By JO-MARIE BROWN
When Ema Neru moved into a sparsely furnished Tauranga flat in March last year she had gambled away most of her family's money. Her husband and son had left her.
She was so short of cash she lied to those she met about having cancer and needing an operation.
Two missionary nuns who befriended her were among those who gave her money.
Her landlady, 76-year-old Marta Webber, was a good Samaritan who rented one of three flats behind her home to the Samoan woman.
Neru repaid that kindness by killing her.
Yesterday, in the High Court at Rotorua, the 29-year-old pleaded guilty to murder.
Before being led away to begin a life sentence, she apologised "profoundly and deeply" to Mrs Webber's family for having strangled her with an orange lavalava on July 31 last year.
Neru arrived in New Zealand six years ago and briefly lived in Tauranga before moving to Auckland with her husband and adopted 10-year-old son.
Through "bad associations" she developed a gambling problem that destroyed her marriage. Her estranged husband and son moved to Wellington and Neru took her few possessions back to the Bay of Plenty.
But defence lawyer Fuimaono Tuiasau said Neru became desperate to reconcile with her family and used what money she could scrape together to buy presents for her son.
"She told Mrs Webber of her problems and Mrs Webber ... was quite prepared to help."
But after she moved into the rear one-bedroom unit arguments developed over unpaid rent.
Neru's flatmate moved out after discovering she was regularly stealing money from him.
Desperate for money, Neru also helped herself to several blank cheques from Mrs Webber's chequebook and practised her landlady's signature.
Their relationship deteriorated to the point where Mrs Webber would refuse to open her front door to Neru and would threaten to call the police.
Neru decided to move out in July but began hassling Mrs Webber to get her bond money back and $18 she believed she was owed.
She started moving her belongings out and told a friend that she had to "sort out" her landlady.
She took several pieces of crockery belonging to Mrs Webber from her flat and sold them.
Neru had been telephoning her estranged husband in Wellington over the previous month, apologising for lying and gambling.
She claimed she had mended her ways and become religious after spending time with sisters from the Latter-Day Saints church.
The day before the murder she booked a bus ticket to Wellington.
She then returned to the Devonport Rd flats and wrote Mrs Webber a note saying: "I'm not stupid, Marta. I know where you come from and you still owe me $18."
Mrs Webber, believing Neru had moved out but taken the key, walked down the driveway the next morning to unit D, intending to put a new lock on the door.
There she was confronted by Neru and handed an envelope. Scrawled on the back of it was: "Read this please. I need your help right now. If you don't I killed you. I want you sign me a cheque for this amount $4500. I want my kids back but I got no money to do that."
The note added: "Don't look at me just do it what I wrote down. Don't say anything. Hurry, hurry."
When Mrs Webber refused, Neru grabbed a lavalava and strangled her, leaving her slumped on a couch.
Neru threw a yellow sheet over the body, then scrawled a note purporting to be from Mrs Webber saying she would be away for a few days and stuck it to her landlady's front door.
She spent several days in Tauranga visiting casinos while waiting for a cheque she stole from Mrs Webber to clear. When it did she bought a $1000 electronic organ for her son.
Mrs Webber's estranged husband, Keith, became concerned about his wife's disappearance.
He discovered his wife's signature had been forged on cheques made out to Neru and called police when sisters of the Latter Day Saints church arrived at Devonport Rd. They had tried visiting Neru in Waikato Hospital for her "cancer" treatment but could not find her there.
Police found Neru two weeks later outside a casino in Wellington.
Yesterday, Mr Webber said his family were pleased Neru had pleaded guilty, although they did not believe the murder was committed on the spur of the moment. "It was completely premeditated."
Mr Tuiasau told Justice Anthony Ellis that Neru could not understand how she committed murder and was "extremely remorseful". All hope of her reconciling with her family was gone.
"It's an event which has traumatised her," he said.
"But it's obvious that she will have no real appreciation of the pain and grieving that Mrs Webber's family have gone through."