WARNING: This article contains distressing information. If you need support for yourself or someone you know, you can contact:
* mental health support organisation Te Kainga O Pa Taunga on 20162, or 50633 in emergencies.
* counselling centre Punanga Tauturu Inc on 21133, or 55973 in emergencies
Ngaakitai Taria Pureariki speaks of going spearfishing with his grandson on Aitutaki’s lagoon.
“We’d always go fishing. He loves fishing,” the 47-year-old grandad says. “Off the canoe. Unicorn, trevally and bonefish.”
He taught his grandson traditional fishing he says, and the boy caught a big unicorn fish he was proud of. Taria reaches out his right arm to illustrate the length of the fish: from his fingertips to his bicep.
What he doesn’t speak of so easily is his grandson’s death in May last year, aged just 9 years old. “Well, he just had an accident,” Taria says.
But that’s not true. Those are the words of a convicted prison inmate still struggling to deal with the truth.
Back on April 21 last year, Taria walked up on stage at the Air New Zealand Tourism Awards at the National Auditorium in Rarotonga.
Cook Islands Cultural Development Secretary Anthony Turua presented him the Pa Enua Award, for building Aitutaki’s Punarei Culture Tour and Heritage Trust into the best tourism operation on the outer islands.
The two men danced on stage. It was, for Taria, a joyous recognition of how far he seemed to have come.
This was a boy who grew up, as he tells it, the unwanted, unloved boy adopted into his grandparents care, mistreated from age 1 to 15. “In my upbringing as a child, I was raped at the age of nine,” he says now. “I have to talk about this. You understand why I have to change. I was always being angry.”
Taria ran away at age 15. And over the subsequent three decades, he kept on running away from his grandparents, from his wife, from his children. To Rarotonga, to New Zealand, to Australia.
With the recognition of his peers in the industry at the Air New Zealand Awards, it seemed he had finally come home.
Taria was joined in Rarotonga that glittering night by his wife, his daughter and probably, his grandson. Yet behind the facade of smiling photos was a brutal, unspoken truth.
Taria’s nine-year-old grandson had been moved from the care of one family member to another. Since December, Taria and his wife had cared for him.
But care isn’t the right word: the High Court later heard that he had suffered a series of assaults that led to his death.
On May 16 last year, less than a month after his moment on stage at the National Auditorium, Taria hit the boy multiple times with a stick, with such force that he fell to the ground. The following day, he struck the boy again.
A visitor to their home the following Friday observed the boy’s hands were swollen and a bruise to the side of his head.
On Saturday, May 19, on a drive to the beach, the boy was sitting unattended on the back of a truck, when he fell off and landed on the grass.
Later that evening, after having difficulty breathing, he was transported to the hospital. He died before midnight.
The cause of death could not be determined definitively, due to resource and clinical constraints and decomposition. But a post-mortem revealed significant multiple bruises, abrasions and lacerations over his body.
Although the biochemical analysis on the ante-mortem blood sample was limited, there was enough information to show there had been a muscle breakdown that led to renal failure – the most likely cause of death.
The court was told of sustained physical child abuse leading to the 9-year-old boy’s death, and then active attempts to cover up the death.
Eventually, Taria was charged. He admitted the facts and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years’ jail.
That was barely a year ago – his family have not yet had a chance to heal. Nobody has.
Did you love the boy? “I do.”
He speaks about his grandson as if he’s still alive.
And there’s an uncomfortable balancing act between acknowledging the role his brutal childhood played in shaping him as an adult, and blaming his actions on his upbringing.
“I’ve told only a few people. But not publicly. About my upbringing. I’ve never told my wife about it, and that’s why sometimes I was angry.”
Is he going to tell her? “No. Maybe she’ll read it in the paper.”
Perhaps he should tell her first, we gently suggest.
She and his family sometimes visit. “Some of them have actually forgiven me. I pray every day that we are at peace.”
His daughter, the mother of the dead boy, came over from New Zealand to visit in December. “She will come back and visit me again,” he says, but it’s almost as if he’s trying to convince himself.
He’s been going to sessions run by the Apostolic Church at the prison. He believes God has forgiven him – but forgiveness is harder for humans. Has his daughter forgiven him? “We spoke, we spoke. I don’t expect her forgiveness. Time may heal.”
The thing with forgiveness, you have to take responsibility for your actions first. And for Ngaa, there’s a tendency to talk of healing without first acknowledging who was wounded. Because it wasn’t just him. It was the boy he killed. It was his family. It was a whole community repulsed by his actions.
His 9-year-old grandson had been “thrown around” from one home to another. At first, he says he didn’t hurt him in anger, but in a fear still coiled up inside him from his childhood.
Because Taria wasn’t just mistreated as a child – he also mistreated a child. Doesn’t he need to acknowledge that, to stop making excuses? “I didn’t mistreat him, it was just an accident. I just had him six months. Mistreated is like me, from one to 15 years old, that’s what you call mistreating. And nobody had tried to help me through that until the accident happened.”
So we go back to what he admitted in court: sustained and repeated assaults on the boy.
