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Two sentenced to life imprisonment for Tokomaru Bay murder.

Heartbroken relatives of murdered Tokomaru Bay man Raymond Karl Neilson say the actions of his “cruel and evil” killers meant they could only say goodbye to a closed coffin.

Reuben Wayne Hira Gibson-Park, 25, and Tihei Patuwai, 30, were each sentenced yesterday in the High Court at Gisborne to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years.

Justice Francis Cooke also sentenced Gibson-Park to four years concurrently for arson.

The two men, who admitted assaulting Mr Nielson but not causing his death, were found guilty by a jury last November.

They happened across Mr Neilson — who they did not know — on the roadside as they were driving around with others after a social event in the early hours of December 15, 2019. Mr Neilson slapped the side of Gibson-Park’s vehicle, which angered him.

After confronting and trying to assault him at the roadside, Gibson-Park, with Patuwai and two teenagers, pursued Mr Neilson to his nearby Waima house.

One of the teenagers was involved in the initial assault and a search of Mr Neilson’s property but both left as Patuwai and Gibson-Park continued to punch, stomp, and kick the defenceless man for about 30 minutes.

Gibson-Park’s repeated bludgeoning of him with a baseball bat was so loud a woman in a caravan about 100 metres away became suspicious.

Mr Neilson cried out for them to stop when he could but both men continued. They left him helpless on his lounge room floor. He died from asphyxia from his injuries, including facial and neck bone fractures that caused him to suffocate on his own blood.

Justice Cooke said both men were responsible for the death. He accepted they might not have intended to kill Mr Neilson but he was very seriously injured and they carried on assaulting him knowing he might well die.

Gibson-Park returned to the house shortly after, piling items and accelerant on Mr Nielson’s lifeless body and setting it alight, intending the fire would spread throughout the house and destroy any evidence.

But the fire failed to fully take hold and was seen by the already-worried neighbour. Mr Neilson’s charred corpse was discovered by emergency services at about 2am.

At the outset of the hearing, the court heard victim impact statements from relatives of Mr Neilson, his fiancé and partner of nearly 30 years, and their four children (aged between 27 and 17), who all live in Australia.

His family spoke of their love and respect for Mr Neilson. His sister described him as happy, fun-loving and community-minded. He loved people and always found the good in them, she said. He despised conflict.

His partner and children described him as a devoted dad and good provider who loved sharing his passion for life and supported their ambitions.

They hated ‘the cowards” who killed him.

After several years in Australia, Mr Neilson yearned to get back to Tokomaru Bay.

‘No solace or peace’ for family

It was his “slice of paradise, his sanctuary” where they raised their family, his partner said.

He had been back for several months, had found a job that he loved in forestry, and was repairing their house readying it for them to be reunited, she said.

Instead, he was “violently and senselessly” killed at the hands of “cruel and evil men”, she said.

Their Waima home became a homicide scene with Raymond’s body kept there for days during forensic examinations.

The family finally laid him to rest the day before Christmas — his eldest’s son’s birthday, which should have been a time of celebration.

Raymond was not returned to them whole. His brain was kept for further testing. They had a second, heart-rending burial.

After all their months apart, she wanted to see and touch Raymond once more. But her request for an open casket was denied due to what his killers had done, she said.

“My children and I could find no solace or peace in staring at and talking to a faceless box.”

Mr Neilson’s death caused devastating financial burdens for the family — transtasman flight costs, Covid-19 quarantine costs and loss of income.

There was no money left to fix the arson-damaged house at Waima. Even if it was fit to rent out, she questioned whether any tenant would want to live where there had been a murder.

She and other relatives spoke of ongoing emotional and health issues due to their loss of Mr Neilson.

The defendants' unfounded defamation of Raymond’s character during the trial caused the family “indescribable” hurt, his partner said.

Legal discussions yesterday centred on whether there was any exceptional reason to reduce the minimum period of imprisonment (MPI) for either man, and on the Crown’s submission that Gibson-Park’s term should be lifted to 18 years due to the arson.

In New Zealand a court imposing life imprisonment for murder must order an MPI of at least 17 years in certain circumstances, two of which applied in this case, Justice Cooke said. (The unlawful entry into the victim’s home and a high level of brutality, cruelty, depravity and callousness.)

Justice Cooke said while there were exceptions for both men that warranted consideration, he was not persuaded they were sufficient to reduce either’s sentence.

The men’s general good character ahead of the murder and their remorse could only take them so far.

The fact they took two teenaged boys with them to Mr Neilson’s house did not reflect well on either of them, the judge said.

The offending was “very difficult” to understand, Justice Cooke said.

These were not offenders who could claim broken backgrounds or deeply troubled lives, as the court often saw in such situations.

They were both drunk but that was no explanation either.

Counsel for Patuwai argued he could get a reduction due to aspects in his cultural report; his cooperation with police; and because he did not use the baseball bat on Mr Neilson.

Justice Cooke said he accepted Patuwai’s sentence could have been lower were it not for the required MPI but it would not have been much less. He was satisfied the 17-year term was not manifestly unjust.

In seeking the uplift for Gibson-Park, prosecutor Steve Manning said the arson was relatively low level in some respects but markedly increased the callousness of the murder. He pointed to the intention behind it, the further indignation it caused Mr Neilson, and the impact of it on his family’s ability to grieve.

Justice Cooke said it was a very difficult issue but he was satisfied the 17-year term for Gibson-Park sufficiently addressed the principles and purposes of the Sentencing Act. The sentence for the arson should be separate and concurrent.

JAILED: Convicted murderers Tihei Patuwai (left) and Reuben Gibson-Park were each sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years, in the High Court at Gisborne yesterday. Gisborne Herald picture