Soon after he was beaten to death, Tokomaru Bay man Raymond Neilson’s lifeless body was set alight on his lounge room floor, a High Court jury for a murder trial in Gisborne heard yesterday.
Speakers and other items were piled on top of him to fuel the fire — no doubt an effort to raze the Tawhiti Street house at Waima and any evidence of Mr Neilson’s murder there, Crown prosecutor Steve Manning alleged.
But a neighbour about 100 metres away was awake. She had been alerted earlier by concerning noises at the property, and noticed an orange glow inside the house.
She called 111 and rallied other neighbours and they put out the fire before it took hold.
Tihei Patuwai, 30, and Reuben Wayne Hira Gibson-Park, 25, went on trial yesterday. Each pleaded not guilty to a jointly-laid charge of murdering Mr Neilson, who was 48.
The Crown alleges they punched, kicked and stomped on Mr Neilson, then battered him with an aluminium softball bat — that they did so with murderous intent, or were reckless as to whether Mr Neilson might end up dead.
Gibson-Park is further charged with arson. The Crown alleges he alone set the fire to Mr Neilson’s body after returning to the house a short time after the assault.
Mr Neilson was already dead.
Lawyers for each defendant made opening statements.
Counsel Eric Forster said Patuwai handed himself in to police seven days later. He admitted being involved in assaulting Mr Neilson, even after he was hit with a bat by someone else, but had no intention of killing him and did not appreciate he might die.
Counsel Mark Ryan said Gibson-Park also accepted assaulting Mr Neilson but at no time had any intention to kill him or the alternative requisite reckless intent for murder.
He denied returning to the house after the assault.
Gibson-Park was on Great Barrier Island when he handed himself in to police on December 23.
In his opening address, Mr Manning told the jury Gibson-Park, Patuwai, and two teenagers in their logging crew were celebrating at their end-of-year work break-up that night at the Te Puka Tavern.
They left about midnight with three female associates and were driving convoy-style around Tokomaru Bay in two utility vehicles — Gibson-Park’s grey one and a black one belonging to one of the teenager’s mothers - one of the women with them.
The group intended to continue partying at Gibson-Park’s house to the south of the township but for reasons unknown, headed north of the tavern to Waima.
It was there, by chance, they came across Mr Neilson, close to Tawhiti Street and walking along the roadside in a seemingly drunk state.
Something sparked anger in Gibson-Park, who did a U-turn and pulled up opposite Mr Neilson. The other ute followed suit.
Gibson-Park got out and confronted Mr Neilson, trying to get him in a choke hold and eventually chasing him up the slope to his nearby house, Mr Manning alleged.
The other men followed. The women left and went to Gibson-Park’s house in his grey ute.
The black ute was still on the roadside.
Mr Neilson made it home and was standing on his deck yelling when they got there. It was alleged they hid in bushes and watched as he stood holding a knife and a softball bat.
Mr Neilson put the weapons down when Gibson-Park again confronted him.
It was alleged that for about the next 20 minutes Mr Neilson was kicked, punched, and stomped multiple times in the head and body by Gibson-Park and Patuwai. One of the teens joined in until the other teen pulled him away.
Mr Neilson’s blood was on the deck and he was screaming in pain.
Someone suggested a search of the house for drugs, which the other three did, while Gibson-Park used his knee to hold Mr Neilson down.
The two younger men were told to leave. As they did, one of them picked up the bat and gave it to Gibson-Park.
They left in the black ute.
When Patuwai and Gibson-Park left, Mr Neilson was dead or very close to it on the floor in front of a log burner in his lounge.
The pair had no vehicle so woke Patuwai’s brother, who lived nearby in Waima, to give them a lift to Gibson-Park’s — about a five-minute drive away, Mr Manning said.
Witnesses yesterday confirmed the group’s movements ahead of the incident.
Two of the women said before Gibson-Park stopped, they saw the man (Mr Neilson) on the road yelling but could not hear what he was saying.
One of the women from the group was strongly cross-examined by Mr Ryan as to her failure to tell the jury Patuwai was with them that night, yet she had included his presence in her statement to police soon after the incident.
The woman said she had not previously known Patuwai, was not focused on him that night, and her memory now — a year later — was blurry.
The trial is scheduled for two weeks. The Crown case, which involves more than 30 witnesses, is estimated to end this Friday.
Among the witnesses are the two teenagers involved in the first phase of the assault, Patuwai’s brother, the neighbour who first raised the alarm, scientists and a pathologist.
Justice Francis Cooke is presiding.