The body-on-the-hill murder: Why was Matthew Stevens killed?

By Phil Taylor

Three people have admitted being involved in killing a man before they dumped his body on Paekakariki Hill, near Wellington, but nobody is saying why. Phil Taylor revisits the scene of the crime.
Matthew Stevens. Photo / Supplied
Matthew Stevens. Photo / Supplied

This is it. Just here. Two bends and 200 metres before the summit, coming from the north. His killers would have driven over from the other side with his body, in a panic no doubt, or they would have made a better job of it.

This is where they dumped him, the 32 years and 10 months of his life ended in the most brutal, ugly fashion in November 2014. He'd worked as an extra in The Lord of the Rings, done mission work overseas, and was about to graduate from a truck-driving course. A new direction beckoned.

I was first here days after his body was found. His family - mother, father and sister, Christine, David and Emma - held each other close as a kaumatua performed a blessing. He wasn't Maori but "the blessing is for everyone", someone said. If he wasn't a perfect angel, he was surely no hood. The police said that.

With his body under mortuary lights, three puncture wounds on his torso were clear to see. That's what killed him. There were other marks - fresh or old, hard to say - that may have resulted from blunt force trauma.

The police planned to call evidence that a hammer couldn't be ruled out. A knife? A hammer?

I'm back less than a month later, having taken a small detour on a long inter-island journey south for family Christmas 2014. Something prompted me to take the slow road over Paekakariki Hill to look once again at the spot where his body was discovered. His name is neatly painted in black capital letters upon a small white cross, MATTHEW STEVENS.

Mystery has its magnetism. Urban Hoglin's skeleton, still wearing the watch? Who fed the baby? Sloop or ketch? Questions, questions. Why would they want to kill someone like Matthew Vincent Stevens? And who are they?

The killers must have driven his body through the pretty hills past the Pauatahanui golf club, past "Barry's Place" with its offer of horse rides, past Battle Hill, scene of a conflict during the New Zealand Land Wars. They are three. At first they denied everything. Then they pleaded guilty and shut their mouths. Why did they do it? "They are not telling us," the man who charged them, Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Sears, will tell me more than a year on from my second visit to the hillside. "There's been no explanation. Until they changed plea, they were denying it."

Stuart Wilton pleaded guilty in the High Court at Wellington to Matthew's murder. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Stuart Wilton pleaded guilty in the High Court at Wellington to Matthew's murder. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A 28-year-old named Stuart Graham Wilton changed his story last year after seeking a sentence indication for the murder charge, and received a life sentence in October with a guaranteed minimum of 11 years. The sentencing judge noted that Wilton had committed "several" offences in the past but had no convictions for violence. He admitted using the knife.

Those who have admitted to being accomplices followed suit. Darrin John Wilkie-Morris, 26, got an indication of 6½ years, minus a likely dispensation for his plea. His girlfriend, Kelly Crook, 29, a mother of young children who has star tattoos on her face, appears not to have sought one. Crook was sentenced on February 19, Wilkie-Morris on February 23.

Wilkie-Morris has added a surname since he was convicted in 2010 as Darrin Morris for savagely beating his friend so he could rob him of the $8000 cash he'd borrowed from the bank to buy a car. Wilkie-Morris, and accomplices who included a female, drove their friend to a quiet beach, tried to lure him away from the car with offers of sex, then set on him. The attack ceased when the victim played dead causing the woman to panic and try to perform CPR. She wanted to call an ambulance but, according to a report of the hearing, Wilkie-Morris dragged her to the car and took her phone. The judge who sentenced him to six years jail for aggravated robbery and wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm noted that he had committed a very similar crime in 2006. Wilkie-Morris got out of prison three months before Stevens was murdered. Stevens was his third strike.

Up on the hill the Christmas before last, the cross was still there in the place where they pushed Stevens' white Toyota Corolla over the bank. It is steep, the gully deep, the bush canopy easily dense enough to swallow a car whole. Out of sight, out of mind ... gone for good or until some luckless pighunter happened upon it years hence. But luck wasn't riding with the guilty. A sturdy bush would not let the car pass with its secrets, and there it wedged, in plain view from the road.

