It's a midsummer murder and the killer is elusive. The four victims - poisoned - are yet to die yet there is certainty they are on a gradual slide to oblivion.

So far, the Opito Bay pōhutukawa give only hints of their slow death.

It was in the extremities the first sign of decay was revealed.

The uppermost leaves wilted then fell. Straggly twigs now crown the pohutukawa.

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Opito Bay residents dismayed by the poisoning of pohutukawa trees (from left) John Sharp, Sue Rowsell, Jenny White, Yvonne Sharp, Helen Chapman, John Chapman and Jill Smith. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Opito Bay residents dismayed by the poisoning of pohutukawa trees (from left) John Sharp, Sue Rowsell, Jenny White, Yvonne Sharp, Helen Chapman, John Chapman and Jill Smith. Photo / Peter de Graaf

And then the limbs sagged. When the arborist came to remove the worst of those, the stumps revealed the hardwood inside was turning to a pulpy mush.

"The prognosis isn't good," says Far North mayor John Carter, who is wild about tree murders in the Far North. "They don't just grow in two minutes."

It takes many minutes to grow a tree. Now, a pōhutukawa massacre, a harbourside arborcide. Four dead on the grassy reserve.

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Jenny White, 71, who lives directly over the road from the poisoned trees, says: "I've lived with these pōhutukawa trees all my life."

Her family - the Rowsells - planted the row of a dozen pōhutukawa in the late 1950s. By then, the bay had been an integral part of family holidays since Christmas 1920.

She can point up the hill to where sister Yvonne Sharp, a former three-term mayor, lives.
Next door is cousin Wade Rowsell. And, she points, another cousin over there and another sister over there, in their mother's former home.

And so on.

When the poisoning emerged, the motive initially seemed obvious. The pōhutukawa along the shore presumably blocked someone's view, inspiring an act of such abhorrent bastardry it still brings a gasp of shock to those in the bay.

The Rowsell clan, who were such an early fixture here, occupy Opito Bay's best spots.

"And now I'm in the firing line," she says.

The presumed motive had people casting sideways glances, chattering theories around the neighbourhood of about 40 homes.

"But you can see through them," says White. And she's right. The trees limbs wave about in a stiff southerly - the only wind to really hit Opito Bay - and the moored boats and southern side of Kerikeri Inlet are quite clear.

White heaves a sigh and considers other motives. Parking can be difficult, particularly for those with trailer boats. Perhaps someone thought killing the trees might open up more space, she wondered.

"Then I changed my mind. All those posts," she waves at the bollards in the reserve, "you can't get there.

"Why would anyone do it?"

Drilled and poisoned

To see the damage is to understand the deliberateness of the attack. These holes are small - about three millimetres across and as deep as the drill bit would go. There are more in the trunks about a metre up the tree.

All told, there are about 30 holes across four trees. The other pōhutukawa on the waterfront remain untouched.

The holes are on the seaward side. The killer skulked, hidden from view, behind his victims when it came time to do his or her dirty work.

Drill holes in the roots of the pohutukawa on the Opito Bay waterfront. Photo / David Fisher
Drill holes in the roots of the pohutukawa on the Opito Bay waterfront. Photo / David Fisher

Hiding there, leaning into the drill to push into the wood then inserting syringes filled with poison, pressing down on the plunger.

What sort of Grinch would poison a Christmas tree?

We have such warm feelings towards these trees. For many of us, they have a special place deep inside tied up with all the good things in life.

Kids belt out "Aotearoa Christmas under a pōhutukawa tree" as the year draws to a close.
The song floats out of primary schools on the sweet warmth of a summer breeze promising unimagined freedoms in the weeks to come.

They herald family times and special times. We head for the beach and there they are, long limbs flung across reserves and sand to create sanctuaries from the sun.

The pōhutukawa ushers in summer. They blossom and flower as spring heat spreads from the height of the day to fill every sleeping and waking hour. We sit beneath and smell hot sand and cool surf and salt in the air.

It's part of our rhythm of life, and for Māori, the rhythm of death. The lone pōhutukawa at Te Rerenga Wairua guides spirits of the dead into the sea, setting the course for Hawaiiki-A-Nui.

