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December 2009
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Heartache in Kiribati sudden-death investigation

Just an ordinary day in the office turned into something far from ordinary for Detective Senior Sergeant Jill Rogers from Henderson in September.

Jill was busy sorting the policy around the introduction of the new Family Violence Model and was investigating the death of a prematurely born baby when her manager phoned to ask if she could be at Auckland Airport in two hours time.

Knowing little, other than the destination was tropical, she said yes. The next request should have made her reconsider. It was, “Can you take a coffin?”

Boarding the Korean vessel Sajo Accordio.

Jill rushed home, threw a few items into a suitcase, grabbed her passport and rushed to her daughter’s school to kiss the six year old goodbye. She arrived at the airport minus the coffin, but in the nick of time to catch her flight.

She met up with Detective Sergeant Mark Franich, from Auckland City, who provided two further details about their destination. They were heading to Kiribati, across the equator, and the local language was Gilbertese.

It was the beginning of a fascinating and sometimes surreal investigation.

Jill explains the background to their trip. “To protect its fishing grounds the Kiribati Government places observers on board foreign fishing vessels.

“Tebuia Tekaie, an apparently healthy 27-year-old male observer on the Korean vessel Sajo Accordio, was found dead in his bunk by one of the ship’s 23 crew members.

“The Kiribati Government made a request to the New Zealand Government for assistance with the investigation into his death.”

Jill and Mark were asked to provide guidance to local police to help ascertain whether there had been any foul play.

The Sajo Accordio was far out to sea when the death was discovered. The captain arranged for the body to be carefully wrapped in many layers of plastic and placed in a foam-lined, made-to-measure crate, then stored in a sashimi freezer at minus 40 degrees centigrade.

From the outset there were a number of issues for Jill and Mark to deal with. Jill’s carefully considered investigation plan was to be redesigned many times over the next eight days.

Detective Sergeant Mark Franich (right) and Kiribati Maritime Police head out to board the Sajo Accordio.

The Korean owner of the vessel was losing many thousands of dollars a day while the boat was not fishing. There were significant jurisdictional and legal issues. Kiribati does not have a Summary Proceedings Act and there is no Bill of Rights. The crew was a mix of Korean, Indonesian, Peruvian, Chinese and Australian staff, some of whom spoke English.

“When we arrived in Kiribati we met with the Kiribati Solicitor General to discuss how the investigation might proceed and what the extent of our jurisdiction was,” says Jill.

No car was available, but Jill and Mark were provided with bus tickets. Following a terrifying bus trip to their accommodation, the pair managed to source a rental car.

The next logistical problem was how to reach the Sajo Accordio, which was too large to bring into harbour and remained in deep water, a mile out to sea.

The police boat was not available as the fuel allowance for the month had been used up in a search for a sunken passenger ferry.

The first day they found an inflatable to take them out. After that they secured the use of an ex Australian naval patrol boat. This caused a problem, as when they unexpectedly approached the Korean vessel there was a momentary misunderstanding and, as the Korean captain later explained, he thought he was about to come under attack.

When they boarded Jill and Mark were greeted with the words, “You gave me heartache.” “I think he meant a heart attack,” says Jill.

The captain, keen to start fishing again and therefore anxious to comply with the requests of his superiors, had already made one attempt to unload the body to maritime police. Unfortunately as the crate was winched from one boat to another, it went into the sea.

Kiribati Police have 45 minutes to prepare Tebuia Tekaie’s body for travel to New Zealand.

Photos: Detective Senior Sergeant Jill Rogers

This was not the only evidence to be contaminated.

Following his death, the dead man’s cabin had been made ship-shape. It was scrupulously clean; no fingerprints or forensic evidence of any sort was available. “Nor for that matter was there any forensic capability in Kiribati to take or test it,” says Jill.

Jill and Mark managed to delay the vessel’s departure, detaining it for investigation into alleged breaches of fishing regulations, which gave them five days to interview the crew and other witnesses and carry out an examination of the scene.

However a few days later, with no warning, the Kiribati government gave the boat permission to leave - the body was transferred to shore and placed in a refrigeration unit attached to the police station. Jill then watched her crime scene sail away.

The issues continued.

In due course a decision was made to take the body to New Zealand for a proper autopsy. To do this a suitable coffin that complied with airline transport requirements needed to be sourced.

There is no funeral director in Kiribati, but eventually a suitable coffin was found in Fiji. The funeral director and owner of ‘Popular Furniture’ duly arrived with a casket.

Jill could only look on in horror as local police simply cut through the live three phase wires of the refrigerated container unit with bolt cutters so it could be disconnected from a power source at the police station and transferred to the airport.

Additional health and safety concerns were raised as the coffin was moved into the container. Shoes aren’t worn as matter of course in Kiribati. As they went into the container to pack the coffin, the Kiribati police officers’ feet froze to the floor of the unit.

Jill and Mark then had the task of obtaining the proper clearances needed to transport the body by air to New Zealand. After liaising with civil aviation authorities, customs and foreign affairs officials, they finally managed to get Tebuia’s body onto a plane.

With moments to spare, they helped put the coffin in the hold then followed the Kiribati President, bound for an international conference on climate change, up the carefully laid red carpet and onto the plane.

If the pair thought they could relax, they were wrong. On arrival in Fiji, there was a torrential downpour. With only 15 minutes to transfer to their next flight, Mark and Jill worried all the way to Auckland that the body hadn’t been put on the plane.

They needn’t have been so anxious. The coffin made it, although their luggage didn’t.

A subsequent autopsy found Tebuia’s death was non suspicious and his body has been returned to his family for burial.

Despite everything Jill was grateful to have had the opportunity to go to Kiribati. “Basic accommodation, intermittent hot water and psychopathic bus drivers all made it an unforgettable experience.”

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