Stevens' body was revealed with the dawn. It wasn't inside the car but in the bush in front of it, as if he'd been deposited first and the car pushed after him. A staged accident? Not with those stab wounds. More likely an attempt to bury their crime beneath the bush.

The site where Matthew Stevens' body was found on Paekakariki Hill. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The site where Matthew Stevens' body was found on Paekakariki Hill. Photo / Mark Mitchell

People who cared had been here too. Someone left Christmas decorations. It was the season to be jolly. There's a black fabric rose and a note from those who made the cross. "Love from your trucking buddies. Whitireia, 2014." Stevens was about to graduate with a Certificate in Commercial Road Transport from the Porirua campus. A half-full can of bourbon sits open, a cool lime Cruiser can lies discarded a metre away. A farewell drink with a mate? Puff Daddy's lyrics have been written in marker pen on an icecream container lid, "What a life to take/ What a bond to break/We'll be missing you."

Lift your gaze and the surf-trimmed ocean far below is framed by the sweep of the road. It's 5pm, 20 degrees. Summer may have arrived. The late afternoon sun has lit the grass that shivers in the breeze on adjacent hills. It is the kind of view that sends tourists scurrying for their cameras. Picture-perfect New Zealand.

Ugliness seems more marked in a place of beauty.

The last known images of Stevens alive were of him buying a six-pack of beer from the local Countdown store on a Thursday night. Talking to Stevens' friends and family led the police to a Housing New Zealand property in Oxford Terrace in the Lower Hutt suburb of Epuni, 33 kilometres from these hills.

Armed Offenders Squad members raided the house 18 hours after his body was found. Neighbours saw them take away the tenant, Crook, and two men.

They'd gone to some effort to get Stevens to the house. Crook was the lure. Sears: "She invited him around for drinks, an offer he accepted without knowing the others were going to be there."

The police case was to have been that Stevens was killed, probably in an upstairs room, and his body was transported in a van used by the group while one of them drove his car.

the Lower Hutt property raided by police after Matthew's body was found. Photo / Mark Mitchell
the Lower Hutt property raided by police after Matthew's body was found. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Scientists spent nine days at the house. "It had been cleaned up [but] there was forensic evidence to indicate that he was murdered at the house," the detective told the Weekend Herald.

"From the outside it's a pretty standard two-storey, three-bedroom semi-detached house. There were kids in a couple of the rooms but one of the rooms upstairs was set up for people to congregate. We were comfortable that we could establish that activity happened in a couple of rooms."

Stevens had previously been seeing a sister of Wilkie-Morris. Suspects were nominated on social media. "You didn't have to take his life but I pray someone takes yours baldhead," said a posting.

The Crown does not have to indicate a motive and Wilton, who has confessed to the murder, didn't say why in a letter referred to at his sentencing. It did say he was remorseful and that he had not planned for Stevens to die.

There are more victims than Stevens, of course. He was an only son, an only brother. Emma Stevens told the Herald her brother didn't know his killers. "He knew of them. They obviously targeted him but he didn't hang out with them, he didn't associate with them."

How can such a loss be described in words? His sister sent us a note.

"Matthew was deeply loved and treasured by us.

"We miss him every single second of every day. Even a year on from losing him in such a horrific way, we still struggle to understand why anyone would do this to him or our family. He was such a lovely guy, with such a kind heart and always there for his friends and family when we needed him.

"We now carry a life sentence of pain, loss and tragedy due to these people who killed him. I don't think my family and I will ever come to terms with this scale of loss and brutality.

"We just try to cope and take one day at a time. I have lost my only brother, who will never get to see my children. I will never be an aunty.

"He was always there for me.

"Matthew and I had such a great life together, we were very close and very loved by my parents and extended family. I have such great memories ... our regular holidays together and growing up with all our cousins and family around us.

"Matthew had a kind heart and beautiful soul, he was an amazing drummer and was born with natural rhythm, he loved music. He would always make me laugh.

"When I got the phone call from my mum to say Matthew was missing that day, in that second my life changed forever. Losing my only brother and best friend - there are truly no words to describe this loss. It is like a part of me is missing, and my heart is completely broken."

- NZ Herald

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