Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

NZ teen's admission blurs Kenya crash events

Grace and Brian Johnston. Photo / Supplied
Grace and Brian Johnston. Photo / Supplied

It has been called a lie and a cover-up - yet the revelation of a Tauranga teenager's part in a tragic crash more than 13,000km from home has raised more questions than it answers.

Less than a week ago, the version of events surrounding the crash that killed four members of a Bethlehem College missions group in Kenya on the afternoon of January 15 were relatively straightforward.

But almost three weeks after the deaths of Caitlin Dickson, Brian and Grace Johnston and the Kenyan initially assumed to have been driving, Christopher Mmata, the story has changed.

Young Kiwi David Fellows had been at the wheel - not Mr Mmata - and when he told Mr Mmata's friend Calvine Ominde the crash was his fault, the 18-year-old was told to tell his parents, Tim and Lorraine, and group leader Philip Russell, but only after he arrived back in New Zealand.

The shock twist instantly stirred debate. Was this move smart and understandable, given it could have meant him being held in Kenya, or was it legally and morally dubious?

Bethlehem College principal Eoin Crosbie said: "I think you have to understand the context in which he made it, both in terms of the severity of the accident and the country in which it happened - Kenya."

One legal expert told the Herald the teen could have faced years in jail had he not kept quiet.

Mr Ominde has since publicly denied a cover-up ever took place and college leaders, who have started an investigation, stuck to their story.

Piecing together the facts already given by those who were there, the Weekend Herald found another piece of the puzzle that doesn't fit.

Teacher Jan Dean told a press conference that she and Philip Russell were the last two people to be pulled from the van, Mr Russell having suffered a blow to the head in the front seat.

Why would David Fellows be told to later admit to Mr Russell that he was driving when, according to Mrs Dean's account, Mr Russell had been sitting at the front and presumably would have been aware anyway?

Some in the van were aware the teenager had been driving, but college board of trustees chairman Greg Hollister-Jones and Mr Crosbie say they didn't know until after the Johnstons' funeral last Saturday.

Mr Crosbie referred any comment to Mr Hollister-Jones, who couldn't shed any further light on the discrepancy involving Mr Russell.

"What the inquiry is about is to determine who knew what ... and I can't comment on what Mr Russell did or didn't know, except that I know he was hospitalised for a head injury."

At the time his son was still in Kenya, Tim Fellows told the Herald David had "not been terribly forthcoming right now ... I think he's a bit shaken up by everything and dealing with everything that's going on".

He described his son, an aspiring doctor with "a heart for Africa", as calm but down to earth.

"To be in a mini-van, where there's 16 people and four of them died, is just a staggering experience for a young man ... and I'm sure we'll get him back and he'll come out with more of it over a period of time," Tim Fellows said.

Days after David did arrive back, he was seen to laugh as friends recounted some of the trip's positive experiences to college students.

His parents are no longer speaking to the media.

David Fellows' lawyer, Paul Mabey, QC, could not answer questions on why he swapped driving with Mr Mmata, whether Mr Russell was sitting beside him at the time of the crash, or whether he believed his actions were wrong.

"David Fellows is a young man who at the time of the accident openly admitted that he was the driver," Mr Mabey said.

"As is now well known, he was told by others not to disclose that further [detail] until he returned to New Zealand. He carries the burden of knowing that he was the driver when people were killed and now faces intense media attention.

"He is dealing with those pressures with the assistance of his friends and family. They are considerable pressures for a person so young."

Mr Mabey said David Fellows would co-operate with any school inquiry and in the "remote possibility" steps were taken by Kenyan authorities, he would deal with that at the time.

- NZ Herald

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