Marokopa family still elusive as $80k reward runs out

Tom Phillips' three children have not been seen since late 2021. Photo: Supplied
Tom Phillips' three children have not been seen since late 2021. Photo: Supplied

By Natalie Akoorie of RNZ

The whereabouts of Tom Phillips and his three children - and who might be helping them stay hidden - remain elusive as an $80,000 reward offer inches closer to being withdrawn.

Phillips and his three children Jayda, now 11, Maverick, 9, and Ember, 8, have not been seen since December 12, 2021.

Two weeks ago police announced the reward, along with potential immunity from prosecution for anyone who may have previously assisted Phillips, who now provided information that led to the safe return of the children.

They set up checkpoints at the tiny coastal community of Marokopa in the Waitomo District, where the family was last seen and where Phillips' parents Neville and Julia farm.

The intense focus on the settlement lasted 72 hours before the focus shifted to suspicious activity in Honikiwi, an area west of Ōtorohanga township, where Phillips previously lived and where his parents rent out a house they own.

The reward expires today, at one minute to midnight, and was only available for a short timeframe in an effort to put pressure on those with information on the family's whereabouts to come forward.

Police said they had received 150 tipoffs from the public, 50 of which were providing strong lines of inquiry, and information was still coming in on Monday.

Last week - on Jayda's 11th birthday - the children's mother Cat made an emotional plea for their return in a video posted online by police.

She begged for the public's help to bring her "babies home", saying they were innocent children who did not deserve the situation they were in.

"They do not deserve the life that is being provided to them right now," she said.

"What Thomas is doing is not okay. It is not okay to divide and conquer. It is not okay to isolate and control."

She called Phillips' actions tantamount to child abuse, neglect, abandonment and endangerment.

"My babies deserve better. I'm just a mother standing here in front of the world begging you all to help me bring my babies home."

Cat, who has never shown her face publicly over the situation before, was criticised on social media for the video.

The next night, on June 19, she posted an unsigned and undated hand-written letter purportedly from Phillips to her apologising for hurtful past actions.

Waikato Police field crime manager Acting Detective Inspector Andy Saunders said the letter was written some time ago and was not relevant to the current investigation.

It's understood Phillips, now 37, had custody of the children when they first disappeared in September 2021, sparking a 17-day search in dense bush surrounding Marokopa.

Police charged Phillips with wasteful deployment of police resources, but he failed to show at Te Kūiti District Court on January 12, 2022.

Saunders previously confirmed custody of the children was now in the hands of Oranga Tamariki.

A Marokopa resident, who did not want to be named, knew Phillips in passing and described him as "very religious" and "different".