14 Jul Tourist driver walks from fatal charges after own investigation
An investigation carried out by the lawyer of a young American charged over two car crash deaths cast so much doubt on the police investigation the case was tossed out of court.
It also means family of the young men killed – Yvarn Manaia Tepania, 24, and James Alexander Hamiora, 26 – may never have the answers to a crash which has come to haunt their lives.
Reiss Berger, 22, was facing charges for multiple driving offences – including two charges of aggravated careless driving causing death – after the crash south of Kerikeri in April last year.
Berger had arrived in New Zealand on the day of the crash from Melbourne, where he was attending university, to reunite with girlfriend Dita Cavdarbasha, who had been attending the University of Auckland.
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The pair rented a car and headed north, colliding with the car driven by Tepania just after 11pm. Police laid the charges after saying publicly Berger was on the wrong side of the road.
Berger pleaded not guilty when he appeared in Kaikohe District Court, supported by his father, an attorney from New Jersey, and Cavdarbasha, clearly suffering injuries from the accident. She was one of those over which Berger was charged.
The Herald has learned the prosecution ended in late May after Kerikeri lawyer Mike Dodds presented the court with his own investigation, which included inquiries made by former police detective and Northland MP Mike Sabin.
Dodd said the charges were dismissed on the basis that the police case, at its strongest, would find no basis to convict.
“The driver [of the other vehicle] was arguing with the front seat passenger and shortly before the crash, had swerved into the incorrect lane, narrowly missing an oncoming vehicle.
“The court had evidence that the other driver drove straight at Mr Berger’s vehicle on the wrong side of the road before one of the passengers grabbed the steering wheel and pulled the other car back onto its correct side of the road.”
He said Berger, confronted by an oncoming car in his lane, took evasive action to avoid the collision. As he did so, the other vehicle crossed back to its own side of the road, leading to the crash.
There was also evidence Tepania had been drinking and had used methamphetamine.
Through Dodd, Berger offered thanks to traffic investigator Paul Bass who had assessed the evidence and found “Mr Berger’s account of events could not be excluded”.
Berger also offered thanks to Sabin, whose investigation, said Dodd, “uncovered the full truth of what occurred in the accident which clearly demonstrated Mr Berger’s innocence”.
Dodd said the Berger family grieved the deaths of Hamiora and Tepania. “The American and Matauri Bay whanau now share a lifelong bond forged under the most unfortunate and tragic of circumstances.”
The change in events stunned whānau of Hamiora and Tepania, learning only of the new evidence as the case was preparing to go to trial.
Dannie Samuels-Thomas, Hamiora’s sister, said there had been a restorative hui for whānau at Matauri Bay to which Berger had been invited and attended. “We had so many young people who were so hurt.”
She said the outcome of the hui was for whānau to view the crash as an accident and to support a discharge without conviction, if Berger was to “accept ownership” with guilty pleas.
The meeting, which saw whānau speaking emotionally and strongly about the impact of the loss, was “intense”.
No change in plea came and the whānau of the dead men – who each had three children – were relying on the court case to provide answers as to how they had died.
Instead, there was no trial. The defence case produced an alternate investigation which cast doubt on the police case, including testimony from one of the surviving passengers which contradicted an earlier statement given to police.
“They had a bigger team than the police. They had their own crash unit,”
She said it felt as if the significant resources of the wealthy American family had seen the state out-manoeuvred.
“Us, as family, who had lost our loved ones, how do you process and comprehend that. It doesn’t fit anywhere.”
She said she was offering her personal view and the wider whānau had yet to come together to discuss the end of the case.
“We just have to find a way to start healing. To have no answers – it’s certainly made it all a lot harder.”
A spokesman for police said there were still aspects of the case before the court raised by Berger’s lawyer and no comment would be made until those were resolved.