Thomas Phillips and his three young children were missing for 19 nights in dense bush. When most had lost hope, they reappeared. But questions as to what happened remain unanswered. 

It was news the country desperately wanted to hear but didn’t dare expect.

At lunchtime last Thursday came the shock announcement that Tom Phillips and his three children had walked into the family home at Marokopa, 19 days after they disappeared, and after a 17-day search. 

Day after day people tuned in for latest developments from a place most of us had never heard of – the beach settlement of Kiritehere on King Country’s wild west coast, and nearby Marokopa where Phillips lived on the family farm.

The mystery of the missing family dragged on and seemed more and more hopeless with scenes of searchers scouring dense rugged bush and ferocious seas.

Newshub reporter Karen Rutherford got the police press release about the missing family late on Monday September 13 at her home in Cambridge and headed there early the next morning.

Clockwise from top left, Thomas Phillips, Jayda Jin, Ember Phillips and Maverick Callum-Phillips. Photo: NZ Police/Supplied

“It’s somewhere I have never been and never dreamed of going. I was absolutely dumbfounded by its beauty, from the moment we arrived,” she says.

Rutherford recalls a sense of sadness as they drove over the one-way bridge into the beach settlement.

People were gathered on one side of the road to pay tribute to a local man who had died six months earlier.

But across the road at the marae there was a sense of urgency as they prepared food to feed the search parties.

“People were confused and unsure of what happened to the family. You got a little bit of that vibe as you drove in. But when you see the views and the coastline and the bush, it’s very moody, very eerie, and the waves, they were just ferocious.”

Today, The Detail talks to Rutherford, who stayed in Marokopa, talking to the searchers, the Kiritehere and Marokopa locals, and to the farmers who lived just kilometres from the camp site where Phillips and his children stayed for nearly three weeks.

She also became close with Phillips’ sister Rozzi Pethybridge, with middle of the night text messages.

Rutherford witnessed the mood of searchers and the community change from hope early on that they would turn up soon from a bush camping trip; that perhaps they were sheltering in a coastal cave; to desperation and fear that they were lost at sea; to joy and frustration when they turned up at the family home.

She also experienced a willingness among locals to talk about Phillips and the family during the search.

“After he was found, no one wanted to talk.”

There were suggestions the expert bushman had gone to “sort his head out” but no confirmation of any mental health issues.

The community is a very small and tight-knit one, but Rutherford says this has thrown a little bit of uncertainty into the mix.

“You’ve got a chap who has gone bush, and he has put people through the wringer, let’s be honest.

“There will be initially I think a sense of frustration when they see him for the first time … but you get the feeling they’re not the kind of people who hold grudges.”

There is a lot we still don’t know – why Phillips vanished into the bush with his children, what his intentions were, and how exactly the family survived in the rugged surroundings unharmed.

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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