September 24, 2022

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On October 30, 2020, almost a year after New Zealand man Niklas Gebhardt survived a fiery crash that killed his six-year-old son, he was on his pushbike with one thing in mind – to confess.
On November 5, 2019, had driven north out of Rangiora (a town just north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island) and onto long flat Lehmans Road. His son, Lachlan, was in the back seat of the car. Gebhardt began to speed up and dangerously overtook another car. The manoeuvre required him to swerve sharply back into his lane to avoid colliding with an oncoming car.

Still at high speed, he approached a right-hand corner at the end of Lehmans Rd. He didn’t brake or swerve, even though a sign advised 25kph.

Niklas Gebhardt in court
Niklas Gebhardt was jailed for five years on a charge of manslaughter. (Stuff)

The car left the road at 130kph, travelling straight ahead and then up a stopbank that acted like a ramp. After being airborne for 24 metres, the car hit a tree at a point seven metres from the ground and burst into flames. Lachlan died at the scene. Gebhardt was charged with dangerous driving causing death and then manslaughter.

The crash was still very much on his mind as Gebhardt biked painfully – he had suffered burns to 30 per cent of his body – towards the Rangiora Police Station.

It was closed, so he headed across the main highway to Kaiapoi to see if the police station there was open. Police stations had been a big part of his life in the last year.

A month earlier, the 32-year-old went to the Christchurch Central Police Station, stripped naked and demanded to be arrested. He was charged with indecent exposure, and held in custody overnight.

The same day, he had seen a neuropsychologist who was providing Accident Compensation Corporation-funded treatment. She later described Gebhardt as “very rigid in his thinking … [he] stated that he must be punished and wanted to be placed in prison, he was unable to consider alternative actions”.

When he appeared in court the day after his naked visit, he pleaded guilty and asked to be sentenced immediately. He got one month’s jail and was automatically released two weeks later.

He later told a psychologist he found his time in prison “quite good for my mental health”, as it removed him from his family home and the community.

A fortnight after the naked incident, he was on his bike to Kaiapoi heading to the police station. He walked up to the front counter and said he wanted to “confess to murder”.

Detective Belinda Campbell was called, and she sat him down for a perplexing interview.

“I murdered Lachlan Gebhardt … with a car,” Gebhardt told her.

Lachlan Gebhardt rising a horse
Lachlan loved horses and had two ponies of his own. (Stuff)

Gebhardt’s state of mind on the day of the crash remains murky. It’s easy to see why he might not have been feeling on top of the world.

He and Lachlan’s mother, Kim Manson, split up when Lachlan was two, and they shared custody from the time Lachlan was six. Manson had a new partner, but Gebhardt remained single and lived with his parents. He had left a job and was trying, fairly unsuccessfully, to make a living trading currency.

On the day of the crash, Gebhardt picked up Lachlan at about 4pm from the Dudley Park Aquatic Centre in Rangiora. He had arranged to have Lachlan for a couple of days because Manson and her partner were soon taking him to Australia for a holiday. The holiday fell during his custody days. Manson was pregnant, although Gebhardt was apparently unaware Lachlan was to have a new sibling.

Several members of the public rushed to help as the car burst into flames. One passerby was able to pull Gebhardt from the wreckage, but the flames became too intense to check for anyone else.

Once out of the car, Gebhardt, a former footballer who represented Canterbury United, was heard saying: “Put me back in, swap me with my son, I want to swap.

“My son’s in the back, he’s such a good boy, he’s such a nice boy, I want to swap.

Gebhardt told police he could not recall anything about the crash itself or speeding along Lehmans Road beforehand. He denied intending to kill his son and himself.

Six months after the crash, his mental health appeared to “significantly deteriorate” and he was referred to mental health services. He expressed thoughts that “people would blow up” after hearing about Lachlan’s death. On Lachlan’s birthday, he took a parcel and placed it on a fire. He walked outside naked in the rain, saying he was waiting for someone to give him a job as a train conductor.

Lachlan Gebhardt with his mother, Kim Manson
Lachlan with his mother, Kim Manson. (Stuff)

Gebhardt’s interview at the Kaiapoi Police Station lasted about one hour. Campbell began by asking about his medication for headaches and whether he had been drinking. He said he had had one cider earlier in the day.

She asked if he was feeling alright. “I feel like, like myself,” he replied.

