23 Feb 2018

Brethren victims refused to engage with police over fatal crash

9:31 pm on 23 February 2018

A court has heard that Brethren church members affected by a fatal crash in Northland would not give victim impact statements to police.

Whangarei High and District Court

Whangarei High and District Court Photo: Ministry of Justice website

Russell Stewart, 49, was sentenced in the Whangarei District Court today for careless driving that caused the death of his wife, his daughter and a family friend.

The crash in June 2016 also injured four other passengers in his Triton ute.

The group was heading home in darkness after a church outing to Baylys Beach with other members of the Kaipara Brethren community.

Stewart's wife Susannah, his 16-year-old daughter Sadie and 18-year-old Jamie Wearmouth all died at the scene when Stewart failed to take a bend and the ute hit a tree.

Stewart told police he'd blacked out and was later found some distance away being comforted by other church members who'd been travelling in convoy.

He was originally charged with leaving the scene of the accident and drink-driving.

But those charges were dropped last month before he went to trial, after he pleaded guilty to the seven counts of careless driving.

Crown solicitor Kyle MacNeill said he could not produce victim impact statements for the court, because a 'veil of silence ' had descended over everyone involved.

The crown had instead asked defence counsel to approach the victims for statements, he said.

Judge De Ridder said that was unusual but it was the only way of obtaining them, since the victims would not engage with the police.

He said their statements spoke of a deep sense of loss and grief, but the themes were compassion and forgiveness.

The court had received 49 character references for Stewart, describing the Kaipara businessman as a generous, hard-working family man of high integrity.

Stewart was being treated for depression and the effects of trauma and had shown deep remorse, the judge said.

He also had strong support from his family and church.

The Crown had suggested Stewart's careless driving was more than simple inattention.

He had earlier let air out of the tyres when the ute was stuck in sand; four of his passengers weren't wearing seatbelts and two were travelling on the tray.

It also said Stewart had drunk alcohol earlier that afternoon at the beach, and was not breath-tested till three hours after the crash.

Judge De Ridder set that to one side as a factor that might have influenced his driving.

He sentenced Stewart to four-months' community detention; a curfew and supervision and disqualified him from driving for a year.

Stewart had not driven since the fatal crash, the court heard.

Members of the Brethren church, including Stewart's younger daughter, filled the court for the sentencing and left quietly.