Victim suffered 36 rib fractures, court hears

A sickness beneficiary whose body was found buried in a shallow grave months after he disappeared had suffered a severe beating before he died, including 36 rib fractures, a Napier murder trial has heard.

Johnny Charles Wright, 50, disappeared on June 21, 2011, and was reported missing by family on July 10.

Police said forensic evidence found at a Caroline Rd, Hastings, flat suggested foul play and when the house was cleared, blood was found on the lounge wall, floor and ceiling, along with a few of his personal possessions.

By mid-August the case had gone cold and Hastings detectives asked retired detective inspector and now Police Ten-7 frontman Graham Bell to give the suspected homicide some public exposure.

Two weeks later a tip-off led to a search of a rural property off Waipunga Rd, near Eskdale, where Mr Wright's body was discovered in a shallow grave.

Steven Tiwini Rakuraku, 39, who lost name suppression this morning in the High Court at Napier, faces 12 charges, including the murder and kidnapping of Mr Wright in 2011.

This morning, Rakuraku fired his counsel, Russell Fairbrother, and will now represent himself during his trial before a jury of 10 women and two men.

Justice Joe Williams however appointed an amicus (friend of the court), and to preserve the integrity of the trial Mr Fairbrother will cross-examine the Crown witnesses instead of Rakuraku.

Giving his opening address, Crown prosecutor Steve Manning said the alleged offending took place over a 7-8 month span in 2010 and 2011 across the central North Island and involved four victims, including Mr Wright.

"Each of the four were unknown to Mr Rakuraku, and to each other but they did have one thing in common. The manner in which they were treated, dominated, manipulated, controlled, intimidated and beaten, all four of them, one of them to the point that he died."

He said Rakuraku was "driven by three things" - paranoia, avoiding police following a warrant for his arrest in February 2011, and needing money and a "safe house".

Mr Manning told the jury that Mr Wright was a "much loved son, uncle and brother" who had a family that kept in contact with him regularly.

"[Johnny] was quiet, shy and someone who kept to himself which made him particularly vulnerable and unable to stand up to Mr Rakuraku."

He said Mr Wright had been taken against his will and severely beaten as Rakuraku used the 50-year-old and his finances to ensure his safety and freedom from police.

"[Rakuraku] controlled where he slept, what he ate, when he ate, whether he exercised and when he went to the toilet."

He said when Mr Wright's body was found a pathologist determined he did not die a natural death.

"He had 36 rib fractures. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury there are 24 ribs in the human body," Mr Manning said.

"He had fractures to his chest which essentially made it impossible to breath. That is what he died of. It would have been extremely painful as the ends of the ribs were rubbing together...there was significant blood loss and he was starved of oxygen."

Mr Manning described one sad occasion when Mr Wright's father, attempting to search for his missing son, visited the Caroline Rd flat but was allegedly told by Rakuraku that his son was working and not home, then sent away.

"Johnny was in the house suffering from his injuries," Mr Manning said.

He said after Rakuraku allegedly killed Mr Wright he painted the inside of the flat and wiped it down with bleach in a bid to remove the traces of blood and evidence from police if he were to be caught.

Rakuraku is expected to give his opening address following the lunch adjournment and said to Justice Williams this morning: "Your honour, I have to look at my paper work."

The trial is scheduled to last several weeks.

- By Sam Hurley of the Hawke's Bay Today

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