Three women were killed in the fortnight following lockdown. Overseas, such deaths are called "Coronavirus murders". But here, that masks an ugly truth. By Kirsty Johnston.

Angela Smith's body was found at the neighbouring flat the night New Zealand was allowed to have parties again. It was a Wednesday, May 13, and the beginning of lockdown level 2. After almost two months of isolation, rules now permitted social gatherings of up to 10, and people across the country were taking advantage of their freedom.

Angela, 49, didn't like parties. She drank every Wednesday when her benefit came in, but she mostly drank alone. She certainly didn't like to drink at Unit 7, where she was stabbed to death sometime between 10pm and when police arrived at 1.30am on Thursday.

"That's why I find it weird," says Angela's friend, Carol Horne, who lives in the same row of squat block units in the West Auckland suburb of Henderson, where Angela moved in with her 12-year-old son a few years earlier. "She wouldn't go down there because there were always just men drinking inside. Maybe she would go and just have one sip and then come back, she wouldn't stay."

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Horne says the occupant of Unit 7, a blind beneficiary, was well-known for having noisy gatherings at his home. Police had been called before, she said, and complaints were made to Kainga Ora (formerly Housing New Zealand) by the other residents.

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The night Angela died, Horne said the blind man had knocked on her door first. "He wanted a cigarette. When I didn't have one, he went to Angela's to see her." The next Horne heard was from another neighbour, saying something terrible had happened.

"I haven't been able to sleep since," she said. "It doesn't make sense."

Angela Joy Smith was the second of three women killed in New Zealand in the weeks after our harshest level of lockdown lifted. Tania Maree Hadley, 47, was stabbed then set alight at her home in Mt Roskill, Auckland. Shirley Alaina Reedy, 52, was found dead in a motel room in Te Anau, at 6.30 in the evening. In each case, homicide charges have been laid by police.

Angela Joy Smith was the
Angela Joy Smith was the "princess" of the family, a mum of two, and a troubled soul. Photo / Facebook

Overseas, such deaths have been termed "coronavirus murders", the inevitable result of escalating male violence during a time of extreme tension.

Domestic assault has ballooned worldwide during the pandemic, including in New Zealand, where police reported an initial 20 per cent increase in calls.

During lockdown, extra funding was provided to help services reach at-risk families, and public messaging ramped up to ensure victims knew they could still ask for help, and that it would come. They knew that women trapped alone with abusers could be a recipe for disaster.

Despite that, experts reject the idea these three deaths were caused by the pandemic.

In fact, they fear - that in a country with a mental health crisis, severe addiction issues, and horrific record of violence against women - shifting the blame will only further serve to cloud our ugly, complex truth.

"Whether it was right now or in a few months' time or years' time those women - or women like them - were likely to have met untimely deaths because they lived difficult, complicated lives," says National Network of Family Violence Services Chief Executive Merran Lawler.

"And unless there are clearer avenues to get to safety or create safe spaces in their lives then their fragility and marginality remains. All Covid-19 did was exacerbate that marginality. It didn't create it, it amplified it."

Data from Stuff's Homicide Report shows in the 2019 year, 27 women were killed in New Zealand. Almost half of those were killed by a partner or an ex, making it the worst year for intimate partner violence since 2009.

Roses left for Angela at the gate outside the entry to her flat, where police were stationed for a week after her death. Photo / Dean Purcell
Roses left for Angela at the gate outside the entry to her flat, where police were stationed for a week after her death. Photo / Dean Purcell

The most recent Family Violence Death Review Committee report, which looked at the lives of 97 violent men, found the most common feature of those who went on to kill was a violent childhood. Trauma also had an impact on girls, who grew up believing that women were to blame for the violence experienced, and so the pattern continued.

"That's the sort of stuff we see every single day, not just the trauma inherent in the experience of family violence but the ongoing trauma from historical violence," Lawler says. "And things like lockdown only add to the limitations for people - either victims or perpetrators - seeking help."

"She did not deserve to die the way she did."

The first death was Tania Hadley, a solo mum from Mt Roskill who worked for a courier company. Emergency services were called to her small, suburban home on May Rd around 7.30am on Friday, May 1, in the middle of level 3 of lockdown.

