Father charged with fleeing Exclusive Brethren triple fatality

By Carolyne Meng-Yee

Russell Stewart has pleaded not guilty to seven charges of driving under the influence of alcohol causing death or injury, and one charge of failing to remain at an accident.
Sadie Stewart, Jamie Wearmouth and Susanna Stewart died in a car crash near Dargaville on Queen's Birthday Weekend. Photo / Supplied.
Sadie Stewart, Jamie Wearmouth and Susanna Stewart died in a car crash near Dargaville on Queen's Birthday Weekend. Photo / Supplied.

The alleged drink driver in a triple fatality on Queen's Birthday Weekend was the husband and father of two of the victims.

Susanna Stewart, 48, her daughter Sadie, 16, and friend James Wearmouth, 18, were on their way home after a day at the beach with other members of the Exclusive Brethren community near Dargaville.

They were killed on June 6 when the blue ute they were passengers in skidded off the road and crashed into a tree.

There were eight passengers in the five-seater Mitsubishi Triton and Russell Stewart, a businessman from Kaiwaka, was allegedly behind the wheel.

The 49-year-old has now been charged over the deaths of his wife, daughter and their family friend, the injuries suffered by those who survived, as well as fleeing from the scene of the crash.

In a short appearance in the Dargaville District Court this morning, Stewart pleaded not guilty to seven charges of driving under the influence of alcohol causing death or injury, and one charge of failing to remain at an accident.

He was remanded on bail to reappear in November for a case review hearing.

Russell Stewart pleaded not guilty to seven charges relating to the triple fatality. Photo / Northern Advocate.
Russell Stewart pleaded not guilty to seven charges relating to the triple fatality. Photo / Northern Advocate.

Stewart has returned to work but previously declined to comment when approached by the Herald.

His wife and the two teenagers were remembered as caring members of the close-knit Northland community.

Susie Stewart was a teacher's aide at Westmount School's Maungaturoto campus.

"She was wonderful. She ran choir practices and worked with students one on one," said principal Phil Muir.

Muir said both teenagers were promising students. "Sadie was a delightful young lady, empathetic and caring. She was a high achiever, and loved helping people like her mother."

James was involved in a young enterprise group at school, said Muir, and launched an eco-friendly Apollo Coffee business, which "really captured his imagination".

They died at the end of the most normal of Kiwi holidays: a picnic at the beach on a long weekend on a stunning winter's day.

On the way to Baylys Beach, near Dargaville, the Stewart and Wearmouth families were driving in convoy and stopped at the beach's Sharky's cafe to order hot chips.

Cafe manager Janet Ngakuru said Susie Stewart was "lovely, a breath of fresh air" for someone from the normally impenetrable Exclusive Brethren.

"They usually have a wall of titanium, but this lady wasn't guarded. She said 'Have a nice day' before she left.

Just five hours later, Susie's extended family would return to Sharky's, devastated by the horror crash that took her life and others.

Janet Ngakuru comforted members of the Exclusive Brethren community following the crash. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Janet Ngakuru comforted members of the Exclusive Brethren community following the crash. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

Debbie Martin was driving home with her two granddaughters when she noticed the ute lodged in the flame tree at the intersection of Baylys Coast Rd and Baylys Basin Rd around 6.45pm.

She saw bodies scattered on the road and dialled 111, before checking the people inside the ute.

Martin realised it was "too late" for three of them, but was proud of her granddaughters Shakaira and Alexis Starr who helped " without panicking or freaking out".

The girls stayed and comforted the survivors, wrapping the traumatised teenagers with their jackets and jumpers, until the paramedics and the fire brigade arrived.

A bus driver for more than 24 years, Martin was gutted she couldn't save Susie, Sadie and James.

"Our focus was to help the ones who were alive and hurt; the other passengers were beyond help."

The fatal crash scene, Baylys Coast Road, Dargaville. Photo/ Michael Cunningham
The fatal crash scene, Baylys Coast Road, Dargaville. Photo/ Michael Cunningham

It took an hour to cut the bodies out of the wrecked ute, said Dargaville deputy fire officer Michael Ross.

"It was chaos. The mother and the boy were dead but the daughter was still alive for a short time when we got there. It was heartbreaking."

Ngakuru had finished her shift for the night but kept Sharky's open as other shaken members of the Exclusive Brethren congregated there as the news of the crash spread.

"I was offering the kids lollies, chocolates and fizzy drinks. I didn't know how to comfort them any other way."

Although Russell Stewart declined to comment, Doug Watt, a spokesman for the Exclusive Brethren said members of the Plymouth Brethren community were deeply saddened by the tragic deaths.

"Friends and families continue to provide much-needed support to all those who survived the accident."

In the wake of the crash, Phil Muir said Westmount School had "ramped up" driving programmes to keep its students safe and introduced a zero tolerance policy with drugs and alcohol.

Back at Sharky's, Ngakuru said the crash had affected their small coastal community. She urged drivers to be careful.

"I was heartbroken for the families. We drive past that intersection and see that tree every day - you can't help but think about what's happened to the young kids and their mum. It's so sad they have had to be the example of what not to do."

- Additional reporting Imran Ali

- NZ Herald

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