The murder without a motive
What drove Nika Abraham to kill an innocent woman on the banks of the Hutt River? After his conviction yesterday, Fran Tyler and Martin Kay examine a case of random murder.
Kate Alkema waved goodbye to her husband Peter and breezed off from their Lower Hutt home for her Saturday morning walk. As she stepped into Oxford Tce, Mr Alkema whistled at his wife, and she turned to flash a smile before striding off at her usual "Boston Marathon" pace. It was 8.45am on April 13 last year, the last time Mr Alkema saw his wife alive.
Fifty minutes later, five kilometres downstream on the other side of the Hutt River, 20-year-old Nika Abraham left home for a walk, accompanied by his girlfriend's puppy Snoop.
Heading out from the Pharazyn St property where he lived, Abraham, wearing a red cut-off beanie with his orange hair poking through the top, headed north before cutting through an industrial area to the river bank, where he sat on concrete blocks.
He had time on his hands. The owners of the house where he shared a sleepout with his girlfriend were conducting an inspection, and because no dogs were allowed, Abraham was making the puppy scarce.
As he sat, he aimlessly patted the dog and twirled the webbing strap from a sports bag around his hand – "just sitting there", he would later tell police.
Minutes later, Abraham and Mrs Alkema's paths crossed and something dark and terrible took hold of the young man described as polite and respectful by people close to him.
Before he knew it, Abraham was behind Mrs Alkema, the webbing strap wrapped twice around her throat and knotted tightly. The pair struggled briefly before Mrs Alkema was dead, strangled with a force that left injuries consistent with those of a hangman's noose.
In a desperate bid to cover up his terrible, random crime, Abraham pulled Mrs Alkema into nearby bushes, pulled her top up to reveal her breasts and pulled down her pants to give the appearance of a sex attack, before crudely covering her body with a handful of leaves.
Police later said they believed Abraham might have planned a sex attack but lost his nerve when he saw Mrs Alkema's face and realised she was dead.
He took her green jacket and returned to Pharazyn St, giving no appearance of what had transpired.
"Cool jacket, eh?" he boasted to his 16-year-old girlfriend, who he saw in their street.
Few noticed any change in Abraham. No one will ever know for sure what went through his mind when he pounced on Mrs Alkema, a woman he had never seen before.
He would later tell police that he was inspired by the Friday the 13th series of horror movies, and that he wanted to hear a woman scream.
But that does not seem to fully explain the randomness of the attack – one of the few motiveless murders in New Zealand history.
Despite the jury's verdict, the woman who knows Abraham best believes wholeheartedly in his innocence.
Abraham's foster grandmother, Monte Karena, who raised him from about the age of five years, describes him as "a very kind boy, very respectful to me, to everyone".
Reluctant to talk publicly about his background she believes he was pressured by police.
"I know my moko and I know he didn't kill anyone. I keep praying that the real murderer will be caught," she says.
After speaking to Abraham in prison she is convinced he provided a false confession, cracking after hours of interrogation.
"I asked him, 'Did you do it?' He said, 'No Nan, I was just so tired, I just wanted a few minutes sleep so I told them what they wanted to hear so that I could get some sleep'.
"He was an innocent boy taken into that kind of environment and questioned for hours upon hours, going to work, having little sleep, coming back, being questioned again and again. In my heart, as a grandmother I know he did not do this."
She says Abraham did not know his rights and did not have a lawyer present during the hours of interrogation. "He just said anything just to shut it all up."
Crown prosecutor Grant Burston told the jury the confession could not have been false because Abraham had provided details only the killer would know. "Common sense tells you no one would admit to blatantly killing a woman and stripping her clothes off her if he didn't actually do it."
Mrs Karena told the jury at Abraham's trial in the High Court at Wellington that she had never seen him become violent with anyone.
"He got a bit mad with the other children – not that he'd ever hit out or anything, he just grumbled a little bit – a normal boy's reaction to a lot of spoilt children."
Abraham went to live with Mrs Karena in Whangarei, but they soon shifted to the lower North Island, eventually ending up in the tiny town of Ratana, just outside Wanganui. There Abraham and seven other children were homeschooled by Mrs Karena.
