Warning: This story contains descriptions of domestic violence and murder and may be upsetting.
When Reuben Peeni fatally assaulted Crystal Selwyn at her Hamilton home, most of their six children were present. One of the youngest even tried to intervene, biting her father to try and get him to put down his weapon - a 7kg paving stone.
Days later, when Crystal’s life support was turned off and Peeni was charged with murder, those six children lost both parents.
The Peeni children were effectively orphaned through murder and, tragically, their situation is far from unique in New Zealand.
In Northland, Ashlee Edwards’ toddler and newborn daughters were left parentless when their father Jimmy Akuhata brutally took her life.
The girls now face a life without either parent as Akuhata serves a lengthy prison sentence.
Today senior crime and justice journalist Anna Leask tells the story of the parentless: Kiwi children being raised by wider whānau when one parent kills another and is jailed for life.
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Nana keeping Crystal Selwyn’s memory alive
The Peeni kids never ask their nana about their mother’s death.
They don’t ask how or why.
They don’t need to because they were there - and it wasn’t the first time they had seen daddy beat the daylights out of mummy.
Peeni and Crystal had been together for about 18 years raising her two older children and the six children they had together.
The relationship was tumultuous, often punctuated by assaults and violence. Peeni would beat Crystal, threaten to kill her, and destroy her property.
If Crystal didn’t call the police when it happened, her neighbours, who heard the hell unleash next door, would.
The kids saw most, if not all, of their father’s rage and brutality.
Peeni was charged repeatedly for hurting Crystal and jailed twice in 2017 for perpetrating violence in his home.
The relationship ended but Peeni stayed living in the family home in Hamilton. But when Crystal met someone else, he spiralled and in November 2019 things took a devastating turn.
Crystal called police about Peeni in the early hours of November 22, but he scarpered before officers arrived.
The next night he returned.
Crystal was home with five of the kids and three of their young mates.
Peeni had been drinking and was aggressive, telling his children he was going to kill their mother.
At 6.27pm Crystal called 111, which prompted Peeni to launch at her, punching her in the head.
She fell to the ground and Peeni grabbed her by the hair and pummelled her face and head with his other fist.
One of his kids’ friends tried to pull him away, then his own 6-year-old bit him to try and make him stop - but Peeni was relentless.
He picked up a paving brick and as Crystal lay on her back trying to fight Peeni off and get away, he brought the 7kg weapon down on her head.
Six times he hit her, screaming at her to die and calling her “despicable” names.
For a moment he stopped, then he picked the brick up and hit her about 10 more times as he spat the words “die you f***ing asshole”.
Leaving Crystal lying unconscious, Peeni fled the address.
But when police arrived they knew exactly who was behind the attack - the whole thing had been recorded by the 111 operator.
Crystal’s mother Maureen Selwyn was in Auckland when it happened.
When she got the call that her girl was in hospital she dropped everything and went to Hamilton. Her first thought - the kids.
“I had the kids straight away, they were with me from the 23rd when it first happened,” she told the Weekend Herald.
“At the time, I did not realise the extent of the damage that was done. I thought we’d just wait til she healed and bring her home.
“They told me on the 24th that there was nothing more they could do for her.”
Selwyn knew then and there that her future - without her beloved daughter - was going to be solely focused on her grandchildren.
“I went back to the motel and sat the kids down and just explained to them - that it was really bad and that mummy won’t be coming home. I had to tell the two little ones straight that mummy was going to die.”
She didn’t want to add to their pain so avoided discussing the murder and arrest.
“The only thing they asked was if they were going to see Crystal.
“I explained to them they can’t see her because she doesn’t look like mummy I wanted them to remember happy mummy.”
Over the weeks and months that followed, Selwyn had to put her own grief aside and focus on the kids - then aged 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 13.
She helped them navigate Crystal’s funeral, moved them to her home in Auckland and set about enrolling them into schools, getting them counselling and jumping through the legal hoops to keep them.
At one stage a social worker asked Selwyn: “how many can you take?”
They thought because of her age, and as a working grandparent, that she could not cope with six children.
“What a joke,” Selwyn said. “I wanted them all. I took them all.”
Even though he had murdered their mother, Peeni still had parental rights.
Initially, he said Selwyn could be the children’s caregiver. But she fought back and now has full and sole custody.
It’s been an unfathomably hard few years, but Selwyn wouldn’t be without her grandkids.
