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The 19-month hunt for missing Marokopa man Tom Phillips and his three children

Author
Raphael Franks,
Publish Date
Thu, 3 Aug 2023, 4:19PM

The 19-month hunt for missing Marokopa man Tom Phillips and his three children

Author
Raphael Franks,
Publish Date
Thu, 3 Aug 2023, 4:19PM

The search for Marokopa man Tom Phillips and his three children has ramped up after a sighting of him, 19 months since they disappeared.

Phillips and his children Jayda, now aged 9, Maverick, 8, and Ember, 6, 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.

Phillips’ uncle, Paul Phillips, told the Herald at the time the family was “anxious” and “fearful” for the children’s safety.

“Our biggest fear is that it’s possible that a rogue wave came in and swept them out to sea,” Paul Phillips said.

 “[But] because Tom was an extremely resilient person we’re hopeful that Tom has taken the children camping,” he said.

A friend of Phillips’ said child seats were found in the car, and the car keys were found under the driver’s seat mat - the usual spot Phillips would leave them if he wasn’t going to be long.

Tom Phillips’ Toyota Hilux was found parked on the beach, with waves crashing against it. Photo / NZ Police

Tom Phillips’ Toyota Hilux was found parked on the beach, with waves crashing against it. Photo / NZ Police

Police, Fire and Emergency NZ, Coastguard, Land Search and Rescue, and volunteers from the Waikato community searched on foot, with drones, thermal imaging technology and from helicopters and a light plane.

Phillips and his children turned up almost three weeks later, on September 30, revealing they had been living in a tent in dense bush. But questions lingered about why he disappeared.

Phillips’ family went through “17 days of hell” while the search was under way, police said.

One of Phillips’ family members described the emotional moment the man and children “just walked in the door” - safe and alive and in tears.

Police began speaking to Phillips and the family to understand what went on since the four disappeared on September 11. Police refused to discuss whether Phillips was having psychological problems.

In October, police charged Phillips with wasteful deployment of police resources.

Phillips and his children turned up almost three weeks after first going missing, on September 30,  revealing they had been living in a tent in dense bush with questions lingering about why he disappeared.

Phillips and his children turned up almost three weeks after first going missing, on September 30, revealing they had been living in a tent in dense bush with questions lingering about why he disappeared.

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.

He and his children haven’t been seen since December 9, 2021.

A Facebook post circulated saying Phillips and his three children were “missing” again, and that the family wanted “these poor babies back”.

Phillips’ family hired a private investigator to help find him and offered a $10,000 bounty for any information on his whereabouts.

Police confirmed they were making inquiries, but a search wasn’t launched and police said there were no immediate concerns for his safety.

The older half-sister of the missing children said she worried police and other authorities were not taking the new disappearance seriously. Police insisted they were.

Tom 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 his ’ arrest. Photo / Mike Scott

Tom 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 his ’ arrest. Photo / Mike Scott

Police then revealed Phillips briefly visited a family member in the middle of one night in February 2022 to top up on supplies.

“He advised them that he was safe and well and so were the children. He stayed there for a brief period, collected supplies and that’s the last sighting of Tom,” police said.

On missing boy Maverick’s birthday in November, the family pleaded to have the four of them back for Christmas.

“Today is Maverick’s 8th birthday ... Happy Birthday Maverick!,” the post read.

“We hope that wherever you are, you have had an exciting, fun-filled day. We hope you are happy and healthy. We hope you had a yummy strawberry cake with candles to blow out. We hope that Jayda and Ember gave you lots of hugs and kisses from us.

“We hope to see you all soon.

“We love you.”

Raphael Franks is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He joined the Herald as a Te Rito cadet in 2022.

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