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11 November 2022

Information withheld on Coroner cases

Saturday 28 January 2023 | Written by CI News Staff | Published in Crime, National


Information  withheld on  Coroner cases
Former policeman and author Rod Henderson (pictured) wants to ensure “justice is done, and is seen to be done” in the Cook Islands. Picture: JOANNE HOLDEN/23012749

A retired Australian police detective is calling for transparency in the Cook Islands’ coronial process. This is after his request to the Minister of Justice for information about whether inquests would be held into three cases of death at sea were rebuffed. Joanne Holden reports.

Open justice and holding authority to account are the goals of former policeman Rod Henderson in asking how investigations into three “violent, unexplained, or suspicious” deaths are progressing.

However, Justice Minister Vaine “Mac” Mokoroa says the information is being withheld in part to protect the affected families.

Henderson disapproved saying: “The public have a right to know how the law, how the justice system, has dealt with the cases.”

Henderson, a Rarotonga resident, is the author of “Real Crime Island Time” about unsolved cases in the Cook Islands.

“All I’m asking for is the status of those three cases, and they’ve told me they won’t release that information. That’s crazy. It’s supposed to be a public procedure. It’s not a state secret.

“The only conclusion I can come to is, it’s a cover-up. They’re covering up mistakes or they’re covering up information they don’t want the public to know.”

He says the purpose of Coroner’s Court is not to determine who is guilty, but how to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future.

Henderson first approached Mokoroa on December 12, 2022, about the status of coronial inquests into the disappearances of 62-year-old David Peppiatt alias Gavin Maitland.

Maitland’s yacht was found drifting 20 nautical miles north of Rarotonga after he fled New Zealand ahead of his trial on child sex charges in 2012.

He further wanted to know about the status of the coronial inquest on 44-year-old Lissette Gonzalez Brito, whose skipper claimed she fell overboard during a voyage from Samoa to Rarotonga in 2016.

And also on seven-year-old Lapana Tupou, who was last seen on the deck of a cargo vessel sailing from Rakahanga to Rarotonga in 2019.

“It is my understanding that there has been no action taken to commence coronial inquests in each of these events. Or, if an inquest has opened, the finding has not been made public,” Henderson wrote in his letter to Mokoroa.

He sent his enquiry via email, before dropping off a hard copy to the Justice Minister’s office.

“By way of observation, there is a regrettable and discernible lack of action by the Justice Department in ensuring inquests are held,” he says at the conclusion of the letter.

“My desire is only to see fair play and equity for all. I will continue to campaign for these principles, both in approaches such as this and in the public arena.”

Six weeks later and after multiple follow-ups, Henderson got his answer.

“They just stonewall you,” he says.

While Henderson says he was given no reason for the rejection, Mokoroa told Cook Islands News he decided not to share the information because his understanding was it would be used to write a book.

“Using these documents to benefit himself (Henderson) is not a good outlook on the Coroner and the Ministry itself,” Mokoroa says.

“You can work out the repercussions should the information be released to Rod and the impact on the families.”

Mokoroa says the reasons he turned down the request were Henderson had not clarified whether the cases were closed by the Police and/or the Coroner; he did not know if the Ministry of Police had given permission to Henderson to print and divulge Police information pertaining to the cases; he did not know if the families had been consulted and given permission to Henderson to write about their missing kin; and he did know that for one of the cases, seven years needed to pass before the matter could be closed and the person registered as missing.

“It would be unwise to release these documents if the above are not fully met,” he says.

“On those grounds and as Minister of Justice, I am not obligated to release this information.”

Henderson, who has been researching and working on a book about Brito’s disappearance for the past six years, says his only aim is to ensure “justice is done, and is seen to be done”.

“I think its harmless information,” he says.

“For those directly concerned, they need to know. For the ordinary person, it’s a matter of public interest.

“I’ve given evidence in a lot of Coroner’s Court cases while I was a policeman, and I believe people should be able to ask: ‘Has justice been done?’ Otherwise, the dead have no voice.”

Henderson says the purpose of his writing is not to make money, but so those who have died are not forgotten.

“Putting it in book form means it reaches a far greater audience and keeps their memory alive for years to come,” he says.

Henderson believes Police do not refer cases to the Coroner in a timely manner, if at all, leading to the coronial process collapsing at the first step in some cases.

Inquests into deaths in the Cook Islands should be held early, he says.

“The Police should immediately start getting statements because on this island, people disappear; they might go overseas, they might be tourists.”

Police spokesman Trevor Pitt “refuted” Henderson’s claim that the Police were too slow to investigate.

Pitt says there is an official process to adhere to and there may be complications depending on the case.

“Police deal with multiple parties in these situations and from the outside, what may appear to be unnecessary delay may be due to certain details about a deceased person’s condition and/or medical findings.”

Pitt says statistics concerning the number of cases Police had referred to the Coroner in the past 12 months, as well as the length of time between a death occurring and a referral being made, were unavailable.

“Statistics as Police Intel are confidential and cannot be provided without the Commissioner’s authorisation.

“In any event, these figures would take time to review.”

Henderson says that while he singled out the cases of Peppiatt, Brito, and young Lapana in his request for information to Mokoroa, there were “plenty of others who are probably even more deserving” of an inquest into their death or disappearance.

“They probably think that by saying I’m not going to get it, that’s the end of it – but with me, that’s just the start of it.

“I want to see justice become more transparent, so I will continue to hold the Justice Department to account.”

Justice of the Peace and Coroner John Whitta says he is looking into the matters raised by Henderson and would determine how much information would be released at a later date.