Twenty-five years ago this month, Wairarapa Times-Age chief reporter Don Farmer was driving to work from his home in Greytown on a quiet Saturday morning. Passing through Carterton he noticed a small cottage on High Street South had been badly damaged by an overnight fire. Little did he know then that his inquiry of Carterton fire chief Doug Hoy a few minutes later would eventually reveal a story of a ritualistic, satanic killing. He looks back on the bizarre events surrounding the death of Lou Tawhai, and the subsequent high court trial that captivated the country.
Carterton firefighters would never in a million years have expected to find what they discovered on answering a fire call in the early hours of August 15, 1992.
A neighbour of Lou and Huia Tawhai had heard what she thought were gunshots, but on stepping outside saw the windows of the Tawhai cottage exploding, as flames burst through the glass and began to lick down the weatherboards.
Racing to the scene the fire crews discovered not only a burning house but a naked Mrs Tawhai outside on the lawn, with an also naked younger man later identified as Wallace Iopata.
They were in what could only be described as a confused state and seemed to be meditating, chanting or praying.
Later Iopata was to claim they had been waiting for a UFO to pick them up and take them to Australia.
The firemen charged with battling the blaze had to find a blanket so the two could be made relatively decent but the odd scene was to become far more bizarre when they made their way inside.
There they found what at first was thought could be the backbone of a dead dog, but was soon found to be human remains.
It was later to be revealed the remains were those of Huia Tawhai's elderly husband Lou, and that he had been subjected to unspeakable indignities, including being doused with boiling water and castrated.
After he died he was dismembered, and his head thrust into the firebox of a woodburner.
Some hours later the house was deliberately set ablaze.
Three were originally arrested for the murder of Mr Tawhai, being his wife Huia, her lover, and a sometimes boarder at the home, Jay Sankaran.
Sankaran was to escape prosecution, becoming a leading witness for the prosecution and describing the involved sequence of events and torture that contributed to the agonising death of the 79-year-old man.
He told a tale of physical abuse, of evil spirits, of sexual touching and sex - all carried out as Lou Tawhai was being tortured by one means or another before finally slumping and dying.
Huia Tawhai and Iopata both denied murdering Lou Tawhai, and a marathon trial began in Wellington High Court.
The jury heard evidence that in the late morning of August 14, hours before the fiery discovery of his remains inside the house, a foul- smelling fire had been lit on the property.
When it had died down a dog was seen pawing through the ashes, at one time picking something out and tossing it into the air with its teeth.
Witnesses told of seeing a woman in the kitchen chopping or sawing something up at the bench.
In her defence Huia Tawhai said she had followed along with whatever Iopata had wanted her to do.
She described at length the actions of Iopata torturing Lou Tawhai that had led directly to his death, and saying it had been Iopata who dismembered her husband after he had died.
Huia Tawhai was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years jail.
Evidence was given by a forensic psychiatrist that Iopata was a very severe schizophrenic with a very low IQ.
He would have been incapable of knowing that what he was doing was morally wrong, and believed his actions would result in lifting a curse from Lou Tawhai, as an act of mercy.
Iopata was found not guilty of murder on the grounds of insanity and directed to be taken to a secure unit at Porirua Hospital.