Reclusive Christchurch man died alone

SARAH-JANE O'CONNOR
Last updated 10:59 21/05/2014

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A Christchurch man who died alone in his apartment could have been found earlier by police or Housing New Zealand, a coroner says.

Peter William Kerry Heathcote, 59, died on or about July 17 last year in his Riccarton flat, but was not found until weeks later.

Coroner David Crerar concluded that Heathcote had a stroke and died from hypothermia.

Last July 15, a downstairs neighbour called police after hearing banging and groaning from Heathcote's apartment.

Officers knocked on Heathcote's door but there was no response, and there were no lights on or noise coming from the unit.

The officers decided there was no justification for forced entry because there was little information from the informant and they were unable to confirm where the noises had come from.

The coroner said Heathcote had probably collapsed through a stroke and that the noises the neighbour heard were related.

He said Heathcote was noted as being reclusive and did not have a phone or a personal alarm to call for help.

Housing New Zealand tenancy manager Simon McGrath delivered an inspection notice to Heathcote's flat on July 4.

On subsequent visits, he found the letter in the same position, wedged above the door handle.

On August 20, McGrath returned to make a welfare check.

He spoke to neighbours and found old letters in Heathcote's letterbox.

Accompanied by a colleague, McGrath called a locksmith and entered the apartment, where he found Heathcote's body on the bedroom floor.

When police examined the apartment that day, they found no reason to suspect the death was suspicious.

Pathologist Martin Sage found that Heathcote had probably died of hypothermia complicated by a probable stroke.
Heathcote's sister raised concerns with the coroner about how long it took Housing New Zealand and police to find his body.

Electricity had been disconnected, presumably because the bills had not been paid, but Housing New Zealand did not contact Heathcote.

The coroner said Heathcote had been regular in all his payments for 20 to 30 years, so "an aberration should have prompted an inquiry".

He recommended that Housing New Zealand review its policies to ensure welfare checks were "more direct and focused".

In retrospect, the coroner said, if the police had forced entry to Heathcote's flat, medical attention could have been sought.

He said the police response was appropriate because the officers had discussed whether they had sufficient reason to force entry, and decided against it.

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