When police got there, a car was on fire. Witnesses described how a man had chased two women, with one locking herself in the car to get away. The second woman, Tania, was covered in petrol and on fire. She'd been stabbed before being set alight, they said.

A neighbour intervened, chasing the man off and dousing the flames before putting Tania in the shed to keep her safe. By the time paramedics arrived, she was in a critical condition, and did not survive.

Damien Chandler, 29, was arrested that day and charged with murder.

Tania Maree Hadley was a solo mum, and a courier driver. She was tiny, with a big heart. Photo / Macau Johnson-Hadley
Tania Maree Hadley was a solo mum, and a courier driver. She was tiny, with a big heart. Photo / Macau Johnson-Hadley

Initially, neighbours told the Herald that Chandler was in a relationship with Tania. But later, Tania's son, Deon Johnson-Hadley, said Chandler and his girlfriend had been living with his mother for eight months as boarders.

"She helped these people out, she cooked for them and cleaned for them," he said. "She did not deserve to die the way she did."

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With much of the case now suppressed while it works its way through the courts, there are many questions that can't be answered. Whether lockdown exacerbated tension in the house, or what sparked the attack, is yet unknown.

Deon Johnson-Hadley talks to media outside the Auckland High Court after the court appearance of the alleged murderer of his mother, Tania Maree Hadley. Photo / File
Deon Johnson-Hadley talks to media outside the Auckland High Court after the court appearance of the alleged murderer of his mother, Tania Maree Hadley. Photo / File
Mourners left flowers for Tania outside her Mt Roskill home. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Mourners left flowers for Tania outside her Mt Roskill home. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Johnson-Hadley said while his mum would hate the attention, he wanted to raise awareness about violence against women in some way so her death wasn't forgotten.

Tania - who had two adult children, himself, and a daughter, Ariana - was physically tiny, he said, and very trusting. "She was a magnet for people, people thrived off her energy," he said.

But as a "working-class lady" who wanted to help people, and lived on her own, he felt she was also extremely vulnerable. "It was an accident waiting to happen," he said.

Chandler's ex-girlfriend did not want to comment.

"She tried and she failed and she tried and she failed"

Two weeks after Tania died, and two days after Angela, a third woman's body was found.

Shirley Reedy died in a Te Anau motel, more than two hours from her home in the South Otago farm service town of Balclutha. Police were called at dinner-time to find her there, and arrested a 52-year-old man shortly afterwards, charging him with murder. His name is suppressed.

Shirley Reedy was found dead at a Te Anau motel on Friday afternoon in mid-May. Photo/Facebook
Shirley Reedy was found dead at a Te Anau motel on Friday afternoon in mid-May. Photo/Facebook

A friend who spoke to the Herald said Shirley had been recently married, with the video posted to Facebook of the happy couple reading their vows. She said Shirley was a "happy-go-lucky" person who would always give you a huge hug in the street if she knew you.

One of five girls from the Reedy family - a shearing family from the area - she was well-known around town.

She liked gardening, and going to friends' for a cup of tea and a chat, the friend said. "She didn't deserve this."

The Explorer Motel and Apartments, in Te Anau, where Shirley was found. Photo / Laura Smith
The Explorer Motel and Apartments, in Te Anau, where Shirley was found. Photo / Laura Smith

But she had her demons, too, one of her sisters said. There was a history of domestic violence in her relationships. Shirley was under mental health care for years, spending her days at a support centre in town for people with intellectual disabilities and adults recovering from mental illness. She drank. Eventually, she found herself trapped in a lifestyle she seemed unable to leave.

"She tried and she failed and she tried and she failed and she did a good job," said her sister, who didn't want to be named. "She kept herself clean, her house clean. She had no one. She looked after herself by herself and even though she had her mental health issues she tried her best."

Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan didn't want to comment on Shirley's death, other than giving his condolences to the family. But he said during lockdown there had been more than 120 serious callouts for domestic violence in the Clutha-Gore area - population 30,000. "That, in my eyes, is a damning indictment on our community."

