In an investigation spanning three years, Newsroom has uncovered new evidence in the case of the death of a Gore toddler that calls into question two police investigations, a pathologist’s post mortem and a Worksafe case against the local council.
For four years little Lachie Jones has been presumed drowned. As we reported first in October 2020 , on a hot summer’s night in late January 2019, the three-and-a-half year old boy’s lifeless body was found face up in a council oxidation pond on the outskirts of the Southland town of Gore. His favourite little replica police hat was found nearby.
Police organised a post mortem examination to be carried out by a pathologist in nearby Invercargill, who diagnosed his death as drowning. Police deemed Lachie’s death an accident and closed the case, concluding the preschooler had walked more than a kilometre from his mother’s house in his hi-viz vest, climbed over a fence and traipsed across long prickly grass in bare feet to the end of the second of two vast ponds before falling in and drowning.
In our 2020 investigation we highlighted multiple flaws in the police case, including no timeline, no scene examination, delayed witness interviews, conflicting witness statements, lack of cellphone data and no marks on the boy’s feet despite a supposed walk of 1.2 km across rough terrain.
Days after that investigation was published, police reopened the case, the new review headed by a detective inspector from Dunedin.
More than a year later, in November 2021, police finished that investigation, releasing a short media statement that said the matter had concluded and been referred back to the coroner.
Four years on
Four years on from his son’s death, Paul Jones remains unconvinced it was accidental. He says the new evidence is a “game changer”.
“It’s vindication for what we’ve been doing for the last four years and I’m thrilled we got to this stage with your help and now we’re able to move forward in the right direction.”
Newsroom Investigates, on behalf of Jones, organised an independent review. We facilitated the delivery of samples of his young son’s organ tissues and other relevant post mortem documentation to Dr Alexander Kolar, an independent expert forensic pathologist in the UK.
His findings raise serious concerns about Lachie’s post mortem and its diagnosis of death by drowning, Kolar’s report saying there is in fact not sufficient pathological evidence to say Lachie died from drowning.
Following Lachie’s death in 2019, a local pathologist had carried out a standard post mortem on his body – not a forensic pathologist, as would normally be the case in sudden, unexpected or suspicious deaths such as this.
The UK pathologist has upended the diagnosis reached by the local pathologist.
“I am not certain on what basis [the pathologist] gave the cause of death as “drowning”. The lungs (including his histological examination of them) were described as normal. Further, the internal aspects of the head were not formally examined. From the report alone (accepting that there may be other non-documented data that [the pathologist] had to hand) it appears that the only evidence as to the cause of death was circumstantial rather than pathological.
“It is not safe to provide drowning as a cause of death.”
One of the most striking revelations from the UK forensic pathologist’s report is over the weight of Lachie’s lungs, which were under the normal range for a boy of his age. They were not “significantly elevated”, which can be the case in drownings when the lungs become waterlogged and heavy.
The original pathologist had also described Lachie’s lungs as “unremarkable”.
Dr Anna Sandiford from The Forensic Group, who we went to on behalf of Paul Jones, explained it is important a forensic pathologist is used in cases such as this.
“There are different sorts of pathologists. I talk about non-forensic pathologists and forensic pathologists. So in this circumstance, a non-forensic pathologist was instructed, so that person may not necessarily be fully trained to do a forensic post mortem. That decision was made for some reason, and therefore a kind of standard post mortem was conducted, which is not as thorough.”
Sandiford agreed the initial finding from the original pathologist of “death by drowning” set off a chain of events based on that diagnosis.
Watch the video above to discover more of the pathologist’s conclusions.
Worksafe downgrade charge
As a result of Lachie’s death, Worksafe took the Gore District Council to court, where it was alleged that a serious risk of death arose due to the fencing the oxidation ponds had in place.
The council originally said it would fight the charges, with Newsroom understanding the Gore Council was not convinced Lachie’s death was accidental and the cornerstone of the council’s decision to plead not guilty centring on concerns about the adequacy of the police investigation.
The council could have faced a fine of up to $1.5m if found guilty.
Just before Christmas, Worksafe reduced the charges to one charge of ‘failing to perform a duty’. The council pleaded guilty and are due to be sentenced on Monday March 6.
Second forensic pathologist criticises original post mortem
The UK pathologist is not the only expert to have questioned the findings from the original post mortem.
Following the police reinvestigation of the case, Paul Jones and longtime supporter Karen McGuire met Detective Inspector Stu Harvey to get some answers to the many questions they still had.
At the meeting they would learn the police had engaged their own forensic pathologist to review the initial findings as part of its re-investigation. The NZ forensic pathologist also had significant criticism of the boy’s original post mortem and concerns at how the original pathologist arrived at a diagnosis of drowning.
This is from the recording of that meeting, which Jones and McGuire made with Harvey’s consent, which you can hear in the video story above:
“The post mortem was reviewed by a forensic pathologist from Christchurch, a very knowledgeable person, and he did have some significant criticism of that post mortem. He identified some concerns in regards to how he [the original pathologist] came up with drowning,” said Harvey.
Harvey also agreed that using a non-forensic pathologist to conduct the post mortem had created problems.
“Where it became an issue was at the point in time where it was decided not to use a forensic pathologist – because the option was available to them. And that’s where it becomes problematic.”
Harvey told Jones and McGuire: “There is insufficient evidence on the facts that we have at this time in regards to any criminal culpability of any person in regards to Lachie’s death.”
The case is now sitting with a coroner to determine how Lachie died.
Lachie’s mother did not respond to Newsroom’s request to take part in this story.
So four years on, Paul Jones still has no answers – but with the UK forensic pathologist’s view, alongside the NZ forensic pathologist procured by the police both saying there is not the pathological evidence to support a diagnosis of drowning, Paul believes he is one step closer.
“The truth is coming out, it’s only a matter of time now.”