After talking about his day so far he said: “I murdered Lachlan Gebhardt … with a car”.

He recounted the crash, and said he overtook a car at about 130kph, sped up to the corner, hit the bank at about 176kph and hit a tree. When asked about his intention, he said, “to murder Lachlan”.

Asked why he wanted to murder his son, he said, “um, I don’t know, but it was intentional”.

When the detective tried to tease out more, he said, “I would like to leave it at that”.

Gebhardt said his suggestion that he was travelling more than 170kph was a “guesstimation”. He did not want to talk about how things went from “being okay” to then killing his son.

Asked when he decided to crash the car, he said, “probably a few weeks prior”, but did not elaborate on why.

He accepted he wanted to have a crash that he would survive and in which Lachlan would die, but when the detective tried to find out why, suggesting it was “to punish Kim”, he said no and “I don’t wanna talk about that”.

He said he tried to undo Lachlan’s seatbelt and grab him after the crash, but was unable to. He tried to direct others at the scene to get Lachlan out, but he was pulled out of the car by a man and was moving in and out of consciousness.

The corner of Lehmans and River roads, near Rangiora
The crash happened at the corner of Lehmans and River roads, near Rangiora. (Stuff)

Asked why he did not remember anything about his thoughts in his first interview on December 24, 2019, Gebhardt said the memories of the crash had returned in “the last couple of days, maybe the last week or so”.

Gebhardt confirmed he “intentionally drove off the road,” and was going “way, way, way, way over the speed limit”.

He said he put his head down under his right arm because he didn’t want to see. “I wanted to smash my head … against the dashboard.”

Campbell reminded Gebhardt he’d said he did not want to die in the crash. He agreed, but could not give any explanation for why he thought Lachlan would die.

He eventually changed his position and said “I didn’t know, yeah nah, I didn’t know, no idea, absolutely no idea”. It was a “a lie” to say he knew he was going to survive.

To questions about his relationship with Manson, he said compared to other separated couples “it was very good”.

But then, he added “[from] my personal point of view of co-parenting, absolutely shit”.

Gebhardt asked if they could take a break, so he could go to the bathroom. Campbell said that was fine, and Gebhardt said, “like I’m not going anywhere” and crossed his wrists as if he was being handcuffed.

Campbell told him he was not under arrest as he had already been charged over the crash. She asked him if he wanted to be arrested. He said he did “because it’s the right thing to do”.

They began talking about his circumstances preceding the crash.

He said he thought he and Manson communicated in an “alright” way about co-parenting issues.

“You’ve got no job… you’ve got 50/50 care of Lachlan… you’re living with your parents, you’ve got no money, there’s not a lot of positive things going in your life at that time?” Campbell said. Gebhardt agreed.

She told him she believed Gebhardt wanted to kill himself and was taking Lachlan with him.

“Well you’re wrong,” he said. He refused to give any further explanation, and the interview finished soon after.

Following the interview, Gebhardt was taken by police to Christchurch Hospital for an assessment of his mental health. While there he told his brother he had made false admissions of murder. He later informed his parents of his comments to police and told police they couldn’t use his latest statement.

Lachlan Gebhardt with a pony
Lachlan loved to ride horses, just like his mum. (Stuff)

On November 3, 2020, Gebhardt attended an appointment with the neuropsychologist. He seemed “very unsettled, highly tangential, verbose, energetic and … [with] racing thoughts”, she later said.

Gebhardt told her he had an axe in his car and alluded to an urge to murder others to protect women and children. He was uncertain why he placed the axe in the car, and said it was “just in case”.

Police were called, and Gebhardt was admitted to Hillmorton Hospital for inpatient treatment for three weeks.

Days after he was released, Gebhardt was charged with murder. The fact the charge had been upgraded was suppressed by the court because of mental health concerns and the potential challenge to the admissibility of his statement.

The High Court and Court of Appeal had the benefit of a report by clinical psychologist Ghazi Metoui.

Gebhardt had told Metoui he had been in a “bad way” leading up to the second interview.

“He reported that on the day of making his admissions to the police and whilst out on his bike that morning, he came to a sudden realisation that he could bring closure to most of his problems by simply going to the police and making a false admission that he murdered Lachlan,” Metoui said.

“He felt it would put to rest any further police probes as he believed it ‘gave the police what they wanted [a murder charge against him]’.”

