'House of Horrors' shocks country

Tisha Lowry lived two doors from the Wainoni house where her body was discovered after being missing for nearly a year.
Photos: The Press
Tisha Lowry lived two doors from the Wainoni house where her body was discovered after being missing for nearly a year.

Jason Somerville and Rebecca Chamberlain were a familiar couple around the streets of Taupo.

Before their three children were taken into care, Somerville was often spotted pushing the baby's pram into town, his wife at his side. Once, he knocked on the door of the home he used to own and asked if he could pick a rose to give to his wife.

They were, said one Taupo resident, a lovely couple and a happy family unit. But there was another side to the Somerville-Chamberlain household. One that required the support and understanding of numerous members of the tight-knit Taupo Baptist Church where they were regular worshippers.

Jason Somerville and Rebecca Chamberlain.
Jason Somerville and Rebecca Chamberlain.

Somerville and Chamberlain were married at the church in 2003. Yesterday it hosted Chamberlain's funeral. She was found under the floorboards of the home she shared with Somerville in Wainoni, Christchurch, just over a week ago along with their neighbour Tisha Lowry, who had been missing for almost a year.

The grisly discovery has left Chamberlain's grief-stricken family devastated. Their daughter, they said in a statement on Friday, was struggling to get her life back on track and was making good progress and they were "proud of her and her achievements... This is a terrible tragedy for the three families involved and we feel for their loss".

Somerville, a bespectacled and bearded man, has now been charged with two counts of murder. On Friday he was remanded in custody until November 12. Police have looked into whether Somerville may have played a role in any other unsolved crimes, but have so far made no specific connections.

In Taupo, acquaintances last week told the Sunday Star-Times the couple had their challenges in life, but insisted that these were not unlike those faced by many others in the community. That may be the kindest way of saying they struggled with everyday life. Others have been more blunt, describing Somerville as "weird" and "shifty".

But the couple held down jobs Somerville did the morning shift stacking trolleys at Pak'nSave and Chamberlain cleared tables at McDonald's and they met their mortgage repayments on limited incomes. Somerville had grand ideas about buying and selling houses to advance up the property ladder but they were anything but realistic.

The couple lived in a succession of homes in Taupo, each one smaller and more rundown than the one before. They lived, more often than not, in squalor.

In 2004, they sold their home in Scannell St. The buyer told the Star-Times that when she moved in there was animal faeces on the carpet, dozens of marks on the wall made by something like a hammer claw, doors that had been kicked and left with indentations and endless filth. The stove had to be thrown out. "They were downtrodden and sad," she said of the couple. "Rebecca had skin problems, like raw eczema. He was always jittery. An anxious person. He had epilepsy and was heavily medicated. I put his intensity down to the medication, but who knows?"

The couple had not moved far and she often saw them walking past the house with their three children the oldest, a boy, was Chamberlain's; the two youngest, both girls, belonged to them both. "They were cute little kids. I just thought they looked unkempt but you see a lot of children around that are. They seemed quite happy."

There was something about the house that left her uneasy, however. Digging in the garden one day, she uncovered some bones enough to half-fill a wheelbarrow. "They weren't small, but not big either ... I told myself it was a dog but it had to be more than one because there were so many."

Last week she reported the find to police, but a spokesman told the Star-Times it was not being investigated.

It was around 2005 that Somerville and Chamberlain's children the oldest of whom is now nine were removed from their care and the couple moved to Christchurch to be closer to Somerville's mother. (Chamberlain's parents live in Australia.) They also began a campaign to be reunited with the children, who had been placed with families within the Taupo Baptist Church community.

One churchgoer describes the parishioner response as "remarkable". "People put those hands up for those children and now treat them as their own.

"As long as they are left alone they'll be OK. They're in really good hands."

The man described Somerville as "a little bit different, left of centre" and Chamberlain, he said, had issues with alcohol.

Somerville's former pastor, Alex Gale, said both came from challenging backgrounds "and it makes it difficult when you don't have family support".

Somerville's mother, he said, "wasn't entirely functional" when he knew her.

Once in Christchurch, the couple were told by CYF that they would not be reunited with the children. According to Family Court advocate Peter Burns, who befriended the couple shortly after they moved south, Chamberlain then began to self-harm.

It was a tough time but eventually she overcame her problems and had been sober for more than a year. "There were 10 applications we had before the court [regarding custody] and she wrote them all. They were just brilliant you would think that a lawyer wrote them. She was very intelligent. She had cleaned herself up and just wanted to be a mum.

"She had battled through a rough patch and come out the other side."

But Somerville struck Burns as "rather odd". "He was the voice [in the relationship] and she was very quiet. He was a wee bit overpowering at times," Burns said.

Somerville could not read or write and suffered mental health problems. "I felt sorry for them. They were in the depths of despair and had addiction problems. They had just lost their kids, so of course I wanted to help them. They had to bus around and often I would pick them up in the car They would always ask me for a cigarette because they were on the bones of their arse. But they were trying."

Burns said Somerville, who was doing a carpentry course at the Christchurch polytechnic, was constantly doing work on the couple's house and the living room was littered with bits of wood. "He would be pulling down a wall and I'd point out it was a structural wall in a two-storey house but he always knew best. In the end I'd just ignore him and talk with Rebecca."

The couple worshipped at the Linwood Baptist Church, where Somerville's aunt, Jillian Somerville, is a pastor. She is struggling to understand how such tragedy could befall the couple. "They were happy together. You would often see them walking round the streets. They would be holding hands."

Last year Somerville and Chamberlain returned to Taupo to try to get their kids back. Chamberlain was hired at her old job at McDonald's and Somerville delivered pamphlets. They rented a flat in Rawhiti St, but a familiar pattern emerged.

Neighbour Evan Maule said the place was filthy. "Jason was on edge, very suspicious, and behaved strangely. I didn't want to have much to do with him."

This time they stayed for about six to eight months and then returned to Christchurch, apparently having given up their quest for the children.

Burns last saw the couple a month ago and was devastated when the bodies of Chamberlain and Tisha Lowry were found. "I'm just thankful now, in retrospect, that I wasn't successful in getting their two daughters and son back."

Sunday Star Times