A pre-inquest conference into the death of Gore toddler Lachlan Jones is being held on Thursday.
The three-year-old boy was found floating face-up in an oxidation pond on the outskirts of the rural Southland town by a police dog and its handler on a hot summer’s night in January 2019. He couldn’t be revived and his death was ruled an accidental drowning.
In July Newsroom published an in-depth nine-part podcast investigation into the case, The Boy in the Water.
Auckland-based Coroner Alexander Ho announced he would hold an inquest into the toddler’s death, due for next year.
Today’s pre-inquest telephone conference is an initial discussion of issues relevant to the case. These include:
- Whether the evidence establishes the Invercargill pathologist who carried out Lachie’s post mortem was correct to conclude he died from drowning.
- What the circumstances were that led to him being found in the pond that night.
- Whether the evidence establishes or excludes the involvement of other individuals in his death.
In a “minute” – a formal court document – released to Newsroom by the coroner’s office, Coroner Ho calls on multiple witnesses to give evidence at the inquest.
The minute lists nine names given ‘’interested party’’ status at the inquest, and up to 25 witnesses who will be called to give evidence. All names have been redacted.
An “interested party” includes representatives of the immediate family of the deceased, anyone whose conduct is likely to be called into question during the inquiry, and any other party who “has an interest in the death greater than that of a member of the public”.
Newsroom understands one of the interested parties to appear at the pre-inquest conference is Dr Roland Lass from Invercargill, the pathologist who reluctantly conducted Lachie’s post mortem request and diagnosed death by accidental drowning.
Newsroom also understands Lachie’s father, Paul Jones, will attend the conference and there will be representation from the Gore District Council and the police. The council earlier this year pleaded guilty to a Worksafe charge against it in relation to the fencing around the council-controlled ponds where Lachie was found.
The pre-inquest telephone conference is being heard “in chambers”, which means it is restricted to counsel and interested parties.
The inquest itself has been set down for three weeks next year, and the coroner intends to visit the oxidation ponds on January 26, a date chosen intentionally to reflect “the time of year that Lachlan was found”.
Third police investigation
In 2019, not long after Lachie died, police deemed his death had been an accident and closed the case, concluding the pre-schooler 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.
After our first in-depth story into Lachie’s death was published in 2020, police reopened the case, headed by a Dunedin detective inspector. More than a year later they closed that reinvestigation, releasing a short statement to say the matter had concluded and been referred back to the coroner.
Newsroom Investigates has covered this case for more than three years, including two video investigations and a new podcast series, The Boy in the Water, which revealed multiple criticisms of the police investigations.
Just days after the final episode of The Boy in the Water was published, police announced a review into their handling of the case, spearheaded by a detective superintendent who is one of three national investigation leads. They also self-referred the matter to the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
The court minute released by the coroner’s office also said he would have to consider the criticisms made of the investigation.
Karen Smith, a retired American crime scene investigator who appears in the final episode of our podcast and has spent more than 400 hours investigating Lachie’s death told Newsroom the police investigation was an “across the board system failure”.
Smith submitted her forensic analysis to Coroner Ho. Newsroom understands she will likely be heading to New Zealand for the inquest.