Rob Kidd is a NZME. News Service court reporter based in Auckland.

Death of Luke Tipene: The little boy who grew up to kill

The lives of two teenagers from different worlds collided on November 1, 2014, when they started fighting outside a party in central Auckland. The pair had never met and neither had attended the party.

Luke Tipene died, and after nearly two years - and two trials - Vincent Skeen was yesterday found guilty of manslaughter.

Rob Kidd details how the pair's lives collided.

HEROIC FATHER

Darren Skeen (left) was just 19 when he died in a workplace accident and at the same age his son, Vincent Skeen, has just been found guilty of manslaughter. Photo / Supplied
Darren Skeen (left) was just 19 when he died in a workplace accident and at the same age his son, Vincent Skeen, has just been found guilty of manslaughter. Photo / Supplied

Vincent Skeen barely knew his father.

But he - and the rest of the country - know he was a hero.

Darren Skeen was just 19 and his son a toddler when he died in a workplace accident in central Auckland in February 1999.

It was described as the country's worst industrial accident in 20 years.

It was believed Skeen, along with Eddie James Rihia, 30, and Kenneth Campbell Karu, 47, had been flushing out sewage lines on the corner of Halsey St and Fanshawe St in the CBD.

They were struggling to remove a blockage from the line. Rihia went down first to investigate, but was overcome by deadly hydrogen sulphide. Karu then suffered the same fate.

Skeen pursued the men without rescue equipment or harness in a bid to save them, but also passed out.

He had only worked at the company for a fortnight but was willing to risk his life to help his new colleagues.

Vincent Skeen, when he was 4-year-old holding a photo of his father Darren Skeen during a rally to remember the 500 workers who die annually in workplace accidents. Photo / Martin Sykes
Vincent Skeen, when he was 4-year-old holding a photo of his father Darren Skeen during a rally to remember the 500 workers who die annually in workplace accidents. Photo / Martin Sykes

When Stargate Services Ltd came before the court for a breach of health-and-safety regulations, Judge Barbara Morris paid tribute to the dead teen's attempt to rescue Karu and Rihia.

"This court can only admire his bravery and lament his loss," she said.

Upon sentencing the other liable firm, Aquatech, a year after the fatal accident, the court fined the company $30,000, two thirds of which was split between Mr Skeen's relatives, including his young sons Vincent and V'arne.

His wife Jasmine Ryan campaigned for stronger penalties against companies that breached safety regulations and called the penalties against her partner's employers "pitiful".

She brought up her sons in Ponsonby, where they attended Western Springs College.

Now his mum will be hoping the court shows leniency for her boy, who is only months younger than his father when he died, as a new chapter in the family's tragic history was written in the High Court at Auckland this month.

Read more:
Andrew Dickens: Make the most of your second chance, Vincent

Rising star

Luke Tipene also lost his father when he was young.

Christopher Tipene's body was found in a bush behind a school in 2002, at the age of 33, when his son was about 5.

Luke Tipene lived in Glen Eden in West Auckland with his mother Terry Wilson, his twin sister Kristina, older sisters Shawn and Davina and younger sister Waikeri.

He attended Nga Kakano o te Kaihanga Kura, a private Christian school in Henderson, where he was popular among students and staff alike.

Seventeen-year-old Luke Tipene was an up-and-coming league star. Photo / via Facebook
Seventeen-year-old Luke Tipene was an up-and-coming league star. Photo / via Facebook

He was a rising rugby league star and had been a member of the Glenora Bears club, near his home, since he was a child. When he wasn't playing, he was helping at the tuck shop and encouraging the younger players.

While rising through the ranks of the Glenora Bears, where his mother was club president, Tipene had caught the eye of the Warriors development coaches and had recently been selected for national rep teams.

He was a massive fan of the Warriors and wanted to play for them one day, friends and family said.

SKEEN'S NIGHT

It was Halloween and it was a Friday night - two reasons to party.

Text messages retrieved by police showed Skeen contacted several friends on October 31, 2014, asking what they were "up2".

Eventually one of them, 19-year-old Carl Jota, replied telling him he and a mate were going to be cruising around in Dominic Bellfield's new car.

With an 18-box of Billy Maverick bourbon-and-cola RTDs the quartet made their way to the Viaduct.

They were not up to much: "just mucking about really", Bellfield, 18, told the court last week.

After spending some time at Grey Lynn Park they went to Ellerslie to a party Jota had been told about.

But it was quiet and they were gone within an hour.

He described Skeen as "calm" during that evening, and another witness said he was "tipsy" but definitely not drunk.

One of the boys had heard rumours about another gathering in Mt Albert.

They drove around the suburban streets for a while but could not find the gathering.

Meanwhile, Skeen had been texting his girlfriend who was at a dress-up party in an apartment on Grey Lynn's Great North Rd.

Jota said they got there around midnight but did not expect to get in.

"There wasn't really a plan, it was just like, see everyone after the party," he said.

Minutes later, an empty road had been flooded with boozed-up teens, fights sparked up, there was broken glass all over the street.

TIPENE'S NIGHT

Tipene, with his cousins Taine Tipene and Nadene Togiavalu, had been to the Henderson night markets for dinner.

From there they drove to Te Atatu for a family gathering.

Togiavalu told the court Tipene had five or six bottles of Lion Red as the night progressed.

"He was just his normal happy self. He was always full of life," she said.

Doug Aldred was also at the Te Atatu home for one of his sister's "world-famous" dinners and remembers the youngsters turning up around 7pm.

Tipene's reputation preceded him.

