David Lomas has become one of our most adored TV stars, reuniting long-lost loved ones. Over lunch with Shayne Currie, Lomas talks about his own back story, the remarkable success of his show and surviving a fatal helicopter crash with Paul Holmes.
David Lomas was in a central Auckland cafe when an older woman – a stranger – sat down alongside him and revealed a deep personal secret. She’d had a baby 60-odd years ago, she confided, as a 15- or 16-year-old, and given the child up for adoption.
“She said, ‘I’ve never spoken to anyone in my life about this’,” says Lomas, researcher, cajoler, connector and star of the eponymous show David Lomas Investigates.
“She just sat down and started telling me her story.
“It gets you because you just don’t realise how many people are carrying a hurt all the time.”
Similarly, at a lunch gathering with his partner Clarinda Franklin and friends, one of the men in the group spoke openly to Lomas, in front of the others, about a child he had fathered. Until then, the close friends had no clue.
He’s often approached by gang members. “I was down in Cannons Creek [in Wellington] a while back and a car comes roaring along, screeches to a halt and a Mongrel Mob guy jumps out and walks up to me and says, ‘Bro!’
“It’s unbelievable, the number of gang guys who love the programme. They’re just amazing. They’re part of the disconnected – they relate to the show big time.”
Lomas has been variously described in media as a “human locator beacon”, a “good fairy ... sprinkling fairy dust”, and a “priest” – people willingly telling him their deepest secrets.
“Not quite in the little [confessional] room,” he once laughed.
We’re meeting for lunch today at Beau, a restaurant on Ponsonby Rd in Auckland. I arrive early and nab an outdoor table. I spot Lomas approaching right on time, 200 metres down the road.
He walks methodically and carefully, almost like the way he talks on his show – “Hello. My. Name. Is. David. Lomas.” He takes his time to observe a car that’s suddenly stopped on a side street, almost impeding his path. An old-school journalist – constantly curious.
He doesn’t much like being on the other side of the recorder. “I look forward to interviews as much as a colonoscopy!”
He’s more comfortable being the inquisitor – a role he has performed with distinction as a print and television reporter and investigative journalist, documentary maker and now the successful primetime host of ... what exactly?
An entertainment show, for sure, but David Lomas Investigates and its earlier incarnations, Missing Pieces and Lost and Found, have stretched far beyond that over the past 16 years.
Few real-life local shows carry such a heavy emotional storytelling load – raw, honest, with nearly always happy endings that leave viewers and often – privately – the host in tears.
“The reunion days are just crazy. They’re only two hours, or two-and-a-half hours, of work but it’s just frenetic because there’s only two of us on the road,” says Lomas, referring to him and a camera person.
“You’re in the zone so much; I do get emotional. Fortunately, though, the camera’s always on – if you’re the target – you.
“But even when watching it back, I’m gobsmacked at how emotional I get. You just realise how important it is to all those people.”
The show has transformed lives and conversations, as Lomas’ own 1-1 encounters on the street and at social events attest. People are more prepared to speak up, to find their long-lost connections and own private truths.
Astoundingly, he has received about 5000 applications for the show over the past three years, alongside another 4600 or so applications for the earlier programme, Lost and Found.
“It’s staggering the disconnect in New Zealand families – and we’re just the little tip of the iceberg.”
It has also been an eye-opener personally.
“My family were the perfect little New Zealand family. You go through school, all the schools I went to were very middle-class, with middle-class people – I just had no concept at all. The more you get into it, the more you find.”
There are still big challenges and hurdles. People who don’t want to be found. People who are found but don’t want to be part of a TV show. Even a case or two where people have been found and tried to circumvent the show.
Through its various names, the show itself has changed. As Missing Pieces, it featured three or so cases – mainly local stories.
Now a full episode of David Lomas Investigates is dedicated to an indepth piece of storytelling, and nearly always featuring an overseas location.
“David Lomas Investigates is basically looking for the complicated; the ‘impossible’ is what we say,” says Lomas.
Not quite impossible, of course. Applications are vetted carefully on several fronts; many are eliminated early on.
“You read through the applications and pick the ones that you think sound interesting; we make a phone call and work out how much information we have to work with.”
He calls it working with an “absolute truth”. Making sure he has the basics to start with - correct spellings of names and any fundamental documents.
He’ll receive applications from people who are unaware of even the simplest investigative tools, such as electoral rolls.
That’s where his journalistic instincts and skillset come together to help create and craft television magic. From basic electoral roll and habitation index searches to property ownership and other public records, and even, on occasions, the use of consensual DNA tests – Lomas has an arsenal of investigative tools at his fingertips.
