"I hate him very much. I don't know how to say it in English but in our Cebuana dialect we call this particular person a pisting yawa*."
- Antonio Gotingco
It was the 24th of May 2014. A Saturday. Fifty six year old Blessie Gotingco had just finished work and was on her way home. She lived with her husband of thirty years, Antonio Gotingco, in North Shore, Auckland, New Zealand.
They met when they were just children as they attended the same school in Ceba City in the Philippines. They dated for a few years, got married and had three children, Bea, Vincent and John, together. The family of five moved to New Zealand in 2004. Blessie loved living in Auckland as it allowed her to do the kind of things she loved which included exploring, walking and visiting new places. She had a job she enjoyed and great friends there. The children loved it too. Blessie had just celebrated her birthday with them on the 20th of May. She had lunch with the three children at a pub in Greenhithe and a family dinner that evening at Urban Turban in Wynyard Quarter. Her husband Antonio could not join them as he was on a work trip abroad. He was due to return on the 15th of June. Blessie couldn't wait to see him again. They were a very close family and were happiest when they were all together.
Blessie Gotingco with her family
That day, the 24th of May, Blessie left work at 7pm. She worked at Tower Insurance and was supposed to finish work at 5pm that day but she agreed to do a couple of extra hours' overtime. Due to that, she had not arranged a ride home. Her coworker, Behula Shah, collected Blessie that morning and gave her a ride to work but as she finished at 5pm, she was gone before Blessie finished. There was a bus that stopped close to her home though and Blessie got the Birkenhead Transport's 973 bus from Lower Albert St to Birkdale Road when she finished work. The bus stop was a 700m walk to her home. It should have taken her just five minutes to walk home. But Blessie never made it home that night.
Blessie's daughter Bea was at work that night and got home at 3.15am the next morning. She noticed Blessie wasn't home and phoned her two brothers to ask if they knew where she was. They didn't. Bea began looking for her mother and with the help of a Find my iPhone app, she found Blessie's phone on a grass verge in Salisbury Road which was just 100 yards from their home at 6am that morning.
Around that same verge, she found Blessie's shoes and her tupperware container that she used for her lunch which she brought with her every day to work.
When the police arrived, they initially thought they were dealing with a hit and run due to where Blessie's possessions were found and how they were scattered around the verge. Had she been struck by a vehicle and was now lost and disorientated somewhere?
But it became apparent that something more sinister may have taken place. A young girl who lived on the street heard the sound of a woman scream around the same time Blessie got off the bus at the stop closest to her home. A BMW car was seen overtaking the bus Blessie was on and that led police to question twenty eight year old Tony Douglas Robertson. He told police that he had no idea who Blessie was or what happened to her. Police knew Tony well. He was a convicted sex offender and abductor and had been released from prison just five months earlier. He was subject to an extended supervision order, which included 24-hour GPS tracking, and he was being monitored at the time. He had a curfew and had to be home every night at 8pm until 6am the next morning. Due to the GPS tracking device which was an ankle bracelet, police were able to establish where he was around the time Blessie went missing. They discovered that he was on the street Blessie was on at around the same time. They also discovered that he spent time that day, the 24th of May, at Eskdale Cemetery and returned there the next day. That prompted police to search Eskdale Cemetery.
With the help of a police dog, two days after Blessie went missing, her body was found under pine scrub in Eskdale Cemetery. Her body was covered with foliage and debris and she was wrapped in a sheet. She had been raped and stabbed to death.
Police arrested Tony and he was charged with rape and murder. He pleaded not guilty.
It was the Prosecution case that Tony saw Blessie, who was a complete stranger to him, walking home as he was driving down Birkdale street. It was their case that the evidence would show that he deliberately knocked her down and as a result of that impact, her leg broke in two places. They believed that Tony got out of his car, picked Blessie up and put her in the back of his car and drove back to his Birkdale apartment just before his 8pm curfew kicked in. Due to that, no alarm was triggered as he was home at the time he was supposed to be home at.
A witness testified that they saw Blessie get off the bus at Birkdale and walk away briskly. They saw a white sedan-like vehicle overtaking the bus before speeding down Salisbury Road.
