Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

Fatal night out: A town on knife-edge

Two teenagers are killed in a stolen car after fleeing from police. As the driver - their friend - must face justice, the fingerpointing begins. Kirsty Johnston visits a divided Featherston.
Image / Supplied
Image / Supplied

The bodies were barely cold before the chorus of blame began after the accident last Sunday. On one side, they said "what can you expect if you steal a car and run from the cops?" and on the other, "the police didn't need to chase them." The discussion on the town's Facebook page soon became heated. "That lot were trouble," some said. "And anyway where were their parents?" The others shot back: "All of us are responsible for our children." And: "Back off! People are grieving."

READ MORE: Featherston families linked in tragic case of deja vu

Hoani Wiremu Korewha, and Pacer Willacy-Scott, both 15, of Featherston, died in the early hours of Sunday morning. They and two friends had taken the keys to the local baker's car, allegedly stolen by his young female employee, and driven the aged Honda Civic 35km to Masterton. After a brief police chase, the car hit a judder bar on the town's main drag and crashed into a pole. All four boys were taken to hospital. Two didn't make it.

At a vigil that night, the blame spilled from Facebook into the streets. A group of angry teenagers descended on the house of the girl who took the keys, throwing rocks and screaming abuse, saying it was her fault. Her father took her out of town. She's not expected back.

Chad Birch, left, and Justin Smith hanging out at the skate park in Featherston. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Chad Birch, left, and Justin Smith hanging out at the skate park in Featherston. Photo / Mark Mitchell

On Wednesday, the unlicensed 14-year-old driver was charged and put into the care of the state.

By the end of the week, the town wasn't done arguing - two elderly men on a street corner, the Lions Club after their meeting, the locals watching the cricket at the pub.

The barman shows off the baseball bat he sometimes uses to chase away wannabe thieves.

He points outside to a group of teenagers congregated at the skate park, drinking and shouting.

The night before some of them had broken into the local bottle store, and he is wild. "It's always like this, because the police can't touch them. Bring back borstal, I say. They need a kick in the arse."

But a nearby neighbour says Hoani was a bright, cheeky boy. She stands where grieving teens had performed a haka the night before as the bodies were brought home, and tells how the baker whose car was stolen had bought a gift for the family.

She stands on her doorstep as the hearse for Pacer drives away, to the slow crunch of tyres on gravel, and the sound of quiet weeping.

The main street in Featherston. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The main street in Featherston. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Who was responsible? Had the community done enough?

"Look. It's a bloody good little town," says councillor Colin Olds. "You've just got a small group of about six kids who cause trouble, four of them have got in a car, crashed it, killed two of their mates, and the other's in court. I don't know why it's getting such attention. It could have happened anywhere."

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He pauses. "But. We do seem to have too many of these incidents for one place."

Featherston, population 2500. Located at the foot of the Rimutaka ranges, bordered by the Tauherenikau River and the grassy Wairarapa plains. This week it was stiflingly hot, the heat shimmering across the railway lines, a bright-yellow bullrush sculpture swaying gently in the breeze.

It's a town famous for its Fell Locomotive engine and its brutal murders. Three, in fact, in the past 12 years - Coral Burrows, 6, beaten to death by her stepfather in 2003; Paul Irons, 36, beaten to death in the park where the bullrush sculpture now stands, in 2008; Glen Jones, 40, beaten to death in his flat on the main street, 2013.

People are so quick to blame. But it's a really complex thing. There's no one person to blame. The community as a whole needs to work together.
Kuranui principal Geoff Shepherd

"That's unrelated," says South Wairarapa District mayor Adrienne Staples.

"But the community does feel aggrieved about all of it." She says many in the town didn't like the accusations in the media that the community was somehow to blame.

"People in Featherston are absolutely tired of having people in the town who don't care or respect ... the town. So whether it's these kids' fault or someone else's they're saying: they stole a car and crashed it. It's not the town's fault. It's not our fault," she says.

A haka send-off after the service of Pacer Willacy-Scott at the Anzac Hall in Featherston. Photo / Mark Mitchell
A haka send-off after the service of Pacer Willacy-Scott at the Anzac Hall in Featherston. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"And then you have the young people who are upset. Adults with tools in their toolbox can have trouble with grief, let alone a young person who doesn't understand what they're feeling and why. They're upset for their friends and they're also upset because people are saying they weren't Snow White. So there is tension."

One of the boys involved in the crash had reportedly cost businesses and the council tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Two of those involved had recently been caught trying to steal a car.

