Haunted by unanswered phone call

Murdered woman Sharon Comerford's sisters Jacqui Comerford (left) and Debi Ogle speak to media outside court. Photos: Staff Photographer
Murdered woman Sharon Comerford's sisters Jacqui Comerford (left) and Debi Ogle speak to media outside court. Photos: Staff Photographer
Stephen Findlay during his appearance in the High Court at Dunedin yesterday.
Stephen Findlay during his appearance in the High Court at Dunedin yesterday.

The day before Stephen Findlay beat his neighbour to death with a blunt object, he tried to speak to his daughter.

But Miranda Clare (30) was too busy to answer the phone.

On March 7 last year - just hours later - the 60-year-old man murdered Sharon Diane Comerford (54) in her Seacliff home before shooting himself in the face.

The 12 head wounds Findlay inflicted created a crime scene so bloody that police believed she had been shot.

In the High Court at Dunedin yesterday he was jailed for life, with a minimum non-parole period of 11 years, by Justice Rachel Dunningham.

''A life was taken and it was a brutal murder,'' she said.

Findlay's daughter Miranda Clare (30) told the Otago Daily Times she was haunted by the phone call she never answered.

But maybe a chat would have only delayed the tragedy, Ms Clare said.

She knew her father was having problems with his neighbour and the serenity he had sought when he moved to the coastal township from Oamaru six years earlier was a distant memory.

The pair - both alcoholics - argued incessantly after Findlay moved into a house bus on the section next to Ms Comerford.

''I knew he was having a really hard time and I tried to convince him to move closer to me in Christchurch, but he didn't have the money,'' Ms Clare said.

When she heard of a murder outside Dunedin, she knew he was involved.

Findlay had been in regular contact with the police about the escalating feud with his neighbour.

He told them the woman had driven him to the edge; he had ''just had enough''.

Findlay was more candid with friends.

Ms Comerford ''deserved to die'', he told them.

Police had ''scrutinised'' their involvement in the case, Det Insp Steve Wood said, and did not believe there were obvious warning signs of impending catastrophe.

''It is often easy for us to make inferences and level criticism when we have the benefit of hindsight,'' he said.

''The important thing is that we take what lessons we can, acknowledging what went well and what didn't go well, and learn as we move forward.''

After hearing news of the killing outside Dunedin, Ms Clare desperately sought to have her worst fears confirmed.

It was a surgeon who eventually spoke to her.

Findlay had shot himself in the head in Truby King Reserve with his own .308 rifle and was not expected to live.

Ms Clare recounted the gruesome sight that met her when she reached his bedside.

''He didn't look at all like himself, really,'' she said.

''He was swollen, a big chunk of his head missing, and he was all bandaged and breathing tubes.

‘‘It was really upsetting because we thought we were saying goodbye.’’

Ms Clare and her brother Lachlan Findlay got to say a less final goodbye to their father in the cells after sentencing yesterday.

Findlay’s 33-year-old son described the sendoff as ‘‘surreal’’ and said he still struggled to reconcile the actions of the defendant with the man he knew.

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

‘‘Everyone, I suppose, has their breaking point.’’

Despite the severe head injury Findlay suffered, his children said he was the same man: articulate and thoughtful.

The court yesterday also heard from Ms Comerford’s family, who said they wanted her ‘‘to be remembered as the creative, talented, intelligent, funny and kind woman she was’’.

Like her killer, she was an artist, the court heard, and had originally moved to the region to study.

Both her twin, Jacqui Comerford, and sister Debi Ogle said they had been recently estranged from the victim but were working on reconnecting with her.

Findlay had robbed them of that opportunity, they said.

Each had suffered significant physical and emotional hardship while trying to come to terms with the ‘‘horror’’ of her death.

‘‘I did not know what anxiety was until Sharon was murdered,’’ Ms Ogle said.

Defence counsel Judith Ablett-Kerr QC had argued Findlay should be sentenced to a finite term rather than life imprisonment, but Justice Dunningham disagreed. The defendant, she said, should confront the possibility he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.