The Court heard testimony from an eleven year old girl. She testified that she lived on Salisbury Road with her family and on the night of the 24th of May she was cooking dumplings in the kitchen with her sister when she heard the sound of a car and a high pitched scream at around 7.30pm:
"It was driving up the hill from Eskdale and it stopped. Then I heard a high pitched scream from a lady, and then there was nothing after that."
The girl told the Court that she then heard the car drive off in the direction of Birkdale Road.
The Court heard that it was the Prosecution case that when Tony got back to his apartment, he parked his car in the garage beneath his home and raped Blessie. It was their case that he also strangled her and stabbed her in a frenzied and violent manner before slashing her throat.
The Jury heard that early the next morning, Tony wrapped Blessie's body in a bed sheet and put her body back in his car and drove her to the Eskdale Cemetery and dumped her body there. They believed that he waited until the next morning to bring Blessie’s body to the cemetery so that his curfew would be finished.
Forensic scientist Rian Kier Morgan-Smith testified that luminal testing was carried out at the area where Blessie’s body was found and that revealed a bloody path where her body had most likely been dragged. He testified that the blood trail indicated that a blood stained object had been pulled through the grass and the evidence showed that it was likely Blessie’s body was carried through some of the cemetery before being put on the ground and dragged to the place where her body was later found.
The Court heard about the injuries that Blessie sustained. Pathologist Dr Carl Wigren testified. He told the Court that Blessie had been stabbed multiple times and the stab wounds were deep and one was so violent that the links of Blessie's necklace were found embedded in its depths.
Dr Wigren testified that when Blessie's throat was slashed, it severed her windpipe. He told the Court that he was certain all of her injuries were inflicted on her when she was alive as he found blood in her lungs.
He testified that Blessie had so many injuries that it was difficult to say which one caused her death but it was likely a combination of strangling and blunt force trauma that she suffered as a result of being struck by the car and the stab wounds and the incise wounds:
"I think it's difficult to attribute death to one singular injury, but if I were to make a guess, more probable than not guess, it was the stabbing that hastened the death."
The Court heard that Blessie had several blunt force trauma injuries including broken ribs, broken legs, broken or missing teeth and abrasions to her body, which were consistent with post-mortem dragging.
The Court heard that he believed that Blessie was strangled first, as a way to subdue her and that the stabbing and incise wounds happened after. There was evidence of manual strangulation. There was bruising on her neck, she had a fractured thyroid, and broken capillaries in her eyes.
Dr Wigren testified that Blessie could have survived being struck by the car if she had received medical help but instead she received further injuries which included sharp force injuries and that caused her to bleed substantially:
"Essentially, she bled out."
When asked if there were any defensive wounds on her body, Dr Wigren told the Court that there didn’t appear to be but he explained to the Jury that that was not unusual in circumstances where a victim had died in such a violent manner.
Dr Wigren testified that a number of samples were taken from Blessie’s body and sent for DNA testing and Tony’s sperm was found on her body.
The Court heard that as Tony was wearing a GPS anklet at the time, they could see that he was at the Eskdale Cemetery hours before the murder took place and they believed he was there to find a spot where he could hide a body. Due to that, they argued that the murder was planned in advance. They believed he selected the place where he would hide his victim's body before he had even selected his victim. The Prosecutor in the case, Kieran Raftery, said:
"This was not you looking for drugs, this was for you already looking for possible locations to dump the body of the person you were going to rape."
The same device showed he revisited the area early the following morning and that was when the Prosecution believed he dumped Blessie's body there. The Crown Prosecutor, Michael Walker, highlighted why those two visits to the cemetery were important to the case. He told the Jury that they showed "the defendant was planning to kill someone" and that:
"His trip to the cemetery was scoping out where to dump the body."
The Court heard that blood was found in Tony's car and a knife and some of Blessie's belongings were found buried in the back of his property. Traces of Blessie's blood was found on the knife.
The Court heard that there was damage found on Tony’s BMW. Detective Constable Shane Page testified that the BMW appeared to have been damaged recently:
"A majority of the rear passenger's seatbelt was missing. When I dismantled the seatbelt, being the anchorage point, there was about a metre, I think 940mm, of the
seatbeltwas missing. It had been cut."
