When junior doctor Venod Skantha moved to Dunedin in 2017, his life quickly began to spiral out of control. There were parties, near constant drinking, lewd behaviour and an increasingly youthful troupe of teenagers. With his medical career hanging by a thread, one young girl stood up against him and was killed for her courage. Rob Kidd reports.

Shortly after she found her daughter in bed in a pool of blood, Lisa-Ann Rush spoke to police, desperate to find her killer.

One of 16-year-old Amber-Rose's ex-boyfriends had threatened to overdose because he could not live without her; another put a brick through her window and fractured her wrist.

But there was someone else.

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"There's a man called Vinny; his real name is Venod," she told police.

Venod Skantha – a junior doctor at the time - was today found guilty of murder and four counts of threatening to kill after a jury in the High Court at Dunedin deliberated for three hours.

The man in the dock throughout the trial, dressed smartly in an array of shirts and V-neck jerseys, cut a different figure from the one jurors saw interviewed by police on February 4 last year, two days after Amber-Rose's death.

A pudgy, dishevelled, unshaven Skantha downplayed his relationship with the victim, who just a couple of months earlier was considering renting a room in his new home.

"I was never really close to Amber at all," he told a stone-faced Detective Constable Wayne O'Connell.

Keen to fill the interviewer's silences, the police prime suspect seemed at times to berate himself.

"I shouldn't really be hanging out with kids anyway," Skantha said.

And later: "Hanging out with a 16-year-old – it's ridiculous."

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When it became clear he was in the frame for murder there was an outpouring of desperation.

"It's not in my nature. I promise you. I don't know where you're getting this from," Skantha said.

"It's not something I would do. Have you looked in my background?"

Over the next 20 months police did just that.

Not only did they find a motive for murder but a vast pool of Dunedin teenagers who had witnessed his wild ways.

Dunedin

Skantha began work as a house officer for the Southern District Health Board at Invercargill Hospital in May 2016 but transferred to Dunedin the next year.

The move led him to a rental in Forbury Rd, a spit away from the plush streets of St Clair.

When Thomas Russell answered a TradeMe ad and moved in in April, it already had a reputation as a party flat.

There were "social gatherings" most weekends, he told the court, and underage drinkers commonly at the property.

His ex-girlfriend Melissa Severins said the age of the revellers appeared to decrease with each passing week.

Amber-Rose Rush. Photo / Supplied
Amber-Rose Rush. Photo / Supplied

And when it came to boozing, Skantha led the charge.

His ex-girlfriend, Balclutha lawyer Brigid Clinton, said it was normal for the man to scull sauvignon blanc from the bottle and would have others drive him around so he could drink through the journey.

Skantha, she told the jury, was drinking "pretty much non-stop" towards the end of their relationship in late 2017.

Creepy

Venod Skantha, party lifestyle kicked into overdrive. Video / ODT

It was the party lifestyle that led Skantha to Amber-Rose.

The teenager – noted as "Witness 32" at trial - introduced them and would become the key to the Crown case, primarily in his role as the defendant's personal chauffeur, driving the doctor's flashy silver BMW any chance he got.

Witnesses spoke of getting kicked out of hotels for excessive noise, boozy car rides around Dunedin and 48-hour benders at Skantha's home when he bought his own place in Fairfield.

Beneath it, one of Amber-Rose's best friends sensed something unusual.

"It was just very creepy, I guess; very weird how much he seemed to like Amber," the teen, whose name was suppressed, told the court.

Skantha, he said, seemed "fascinated" by both the victim and her mother, who died of a suspected suicide after her daughter's death.

Towards the end of 2017, Amber-Rose told her friend she had been molested by the man.

"She told me she'd woken up with her bra off and Vinny's hand down her pants," the witness said.

Venod Skantha.
Venod Skantha.

"I don't believe she was lying to me."

She continued to socialise with the doctor but their contact ceased when he offered her money for sex.

Another teenage boy told the court Skantha made Amber-Rose an impromptu offer of $400 while they were in his car.

It was laughed off, he said.

But when they got to his house, the number gradually increased, eventually reaching $20,000.

"I can recall Amber say 'ew, f*** off, I would not do that'," the teen said.

"Vinny told her to get the f*** out of his house."

It was the last time Skantha and Amber-Rose discussed the matter – until the night she was stabbed to death.

A pattern

There were other girls.

One teen told the jury she had been out drinking with Skantha and woke up to find him on one side groping her, a woman stroking her shoulder on her other.

At the suggestion of group sex, she kicked out at the man.

A picture was painted for the jury of habitual sexual abuse combined with continuous drinking.