While social media has helped as well, he says, his job would have been easier on several fronts 30 years ago.
For starters, most people had telephone landlines and were therefore listed in phone books. Now, with cellphones in just about every adult Kiwi’s pocket, there’s no need for a phone directory.
“[With] cellphones, we’ve all just disappeared!”
Then there is the travel to wonderful, exotic countries - often places where English is not the first language, leading to more challenges.
“It sounds terrible but it’s now harder to find the complicated enough story in New Zealand to take us on a real journey,” says Lomas.
“That’s why there’s a lot of overseas ones. The feedback we always get is people just love the journeys.
“We do the investigation, but we’re also … not quite a travel show, but we show journeys to interesting places where people don’t go often.
“The other thing is we often go into homes in that country. You go into a home and you see the way people live.
“You meet the real locals. You often sit down and have some food with them. It’s just so nice. It’s such a privilege.”
As we settle in for lunch ourselves – and pore over the menu – the waiter offers a wine list.
We agree we should have a drink. “I’m not really a lunchtime drinker but I’ll have one today,” Lomas says, settling on a buttery chardonnay.
A few minutes later, as we agree to shared plates of lamb rump, seared snapper, a salad and fries, he says: “I’m breaking all my rules today!”
He says he’s not a big lunch eater.
Lomas, 70, is fit. He swims, runs, paddleboards and kayaks.
At one point he says he’s ridden his “bike” to lunch, adding to my feeling of fitness inadequateness, as I chomp on a french fry.
After lunch, as I stroll down College Hill, he passes me on his scooter with a cheery wave, a big smile and a toot. My guilt eases slightly.
There is little doubt Lomas is a busy man.
He has just won NZ on Air funding to produce another 12 shows. A new series is set to return to Three with eight shows in April or May next year – four of those are already in the bag, with four freshly funded ones to come.
The other eight newly funded shows are expected in early 2025.
This new series will feature, among other countries, Romania, Hong Kong, Tonga and Northern Ireland.
As he sits down for lunch, his cellphone shrills. It’s one of the cases he’s working on – he’ll call the woman back in an hour or two.
He says his favourite episodes “change all the time”.
“I still think the one we did in Rome was right up there amongst the best you could ever do. It was a family trying to find a boy from Tokelau who went to Rome to become a priest.”
The boy, Filipo Filipo, then 18, had left Tokelau more than 30 years ago but his dream of becoming a priest faltered.
He felt ashamed that he’d let his devout Catholic family down – he simply disappeared.
“He basically lived off the streets for a long time and nothing else,” says Lomas.
“Over the years I think we had four or five applications from different people in the family trying to find him.
“We looked and we looked. We were always interested in the story, but how do you find a nameless person basically living below the radar in Rome?
“Then one year we just decided to have a real crack at it; we went for it.”
They tracked down a Samoan consul general in Rome who had met Filipo a couple of years earlier. The Tokelauan man had approached him for help to get a passport.
“We actually found this guy and it was just mind-boggling.
“We’d taken his sister [Malia Sakalia] over to meet him and he had no idea.
“We were sitting just in the courtyard of the hotel. I was talking to him and then his sister just whispers out behind him, ‘Filipo, Filipo’.
“It was just one of the most magic moments you could ever get on television.”
David Lomas has been telling good stories for the best part of six decades.
His first foray into journalism came as a 13-year-old in Wellington, compiling – on his own whim – match reports of ice hockey for the Capital’s afternoon newspaper, The Evening Post.
His older brother Peter, already a journalist, was writing ice hockey match reports for the morning competitor, The Dominion.
Lomas would drop the match reports to The Post, no name attached.
One day at school assembly, the principal asked Lomas to stay behind. What have I done now, the teenager thought, fearing a possible caning.
But it was only good news: The sports editor of The Post had tracked down the mystery ice hockey writer and wanted to pay him. The principal handed over an envelope with a cheque.
Over the following couple of years, Lomas spent weekends covering sport for The Dominion while also still at school.
After studying journalism at the then Auckland Technical Institute, Lomas’ spurned job offers from the NZ Herald and Auckland Star for his first fulltime gig - he went to the Wanganui Chronicle, knowing it would offer him a good strong grounding and myriad assignments.
One day, The Dominion’s Armin Lindenberg came to town to cover an athletics meeting. He lured young Lomas back to Wellington for a job on The Dominion’s sports desk.
Lomas made his name at The Dominion, moving from the sports desk to the general newsroom, and building a stellar reputation as a newshound and crime reporter, covering the likes of the Mr Asia drugs case.
