Following three Newsroom video stories, a nine-part podcast investigation and numerous questions sent to police over the past three years in relation to the death of a Gore toddler, police have announced a review into their handling of the case.
Southern Police District Commander Paul Basham has requested a national investigations overview of the police handling of the investigation into the death of three-year-old Lachie Jones.
This will be the third time police have looked at the case. For the past three years Newsroom has been investigating the mysterious death of the Gore toddler, whose body was found face up in the town’s sewage oxidation pond on a hot night in January 2019.
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.
Days after our first investigation was published in 2020, police reopened the case, the new review headed by a detective inspector from Dunedin. More than a year later they finished that investigation, releasing a short media statement that said the matter had concluded and been referred back to the coroner.
For more than three years Newsroom has been requesting answers to numerous criticisms raised over police practice in the case.
Those questions have been met with either redirection or silence by police – until now.
“Police are well aware of continued reporting and concerns raised by some parties about our investigation and reinvestigation of the case. To address that concern, we have asked one of police’s three national investigation leads, Detective Superintendent Darryl Sweeney, to lead this review, to provide a senior and objective analysis of the police investigations,” said the police statement.
“Superintendent Basham is working to provide reassurance that police have done everything possible to find answers about Lachie’s death.”
The statement says Sweeney’s work will include reviewing the police file, decisions and actions in the early stages of the original investigation, and the subsequent reinvestigation by Detective Inspector Stu Harvey.
“It is appropriate to acknowledge that our reinvestigation identified some steps that were missed in the original investigation.”
Police have also self-referred the matter to the Independent Police Conduct Authority “to ensure an independent process is also carried out”.
Police case ‘pathetic’
Newsroom’s extensive investigations show substandard policing and glaring omissions in the police practice in the Southland town, to the extent Lachie’s family had to bring in an outsider – a highly experienced former forensic detective from the US – to analyse the case.
Karen Smith has spent more than 400 hours investigating the death of Lachie Jones and says the initial police investigation was an “across-the-board system failure”.
“I have seen a lot of really bad police investigations in my time. I’ve made mistakes of my own, so I’m not perfect. But the lack of effort, the lack of circumspection, the lack of taking the information and going ‘Maybe we got this wrong, maybe we need to look in a different direction’. I think it’s pathetic,” Smith told Newsroom’s lead investigations editor Melanie Reid.
Criticisms include that it took in some cases a month to interview key witnesses, while other key witnesses weren’t interviewed at all; the scene was not secured; and Lachie’s body was sent to the wrong pathologist.
Smith told Newsroom today: “I’m glad it’s going to be re-looked at – questions definitely need to be answered and I hope they are able to answer them.”
The police statement goes on to say: “We are mindful that every investigation and public commentary has an impact on the families, particularly Lachie’s Mum, with whom he lived. Reports of claims made by an overseas observer only serve to heighten his family’s grief.”
Newsroom understands the “overseas observer” is Karen Smith.
Lachlan’s father, Paul Jones, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the announcement.
“It’s about time. I’ve been waiting for this since the beginning of the podcast. It’s a step in the right direction but we will not stop until we have a truly independent investigation. I just want the truth. They (the police) must know he didn’t drown.”
He adds: “Karen Smith is a bit more than an overseas observer, hopefully they won’t miss that in their reinvestigation.”
Paul’s longtime friend and support Karen McGuire is also looking forward to the outcome of the review.
“We welcome the investigation but it needs to stay focused on justice for Lachie, that’s always been our primary objective. It’s always about Lachie.”
Police said aspects of this case were not appropriate for them to comment on as they were matters for the coroner; in particular the cause of, and circumstances surrounding, Lachie’s death.
*This story was made with the help of the PIJF*