No charges to be laid against missing trampers despite lockdown

The missing trampers who sparked a massive search and rescue operation in Kahurangi National Park will not face any charges even though they were on a risky multi-day tramp, which was forbidden during level 3 lockdown.

Dion Reynolds and Jessica O’Connor were found on Wednesday after 19 days lost in rugged terrain, at times in bad weather and totally out of food, but suffering only minor injuries.

The 23 year olds entered the bush on 8 May, even though New Zealand had been told to stay at home as much as possible and only to engage in low-risk activities that would avoid the need for rescues or medical care. That included restricting tramping to day walks on easy trails.

Nelson Bays Area Commander Inspector Paul Borrell told Checkpoint the trampers, who are now both safe and well, will not receive a formal warning because getting lost is not an offence.

“The material I have around the warning is that only where evidence of education exists, and when offences are repeated or are sufficiently serious,” Borrell said.

“The other piece of this that I think has been forgotten is that around our search and rescue we would never want to create a situation where people are reluctant to ring for help.”

Police do not follow up rescues with charging people for that reason, he said.

“I absolutely understand the frustration of many people in the communities who have followed the guidelines as asked, and fantastically well. We have had a small number – thankfully – of people who haven’t. Each case is taken on a case by case basis, as this one has.

“I haven’t heard an official apology but I certainly saw tears of gratitude and happiness and relief when they were rescued.

“I’m picking that reflecting over the next few days and probably having a look at the media messaging that’s around about … I think the apology will be coming.”

Borrell said he does not have an official figure yet on the cost of the search and rescue, but he anticipates something around $20,000.

“Most of the resource around land search is volunteers. And so they are people who are giving up their own time, supported by the employers, and absolutely passionate about the opportunity of saving lives.

“So the cost factor of these is often helicopter time. And we’re very careful, the way that we plan our searches, making sure that we have good patterns and hours – a meticulous process.”

The search operation involved NZ Defence Force personnel and one helicopter, another rescue helicopter, five specialist trackers, three dog teams, about 30 police, Fire and Emergency personnel and many volunteers.

A Givealittle page had been set up to raise money for LANDSAR. On the page on Friday Jess O’Connor wrote: “A huge thank you to everyone. This doesn’t come close to repaying everyone for your support, but please know I will be eternally grateful.”

As of Friday afternoon, the page had raised more than $32,000 and donations were continuing.

The pair had not formally logged their intentions before going into the bush on 8 May, but had told family.

“We’ve had some very strong messaging going out from Sergeant Malcolm York, who leads our search and rescue for Nelson, and the advice that he’s been giving has been really good stuff around personal locator beacons, making sure you have the right equipment. And … informing reliable people of your intentions – how long you intend to be on the tramp for, and advice around contacting police if required.”

Borrell would not say if the pair had been reprimanded.

“There is no doubt in their mind, that we are not particularly happy with their decision to go into that area,” he told Checkpoint.

The understanding is Reynolds and O’Connor had planned to go into the bush for about 10 to 14 days. This was while New Zealand was still under strict level 3 lockdown rules.

“Absolutely not the greatest decision-making,” Borrell said.

Under level 3 police said there were 1231 breaches of rules, resulting in 295 prosecutions, 850 warnings and 86 youth referrals.

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