Kenya crash cover-up

Last updated 09:10 31/01/2013
The group from Tauranga's Bethlehem College who travelled to Kenya. Caitlin Dickson (front, centre) and Dr Brian and Grace Johnston (back row, centre) were killed in a minivan crash.
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The group from Tauranga's Bethlehem College who travelled to Kenya. Caitlin Dickson (front, centre) and Dr Brian and Grace Johnston (back row, centre) were killed in a minivan crash.

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OPINION: It is hard not to feel sorry for David Fellows, the New Zealander who - it has now been revealed - was driving a van which crashed in Kenya, killing four people.

Fellows, just 18 years old, was in Kenya on a charity mission organised by Tauranga's Bethlehem College and there is no suggestion that the January 16 van crash was anything but a tragic accident. He is, in the words of Bethlehem College principal Eoin Crosbie, carrying a "terrible burden" right now.

The crash killed three New Zealanders - Tauranga doctor Brian Johnston, his wife Grace, and 19-year-old Caitlin Dickson - and a Kenyan man, Christopher Mmata, who for nearly two weeks had been reported to be the driver of the van.

Crosbie has now revealed that Mmata and Fellows swapped seats shortly before the accident, and he "could only surmise" that this information was kept quiet to allow Fellows to leave Kenya. It appears that the 16 surviving members of the Bethlehem College group, who were in Kenya building classrooms in a village north- east of Nairobi, suppressed the truth until they were safely back in New Zealand.

This is extremely unfortunate. The college board of trustees has started an inquiry to ascertain the full facts of the matter, but at first glance it is hard not to assume that a deliberate attempt was made to evade Kenyan justice. It looks, in fact, like there has been a cover-up.

To be fair to Fellows, he assumed responsibility after the crash but a Kenyan liaison officer for the group, Calvin Ominde, who was on the scene very soon after the accident, seems to have persuaded him to keep quiet.

The immediate consequences had Fellows told the truth are uncertain. Had he been charged, his case would have joined the backlog of an underfunded and understaffed Kenyan court system and there is no telling how long it would have taken to be heard. Had he been required to spend any time in custody, even on remand, he would have had to endure grossly overcrowded conditions well below New Zealand standards. A tough new law in Kenya, aimed at curbing a road toll exceeding 3000 deaths a year, has just imposed stiffer sentences for traffic offences, up to life imprisonment for people convicted of reckless driving causing death.

This context puts a frightening slant on the predicament the Bethlehem College group found themselves in at a time when they were already traumatised by the deaths of their friends. Given the chance to escape home to the safety and security of New Zealand, just by saying nothing, what would any of us have done? These were largely young people still in their teens.

But imagine the uproar if a group of foreign students had been involved in a quadruple- deaths accident in New Zealand and then lied about who was sitting where in the vehicle, to allow everyone to leave the country before charges could be laid.

Bethlehem College has now acted correctly in commissioning the inquiry, to be conducted by a private investigator. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also become involved and the Kenyan police informed through Interpol, and this process needs to take its course. The group were wrong to keep quiet and their conspiracy of silence has added shame to the tragedy suffered by the victims' families, but let's remember these young people went to Kenya to help others, and still deserve sympathy for their ordeal.

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