“It’s not these kids’ fault. Sure I’ve had my moments with them but I’d never live without them - I’d do it all over again, they are my life.
“That’s what a grandparent is about. I had to take these kids because there was nobody else, just me and my baby.”
All the children have had counselling over the years and are, despite what they survived in 2019, well-adjusted, healthy and happy.
Selwyn said the first 9-12 months after Crystal died, the kids barely spoke about her.
That concerned her but she later realised they had been talking about their mother out of earshot.
“It was like ‘don’t talk about this cos you’ll upset Nan’,” said Selwyn.
“They were protecting me.
“Now we talk about Crystal all the time, we joke about her, we laugh… they don’t ask about what happened, they ask me to tell them things from when she was younger.
“It’s been a really hard journey but they have made me proud.”
All six children are doing well at school and sport, and they support each other and Selwyn.
They are a tight unit and slowly but surely the family are healing.
Selwyn said one of the girls used to be terrified “Nana would die and I’ll have nobody” and one of the younger ones struggled thinking his mother was “angry” at him because she had “stopped coming to see me”.
“I said, ‘When does mummy come and see you?’ And he told me, ‘When I go to bed Nana and I go to sleep… but mummy’s stopped she must be angry at me’.
“I said, ‘Why would mummy be angry at you?’ And he didn’t know.
“I told him, ‘Okay, after work tomorrow I’ll go to the cemetery and talk to mummy and find out’.
“How do you explain to a 7-year-old child why his mummy hasn’t been back? I took a couple of days and then I worked it out.”
Selwyn explained to her grandson that his mother had only stopped coming to him at night after she knew he was alright.
“Mummy has seen that you’re fine, that you’re okay, but it’s a long way for mummy to come from heaven each night and it’s a long way back.
“Mummy is tired baby, that’s why she’s stopped coming to see you.
“He started crying and he said, ‘Thanks Nana,’ and he ran off.”
Selwyn is a softly spoken woman, fiercely protective of the six kids in her care, as well as Crystal’s older two and her great-grandson.
Her living room is a shrine to her family, with photos of each of her mokos beaming from the main wall.
An oversized photo of Crystal sits in the middle too, with handwritten notes stuck to it.
“When they first came here, if they told me they wanted to talk to mummy or tell her something, I told them to write her a note there,” Selwyn explained.
“Crystal was a good mum… I know that they love their mother and they always will.
“She was proud of them - she’d be proud of them now - they are so strong, they are perfect. "
The kids never really ask or talk about Peeni, Selwyn said. They know where he is and why.
Some of the older children hate their father; they are angry and want nothing to do with him.
One of the younger boys wanted to write to his dad once, but other than that they have had no contact.
“I saw him [in prison], I wanted to see him… he and I were very, very close… I asked him, ‘What do you think I am doing here?’
“He said, ‘An explanation, an apology’. And I said, ‘If I sit here and you give me that, do I get my baby back? When you’ve done your time in here, do I get my baby back? Unless you can give me my baby back, there is no closure.’
“I needed to see him, I was looking forward to saying my piece and I said it.”
Selwyn said she would always feel close to Crystal, and having the kids there with her helped.
“Every one of them has a trait of hers, the sense of humour, the things they say - I’ll think, ‘Man, that’s Crystal’,” she said.
“I hear them talking about her, they loved their mum and they always will.
“Crystal and I were so close, we never called them her kids or my kids - they were our kids.
“And I know Crystal would be saying to me, ‘Thank you my mumma for taking our kids’.
“She was a daughter and she grew up into a beautiful woman and she was an amazing mum.”
The tragedy of Ashlee Edwards
Since January 2011 there have been 695 deaths in New Zealand categorised by police as homicides.
New Zealand has the worst recorded rate of domestic violence in the developed world and sadly, there are many like the Peeni children growing up in the aftermath of parental murder.
When Jimmy Akuhata was sentenced for murdering his partner Ashlee Edwards, Justice Rebecca Ellis spoke directly to her family.
“What has happened to Ashlee and the effect that it has had on your lives is not something anybody should have to endure.
“For those of us who have not been through it, the pain and loss is unimaginable… how dreadful and cruel and violent and meaningless Ashlee’s death was.
“It should never, ever have happened.”
Ashlee was murdered in July 2012 and every day since, her mother Karen Edwards has put her own grief and pain aside to look after her granddaughters.
Like Maureen Selwyn, her decision was instantaneous.
