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Tuesday, June 27, 2017 - 5
eiha McLelland was on the
verge of becoming a teenager
when teacher Sam Back entered
For one year — an exciting,
explosive, extraordinary year — Back
courted Reiha’s attention.
With thousands of text messages and
thousands of e-mailed words, the 41-year-
old competed for her time, demanded her
attention and consumed her life.
Then she died.
She was 13.
Late on July 31, 2014, her father Bruce
McLelland walked the hallway of the
family’s rural East Coast house to check on
Reiha before going to bed himself.
There was no pressing need. Reiha seemed
to be getting back on a stable path after
months of anguish over being unable to
continue seeing Back.
Bruce opened the door to his 13-year-old
daughter’s room and the world collapsed.
“I had flashbacks to that night for quite a
while,” he says, crying as he thinks back on
his daughter’s suicide. “ For a long time it
was hard to get any meaning out of life. A
lot of things didn’t make any sense.”
Now Bruce and his wife Hinemoa, believe
they have started to make sense of what
happened. They believe things went seriously
wrong when Back came into Reiha’s life.
Last December, the McLellands sat
through the final week of the inquest into
their daughter’s death.
With off-and-on hearings, the inquest
limped from the start of spring to the cusp
of Christmas. It brought many inside the
Gisborne courtroom to tears.
Coroner Carla na Nagara had shed her
own tears from the judge’s seat before calling
an end to evidence.
Her finding is meant to provide answers to
the questions raised by Reiha’s death. How
could a brilliant girl from a solid home who
seemed so engaged with life then take the
steps to end her own?
The question of Back’s role in Reiha’s death
was a constant throughout the hearings.
“I believe it’s as simple as if she had a
different teacher . . . she would still be here
today,” Mr McLelland said. “ I think that ’s
Back has since been struck from the
register of teachers. His partner Angie
Mepham, also a teacher, was complicit in
Back’s misjudgment yet escaped with a
But the path to Reiha’s final days involved
There were the mental health professionals
who saw her; the police called to investigate
her relationship with Back; the senior
detective who was managing the officer who
carried out the investigation while chairing
Back’s school’s board of trustees. There was
also Gisborne Intermediate, which did not
fire Back after it learned of the relationship.
“ We’re learning a lot of stuff backwards,”
Mrs McLelland said.
Each new bit of information was a clue in
the mystery of their daughter’s death.
“No family can go through this, have
a child lose their life, and there not be
lessons,” Mrs McLelland, a district nurse,
said. “ Reiha was far too important, too
beautiful a girl with so much ahead of her.
There have to be some lessons learned from
this, as painful as it has been.
“I don’t want in the future another parent
coming to us and saying, ‘ Why didn’t you do
“ We have to be able to look that parent
in the eyes and say, ‘ We did everything we
could — everything in our power to help’.”
Reiha was born in Invercargill and raised
a Southland girl until age seven when the
McLelland family moved to the East Coast.
A large part of the shift was the desire to
have the children grow up immersed in their
Ngati Porou heritage.
They moved to a 1600ha sheep and beef
farm 40 minutes’ drive from the city but
distance was never a barrier to the children
embracing the world.
One by one, the children left for university
until it was only Reiha waiting for the
7.10am school bus to Gisborne.
While her world was small, she embraced
all she could within it. She learned music
and played guitar, took to athletics and was
competitive in team sports — basketball,
cricket, hockey, netball, sevens. Academically
she was strong with a creativity beyond her
Reiha met Back at Gisborne Intermediate.
He was Canadian, with a casual attitude and
a relaxed manner towards the children he
Back came from Ontario, that part of
Canada which is so far south it doglegs into
the United States.
He would tell the inquest that his home
life was difficult as a child, with a violent,
alcoholic father. He stayed local, studying
at McMaster University and gaining a
BA while playing amateur baseball for the
Glanbrook Grizzlies. He later studied radio
communications at Mohawk College and
worked in the regional government ’s public
Aged 30, he moved to New Zealand
and enrolled at the Christchurch College
of Education before taking up a role at
Gisborne Intermediate. He was an active
teacher, involved in camps, sports and other
extra-curricular activities. He had a youthful
vigour that made him popular among staff
Such exuberance meant Back was known
to Reiha and the McLellands when he
became her teacher in her second year of
There was no indication then, or through
the year, of the closeness which developed in
the September school holidays.
As school break approached, Reiha asked
for extra time to finish a narrative writing
assignment. Back agreed, and the pair began
e-mailing to discuss the work.
At that stage, she was 12 and Back was 39.
