Case 4: Delcelia Witika

MANGERE, AUCKLAND. On the 21st of March 1991, Martin Smith, an ambulance officer was responding to a call about a dead child at an address in Mangere. When he entered the property he found an emaciated two year old girl in the fetal position. She was lying on a filthy, blood covered mattress. The child had extreme scarring on her body appearing to be burns. Similar burns were on her hands and feet with deep bruising covering the remainder of her body. The girl was unresponsive, when Smith knelt down to check her pulse, he discovered she was dead. 

Visit www.truecrimenz.com for additional information on this case. Including a transcript of this episode, with supporting pictures, sources, and credits.

Hosted by Jessica Rust
Written and edited by Sirius Rust

“Bittersweet”, “Clean Soul”, “Darkest Child”, “Day of Chaos”, “Dreams Become Real”, “Long note One”, “Metaphysik”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but I make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.

On the 21st of March 1991, Martin Smith, an ambulance officer was responding to a call about a dead child at an address in Mangere. When he entered the property he found an emaciated two year old girl in the fetal position. She was lying on a filthy, blood covered mattress. The child had extreme scarring on her body appearing to be burns. Similar burns were on her hands and feet with deep bruising covering the remainder of her body. The girl was unresponsive, when Smith knelt down to check her pulse, he discovered she was dead. 

INTRODUCTION

Delcelia Witikia or Delcie was born to her mother Tania Witika and her father Peter Lafaele (La-fa-elle) on December 1988 in Northland, New Zealand. This is where Delcie enjoyed the first months of her life. Tania was only nineteen at the time, Peter, only seventeen. It would seem that the strain of having a newborn was tough for the young couple. Slowly the relationship began to show cracks and after nine months the relationship was over. This is when Tania and Delcie moved to Mangere, South Auckland in 1989. 

MOVING TO MANGERE

It was this same year in June 1989 that Tania Witika first met twenty eight year old Edward George Smith or Eddie as he was known. They met in a South Auckland bar. They seemed to hit it off right away. Friends, as well as Tania noting they had great chemistry together and they entered a relationship. 

Fig 1. Delcelia Witika

Soon, after meeting Smith, Tania and baby Delcie moved into Smith’s house in Mangere. It was not long after this Smith’s physical abuse of Tania started. In fact it was within the first two weeks of them meeting. Tania detailed some of these incidents in her diary. Smith’s violent drunken outbursts were pretty common for Tania, as she enjoyed drinking alcohol as well these incidents would commonly escalate into violent beatings or in Tania’s words Smith would “knock her around”. She also mentioned that belts were commonly used in these beatings. Yet, in that same diary Witikia would extensively describe how much she enjoyed life with Smith. She described a life with Smith of drinking a lot of alcohol, going to a lot parties and having a lot of sex. In an entry dated February 4th 1991, she wrote “Sex with Eddie is great. Sometimes I have to control myself, especially if we are in bed together enjoying each other’s company. With him I can reach a fantastic orgasm that I could never, or even thought of reaching”. 

ABUSE

At some point, the abuse moved on to Delcelia. Tania Witikia’s diary detailed some of her own abuse against her daughter Delcie. “I hit Delc really bad yesterday and it gave me a real fright and that’s when I knew I had to stop hitting her. Not for my sake but for hers.” She added in to this thought in another entry “I’m really happy with myself, cause I am learning to control my anger and that’s good, cause I’m not hitting Delc out of anger and I don’t want to any more either, only for a good reason.”

What the diary was Illusive about and did not reference, was Tania’s new boyfriend Eddie Smith was the principal abuser of her daughter. He would beat, burn and torture Delcelia. When the beatings ceased, evidence suggests, the couple would return to neglecting the child. Delcie’s room purportedly only consisted of a mattress covered in plastic. No sheets, no blankets, no pillows.

This abuse continued to escalate for the rest of 1990 and continued into 1991. Peter Lafaele, Delcelia’s biological father said that when Delcie would come stay with him in the months leading up to her death. Lafaele noted a change in her. “Whenever I used to get up and walk, her eyes were locked on to me; if I raised my voice, she would cling on to my mother.”  

