Almost two years ago, runaway dad Tom Phillips vanished with his three children for the second time; sparking an ever-increasing hunt for them in the south Waikato. On the eve of the anniversary, Neil Reid spoke to locals from the remote settlement he fled and those who are hunting him
Private investigator Chris Budge doesn’t mince his words when it comes to Tom Phillips.
Since mid-2022, the former police and army officer has been conducting his own search for Phillips, who vanished with his children - Jayda, 10, Maverick, 9, and Ember 7 – just weeks before Christmas 2021.
It’s the second time the fugitive father – who has a warrant out for his arrest - has fled with his kids, sparking a search for the quartet. Police told the Herald this week that they believe Phillips is armed.
As the children’s mother prepares for potentially a third Christmas without them, Budge has issued a strongly-worded message to Phillips that now is the time to stop running and give his children back.
“My message would be: ‘Tom it’s two years. You have done your run. It is time to give the kids in so they can grow up with a normal New Zealand life with health, contact, companionship and education,” Budge told the Herald.
“Whether he gives himself up, people don’t really care. He will be going to a court hearing and subject to the police evidence, there is a very strong possibility I would expect that he will go to jail.
“Tom will be protecting himself, but he needs to think about the kids . . . don’t think about himself. Leave the kids where they can be picked up, leave them with your family . . . then you can skip and hide wherever you want throughout the country.
“It’s all about the kids. And it’s time to give them up.”
Phillips and his three children first came to national prominence on September 11, 2021, after his ute was discovered in the surf at Kiritehere Beach – about 10km south of Marokopa.
A major land and sea search and rescue operation was launched, with jet skis and inflatable boats scouring the water in the area – backed up by aerial searches from helicopters and light planes - in case they had been swept out to sea.
A land search – operated out of the Marokopa Hall - featured specialist teams and volunteers on foot, along with heat-detecting drones and helicopters.
The quartet reappeared 19 days after their disappearance, returning to the Phillips’ family farm, where the runaway dad told a family member they had been living in a tent in the bush, and he needed time out to think.
Phillips was later charged with wasting police resources. But on December 9, 2021, a month before a scheduled court appearance, he again vanished with his three children.
This time, he’s been on the run for almost two years.
That’s despite a $10,000 reward offered by relatives of the three missing children for any information leading to their safe return and repeated calls from police and local mayor Max Baxter for Phillips to hand them over.
Some locals from the tight-knit Marokopa community are also breaking their silence by telling Phillips now is the time to give up, including former Waitomo mayor Mark Amonn.
“For the sake of your kids, turn yourself in,” Amonn told the Herald while he was out dog walking near the Marokopa sand dunes.
“He has to forget about the consequences of being caught. He has to do it now before something more serious happens.
“I do feel for the kids, a lot. All they’ve got at the moment is each other. They’ve been out of education for two years.”
Amonn said given recent crimes linked to Phillips – including an aggravated robbery – he believed he was “getting desperate”.
He said the impression he had gleamed about Phillips over the last couple of years was him being “a bit of a maverick”.
And running off with his kids had created a “stupid situation”.
On the map for the wrong reasons
Marokopa has a permanent population of around 50.
On the wet spring day, the Herald visited the settlement, its population had almost tripled due to it hosting the two-day Marokopa Munter adventure race. It featured trekking, mountain biking and kayaking.
The Munter publicity material said its location was “full of adventure-potential hills, rivers, farms, bush and more hills”.
The tiny seaside community is located at the end of Marokopa Rd, a windy stretch of tarmac about an hour’s drive east from the Waitomo Caves.
For much of its distance, the narrow road is carved through lush native bush.
The few places where you can stop safely off the side of the route are gravel public car parks located near popular walking tracks; including to a waterfall and a cave network.
If Phillips is hiding with his children again in the local bush – or in the many caving networks in the area - there is no shortage of places where he could seek sanctuary.
Some locals told the Herald they wondered if Phillips’ hideout – at least for some of the two years he has been on the run – was among the caves.
“They’ve had choppers up here trying to find them in the search,” one man said.
“The police chopper was up after he got away from the locals who chased him in the ute he had flogged. If they couldn’t get a heat sensor from him in the area, one answer could be the caves. And there are a lot of them around the wider area.”
But the cave theory doesn’t stick with Budge for several reasons.
He said living in such an environment wouldn’t be a long-term option for a dad with three young kids.
