Seacliff man jailed for 'brutal' killing of neighbour

Stephen Findlay was sentenced in Dunedin today. Photo: staff photographer
Stephen Findlay was sentenced in Dunedin today. Photo: staff photographer

A 60-year-old Seacliff man has been jailed for at least 11 years for “brutally” bludgeoning his neighbour to death.

Stephen Findlay was due to go to trial over the murder of 54-year-old Sharon Diane Comerford before the High Court at Dunedin last week.

But he pleaded guilty at the 11th hour and was sentencing by Justice Rachel Dunningham to a term of life imprisonment this morning with the minimum non-parole period.

Ms Comerford's sister, Debi Ogle, described her sister 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.

Findlay was found at Truby King Reserve with a firearm next to him and self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the face on the morning of March 8 last year.

It was not the only grisly discovery to be made that day.

Ms Comerford was found in her home and the scene was so bloody, police assumed she had been shot too.

However, medical examinations revealed she had been beaten to death with a blunt object, with at least 12 blows to the head, which caused “significant deformation” of her skull.

The murder weapon was never found and when Findlay recovered from his severe wounds he said he had no memory of attacking the victim.

However, the court heard of a long history of animosity between the pair.

Findlay lived in a house bus beside Ms Comerford’s dilapidated property in the coastal township and each of them liked to drink.

That led to arguments and the defendant told people the woman “deserved to die”.

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

In the weeks before the murder, Ms Comerford got hold of Findlay’s cellphone and texted some of his friends, which further irked him.

Police at the scene in Seacliff in March last year. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Police at the scene in Seacliff in March last year. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

In the 17 days before the incident, the defendant called the police at least four times about his problems with Ms Comerford.
In one exchange with police Findlay described his time living beside her as “six years of hell”, which had driven him to the edge.

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

Findlay again called police over the near-miss and hours later, he beat his neighbour to death.

Crown prosecutor Robin Bates said the defendant was “clearly angry”; demonstrated by the fact he smashed the headlights of Ms Comerford's vehicle and a window of her house before he attacked her.

Ms Comerford's twin sister Jacqui said the 11-year minimum non-parole period felt meagre and she was sceptical over whether Findlay was truly remorseful.

Defence counsel Judith Ablett-Kerr, QC, stressed her client was “on edge” over the disputes he had with the victim.

While he had no memory of the murder, she said his 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.

He experienced violence in his upbringing but had no criminal history of aggression, the court heard.

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

Justice Dunningham rejected the defence's suggestion a sentence less than 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.

Police tribute 

In a statement from police, Detectiove Sergeant Stan Leishman paid tribute to the perseverance of Ms Comerford's family and the diligence of his team.

“This incident understandably shocked the Seacliff community, and I would like to acknowledge the investigation team’s hard work to hold the person responsible to account so they can feel safe again.”

Outside court, the victim's sisters said they would remember her as the "creative, talented, intelligent, funny and kind woman she was".

"She was loved and we miss her," Ms Ogle said.