Something that isn’t mentioned in Witika’s diary, and something Tania, based on her actions later, may have never known about. Eddie Smith was also sexually abusing Delcelia. Keep in mind Eddie met Delcie when she was only seven months old.  This sexual abuse was described as methodical and evidently happened on an almost daily basis.

On the night of the 21st of March 1991 Eddie Smith and Tania Witika went to a party. Delcie was left at home, alone. When the couple arrived back to their Mangere home later that night, they found an unresponsive Delcelia, she was lifeless. 

POLICE INVESTIGATION

Tania walked down to the local video store. Witika asked if she could use the phone and she dialed 111. She asked for an ambulance. She claimed she had just come home from ‘a couple of hours’ out and she has found her daughter in this state, dead. Tania was calm and collected while on the phone and was described as very ‘matter of fact’

Martin Smith was the ambulance driver that responded to the call. Upon entering the property he found the burnt, bruised body of two year old Delcelia Witikia lying dead on a plastic covered mattress in her room. Before calling for the attendance of the police. Smith asked Eddie how the victim got the burns. To which Eddie replied that she had fallen into a hot bath “4 to 5 weeks earlier”. Although, he had failed to take her to the hospital for this incident. Martin Smith contacted the police and they arrived shortly after. Police got started right away gathering evidence at the crime scene. Delcelia’s blood was splattered on walls and carpets covering a sizable amount of the house. Vomit had dripped down the skirting board where Delcelia was sick during her final night alive. Underneath Delcie’s remains on the mattress she slept on was a large pool of blood, faeces and urine. 

When police analysed Delcelia’s body, they found it to be covered in deep bruising. One detective said based on the injuries and evidence gathered that Delcie was used as a punching bag. Some of her teeth had been smashed out and the inside of her top lip ripped from the gum. She also had a broken jaw, presumably from the same attack. Delcie had scarring to her head where her hair has been violently pulled over several months. She was also suffering from severe malnutrition from months of neglect. The burns she was inflicted with covered 15 percent of her body and bruises covered the majority of the rest. There was also vicious injuries under Delcilia’s chin and neck. This was determined to be caused by long fingernails, presumably female. The pathologist later concluded that Delcelia had also been subjected to prolonged and chronic sexual abuse. A doctor who examined Decelia described her injuries as being close to 10 on a severity scale from 0–10. 

It was determined that the cause of death was peritonitis produced by repeated blows to the abdomen, which ruptured Delcie’s intestine. Peritonitis is caused by bacterial infection causing an inflammation of the peritoneum; the peritoneum is a large membrane in the abdominal cavity that connects and supports many vital internal organs such as the liver and stomach. Left untreated, peritonitis rapidly spreads into the blood and to other organs, resulting in multiple organ failure and then eventually death. 

ARRESTS

Outside Tania Witika sat in a patrol car with Detective Constable Caroline Fisher while the police analyzed the house, Tania asked the Detective for the cigarette. Constable Fisher says she will never forget how little emotion Tania showed. Fisher claimed Witika was composed and calm during this process. 

Initially Tania told police that she was responsible alone for beating Delcelia. This was actually backed up by Smith who also blamed her. But when Witika found out that Delcie’s injuries included massive sexual abuse, she changed her story claiming Smith was responsible for the most serious injuries. 

In 1991, Police laid charges against Tania Witika and Eddie Smith. Those charges were, one count of willfully ill-treating Delcelia between July and October 1990 in a manner likely to cause her unnecessary suffering; one count of failing to provide medical care for the burns so that Delcelia’s life was endangered; one count of willfully ill-treating Delcelia by placing her in hot water; one count of murder; and one count of manslaughter. 

While Eddie Smith was on remand before the trial. Delcelia’s biological father Peter Lafaele beat up a man and stole his car. He was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for the aggravated robbery. Lafaele later claimed he had done this on purpose to he get inside the prison and get revenge on the man who killed his daughter Eddie Smith. Lafaele claimed to almost succeed as well saying in 2004 “I nearly got him too – I missed him by two feet. He was about to hop into the same paddy wagon as I was in but then the head screw came and told them not to do that.”

