‘A totally unnecessary way to die’

Sophia Crestani’s parents Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan walk towards the Dunedin courthouse...
Sophia Crestani’s parents Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan walk towards the Dunedin courthouse for the first day of the inquest into their daughter’s death yesterday. A photo of Miss Crestani was prominently displayed at the front of the courtroom. PHOTOS: STEPHEN JAQUIERY & GREGOR RICHARDSON/MONTAGE: ODT ARTIST

A tenant at the Dunedin flat where Sophia Crestani died says he did not put any effort into guest safety.

Coroner Heather McKenzie’s inquest into the 19-year-old’s death began today at Dunedin.

Miss Crestani died in a stairwell pile-up in 2019 at an overcrowded flat party dubbed “Maggot Fest”.

Since then, her parents -  Elspeth McMillan and Bede Crestani  - have advocated for safe student behaviour in Dunedin.

A tenant gave evidence that party-goers at the flat known as “The Manor” were “packed in like sardines”.

“I didn't think to do anything, I was pretty drunk,” he said.

“Did you put any effort into guest safety?” Mr Crestani asked.

“Not really. Looking back at it, no,” the witness replied.

“It obviously wasn't enough… we didn't do a very good job of it,” he said.

Mr Crestani asked why the tenants chose to continue hosting parties despite a large number of excessive noise directions and a letter from the University of Otago Proctor that expressed concern about the large number of people that had been attending flat parties.

“It appears you chose to ignore it all and carry on,” Mr Crestani said.

“I suppose you could say that, yeah,” the witness replied.

The witness explained some internal doors were boarded up and adhesive plastic was on the floor in an attempt to prevent damage to the house.

He accepted the plastic may have made it difficult for people on the stairs to stay standing.

The court heard that in May 2019 the Dunedin City Council sent a letter to the landlord of “The Manor” which raised concerns about the number of noise complaints and overcrowding.

By September 2019, the council had received 13 noise complaints and issued six excessive noise directions to “The Manor”.

Mr Crestani said statistics about noise complaints were the only indicator of anti-social behaviour at flats and parties.

“It is the only measure that seems to be available to indicate behaviour that’s dangerous,” he said.

Mr Crestani said there was a “lack of proactiveness” from the council when it came to noisy parties in Dunedin.

Council employee Carlo Bell said checking in on parties was “a complaint-driven process”.

“It would be too resource heavy to roam all areas to try to find noise,” Mr Bell said.

He said there was no rule about when an abatement order could be issued on a residential house.

“There's no recognised guidance on this which does make things a little bit challenging,” the witness said.

“An abatement notice won't necessarily stop people [from] having parties. . . they just keep the noise down a bit more.”

He said the council had limited resources other than an excessive noise direction, ceasing equipment or an abatement notice.

"The improvement needs to be a change in law, I would think,” Mr Bell said.

He said there was nothing the DCC could do to stop overcrowding, other than call the police.

Students gather outside the flat where Sophie Crestani (inset) died in 2019.
Students gather outside the flat where Sophie Crestani (inset) died in 2019.

“We don't have any jurisdiction or powers for overcrowding in residential properties,” the witness said.

Mr Bell said the council also did not have the power to take anyone to the Tenancy Tribunal.

Deputy Proctor Geoff Burns said "The Manor" was “no more, or less on the radar. . . for noise complaints or behavioural issues”.

He said the flat had received “a level above” the usual advice and education surrounding party safety.

Mr Burns said he was proactive in providing education to occupiers of two-storey houses about safe parties, escape routes and overcrowding.

He said he used Miss Crestani’s death as a cautionary tale for students.

Coroner McKenzie asked Mr Burns why no disciplinary action was taken against anyone in relation to Miss Crestani’s death.

He said given police were involved and the impact Miss Crestani’s death had on students, it did not feel appropriate for him or the Proctor to discipline anyone.

“The incident was just… bigger than all of us,” he said.

Tenants warned about overcrowding

Earlier today the court heard that in May 2019 the Dunedin District Council sent a letter to the landlord of the flat known as "The Manor" which raised concerns about the number of noise complaints and overcrowding.

Following the letter, property manager Jennifer Adamson and an Otago University staff member met with the tenants and discussed the letter.

Ms Adamson said she asked the tenants to "limit the number of people at the property as it was dangerous to have too many people".

She explained she felt the students had taken on her advice and understood the safety risks.

The property manager also sent an email that explained if the issues continued she would have "no option but to refer you to the Tenancy Tribunal".

Ms Adamson completed a flat inspection two days before the party but had "no idea whatsoever" about the party.

"I can’t close down parties, I can’t stop parties," the property manager said.

The court heard "The Manor" had been issued with seven excessive noise directions in 2019, but Ms Adamson was not sure if that meant the tenants could be evicted.

"I cannot determine what number of parties is an unacceptable number," the witness said.

She explained it was a matter for the Tenancy Tribunal.

Ms Adamson said even after Miss Crestani’s death, she did not consider approaching the tribunal to ask that the lease be terminated.

'Incalculable grief'

A coroner this morning commended Miss Crestani’s parents for their work following the "incalculable" loss of their daughter.

In 2019 the University of Otago unveiled the Sophia Charter: "a shared commitment to the North Dunedin community".

Coroner McKenzie acknowledged the work Miss Crestani’s parents had done following her death.

"You've found the energy and commitment to do this alongside your incalculable grief and loss," Coroner McKenzie said.

"You have opened up significant dialogue and you have achieved change in Dunedin student culture."

The coroner reassured Miss Crestani’s parents that their daughter would be the focus of the inquest.

"A loved one sits right at the centre of why we’re all here," Coroner McKenzie said.

"I certainly do not lose sight of Sophia during this inquest."

The late Sophia Crestani’s parents, Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan, outside the Dunedin...
The late Sophia Crestani’s parents, Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan, outside the Dunedin courthouse. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Mr Crestani said he had received an abundance of evidence, including 160 police interviews with students.

"We thought it was a tragic accident. . . it took us a while to understand that it wasn't, it was a set of circumstances that had been brewing in this city. . . for a while," Mr Crestani said.

"This is a community problem and it needs everyone to change it."

Both parents explained they were shocked at the student behaviour when they first visited Dunedin.

"[Locals] had become somewhat immune to it. . . and did not perceive the danger," Ms McMillan said.

"It took a death, sadly for us Sophia's death, to wake them up."

Videos of the party and audio of 111 calls were played to the court.

Coroner Heather McKenzie. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Coroner Heather McKenzie. Photo: Gregor Richardson
They showed an "atmosphere of panic developed" as the flat known as "The Manor" continued to become more overcrowded.

The court heard it would be the final party before exams and 400 people were invited on Facebook.

Ms McMillan and Mr Crestani explained waiting more than four years for the inquest had been difficult.

"We miss her every moment of every day," Ms McMillan said.

"She ended up crushed and suffocated to death on a dirty floor of a grotty student flat . . . a horrible, preventable, and totally unnecessary way to die."

"We hope that what happened becomes clearer . . . and that improvements are made," Mr Crestani said.

"Once we've dealt with the past we can then go back to the future."

The inquest will continue tomorrow and students who attended the party are expected to give evidence.

The inquest is expected to last five days and will also hear from police and Dunedin City Council staff.