Anna Leask

Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

The short life of JJ Lawrence

A week before JJ Lawrence was murdered, his aunt went to check on him because his father was concerned the tot was in danger.

She thought the 2-year-old was okay, never imagining that days later he would be killed by a man who had been subjecting him to months of abuse, including breaking his arm twice and forcing him to smoke dope.

Yesterday - exactly a year after James Joseph Ruhe Lawrence died from a blow to his tummy so hard that his pancreas and liver split in half - the man who had made his short life hell was found guilty of murder.

Joel Loffley began a relationship with JJ's mother, Josephine Lawrence, last year. While in Loffley's care JJ received two arm breaks - one left for days as Ms Lawrence was too drunk to seek help - and numerous other injuries.

Loffley "played rough" with JJ and was seen making him smoke an asthma inhaler full of marijuana.

JJ was visibly terrified of Loffley, but could do nothing to escape.

He was so scared that on the day he died, he did not want to stay with the man while his mother went out.

As Ms Lawrence went to leave the house to organise a bank overdraft, JJ followed her. He wanted to go with her instead of staying with Loffley, who was insistent JJ stay behind.

"Leave that boy with me. That boy is mine today," he told her.

JJ died wearing just a nappy. After Loffley delivered the fatal blow he tucked the little boy into bed and left him to die.

Photographs of the house show how little JJ had in life. His bed was just a base with no mattress and it was strewn with his little clothes.

His bedroom had a television on top of a shabby set of drawers and an alphabet rug on the floor with a couple of old-looking toys on it. Aside from those items, his room was bare.

In the next room, where Loffley and Ms Lawrence slept, police found a large wooden blade with a handle at least half a metre long stashed behind a chest of drawers. This blade, Ms Lawrence told them, had been used on JJ by Loffley.

Violence seemed to be commonplace in the household and at only 4kg, JJ was very vulnerable against a solid and menacing Loffley.

Ms Lawrence told the court during the trial that she was scared of Loffley, that if she didn't do what she was told she would get "a hiding".

She wasn't even safe on her birthday in September last year. Loffley smashed her in the face with his elbow, bruising her badly. In a photo taken that day Ms Lawrence used JJ to hide the bruising, holding him up in front of the injured half of her face.

Around the same time she penned sadly prophetic words on a piece of paper outlining the impact Loffley's physical abuse had on her and JJ.

"I am scared for my son ... afraid for my son's welfare ... scared he's going to be hurt and taken away," she wrote as part of an exercise set for an anger management course Loffley had to attend after beating her.

JJ was born in Auckland to Ms Lawrence and James Ruhe. Life was far from perfect for the young couple as Ruhe was in and out of prison.

Ms Lawrence would take the baby to prison to see Ruhe and as JJ grew older they would talk on the phone regularly. Ruhe said his ex-partner was "always loving" towards JJ, who was her "number one priority".

JJ was a happy little boy and Ruhe had an "awesome" relationship with him - until Loffley came on the scene.

Once Loffley moved in, contact with Ruhe stopped and he became worried. People who knew Loffley told Ruhe that he was a "shady character" not to be trusted.

Ruhe asked his sister to check JJ was all right. She visited the house once, and believed the toddler was okay.

She planned to meet with Ms Lawrence and her son on the Sunday for a picnic, but that was cancelled because JJ "had an earache". He was killed the next day.

FAMILIES UNITE IN GRIEF TO REMEMBER JJ

The Lawrence and Ruhe families will unite on Monday to remember little JJ at a memorial service to mark the year since his violent death.

After Joel Loffley was found guilty of murdering JJ, who would have turned 4 in a few months, his uncle Richard Lawrence spoke to the Herald.

He said the family still needed time to grieve for JJ and the anniversary of his untimely death falling on the day Loffley was convicted had weighed heavily on their minds as they waited for the verdict.

Family members of both Josephine Lawrence and James Ruhe, JJ's parents, attended the trial and would now head to Northland to where the boy was buried to "start healing".

Richard Lawrence said listening to the evidence about JJ's death was traumatic. Yesterday was both "happy and sad" for the families.

"I'm just pleased they made the decision as quick as they did. I'm sad for all the family that are involved."

- NZ Herald

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