'He learnt how to live with the land'

7:08 pm on 3 January 2017

A man found dead in the Waikato River was a "cheeky hunter-gatherer and a bit of a MacGyver", a family member says.

Tama Retimana

Tama Retimana, 29, was the kind of person who could make a tent into a home with everything he needed, his cousin says. Photo: Supplied

Tama Retimana, a 29-year-old father of two, was found floating in the river; he had been living rough in an area near it and a preliminary post-mortem has indicated he was assaulted prior to his death.

Just two days after his family farewelled him at the Morrinsville Brethren Church after a tangi at a nearby marae, the police elevated the inquiry into his death from unexplained to suspicious.

The initial post-mortem results indicated Mr Retimana suffered injuries to his head, which his cousin, Te Ataahua Richmond, said came as a bit of a shock.

"Uneasy, the whānau are uneasy about it, but my uncle is a pastor at the church and they just encourage us to let the police deal with it," she said.

Mr Retimana's body was found two days after Christmas. Detective Sergeant Terri Wilson, who is heading the investigation, is appealing for any new information.

"It is a very tragic event for the family, particularly the two girls of Mr Retimana. They want answers, we want answers, we just want to know what had happened to him, so that is our primary aim," she said.

"Some of the particular findings in relation to pathology on the post-mortem indicate that he has drowned but there are other things we are looking to make inquiries on."

Inquiries are currently focused on the people Mr Retimana was with in the days leading up to his death.

Mr Retimana was living in a makeshift campsite near the river with his partner. His cousin, Mrs Richmond, said while it was a tent, he was a resourceful person and would have wanted for nothing.

"Tama was the type of person who could make a shack into a mansion, he could make it feel like it was a mansion. It didn't have to look pretty but he'd have everything that you need at your fingers.

"[He'd] tell you, 'Come, come sit down, check this out, look what I made and turned into this.' He was a kind of MacGyver type person."

He grew up in the Bay of Plenty at Waihau Bay; his whānau have tribal connections to both Te Whānau ā Āpanui and Ngāti Maniapoto.

"He was good at hunting, fishing, eeling, he learnt how to live with the land, and apparently even when he was living next to the river he was catching tuna [eels] and cooking them up on his fire," Mrs Richmond said.

She said her cousin was a free-spirited individual, who sometimes rubbed people up the wrong way, but said he had a good heart.

Investigations into his death were ongoing and police were encouraging anyone with any information to contact them.

Mrs Richmond said her cousin would be dearly missed.