The bronze Toyota Hilux ute being sought in the hunt for Marokopa man Tom Phillips has been found, but the family is still missing.
Police responded following information received around 11am today from a member of the public, who saw the Toyota Hilux just off Marokopa Rd in Te Anga.
At this time neither the missing nor the children have been located.
The police used the Eagle helicopter during today’s search for Phillips who has been on the run with his three children Jayda, 10, Maverick, 8, and Ember, 7, since December 2021.
The owners of the stolen ute at the centre of the hunt made a plea for sightings of the vehicle after it was stolen from their Waikato rural property while they were at work.
The distinct 2003 Toyota Hilux flat-deck ute driven by Phillips was stolen from Honikiwi, near Otorohanga, on Wednesday.
The upset owners and their friends posted a photo of the ute on community Facebook pages that same day asking for people to report sightings of the vehicle, which they said was stolen from Honikiwi Rd during the day.
It is identical to the ute that police released images of when they revealed Phillips had been seen at three different locations across the Waikato on Wednesday.
“Some piece of s*** stole our ute today while we were at work. Please keep an eye out!” wrote the irate owner on Facebook.
Another person asked people to “keep an eye out” for the stolen ute after spotting it on the road on Wednesday morning.
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“I saw someone other than [the owner] driving this ute with a trailer around 11.30am today on [the] back road to Te Awamutu from Otorohanga by the hump bridge!”
Police have been approached for comment.
Inspector Will Loughrin said the vehicle was spotted in Kawhia on three separate occasions on Wednesday.
The first was in the Pokuru area near Te Awamutu around 12.30pm on Wednesday afternoon.
There had been a further confirmed sighting of Phillips at two Bunnings stores, the first at Bunnings South on Kahikatea Dr between 3pm and 4pm.
He was then seen at Bunnings in Te Rapa at 4pm by someone who knew him.
The same ute was then seen in Kawhia around 6.45pm, where Phillips was involved in an altercation with a group of locals who tried to stop him.
The distinct Toyota Hilux flatbed ute that Tom Phillips was seen driving and posted by its owners shortly after its theft. Photo / Supplied.
Loughrin said police were contacted and responded immediately to the Kawhia area but were unable to find the ute - even with the help of the police helicopter.
This morning, police said they had received a number of tips from the public following yesterday’s appeal for sightings of the ute linked to the missing man.
Loughrin said Phillips was now disguising himself in public and released security footage from his shopping excursion to Bunnings wearing a beanie, glasses and a surgical mask.
Photos released by the police from the store’s car park show four 20L water storage containers, a red plastic fuel can, two rolls of plastic mesh and six 20L Bunnings buckets - all of which are listed for sale on the store’s website - in the back of the ute as he drove out just after 4pm.
Two of the buckets are upright with lids on them and the other buckets are lying down in a stack, but appear to have other objects inside.
Phillips has been on the run with his three children Jayda, 10, Maverick, 8, and Ember, 7, since December 2021.
Yesterday, police said they were the first confirmed sightings of him since February 2021.
Waikato locals said a group chased Phillips in the stolen ute, before losing him near the Kawhia lookout on State Highway 31 on Wednesday night.
Phillips and his children first went missing in September 2021, sparking a massive ground, sea and air search with family at home fearing the worst as the father’s grey Toyota Hilux was found on the beach, with waves crashing against it.
They returned home after 17 days and in October, police charged Phillips with wasteful deployment of police resources.
But Phillips didn’t show up at the Te Kuiti District Court for his first appearance on January 12, 2022. A warrant was then issued for Phillips’ arrest.
Jaime Lyth is an Auckland-based reporter who covers crime. She joined the Herald in 2021 and has previously reported for The Northern Advocate.
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