When Dr Venod Skantha moved to Dunedin to work at the hospital in 2017, he was adopted by a group of young friends and cast himself as a benevolent godfather figure. But as he descended into alcoholism he surrounded himself with even younger teens and ultimately killed to protect his fragile medical career. The Otago Daily Times' Rob Kidd spoke to those closest to him who watched his decline ...

"Call me Uncle Vinny," he said.

In Dundas St, amid the throng of student revelry, a small Malaysian man stood alone.

Dan* and Michael* — who spoke to the Otago Daily Times on condition of anonymity — were driving around with some mates basking in the party atmosphere and somehow got talking to him.

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Even with his debaucherous lifestyle and unending pursuit of women, Venod Skantha's friends never thought he was capable of murder. Photo / ODT
Even with his debaucherous lifestyle and unending pursuit of women, Venod Skantha's friends never thought he was capable of murder. Photo / ODT

It didn't seem important at the time.

He jumped in the car and they drove for a while drinking and chatting, before adding him on Facebook and dropping him off.

"Happy, interesting, confident, pushing towards over-confidence," Michael said of his first impressions of Dr Venod Skantha.

Nearly a year later, he was charged with the murder of 16-year-old Amber-Rose Rush, who was found stabbed to death in the bedroom of her Corstorphine home.

Dan recalled how intoxicating it was to spend time with someone so seemingly carefree and generous as they saw him increasingly frequently.

"There was a point where we called him 'Uncle Vinny' so he was like that benevolent godfather that we never had. He was always generous with his time, his money and his assets.

"He had a car full of petrol and anyone could take it whenever they wanted. It was like a daydream," he said.

"To us he was some sort of celebrity I guess — who wouldn't be friends with a guy like that?"

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Skantha did his study in Auckland, where his parents live, before starting his career at Invercargill Hospital in mid-2016.

He transferred to Dunedin Hospital the following year.

Michael said it felt as though Skantha was making up for lost time.

"He went from being a very proper and serious student to trying to live the party life and then basically going as hedonistic as possible and as sloppy as possible. He embraced the chaos and encouraged people to just show up at his house whenever they wanted," he said.

Amber-Rose Rush was murdered in her bed in February last year. Photo / Facebook
Amber-Rose Rush was murdered in her bed in February last year. Photo / Facebook

For the first three or four months, the group met up at the weekends, got drunk, enjoyed themselves.

They participated in a chilli-eating contest in April 2017, covered by the ODT, in which Skantha managed second place.

His eccentricities soon emerged, Dan said.

"He liked to troll people," he said.

"Anything that gave him a thrill or a rush or a confrontation, he was game for it."

Using expletives in public, eating pasta with his hands in a restaurant, making derogatory slurs to passing women, giving impromptu lectures to children about being a doctor — whatever got a reaction.

Dan said Skantha appeared to be searching for something just out of his grasp.

"He chose to be a doctor ... but he didn't feel fulfilled," he said.

"He had lots of aspirations: he started going to the gym, he started boxing, he started sword-fighting, he gave up alcohol forever multiple times; but he never had the discipline or continuity to finish what he had started."

Read more:
Venod Skantha: A life out of control that spiralled into murder
Amber-Rose Rush: Fearless and not afraid to stick up for the underdog

In July, Skantha's lifestyle began to overtake his commitment to his profession.

He received a final warning for serious misconduct and only narrowly avoided dismissal by lying that his mother had died.

While the investigation into his professional shortcomings progressed, cracks in his life became crevices when he went on paid leave.

"He had a developing alcohol habit, a full doctor's salary and no responsibilities," Michael said.

"Then he decided to double down on the drinking."

The boozing went from weekends to whenever and his social circle changed.

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

Those who had originally absorbed him into their group began to pull back as they were replaced by kids, some as young as 15.

"It started getting a bit negative when you had people hanging out because they wanted free alcohol," Michael said.

That was when he stopped seeing Skantha.

Instead of getting wasted, he suggested they did something fun did that did not involve alcohol.

They found common ground with squash.

"We played half a dozen times. He got a lot better as we played as well. At the beginning I could beat him super easily, lying on his back with smoker's lungs puffing away, sweat dripping everywhere. But by the end he could keep up with me," Michael said.

Like everything, though, it did not last.

At Venod Skantha's trial in the High Court at Dunedin the jury heard about a machete, which he commonly pulled out when he was drunk. Photo / ODT
At Venod Skantha's trial in the High Court at Dunedin the jury heard about a machete, which he commonly pulled out when he was drunk. Photo / ODT

Skantha returned to his life of lasciviousness with his troupe of teenagers.

Michael pulled away and said he was still plagued by thoughts of whether he could have changed the course of events had he pushed his mate harder to turn things around.

Dan too fell out with the doctor in October 2017.

When Skantha made crass comments about sexual violation it was all he could take.

"I was manipulated by him. I fell for his shit," said Dan.

A few months later, Skantha turned up at his house unannounced, gave him a hug and asked if he could buy him dinner.

"When I looked at the man, while he was that soft, lovely, sweet uncle who was always benevolent, on the inside I saw the f***ing devil. I didn't want anything to do with him," he said.

At Skantha's trial in the High Court at Dunedin the jury heard about a machete, which he commonly pulled out when he was drunk.

Dan backed up those stories and said his former friend had "an affinity for violence".

It was often couched as play-fighting. But Skantha had to win.

Shane Rush and Amber-Rose's family speak after Venod Skantha was found guilty of murdering her. Photo / ODT
Shane Rush and Amber-Rose's family speak after Venod Skantha was found guilty of murdering her. Photo / ODT

"If we were bored he was like 'who wants a fight?'," he said.

"He enjoyed the brutality of having someone submit to him."

His interest in women took a similar slant, his friends said. It was the thrill of the chase, quantity over quality.

While he was dating Balclutha lawyer Brigid Clinton, Dan reckoned he had half a dozen others on the go.

"Craving the admiration, pumping his own self-esteem," he said.

Even amid his increasing dependence on alcohol, his debaucherous lifestyle, his unending pursuit of women; his friends agreed on one thing.

They never thought Skantha capable of murder.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Michael said he could not see any clear warning signs.

Dan told the Otago Daily Times he know Skantha was interested in Amber-Rose but never imagined him killing her.

"She was just lovely, she really was," he said.

In March 2020, three years after Skantha came to Dunedin, he will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

*Names have been changed to protect sources.