Family joy as Rakuraku found guilty of murder

By Sam Hurley

Steven Tiwini Rakuraku. Photo/File
Steven Tiwini Rakuraku. Photo/File

A "stoic" family were relieved yesterday after a man was found guilty of murdering their brother and son, Johnny Wright.

A jury found Steven Tiwini Rakuraku guilty of 10 of the 11 charges he faced, including the murder of 50-year-old Mr Wright, of Hastings, who disappeared on June 21, 2011.

Rakuraku was convicted at the High Court in Napier of the 10 charges, including the multiple assault and kidnapping counts and perverting the course of justice.

He was found not guilty of threatening to kill one of the complainants, as the jury reached their verdicts following a day and a half of deliberations.

The offending took place in 2010 and 2011 in the Central North Island and involved four victims, Mr Wright, a Rotorua man, whom Rakuraku kidnapped, beat and forced to drive to Hawke's Bay, a Hastings man he befriended and assaulted to help evade police custody, and his former partner.

The verdicts also came just two days after the three-year anniversary of the murder at a Caroline Rd flat, after Mr Wright was bashed and "pelted" by Rakuraku with a taiaha (Maori war weapon) and later buried in a shallow grave near Eskdale.

On August 26, 2011, Rakuraku's former partner "came clean" to police and led detectives to the grave, before a pathologist discovered Mr Wright's body had 36 rib fractures.

The 40-year-old woman said she found Mr Wright dead on June 23, 2011.

The couple drove north, under Rakuraku's direction, before reaching the Napier-Taupo road and turning off on to a cycle trail.

"We pulled over to the side of the road. I was told to wait in the vehicle while Mr Rakuraku carried Johnny ... and buried his body."

After firing his defence counsel on day one of the trial, Rakuraku defended himself and delayed the trial on several occasions, causing considerable angst among the large group of Mr Wright's family and friends who attended the proceedings.

Mr Wright's youngest brother, Paul Wright, told media the family were delighted with the verdicts. "It's been a struggle the last three years to get to this point," he said.

The police officer in charge of the murder investigation, Detective Sergeant Brent Greville, was satisfied with the verdicts.

"We are relieved there has been some justice for the family of Johnny Wright," he said.

The relief was evident as friends and family members of Mr Wright, 39, shed tears and embraced each other when Rakuraku was escorted from the courtroom, after an emotional and anxious wait for the verdicts.

During the first week of the trial, Mr Wright's parents gave evidence but were shielded from Rakuraku, who was behind a screen, to "limit the stress" on them.

Nellie Wright, Johnny's mother, said her son was "always a very gentle, caring person".

Rakuraku vehemently denied all the charges throughout the trial.

His former representation, Russell Fairbrother QC and Leo Lafferty, were appointed amicus curiae (friend of the court) by Justice Joe Williams to preserve the integrity of the court.

Prosecutor Steve Manning said last week, during his closing submissions, that a current of fear ran through the case.

Rakuraku's motive was fleeing police and he used, intimidation and beat his victims to gain control of their "safe houses" and finances in a desperate bid to escape the law, he said.

Rakuraku also made efforts to expunge the evidence, by bleaching and painting the flat where Mr Wright died, and by "training" his ex partner to provide police with a "master plan".

"He would get me to sit in the chair with [him] sitting opposite to me and would be telling me how to sit, when to answer his questions, what to expect in the interrogation process," the former partner said during her testimony. "He came up with the idea of Johnny trying to rape me and that Mr Rakuraku had caught Johnny."

2Mr Manning said the expert medical witnesses had made it "crystal clear" that Mr Wright had died as a direct result of the 36 rib fractures, some caused by the taiaha beating, two days before his death.

Justice Williams concluded the trial by thanking Mr Wright's family for reliving the tragic events of 2010 and 2011.

"Your attendance has been a brave and stoic attendance."

He said the family had "underscored [their] anguish" during a trial under "very difficult circumstances".

Justice Williams remanded Rakuraku in custody. A sentencing date has yet to be set.

He also ordered a full pre-sentence report and a cultural background report on Rakuraku, who was issued a first strike warning under the three strikes legislation.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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