On the night of November 28, 1979, with an Air New Zealand DC10 passenger jet missing in Antarctica, and as deadline fast approached, Lomas called a contact who was an expert in monitoring police radios. He asked him if he had access to search and rescue radio on the ice. The contact set him up with a feed.
“And then across the radio we heard those words, ‘We have located the wreckage on the south side of Erebus. There appear to be no survivors’.
“I wrote that up as fast as I could and literally ran down to the press.”
It led to a memorable exchange in the print room; The Dominion had just moved to cold press and a new form of printing.
Lomas pleaded with senior editor Frank Haden to get the new angle into the story and on to the press; Haden was apparently reluctant, wanting to keep the presses running given the new system and a desire not to interrupt an already massive story about the overdue plane.
The press operator, Russell Gray, who would later go on to become an esteemed football writer in the Capital, took Lomas’ copy himself, and updated the front page.
On one of New Zealand’s darkest days, Lomas was one of the first reporters – if not the first – to confirm details of the tragedy. A first draft of history.
On June 24, 1989, aged 36, Lomas survived his own fatal air crash that altered the course of his life.
By that time, Lomas was now working in television - he had gone to TVNZ after the closure of the Auckland Sun in 1988.
He had worked on the initial Paul Holmes midweek television show, essentially the pilot for Holmes’ long-running daily primetime show that launched in April 1989.
Three months after the show’s launch, Holmes and Lomas were among five people on board the Bell 206B Jet Ranger helicopter.
The Holmes crew had been filming on the East Coast and were returning to Gisborne at dusk when the pilot became disoriented in terrible weather and low cloud. The chopper crashed into the ocean, near Anaura Bay, without warning.
“We all got out, and looked around and one was missing. I went back in.”
Cameraman Joe von Dinklage was still inside the helicopter; Lomas tugged at his leg. Von Dinklage came to the surface.
“But Joe couldn’t swim,” Lomas recalled to the Herald in 2018.
“In those days, I was fit and healthy, doing triathlons and so on, so I took Joe. But a couple of times when squalls came along and water lapped in his face he grabbed me and I had to fight him off and then take him again. The third time it happened we lost him altogether.
“He didn’t survive but the rest of us got ashore. I didn’t know where we were. I climbed up the cliff and felt, rather than saw, we were on a farm track. We had to decide in the dark which way to go and we chose left because we’d seen lights further down the coast that way.
“The pilot and I practically had to carry Paul because he was quite hypothermic by now. We got to the farm and the old couple there ran him a bath but I was chosen to strip him and get him into it.
“It was a life-changing moment. I got home and thought: what’s this life about? You realise you’ve escaped death, that life is precious and you’ve got to try to make the most of it.”
At lunch today, Lomas says: “In a way, we were probably fortunate, really, to crash on the water because if it had been land we probably wouldn’t be alive.”
The chopper was floating but it had no buoyancy. “That’s why we abandoned and swam ashore. There were no lifejackets or anything.”
Television crews are now well-trained on how to handle helicopters ditching into the water.
“It wasn’t cavalier in those days but, when you look back at it, it probably was a bit cavalier.”
Even now, when he hears the certain thud of a helicopter, it triggers memories.
“You think about it. It did change my life quite a lot. I was a single chap and I sort of reflected on my life and went and got married too quickly I suppose.”
The marriage did not last, but from the relationship he has a daughter, Kate. He has a son, Jett, from another relationship.
Lomas met his partner Clarinda Franklin more than six years ago - a chance meeting at a Takapuna bar and eatery when the pair were each separately with their own friends who happened to know each other.
“I ask myself often ‘How did this happen? Why am I so in love with her? And I can’t explain it – we just get on so well. It’s amazing,” he told the Woman’s Weekly last year.
The pair, while busy with their own careers - Franklin is principal of Hauraki School - enjoy walking and cycling, and have a close bond.
“David has so much empathy that shines through on the programme,” Franklin told the Weekly. “He’s like that all the time.”
Lomas says: “She has such a peacefulness, a calmness, a kindness. She’s just a very good person to be around.”
And while he’s adept at telling other people’s stories, he’s not yet sure of where his own career may eventually lead.
He still loves his show, and its mix of investigative reporting and storytelling.
“I don’t want to retire. It’s hard to know. I don’t know how long the programme will go for. I don’t know how much longer people want to see someone like me on TV!”
According to the ratings, that day still seems a long way off.
- Editor-at-Large Shayne Currie is one of New Zealand’s most experienced senior journalists and media leaders. He has held executive and senior editorial roles at NZME including Managing Editor, NZ Herald Editor and Herald on Sunday Editor.