TRIAL

The trial commenced in 1992. The judge presiding over the case called it one of the most disturbing cases of child abuse to come before the High Court  “a case of wicked child abuse [in which Delcelia was] subjected to violence and brutality of almost incomprehensible cruelty and was neglected appallingly”. The police photographs detailing the extent of the abuse and the horror aftermath of Delcelia’s small, tortured remains in her dilapidated bedroom have been characterized as some of the most harrowing, gut-wrenching evidence ever presented to a jury in New Zealand

Eddie Smith pleaded guilty to the first three charges, although pled not guilty to murder and manslaughter. 

Tania Witika pleaded not guilty to all charges claiming she was not responsible for her actions due to ‘battered-woman’s-syndrome’, claiming that Smith would beat her whenever she tried to help Delcelia. “I just can’t explain it eh.. I know everybody will be pointing and saying you know why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that, but you know if they lived in this house, behind closed doors, when we got back here nobody knew what went on behind closed doors”. 

Tania Witika’s defense of battered-women’s-syndrome was rejected by the judge “… it is quite clear that there were substantial periods during which Smith was not present and Witika had opportunities to seek assistance and secure medical care for her child and otherwise bring an end to her ill-treatment. While those periods continued she failed in her duty. Her situation was no different from that of a person who has an opportunity to escape and avoid committing acts under threat of death or serious injury… The position of battered women indeed calls for sympathy but there can be no justification for broadening the grounds on which the law should provide excuses for child abuse.”

When Detective Fisher, who had sat with Tania the night of Delcelia’s death, was asked about Witika’s ‘battered-women’s-syndrome’ defence. Fisher replied with “Those gouges under Delcelia’s chin were made by a woman. Sure Eddie hit Tania but she had ample opportunities to get away from him. She stayed and did nothing for Delcelia. Look, her diary even moans about him not wanting sex with her. Eddie got what he deserved but so did Tania”. 

During the trial, Tania claimed that the only reason she had gone partying with Smith on the 21st of March 1991, the night of Delcie’s death was because Smith threatened to ‘waste her’ with a steel pipe if she did not accompany him. She also claimed that on the commute to the party Eddie Smith held a knife to her throat threatening to kill her. But on the final day of the trial barrister Christopher Harder, representing Eddie, was given a home video of that party. 

The crown prosecutor Mike Ruffin screened the tape on the morning of the final addresses to the jury. The video in question seemed to contradict the evidence given by Tania earlier as in the video she appeared happy, smiling and enjoying herself with Smith. 

Witika and Smith were both found guilty of manslaughter and the other counts of neglect and ill treatment of a child. Both were sentenced to 16 years in prison.

EDDIE SMITH

Eddie Smith was released in September 2002 from prison. He served approximately 2/3s of his 16 year sentence, 10 years. Peter Lafaele; Delcelia’s biological father was still full of anger and frustration at what happened to his daughter. This was compounded when Lafaele discovered in 2004 that Smith had been released on parole two years earlier without anyone even notifying him. “I was outraged…there was no feeling that can express how angry I was. He was pretty much 15 minutes away…and I’ve got a lot of friends and family that work that way… it was lucky I didn’t bang into the fellah. I want him locked up for the rest of life because … I know what I’m capable of. That’s not a threat or anything, it’s just that it wasn’t just a car accident – he tortured her to death. It’s wrecked me. Every time I build my life up, this gets dropped … I’ve picked myself up about four times in the past 14 years.” 

He concluded by saying If he sees Smith on the street, he would be prepared for anything. A spokesman for the parole board said “for someone to be told about probation of inmates, he or she had to be registered as a victim through the police. In this case, no victims were registered”. 

Eddie Smith moved back to Auckland. He lived with family in the South Auckland suburb of Manurewa. He was under the supervision of a probation officer for 12 months and was obliged to undergo psychological, alcohol and drug counselling. 

