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‘Seventeen days of hell’: Police piece together past 3 weeks after missing Marokopa family returns home

A father who went missing for almost three weeks with his three children appears to have had a thorough plan to go bush, say locals – but the children were oblivious to the drama surrounding them over the past month.

Tom Phillips walked through the front door of a Marokopa home at 8am yesterday morning – into the arms of his sister and a flood of tears. He and his three children – Jayda Jin, 8, Maverick, 6, and Ember, 5 – had not been seen since September 11 after his ute was found on a nearby beach, facing out to sea.

The children were all safe and happy – but it was not clear they even knew they had been the subject of a massive search effort over the past three weeks, said police.

Otorohanga Mayor Max Baxter said there was an “overwhelming sense of relief”. He said he was pleased the three children were safe and sound, but Tom did have a lot of questions to answer.

“There will be mixed emotions on behalf of the family, there’s no question. As the communities will have the same mixed emotions. But at the end of the day there will be an overwhelming sense of relief that the kids are safe and sound.”

Baxter told RNZ it had been an extensive search and he commended police for following through on the missing family.

He said he didn’t know where the father and children had been, but he was “of the understanding, it is well thought through prior to going bush”.

Phillips’ sister Rozzi Pethybridge told Newshub he “just walked in the door”.

“As Dad said, ‘I just hope he walks in,’ and he has. This is the best-case scenario,” said Pethybridge.

“I talked to him for about two minutes and there were lots of tears. I want to be respectful of Tom’s wishes so I can’t say too much at the moment, but Tom was in a helpless place – he chose a safe place to clear his head.”

Police are now trying to piece together the last 17 days and the movements of the family.

Police and emergency services – as well as hundreds of locals and volunteers – spent days searching for the family in the area of Kiritehere and Marokopa.

Inspector Will Loughrin, Waikato West Area Commander said the wider family had “experienced 17 days of hell”.

“To happen this way, is fantastic for the family. This is a family that experienced 17 days of hell, really.”

Loughrin confirmed Phillips and his children were well and receiving appropriate support.

It wasn’t even clear if the kids understood what had happened.

“My colleagues have said the kids are happy,” Loughlin added. “They’re playing like children do. Our main priority for them is that they’re safe and well.”

Mayor of the Waitomo District Council, which encompasses Marokopa, John Robertson agreed with Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan the result was “unreal”.

“After three weeks, all the sort of emotions you go through of all those initial days of hope. We knew he was a good bushman … most thought he’d gone to the bush.

“And then, you know, the search changed over the days. And now – wow. Most of us thought we would never see (this).”

He said he knew the area where his ute was found. “It’s pristine bush. It’s dense bush.”

It would be difficult to find someone there, he said.

“You really have to know it, but I guess he is a bushman and he would know the area well.

“I guess he could live with a tent, though I don’t know the details of how long he was in the bush or where he was.

“That’s another mystery on this. Three weeks is a lot of time for kids to be with him and survive all that.”

Did he go into the bush to clear his head, the mayor was asked.

“Look, I don’t want to get into any stories about what might have been going on in his personal life, and I don’t know. There’s various stories around but I wouldn’t repeat them.”

The last the mayor knew, Phillips was being interviewed by police.

Will there be grumpiness about the effort that went into finding them? “There were huge efforts but I think the relief in finding them and joy that the kids are alive and well leaves all those sorts of emotions of all the work that was done …

“I think everyone will just be overjoyed we had a great outcome.”

Family members, including the three children’s grandparents, were still processing what happened and trying to support one another, Loughrin said.

However, they were “ecstatic” that the family has returned. “We always held out hope that we’d be able to bring the family home alive.”

A member of the public contacted police after sighting a man and three children on a bike early on Wednesday morning.

Police deployed a fixed-wing plane and drones to the area but the family were not found straight away.

All huts and bush areas were searched – but to no avail. After these extensive searches, Phillips and the three children turned up at the farm.

“We are in the early stages and working through what has occurred,” Loughrin said.

Police were speaking with Phillips and the family to establish all the facts about what has occurred.

But it was too soon to know how Phillips and the three children survived so long in the bush, he said.

“They were using a tent. They were in dense bush area.”

It was still unknown exactly how the four got around the remote, forested areas, and whether anybody else assisted Phillips.

Since their disappearance the local community, police and iwi searched for the familyextensively.

“If you’ve been out there, that’s dense bush area, a significant amount of area we had to cover.”

Police searched an area 15km south of where the ute was found.

“We have been greatly supported, I can’t speak highly enough of the support we’ve had.”

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