He received some formal education at secondary school, spending two years at Wanganui's Kokohuia School, but failed to gain any formal qualifications.
Socially, there was not a great deal to do in Ratana but Abraham mixed with other teenagers from the Baha'i faith, she said. He had often helped his foster grandfather fix cars and after leaving college decided to pursue a career as a mechanic.
He commuted to Palmerston North for training and graduated with a New Zealand Qualifications Authority certificate in mechanics, but was not able to find work in Ratana or nearby.
Abraham worked from time to time at family businesses in nearby Marton, which is where he was introduced to his girlfriend.
When Abraham turned 20, Mrs Karena decided it was time for him to "leave the nest".
She bought new clothes for him, so he would look nice for job interviews in Wellington. She folded them and packed them carefully into two secondhand blue sports bags, on which she had neatly written his name in black marker pen.
In court 15 months later she was shown the bags and asked to identify them. Devoid of the new clothes she had packed with such hope, the bags had become evidence, a strap off one used to strangle Mrs Alkema.
There had been nothing in his childhood to suggest Abraham was suffering from any mental illness, Mrs Karena told the jury. He had been physically fit and well except for a few bouts of bronchitis.
After giving evidence, Mrs Karena had asked to be able to say something. But her request was declined. She had wanted to express her sorrow to the Alkema family, she told Justice Young.
Another who knew Abraham well while he was growing up was Anthony Lovich. Abraham had lived with Mr Lovich and his wife for some time and had worked for them in their used clothing store, takeaway shop, cafe and truck stop.
Mr Lovich said Abraham had a strong religious upbringing with high moral values. He did not socialise outside the Ratana Pa community and was isolated from bad social influences such as drugs and alcohol. If he went anywhere else an uncle would go with him.
When, in mid-April, Mr Lovich learned Abraham had been charged with murder he sent two parcels which included three prayers, a Baha'i photo for his cell wall and pens, envelopes and paper so he could write to his whanau.
Abraham had been busy writing in prison, not to the whanau as Mr Lovich had hoped, but to himself. A number of abusive letters written by the "real killer", warning Abraham to keep his mouth shut, were handed to police by defence lawyer Bryan Yeoman after Abraham claimed to have received them in prison.
A police search of his cell revealed another piece of Abraham's writing – a poem entitled Death Poem, describing the scene immediately after the murder. "I saw a lady in a bush . . . with grass and flowers sitting upon her," it reads.
The poem goes on to say the killer had made him insane and warned Abraham not to say anything or he would do the same to his family.
The officer in charge of the case, Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Oxnam, said that when he received the letters from Mr Yeoman his first thought was the similarity between those and the letters written by convicted double-murderer Bruce Thomas Howse, who was found guilty last year of killing his stepdaughters Saliel and Olympia Aplin in Masterton.
Howse, who was on remand at the same time as Abraham was in the same wing. He too had written "real killer" letters. Mr Oxnam sent Abraham's letters to a handwriting expert, who determined they were written by Abraham.
"Both sets of letters (those by Howse and Abraham) appeared to be attempts to avoid conviction. There was a possibility the two had colluded over letter-writing," Mr Oxnam said.
While police believed at the beginning that Abraham's murder of Mrs Alkema had been a stranger killing, there was some evidence that he might have stalked her before, Mr Oxnam said.
In one of the letters, Abraham talked of seeing her walking before and in a statement to police he described Mrs Alkema walking at her "usual" pace.
Whatever the reason, even Abraham now seems to realise the enormity of his crime. Even as he was tightening the strap around his victim's throat, Abraham was asking himself why he was doing it, why he was taking the life of a complete stranger.
As her face turned to blue, he began counting the terrible toll of his crime – not the chance of being caught, not the prospect of years in jail, but the enormity of such a random act of violence.
"The face is going to haunt me all the time now," he told police as he described Mrs Alkema's lifeless body. "I'm going to end up the rest of my life thinking about her because of what I've done to her, poor innocent lady."
©Copyright 2003, The Dominion Post (New Zealand)
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