Death of Luke Tipene: 'I held his head in my lap'

In suburban Auckland, dozens of teenagers gathered for an ordinary Friday night house party. By morning, one of them would be dead. File Photo / Getty Images
In suburban Auckland, dozens of teenagers gathered for an ordinary Friday night house party. By morning, one of them would be dead. File Photo / Getty Images

This week, Vincent Skeen was found guilty of the manslaughter of promising rugby league player Luke Tipene, after stabbing him in the neck with a broken beer bottle in a fight outside a central Auckland party. A 16-year-old girl held Tipene's head in her lap as they waited for an ambulance. This is her story.

I'd always thought traumatic events brought people closer. Everything I'd seen in film or read in books growing up made me think that groups bond in hard times. When I witnessed a friend of mine kill someone with a shattered piece of glass outside a Halloween party it would take months before I realised that wasn't exactly true. This one night tore the roots out of the oak that was my group of friends.

Vincent Skeen was my friend; he was many people's friend. When someone you care about does something like that, it's essentially unfathomable. But now looking back on it, it feels like everything in the months leading up to that night was a warning sign.

There had been so many nights that had the potential to end like that, where nihilistic partying led to fighting out on the street. Tensions spilling out from quiet residential homes to quiet residential streets.

What happened that night was a tragedy for so many. Two families have been gravely affected, their lives changed inexplicably. Pain and suffering has been caused to an extent that I don't think I'll ever be able to truly understand. This event also had huge impact on another group, a close-knit group of teenagers who were friends of the offender.

One minute I was at a party, the next I was on the ground by the side of a boy I'd never met. Friends and I desperately tried to stop the bleeding. I held his head in my lap as we waited what seemed like a lifetime for the ambulance to arrive as chaos was all around us.

I arrived home covered in blood and woke my parents. They held me and tried to make sense of what had happened, then they put me in the shower, threw out my dress and put me to bed.

17 year old Luke Tipene who died after being attacked in Grey Lynn. Photo / Facebook
17 year old Luke Tipene who died after being attacked in Grey Lynn. Photo / Facebook

The day after October 31, 2014, I woke up with uncertainty lingering in my gut. I went to bed not knowing the outcome of what had happened the night before. Had Luke survived? Even when I heard the horrific outcome, I still got up and tried to go to work at my Saturday job. In situations like this, part of you just wants it all to go back to normal, back to the regularly scheduled programming. But my parents stopped me, knowing what was best for a panicked teenage girl.

So instead of work that day I was picked up by three friends, all of whom were also close to Vincent. We started driving, unsure where to go, the radio dead (incredibly unusual for a group of girls who would often fight over control of the music.) Deciding to get food, we drove to a beach. Four 16-year-old girls sat in silence, a rare sight. Occasionally a stutter of disbelief would break the silence, various hums of agreement would be received in reply. This was out of character for a group of friends like ours. We were honest, open and emotional people. We grasped for support when needed and were always received by strong hands. But in this moment none of us knew what to say or how to comfort. Awkwardly returning home, we promised to see each other later.

Vincent Skeen was found guilty of manslaughter. Photo / Nick Reed
Vincent Skeen was found guilty of manslaughter. Photo / Nick Reed

I wish I could paint a picture of a supportive group of girls, sitting around talking out feelings, crying and hugging. In reality this never happened. The next day we spent together was eerily tearless. I'm not sure about the others but I felt like any tears I shed were not validated. Sure, I was a witness but the perpetrator was my friend. It wasn't me who had lost a son, a brother, a friend. So I joined my friends as we attempted to continue as normal, trying to claw our way through uncomfortable feelings of a weird sort of second-hand guilt mixed with sadness. We didn't do anything wrong but our friend did.

Our social media feeds were bombarded with views from every side of the situation. Spats in comment sections between people who weren't there, sitting behind a screen quick to attack. People put down my high school. We'd never had the best rep, my school, and people were quick to generalise. Jump at a chance to put one person's actions at the hands of many. I'd seen this sort of thing happen before. Tragedy tugs at the public's heartstrings, and they voice their opinion accordingly. But it's an alienating experience when you're so affected by it and feel like you have the least authority to comment.

Friends and I desperately tried to stop the bleeding as we waited what seemed like a lifetime for the ambulance.

School was over for the year and we were on leave for exams. Concerned calls were received and appreciated from teachers and deputy principals, counselling offered, accepted and declined.

There was dignity and tenderness in how my school handled this situation, the look of concern and engulfing hug from my dean. Nevertheless, I performed badly in these exams. I took to spending the time I should've spent studying sleeping through the stress and shock. Twenty minute naps would turn into four hours asleep.

My friends and I continued to spend time together in the months following, venturing to keep our close-knit clique going as teenage girls do. It's not that we tried to carry on as if nothing happened. We attempted to support and help each other heal the trauma but I think there was an overwhelming urge to just carry on as was. I grew to dislike the topic being broached, I resented acts of care and constant checking up. I just wanted to move on.

The scene on Great North Rd where Luke Tipene was fatally stabbed. Photo / Doug Sherring
The scene on Great North Rd where Luke Tipene was fatally stabbed. Photo / Doug Sherring

We started growing apart at an increasing rate. One friend eventually moved cities, herded by her concerned parents, another was barred from spending any time with us at all. "Bad influences" and all the rest. It wasn't immediate and undeniably we were 16 and destined to grow apart eventually. The distance may not have exactly been on purpose or deliberate, and some of us do remain friends today. But this event had such personal and different effects on all of us, it's undeniable it was a catalyst in our separation.

Many months later some of my friends had to testify in court. This I think was one of the hardest and most testing things I've ever witnessed my friends do. I've never seen teenage girls be so brave, collected and strong in such a stressful situation. I was never called, thankfully. But I had the experience described to me as like being a doctor's appointment and being asked probing questions, except it's in front of a room full of people. Some you know, some you don't.

I grew to dislike the topic being broached, I resented acts of care and constant checking up. I just wanted to move on.

As we grew apart, connected but fragmented, pushing through into our last year of high school, personal battles became more apparent. We all, in some way or another experienced and processed this event differently. Some didn't return to school, others poured their entire existence into passions.

I personally experienced extreme anxiety stemming from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This engulfed my entire being, it became increasingly hard to function. I don't think I went a day without thinking about what happened that night. I eventually sought help and returned to full function but a lot of people who needed it most never got adequate help.

I said at the start that traumatic events don't bring people closer together in the way I thought they would. My friends and I may not be as close any more, I may not call them my best friends, but at one point of my life we all went through this same experience, and because of that I see a thread that runs through all of us, connecting us, even if it's the last connection we have left.

The Herald on Sunday agreed not to identify the writer of this story.

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 24 May 2017 04:08:08 Processing Time: 380ms