Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Mum: why did my son die?

Autistic man burns to death, locked inside his room

Otto Rapihana
Otto Rapihana

An autistic man died after being locked inside a house that caught fire, police have told his family.

His grieving mother Audrey Rapihana now wants to know why her son died in the house he was visiting while his caregiver was allegedly out buying takeaways.

Twenty-year-old Otto Rapihana died when fire ripped through the two-storey Glendene house nine days ago. A young, disabled man escaped the ground floor flat, but had serious burns, while a family living upstairs were uninjured.

Rapihana - who buried her son next to his grandparents and aunt at the family urupa in Northland on Wednesday - said she was determined to find out why he died.

"I want answers and that caregiver's accountable. When I get back (to Auckland) that's what I'm going to find out ... I want the truth and I want it from the caregiver. He's the one that's got to live with it."

On the night of Otto's death, police told his mother his body had been found in a locked room inside the locked house.

She said she was also informed the house caught fire while the caregiver was out buying food.

Police refused to comment on Rapihana's death, but the head of the special school Otto attended for more than 15 years sounded a warning to parents in the school's latest newsletter.

Arohanui Special School principal James Le Marquand said the tragedy was a reminder to parents of disabled children of the "huge dilemma" they faced when seeking respite care. Pupils can attend special schools until they are 21.

Autism New Zealand chief executive Alison Molloy said a caregiver should never leave someone in their care on their own.

"I know these two men were older, but even so, it's just not what you do."

Caregivers were not being adequately trained to look after people with autism, Molloy said.

Some of those with autism would run away at the first opportunity, but that was no excuse for a caregiver to lock them inside while they went out.

A person with autism may also hide if they felt threatened, such as in the case of a fire, she said.

Rapihana said she would remember Otto, who is also survived by a brother and sister, as a "fun loving character" who was loved by many.

Before his death, she had been planning his 21st birthday party next March, which was to at Pt Chevalier Beach because her son loved the outdoors so much.

"My son is so beloved and will never be forgotten."

- Herald on Sunday

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