CCTV footage captured of Phillips and one of his children earlier this month when he broke into a shop in Piopio showed the duo in clean and tidy clothes; something which Budge believed showed they were living in some form of comfort.
Locals joke that before Phillips’ first vanishing act, few New Zealanders would be able to locate Marokopa on the map.
The settlement itself is found where the Marokopa River – which offers fly fishers rainbow and brown trout – enters the Tasman Sea.
The coastline is also a popular fishing spot, offering surfcasters snapper and kahawai.
Alongside the walkway down to the beach’s black sand dunes is the Albatross Anchor; an anchor from Albatross which was wrecked while trying to cross the dangerous Marokopa Bar in 1916.
No one died in the grounding. But the anchor captures a moment in time when shipping played a significant part in the life of Marokopa’s settlers.
‘Do the right thing’
Not everyone in and around Marokopa is as open publicly about Phillips as Amonn.
They don’t want their names to be used for fear of potential reprisals from those who might support the fugitive father of three.
But they all agree with one thing; they want Phillips to do the “right thing” and hand his three children over.
“We don’t really care about him and what happens to him,” one said.
“What we do care about is the health and wellbeing of those three children. Apart from their dad, they’ve been stripped of precious family time, including from their mother, for almost two years.
“Imagine that. And imagine how their mum must feel, knowing somewhere out there are her precious children ... and she has no idea how they are living or the condition they’re in. That’s just a horrible thought.”
Given the isolation of Marokopa – and its tiny population - everyone knows everyone.
Strangers stick out pretty much instantly. So do vehicles locals are not used to seeing on the normally very quiet roads.
One local said those driving along Marokopa Rd, and the preceding Te Anga Rd, did their best to try and get a good look at drivers in cars, utes or vans that they’re not familiar with.
“You never know. Tom Phillips might be driving one he’s uplifted from somewhere else and heading back around here,” the woman said.
“You just wouldn’t put anything past him. Is he hiding in plain sight under our noses? We don’t know. We want to know. But given everything, you would not be surprised if he’s driving our roads in a vehicle we wouldn’t normally link to him.”
One of the confirmed sightings of Phillips was in August when he was driving a ute near Kawhia which had been reported as stolen.
Police have said locals recognised him and gave chase. But Phillips managed to get away.
A month later he was charged by police in relation to the May armed robbery of a bank in Te Kūiti. He escaped with an unidentified female accomplice. Budge says he believes the female was too tall to be one of his daughters.
But one of his children was with him when he broke into a store in Piopio in the early hours of November 2.
Who has been helping Tom Phillips?
Budge says his motivation to try to find Phillips and the children was simple; a case of “doing the right thing”.
Early last year he met with the three children’s mother and half-sister and offered to use his forensic and investigative skills to try and locate the quartet.
The family said they wanted it left in the hands of authorities, with Budge now doing an independent search in his own time and passing any information on to police.
And he’s adamant the hunt for the fugitive dad is being hindered by some in the wider Marokopa community and other associates living in other parts of Waikato.
“Tom is being looked after by one or more people,” Budge said.
“People that are looking after Tom, they are giving the finger to the authorities, they are giving the finger to the children’s mum.
“If you look at some of their Facebook posts, they almost equate him to a modern-day Robin Hood which is absolutely bull****.”
The view Phillips is being helped is shared by police trying to find him too.
In August, Inspector Will Loughrin said police “always had a view that he has support”.
And, this week, Acting Detective Inspector Andrew Saunders reiterated to the Herald that police officers believed he was being helped by others and called on them to reveal where he was.
“Our message to Tom Philips and anyone who is helping him remains the same – do the right thing and come forward,” Saunders said.
“Police’s priority has always been locating Tom and the children to ensure their welfare, and this has not changed.
“While Tom is experienced in the bush, we believe there are people helping him, and we urge those people to give us any information which may help locate Tom and the children. The children have other family members who are desperate to see them.
“While we appreciate there are certain loyalties held by people in small communities, this is not the time to keep them.”
Amonn said he was also well aware of theories that Phillips had been receiving help from others to avoid being caught.
Information gathered by Budge suggested someone who knew Phillips well knew exactly where he was hiding out when he first vanished with the kids in September 2021.
Stories had also circulated in the community more recently that the same person had purchased a “boot load of groceries” in Taumarunui which were dropped off somewhere else, presumably to Phillips.
“Those are the sorts of rumours and information that are flashing around,” Budge said.
