The Auckland couple who sparked widespread outrage after police said they absconded from the city's alert level 4 lockdown and flew to a holiday home in Wānaka have been officially charged with a Covid-19-related offence.
Horse breeder and equestrian William Willis, the 35-year-old son of an Auckland District Court judge, and lawyer Hannah Rawnsley, 26, will both face charges. They've previously apologised for their conduct.
Police this afternoon confirmed they have completed an investigation into the Auckland couple, more than a week and a half after they were confronted by police in Wānaka.
"The pair, a 26-year-old woman and 35-year-old man, have both been summonsed to court on a charge of failing to comply with the health order (Covid-19)," police said in a statement.
They are expected to appear in the Papakura District Court on October 14. The charge carries a maximum punishment of six months' jail and a $4000 fine.
"Police have carried out a thorough investigation into this matter. While we appreciate there is a high level of public interest in this case, police are unable to comment further while the matter is before the court," the statement said.
The case will be overseen by a Wellington-based judge to avoid any conflicts of interest, the Office of the Chief District Court Judge has told the Herald.
Police first approached the couple in Wānaka on the afternoon of Saturday, September 11, after receiving a tip through the Covid-19 online compliance tool a day earlier. The two were allowed to leave Auckland for Hamilton because of their essential worker status. They did so on Thursday, September 9.
They were not, however, permitted under the lockdown rules to then take a commercial flight to Queenstown and continue on in a hired car for Wānaka, authorities have said.
The couple initially fought to keep secret their names, as well as Willis' relation to Judge Mary-Beth Sharp. Their lawyer, Rachael Reed QC, asked for an unusual emergency hearing on Monday last week to seek suppression, even though her clients had not yet been charged with any offences at the time.
Wellington-based District Court Judge Bruce Davidson granted the suppression, but with some reservations and only for 24 hours so that the couple could file a new request with the High Court.
The couple issued a statement at 7pm the following evening - just as the 24-hour suppression order was set to lift - identifying themselves and explaining they would no longer seek suppression. Willis' mother issued a statement shortly thereafter.
"The decision that we took to travel to Wānaka last week was completely irresponsible and
inexcusable," the couple said. "We are deeply sorry for our actions and would like to unreservedly apologise to the Wānaka community, and to all the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, for what we did.
"We understand that strict compliance is required to stamp out Covid-19 from our country. We have let everyone down with our actions, and we wholeheartedly apologise."
Judge Sharp said in her statement, which she stressed was not issued in her capacity as a judicial official, that she had known nothing of the trip and that she supported the couple's decision to drop their name suppression battle.
"Like the rest of New Zealand, I was appalled to learn of my son William and his partner's actions over the weekend," she said. "I was and am highly embarrassed.
"Had I known of their intentions ... I would have told them not to act so thoughtlessly and selfishly. I do not condone their conduct."
In their mea culpa, the couple said they had undergone routine Covid-19 testing as essential workers. They tested negative for the coronavirus before and after their trip, they said.
"We can also confirm we were not considered close contacts nor had we visited any locations of interest," they said.
Through their lawyer, the couple declined further comment after the statement was issued.
The Pukekohe-based law office of Roddie Sim, where Rawnsley is employed, took down its website and Facebook page after the couple were put under the spotlight. Sim did not reply to requests from the Herald for comment.
New Zealand Law Society president Tiana Epati said in a statement published to the organisation's website last week that she is disappointed a lawyer has been accused of breaching Auckland's lockdown. It is unknown whether a travel letter for lawyers was involved in this incident, she said.
"The usual process is for disciplinary matters to be put on hold pending the outcome of a police investigation and court processes to be completed," the statement said, adding that the Law Society will not comment further on the matter.
Meanwhile, Equestrian Sports NZ chief executive Julian Bowden has said Willis' participation in future events will be discussed at a September 30 board meeting.
Prior to the public apology, the couple faced heavy criticism from Wānaka residents and well beyond the popular skiing destination.
Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said he was initially speechless after being told of the unwelcome visitors to Wānaka, but it soon gave way to fury.
"We are all aware of the pain that Auckland is going through at the moment. The last thing we want is to be in the same position," he initially told NZME, before issuing an even more pointed statement in a press release last week.
"It's astounding that this couple has felt they had the right to put each and every one in our district's communities at risk during a global pandemic so they could partake in skiing," he said. "Everyone has been working hard, many to the detriment of their financial and mental wellbeing, to do their bit to help stamp out Covid-19 and this highly infectious Delta strain.
"It's simply not acceptable that a handful of people continue to flout the restrictions and think they do not apply to them."
Boult told the Herald on Friday that he accepted the couple's apology, but "there would be a high degree of unhappiness in our part of the world" if they weren't still charged with a crime.
Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins were asked about the case last Wednesday, when they fronted the Government's daily Covid-19 update press conference, but they both declined to discuss the matter.
When asked at the same press conference two days earlier, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said she didn't want to speak on specific police matters. But "the rules are not there to be gamed", she added.
"Aucklanders would take a very dim view of other Aucklanders who aren't doing their bit," she said.
Throughout the latest Covid-19 outbreak, police have issued regular "compliance and checkpoint" updates. In the update issued Sunday, Sept 12, police announced the Wānaka allegations as part of "a small number of disappointing incidents" at Auckland's southern boundary that "detract from the overall high level of compliance shown to date by the public".
A police spokesperson described a "calculated and deliberate flouting of the alert level 4 restrictions", which the spokesperson said is "completely unacceptable and will be extremely upsetting to all those who are working hard and making great sacrifices in order to stamp out Covid in our community".
But others have come to the couple's defence, or at least spoken out against using them as scapegoats for the nation's frustration with the pandemic itself.
The public should be thanking the couple for owning up to their mistakes instead of vilifying them, University of Otago psychological medicine expert Dr Chris Gale told the Otago Daily Times last week, suggesting that positive reinforcement tends to work better than punishment.
He described the "cruel" vilification of the couple and other rule-breakers on social media as the result of a ''prolonged campaign of fear'' from the Government and the media regarding Covid-19.
In the 12 days since the couple was confronted, there have been multiple other high-profile lockdown breach cases that have been more quickly investigated and resulted in police action. They include:
• A 53-year-old arrested at Wellington's ferry terminal Monday night after police said he crossed Cook Strait with a caravan he'd bought in Christchurch, after misusing work exemption to leave Auckland.
• A woman, 24, and man, 41, arrested in Wellington on Saturday after allegedly travelling from Auckland.
• Two Aucklanders accused on Friday of using false documents to visit Taupō.
• Three essential workers from Auckland allegedly caught at Mt Ruapehu's Turoa Ski Field last Wednesday.
• A man who last week boasted on TikTok of making a cross-border McDonald's run.
• Two gang associates accused of trying to flee police on a gravel road near the lockdown border. The pair were later found to have over $100,000 in cash in the car and a boot full of KFC, police said.
"Every breach we come across is assessed individually to determine what inquiries need to be carried out," a police spokesperson said when asked about the length of the Wānaka investigation. "Some breach reports require more inquiries to be made than others and these can take some time to be completed."
There are several reasons the Wānaka case could be taking longer to investigate than others, retired University of Auckland law professor Bill Hodge suggested last week.
"If you're dealing with the son or daughter of a judge, you don't want to make any procedural mistakes - that's for sure," he said, adding that police appeared to be "taking great care" to make sure they get the strongest case, "as we would hope they would".
The Wānaka case would also involve an investigator tracing a person's steps through multiple cities and businesses, including two airports and a car rental agency in Queenstown, Hodge speculated.
"It's potentially a lot more complicated - they want to make sure they can show the pre-meditation," Hodge said. "If there's tracking that you can follow from one airport to another to a rental car agency, I think that it would take a lot longer as opposed to an idiot who says, 'Let's drive over the hill and go to McDonald's'."