Faces of Innocents: Konrad Truger was born in a car and died in a crash caused by his mother
Konrad Truger was born in a car and he died flying out of one his mother crashed. Cannabis, speed, and no car seat led to her conviction over the 4-year-old's death. She speaks for the first time to Talia Shadwell for the Faces of Innocents series.
Wendy-May Connon reckons she must have driven that route hundreds of times, from her Featherston home, to Lake Ferry and back again.
On January 16, 2008 she had three children and two dogs in her car.
A witness would later describe coming across the disturbing scene, driving along a rural South Wairarapa road.
* Community detention for mother guilty of manslaughter
* Killer mum had earlier warning
* 'Wet towel' of a sentence, says father
There was grass on the road and dust rising. A mangled white 1993 Mitsubishi Magna was smoking in a paddock with two children and a dog inside.
Next to the wreck, Connon was sprawled on the paddock's fence like a broken rag doll.
The witness described to the court how he thought she was dying from the way she was "kicking." When he got closer he realised it was the fence's electric current making her leg jerk.
A photo of the wrecked car that was used during the trial.
Connon's four-year-old son Konrad Truger was finally found 30 metres away lying still amid the long grass.
No-one saw the crash happen. Connon does not remember a thing.
When she opened her eyes from a coma five weeks later, it was to her estranged husband's words: "You killed Konrad."
BREAKING HER SILENCE
Meeting Connon at her daughter's Hutt Valley home eight years after the crash, the slim dark-haired woman curls her tiny frame into a couch corner and the stories about her boy "Konnie" flow.
Connon is brimming with nervous energy. She clutches a memory board covered in photos of her son and points to his cheeky smile, his ice-blonde hair - he could write his own name by age 4. But he never made it to school.
Wendy-May Connon: "I know I'm responsible. I didn't have Konrad in a car seat."
She has never spoken publicly before about him or the events of that day until now and when she does she calls it "My Crash" - like she owns the words: "I know I'm responsible. I didn't have Konrad in a car seat."
It took police six months to charge Connon with her son's manslaughter.
She was accused of speeding, having used cannabis before she drove, and not putting Konrad in an approved child safety restraint.
She pleaded not guilty and went to trial but a jury convicted her of his manslaughter.
Connon has had eight years to reflect. She details a phase of playing private investigator - she was sure they must have got it wrong - but has found some inner peace in accepting her role now.
She almost never got that far.
After she first got out of hospital, her son dead, her body broken, her marriage fast dissolving, Connon tells of sitting in her wheelchair staring out at the meadow near their home where Konrad used to watch the bulls graze, washing down pill after pill.
"I was looking at the paddock, thinking this is where you were, my boy, and I wanna be with you."
She wheeled herself into bed, willing it to be over.
"I remember thinking, 'I'm gonna see you boy, I'm gonna see you soon. I'm gonna see you. I pulled the covers up and went to sleep. I woke up 24 hours later and I couldn't believe it."
She rolls her eyes, appealing to the heavens at the memory of it: "What the hell? Why don't you want me?"
THE BOY BORN IN A CAR
Connon didn't know whether she was having a boy or a girl, but all of a sudden, eight weeks early, this baby was coming out.
She bundled into her cousin's car in Greytown en route to Masterton Hospital about 10.45pm. They only got as far as the Mangatarere stream when she felt her waters break.
Connon planted one foot on the dashboard and at 11.10pm on November 21, 2003, Konrad Truger arrived, six pounds and healthy.
"I honestly didn't expect him to pop out so easy," Connon recalls.
The little boy was Connon's third child - the couple already had a son - and they each had daughters from previous relationships.
Connon was in her mid-30s when she gave birth, and was determined for the baby to be the last they brought into their growing Featherston home, which she had purchased when she was 20.
Connon was a horticulturalist, then, tending private gardens for a living, and as Konrad grew into a toddler, she began training gardeners at the Featherston trade and commerce school.
"It was all coming together."
Konrad and his brother were in each other's pockets from the beginning. When they got big enough they zoomed around on a quad bike.
