Mummified bodies lay undiscovered for months

Inside Newtown Park Flats, where Michael Clark lay for a year before his body was discovered. A second similar case has now come to light. Photo / NZ Herald
Inside Newtown Park Flats, where Michael Clark lay for a year before his body was discovered. A second similar case has now come to light. Photo / NZ Herald

The mummified bodies of two reclusive pensioners lay in their Wellington council flats for months before they were found, despite numerous attempts to contact the men, inquests have been told.

Wiremu Whakaue, 68, is believed to have died in his one-bedroom council flat in June 2009, but his body was not discovered on the floor of his bedroom for another eight months.

His death shares numerous similarities to that of Michael Clarke, 87, whose body was found in his fire-damaged one-bedroom flat last August, more than a year after his death in July 2010.

Inquests into the men's deaths were held before coroner Ian Smith in the Wellington District Court today.

Mr Whakaue, a tenant of the council-owned Granville Flats in suburban Berhampore, was described as a heavy drinker and a recluse.

Constable Carmen Stewart told the inquest he was believed to have died of heart failure some time after June 15, 2009, when he made his last withdrawal from a bank account.

Neighbours noticed a strange odour around his flat in the months after he died, but did not report it.

Numerous attempts were made to contact him - including by relatives, power retailer Genesis, and council contractors seeking to check his fire alarm - but none raised concerns about Mr Whakaue's wellbeing.

His rent continued to come out of his bank account but his power was disconnected on September 9 after his bill went unpaid.

Genesis Energy revenue assurance facilitator Catherine Mace said numerous attempts were made to contact Mr Whakaue, but the company was bound by privacy laws and there was "only so much we can do".

A contractor for Genesis, Paul Hakaraia, said he disconnected Mr Whakaue's power after knocking on his door and receiving no reply, which was standard practice for customers who were not listed as medically vulnerable.

He said he noticed nothing out of the ordinary at the flat.

Mr Whakaue's mummified body was not found until the council's final attempt to check his fire alarm on March 4, 2010, when a locksmith let a contractor and council tenancy manager into the flat.

The inquest also heard of numerous attempts to contact Mr Clarke, whose body was discovered in his Newtown Park flats on August 24 last year.

Ms Stewart said his death was believed to have been caused by heart failure, which may have been linked to a toaster fire that left the lounge of his his flat blackened with soot.

He was believed to have died sometime after July 2, 2010 - the date of a newspaper found in his flat, and a day after his last supermarket receipt.

The inquest heard how the fire alarm inside his flat was checked in November that year, four months after his death, but his body was not discovered.

Contractor Robert Foote said the front door was ajar, so he reached in and flicked the alarm's switch - a task that took about two minutes.

The door to the lounge was shut so he would not have been able to see the body.

Council officers also made numerous attempts to contact Mr Clarke after the block of flats he lived in was earmarked for demolition.

His body was not found until a council officer noticed a card she had left the previous day remained in his door, and police were called.

Council lawyer Craig Stevens said the length of time it took for the men's bodies to be discovered was "troubling" but none of the ordinary triggers alerted the council to their deaths.

Mr Stevens said the council provided housing to more than 3500 people who otherwise would not be able to get adequate homes, but its role was landlord rather than community provider.

The council worked with other agencies that provided support to vulnerable people, and advised tenants of the help they could get.

"Here we are today dealing with people who - rightly or wrongly, sadly - elected to be recluses," Mr Stevens said.

"Council is conscious of the fine line it treads when it comes to its tenants. Many of council's tenants keep to themselves and decline the help that is available. That help is not and cannot be forced upon them."

The council had to respect its tenants' privacy, and could not breach the Residential Tenancies Act or the Privacy Act.

The inquest heard how a coroner's visit to the Newtown Park flats last year found the door to a vacant flat had been busted open and remained ajar, while a homeless woman was found to be squatting in a public laundry area of the flats.

Wellington City Council support services manager Peter Hunter said the door had since been fixed, the laundry area boarded off and the woman had been found accommodation.

The coroner reserved his findings.

- APNZ

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