'Everyone has their breaking point': killer's daughter

Stephen Findlay. Photo: ODT
Stephen Findlay. Photo: ODT

The children of a Seacliff man who beat his neighbour to death have described him as the most placid person they know.

In the High Court at Dunedin this morning, Stephen Findlay (60) was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 11 years for the "brutal" murder of 54-year-old Sharon Diane Comerford.

The court heard how the pair – both alcoholics – had a long-running feud after the defendant bought a section next to the victim and moved in, living on a house bus.

On March 7 last year, Findlay went to the woman’s house, smashed her vehicle’s headlights and a window of her house before bludgeoning her to death with a blunt instrument with at least a dozen blows.

He later went to a nearby reserve and shot himself in the head with a .308 rifle but miraculously survived.

Findlay’s 33-year-old son Lachlan said it was difficult to reconcile the man’s actions with the person he knew.

“He is probably one of the most relaxed people I've met when he's himself and sober,” he said.

The defendant’s daughter Miranda Clare (30) was also shocked her father was capable of such extreme violence but believed it proved the psychological strain he was under.

“Everyone has their breaking point, I guess,” she said.

“For someone who was almost at one with nature and gentle, to do something like that says a lot.”

After sentencing, the pair were allowed to speak to their father in the cells before he was taken to prison to begin serving his sentence.

Ms Clare said she did most of the talking and they were satisfied with the outcome.

“He was calm. He's always calm,” she said.

But there had been a rage brewing inside Findlay for weeks before the murder, as Ms Comerford got under his skin.

He told people the woman “deserved to die”.

“It seems those threats were not taken seriously,” Justice Rachel Dunningham said.

Findlay repeatedly called police about his problems with Ms Comerford and told them he had been “driven to the edge”.

And on the morning of March 7, it seems he was pushed over the precipice when the victim drove within centimetres of him as he walked home from Karitane.

While he had no memory of the murder, defence counsel Judith Ablett Kerr QC said her client’s response in turning a firearm on himself spoke volumes of his mindset.

“There could be no greater sign of remorse for your actions than to do what he did,” she said.

Justice Dunningham said Findlay's only previous convictions were for driving offences related to his alcoholism.

Findlay was not an ongoing threat to the community if he addressed his addiction, the judge added.

Justice Dunningham rejected the defence suggestion a sentence less then life imprisonment should be imposed.

“A life was taken and it was a brutal murder.”

Findlay, she said, should confront the possibility he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Ms Comerford’s sister Debi Ogle described the victim as an artistic and compassionate person and while they had been estranged for some years, they were in the process of reconnecting.

Since her death, she now constantly felt sick and could not sleep.

“I did not know what anxiety was until Sharon was murdered,” Ms Ogle said.

The same sentiments were echoed by the victim's twin sister Jacqui Comerford, who said she was so close to the victim when they were children they had their own language in which they spoke.

“I want to talk about her death but I can't because of the horror of how she died,” she said.