"I was refereeing rugby league at the time and his name was all over the place. Everybody knew who he was," Aldred said.

Aldred, Taine and Luke talked sport for hours.

"The boys were impressive, different to most other teenage boys; very well mannered," Aldred told the court.

But before midnight, one of the boys was contacted by a friend at the Grey Lynn party.

Their mate told the cousins he was concerned he might be involved in a fight later.

"Yo, I got you," Luke Tipene told him.

They left for Grey Lynn.

The scene of the homicide in Great North Rd, Grey Lynn, after Luke Tipene was attacked during a fight outside a party. Photo / Doug Sherring
The scene of the homicide in Great North Rd, Grey Lynn, after Luke Tipene was attacked during a fight outside a party. Photo / Doug Sherring

WHAT HAPPENED

What is clear from witnesses' stilted testimony is Tipene's friend squared off with another teen - a mate of Skeen's - because of a dispute over a girl.

"A teenage macho thing," Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey labelled it.

Most of those in the witness box told the jury Skeen jumped in when his friend looked to be struggling, and Tipene followed him.

His punch knocked the defendant, then 16, to the ground.

"It made Vincent Skeen angry, really angry. Maybe it embarrassed him in front of his mates," Dickey said.

Some gave evidence of another punch, others heard a bottle smash, one man saw Skeen go to a ute where he may have found what turned out to be the lethal weapon.

It was hard to know whom each teen had allegiances to, Dickey said.

Only two people knew exactly what happened.

One was dead and the other declined to give a police interview or give evidence in court.

But two other men were watching the violence unfold from a box seat: the balcony of an apartment block overlooking the road.

Mark Robertson and Allen Winton saw Skeen swinging "roundhouse" blows at Tipene while the victim backed off with his hands up.

"The taller guy was trying to defend himself, the shorter guy was very aggressive; clearly he wanted to do harm," Winton said.

They did not see the fatal blow and were not close enough to see the glass blade in Skeen's hand but they saw Tipene collapse and the mayhem that ensued.

"I just stabbed that c***."
What defendant Vincent Skeen is alleged to have said after his fight with Luke Tipene

And they saw the blood.

What was said after a broken bottle neck was plunged 12cm into Tipene's neck was as important to the Crown case as it was to the defence.

Jota, who had spent half the day with Skeen, told the jury the defendant had announced what he had done moments after Tipene staggered away with a hole in his throat.

"I just stabbed that c***."

Dickey called them "spontaneous words of victory".

"There's no hint in those words of inadvertence. There's no suggestion there that 'I've made a terrible mistake'," he said.

But Skeen's lawyer Lorraine Smith said he was clearly shocked by what had happened and questioned why someone would confess to such a crime in front of a crowd.

Before briefly jumping into Bellfield's car, telling him he had "caked it" or messed up, Skeen fled the scene.

Though he spent the next 12 hours hiding from police and when arrested would not tell them his version of events, his text messages in the aftermath spoke volumes.

At 12.35am, Skeen began texting a friend asking her repeatedly whether there were police around.

"Is the guy algood or... cause if not im not hoing to jail" (sic), Skeen texted.

He told her he was hiding while police searched for him.

"I'm in a bush haha," Skeen told her.

Smith said the messages showed her client's "utter disbelief".

There was no attempt to avoid responsibility, she said.

But that was not strictly true.

At midday, nearly 12 hours after the killing, he told his girlfriend that "he [Tipene] started it".

The only remorse was in relation to his own plight, rather than that of the victim whom surgeons fought for four hours to save, the Crown said.

At 12.01pm Skeen texted his friend "he died".

"What's going to happen with you?" she said.

"Jail," Skeen replied.

The waiting game

More than a dozen teens gave their stilted versions of what they remembered the night Great North Rd became a riot scene.

At the first trial last year, they were kids.

Now, most of the boys had beards and cringed about the lifeguard or basketballer costume they had worn to the party.

The girls seemed similarly embarrassed telling the court about their RTDs of choice on that night.

The pain for Tipene's family, who faced the double trauma of twin trials hearing about his bloody death, must have been immense knowing that their boy would never get any older.

He would never have the chance to regret going to that party or the decisions he made.

Outside court today, Tipene's uncle Sean Wilson said the experience of going through two trials and seeing the killer acquitted of murder was "very traumatic", especially for his sister, Luke's mum.

"To relive this whole process again. No parent should go through that twice," he said.

"Testament to my sister."

"We've just got to keep Luke's memories alive. We've got to think about the beautiful things that Luke stood for and remember Luke the way he was - a fantastic person."

For Skeen, school is now a distant memory.

Since Tipene's death, he has been behind bars, failing in his only bid for bail in February last year.

It will now be up to Justice Mary Peters to decide just how long Skeen will be behind bars before he is eligible for parole.

The maximum penalty for manslaughter is life imprisonment but it commonly attracts a finite jail term.

Skeen will be sentenced on August 16.

TIMELINE

November 3, 1997 - Vincent Skeen is born

February 6, 1999 - Skeen's 19-year-old father Darren dies trying to save two colleagues flushing out sewage lines

June 30, 2000 - The court orders Aquatech to pay $30,000; $20,000 to be divided among Darren Skeen's family

November 1, 2014 - Skeen stabs Luke Tipene in the neck with a broken beer bottle

February 24, 2015 - Skeen is denied electronically monitored bail

September 3, 2015 - A jury cannot reach a verdict as to whether Skeen committed murder

July 11, 2016 - The retrial begins

July 18, 2016 - The jury finds him guilty of manslaughter

August 16, 2016 - Skeen will be sentenced

- NZ Herald

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