The discovery of a King Country man and his three children walking out of the bush alive after being missing for almost three weeks has elicited a mixed reaction; while everyone is relieved they are alive, many people are left wondering: how did it come to this?
Thomas Phillips, 34, and Jayda, 8, Maverick, 6, and Ember, 5, went missing from Marokopa on 12 September and a large search failed to find any sign of them.
Police said they walked into the family home yesterday following reports that a day before a man and three children had been spotted near Kiritehere Beach where Phillips’ ute had been discovered semi-submerged in the surf shortly after the search was launched.
Waikato West area commander Will Loughrin said yesterday police were in the early stages of finding out exactly what happened, but he confirmed that the family had been living in a tent about 15 kilometres from Kiritehere Beach.
Phillips has a home in Otorohanga while the family farm is about 5km inland of Marokopa. Set back off Marokopa Road it enjoys a commanding view of the valley which carries the same name.
Yesterday evening the number of pint-sized red-band gumboots on the porch was a tell-tale sign the children were home safe.
Inside children could be seen playing and they and Tom Phillips were being supported by extended family.
Marokopa kaumatua Hemi Kete said he had called the farm on hearing the news.
“Via a phone call just minutes ago the kids are all happy, playing with each other, playing with the parents and happy to have a nice shower, so that’s where they are at the moment – happy with the grandparents.”
Kete said it was wonderful the family had returned alive.
“It’s a huge blessing throughout the community that Tom and his kids have been found well very much walking on mother Earth; that’s a huge blessing.
“Tom and his kids are with the father and the mother and the grandparents and they’re one happy family at the minute.”
But he was confused about the circumstances of the disappearance.
“Yeah, a bit disappointed in Tom with his stupidity at this time of the year.
“He knows this area very well. Taught by his parents and grandparents and that was the disappointing thing that Tom had to do it here, but hey, let’s give thanks to the search and rescue and everyone involved because they are home.”
Kete was also left wondering how they survived.
“I have no idea. We are asking the same question: How the hell did he survive?”
He didn’t know why they had gone bush in the first place either.
In Otorohanga, Patrick Carr said his children went to school with the Phillips youngsters before their father decided to homeshool them.
He was also grateful that everyone was safe, but said Phillips should have told told people what he was up to.
“You know, why would you want to do that. I mean without telling anybody, like, the rest of their whānau and everything they’d be worried about them and that sort of thing.”
‘He’s a dad – it’s his choice’
Reuben Warren, who was on the main street picking up some lunch, was stoked about the positive outcome too.
“I’m happy they are alive. I’m happy they are safe and well. Genuinely. It’s the best result really.”
A keen bushman himself, Warren said he had stayed in the bush that long, but not with children.
He didn’t think Phillips had done much wrong.
“Look, everyone is entitled to their lifestyle, their point of view. If he was safe, he was fine. I think he probably let some people know where he was but failing that he’s a man, he’s a dad – it’s his choice.
“It’s not what we are used to; it’s a little out of the norm and it’s a little bit harder to accept. He’s their dad. They’re obviously safe and well and it’s just a little bit different than most of society is used to.”
But a Marokopa woman, who was up at Otorohanga on business and didn’t want to be identified, was upset with Phillips.
She said her family had searched the coastline of their farm every day for two weeks and was feeling put out.
The woman said she did not believe Phillips went missing for so long with three under 10-year-olds without outside help.
That was a view shared by other Marokopa locals – also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
They said they had told police that Phillips was most likely in the bush and the submerged ute was a decoy.
They were also unhappy at the turmoil he had put the community through and the fact they had missed out on two weeks of whitebait season.