Mrs McLelland still struggles to
“This happens on television. It doesn’t
happen in your own family. This doesn’t
happen to people like us. You know your
children. This can’t be happening to us. ”
The exchanges quickly became informal
— she called him “Sammy Boy” and “Big
Boy ” while he called her “Darling” and
“ Reihahaha”. The advice from Back strayed
from course work to poetry, to the familiar
“Do we ser ve death or does death ser ve
us?” Back wrote to Reiha, who had told him
of having suicidal thoughts.
The exchanges were also undercut with
apparent deceit. They started discussing the
writing project but it was the private poetry
on which they lingered. And when they
discussed Back calling her parents to arrange
for the girl to be dropped at school, it was
this personal link they conspired to keep
“They don’t actually know about my poetry
— honestly, I would kinda prefer them not
to,” she wrote, planning the conversation
Back would have with her parents.
He replied: “I can keep poetry out of it.
What do you want me to tell them though?”
Such exchanges, revealed in documentary
evidence submitted to the inquest, left the
McLellands suspicious of other statements
Back later made.
When asked about the first of up to 10
nights Reiha stayed at his house — October
23, 2013 — he spoke of how the girl arrived
in such a mess he and Mepham were
compelled to let her in.
“It was pouring. Reiha was soaked to the
bone,” he explained. Metser vice data shows
almost no rain fell on Gisborne that day.
There was 0.6mm at noon, 0.2mm at 11pm,
either side of a shower at 8pm that was so
small it did not even register 0.1mm.
As Back and Reiha conspired to spend
time together, the McLellands remained
They would look back, a year down the
track, and try to pick out clues which would
have shown how Reiha’s world was turning
Was it Reiha’s determination to eat organic
food? Should more have been read into her
being picked up by police wandering on a
What if they had known of a report by
Back to the Gisborne Intermediate social
worker about Reiha self-harming? The
report, after the September school holidays,
seems to be the only time Back raised the
girl’s disclosures, yet her family was never
Reiha was approaching high school,
summer and becoming a teenager on a path
of poetry and praise from an older man.
“ Who knows what will be next,” Back
wrote to Reiha, “ but if you’re around I’m
sure it will be amazing”.
She bared her soul to Back. On November
17, 2013, she wrote: “99% of me wants
to die, 1% of me is utterly terrified of the
things I will miss when I’m gone.”
As they drew closer, she sought to end the
secrecy. “Can I visit Saturday,” she asked,
“and should I tell my parents where I’m
Back replied: “...if you want to talk to your
folks about it, feel free, but it might be a bit
On another occasion, she told Back she
was “going to talk to my cousin today about
our unique friendship” and “how I think I
could bring it up with my parents”.
But Back responds: “ You remember what
we talked about and there is no hurry. I
know it appears urgent sometimes but we
have time. ”
Hinemoa and Bruce point to those
exchanges as evidence of Reiha’s underlying
“ We’ve done a good job raising the kids
with those kind of values,” says Hinemoa.
Bruce: “He persuaded her to hold off, to
think about it. ”
How close were they?
Reiha sent Back a poem at 8.05pm on
“His eyes, his aroma, his shadows;
“They were there, he was there;
“I could feel his eyes, his aroma, his shadows,
“They were getting in me. I was weak.
“His voice. Giving me ideas, changing my
mind well I tried not to lose it!
“His eyes, his aroma, his shadows were looking
for a battle, they found one;
“Against stronger eyes, stronger aroma and
“He was defeated and has been before.
“But next time, he’ll be stronger, he’ll build
himself up, just to be knocked down again.”
They sat outside and watched the stars.
Back talked to her about Venus, named after
the Roman goddess of desire, love and sex,
which sat bright in the evening sky. They
sent messages about Venus. He helped draw
it on her arm.
Back later told the inquest he went into
the “summer holidays (hoping) Reiha would
no longer be involved in my life”.
Yet, he called her “darling” and “ma fille”.
And when Reiha did not acknowledge
him, he prompted her. When she went to
Southland for a family wedding, she had
not sent Back a text by noon. “ Where is my
‘good morning big boy ’?” he wrote.
“Good lunchtime big boy,” she texted back.
At the wedding, Reiha danced in her
father’s arms. She smiled and danced and
Bruce and Hinemoa had no idea about the
relationship until March 2014, five months
before Reiha died.
Reiha had left the region for boarding
school. In her first month there, she
confided in staff that she was self-harming.
The school contacted the McLellands,
concerned it was unable to meet Reiha’s
needs, and negotiated an exit.
“I feel like running away,” she texted Back
as she headed home.
Back: “ That will not help in any way.”
Reiha: “I mean to you.”
