The victim of a "sucker punch" has spoken of the life-changing impact the assault had on his life and how the actions of a National MP may have saved his life - and helped bring his attacker to justice.

That National MP - Northland's Matt King - has now put a proposed law into the ballot to change the judicial approach to such devastating attacks.

Derek Tanner, 38, was enjoying a rare night out at a Far North vineyard when he was punched from behind with no warning.

King saw the attack happen, acted instantly to administer first aid and then prepared to give evidence as a key prosecution witness in the trial.

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Jaydin Locke defiantly pleaded not guilty - a stance he changed just as the trial was about to begin last Thursday. At the last minute, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of wounding with reckless disregard.

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Kerikeri man pleads guilty to 'coward's punch' at concert

Tanner - a professional chef who has still unable to return to work - said the assault came on an evening of celebration with his partner Charleen Trass with the couple having just realised years of hard work to buy their first home.

"We had been working so hard to achieve our goals. It was a rare night out," said Tanner.

The Kerikeri couple had bought tickets to go to the Marley NZ All Stars Show, a reggae collective playing at Waipapa's Kainui Road Vineyard. They had arranged care for their four children and were going with family and friends to the midday soundcheck - care of tickets won by Trass' sister - before the evening's entertainment.

Derek Tanner, who is still recovering from an ambush attack a year on, with partner Charleen Trass.
Derek Tanner, who is still recovering from an ambush attack a year on, with partner Charleen Trass.

The events that followed were largely pieced together by Tanner, whose recollection is patchy because of the injuries suffered in the assault, but supported by King's eyewitness account.

The evening was a music-filled, good-natured family event only marred by a brawl between two women. Tanner and another stepped in to break it up then went back to dancing and enjoying the evening.

King, who was the sober driver, was there with his wife Sarah and friends and happened to be looking in Tanner's direction when the attack happened.

Northland MP Matt King and wife Sarah King were out for an evening with friends at Kainui Road Vineyard when the assault happened. Photo / supplied
Northland MP Matt King and wife Sarah King were out for an evening with friends at Kainui Road Vineyard when the assault happened. Photo / supplied

He saw Jaydin Locke - identified later - emerge from the crowd at speed and line up Tanner.

"He walked over and sucker-punched this guy - knocked him out on his feet. It was a real vicious punch and he hit the ground with a thump. I was 10 metres away and I felt it through the ground.

"It was violent, it was vicious and it was bad. And I knew it was bad instantly when I saw him crumple to the ground."

Locke disappeared into the crowd as King moved fast towards Tanner, who was unconscious before he hit the ground and had tumbled head-first down a slope. King put Tanner into the recovery position, called for an ambulance and checked his vital signs.

The blow was so severe - and the fall to the ground so solid - that it was 10 minutes before he showed any sign of regaining consciousness.

Jaydin Locke pleaded guilty at the Kaikohe District Court to assaulting Derek Tanner with a
Jaydin Locke pleaded guilty at the Kaikohe District Court to assaulting Derek Tanner with a "coward's punch". Photo / supplied

Tanner said he "sort of remembers" coming around in the ambulance, and hearing concern in the raised voices around him.

He was taken to Bay of Islands Hospital in Kawakawa. "All I was worrying about was my kids and that I've got to start work at five o'clock in the morning.

"The doctor told me 'you're not going to work for a while'. Just normal life stuff, all taken away in an instant."

Tanner was discharged then readmitted to hospital in Whangarei where a CAT scan revealed massive damage to his head.

The punch had shattered his eye socket, sending splinters of bone through his sinuses and beyond.

Doctors believed it was the fall to the ground which caused the skull fracture.
"I'm lucky it wasn't concrete or I wouldn't be talking to you now."

The year since the assault has seen repeated surgery to correct the damage - titanium gauze and a plate used to reconstruct the eye socket. He had double-vision for two months until surgery corrected it, with the warning he could wake blind in one eye.

There has also been ongoing physiotherapy to try and repair compacted bones in his neck and shoulder.

And the damage went beyond the physical. "For the first six months I was a mess. I stayed in my room, hid from people.

Derek Tanner's eye socket was smashed to pieces in the ambush attack and his eyesight threatened. Even after surgery, he faces a heightened risk of losing sight as he ages. Photo / Supplied
Derek Tanner's eye socket was smashed to pieces in the ambush attack and his eyesight threatened. Even after surgery, he faces a heightened risk of losing sight as he ages. Photo / Supplied

"I wasn't the same person. I've been a chef all my life and always been around people. I couldn't be around people for a really long time.

"It pretty much ruined my life but I'm dealing with it a lot better than I was six months ago."

It was a relief to have Locke plead guilty on Thursday, party because it removed the need for a trial but also to have him take responsibility. Tanner was in court and sat in the public gallery, his eyes fixed on the judge.

"I don't hate anyone but for what he put my family though … he clearly didn't care at all about his actions. It's horrible he put me through it. I should hate his guts and feel like vengeance but I feel sorry for him being the person he is.

He has not been back to Kainui Road Vineyard, which has had a another summer of garden concerts.

"I'm not the same person. I've never had anything like this happen to me in my whole life. It's taken something away from me."

Jaydin Locke pleaded guilty at the Kaikohe District Court to assaulting Derek Tanner with a
Jaydin Locke pleaded guilty at the Kaikohe District Court to assaulting Derek Tanner with a "coward's punch". Photo / supplied

Tanner is now doing work rehabilitation - a couple of hours a day, a few days a week, and wants to return full-time when he is able.

He said King had visited since that night to check on his progress, and on one occasion told him he had a choice between staying with the injured man or chasing Locke. King told said: "I'm really sorry I let the guy go."

Tanner says King made the right choice and replied: "Thank you for looking after me."

Since coming to Parliament in September after knocking NZ First leader Winston Peters out of Northland, the new MP has picked up on work done last term by National MPs and drafted a private members bill to amend the Crimes Act in relation to "coward's punch"-style attacks ending in death.

The bill - which gets drawn by lucky dip - would introduce a new charge to the Crimes Act of assault causing death, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The current likely charge of manslaughter is a life sentence and King was hopeful it would provide an alternative charge that would encourage guilty pleas, while still carrying a hefty sentence.

He has support from fellow National MP Alfred Ngaro who said family members had been affected by "coward's punch" attacks. A nephew had been attacked from behind, knocked unconscious and robbed after stopping to help someone who was out cold on the footpath.

National MP Alfred Ngaro, who has seen the impact of
National MP Alfred Ngaro, who has seen the impact of "coward punch" attacks in his own family. Photo / John Stone

And he was friends with the Borrell family, who lost their son Augustine a decade ago in a spontaneous stabbing attack.

Ngaro said there needed to be clear messages embedded in youth that violence was wrong - but that there was particular risk attached to ambush-style violence against an unsuspecting victim.

"It's cowardly behaviour and shouldn't be welcomed in the community."