The attack on the tree was the latest in a string of attacks on trees, says Carter.

"We need people to understand these are iconic," he says.

Local anger at those who poisoned the Opito Bay pohutukawa. Photo / Peter de Graaf.
Local anger at those who poisoned the Opito Bay pohutukawa. Photo / Peter de Graaf.

Pōhutukawa were cut down in a council reserve in Kerikeri. Someone ring barked a tree on Kaikohe's main street. A couple of historic manuka were removed, also in Kerikeri.

Legal orders were issued to replant the unlawfully removed trees but there are signs council is wanting to get tougher.

And now it's Opito Bay. "We're taking this extremely seriously," he says.

A formal complaint has been made to police and Senior Constable Rhys Dempster - a local resident and expert angler - is on the case. He's knocking on doors, interviewing locals.

Carter talks motive and - like others with an opinion on the case - talks about views.

"It's either it interferes with a view or interferes with something they want to do on their own property."

The view! The view? It's nice enough, the sort of sea view people travel hundreds of kilometres to sit and admire while on holiday.

Of course, if you holiday at Opito Bay, the best views are already held by the Rowsell family.

"Everyone has their suspicions," says Wade Rowsell. "And there's a lot of suspicions about the views.

"It's easy to point the finger. Those people they are pointing the finger at helped plant them."

A gift to the future

They say when you plant it tree, it's a gift to the future. That planting a tree is conceiving a possibility you will never realise. That planting a tree is an act of selflessness from which others will benefit.

At Opito Bay, the Rowsells came before the trees and will outlast the trees. They have roots which stretch back almost 100 years.

Wade Rowsell, 64, has a family history which is not called, "The Story of the Rowsell Family". Instead, it's called: "The Story of Opito Bay."

History is layers. There's the forming of the land by seismic fracture and our diverse, unique flora and fauna. There are Kupe's adventures, and the arrival of Māori. Then came the European explorers, "discovering" that which had already been found.

Opito Bay in the 1960s, with the juvenile pohutukawa on the beachfront. Photo / Supplied
Opito Bay in the 1960s, with the juvenile pohutukawa on the beachfront. Photo / Supplied

And then the adventurers, the pioneers, the settlers, the Rowsells.

They were a sawmilling family. The family business was "Rowsell & Rowsell" in Kaikohe, the town already the district centre it would be for decades.

Nowadays, it takes about 30 minutes from Kaikohe to Waipapa Landing. Then, it took the arrival of Dick Rowsell and his trucking business in 1919 before the path to the coast was one which could be easily forged.

It opened up the wider east coast, with the truck pushing its way along a single-track, unsealed road, fording streams where bridges were out.

Those adventures in 1919 acquainted the Rowsells with the Kerikeri Inlet, and Opito Bay, and the older Māori man who lived there who welcomed visitors and invited the family to return the following summer.

And so they did. They off-loaded rented boats opposite the karaka tree on the foreshore.
Two tents went up under the tree with a fly between. There was a firepit with "a few iron bars for a grill", a camp over and a few frying pans.

That was it. No boats - those which delivered the group had returned - and almost complete isolation. There were no roads in, and only small understanding of the summer wonderland which - in years to come - would draw people from across New Zealand and around the world.

Early Opito Bay, near Kerikeri, before the planting of the pohutukawa which have now been poisoned. Photo / Supplied
Early Opito Bay, near Kerikeri, before the planting of the pohutukawa which have now been poisoned. Photo / Supplied

Snapper were plentiful. All bounty the sea had to offer was. Kids pulled huge crabs from the reef, roasting them over small fires.

Charles "CR" Rowsell figures large in the stories of Opito Bay and is centre of a fantastic tale about possibly the first kingfish landed by Pākehā.

The written history conjures images of "CR" scooting along a rocky reef trying to haul in a huge kingfish using just a length of cord on a manuka pole.

The rod broke under the strain but CR wouldn't surrender his catch, getting the 20kg fish close enough to shore to haul out.

Twice a week, the Fullers ferry (yes, even then) would pass by, collecting a list of whatever the family might need. Supplies were bought at the Kerikeri stone store and delivered on the ferry's return journey.