If his pleas for forgiveness are to be treated seriously, surely he must first acknowledge publicly that yes, he beat his grandson. “I didn’t beat him, I didn’t beat him. I pleaded guilty.”
And it is now that his friend Terry Rangi steps in. Rangi has known him for years; it is public questions about Taria managing Rangi’s Umu Experience tourism business that have prompted the two men to speak publicly to Cook Islands News.
“Have you finished with that line of questioning?” Rangi asks.
Because Rangi’s not sure we can let this one lie. “I think it’s a matter of taking responsibility for what happened. That’s where you’re coming from. He’s got to take responsibility for what happened.”
And he turns to his friend: “I mean, the boy was beaten black and blue, wasn’t he? So he was beaten?”
And finally, under pressure from Rangi, Taria finally opens up. First he acknowledges he “spanked” the boy. And then, “yes, I beat him”.
Two days after the last beating, as he tells it, his grandson fell off the back of his pickup. He was having an asthma attack, so Taria took him to the hospital. He died that night – and that’s when the doctors discovered his other injuries.
Like other serious offenders, he started in The Yard, where most of the prisoners are. “There are toilets but you have to call out, because once they lock up, you can’t access the toilet. You have to call for the toilet in the night time.”
But he says it was still better than his upbringing. “Here at the prison on Christmas Day, in The Yard they have a big umu with pork. I had nothing when I was a kid. The discipline is perfect for me, it’s like going back to my young days, which makes me appreciate and change at the same time.”
After his security rating was downgraded, he was allowed to go out on day release, first trimming trees and weeding old ladies’ front yards around the village of Tupapa, under the supervision of Corrective Services Minister George Angene.
Then, last week, he was officially seconded to manage the Umu Experience, where he can put his undisputed skills as a top tourism operator to use. He says he is mentoring young men there, and would like the opportunity to train prison inmates too – he’d like them to be tour guides when they get out, rather than going back to robbing resorts.
But his work release to the Umu Experience has provoked concern. “How can this be?” asked another tourism operator, Temu Okotai, in a letter to the editor of the Cook Islands Herald. “The family in Rarotonga of the boy killed are angry and upset about this situation.”
In particular, Okotai questioned why all the day release prisoners seems to be working for the Minister, his office chief executive Terry Rangi, and others closely connected.
Rangi rejects that. He says there are 17 prisoners out on day release, all paid $30 a day by their employers. The prison keeps about 60 per cent, and is meant to pay the other 40 per cent to the prisoner. They work all over the place: some do gardening, one cuts down trees; others are in IT. He rattles off a list of people who have employed inmates.
“Ngaa has only officially been transferred over to the tumumu now, this will be the second week. Previously from time to time I’ve got him to come on and work for me, to help out when there’s a gap here and there in the work he’s doing for the minister.”
Three days a week, Rangi picks him up from prison and takes him round the island to the Umu Experience in Matavera. Today he got a ride with a prison worker, on the back of his scooter.
“The fact is, he’s had to leave his family in Aitutaki. There is no prison facility in Aitutaki. So he’s here. And in addition to being away from his family, he’s locked up at nights. He had a business, he still had a business, but it’s clearly not the same. So if he’s able to work during the day and contribute to providing for his family, that’s what happens.”
Minister Angene has been inspecting prisons in New Zealand, lately. Rangi says they’ve discovered things are quite different. “In New Zealand they want to punish them and punish them and leave them locked up 24 hours a day,” he says.
“But this is a very small community, at some stage these people are going to be released, they’re going to come out. You don’t want them to be angry people who’ve been locked up 24 hours a day and then be out in the community.”
There’s something else the letter-writers to the newspapers don’t know: Taria isn’t just cheap labour for Rangi. The two men are business partners, they say. Taria is a director and shareholder of the Umu Experience, since before his imprisonment.
And Rangi looks after Taria’s wife and children, struggling to keep their cultural village business afloat in Aitutaki. “Terry gives me money to send home cartons of chickens to my family, every fortnight,” says Taria.
Rangi insists they’ve followed the work release rules and regulations to the letter, in getting Taria assigned so early in his sentence to a business in which he is part-owner.
That is yet to be seen: no doubt, the publicity about the arrangement will raise further political and commercial questions.
The work release scheme is a risk for both employers and inmates, the men acknowledge that. “It’s a risk for both sides,” says Rangi. “For Ngaa, you don’t want to muck it up and be stuck inside in The Yard. If you speak to the boys, they just enjoy being out, seeing a bit of sunshine.”
“He’s got a long way to go. It’s certainly not a money-making concept. I’m trying to help him.
“Probably the only thing is the fact that him and I have a friendship and that’s been reflected in the arrangement we have, and I don’t care what people say about that. I really don’t. They can be critical. That’s okay. I’m willing to stick up for it and if there 2, 3, 4, 5 letters to the editor, I will respond to every one.”
If you need support for yourself or someone else you can contact:
* mental health support organisation Te Kainga O Pa Taunga on 20162 or 50633 in emergencies.
* counselling centre Punanga Tauturu Inc on 21133 or 55973 in em