How Nia's torture started

Last updated 00:00 05/08/2007

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Little Nia Glassie's torture is over. But her death on Friday makes more urgent the question: how could anyone allow a child to be treated in such a way? The answer, in part at least, must lie in how this innocent life came to depend on the five adults accused of abusing her. Leigh van der Stoep and Tony Wall chart the events that brought the `Koutu Five' together under one roof.

He was just a boy, the son of a Black Power gangster who had subjected his family to years of violence.

She was twice his age and a mother of six: on the lookout for a new boyfriend after the father of her kids abandoned her.

Wiremu Curtis, 17, and Lisa Kuka, 34, met at her nephew's 21st in Rotorua about a year ago and quickly moved in together.

By themselves, perhaps they stood a chance of providing a nurturing environment for the three children still in Kuka's care, including three-year-old Nia.

But they moved into a crowded house in the northern Rotorua suburb of Koutu with members of their immediate and extended families, a cocktail containing all the ingredients for the horror that unfolded.

It is hard to imagine abuse worse than that which led to Nia Glassie's death at Auckland's Starship Hospital on Friday afternoon.

Nia was spun in a tumble dryer, hung from a clothesline, left on the roof and had hunks of wood thrown at her - all for the amusement of her tormenters.

Had she survived, medical experts privately predicted Nia's injuries would have left her severely brain damaged and in a wheelchair.

The presence of Wiremu's father, 47-year-old William, or Willy, Curtis, should have offered Nia some protection - if he had set an example for the youths. Instead, he allegedly joined in the abuse and, before Nia's death, was charged with assault and causing her grievous bodily harm between March and July.

The others charged with assaulting Nia are Wiremu, his older brother Michael, 21, Michael's girlfriend Oriwa Kemp, 17, and Lisa's nephew Michael Pearson, 19. Lisa Kuka has not been charged.

This is the story of how they came together.

In Mangere, South Auckland, a 43-year-old woman who hadn't met Nia until after she was taken to Starship Children's Hospital on Sunday, July 22, is feeling alone and frightened.

She doesn't want to be named, but she is the mother of Wiremu and Michael Curtis, and the former partner of their father, William. We'll refer to her by her initials, TT.

She has struck up a rapport with Lisa Kuka, who she hadn't previously met, and had been keeping vigil at Starship.

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More than 10 years ago TT left William Curtis, but his shadow still hangs over her.

"Getting out of the relationship wasn't easy, it was really hard," she says. In fact, it took her years.

When she met Curtis he was a patched Black Power member.

William's father, Richard Curtis, had died when William was a toddler. An uncle, also named William, took him in, but then he was given to another uncle, Robert, and his family. (Yet another uncle, the late George, was the father of Hollywood actor Cliff Curtis.)

TT says William did not appear to have any sense of family.

"He was more or less a castaway."

She says when she met William Curtis in the 80s he was moving between homes and would often end up in hospital when he got bashed by fellow gangsters.

The couple set up home in South Auckland, and for a few years Curtis worked for the council doing maintenance work.

TT came to the relationship with a son. They had three children together, Michael, born in 1986, Wiremu, born in 1989, and a daughter born in 1991.

TT says Curtis was a good father to Michael, who was a "daddy's boy".

"I fought so desperately to get my children away from him, but Michael wouldn't have a bar of it, he wanted his father regardless of what he was like."

Wiremu did not have as much contact with his father as he was taken away as part of a whangai adoption arrangement to be raised in Northland by TT's sister and her husband.

Curtis also had two children from a previous relationship, and TT had taken one of them, a troubled boy, into their home. He would behave badly and "do stupid things", which TT says would earn him a hiding from his dad. The boy killed himself when he was 16.

Her first attempt at leaving Curtis ended disastrously. She called the police and she and her newborn daughter were taken to a "safe house".

"It didn't work, he knew where I was. He tracked me down and by the next morning he was there. He was calm, and he told me to come home."

It would be several more years before she finally left Curtis, and TT says her decision meant her boys turned against her, wanting to be with their father.

About three years ago, Wiremu's adoptive father became terminally ill and Wiremu nursed him until his death. "He took it really hard. When he died, Wiremu was lost."

TT's sister needed time out and put Wiremu on a bus back to his mother in Auckland.

"I was supposed to pick him up in the city, but our communications were mixed up and there was no one there to pick him up. He jumped on the next bus to Rotorua."

It was a quirk of fate that would have repercussions for a little girl called Nia.

At her weatherboard home on a neatly kept section in Koutu, Rotorua, Polly Kuka, 71, looks back on her life and how she became a virtual "baby factory".

She had 17 children - her first when she was 15 - and one every 10 months or so for the next two decades.

Lisa was born 34 years ago, and other children included twins Louise and Linda, and Donna, who would later adopt one of Lisa's children.

Their father was Daniel Kuka, who died last year aged 81 - Polly left him 27 years ago and is now in a new relationship.

Polly still works as a timber grader in Rotorua, a male-dominated job she has had since she left her husband.

She is a fastidious woman, and cannot stand to see dirty children or unkempt homes. She was particularly annoyed by the state of Lisa and Louise's houses.

"It annoys me to see my daughters live like that in filth," she says.