Justice Gerald Nation told jurors to be careful not to let the evidence prejudice them completely against the defendant.

But it was hard to ignore a parade of witnesses describing Skantha's erratic, lewd behaviour in the months leading up to Amber-Rose's death.

Another teen spoke of the doctor asking her to offer her schoolmate $400 for sex.

When she refused, he asked whether she would sleep with him for the same sum.

The house in Clermiston Ave where Amber-Rose Rush died. Photo / ODT
The house in Clermiston Ave where Amber-Rose Rush died. Photo / ODT

One woman said Skantha had grabbed at her repeatedly when she hung out at his flat.

"Sometimes he'd try and touch me and see how far he could get until I stopped him," she said.

It resulted in her slapping him several times but she only spoke to police about it this year.

Two witnesses told the jury Skantha fondled a teenager's genitalia as she sat unconscious on the couch after over-indulging in alcohol and drugs.

He told them not to worry, he was a doctor.

The argument

On the evening of February 2 last year, with the rumours of Skantha's behaviour circulating and her own ordeal plaguing her, Amber-Rose did what others had been too scared to do.

She called him out.

When Skantha accused her during an online chat, of using his credit card to make an online purchase, the victim bit back.

He was fortunate it was only a few dollars, she said.

"You're lucky I don't go into the hospital and tell them you turn up to work drunk, supply minors with alcohol, touch them up without consent, grow up Vinny you're 30 for f*** sakes," said Amber-Rose.

Whether or not she knew it, the doctor was on a final warning at the hospital.

Six months earlier, he had gone to a meeting at work after drinking beer and treated a patient while off duty.

He only avoided dismissal for serious misconduct because he lied to superiors about his mother dying.

"U know I din mean it," (sic) Skantha meekly responded to Amber-Rose's accusations.

Such was the girl's frustration, she posted an excerpt from the exchange on Instagram.

Just after 10pm, Witness 32 - the key to the Crown case – tried to call Skantha to alert him to the post.

He followed the unanswered call with a text message: "Hey you need to answer. It's about Amber."

It prompted a further exchange between Skantha and the victim.

"U better remove that post," the man told her.

Amber-Rose Rush and her mother, Lisa Ann. Photo / Supplied
Amber-Rose Rush and her mother, Lisa Ann. Photo / Supplied

Amber-Rose stressed she was going to police and the hospital with her allegations.

"I hope you pay for it and I hope you go to sleep at night hating yourself," she wrote; her final message to Skantha.

A minute later, at 11.26pm, she sent her older sister Shantelle a message.

"I'm so angry," she said.

They were not the only online conversations, Amber-Rose was engaged in that night.

A teenage boy was also on board with her informing authorities.

"Make sure you tell whoever you talk to, he offered you money for sex. And that he offered us alcohol multiple times," he messaged at 11.53pm.

While the war of words with Skantha reached boiling point, the teenager sent screenshots to her boyfriend Kristin Clark.

He was worried Amber-Rose was going to confront the defendant and offered to pick her up.

At 11.55pm, she sent her last message to him.

As Clark drove to her home to check up on her, Skantha was already there.

He had driven to Glen Rd and picked up Witness 32 around 11.40pm.

The teenager – whose name was suppressed because he was 16 at the time – said Skantha was dressed all in dark clothes, complete with gloves and beanie.

He looked "reasonably chill, not nervous. Focused, you know, but chill," the witness said.

While he said there was no foreshadowing of the bloody attack which ensued, his story meandered and changed through his police interviews and over the three days he spent in the witness box.

"Literally I just thought he was going to go in and yell at her," he said.

Venod Skantha in the dock at the High Court at Dunedin. Photo / Christine O'Connor
Venod Skantha in the dock at the High Court at Dunedin. Photo / Christine O'Connor

Unbeknown to the doctor, he had a rapidly diminishing window to commit the crime.
Clark arrived some time after midnight and saw Amber-Rose's brother Jayden and his girlfriend return from work, which they estimated must have been about 12.10am.

If the killer had dallied a few extra minutes he would have been seen by three witnesses.

Instead, he delivered six wounds to Amber-Rose's neck, one of which severed her carotid artery, and left her bleeding to death under a pile of pillows as he slipped away.

At 11.54pm, Witness 32 called the friends who he had just seen and said he might be an accomplice to a murder, before swiftly claiming he had misspoken.

Defence counsel Jonathan Eaton QC said the call was a crude attempt at the teen trying to establish an alibi.

He suggested the boy was infatuated with Skantha, "idolised" him.