The little boy liked to coax his hair into a mohawk, like the characters in the Japanese cartoon the kids devoured, Dragon Ball Z.
"He was like a Super Saiyan," recalls his older sister Tessa, who was a teenager when Konrad was born and is now a mother herself.
"His hair was just real fluffy and white and it stuck out all over his head. Because it was so light it didn't look like it was joined to his skull. So he just looked like he had this halo of white, spiky hair."
The boy's energy was as electric as his hair-do, his mother recalls.
"He was very, very I think the word is 'gregarious'? Very out there and open."
By three, the boys were big enough to clamber up on to their boundary fence and holler out to the big trucks that would honk as they drove past - which used to drive their neighbour mad, Tessa remembers.
The family lived in semi-rural Wairarapa, and Konrad was fixated on the bulls that grazed in a neighbouring paddock.
He was adamant they would want to play with him too, his sister recalls.
"He was really, really smart and really really, cute. He was mischievous and quite independent."
One day Konrad managed to slip his minders, Tessa recalls.
"He had been quiet. He was not normally quiet, you normally know where he is."
She hunted and hunted for him, then it dawned on her. The paddock.
She raced outside and spotted the top of that little ice-blonde crown amid the beasts.
"All I could see was bulls with their heads down looking at looking at him. So I just sprinted out there and didn't even stop.
"I grabbed him as I ran past then turned around and ran back out the paddock and sat him down on the step and was like, 'I thought you were going to die, don't ever do that again'."
The family was down to one income in the period before the crash and Konrad's parents were no longer living together.
Connon says her gardening work was supporting the family, and she was borrowing money from her parents.
She was a "good mum," Tessa says, but - "our family was a bit rough. But my mum - she was never nasty to anybody, she would always help out at school, at things like that."
Wendy-May Connon and daughter Tessa Connon. Photo: KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ
By 2004, when Konrad was three months old, the family's fortunes were in decline.
They had escaped a house fire, but lost everything in the blaze.
Although their town rallied around the family, raising money for them, they struggled after only managing to achieve a partial insurance settlement, Connon says.
The cracks were showing in November 2007, when Connon was pulled over for speeding.
She reportedly abused the police officer who stopped her and was referred to Child, Youth and Family welfare services over the incident.
When Connon was taking her children to Lake Ferry to visit friends, which they did every few days, she admits she was also going to buy a tinny of cannabis.
She accepts she must have smoked the drug in the days prior - but to this day is certain she would not have done it immediately before driving.
Connon was desperate for details and it came in drips. She struggled to make meaning of it all.
"It was like I don't drive like this, I do drive like this. How could it happen - how could it happen?"
Connon can not remember anything else of the crash, so listened to experts debate their conflicting versions of the scene in the courtroom.
She sat in the dock at her manslaughter trial every day silently clutching a photo of Konrad or sometimes a teddy bear.
The Crown's case centred on the cannabis, the speed, that none of the children including Konrad were in proper child restraints.
The case against her was that she reached speeds of up to 140kmh, and a blood sample taken after the crash found 4.5 micrograms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per litre of blood was in her system, with one expert suggesting she had smoked a cannabis cigarette about three and a half hours before the sample was taken.
Her defence said the Crown never proved how soon before the crash she had smoked it, as the Crown's expert could not rule out whether the medication she was given in hospital affected her results. Her lawyer urged the jury to focus on her speeding - which her side's expert says was more like 105-120kmh.
Part of the Crown's evidence against Wendy-May Connon at the trial for the manslaughter of her son Konrad Truger. It depicts the barrel roll that took the family's car over a fencepost and into a paddock.
The jury found her guilty of Konrad's manslaughter.
A coroner's inquiry later gave the final word on the cause of the crash.
Connon was seen speeding at over 100kmh by another driver shortly before she crashed.
Her speed would have been about 140kmh when she approached the sweeping, right-hand bend.
She lost control at the corner, because of the speed, and the car crossed over on to loose gravel on the other side of the bend.
Connon had tried to correct - right, left, right - and the car's rear began to fish-tail.
