Another shock to a quiet town
Fifteen years after Ashburton was thrust into the national spotlight over the violent murder of a young woman, it found itself this week at the centre of a police manhunt again. JOELLE DALLY reports.
For a town still haunted by the unsolved 1998 murder of Kirsty Bentley, 15, the violent killing of 22-year-old mother Sina Solomona last Saturday has served as a reminder that Ashburton is no longer the sleepy retirement town it once was.
Residents say that with the town's fast-growing population they now have to expect things to "blow up" every now and again.
Many townsfolk this week expressed shock and sadness at Solomona's murder, particularly for her family at Christmas.
Bentley disappeared on December 31 while walking her dog on the Ashburton River bank. Her body was found 18 days later.
An arrest within a week of the latest killing was met with relief by residents, as well as shock that the suspect was under age.
Even police working on the investigation appeared not to be expecting such a sudden development.
Investigation head Detective Senior Sergeant John Rae told journalists on Tuesday that police were not expecting an arrest by the end of the week. It was more likely they would rely on forensics.
Two days later, a youth appeared in court charged with murder, and at least two more properties in the town had been searched.
"It came unexpectedly," Rae said of the arrest.
While Solomona's family have shied from media attention this week, memories and expressions of grief have been posted on a tribute page set up on Facebook.
Workmates, friends and family spoke of her being a bright and bubbly young woman and a dedicated mother to her 3-year-old daughter.
Ashburton residents said they felt safer now an arrest had been made, despite police saying they believed Solomona was specifically targeted.
One mother, Michele Strange, said the whole town had been rocked by the killing, particularly because the victim was young.
"It's something that you read about in papers; it doesn't happen here. The fact that it did happen here, it shocks people. It makes you feel not quite so safe," she said.
"We're becoming more like a city. We've been here quite some time now. It's getting larger and larger.
"All sorts of walks of life are coming to Ashburton. We're losing that rural feel."
Rae said Solomona came from a large, extended family.
She lived in her Cass St home with her Samoan mother, her stepfather, two brothers, her twin sister and her sister's partner, and her daughter.
Family and friends will gather today for her funeral at the Baring Square Methodist Church Hall in Ashburton.
Ashburton Mayor Angus McKay said there was a sense of "total relief" in the town after the arrest.
He said the unsolved Bentley murder still came up occasionally in conversation, and the latest murder had brought up some of the "wondering" again.