Craig Johnston’s whole life centred around his family - his partner of 35 years, Ruth McAlpine, and their son Jamie.
The builder’s desire to provide them with a good life was such that he moved them halfway around the world from roots in their native Glasgow to Nelson, drawn by its hills and sea.
“Craig loved New Zealand, he really did,” McAlpine said, midway through a trial in the Nelson District Court this week that revived with acute clarity the details surrounding the handyman’s death after receiving an electric shock while at work in March 2020.
Electrician Stephen (Steve) Burton was defending charges laid by WorkSafe New Zealand which accused him of negligently carrying out electrical work at a Nelson property just weeks before Johnston was there to carry out a minor building task.
Johnston died on March 19 of cardiac arrhythmia, triggered by an electric shock while carrying out a small building job at a client’s central Nelson home.
The 53-year-old was found motionless on the floor by the homeowner who had hired him to build a casing around a newly installed rangehood above the cooktop.
One of his shoes had come off, both his hands were clenched and his arms were pulled up to his chest. The fingernail on his wedding ring finger was ripped off and there was an injury with a burn-like pattern on his right thumb that indicated an electrical entry site, a post-mortem later concluded.
The newly installed rangehood and fan were partly hanging from the bulkhead above the cooktop.
It’s believed Johnston had touched the rangehood metalwork that was allegedly electrically “live” after it was connected by Burton.
He was charged under the Electricity Act for failing to take action knowing that it was reasonably likely to cause serious harm to any person or property and failing to prevent as far as reasonably practicable serious harm or significant property damage.
The charge carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison or a fine up to $100,000.
Burton also faced an alternative charge of negligently doing an electrical installation in a manner that was dangerous to life, which carries a maximum fine of $50,000.
McAlpine says Johnston was a qualified carpenter who wanted to move to New Zealand for a better life for their son Jamie, now aged 22.
Johnston owned and operated a handyman business under the franchise “Hire-a-Hubby” which he’d taken on pretty much as soon as the family arrived in 2008, around the same time as the Global Financial Crisis struck, McAlpine recalls.
They’d met years earlier through her work in hospitality: “He was a regular at the hotel where I worked,” she said.
Together they did a lot of travelling, including a holiday in New Zealand before moving here.
“We had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. He had a great sense of humour, he was very funny, he was just a really, really nice guy, a genuinely nice guy.
“I know it’s cliched and most people say that but he really was. He was well-known and well-loved.”
McAlpine says Johnston was “completely addicted” to Jamie, whom he adored and who was the focus of his life.
Jamie Johnston described his dad as the biggest influence in his life.
“Craig Johnston was the best father I could have ever asked for. He was my role model I always looked up to, and the challenges I face in life without his presence now are immensely difficult.
“He was a best friend to me. I miss him, every day. I still think about him every day.”
On the day Johnston died, the country closed its borders to all but New Zealand citizens and permanent residents. Two days later the four-tiered alert level system was introduced and New Zealand went straight to Level 2.
On March 25 a state of national emergency was declared and the country went into lockdown.
McAlpine says it was a logistical nightmare on top of her own personal tragedy.
“No one could get to me, I couldn’t get to them. I was completely closed off for six weeks.”
The funeral had to be run in lockdown, which was very challenging, said McAlpine’s friend and a key supporter during the trial, Peta-Lee Buckley.
McAlpine credits a band of close friends for helping her through, and the support shown by the homeowner, for whom she expressed genuine sadness and sympathy.
They hadn’t known each other before 2020 but appeared close at the trial; bonded by trauma that had bowled each of them over.
“I just feel for her having to go through all she did. I’ve expressed that many times, she was equally traumatised.
“I just wished she hadn’t had to go through all this; I wished none of us had to go through it,” McAlpine said.
The homeowner, whose name is suppressed, told NZME outside court it had been a difficult time for everyone involved, including the victim’s family, the electrician and his family.
McAlpine also wanted to thank WorkSafe, the court adviser and Victim Support.
“We have felt very well supported throughout this process.”
The judge hearing the case, which was partly done on papers, is yet to release his decision.
Tracy Neal is a Nelson-based Open Justice reporter at NZME. She was previously RNZ’s regional reporter in Nelson-Marlborough and has covered general news, including court and local government for the Nelson Mail.