Smith used different names to disguise his past. He found work as a driver. Using an alias his employer knew nothing of his history. A source familiar with Smith’s case said the fact that he was able to use fake names to hide his identity was a serious concern. “He gets let out into the public and no one has to tell his employers that he has changed his name and what his background is?”

In June 2004, a Penrose business linked to Smith’s sister was damaged by fire. Smith was charged with arson in August of the same year.  It was at this time the Crown applied to have Eddie Smith serve the rest of his 16 year sentence for manslaughter. Smith was granted bail for the Arson charge but because of the recall bid he was not released. He was then held in jail over the weekend but because Smith was sentenced under old laws that have since seen changes to the way parole and recall works, it was found unlawful to keep Smith in custody. 

Katrina Casey, the general manager of probation and offender services for the Corrections Department explains “As Mr Smith was sentenced before 1993, he could not be recalled because the two-thirds date of his sentence had passed. Had he been sentenced after new legislation took effect in 1993, he would have been liable to be recalled now. Further legislation changes made in 2002 mean that he could have been held in prison beyond two-thirds of his sentence.” She added that staff acted in good faith and as soon as they became aware of the situation, they moved quickly to withdraw the application and have him released. 

Peter Lafaele continued to be upset that Smith was still free. He was quoted as saying “Someone needs to be shot, don’t they? But on one hand I’m quite happy because I’m going to go and look for [him] now. What good is he to society?”

TANIA WITIKIA

Fig 2. Tania Witikia, appearing in court

Tania Witikia served her sentence at the Christchurch Women’s Prison. On May 10 1998, a documentary aired on TV3 called ‘Deadly Love – the Tania Witika Story’. This was a sympathetic look at Tania’s life. The documentary portrays Tania Witika as a victim of battered women’s syndrome, and therefore not responsible for her actions.  As Professor Jane Ritchie of Waikato University writes in her essay ‘Women’s Violence to Children’ “I started to watch the documentary with a decidedly negative attitude to Tania; by the end of the programme I had changed my mind and felt that a sixteen year sentence was far too long for a woman who clearly had been brutalised herself by a very violent man… If there was increased awareness of battered women’s syndrome and its effects within the judicial system, it had not at that time spread to the wider community… until women are empowered to remove themselves and their children from the violent men in their lives, child abuse will continue. Children must be protected from the violence meted out to them by their caregivers, and the women who care for children must be protected from the violence of male partners. This will, in turn, contribute to a safer environment for their children.”

Tania Witika was released from prison in September 2002, under much controversy. Witikia was given special permission to have a chauffeur-driven stretch limousine to drive up to the prison doors and collect Witika along with a friend of hers that was also being released. The other released inmates had to carry their possessions the usual 400m to the main gates and car park. This act drew some ire from other inmates and the public that someone convicted of killing her two year old daughter was being given special treatment. 

Frank Hogan, Tania’s lawyer had this to say about her release “I’ve kept in touch with her over the past ten years, spoken to her, visited her, and she appears one happy woman this evening”. He also claimed that 10 years was a long time and Tania was now a very different woman and she was determined to contribute to society. Ending with “All she asks is that she be given the opportunity to get on with her life”

While in prison Tania kept a garden. Using these skills she actually procured a job working at a plant nursery upon her release. In 2003, Tania was in more controversy when she revealed plans to become a social worker; specifically a social worker that would work with children. Although it is unclear whether she ever went through with these plans. 

In 2006, Tania married Douglas Hopping in Christchurch. She changed her name to Tania Gaye Hopping and by 2009 Tania had more news to shock the nation. She was pregnant again. 

Child, Youth and Family or CYFs as they are known, took custody of Tania’s unborn child upon discovering she was pregnant. On the 27th of January 2009, Tania gave birth to the child, a new daughter. Details are scarce as CYFs declined to talk or comment about individual cases for privacy reasons but clarified that the mother and baby were under 24 hour supervision since the birth. It was also understood that the plan was for the baby to go home in the next few days with her father, Witika’s new husband, and for CYF social workers to then supervise daily visits. Witika would then have to undergo psychological assessment and attend a parenting course to prove to CYFs that she is a fit parent.