She came home, that long drive from
Gisborne into the country (texting Back on
the way: “I just passed you!”) and back into
her family’s embrace.
Reiha ate dinner, watched television,
sprayed herself with insect repellent and said
When Hinemoa later walked down the
hall to kiss her daughter goodnight, she
found Reiha’s room empty.
“Home was Reiha’s safe place,” she said.
“ Home was the one place you should feel
safe so it didn’t make sense why she had
The McLelland home is out in the boonies.
There is no cellphone ser vice. The first
reception area is 5km from the house. The
next is 12km away, at the main road.
At 10.01pm, Reiha texted Back: “I’ve
reached ser vice.” Back responded an hour
later: “I’m calling you back and am freaking
out right now. ” An hour later, he texted: “On
my way. ”
By then, the McLellands had searched
the gardens around the house. Sometimes
the children would drag blankets out to the
trampoline and sleep there — but there was
no sign of Reiha.
The police had been called, and when
constable Andrew Trafford arrived from
Tolaga Bay he did so with Back, Mepham
There is only one road into the McLelland
home and that is where Trafford found Back
and Mepham parked in a dip that shielded
headlights approaching the farmhouse. The
McLellands believe Back and Mepham were
trying to convince Reiha to return home at
the point Trafford arrived.
The McLellands were baffled by the
teachers’ presence, more so that Reiha would
seek solace in Mepham’s arms. As far as they
knew, the woman was a stranger to their girl.
Back’s presence, also, made little sense.
Were there any warning signs at school
last year, Hinemoa asked Back, unaware the
teacher was texting his daughter dozens
of times a day at that stage. Back offered
nothing: “I ’m listening to what you’re saying
and don’t want to read too much into it.”
When Mepham came inside, she was
asked if she knew the girl. No, she replied,
although she had seen her across the
playground at Gisborne Intermediate.
Reiha was taken to Gisborne Hospital
to be checked out by the adolescent
mental health team. After a week she was
transferred to the Regional Rangatahi
Adolescent Inpatient Ser vice in Porirua.
Mrs McLelland had travelled with Reiha,
and after settling her daughter received a
distressing call from Gisborne. One of the
hospital staff had seen Back lying on Reiha’s
bed, holding her hand, and formally logged
“There’s something not sitting right,”
Hinemoa recalls thinking. “ That ’s when I
asked the nursing staff if they could bring
me Reiha’s phone. ”
She found Back’s mobile number —
supplied that night of March 25 — and
found Reiha had saved it under badly
translated French meaning “my best true
And then she found text messages between
Back and Reiha arranging a sleepover.
“I was thinking maybe Friday or Saturday
night,” Reiha texted to Back.
He replied: “ The deal is, as always is, as
long as your bases are covered; mi casa; su
Reiha: “Don’t worry. Don’t I always have
Mrs McLelland was stunned. “ I only went
back four to six weeks but I was very scared.”
Mrs McLelland stopped searching the
phone: “I couldn’t go back any further and I
thought, ‘This has to go to the police’.”
That was April 3, four months before
In the time that followed, Reiha returned
to Gisborne where she received mental
health treatment at the local hospital,
including from a psychiatrist employed at
the hospital on a part-time basis.
After Reiha’s death there was an internal
audit into Tairawhiti District Health Board’s
practices and systems for adolescent mental
health. There were numerous failings.
The people who treated Reiha have offered
apologies for poor decision-making during
treatment. The critical decision, around
which the health board now has an explicit
policy, was withholding from Reiha’s parents
an express statement by the teen that she
intended taking her life.
They withheld the information because
Reiha had made it in confidence — poor
judgment, they now acknowledge, but driven
by a belief it was an aberration because she
had sounded optimistic.
There was also a police investigation,
carried out by a constable training to be a
The constable was normally super vised
by detective sergeant Theo Ackroyd. He
was the police officer in charge of the child
protection team and also chairman of the
Gisborne Intermediate board of trustees.
He declared a conflict of interest and had
nothing to do with the investigation, yet
his name appears on key paper work in the
inquiry — including the decision to halt the
inquiry and lay no charges against Back.
An internal police inquiry into Ackroyd’s
actions ended with his resignation from
police at the end of April 2017.
The McLellands have complained to the
Independent Police Conduct Authority,
with the hope it will examine Ackroyd’s role
and what they believe to be failings in basic
That includes the decision to make no
recording of the investigating officer’s
inter view with Back after almost two
months of investigation.
At that point, the investigating officer had
reviewed almost 4000 text messages sent
over three months and thousands of words
of email conversation.
Testimony at the inquest claimed the
detective asked Back: “ You’re f******
her, aren’t you?” Back denied it, and has
always denied any physical aspect to his
relationship with Reiha.
