Tepania was put aside and the focus became Berger’s driving and the new, contradictory evidence from Sabine, one of two backseat survivors.

The fresh interview was “fuller than the one taken by the police” and “teases out more details”. These were details Sabine shared with the tow truck driver when he went to view the wreckage at the yard a few days after the crash. The tow truck driver was interviewed by Sabin as part of his investigation into the case.

“Is there any other evidence which supports that Mr Berger was a person who drifted on to the wrong side of the road, thus initiating the collision,” asked McDonald. Not before the court, he answered. The crash experts didn’t help – neither could say where the vehicles were when they saw each other coming.

There was, he said, “no case to answer” and dropped the charges. Berger was free to go.

As friends and whānau of Hamiora and Tepania left the court, Adams was ambushed and punched, hard, in the back of the head. The blow that felled him revealed the division that now existed among those whose roots lay in Matauri Bay.

When Berger walked free, there were some who felt justice was not served. They had found solace in the police narrative. As Samuels said, it gave a reason for the crash distant from Tepania, the meth, the lifestyle.

Those rifts were even more clear when Dodds went back to court, asking that police cover the $150,000 spent on legal fees, experts and investigation in Berger’s defence. Such a ruling would be rare and carry with it the inference police failed to do its job properly.

Where the initial investigation was done by a constable, it was now Inspector Chris McLellan, area commander of the Far North, who retraced Mike Sabin’s steps.

McLellan flew to Christchurch to interview Sabine in prison. Sitting face-to-face with the officer, he changed his story again, saying the initial statement he told police was accurate. He also told McLellan that his partner Candyce had been in touch “and that there was a hit out on her, me, her brother and Ashton” over his interview with Sabin. “She also said Ashton had been blindshot outside the court after the court case.”

Further evidence of the divide in the community emerged in McLellan’s inquiries. There were claims Samuels had been “paid out”, that Sabine had been paid to change his statement and that Hardiman had bought a car with the money. There was no evidence, just anger and talk. There was a core of those who preferred the police narrative and were trying to find ways to make it fit.

Judge McDonald was provided those statements alongside Dodds’ case that police had moved too fast, charged too soon, carried out a poor investigation and created pain and turmoil where there was already too much.

McDonald was critical that police failed to question Sabine closely, not only initially but after Tepania’s autopsy results “raised serious alarm bells”. There was a clear need to interview Sabine again, he said, when it emerged some in Hamiora’s family believed Tepania had caused the crash.

It was “probable” Tepania “tracked” Berger, said McDonald, aiming his car right at the couple heading the other way. It was a view later accepted by Coroner Debra Bell.

McDonald was critical of other aspects of the police approach – the failure to better protect the vehicles and their contents, the deleting of photographs capturing the P pipe and other items returned to Tepania’s family.

The law that allowed defence costs to be paid was never one intending to match dollar-for-dollar costs, he said, awarding $30,000.

“Mr Dodds repeatedly asked for the case to be reviewed,” said the judge. “It was police who could have done better.”

There were those who did do better, whose words brought forth a narrative so compelling it shattered the police case. In doing so, they gave freedom to a young man in New York who has now qualified from university with an economics degree, who now works in a concrete jungle a world away from Matauri Bay.

Those who did better included the survivors, Adams and Sabine, who put aside their original statements to police for accounts that earned death threats and an ambush beating outside court.

And there was Samuels, who worried his son’s spirit wasn’t resting easy while the truth remained untold. Samuels, who took his son home to bury. Samuels, who sits above Matauri Bay still wounded with the pain of loss, looking east with James’ grave between him and the horizon.

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• Youth services: (06) 3555 906

• Youthline: 0800 376 633

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

• Helpline: 1737

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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