Mattress murder trial: Firefighters recall finding victim's body

Emma Field, 21, was found dead at a property in New Plymouth in 2022. Photo: NZME
Emma Field's body was found following a fire that ripped through her New Plymouth flat on May 27, 2022. Now, her partner Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer is on trial for her alleged murder and arson.
WARNING: Some readers may find the details of this story distressing

The heat was intense and the smoke thick and down to the floor as fire crews battled through the darkness, using torches and their hands and feet to search for a survivor, or body, in a home still in the clutches of inferno.

They had been told there may be a person inside the Devon St West flat in New Plymouth and a man on the lawn screaming "My boy" indicated it could have been a child.

But Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) senior station officer Jason Crowe and firefighter Dave Ackerman made their way through the kitchen, the hall, the lounge and then searched a child’s room, and there was no sign of anyone.

However, only a few footsteps away, in the master bedroom, a woman’s body, Emma Field’s, lay perished on the floor under the window.

Now, her partner, Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer, 33, is defending charges of murder, arson and injuring with intent to injure in the High Court at New Plymouth.

It is alleged Beer murdered Field, 21, on May 27, 2022, by overturning the bed on which she was sleeping and setting fire to it.

She was alive but likely unconscious when the blaze took hold of the bedroom.

On Tuesday, several FENZ employees who attended the blaze were called to give evidence at Beer’s trial.

Senior firefighter Daniel Takarangi was a part of the second crew to enter the house and was instructed to head into the master bedroom.

As he made his way in, with the hose’s nozzle in hand and firefighter Evan Brien behind him, they still believed they were looking for a child.

But then it came over their communication system that it was an adult who was unaccounted for.

Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin
Leigh Matthew Frederick Beer's trial is being heard in the High Court at New Plymouth.
In his evidence, Takarangi said there was zero visibility so he shifted himself forward at ground level with only his hands to use while trying to build a mental picture of what was around him.

"As I came down I felt something," he said.

"I thought it was a chair but for whatever reason I just thought something was not right."

Takarangi said he kept feeling around and called for someone to bring in a torch.

The light soon revealed what looked like part of a human being, he said.

In Crowe’s evidence, he said he was part of the first crew to arrive and noted the fire was well-involved and spreading.

After spraying the flames in the master room through the window from outside, they made their way inside.

They stopped in the hall to douse the room with more water before moving on to search the child’s bedroom, using their hands, feet and a torchlight to establish their surroundings.

He said it was unlikely somebody would be alive in the master bedroom and their operation at that stage was search and rescue while simultaneously attacking the fire.

Soon after, he was called by Takarangi from the master bedroom to assist.

Crowe said the smoke was thick and to the floor. He was guided into the room by Takarangi and was able to confirm they had found a body.

Senior station officer Nicholas Burke also gave evidence and said the first crew, which he was part of, arrived at the fire at 11.08pm, having received the call-up five minutes prior.

Burke performed a risk assessment and said his primary focus was to ascertain whether anybody was inside the house.

He heard Beer on the lawn calling out "My boy".

Beer’s son was not at the house at the time of the fire and while many witnesses have said they heard him repeatedly yelling "Emma", others also heard him call "my boy".

Burke said he saw two people on the lawn fighting and called for police to urgently attend, and also instructed FENZ to provide more resources.

When Burke tried to speak with Beer about whether anyone was inside, he said Beer "took a swing" at him.

The fire occurred at the couple's basement flat of a Devon St West, New Plymouth, property.
The fire occurred at the couple's basement flat of a Devon St West, New Plymouth, property.
While he managed to avoid it, he said Beer tried to grab his bunker coat, causing Burke to stumble backward and land on the ground.

Critical care paramedic Ian May later gave evidence and said Beer was aggressive and agitated that night and had to be sedated with ketamine so he could be medically assessed.

The trial before Justice Karen Grau is in its third week and is expected to take up to one month.

The Crown say Beer and Field had two friends over on the evening of the fire and the four of them listened to music, drank alcohol and shared an ecstasy pill.

They planned to head into town together but that never eventuated. Instead, Field went to bed after being allegedly subjected to unkind comments about her appearance made by Beer in front of their friends.

Beer grew angry as the night wore on and "out of the blue" punched a glass window, causing blood to splatter throughout his doorway and his friends to leave quickly after, the crown allege.

He has been accused of then going into the bedroom and, in a fit of rage, flipping their bed and setting it alight.

But Beer has maintained he had nothing to do with the bed being moved or the fire and his defence counsel has told the jury someone else could be responsible.

 - Tara Shaskey, Open Justice reporter