Tania described in 2014 how the parenting course she attended turned her life around. She claimed to have no idea of basic parenting before attending the course. “I brought a baby into the world but I still had no idea how to raise her, how to change her, how to feed her properly….I had no idea at the time Del-C was born that when she cried it meant she was wet or hungry.” 

By 2014, Tania’s new daughter was five years old. Contact with her daughter was still accessed through and is limited by CYFs. She was allowed to pick her daughter up after school and she could stay overnight with Tania once a fortnight. Tania said she could understand the reasons for the supervision but added that she had never given CYFs any reasons for concern with her new daughter. 

In October 2016 Tania Witikia, now known as Tania Hopping was in trouble with the law once more. Tania clubbed her husband on the head with a vacuum cleaner pipe during what was described by Judge Raoul Neave as ‘a heated discussion about the state of [their] marriage’. Although Tania’s husband Douglas said that he had not wanted the matter to go any further after he was patched up. The injury was severe enough that he required four stitches at the hospital. Tania was charged with assault with a weapon. She pleaded guilty.

In December of the same year, Tania appeared in the Christchurch District Court for sentencing. For support, her husband joined her. Tania’s defence counsel told the court that Tania had taken positive steps to move forward and had immediately accepted responsibility for the assault on her husband. “She has done a very good job of self-rehabilitation after the serious matters of the 1990s. She puts a lot of that down to her husband who is supporting her in court, and the good work done by the church”. The Judge agreed and added “Given the support from your husband, it is probably proper to regard this as a one-off incident at a time of great stress, one can only hope it will not be repeated”

The pre-sentence report and court outcome all suggest that Tania Hopping was now considered a low-risk offender due to the positive steps she had taken getting her life back on track. Tania was about to be granted bail when she refused to acknowledge Judge Michael Crosbie. She even turned her head away from the Judge while he was confirming her bail conditions. Tania wouldn’t speak. “Every defendant needs to acknowledge to the judge what their bail conditions are.’’ Judge Crosbie said impatiently. Tania was then held in custody for 90 minutes until she was willing to speak with Judge Crosbie. 

Tania was then recalled back to court at which time she apologised to Judge Crosbie and said she was just ‘frozen’ and it was not meant as a sign of disrespect. Tania then acknowledged the bail conditions, one of which was that she could not threaten her husband with any form of violence. Tania was granted bail on December 19th 2016.  

CONCLUSION

The barbaric nature of the crimes in 1991 shook the nation and still have ripples throughout society today. New Zealand was shocked and moved by hearing the horrors of the case in contrast to the sweet beautiful image of Delcie that was circulated. The nation tried to make sense of such heinous acts. Aotereoa came together in grieving. 

Fig 3. Delcelia Witika Song by Tom and Ben

Ultimately, even with time, this crime is hard to digest. The story of Delcelia Witikia is still to this day considered to be one of the most extreme cases of child abuse in New Zealand history. If Delcelia Witikia was still alive today she would be celebrating her 31st birthday at the end of 2019

POSTSCRIPT

This is usually where I would have sources but this was the first script I had written for True Crime New Zealand, being the amateur I was at the time, I did not save any of the sources. 

This is something I have learnt from but it leaves us in this unfortunate predicament but it is something I wanted to address. Crediting my sources is important to me. The work I do can only be done with the hard work of all the people before me. Those journalists deserve much credit. 

Although, I have added the sources I referenced when I did the rewrite.

SOURCES

Articles
TVNZ, Tania Witika begins new life, http://tvnz.co.nz/content/129274/2556418/article.html
NZ Herald, Child-killer back in jail after parole, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3599019

Papers
Ritche, J. Commentary: Women’s violence to children, sourced from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/29198729.pdf

Midson, B. The Helpless Protecting The Vulnerable? Defending Coerced Mothers Charged With Failure To Protect, sourced from http://www.austlii.edu.au/nz/journals/VUWLawRw/2014/12.pdf

Videos
Delcelia Witika Song Tom and Ben, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4DGsECcE1s

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