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Psychotic Mt Albert walkway killer detained as special patient as family remembers victim

Author
George Block,
Publish Date
Wed, 15 May 2024, 2:42pm

Psychotic Mt Albert walkway killer detained as special patient as family remembers victim

Author
George Block,
Publish Date
Wed, 15 May 2024, 2:42pm

Family and friends of Tom Coombes have paid tribute to the much-loved son of Bethell’s Beach as his killer Christian Eteuati is ordered to be detained indefinitely in a secure psychiatric facility. George Block reports.

The man who killed popular Auckland student Tom Coombes two years ago will be detained indefinitely in a secure psychiatric facility as a special patient, a Judge has ordered.

Family and friends remembered Coombes, 25, as a talented photographer and sportsman and loyal friend at a hearing at the Auckland High Court on Wednesday, when Justice Ian Gault said a special patient order was required to protect the public from Christian Eteuati.

“He’s the reason we’re all so broken, and he’s the reason for so much grief, frustration and anger,” Coombes’ brother Jed Bunt told the court.

“Tom was the most amazing person you could ever hope to meet.

“He was ambitious, extremely talented, cheeky, and had a zest for life that was infectious.”

Eteuati stabbed Coombes 42 times in a random and frenzied attack as he walked home from university through a secluded path in Mt Albert on the evening of May 24, 2022.

He suffered from schizophrenia and severe antisocial personality disorder, coupled with deviant interests and substance abuse problems, the court heard.

A psychiatrist who examined him after the killing said he was among the most psychotic patients he had ever seen.

700 people gathered to farewell Tom Coombes after he was murdered in a Mt Albert walkway. Photo / Supplied
700 people gathered to farewell Tom Coombes after he was murdered in a Mt Albert walkway. Photo / Supplied

In February, Justice Ian Gault ruled that Eteuati had killed Coombes, but acquitted the 24-year-old of criminal responsibility on the grounds of insanity.

Wednesday’s disposition hearing was for the Judge to decide what would happen to Eteuati after the insanity finding, but there was little doubt as to his fate.

His lawyer Julie-Anne Kincade KC did not oppose the submission of Crown prosecutor Mark Harborow that he should be detained as a special patient in a secure psychiatric facility.

Three psychiatrists also agreed that was the only reasonable outcome to allow him to receive treatment and to protect the public.

Kincade did not seek ongoing name suppression for her client, meaning he can be named for the first time since his arrest.

His name and photo were featured in a prominent public appeal during a brief police manhunt before his arrest, after which he was granted interim name suppression.

He has spent the almost two years since his arrest at the Mason Clinic and was in court on Wednesday, flanked by security guards and a communications assistant.

Family and friends of Coombes along with police packed the public gallery to capacity, with several reading victim impact statements.

Detective Inspector Chris Barry holds a picture of Christian Eteuati, at the time subject to a manhunt as the suspect in Coombe's killing.
Detective Inspector Chris Barry holds a picture of Christian Eteuati, at the time subject to a manhunt as the suspect in Coombe's killing.

He was raised at Bethells Beach on Auckland’s west coast and retained strong links to the community despite having moved into town.

His mother Rowena Coombes said her son had struggled with school due to dyslexia but the sport of cycling had proved to be a salvation.

Coombes was talented at both road cycling and mountain biking, winning a secondary schools championship in his final year of school.

More recently he had become a keen surfer.

He joined the Bethells volunteer fire brigade and trained and worked as a builder.

But his passion was photography, which he was studying at university at the time of his death, his mother said.

“His work was good enough for us to mount a memorial exhibition,” she said.

“The photos have been such a treasure.”

In the last year of his life he met his partner, but kept the news from his parents until a month before his death, his mother said.

“We have come to love her too.”

She said it was a reflection of his popularity and good nature that 700 people turned up to his funeral in Bethells Beach.

His mother said she had read the coronial report which described Coombes attempting to call out for help after the attack, when a member of the public saw him lying off the path and asked if he was okay.

Tom Coombes had been walking home from university, where he was studying photography, before he was killed.
Tom Coombes had been walking home from university, where he was studying photography, before he was killed.

“He was the bravest and strongest man to try and call for help with the injuries that have been inflicted,” she said.

“Tom should not have died. We all miss him so much.”

On May 24, 2022, Coombes had caught the train home from university and was walking home to his flat in Mt Albert, listening to music on headphones.

Shortly before 7pm he cut through the Roy Clements Treeway, a raised boardwalk through the bush off Alberton Ave, according to a summary of facts read by Justice Gault.

Eteuati was lurking around the path, carrying a 26cm knife.

Coombes walked 250m along the path before Eteuati attacked him.

“You unleashed a vicious, frenzied and unprovoked attack on Tom,” Justice Gault said.

Coombes suffered 42 separate injuries.

He eventually fell off the boardwalk and on to the ground where he died.

Eteuati fled, leaving the path to avoid two members of the public who were approaching, using a cellphone torch to light their way.

He went back to his family’s home in Sandringham, barged into his brother’s room and told his brother the blood that was still on his knife was from a person.

Eteuati then hid the knife in the centre console of his mother’s car, where he had been sleeping, and managed to elude police for four days before his arrest on May 28.

For a time he hid in a wastewater tunnel.

Consultant forensic psychiatrist Krishna Pillai said he had a high propensity for violent offending because of his “deviant interests” combined with severe mental health issues.

They included treatment-resistant schizophrenia, severe anti-social personality disorder and a substantial substance abuse problem, Pillai found.

Police at the cordon two days after Tom Coombes' body was found just off the Roy Clements Treeway. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Police at the cordon two days after Tom Coombes' body was found just off the Roy Clements Treeway. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Psychiatrist Craig Immelman told the court at an earlier hearing the man was a standout case for him in his more than 30 years of practice.

“I would find it hard to think of someone more psychotic than [the defendant] when I examined him in August [2022],” he said.

The psychiatrist said he could not establish any rational reason why the man targeted Coombes.

Eteuati told mental health staff he had seen three lights then heard God instruct him to target the victim.

He had already been carrying a knife for possible use against his neighbours, who he believed through his persecutory delusions were conspiring to harm him.

He had a history of breaking the law with little regard for others and a habit of killing pūkeko dating back to his childhood, and reported having killed the native birds again just prior to attacking Coombes.

Eteuati had been given sedatives along with his other drugs before the hearing on Wednesday and wore a drugged, slack-jawed expression throughout.

He will be detained as a special patient indefinitely.

It will require a ruling at the highest level - by the Minister of Health - for him to ever be released from a secure psychiatric facility.

George Block is an Auckland-based reporter with a focus on police, the courts, prisons and defence. He joined the Herald in 2022 and has previously worked at Stuff in Auckland and the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin.

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