Gebhardt told him: “I just remember thinking, this will sort it out [making false admissions], it will end it.”

Lachlan Gebhardt
The 6-year-old had been excited about an upcoming trip to Australia with his mum, but was killed just a few days before they were due to leave. (Stuff)

Metoui said Gebhardt did not have an enduring major mental disorder. His clinical presentations since the crash related principally to “complicated grief” where a person remained stuck, unable to accept the death as time passed.

The psychologist concluded there was “substantial risk” Gebhardt could have made a false admission.

The Crown asked Associate Professor Philip Brinded, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, to assess Gebhardt. He agreed with the diagnosis of a complex grief reaction, but said it did not affect Gebhardt’s ability to tell the difference between truth and lies.

When the challenge to the interview was taken to the High Court by Gebhardt’s lawyer, Andrew McCormick, Justice Rachel Dunningham said a jury, informed about complex grief syndrome and the compatibility of Gebhardt’s account with other evidence, could determine whether the statement was truthful.

“Whether, in fact, the admission is false is something the jury can determine following hearing evidence from the health assessors as to the potential consequences of suffering from complex grief, along with the evidence of eyewitnesses and of the crash analysis.”

She admitted the police interview in its entirety.

In its decision, the Court of Appeal said the circumstances in which the statement was made by Gebhardt indicated a “real and substantial risk that it is not reliable”.

“Reviewing the interview as a whole, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Mr Gebhardt was making statements that were designed to bring about a particular result – his immediate arrest and incarceration, and a prompt conclusion to the legal process – rather than seeking to lay out the facts to the best of his recollection.”

The Court of Appeal said there were no clear and obvious indications that the admissions made by Gebhardt were in fact reliable. His statement did not provide any details that were not previously known to police, the court said.

“If Mr Gebhardt’s admissions are admitted as evidence, they will exercise a powerful effect on the jury at trial. There is good reason to think that that influence will be disproportionate, even if the trial judge cautions the jury about the reliability of the admissions.”

Deliberate high-speed crash

Gebhardt pleaded guilty to manslaughter in June. At his sentencing, Manson said she believed her ex-partner’s actions, who she referred to only as “the defendant” and “this monster”, were “planned and calculated”. She understood Gebhardt had been convicted of manslaughter, but she would always believe it was murder.

She referred to the lack of brake marks and of any attempt to mitigate the impact in any way.

“Just the defendant’s foot on the accelerator with the determination to kill them both that day.”

Gebhardt’s intent was to inflict as much pain as possible on her, and did not believe he would survive the crash and have to face the consequences, she said.

At sentencing, Crown prosecutor Mark Zarifeh said while it was accepted no murderous intent could be attributed to Gebhardt, the evidence pointed to “deliberate driving conduct”.

Tributes at the crash site where Lachlan Gebhardt was killed
Lachlan was killed in a crash in Fernside, Rangiora, which was caused by his father. (Stuff)

McCormick acknowledged the “absolute tragedy” of what happened, but said it was “not murder”.

Despite the fact no murderous intent could be attributed, the only available conclusion was Gebhardt aimed to drive his vehicle in a manner that was “highly likely” to cause injury or death to both him and his son, Justice Jan-Marie Doogue said.

“This was a deliberate crash at very high speed.”

Justice Doogue jailed Gebhardt for five years. He will be disqualified from driving for seven years after he’s released.

Following the sentencing, Justice Doogue held a hearing on Stuff’s opposition to suppression continuing. McCormick told the court revealing details of the murder charge and the interview that led to it would cause extreme hardship given Gebhardt suffered from complicated grief.

Crown prosecutor Mark Zarifeh said there was no evidence before the courts that publication would exacerbate his condition.

The fact a murder charge was filed and later withdrawn was an “important part of the proceeding” and publication enabled “proper public scrutiny of the prosecutorial process”, he said.

In her ruling, Justice Doogue said there was “significant public interest” in understanding the proceeding.

“Publication of the circumstances of his confession may also aid in understanding his complex grief diagnosis, and also the potential for false confessions in the context of mental impairment,” she said.

“In this context, in exercising my discretion the presumption of open justice public interest in explaining the prosecutorial decisions made in the proceeding outweighs any psychological difficulties Mr Gebhardt will invariably suffer from publication.”

This story first appeared on Stuff and is republished here with permission.

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