10 Nov 2014

Aunt wants resignation over murderer's escape

10:31 pm on 10 November 2014

The aunt of the boy abused by a convicted murderer who has fled to Chile wants Corrections National Commissioner Jeremy Lightfoot to resign over the escape.

Phillip John Smith was jailed in 1996 for murder, aggravated robbery, sexual violation, indecent assault on a boy and kidnapping.

Smith, now 40, stabbed to death a man in Wellington whose son he had been sexually abusing.

He had earlier tracked the family from the Wairarapa, where he was facing sex charges, to the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville where they were living in a supposedly safe house.

Smith disappeared while on authorised temporary release from Spring Hill prison in Waikato, and Police Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess today confirmed he had fled to Chile on a passport obtained in his birth name of Phillip John Traynor.

A Department of Internal Affairs spokesperson said Smith was issued the passport last year.

Passport applications were checked for court orders before issuing but, as he applied for it in his legal name, no court orders showed up and therefore there were no grounds to reject the application.

"A passport is a legal document that must be completed by the applicant themselves. It is not clear how Mr Traynor managed to lodge an application while in 2013 whilst still in prison and it is likely he had the assistance of an accomplice. We are investigating this aspect and will work with NZ Police and Corrections on this."

Smith had been on short-term release programmes since April 2013, to prepare him for reintegration into society - despite a 2011 parole board decision noting Smith has previously escaped from police custody.

Read the Parole Board's March 2014 decision on Phillip John Smith

National Commissioner of Corrections Jeremy Lightfoot.

National Commissioner of Corrections Jeremy Lightfoot. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Lynda, whose last name cannot be used as it could identify her nephew, said the now 31-year-old was distressed and gutted the man who killed his father and abused him had been able to simply walk through customs and out of the country.

She said she wanted people in the Corrections Department held to account.

"Somebody okayed all this, and I want to know who it was and I want to know what they're going to do about it," Lynda said.

"How do I know now that my family is safe. What happens now? Are they merely going to rearrest him, put him back in jail for him to go and do the same thing all over again.

"Do we have to go through this yet again?

"My family has been through more than enough at this man's hands. He's not a man, he's just an oxygen thief."

Lynda called for Mr Lightfoot to resign, and said she wanted to meet him to see if he could answer her questions.

However, Mr Lightfoot told Checkpoint that would be premature.

"At this stage I think it's premature for anyone to be considering their position in this particular circumstance," he said.

"The operational review will identify where there were shortcomings in this particular incident."

Mr Burgess said the passport Smith fled on was "quasi-legal" because it was issued under his birth name of Traynor.

"It didn't throw up any flags in the multi-agency system," he said.

Mr Lightfoot told the media conference Smith had gradually worked up to 72-hour releases, and he was on one of these when he absconded.

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Smith was picked up from prison on Thursday morning by two of his eight sponsors. One was a female family member but police would not give any details on the second person.

Corrections found out during a routine check two days after he was picked up that he had been unaccounted for since Thursday afternoon.

The sponsor would not tell them where she took him or how he got a passport, and all sponsors were being spoken to as part of the police investigation.

"I'm not aware that any information has been provided by the sponsor," he said.

"He obtained, we understand, this passport in July of last year, so this has clearly been part of a long-term plan that he has had."

Mr Lightfoot said a prisoner being released to a sponsor involved a thorough vetting process.

"We make it very clear, as part of our vetting process, and for each individual case of temporary release, to go through the specific requirements and obligations on a sponsor," he said.

"Those responsibilities are obviously very significant, given their role in managing these prisoners during temporary release.

"In this situation we know that this was clearly communicated and we would anticipate, as is required by the licence, for the sponsor to contact us immediately, and the police, when a prisoner is outside of the direct management supervision of that sponsor."

Mr Lightfoot said it would carry out a national review of the process but believed Smith planned his escape for months or years. However, it did not believe it had failed in its handling of him.

It was possible his sponsors, of whom there were two, would be charged, Mr Burgess told the press conference.

Corrections, the Department of Internal Affairs and the police were working together to determine how Smith got a passport, made arrangements to leave New Zealand, and who helped him.

"Police have, through Interpol, notified the Chilean authorities of Mr Smith's criminal history, status and known identities," they said.

"Police will pursue all available avenues to return Mr Smith to New Zealand, where he would be likely to face further charges due to his absconding."

Police Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess.

Police Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski


Police Minister Michael Woodhouse said New Zealand authorities were in close contact with their Chilean counterparts as they hunted for Smith.

New Zealand did not have a formal extradition treaty with Chile but that would not prevent his return, he said.

Labour's Corrections spokesperson, Jacinda Ardern, said it was unacceptable Corrections was not aware Smith was missing for two days.

"He should have been monitored by both probation and corrections staff, yet his disappearance was not discovered for several days," she said.

"It is incomprehensible that his 'no show' was not reported the moment he failed to arrive at his release address and that this was not picked up earlier by Corrections."

An immediate review into the circumstances surrounding his escape was needed, Ms Ardern said.

How events unfolded

  • Thursday morning : approved sponsor, a family member of Phillip John Smith, picks him up from Spring Hill prison
  • Thursday afternoon : Smith leaves sponsor's care
  • Thursday afternoon : Smith flees to Chile
  • Saturday afternoon : Department of Corrections learns about Smith's failure to comply with terms of temporary release
  • Saturday evening : Police are notified
  • Sunday : Corrections' national commissioner Jeremy Lightfoot is notified
  • Sunday 4pm : Family of victims are told Smith is missing.
  • Monday 1.25pm : Police confirm Smith fled New Zealand on a fake passport bound for Chile

Source: Department of Corrections national commissioner Jeremy Lightfoot, NZ Police.