“People are talking, but they are just not executing that into concrete information for the police to do something.”
Sightings he has received included one of Phillips in Kawhia in May 2022. In mid-2022 he was told Phillips and the children were sighted together in Otorohanga.
Budge said he had also been told Phillips had been seen on land owned by a well-known drug grower in the southern Waikato area.
Police received 14 reported sightings of Phillips in September.
Budge said those sightings, although not confirmed, and the location of crimes linked to him suggested that with the help of others, he had been almost hiding in plain sight.
He believed he and the children were one of many farms in the region, where Phillips might be working as a farmhand and living in a “cocky’s house or a shepherd’s building . . . he’s living probably a reasonably limited lifestyle”.
“Certainly, the kids don’t have any form of schooling and that whole thing is quite concerning,” he said.
Budge has previously written a letter to Phillips and given it to a family member and other friends of his, with it stating he was solely concerned about the kids and welfare, not him.
In the letter, Budge also told Phillips he was prepared to be a mediator in any talks with the police in a bid to get the children returned.
The private investigator said that the Phillips family member he gave the letter too said he didn’t know where the missing man was, something he questioned.
Private investigator: The time is right to offer a sizeable reward
As the two-year anniversary nears, and police again appeal for information which could prove crucial in finding Phillips and the children, Saunders has urged anyone who sees him to show “caution”.
“We also believe Tom Philips is likely armed, and there are outstanding warrants for his arrest,” he said.
All credible information the police received was being followed up on.
“Tom is also now believed responsible for at least two burglaries, one of which police believe involved one of his children,” Saunders said.
“To be allegedly committing crimes to continue to evade authority is unacceptable, not to mention involving his children and putting them at risk.
“We cannot speculate on Tom’s exact reasons for staying hidden, but we appeal directly to him to think of his children and the people that miss them.”
Wellington-based Budge has gotten to know some of the nooks and crannies in Marokopa and its surroundings pretty well on his trips up to the isolated and at-times rugged area.
He believed both its geographical location – including one road in and out – and Phillips’ sympathisers had stymied any major progress in the investigation.
“The challenge the police have is that there are only so many roads that go into that area and there is a very active jungle drums,” he said.
“If the police drive in via marked vehicles somebody will see them and it will be passed on. And I believe eventually it will be passed on to whoever is looking after Tom.”
He said it was pleasing that some locals had passed on sightings but said with no fulltime officers located in the area, the information went to waste.
“That is probably one of the main things to think about, about how they can get in there better,” Budge said.
Saunders said it was no secret the nature of wider area where Phillips is believed to be hiding had made the search for him more challenging.
That made co-operation from the community even more important.
“The reality is that the terrain of coastal Waikato is tricky, and police rely on specific information as starting points for us to conduct any search for Tom and the children,” he said.
“To that end, we reiterate that the community is key.”
Budge believes one way to end the nearly 24-month hunt is for New Zealand Police to offer a sizeable reward for information on the children’s whereabouts.
Police would not engage on the possibility of offering their own reward.
The $10,000 reward offered by members of the children’s family – which included donations to a Givealittle page set up by their half-sister – wasn’t incentive enough to dob Phillips in, the private investigator said.
“There is no [large] reward . . . [so at the moment] it is just about getting it in the public eye because someone is going to see the prick and he is going to get caught,” Budge said.
“Option one [to finding him] is that Tom gets found by accident. Someone sees him, reports him . . . something that is out of everyone’s control.
“Option two, someone is going to dob him in. I kind of think that the thing that is going to do that is offering up some money. The $10,000 that the family has put up is obviously not enough.
“If he is dealing with criminal elements, money is going to turn the key. That is all they are interested in, they don’t give a s*** about Tom.”
The third most likely option, according to Budge, was police locating him themselves at a certain location where they would have to “contain the area” before the manhunt was resolved.
“It is all about the kids. It is not about Tom, Tom is a side issue,” Budge said.
“Whenever he pops out, we just hope the kids will pop out alive and [services] are ready there for the help that those kids are going to need.”
>> Police have set up a dedicated email address for members of the public to report any information they may have about Tom Phillips and his children: email@example.com
Police also ask anyone with sightings to report them immediately via 111 and quote file number 211218/5611.
Neil Reid is a Napier-based senior reporter who covers general news, features and sport. He joined the Herald in 2014 and has 30 years of newsroom experience.