A vicious attack in a town bar left a young man severely brain damaged for life. In a dramatic courtroom encounter, his family received an apology as the judge agonised over sending one of his assailants to prison – for fear he would emerge as a hardened gang member.

Kodie Waitapu called them gangster "wannabes".

The drunken insult, if you could call it that, changed his life forever and sent his three assailants, aged just 18 to 22, to prison.

A flurry of punches knocked Waitapu over a balcony rail and onto the first-storey roof of the Whakatane Hotel, a busy bar in the seaside Bay of Plenty town.

Unsatisfied with knocking him unconscious, the trio jumped over the railing to carry on the assault.

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Waitapu, defenceless against the relentless punches, kicks and stomps, tried crawling to safety.

Instead, the 31-year-old builder was forced closer and closer to the edge of the balcony until he tumbled off.

His head and back bore the full brunt when he hit the footpath below.

Bystanders who tried to help him were also attacked by the trio, who rushed downstairs, in behaviour later described by a High Court judge as "disgraceful".

"We thought we'd be investigating a homicide. That was the medical advice, that he might lose his life, so we were on red alert," said Detective Sergeant Darren Thomas of the sickening scene the Whakatāne CIB found themselves investigating in the early hours of October 1, 2016.

And the doctors trying to save Waitapu thought so too.

On several occasions, his family were called in to say goodbye while he was in a coma in Waikato Hospital.

Waitapu spent five weeks in the intensive care unit, hooked up to machines and tubes to help him breathe, eat and to administer medication.

The injuries he suffered were severe enough - skull fractures, a bleed on the brain, a lacerated liver - but complications like pneumonia and abscesses nearly killed him.

"Kodie was fighting for his life. Our lives were on hold," said his mother Gloria, who took two months off work to be at his side.

"We weren't living for each day, but for each minute."

Kodie Waitapu with his mother Gloria before the assault at the Whakatane Hotel in October 2016. Photo / Supplied
Kodie Waitapu with his mother Gloria before the assault at the Whakatane Hotel in October 2016. Photo / Supplied

On November 22, 2016, Waitapu was discharged from hospital.

He was thin, couldn't walk and unable to speak much sense.

The medical staff who thought he might not make it marvelled at his recovery, although Waitapu will suffer the consequences for the rest of his life.

Physically, he's permanently lost hearing in his right ear and has a weakened left leg. Mentally, Waitapu no longer has the cognitive ability to make wise decisions and lead an independent life.

He cannot remember the assault, but even if he did, he could not comprehend or explain what happened to him.

Even when he is told something "over and over and over again", Waitapu often forgets and writes messages in his phone to remember.

His partner was pregnant when he was attacked and photos of his young son are proudly posted on his Facebook page.

"His dreams of being a caring father, providing for his family are dashed," said Gloria Waitapu.

Her son now lives in a flat with other brain-injured patients, where they receive support they need to lead lives as independent as possible.

It's probable Waitapu will need that level of care for the rest of his life.

"The simplest of things we take for granted are no longer an option for him," said Gloria Waitapu.

Kodie Waitapu fell from the balcony of the Whakatane Hotel onto the footpath during an assault. Photo / Police.
Kodie Waitapu fell from the balcony of the Whakatane Hotel onto the footpath during an assault. Photo / Police.

Three young men from Kawerau - Richie-Lee Jade Matekuare, Hetaraka Tauwhau Kinghazel and Anaru Karekare - were charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

The offence carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, although the charge was later dropped for the less serious offence of wounding with reckless disregard, which attracts a seven-year maximum sentence.

Kinghazel and Karekare were also charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

The police bugged their phones and discovered the pair discussing witnesses who should be discouraged from giving evidence.

After receiving a sentencing indication, Matekuare and Kinghazel pleaded guilty and were jailed for three years eight months and three years three months respectively.

"For a long time, if not for the whole of his life, your victim is going to have grave issues in dealing with everyday life as a result of the injury he suffered on this night of madness," Justice Graham Lang told them in November.

Karekare rejected the sentencing indication of Justice Lang and chose to defend the charges at a trial in April.

At the eleventh hour, he changed his mind and pleaded guilty on the first day of the hearing.

This week, Karekare, now 20, returned to the High Court at Tauranga to be sentenced.

He was just 18 at the time of the attack, the youngest of the three friends from Kawerau.

His lawyer, Max Simpkins, said Karekare had been on the cusp of joining the Mongrel Mob but had distanced himself since the attack.

