David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Widow fights on for a 'good man'

George Taiaroa was killed doing his job - working at a traffic stop at road works north of Taupo. On Wednesday, it will be a year since Dr Helen Taiaroa lost her husband and their children lost their father.

George Taiaroa, who was murdered a year ago, with his wife of 43 years, Helen, and their family who are still struggling to get used to life without him.
George Taiaroa, who was murdered a year ago, with his wife of 43 years, Helen, and their family who are still struggling to get used to life without him.

She can see it, that moment almost a year ago when her husband was shot and killed. George Taiaroa was at the roadside, just north of a one-way bridge, halting traffic with his stop-go sign.

The roadworker, father and grandfather leaned over to the window of the blue four-wheel-drive.

Dr Helen Taiaroa smiles at the thought of the man she married 43 years ago. It's enough time to know someone well enough to imagine them in almost any situation. Even this.

"I can see him bending down to that perpetrator, because he's half deaf, and he'd be thinking as he's being shot, 'You prick, I'm supposed to be at Kawhia tomorrow, fishing'."

Tomorrow it will be a year. A year of loss, a year of pain.

She has not been back to the place Mr Taiaroa died, a desolate, little-travelled road north of Taupo through which traffic was diverted while roading crews worked on State Highway 1. He was managing traffic at a one-way bridge when he was killed - according to a witness bending down to the passenger window of a blue Jeep Cherokee when the fatal shot was fired.

"It has no significance for me. It was a place where George was murdered. Why would I go back there?"

No, she remembers him as the man he was and there are many happy places where she can do that.

Their home is one such place. She works in Otaki, at Te Wananga o Raukawa, but lives in Hamilton in a home the couple bought because, geographically, it sat central to their family's life. A "half-way point", she says, "for us to meet, eat, laugh and catch up with each other".

That purpose, that love, lingers in the home they shared, to which their four children and grandchildren would come.

"I tell you, he's here in this house and he won't leave until I go," she says. "I know that, so I'm happy in that. I think he gives me a gentle reminder to keep going. And he's here because of my kids and my grandchildren too."

So present, he was, for so long, that sometimes the reality fails to catch up with the life they shared.

"The other day I was in the supermarket and turned to my left and asked this non-being, 'Do you think this piece of steak is all right to buy?"' Moments come, at times, when it seems as if he's suddenly gone all over again.

Their son Chad spoke at a friend's wedding, recently, breaking down and crying during his speech. "I couldn't help it, Mum," he told her.

"He couldn't help thinking 'I won't be like Jimmy James and have my dad here'.

"Those are the things you have to reflect on."

Their daughter, Melanie, was to be married. Mr Taiaroa was getting ready. He'd bought a new suit in Singapore, indulging his newly discovered love of travelling. He'd started buying in champagne and single malt whiskey.

"Melanie - she just doesn't want to get married." The prospect of such an important day without such an important person is too much. "That is what the perpetrator has done."

And then there was Christmas. "We got through it, but it was hard."

A granddaughter, aged 7, said: "Oh Nan, I know what I want for Christmas."

"What do you want, baby," Dr Taiaroa asked. "I want my koko home," she replied, using the affectionate reo for grandfather.

The grandchildren talk to their grandfather. They'll wander down the hall to where his ashes are kept, next to where Dr Taiaroa sleeps. "That's their way of coping and I think it's a very good way of coping.

"They understand right from wrong and they know something very bad has happened to their koko, but they don't understand why. I don't think they'll ever understand because of the type of man he was.

"What sort of person would commit such an atrocious crime?"

The police have said the motive they believe lies behind the murder would "appal" New Zealand.

The Herald understands detective believe racism is that motive. Dr Taiaroa, too, speaks of this as fact.

"This Maori man, this hard-working salt-of-the-earth man, with no skeletons in his closet, was murdered for doing his job and for being Maori."

Even beyond motive, race played a role in everything unfolding from her husband's murder. The initial police contact, the relentless way in which media approached the family, the reactions of almost every agency with which she has interacted. It isolated the family, carelessly trampled Mr Taiaroa's mana and that of their family.

"Right from the word go with George, that was what he was judged on - the colour of his skin, the type of job that he had."

She knows she is not alone among Maori, who are isolated together. Now, at this time, there is nothing which brings Maori survivors of homicide together, which is something she seeks to change.

"I want to form relationships with Maori homicide survivors so I can start writing their stories."

Her academic background gives an understanding of the power information can have when properly collected.

"It's not about the healing process, but it's about time that was done so the data that comes out can change a whole lot around what's put into place for Maori. There will be some commonalities in there.

"I think it is unacceptable none of that is done. These people need a voice too and they need to have their stories heard. There has to be a space and place for Maori."

Those stories will be different from those shared by Pakeha survivors, and so will the problems which emerge.

"My belief that history and experience has shown us with all the good intent that Pakeha have tried to tell us how to behave with little success. These stories will challenge that concept."

She fights. "Tooth and nail," she says, with a smile. "It's an injustice. It's about people's behaviour."

Her family's loss and the experiences which followed have created this direction. As clear as her goals are, though, the loss is a constant companion.

"He was a good man. I will fight to the end of my day to make sure changes happen so it doesn't happen to anybody else."

Death of a road worker

March 19, 2013: George Taiaroa is shot and killed at his stop-go traffic diversion at Atiamuri, north of Taupo.
April 5, 2013: Police seize a Jeep Cherokee from a farm north of Rotorua.
April 19, 2013: Police say they have identified a "prime suspect" in the murder investigation.
May 3, 2013: The motive for Mr Taiaroa's killing would "appal" New Zealanders, say police investigating the murder.
June 2013: Police inadvertently identify a man as their suspect after asking a deerstalkers group for information on the man. The group printed the police request in its newsletter.
February 2014: The man tells a Sunday newspaper he did not murder Mr Taiaroa and accuses police of spying on him.

Read the Herald's full coverage of this case here.

- NZ Herald

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