What happened to Kathleen Kawana?

The body of Porirua woman Kathleen Kawana was found in a vacant property near Ruatoria on Saturday, August 3. Her death is being treated as "unexplained" by police.
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The body of Porirua woman Kathleen Kawana was found in a vacant property near Ruatoria on Saturday, August 3. Her death is being treated as "unexplained" by police.

It's been more than a decade since 6-year-old Iriaka Kawana was killed when a branch of a gum tree at a Flaxmere park fell on her as she played with friends.

Now, Iriaka's mother Kathleen Kawana is being farewelled about 10 minutes' drive from where her daughter's tangi was held.

The Porirua woman's body was found 12 days ago in a vacant property south of Ruatoria on the North Island's East Coast on August 3.

Police are trying to piece together her movements between Porirua and Ruatoria before she was found and on Thursday said investigations were continuing in both Hawke's Bay and Titahi Bay. 

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Police believe Kawana, 46, had been at the property  for "some time", but for how long, they haven't said.

Iriaka Kawana was playing in a gum tree at a Flaxmere Park when she was died in 2005.
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Iriaka Kawana was playing in a gum tree at a Flaxmere Park when she was died in 2005.

What police have confirmed is the Waiapu Rd property - where the closest neighbours are more than 200 metres away - had been unoccupied for "some time".

Ngarimu Parata, who visited the house in April, purchased the 1950s weatherboard home on a 6000 square-metre section from family members on Thursday, August 1.

Two days later, Parata and his father went to survey the property where they made a grisly discovery in the lounge

Unprepared for what he had found, Parata and his father went outside and phoned 111, triggering a police investigation.

"I'm a volunteer firefighter and I've seen a few things, but nothing really prepares you for something like this," Parata said.

A week-and-a-half on and with the results of an autopsy in hand, Kawana's death is still being treated by authorities as "unexplained".

Iriaka Kawana, 6, died after the tree branch she was swinging on snapped and crushed her to death.
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Iriaka Kawana, 6, died after the tree branch she was swinging on snapped and crushed her to death.

Kawana's last registered address was in Cannon's Creek, Porirua, in 2017. Attempts to reach other family members in Porirua have failed to shed any light on Kawana's life.

Questions over how the Porirua woman came to be in Ruatoria and how long she had been at the property remain unanswered.

One thing was known was that Kawana was no stranger to tragedy.

In March 2005, her daughter Iriaka was crushed to death by a branch from a 35-year-old gum tree she was climbing on in Flaxmere's Lochain Park.

She was one of five children, aged six to 11, playing in the tree, with two children bouncing up and down on a six-metre-long branch with Iriaka hanging underneath it.

The branch broke, pinning Iriaka to the ground. The others fell, but only sustained minor injuries.

The children tried desperately to lift the massive branch off, but it was too heavy. The first adults arrived 15 minutes later - it took three of them to lift the branch off the bubbly Irongrate Primary School pupil.

At the inquest into Iriaka's death, Kawana said there was no way of stopping her playful child wanting to climb trees in the park.

The Ruatoria house where Kathleen Kawana was found has been empty for "some years", police say.
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The Ruatoria house where Kathleen Kawana was found has been empty for "some years", police say.

"She would just go and play with the kids."

Iriaka's grandfather Peter Ratana said the tragedy happened just as his son Shane and Kawana were coming to a good point in their lives.

"[Iriaka] was one of those girls who got in your face, saying 'hey, I'm here, take notice of me' ... I am going to miss my granddaughter," Ratana said.

In his findings issued in December 2007, Hastings Coroner Peter Dennehy said the tragedy could have easily claimed more lives.

"There is always safety in numbers as was the case here, but it is not sensible to leave unsupervised (by an adult) any number of young children in the vicinity of potential danger," Dennehy said.

The coroner's report, released by the Ministry of Justice, showed Hastings District Council had no knowledge of any signs of weakness in the branch, but the type of tree did suffer from a phenomenon known as "summer branch drop" which "may well have contributed".

Iriaka's tangi was held at Korongata Marae in Bridge Pa, about 10 minutes' drive from Te Aranga Marae - the venue for her mother's farewell.

* If you can help, please call Gisborne Police on 06 869 0200. Information can also be provided anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111

The Dominion Post