John Key to tell Chilean president about fugitive killer

Phillip John Smith
Phillip John Smith

Prime Minister John Key says he will advise Chilean President Michelle Bachelet about the fugitive NZ killer Phillip Smith as a matter of courtesy when he holds talks with her tomorrow.

Smith, 40, was imprisoned in 1996 for stabbing to death the father of a boy he molested. He was also convicted of molesting the boy over a three-year period.

Smith fled the country for Chile on Thursday last week - the day he got out of prison on a temporary release.

Phillip John Smith
Phillip John Smith

Key, speaking in Beijing where he is attending the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting, said: "I'll just let her know that someone could be out there from New Zealand she may not want to invite round for lunch."

Smith absconded from Springhill Prison in north Waikato last week.

He used a passport in his birth name of Phillip John Traynor, and was not stopped at the border as his conviction was under his Smith alias.

Key said he was concerned Smith was able to get a passport.

"This is a guy that as I understand it had ... spent a long time serving his sentence and was actually in that final phase of being reintegrated back into the community. It's a sort of odd time to do a runner when you're really getting near the end."

But he admitted he and officials did not know where Smith was and he may not even be in Chile.

He said the Government was asking the agencies involved in allowing Smith to leave the country without being detected to review what took place. People needed to be held to account.

"I have pretty limited information about it," Key said. 

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* 'Dangerous' murderer Phillip John Smith leaves country

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Key did not rule out a higher level investigation, such as a ministerial inquiry, but he said he was not calling for that now.

"It's pretty early days," Key said.

"Prisoners do get reintegrated into the community. Whether all of the control checks were met, whether the information about his absence was notified fast enough, they are all questions that will need to be answered but I don't have those answers today."

The Government would "probably" seek Smith's extradition.

"But I don't even know currently what the extradition treaty looks like between Chile and New Zealand. There's no guarantee he's still in Chile ... I have no idea where he is," Key said.

He is due to hold talks with Bachelet late on Tuesday New Zealand time during the Apec summit.

Authorities are urgently investigating how Smith managed to get a passport while in jail, and flee the country on temporary release. 

"We are now assessing his written application for the potential complicity of other individuals known to Mr Traynor and are actively supporting the New Zealand Police and Corrections in their investigations," the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) said.

"There is no record of his incarceration under his legal name.

"There were no Court orders against his legal name when he was convicted."

Passport applications are checked for Court orders before issue, and there were no grounds to reject his application.

Prisoners do not automatically lose the right to a passport. The Minister of Internal Affairs can decide if they should be issued one.

But a passport is a legal document that must be completed by the applicant themselves.

"It is not clear how Mr Traynor managed to lodge an application while in 2013 whilst still in prison and it is likely he had the assistance of an accomplice," DIA said.

Police Minister Michael Woodhouse said a multi-agency review would take place immediately into the "number of failings" that had allowed a prisoner on temporary release to leave the country.

Locating Smith was the first priority for the police, who were working closely with Chilean authorities to pursue all available avenues to return him to New Zealand, Woodhouse said.

“Right now, our number one priority is ensuring Police work with their international counterparts to trace and re-capture him. 

"The second priority is for departments to urgently look at what went wrong, and where things need to be improved. That work is already under way."

The government was seeking advice on a broader inquiry into the failings that meant Smith was able to leave the country. 

Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga said the situation was "unacceptable" and acknowledged the distress Smith's escape had caused his victims and their families.