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

The Big Read: Four days, four deaths in Waikato tragedies

Four days, four deaths. Two towns. Two families now tied together in grief.

One man lies in a coma in hospital, his wife dead. He's unaware of his only son also being dead or the destruction he caused after he is believed to have stabbed his parents.

Police are now piecing together suspected killer Ross Bremner's final days, beginning with the fatal stabbing of his mother Clare, 60, in the small King Country village of Otorohanga last Tuesday, and ending with his own death 60km away, sometime before Friday.

In between, his father Keith, 64, was left critically injured, and elderly Te Kuiti couple Mona Tuwhangai and Maurice O'Donnell were killed at their remote, seaside bach, their bodies discovered alongside their killer's.

Police will seek to find when and how Bremner did what he did. It seems unlikely, however, anyone will ever know the reason why.

Bremner, 34, unemployed, was a diagnosed schizophrenic, his illness brought on by some kind of drug-related incident some years ago.

He was under the care of the Waikato District Health Board but had been back in the community since 2013, living at home with his parents on Cruden Ave, a quiet cul-de-sac in a semi-rural part of town.

Keith Bremner is in a critical condition in Waikato hospital after the stabbing in Otorohanga. He is pictured here with daughter Loren, and wife Clare, who was killed in the attack. Photo / Supplied
Keith Bremner is in a critical condition in Waikato hospital after the stabbing in Otorohanga. He is pictured here with daughter Loren, and wife Clare, who was killed in the attack. Photo / Supplied

It was to the Bremner's home that police were called after neighbours raised the alarm at 8.30pm on Tuesday night, to find Clare dead, and Keith barely breathing. Their son had attacked them with a knife at least two hours earlier, police said.

By the time officers arrived, Bremner had gone, fleeing in a silver Holden Vectra. Police were unsure where he would be.

He had no money, no phone, few friends.

Detectives immediately put out an alert for the vehicle, nationwide.

But despite their concerns for his wider family, some who were moved to safety, officers did not think Bremner was a danger to the wider public.

"We're taking every step we can to locate Ross. We think there's a very low risk out there. We're making every effort to find Ross and to resolve that," Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Greene said.

Ross Bremner. Photo / Supplied
Ross Bremner. Photo / Supplied

Friends of the couple were, perhaps, not so sure. In the days after the stabbings, media would be told that Bremner's parents had been increasingly concerned about his mental state as he had recently gone quiet.

Family friend Geoff Benefield said it was awful for the couple, who were both heavily involved in the community, and the kind of people that no one had a bad word to say about.

Meanwhile, police were searching Otorohanga, and the wider King Country for signs of Bremner. His cellphone was no hope.

More than 15 properties across the Te Awamutu, Pirongia and Otorohanga areas were searched on Wednesday morning and early afternoon, with the assistance of the armed offenders squad (AOS).

Waikato police Acting district Commander Inspector Naila Hassan said officers made several enquiries with the three local camping grounds at Kawhia on Wednesday.

At 5pm that evening, the Armed Offenders Squad searched a farm in Aria, north of Taumaranui, using helicopters to look for the vehicle.

Several hours later, a member of the public reported seeing a man that fitted Bremner's description in the Otorohanga area. AOS found the man. It wasn't him.

Benefield pleaded for the young man to turn himself in on Thursday.

"Ross, give me a ring," he pleaded via media.

"If you need help, I'm here. Go and see the police - turn yourself in and they can help you. We can get through this."

By Friday, police had searched properties as far afield as Arapuni in south Waikato, Ohope Beach and Cambridge. A sighting in Tauranga was a false lead.

Police also made enquiries into fresh skid marks on the road to Aria, after local council workers reported that they appeared to be new. These also proved to be negative.

Police remained positive.

"We are absolutely optimistic in finding Mr Bremner," Hassan said.

"But do not approach him."

News of the stabbings was the talk of the tiny town of Kinohaku, 65km east of Otorohanga.

At the local boat club on the edge of the Kawhia harbour on Friday night, locals did a head count. They realised a couple of regulars were missing.

Later that evening, a neighbour tried to call the couple, an elderly pair from Te Kuiti who often stayed at their bach for long stretches. No answer.

The woman went to investigate. At the home, a red-roofed hideaway up a hill, she found three bodies.

Police arrived, while the locals struggled to understand what had gone on.

Neighbour Allan Smith said he was alerted to the situation by a phone call from another neighbour around midnight as news of the tragedy spread.

"It was an absolute shock last night and it was quite scary."

Police don't believe Bremner knew Tuwhangai or O'Donnell, a pair of keen darts players who were also well-loved by their community.

Mona Tuwhangai, 82, and Maurice O'Donnell, 72, were found in their Kinohaku bach late on Friday night, alongside the body of Ross Bremner, 34, their suspected killer. Photo / Supplied
Mona Tuwhangai, 82, and Maurice O'Donnell, 72, were found in their Kinohaku bach late on Friday night, alongside the body of Ross Bremner, 34, their suspected killer. Photo / Supplied

The couple, were, in fact, supposed to have been at a darts tournament over the weekend.

"They're lovely, they were really lovely," Waitomo darts club member Sharon Te Ngare said.

The silver Holden was discovered in a shed about 40 metres from the house. By that stage police had established the couple had died several days earlier.

It was not known when Bremner died.

Police were working "day and night" to reconstruct the scene at the remote Waikato home, with specialist staff and ESR scientists on site, they said.

Aerial view of the crime scene in the tiny settlement of Kinohaku, near Kawhia, where the bodies of Mona Tuwhangai, Maurice O'Donnell and Ross Bremner were discovered. Photo / Alan Gibson
Aerial view of the crime scene in the tiny settlement of Kinohaku, near Kawhia, where the bodies of Mona Tuwhangai, Maurice O'Donnell and Ross Bremner were discovered. Photo / Alan Gibson

But investigators on "Operation Arctic" said the reconstruction was expected to take some time and may not be finally determined for several weeks at least.

On Saturday, family gathered as the bodies were removed from the house amid karakia and grief. One man performed an emotional haka as night descended and the rain closed in.

A spokesman for Jo Kukutai, the only daughter of Tuwhangai and O'Donnell, said she was grieving deeply for her loss.

"But she doesn't bear any animosity towards the perpetrator or his family," the spokesman said. "The Bremners are also grieving. They have a shared sense of grief."

Tuwhangai's uncle and family kaumatua Nick Tuwhangai said fortunately the family were strong.

"We are very close. We don't see each other all the time but in times like this, we support each other," Tuwhangai said.

"We'll pull through this."

Keith Bremner remains in hospital in a coma. His friend Benefield, is confident he too, will pull through, giving him a 90 per cent chance.

The family were well loved, "normal", "rocks", "the kind of people others wanted to be like" friends said. They grieved for Clare, but also for her son, the killer.

"So long Ross Bremner," wrote Malcolm Phillips on social media.

"I didn't know the adult you, but the Ross I knew when he was young was a really nice guy. Sometimes good people make very bad choices."

Funeral details are yet to be confirmed.

- NZ Herald

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