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"She was a good soul. But the odds were stacked against her."

Police laid murder charges against two men in Angela's case late on Thursday. It will bring little solace to her neighbours, still rattled by what occurred in their midst. They're yet to be offered victim support, they said.

They told of a woman who was lovely when sober, and terrible when drunk, whom they wanted to help but couldn't.

One neighbour, a frail woman who cried when she spoke, said when Angela first moved in to the complex, they were very close friends.

"But we had a falling out after she abused me and I called the police," the woman says. She's frightened, she doesn't want her name used. "I thought she might change, settle down after a night in jail. Sadly that's not what happened."

Units at Great North Rd, Henderson, where 49-year-old Angela Joy Smith lived and died. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Units at Great North Rd, Henderson, where 49-year-old Angela Joy Smith lived and died. Photo / Dean Purcell.

A family member told the Herald Angela, too, had suffered from violence within her family. She was doing her best to raise her youngest son, who was "her world", she said. The boy's father had drowned when the boy was 4, the woman said, so Angela raised him alone, on a benefit. She also had an adult son, aged around 30, and a granddaughter.

Angela had been doing all right until her mum died last year, which knocked her around, the family member said. Her drinking increased and she grew depressed.

"It's just so sad. She was a good soul. But the odds were stacked against her."

Angela's brother, Terrence Smith, is looking after her son for now. Smith didn't want to comment to the Herald. But on Facebook, he posted dozens of tributes to his sister, calling her the "princess of the family".

"Angela danced to the rhythm of her own drumbeat and remained true to that for all of her life," he wrote, under a link to the UB40 song Kingston Town. "This song fills me with such hope during a sad time and reminds me so much of her."

Angela's home in Henderson, where she lived with her son. Her friends remembered her as a lovely person who changed when she drank. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Angela's home in Henderson, where she lived with her son. Her friends remembered her as a lovely person who changed when she drank. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Carole Horne, Angela's best friend, said the saddest part was that Angela was about to inherit money from her mother's estate, and she had been so excited about giving it to her sons.

"That was her. She would give you her last dollar. She'd always take me to the pharmacy, if she was going to the Supermarket she'd make sure you didn't need anything," Horne said.

"I miss her. How she'd come on a Monday morning, out of money, and we'd put all our coins together for cigarettes. Her coming in, saying, have you got milk? We were friends. We always talked about how we didn't need men. When she wasn't drinking you couldn't think of a better person."

"They're not young, they're not beautiful, they're not healthy and tragic."

As lockdown wanes, those working in the family violence sector are both hopeful that some of the pressure will ease, but worried that the focus will once again shift away from violence against women.

"We've had great media attention about domestic violence during Covid-19 but it was really bad before Covid," said Holly Carrington, of domestic violence charity Shine. "Covid only made situations more complex, more difficult and meant their were less options for women."

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She said it was frustrating that while there was precedent for events like Covid to exacerbate domestic violence, there had been no planning for such an event.

"For example, the Christchurch earthquakes had a huge impact on domestic violence. It was similar to Covid in that services had to shut down, police were stretched, and referrals were going up," she said. "We need to put some thought into that - this isn't the last time we are going to have a pandemic - and Covid might come back. We need to be better prepared."

Police and emergency services at the scene of Tania's death on May Rd, Mt Roskill. Photo /Dean Purcell.
Police and emergency services at the scene of Tania's death on May Rd, Mt Roskill. Photo /Dean Purcell.

Ang Jury, chief executive of Women's Refuge, said the deaths were a sobering reminder of what troubled people went through all the time in our country, not just because there had been a crisis.

"These are three ugly incidents of very vulnerable people being hurt by vulnerable people," she said. "And that's stuff that's always been in the too-hard basket, too expensive. What do we do with people who won't accept help or can't? We talk about choice but choice is relative. If every choice in front of you is bad it's hard to work out which one to make."

But she doubted the stories of Angela, and Tania, and Shirley would be remembered, sad as they were.

"They're not young, they're not beautiful, they're not healthy and tragic. They're not Grace Millane, they're far from it. They're the kind of stories we forget all the time."

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