He was so intoxicated by hanging out with a young doctor and driving an expensive car, he was willing to violently quash any threat to that lifestyle.

Amber-Rose represented such a threat.

The search for evidence took police to Blackhead Quarry. Photo / Gregor Richardson
The search for evidence took police to Blackhead Quarry. Photo / Gregor Richardson

But Witness 32 denied that was the case.

He saw the bloody knife in Skantha's hand "clear as day", along with the victim's phone and driver's licence when he returned to the car.

The phone was dumped at Blackhead Quarry on the way home and later found by police in two pieces.

Despite his at-times compelling version of events, of all the witnesses for the Crown case to rest on, he was the most flimsy.

The teenager gave police three interviews, in which he frequently strayed into bizarre and irrelevant detail.

He talked about listening to Dean Martin in the car while the stabbing was taking place and later mentioned the band Little Feat whose lyrics included: "you can get further/ Sure can be murder", which he interpreted as some sort of cosmic sign he should have noted.

At times Witness 32 even appeared flattered that Skantha had included him in the criminal enterprise.

"The reason he picked me is because I'm a devil behind the wheel," he said. "He said I'm one of the best drivers he's ever known."

The teenager, however, led police to evidence that proved to be vital.

Evidence

After stopping off at Skantha's home to clean up, they went to Balclutha to Clinton's house.

In the garage there, the teenager told police, they would find a pair of grey suede Giancarlo Morreti shoes featuring an obvious blood stain.

He had been instructed to clean them, he said, and deliberately left the spot for forensic staff to find.

And they did.

The tiny droplet was Amber-Rose's blood, scientists confirmed.

It was on the sole too, on the inside of a bag in which Skantha had stashed his clothes, and on the passenger side of the BMW.

The defence's assertion that the quick-thinking teenager had planted the evidence to frame the doctor, did not resonate with the jury.

Jonathan Eaton QC leaves the Dunedin High Court on Wednesday evening after his client Venod Skantha was found guilty of the murder of Amber Rose Rush. Photo / Gregor Richardson
Jonathan Eaton QC leaves the Dunedin High Court on Wednesday evening after his client Venod Skantha was found guilty of the murder of Amber Rose Rush. Photo / Gregor Richardson

Other evidence from Witness 32 was less convincing.

He had barely any memory about cleaning the vehicle and his recall of who cleaned the knife was oddly scant.

He accepted, under cross-examination from Eaton, that washing his friend's blood from the weapon would be a harrowing experience, but was then unable to confirm whether it was he or Skantha who had done it.

In Balclutha, the defendant burned his bloody clothes, toasting marshmallows over the flames but the details again were hazy.

While they were at the house, the teen said Skantha elaborated on his earlier confessions about killing Amber-Rose.

"He grabbed a knife and demonstrated what he did to her on me," he said.

"This is one thing I'll never forget that'll linger with me for the rest of my life."

Aftermath

After two nights in Balclutha, Skantha, Clinton and Witness 32 returned to Dunedin.

By this point, police had been made aware of the online argument between the defendant and victim and orchestrated a meeting for him with Lisa-Ann Rush and an undercover officer.

On the way to the venue, the trio stopped at New World supermarket and bought flowers and a card, as well as a couple of bottles of wine for Skantha.

The decision to buy the items from Amber-Rose's former workplace had not been deliberate, Clinton said.

Shane Rush speaks after a jury in the High Court at Dunedin this afternoon found Venod Skantha responsible for the murder of his daughter. Photo / Peter McIntosh/ODT
Shane Rush speaks after a jury in the High Court at Dunedin this afternoon found Venod Skantha responsible for the murder of his daughter. Photo / Peter McIntosh/ODT

During the meeting, Skantha suggested the girl's death had been a suicide.

When Rush sharply denied that, he threw up a few names of people who could be involved.

"I was sitting in the room thinking I'm in there with her daughter's murderer. What the f*** am I doing?" Witness 32 said.

He was then dropped home, which is when he said Skantha reiterated a threat he had made earlier.

The boy and his family would be killed if he disclosed what had happened.

It did not work.

The teenager almost immediately contacted police.

As they drove him to the station to make the first of his three statements, his phone rang.

It was Skantha.

Over the next two hours, Skantha called the teen seven times.

His messages were terse at first.

"Ring," he demanded

"Answer."

Later Skantha tried a softer approach.

"I'm cooking a nice dinner. Keen?" he messaged. "U ok man?"

There was no response.

Three hours later, Skantha was hauled into the Dunedin Central police station and asked how he knew Amber-Rose.

She was "just sort of a friend," he said.