One of those first on the scene of a horrific crash which claimed the life of three people in Northland says they are shocked by how light the sentence given to the driver was.

Russell Stewart, 50, was sentenced on Friday in the Whangarei District Court to four months community detention and disqualified from driving for one year after earlier pleading guilty to three counts of careless driving causing death and four of careless driving causing bodily harm for in the triple fatality crash.

The charges related to the June 6, 2016, crash which claimed the life of his 48-year-old wife Susanna, their 16-year-old daughter Sadie, and family friend, James Wearmouth aged 18.

Fatal crash scene at Baylys Coast Rd in Dargaville. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Fatal crash scene at Baylys Coast Rd in Dargaville. Photo / Michael Cunningham

They were in a ute driven by Stewart – a member of an Exclusive Brethren community - which crashed into a tree on Baylys Coast rd near Dargaville.


One of those who were first to the scene of the crash reacted with horror to news of the sentence.

"It's an outrage," said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Jeff Wearmouth, whose son James was killed in the crash, said the sentence was "very fair" and as Christians, his family has forgiven Stewart.

Among the first of the scene of the tragedy was Genea Evans; a care giver and volunteer ambulance officer who was off duty the night she helped to stop at the crash scene.

Speaking to the Herald for the first time, she said she was still traumatised by what she encountered and hadn't attended any ambulance call-outs since.

That includes having nightmares over Sadie who died in the arms of a police officer, Detective Reuben Cohen.

"Every time I shut my eyes I see her. I would just cry and cry," Evans said.

"She was moaning and her head was hanging out the side of the vehicle. The left side of her face was severely crushed."


The crash happened after a group of Exclusive Brethren members had spent the day at Ripiro Beach.

There were eight passengers in the five-seater Mitsubishi Triton.

Stewart and his wife were in the front.

It is understood Sadie was sitting on James Wearmouth's knee at the back, along with two other passengers.

Two teenage boys sat on the tray at the back of the ute.

Susanna Stewart and James Wearmouth died instantly.

Dargaville deputy fire officer Michael Ross said it took an hour to cut the bodies from the wrecked ute.

"It was chaos. The mother and the boy were dead but the daughter was alive for a short time," he said. "It was heartbreaking."

A farmer, who lives nearby, told the Herald that he was alerted to the tragedy after hearing a "loud bang".

"I was there in three minutes, he said.

"What I saw wasn't nice at all. There were bodies lying on the road, a young man was wondering around looking confused. Another boy was semi-conscious with half his body hanging out of the ute."

Russell Stewart in court today. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Russell Stewart in court today. Photo / Michael Cunningham

The farmer said one worshipper told him: "God has done this for a reason".

The farmer described the atmosphere as being "eerie".

Russell Stewart was initially charged with three counts of aggravated careless driving causing death, four of aggravated careless driving causing injury and one of failing to stop to check injury after an accident.

He pleaded not guilty to those charges in September 2016, before pleading guilty to amended charges earlier this month .

A police source said no phone calls were made to emergency services by any members of the Exclusive Brethren community after the crash.

Another person who stopped to help, Shannon Breed, said the crash site was "carnage".

"I hope God judges him [Russell Stewart] like any other person."

Road safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson was concerned with the sentence, describing it as a double standard.

"If this had been a builder's labourer, he would be in prison by now. I don't care how many character witness statements this man has... It's a basic principle of justice that everyone gets the same sentence for the same crime."

Stewart's lawyer, Anthony Rogers, declined to comment to the Herald.