She even kept a set of clothes for visiting grandchildren so that they wouldn't be in faded or shabby attire, and would get them in the bath and wash their hair.

One day Polly looked outside and saw a scruffy looking boy on her porch. She chased him off, and told him she didn't want anyone to see dirty people on her property.

When told that the wretch was her daughter Lisa's new 17-year-old boyfriend, Wiremu, she said she didn't care, she didn't want him there. She was disgusted Lisa was with a boy half her age.

The pair had met at a 21st held at Lisa's sister Louise's flat, well-known for its frequent parties, in nearby Old Quarry Rd.

Polly thinks Wiremu saw Lisa as a meal ticket. Lisa worked as a supervisor at a kiwifruit factory in Te Puke and brought home about $600 a week.

When word filtered back to TT in Auckland that Wiremu had taken up with an older woman, she thought it could be a good thing.

"I thought that she could be a mother figure and look after him, and settle him down," she says.

Initially, Lisa and Wiremu lived together in a one-bedroom home in Glenholme, central Rotorua, with three of Lisa's four children to Glassie Junior Glassie, her former partner of 11 years.

The pair had split when Junior, as he is known, brought another woman around and, according to Polly, told Lisa he was now with this woman as he wanted a thinner girlfriend. The new couple later moved to Australia.

"That broke her. I think that's where it all went wrong," Polly says.

By the time she took up with Wiremu, Lisa had custody of only three of her children to Junior - Jessie, 10, Esther, eight, and Nia, three.

The fourth, Jerome, 11, was taken in by Glassie Glassie senior and his wife, Celina, in Tokoroa, when Junior moved to Australia.

Lisa's eldest, Roy, 16, was taken away years earlier by his biological father.

Another child, Jamie, now 14, has been living with Lisa's sister Donna since she was a baby. Polly does not know who Jamie or Roy's fathers are.

The one-bedroom unit in Glenholme was too small for Wiremu and Lisa, so they moved to a three-bedroom fibrolite home at the end of a right-of-way in Frank St.

That was where the trouble began.

Wiremu's older brother Michael was one of those who moved into Frank St, in the suburb of Koutu, along with his girlfriend Oriwa Kemp.

Kemp's late mother was a drunk who was often absent, so it was left to her grandmother to play the role of parent. A disruptive pupil, Kemp was expelled from Rotorua Primary, then enrolled at Kawaha Point school, where several of Polly's grandchildren also attended.

Polly remembers Kemp stealing their lunch. A former teacher recalls occasions when Kemp would be found wandering the streets at night, seemingly in a daze. She would arrive at school the next day in the same clothes, not having eaten.

Her grandmother showed an interest in her welfare, going to the school to discuss her behaviour, but Kemp seemed uncontrollable.

At 15 she gave birth to a girl, Tahlia. It is understood the father is Michael Curtis. Around Christmas of last year, the couple and Tahlia moved into the house in Frank St, joined a few months later by Wiremu, Lisa and her children. Lisa's nephew Michael Pearson, her sister Louise's son, would occasionally stay.

TT says that by this stage, the Wiremu she had known had completely changed, and would make gangster signs with his hands. The walls of the Frank St home were adorned with pictures of American gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur.

Life there was volatile. Neighbours say they often heard people fighting and screaming, and crashes and bangs. One time a young woman, believed to be Kemp, was heard sobbing, pleading for someone to let her into the house. She spent the whole night outside.

Lisa worked six days a week, leaving at 5am and sometimes not arriving home until 10pm. Her children were left in the care of Kemp and the Curtis brothers - none of whom worked. Sometimes Nia would be left with extended family.

Polly says everyone assumed Esther and Jessie went to school, but she now knows this was not the case. Neighbours say they often saw the girls outside, but they were not allowed to play with other children.

It is unclear where William Curtis allegedly abused Nia. Neighbours say they never saw anyone that old near the property.

TT says her sons had stayed with their dad prior to moving in together.

"Willy has no rules in his house," she says. "They just do whatever they want to. In my house, it's run by rules. I think that's why the children didn't want to stay with me."

Lisa too spurned a more stable environment for her children.

"This is the hurting part - she had family," says Polly. "We offered a place for Lisa to stay with the kids, but she didn't want to stay because I would not look after those kids so she could go out boozing."

The catalyst for Nia finally being uplifted from Frank St was a boozy 21st party for Michael Curtis on Saturday, July 21. Nia was asleep in a bedroom -her mother told people she had the flu.

About 8pm, Louise Kuka arrived at the house and, concerned that the children were at risk, took them to her place. Louise said her sister made her promise not to take Nia to hospital, but she did so the following morning, by which stage the toddler was convulsing and foaming at the mouth.

Polly says Lisa had been a good mother when she was with Glassie Jnr, who was a good father. Her children were polite and well mannered. She says Lisa never used to drink back then.

Polly wonders where she, as a mother of 17, went wrong.

"Now they (her children) blame me for what's happened. They say it's because I left them, but I didn't. For me, it feels like 'What have I done?' I had everyone doing their chores when they were kids, I tried to do the right thing."

Before Nia died, Polly had been preparing herself to leave work and look after her grandaughter when she was released from hospital.

Instead she is preparing to bury her.

- Sunday Star Times

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