WARNING: This story contains graphic content
Teachers at the school the slain Dickason children attended wept in court today as they recalled the “energetic and excited” girls - and said there was nothing in their mother’s demeanour that caused them to fear for their safety.
Lauren Anne Dickason has admitted to killing 6-year-old Liané and 2-year-old twins Maya and Karla at their Timaru home on September 16, 2021.
It was the twins’ first day of preschool and Liané’s second day of classes at Timaru Christian School.
While the teachers there did not know the girls or their parents well, they were deeply impacted by the tragedy and struggled with their emotions as they gave evidence today in the High Court at Christchurch where Dickason is on trial for murder.
The now 42-year-old killed the children just 20 minutes after her husband Graham Dickason left their home to attend a work function.
She tried to asphyxiate them using cable ties and when that did not work, smothered them with blankets then tucked them into bed with their favourite soft toys and tried to take her own life.
The Crown alleges Dickason murdered the girls in a calculated and clinical way because she was angry and frustrated with them and resented the impact they had on her marriage.
While she admits she killed the three children, she has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and infanticide.
She is currently on trial before Justice Cameron Mander and a jury of eight women and four men in the High Court at Christchurch.
Today’s first witness was Grant Phillips, who in 2021 was the deputy principal and science teacher at Timaru Christian School.
Phillips told the court he initially had contact with Dickason via email when she was inquiring about enrolling her children.
Liané was put on the waiting list - because she already had a history with schooling and church attendance - and Phillips had a Zoom meeting with the family.
“Liané had drawn a picture for us … we talked about the differences in schools between New Zealand and South Africa,” he said.
“Their demeanour was that they were looking forward to coming to New Zealand.”
The school had a roll increase soon after and Liané was accepted.
Phillips said the family were happy to hear the news and he said the school community could also support them when they arrived with things they needed for the new life.
On Monday September 13, Phillips met Dickason and Liané in person for the first time.
Liané’s first day of school was arranged for Wednesday that week.
The night before, Phillips went to the Dickasons’ rental home with his wife.
They took a meal for the family and spent time with Dickason and the children.
Phillips, also an ex-pat South African, became tearful recalling the night and his interaction with the alleged killer and her little girls.
As his wife sat on the floor reading books to the girls - with “a twin on each side” - he spoke to their mother about their new life.
“She implied that the last two weeks had been rough,” he said.
“She said she was scared … she was looking a bit drawn, she said she had lost 10kg in the last two months because of stress,” he said.
“There was a sense that over the last while things had been overwhelming for her.”
As Phillips struggled through his evidence, Dickason sat calmly listening.
“We prayed with Lauren before Graham came home … we looked to him for strength as they embarked on their journey, that’s when dad came home,” he said.
“He lit up the room when he came in, the kids ran to him and I think he picked two of them up.”
Phillips left soon after, not wanting to interrupt the family’s “catch-up time”.
The next day Philips sorted out Liané’s desk before her parents dropped her off for her first day at school.
Her teacher introduced the child to her class and Phillips said she was “happy to be at school”.
Her day went fine, I heard then the twins were accepted for pre-school and they were starting the day after.
The day of the alleged murders Phillips checked in on Liané and she was “fine”.
He “touched base” with Dickason briefly in the school carpark.
“She said she was going good,” he said.
When Dickason collected her children from school that day, it was the last time Phillips saw the family.
“There were no issues, I never once picked up there was anything other than the rough last few weeks,” he said.
“The kids were energetic and excited.”
The jury was earlier shown photographs of Liané on her first day at school - getting her hair done by her mother and posing with both parents before they dropped her off.
Wendy Hamilton was Liané's teacher.
She was one of 17 children in the class.
“She seemed a little quiet but no more than any other 7-year-old would be who’d just arrived,” she said.
“I remembered commenting to Liané about how good she looked in her uniform ... I showed Liané where her desk was, the dad asked if he could take a photo of her.
“I remember the mum asking if she could bring a cake for Liané's birthday the next week.
“There was nothing that seemed odd about any of the family or any interactions, Liané wasn’t teary and ... seemed like she was going to settle in quickly, she was shy but nothing out of the ordinary.
Hamilton paired Liané with another girl she thought she’d make friends with.
The next day Dickason brought Liané to the classroom.
“Liané came over and gave me a hug ... I told [Dickason] Liané seemed happy and relaxed, everything seemed normal ... it didn’t feel like Liané just started at the school because she was very confident about getting involved.
“Nothing gave me cause for any concern.”
After the alleged murders, Dickason told a psychiatrist that “all of the children in Liané's class seemed sad and unhappy”.
When asked about this by her lawyers in court, all three teachers denied that was the case.
Since Monday, the jury has heard extensive evidence about the alleged murders, how Graham Dickason found his children dead in their beds and the family’s life leading up to the terrible day.
Dickason’s long history of depression and anxiety has been discussed in court at length, as well as her gruelling fertility journey that included having to give birth at 18 weeks’ gestation to a baby girl who did not survive.
Yesterday the jury heard from those to arrive first at the tragic scene including two police officers who were clearly impacted by the case.
Women who met Dickason through their children’s schools and her husband’s work also gave evidence about meeting her and speaking to her in the days before the girls died.
The trial is set for three weeks before Justice Cameron Mander and a jury.
The Crown will call evidence from about 30 witnesses and five experts on insanity and or infanticide.
The defence will then open its case and is expected to call a number of witnesses, including its own experts, to give evidence about Dickason’s mental state.