It nags at the McL ellands, because
they cannot shake the belief — based on
testimony from Reiha’s psychiatrist that
Back was “grooming” their daughter — that
it would have gone that way, if it had not
Evidence from an expert psychiatrist who
testified for Back did little to ease their
concerns. Back’s expert said the material
would be seen as grooming had it been
written by someone who had a history of
sexually predatory behaviour.
So, there was concern around how
seriously the relationship was investigated.
Back and Mepham have confirmed no one
sought access to Back’s computers, e-mail
accounts or social media accounts.
There are also questions for the school. It
was fully briefed by police in May but only
started its investigation into Back in June,
after a complaint by the McLellands.
Even though it was given some of the text
messages Back had exchanged with a former
pupil, the disciplinary committee — led by
Ackroyd — did not fire Back.
Former principal Donald Niven, who
was not a member of the committee, later
told the inquest Back’s behaviour was
“completely out of line” and he “would
not have been surprised if the board had
Instead, the disciplinary committee, gave
Back a warning for serious misconduct.
The McLellands’ complaint triggered
an automatic referral to the Education
Council’s Disciplinary Tribunal.
Ackroyd sought to have Back’s name
legally suppressed by the council. In a letter
written less than a year after Reiha died,
he explained that Back was able to keep
teaching because the issue involved “only
one student ”.
Ackroyd suggested no other students were
at risk. He also said the school’s view was
that there was no link between Back and
Even so, another argument for suppression
of Back’s name — and Gisborne
Intermediate’s identity — was the possibility
a link might emerge. He said naming Back
“may prejudice the ability of the Crown to
prosecute any future criminal charges that
may be laid against Mr Back” or anyone else.
He put his police email address at the end
of the letter, inviting the tribunal to contact
him if it had any questions.
The Education Council heard the case
against Back and Mepham in February
2016. D uring the hearings, Ackroyd and
Back met for lunch at least once during the
The council’s tribunal was much tougher
than Gisborne Intermediate’s. It struck him
from the Register of Teachers and gave
Mepham a caution.
The tribunal described Back’s evidence as
“a curious mix of self-regard, lack of self-
awareness and exculpatory material”.
Bruce McLelland says he listened and
thought: “Every question he was asked, he
had a spin on it.”
Back told Reiha’s parents at the hearing:
“ I apologise wholeheartedly for any pain
and frustration my actions may have caused
you. I tried my best with Reiha. I treated her
with respect, and had the highest of hopes
While the McLellands are convinced Back
— m etaphorically — pushed their daughter
off the cliff, they can not understand how
every other safety net failed as she fell.
Reiha’s struggle with the ‘burden of secrets’
Reiha’s world changed on April 4, 2014.
That day she wrote in her diary of her
frustration she could not contact Back and
Mepham. The content of the diary is subject
to a non-publication order from the coroner
but her frustration was strongly expressed.
Her mobile phone had gone when she was
admitted to the adolescent inpatient ser vice
at Porirua — house rules for the privacy of
other patients. It would be put in storage
until fetched by Hinemoa who searched it to
find furtive messaging between her daughter
Frustration turned to devastation
when Reiha learned the temporary ban
on contacting the teachers had become
permanent. Again, the words are subject to
a non-publication order but it clear she was
Her psychiatrist would later tell the
inquest the separation was akin to a
Reiha’s life changed massively simply
through the reduction in contact. The
police investigation revealed almost 4000
text messages between Back and Reiha
between the end of December, 2013 and the
beginning of April.
An analysis of the text data done for the
McLelland family shows they texted dozens
of times a day, sometimes sending more than
50 messages between early morning and late
In some cases it was one-sided. Reiha
did not text Back for two weeks in March
when she was at boarding school. He texted
her constantly, once telling Reiha she was
making his feelings “sore” by not responding.
By the time the ban on contact had been
established, Reiha had support in the form
of family and mental health care. Yet no one
had the information they needed to give
Reiha the help she needed.
The extent of the communication was
known only to police. The medical experts,
Reiha’s parents, guidance counsellors at
her new school — all had little to go on to
understand how intense it had become.
Her psychiatrist later spoke of Back
“grooming” Reiha, through a relationship
that was “increasingly intimate” in which
“ boundaries . . . were gradually eroded by . . .
keeping it secret ”.
And while he had assumed the relationship
was sexual, he was unaware of the depth
of the email and text conversations so was
unable to grasp the extent of what the teen
was dealing with.
He believed, though, Reiha was not unwell.
“I saw her struggle with the burden of
secrets which I did not see as a mental
The psychiatrist would write how “Reiha
struggled with conflicting emotions and
allegiances. She was racked by guilt at times
regarding her part in the relationship, fearful
of seeking help, and of being open and
honest with mental health professionals.”
The refusal to disclose, if discussed with
police, might have shown how optimistic
the investigating constable was when she
arranged an inter view with Reiha for mid-
It became an anticipated and pivotal
event for Reiha, with her expressing a
determination to take her life in a diary
entry on May 1, 2014 — after she had
spoken up for Back and Mepham in the
police inter view.
As it happened, Reiha refused to speak to
police. Cameras were never turned on, the
trained inter viewer couldn’t pry anything
from the girl.
At home, though, Reiha had started to
open up. Hinemoa believes the fact the
secret was out was a great relief to Reiha,
who felt “a sense of less burden” because she
no longer needed to hide the existence of
“S he could talk to us about it,” says
Hinemoa. “I could see how sad she was.”
She recalls saying to Reiha: “I know you’re
And the look her daughter gave her? “She
was glad I knew it was hard but she couldn’t
She talked to Reiha about boundaries and
the rules which governed teachers. Reiha
already knew because — she said — Back
had warned he could lose his job over their
She remembers Reiha saying: “Mum, that
just goes to show you how much he must
love me if he’s willing to lose his job because
of his love for me. ”
Hinemoa: “At that point I remember
thinking; ‘You absolute mongrel bastard.
You’ve completely manipulated her’.”
How hard it must have been, Hinemoa
says. “ We all remember our first love —
normally you have someone you can share
share this with for fear of him losing his
At that stage, the McLellands had hope.
Reiha’s diary, on June 16, 2014, reflects a
positive upswing in her mood.
On June 20, the McLellands were told
the police inquiry was over and no charges
would be laid.
Three days later, Hinemoa filed a formal
complaint with Gisborne Intermediate.
The complaint led to a board of trustees
disciplinary hearing on July 15. Back was
told in writing on July 28 he had been found
to have committed serious misconduct and
was on a final warning.
Over the next three days, there were three
calls to Reiha’s phone from an unlisted
number. The McLellands believe it was Back
attempting to reach Reiha. Back denies he
placed any calls, or made any attempt to
Reiha attempted to take her life the evening
of July 31 and died the following day.
There was no attempt by police to check
phone records after Reiha’s death. The
identity of the caller remains unknown.
The inquest of Reiha McLelland
And that ’s how we got to a Gisborne
courtroom in 2016 where everyone had
The McLellands were led through their
testimony by their lawyer, Moira Macnab.
She’s a fierce advocate who was unrelenting
in her cross-examination.
The coroner’s office had a lawyer. There
was a lawyer for the psychiatrist, who
testified that he believed Back’s actions
were grooming; and there was one for the
When asked about the effusive text, Back
responded: “ Yeah that ’s very kind of me to
say isn’t it?”
He told the court he had no training in
how to deal with a student like Reiha. His
teacher training in Christchurch had no
lessons on how to run a “safe” classroom or
the professional role of a teacher.
Macnab tried to cut to the heart of it,
asking what he was doing swapping e-mails,
poetry and text messages with a 13-year-old.
Back told Macnab she wasn’t thinking of
his feelings. “I don’t think you’re really trying
to consider the situation that I was in and
what I felt, because for me, those emotional
pleas, the things that she talked about that
were troubling her, they cut me deep too.”
She asked him why he sent Reiha a song
with specific descriptions of a method of
suicide, asking: “ Who is the adult here?
Don’t you think that it’s really your role to
be thoughtful about these things?”
Back: “I suppose that ’s possible.”
They were nearly there, they think. Reiha
had turned the corner, separated from the
teachers and — as can be seen in her diary
— was happier.
Hinemoa: “ While she was looking ahead
we still knew she was in a sad place. We
weren’t on track yet but we were getting
Bruce: “It was just going to take time. We
thought we were making progress.”
There was no time after the evening of July
31, 2014, the night Reiha died. Since then,
life has been about sur viving while peeling
back their daughter’s secrets.
The pain is such that they wonder how
others endure. Hinemoa says: “ You start to
wonder, if it was a car crash or a sickness,
would that make the pain any different?”
In the end, the coroner ruled that the
relationship with Back did not cause Reiha’s
death but was the “most startling of the
factual matrix preceding her death” and a
“primary stressor to Reiha in the last three
months of her life”.
The names of Reiha’s psychologist and
psychiatrist are suppressed, as is the method
by which she took her life.
— New Zealand Herald
Hinemoa and Bruce McLelland, with a picture of Reiha.
Teen’s betrayal led to death
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