And like Selwyn, though her journey has been excruciating at times, there is not a single regret in Edwards’ mind.
“As soon as we learned that something had happened to my daughter I just straight away in my head knew - and then I said it to my mother,” she recalled.
“I said, ‘I’m taking the girls, no matter what’.”
Ashlee’s daughters were just 2, and 4 months old when she died.
Edwards had two sons still living at home and attending school and taking on the young girls was a huge task.
Even when she had to take legal action to get full custody of the children, there was no hesitation.
“It was overwhelming… but it was vital,” she said.
“I was just in constant protective mode. I didn’t even have time to grieve.
“In the days after Ashlee died my partner said, ‘Karen, you have to grieve’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve got to protect these children and I have to get justice for Ashlee’.
“I delayed my grief at the time, and then about 20 months later it just all came like an avalanche.”
Ashlee, 21, had been in an on-off relationship with Akuhata for just over three years.
In February 2010, Ashlee was granted a protection order against Akuhata in a bid to keep him away from her and her oldest child.
In May 2012, she had the order changed to also protect her new baby.
The order did not dissuade Akuhata from his campaign of threats and harm.
In July 2012, police were investigating a new complaint Ashlee had made about Akuhata, and her mother was trying to find her a new house to rent - somewhere she would be safe from her nasty ex.
Ultimately, no one could save Ashlee.
On July 27, Ashlee and Akuhata were at a party in Whangārei.
He saw her text messaging a friend and got angry, tried to grab her phone, hurt her again.
When they left the party Akuhata embarked on his final assault.
The pair argued and as they walked across a bridge Akuhata lifted or pushed Ashlee over the railing and she fell into the stream below.
He climbed down the bank and took to her in the water, grabbing her hair and holding her head under the water until “the bubbles stopped”.
Akuhata went home and told his family Ashlee was dead.
His brother called the police and her body was found soon after.
Akhuata was charged with murder and pleaded guilty in March 2015, just a few weeks before his trial was due to start.
Justice Ellis said Akuhata’s offending was “truly dreadful” and had “far-reaching” consequences.
“[Ashlee] was obviously an adored daughter, grand-daughter and great grand-daughter. She was full of laughter, fun and life,” she said.
“She was the much-loved and much-needed mother of two little girls. But she made a terrible choice when she decided to be with you.
“You simply chose to take away her life by a brutal and callous act.”
Edwards said because the girls were so young when Ashlee died she did not have the gruelling task of telling them what had happened or explaining where their father was and why.
She was more concerned about what they had seen of their father’s abuse and attacks and how that would impact them in the weeks, months and years after the murder.
“I just took them under my wing, I just stepped into Ashlee’s shoes and basically was just with them 24/7,” she said.
“We just went through everything together… it really wasn’t until they were a little bit older we told them - in age-appropriate ways.
“We’ve always been open and honest about the fact that mum died, but we didn’t tell them how for years. I think they were both well into school and it came on the television news and the kids said, ‘Oh is that how she died,’ and I was thinking, ‘Oh s***,’ because we just hadn’t given them the details.
“But because we had talked about it so openly up until that point, it didn’t come as such a huge shock.”
Edwards said her focus had never been on how Ashlee died, it had always been about finding a way to make sure the girls know their mum.
“All they want to know is mummy’s stories. We share, all the time, bits and pieces of Ashlee’s childhood, the funny things she did, the naughty things,” she said.
“It’s like they have come to know their mum through that - and that has been really, really important.
“Even the baby… at one point she said, ‘I miss my mum,’ and I thought, ‘You didn’t even know your mother,’ but it’s as if she did.”
Edwards said Ashlee was mentioned “every day” within the family and there were many photos of her throughout the house.
“The girls each have a photo in their bedrooms so they can go and talk to their mum if they need to,” she said.
“Every birthday, every anniversary, every Christmas we re-share stories and talk about mummy and we just keep her memory alive.
“The girls have also come to learn, at child-appropriate ages and stages, about healthy relationships. They know that mummy died of violence from a violent relationship and they know the rights and wrongs.
“They are becoming quite strong, determined young women - very determined not to put up with disrespect from boys, or any other people.”
Ashlee’s daughters, now 10 and 13, don’t ask about Akuhata. Ever.
“They know that he’s in prison and they know that he was very violent, and that he treated mummy really badly to the point that he killed her,” said Edwards.
