Murder accused cross examines witness

By Sam Hurley -
Murder accused Steven Tiwini Rakuraku tries to hide his face from cameras before he represented himself in court yesterday.
Murder accused Steven Tiwini Rakuraku tries to hide his face from cameras before he represented himself in court yesterday.

A man facing murder and kidnapping charges asked a witness if he felt traumatised or was "scared" to give evidence in a High Court trial this morning.

Steven Tiwini Rakuraku, 39, is facing 12 charges, including the kidnapping and murder of Hastings man Johnny Charles Wright, 50, who disappeared on June 21, 2011.

Mr Wright's body was found in a shallow grave after Rakuraku's partner "came clean", leading detectives to search a rural property near Eskdale two months after his disappearance.

Rakuraku is now representing himself in the High Court at Napier after firing his lawyer, Russell Fairbrother QC, yesterday, though a friend of the court will cross examine Rakuraku's alleged victims.

During his cross-examination of a Crown witness today, Rakuraku asked the man if he "had any trauma by giving your evidence here today".

"Does it bother you, are you scared?" Rakuraku said, to which the witness replied no.

The witness, a friend and workmate of Mr Wright, had early given evidence about an "uneasy" and "intimidating" visit to Mr Wright's flat.

He said he met a Maori man, known only as "Junior", and a woman at the home, which had all the curtains closed during the afternoon.

"I felt like I shouldn't have been there, I felt really uneasy."

He said Junior asked him: "You're not a cop or anything are you man?"

He said Mr Wright, who he described as one of the "gentlest and kindest people" he's ever met, "seemed very nervous, he was very quiet".

"I went home and told my partner, there's something wrong there."

Earlier in the day another witness described watching Rakuraku give Mr Wright "a hiding" in the weeks leading to his death.

The 62-year-old witness, who has one eye and a crushed hand from work place accidents, gave his testimony this morning.

The witness, who worked as a forklift driver in Hastings, said he was also beaten several times by Rakuraku in 2011, after the murder accused came to his home looking for a "safe house", claiming to be a family member.

"He was on the run ... He got more demanding, he sort of wanted to run my life for me - I had no choice," the 62-year-old said.

"I was frightened, he was a big man. He would say, 'You do this or you'll get smashed'."

He said he was threatened by Rakuraku who allegedly said, "I'll take the other eye out" and "you've only got one hand , I'll cripple you".

Rakuraku had control over his finances and phone and would beat him across the head, the man said.

"I've only got one eye, I never saw them [punches] coming."

He said he witnessed Mr Wright receive a "hiding' from Rakuraku in the back yard of a home on Warwick Rd, Hastings.

"[Rakuraku] just lost the plot, he smashed Johnny and pushed him up against the wall. I think Johnny fell and that's when he put the boot in - kicked him in the ribs."

He said he believed Johnny was also being used as a safe house.

The 62-year-old said he only managed to escape Rakuraku's control after he was hospitalised following an accident on his push-bike and fled the situation with the help of his employer.

Crown prosecutor Steve Manning told the jury yesterday that Mr Wright was a "much loved son, uncle and brother" who had a family that kept in contact with him regularly.

He said Mr Wright had been taken against his will and severely beaten as Rakuraku used the 50-year-old and his finances to ensure his safety and freedom from police.

Rakuraku used a taiaha, or Maori war club, to beat Mr Wright which resulted in some of his critical injuries, Mr Manning said.

He said that after Rakuraku killed Mr Wright he painted the inside of the flat and wiped it down with bleach to remove the traces of blood and evidence.

Mr Manning said the alleged offending took place over a 7-8 month span in 2010 and 2011 across the Central North Island and involved four victims, including Mr Wright.

Johnny Wright's elderly mother, Nellie Wright, also took the witness stand in her son's murder trial.

"He was very gentle. If anyone needed help or support he was always there for people. He was just always a very gentle, caring person," she said of her eldest son.

The trial continues.

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