A rash of burglaries and graffiti and general anti-social behaviour have also been recorded - resulting in the formation of several youth groups, a graffiti working party, and latterly a community and safety group.

The lack of a local sergeant was identified as a potential cause for the spike - a police re-shuffle saw the local cop leave about three years ago - along with inevitable accusations of bad parenting.

Those spoken to by the Weekend Herald felt some of the issues were caused by a changing demographic - there were more young families in the area who tended to commute to Wellington, and an increase in the transient population, leaving the long-time residents feeling resentful towards those who they felt didn't contribute.

There are also, as in any small town, difficulties with youth. Wairarapa is part of a social sector trial, a multi-agency plan aimed at reducing youth offending, risky sexual behaviour, curbing drug and alcohol use and addressing truancy issues.

It was set up in 2013, with a report noting that though Maori youth were just 15 per cent of the population, they made up nearly 50 per cent of apprehensions. "Some youth interventions are not working for rangatahi Maori and there is some belief that they are feeling more disempowered and disenfranchised," the report said.

Staples says, however, that the trial did not indicate a systemic problem.

"I'm tired of the undertone that we've got a huge youth problem in the Wairarapa and it's centred in Featherston because it's not," she says.

"What we have is angry, grieving teenagers at the moment.

"It will go away if people can remain calm and allow them to feel sad. Not to talk about who's right and who's wrong and point the finger. But to recognise that with tragedy there are kids here who need help."

Police have upped their presence in the town this week, with three extra cars patrolling. Acting Area Commander Senior Sergeant Mike Sutton said there were plans to appoint a sergeant for South Wairarapa, to enhance community engagement. "At the moment we are focused on visibly increasing our presence and deterring antisocial behaviour," he says. "We want to make sure people feel safe."

A police source told the Weekend Herald that Featherston did have some problem youths - up to 20 troublesome kids with a hard core group of eight - but they were no worse than anywhere else.

Though the teenagers' Facebook pages are full of kids wearing gang colours and pulling gang signals, no one seems to think they are actually part of a gang - more that they are playing at being gangsters, trying to define themselves.

Kuranui College principal Geoff Shepherd says his school, in nearby Greytown, should have had all four boys enrolled, but only Pacer was due to turn up on Monday.

The other three had been sent to alternative education, provided by the Wairarapa Safer Community Trust, for various behaviour issues.

The plan had been for the boys to return to the school, but that rarely happened, if ever.

"Bringing them back is very difficult. It's hard to come from a relaxed environment to one where there is high expectation, it doesn't work."

Often, he said, the behaviour they were sent away for was not addressed. Achievement rates at alternative education were very low, he said, and few went on to further study. "We would ideally like to keep the students here. But we would need some assistance. These are the most difficult children, for whatever reason, so we would need help."

At assembly on Monday Shepherd had told his students it was desperately sad to have lost one of their own through bad decision-making. He was particularly upset at the way the students turned on the girl who took the keys - who was also meant to be one of his students. "I'm really disappointed in that response. People are so quick to blame. But it's a really complex thing. There's no one person to blame. The community as a whole needs to work together."

The teenagers who were still in school were expected back on Monday, after the funerals. They spent last week at Hoani's house, or at the skate park, wearing their caps embroidered in "5710", the town's postcode.

It's a convention borrowed from gangster rap, or as Justin Smith, 15, put it "how we rep our town. I threw my spare hat in with the bro, in his coffin", he says. "Other people did too."

The kids are angry, convinced the police are wrong and lying about the chase, despite footage showing otherwise. The words on social media have hurt them, they say.

"It's really bad to say 'no one cares", says Aroha Ritchie-O'Connell, 19. "Obviously people do care. They shouldn't talk shit."

Hema Manu, 15, describes Pacer as smart, good outdoors, good at mechanics. "He did St John for a bit. Got an award." He was going back to school this year, where he wanted to play rugby. Hoani, was smart too, he says.

"It just pisses me off that people are talking shit about Hoani. Who are they to talk down a dead person? Or say we are a gang? We aren't a gang. We are family. We loved them."

The teens have done dozens of haka for their friends in the past few days, with one particularly raw video uploaded to Facebook.

It's called "tikatonu," they say. It's one they were all taught.

Tikatonu was written by a father for his son, who was going through a tough time in adolescence, and as such is taught to teenagers across the country.

"Tika tonu atu ki a koe, e tama," it says. "Be true to yourself, my son.

"Roa ina hoki ra, Te tohe o te uaua na, E tau nei."

"No matter how long you reflect on it, the answer to the problem is here inside you."

- NZ Herald

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