“I’ve always been honest and I have incorporated those conversations with learning about healthy and unhealthy relationships. I keep the focus on that rather than him.
“I know full well once they get a bit old there will be more questions - and I am well prepared for those.
“But I think I have prepped them along the way anyway so nothing will come as a surprise.”
Edwards said there had been hard times along the way where the girls had been triggered, with the impact of their early life catching up and causing behavioural issues for one of them.
But by and large they were doing remarkably well in their “new normal”.
“We’ve tried to live with grief as normally as possible and I think we’ve done a good job making sure that the children don’t suffer for it,” she said.
“Our lives truly did get ripped apart… I think part of the reason was everyone went through their various forms of guilt and I think there was quite a bit of blaming each other - some pretty horrid things were said... It was pretty cruel.
“In a sense, they were very much forgotten about because everyone was so focused on what he did, initially.
“And then all the arguments, even on social media, between his family and mine, and people having a go at each other, they were more focused on the drama, and the non-important stuff.
“And I had to keep stepping away from all of that crap… I feel like I really took the bull by the horns… protecting the girls from the public eye, social media and all of it… just so that they weren’t noticed and there wasn’t any stigma held against them in a negative way.”
Edwards said Ashlee would have been - as she is - immensely proud of the bright, loving and happy young girls.
“I’m raising them just like I raised her - we do a lot of fun stuff together and the girly stuff and we go camping and tramping and the laughs we have along the way are amazing,” she said.
“[In December] her oldest received the Year 8 Citizenship Award at her school prizegiving and we are on Cloud 9 knowing how far she’s come after what we’ve been through.
“She kept saying last night, ‘Nana I just kept trying to do my best and try new things’.
“I know Ash would truly be super proud.”
Thriving despite tragedy in the new normal
In December 2019, Riki Nath murdered his wife Sherine and bashed their toddler almost to death - using a claw hammer - before he took his own life at their Papatoetoe home.
Nath was a controlling and possessive man and was facing domestic violence charges when he died.
Sherine had left Nath but just days before she died, he managed to convince the terrified woman to come home.
The couple’s son survived the horrendous attack and is now being raised by his aunts and grandparents.
The little boy - who has permanent name suppression - is thriving despite the terrifying ordeal.
“He is doing really, really well,” said his aunt.
“He’s doing great at school as well - so definitely going strong.”
Carmen Thomas was murdered by her ex-partner Brad Callaghan in 2010.
After a fight over their young son, Callaghan killed South African-born Carmen in her Auckland flat by striking her multiple times on the head with a baseball bat.
Callaghan then dismembered Carmen and buried the 32-year-old’s body in concrete-filled containers in the Waitākere Ranges.
In a further bid to cover up his crime, he sent texts from Carmen’s phone after she was dead, pretending to be her.
Callaghan pleaded guilty to charges of murder and attempting to pervert the course of justice.
He was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 13 years.
Carmen’s little boy is now being raised by relatives in New Zealand.
A suppression order is in place to protect his privacy. The order also permanently prohibits the reporting of any information about the boy’s living arrangements, or from publishing or re-publishing photos of him that already exist.
Callaghan sought the suppression order in 2011 when his son was 6 years old.
In an affidavit he told the High Court: “He has had a lot to deal with. His mother is dead and his father is in prison. I want to protect [him] from any further trauma.
“[He] himself does not yet know all of the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death.
“I am most concerned that any media attention, attempted contact or publication of information or photographs of [him] will have a profound effect on his wellbeing and I believe that he needs to be protected from this.”
In September 2009, Helen Meads was gunned down at her Matamata home.
She was shot at close range, her body found soon after by police in the stables at the property she shared with her racehorse breeder husband Greg Meads.
Meads was charged with Helen’s murder. It later emerged that their marriage had been rife with domestic violence and the last fatal assault came after she announced she was leaving.
Meads denied that he meant to kill Helen, claiming the gun accidentally went off when he went to confront her about why she was leaving him.
But after a high-profile High Court trial, Meads was found guilty of Helen’s murder.
Helen was a mother-of-three and when she died, her parents David and Pam White stepped in to raise her youngest - 9-year-old Samantha.
Family violence - Do you need help?
If you’re in danger now phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or friends to ring for you.
Where to go for help or more information:
• Shine: Free national helpline, 24/7 - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line, 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line, 24/7 - 0800 742 584
• It’s Not Ok: Information line, 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz