Seacliff man admits killing neighbour

Armed police gather at Seacliff after the incident in March last year. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Armed police gather at Seacliff after the incident in March last year. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
A 60-year-old Seacliff man has pleaded guilty to the murder of his neighbour on the eve of his trial.

Stephen Findlay was supposed to face a jury this week over the killing of 54-year-old Sharon Diane Comerford on March 7 last year.

But this morning before the High Court at Dunedin, the defendant changed his mind.

Findlay admitted beating the woman to death in her own home with a blunt instrument, though initially police believed she had died of a gunshot wound.

The court heard, Ms Comerford suffered 12 blows to the head which caused “significant deformation” of her skull and a fractured cheekbone among  other injuries.

The next morning Findlay was found beside a tree at Truby King Reserve with a .308 rifle next to him and half his face blown off. 

Findlay lived in a house truck in the coastal township of Seacliff next to the victim.

Both drank alcohol to excess and numerous arguments developed because of that.

Findlay’s animosity for Ms Comerford was no secret in the small community – he told people the woman was harassing him, was driving him insane and “deserved to die”.

He spoke to several people about killing the victim, the court heard.

Tensions mounted through February, first when Ms Comerford got hold of the man’s cellphone and used it to text some of his friends.

One of those she messaged was a woman Findlay was trying to woo and he believed the victim had ruined his chances with her.

In the 17 days before he killed Ms Comerford, he contacted the police at least four times about her conduct.

Initially he sought a trespass order over the cell-phone incident but eventually relented after speaking to the local officer.

But days later, Findlay was back on the phone complaining of a slew of abusive text messages sent to him by the victim.

In another exchange with the police he described his time living beside Ms Comerford as “six and a-half years of hell”, which had driven him to the edge.

The morning of the murder, Findlay had walked from his home to Karitane to buy a cask of wine.

On his way home the victim drove past him, narrowly missing him with her ute.

Again he called the local police officer and contacted a crime-stoppers phone line but their response was not enough to calm him.

Hours later he beat his neighbour to death.

Findlay smashed the headlights of Ms Comerford’s vehicle and a panel on her front door before entering the property and launching his frenzied attack.

The blows were “inevitably lethal” and the victim would have been unconscious from an early point, the court heard.

The jeans Findlay was wearing at the time, which had her blood on them and drops of his own, were later found among his belongings.

At 5am he texted a friend asking them to call him immediately but entered their number incorrectly.

Some time later, he sat in the reserve, put the firearm in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The shot removed the defendant’s left eye and part of his nose, and he had undergone reconstructive surgery since the incident.

Members of Ms Comerford's family sat in the public gallery for today's hearing but did not want to comment when approached outside court.

Det Sgt Stan Leishman hoped today's proceedings brought some finality for the victim's relatives.

“I'd just like to thank the family for their perseverance throughout this ordeal,” he said.

A Seacliff resident, who did not want to be named, said the incident had rocked the community.

“This has hung over the village for 18 months,” he said. “Now we can get on with our lives.”

The man said he had “conflict” with both the defendant and victim and described the pair as “drinking buddies”.

Despite his feelings towards Findlay he called him “well read, articulate; a brilliant artist”.

Findlay was given his first-strike warning under the three-strikes legislation and will be sentenced next week.