"He's come out from under the spell of the gang culture."

Anaru Karekare was sentenced to 3 years 6 months in prison for the attack on Kodie Waitapu. Photo / Supplied.
Anaru Karekare was sentenced to 3 years 6 months in prison for the attack on Kodie Waitapu. Photo / Supplied.

Although Karekare was the right candidate for rehabilitation with the promise of a job and re-establishing Māoritanga in his life, Simpkins said his client understood he was probably going to prison.

This prospect clearly troubled Justice Christian Whata.

"What are we going to do? He was young, immature, under the influence of alcohol, clearly with the wrong life goals of wanting to join a gang," said Justice Whata.

"Sending this young man to prison is sending him to a recruiting ground for the gang. It's about risk mitigation - we don't want violent offenders in community, holding them to account.

"But for the right person, if we honestly believe this person is the right candidate for rehabilitation, what do we do?

"It's an in-or-out situation. There's either a full chance of rehabilitation, or none at all. It's nonsensical in some regards."

The High Court judge, from Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāti Tamateatutahi-Kawiti of Te Arawa, wanted to learn more about Karekare's life.

Under Section 27 of the Sentencing Act, a defendant can present a report detailing personal and cultural circumstances in a bid to persuade a judge to take those factors into account.

Regrettably, said Justice Whata, the report for Karekare was not completed.

So he called on Karekare's mother Moana Ratana, sitting in the back of the courtroom, to speak on her son's behalf.

Nervously, she agreed - but only after saying sorry to Gloria Waitapu.

In an extraordinary moment, the sentencing hearing was adjourned so the two mothers could meet and Ratana could apologise.

On their return, she addressed the court.

She explained Anaru Karekare was her third child; a "good boy with a bad relationship" to his father.

Since the attack on Kodie, he had been living in the Taneatua Valley re-establishing his connections to Māoritanga, spending time in the marae and "doing what Māori boys do" - riding horses and hunting.

"I'm scared. I don't know what to do. I can't take away the pain [of the Waitapu whānau]," Ratana said.

"My son made a silly mistake which has caused so much trauma to someone else. Her son will never be the same.

"I just don't want him to become a gang member, because that's what will happen [if he goes to prison]. I'm sorry."

Then, in another unusual move, Karekare was permitted to directly address Gloria Waitapu from the dock.

"Sorry for my actions ... what happened to your son ... for the pain I caused your family," he said choking through tears.

Justice Whata said the apology was genuine and heartfelt, but said there was a "reality check". Prison was the only realistic outcome.

"This was very serious offending. A seriously violent group assault against a victim who was defenceless," said Justice Whata.

"There were repeated attacks to the head, leading the victim to fall from a significant height and cause irreparable harm."

Kodie Waitapu fell from the balcony of the Whakatane Hotel onto the footpath during an assault. Photo / Police.
Kodie Waitapu fell from the balcony of the Whakatane Hotel onto the footpath during an assault. Photo / Police.
Kodie Waitapu fell from the balcony of the Whakatane Hotel onto the footpath during an assault. Photo / Police.
Kodie Waitapu fell from the balcony of the Whakatane Hotel onto the footpath during an assault. Photo / Police.

The judge settled on a starting point of 5½ years in prison for the wounding with reckless disregard - the same as Karekare's co-offenders - with an additional 6 months for the conspiracy to pervert the course of justice charge

Discounts were given for his youth, remorse, previous good character, rehabilitation and his late guilty plea.

The final prison sentence was three years and six months.

Justice Whata had some parting words for Anaru Karekare.

"The victim called you 'wannabes'. Whatever the significance of being called a 'wannabe' is in your world, it was no justification for your reaction.

"Your reaction shows several factors. You idolised violence. Your former life goal was not just to join the Mongrel Mob, but to be one of the toughest members.

"A prison sentence will expose you to an environment, and it's naive to think otherwise, where brutal violence is idolised. Hold the course and follow a different path."

Outside the courtroom, Gloria Waitapu said she was overwhelmed by the emotion of the hearing.

But she had special thanks for the empathy and support of the police, in particular detectives Jonathan Scott and Jon McKenzie.

Their boss, Detective Sergeant Darren Thomas, said Kodie Waitapu could very easily have died from his injuries from the alcohol-fuelled assault.

"In the wake of a near death, we'd just ask people to take care of your mates when you're drinking," said Thomas.

"If they've had too much to drink, if they're a danger to themselves or others, [get] them out of there before their behaviour gets out of control."