She crossed the centreline, slid sideways into a drain wall and the car took flight, barrel rolling over the fenceline to land in the paddock.
Coroner Ian Smithsaid Konrad should have been in the seat the dog was in, because it had a diagonal belt.
Two of the children who were in the car remained in it upon impact, but Konrad's tiny frame slipped through the middle seat lap belt - which remained locked and intact - and he flew out the window.
Konrad died in hospital three days after the crash from brain injuries. As her lawyer decided it was best for her not to give evidence in her own defence at trial, Connon became a silent witness to her own infamy.
"When I read the newspaper reports it was all " 'THC: Didn't buckle in her kids,' " and it was ..." Connon sighs and sings the little ditty from an old McDonald's advert: "Click goes your seatbelt - click, click, click."
"We'd all sing. That's what I can't understand. Why?"
Scott Truger: "I don't hate her, but I hate what she's done."
For Konrad's manslaughter Connon was sentenced to six months' community detention, 200 hours' community work, and two years' intensive supervision.
When it was handed down, Konrad's father Scott Truger called it a "wet towel" of a sentence and said he was disgusted seeing Connon smiling when she heard it. He did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
"I don't hate her but I hate what she has done and how she has behaved throughout this," he said, telling the court how Connon had broken into her home and stolen Konrad's ashes, photos and shrine.
She admits now she did take the ashes - police took them back off her - but explains she did it because she felt desperate to be near her son.
Konrad was part-Maori and would have had a tangi (funeral), Connon says, but her family opted to break custom and had his body cremated for her sake, so she could be part of a service for him when she awoke from her coma.
She says it hurt her when she read in a newspaper about her apparent glee.
"The smiling was when the judge was talking to me and saying Konrad looked like a mischievous little boy."
Justice Joseph Williams summed up the choices she had made that led to her son's death, and told her she had sentenced herself to "a lifetime of guilt, shame and pain: I don't meant to be harsh in the circumstances but it is a sentence you well deserve."
'I'VE GOT TO LIVE WITH THAT PAIN FOREVER'
After the spotlight on her dimmed, Connon resigned herself to a pariah's life.
She began her community detention sentence and hid away from the public shaming. But she quickly fulfilled the judge's prophecy.
On the occasions Connon limped into the tiny Featherston township, some people stopped and asked her how she was doing. Others ignored her.
"Never being able to watch him grow up, never being able to meet his girlfriends, his kids, my grandkids. It's all gone." Photo: KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ
"To wake up and work out all these people who profess to know me, and be my friends … my friend list went from..." she counts down all 10 fingers to one hand. "Down to hardly anything."
She was back in court before she had even finished her home detention sentence, her witness evidence a sidenote to three men's trial for a beating murder of Featherston man Paul Irons in October 2008.
Irons had turned up drunk at her house and danced around with her in his arms even though she was still sore from her crash injuries.
She had cannabis oil with him and scolded her friend when she saw a bloody syringe in his bag. A few hours later he was murdered.
She says she loathed herself so much back then she injected water into her arms, just to feel the pain of her flesh being pierced.
"I went down a very black path," she recalls.
"I spent a long time where I just didn't care about myself. I didn't care if I lived or died and banging a needle into my arm made me feel better because it hurt - it hurt. And nothing could make me feel better than sticking a needle in my arm."
She went to jail for awhile, a judge commenting she had shown a "casual indifference" to the humane sentence she was given over Konrad's death.
It was the birth of her first grandchild and the faith of the people who remained close to her that gave Connon the will to survive.
"I know I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the Salvation Army in Porirua, if it wasn't for Ray and Jocelyn."
Connon still calls her sentencing judge "brilliant."
His estimation that the worst punishment she could receive for Konrad's death would be to live in her own mind was bang on: "He was so right, I've got to live with that pain forever and the fact that I am responsible.
"That is so true. I am responsible for my little boy passing away.
"Never being able to watch him grow up, never being able to meet his girlfriends, his kids, my grandkids. It's all gone.
"It went that day that I decided to go out for a visit."