The family stayed and Opito Bay grew into their lives as much as they grew into it. Tales of cockle and pipi feasting, exploring the coast, fishing trips, shark hunts, the arrival of the next generations.

It was early modern New Zealand, in which boats were built not bought and holiday homes were single-room cottages, not the glass and plastic gin palaces which have since sprung up along Northland's east coast.

"CR" formalised the family's relationship into ownership in the 1950s, tracking down the defunct forestry company that held legal title.

Nellie Rowsell takes a stroll along the Opito Bay waterfront not long after the pohutukawa - now poisoned - were planted by family members. Photo / Supplied
Nellie Rowsell takes a stroll along the Opito Bay waterfront not long after the pohutukawa - now poisoned - were planted by family members. Photo / Supplied

It was about this time the pōhutukawa were planted, dotted along the waterfront with an eye to a time when they would throw shade across future Rowsell generations.

A photograph of the young trees shows a young woman pushing a pram.

Wade Rowsell looks at the photograph and says: "My wife (Susan) thinks that's Aunt Nel."

The autopsy

It's morbid, perhaps, to autopsy the trees before they finish dying but a murder inquiry doesn't wait for niceties.

The poison injected into the roots would have been carried to the roots and to the furthest leaves, says Professor Paula Jameson of the University of Canterbury.

Jameson explains xylem and phloem - the former brings nutrients from the roots (mainly water) to the leaves while the latter shifts the benefits of photosynthesis throughout the rest of the plant.

The process of translocation - which does as it sounds - would have killed the trees.
Were poison to get into the phloem, it would be carried down to the root structures.

Those roots pull in water and other nutrients from the ground which would then carry the poison throughout its extremities, spreading the damage as it went.

The drilled holes wouldn't have caused long-term damage, she says. "The tree can heal itself from wounds reasonably well."

Opito Bay residents dismayed by the poisoning of pohutukawa trees (from left) John Sharp, Sue Rowsell, Jenny White, Yvonne Sharp, Helen Chapman, John Chapman and Jill Smith. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Opito Bay residents dismayed by the poisoning of pohutukawa trees (from left) John Sharp, Sue Rowsell, Jenny White, Yvonne Sharp, Helen Chapman, John Chapman and Jill Smith. Photo / Peter de Graaf

It's the poison in the holes, she says. "If you want to kill a tree, that the best way of going about it."

There was talk for a while of a security camera having footage of the lurker, the skulker, the vandal, the killer.

There's one camera at the beach. It's angled to protect a fishing boat with the pōhutukawa perfectly, exactly, beyond.

It caught nothing, says its owner. It switches off when the frequent power cuts hit the beach. Even if the power was constant, it overwrites earlier footage every few days.

The day is heading to evening and a wind is coming fresh off the water. Up the road from the pōhutukawa, a non-Rowsell resident has hooked a couple of Speights and wandered across the road to a regular Opito Bay afternoon session.

There's a group sitting about on a deck. Opito Bay shimmers through the remaining leaves of the pohutukawa.

"I have no idea," says Speightsman. No one at Opito Bay has any ideas. Everyone has suspicions but nothing so solidly formed as an idea.

His host adds, "I don't think anyone knows except the person who did it".

Speightsman: "It's got the community up in arms. And people who are totally innocent feel intimidated."

Ridiculous, he says, to suggest those with the best views poisoned the trees. "They planted them." Everyone here knows the Rowsell connection.

A third drinker says no one would protect the killer. "If I knew who it was, I'd tell you. I personally think it's someone with a grudge. Perhaps someone told off for taking too much seafood."

Speightsman doesn't hold out hope of finding the culprit. "Any investigation into it will hit a block wall."

* Anyone with any information can contact Senior Constable Rhys Dempster at Kerikeri police station.

Opito Bay, Kerikeri Inlet. The poisoned pohutukawa are those on the right-hand side of the grass beach reserve. Photo / David Fisher
Opito Bay, Kerikeri Inlet. The poisoned pohutukawa are those on the right-hand side of the grass beach reserve. Photo / David Fisher