He testified that there was further damage inside the car which included cuts and scratches to the leather seating in the back of the car. He told the Court that a sizeable area of the foam inside the back seat had been replaced with a different foam and that there was blood on the passenger's seat and in the boot of the car.
Auto glazier Michael Nelson testified that on the 26th of May he was called to Tony's home to repair a broken BMW windscreen. He told the Court that Tony told him that he needed the screen repaired as soon as possible. Michael noticed that the windscreen had already been removed from the car which was unusual. He further observed that there was blood inside the car.
Michel testified that he asked Tony what had caused the damage to the windscreen and Tony told him that joking around with mates caused the glass to smash. He said that his friend slipped on the bonnet and crashed through the glass.
Sergeant Blair Atkinson of the serious crash unit testified that he believed Blessie was knocked down deliberately. He told the Court that he believed that she was struck while she was walking on the pavement and he based that belief on the fact a tyre imprint was found on the verge near to where her belongings were found.
It was the Defense case that Tony caused Blessie's death but that her death was not intentional and was in no way planned. It was their case that Tony accidentally knocked Blessie down that evening and he panicked afterwards and inflicted all the injuries that were found on her body to make it look like a random attack. But, he insisted that the injuries were inflicted after Blessie was already dead. During the case, Tony sacked his legal team and defended himself.
He told the Court that he denied the Prosecution’s version of events and said that he panicked after he hit Blessie accidentally. He told the Court that the evidence would show that. He said that the only reason he put Blessie in his car and drove home was because of his curfew:
"I put her straight in my car to comply with my curfew that demanded I be there at 8pm, and stay there until 6am."
He said that the Prosecution were wrong and the attack wasn’t premeditated and that there were no witnesses to the car accident. He said that he was at the cemetery on the 24th and 25th of May because he was trying to buy drugs.
In relation to the DNA evidence that was found, he argued that it was "microscopic" and scientists had "struggled to isolate and test".
The Court heard contrasting opinions from another pathologist in relation to the injuries that Blessie sustained. Dr Chapman had reviewed Dr Wigren’s report and did not agree with him that Blessie had been strangled. A report by Dr Chapman was read out in Court and in the report, he suggested that Blessie’s neck injuries, in particular the fractured thyroid, could have been caused by another blow to that area. The report stated that the bruising on Blessie’s neck didn't appear to be from fingertips.
He also didn’t agree that it was likely that she had inhaled her own blood after being stabbed. That would indicate that she wasn’t alive at the time the stab wounds were made which would align with Tony’s version of events that he caused the stab wounds to make it look like a random attack after Blessie was already dead.
Tony gave evidence. He told the Court that when he put Blessie into his car, he thought she was already dead and said he tried to make her death look like a random attack because he was high on methamphetamine at the time.
He also claimed he didn't rape Blessie. In relation to the DNA evidence, in the form of his semen that was found on Blessie's body, Tony told the Court that that was not the result of rape but instead was due to contamination and police malpractice.
The Jury didn't believe him. They found him guilty of rape and murder.
Tony was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum non parole period of twenty four years and preventive detention for the rape. In New Zealand, preventive detention is an open ended jail term which means that Tony can be imprisoned indefinitely or recalled at any time.
He appealed on the basis that Blessie's death was accidental and as that was the Defense case, the Jury should have been given the option to find him guilty of manslaughter instead. His appeal was rejected. He appealed to a higher Court, the Supreme Court, and they ruled that he did not raise anything during the Trial to suggest the alternative charge of manslaughter could have been reached. He was refused leave to appeal further.
Tony was granted name suppression during the Trial because of his previous convictions for child sexual offenses and as a result his criminal history was not revealed to the Jury. It was only after Tony's sentence was handed down, that the full details of his criminal past could be revealed. When he was just eighteen years old, he kidnapped and molested a five year old girl in Tauranga in 2005. A local officer acted on instinct and believed that Tony may be involved, set out to find him and found him with the girl and the girl's pants were down. He was found guilty of seven charges, including indecently assaulting the girl and attempting to abduct two other children, and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Tony was released in December 2013, just five months before Blessie was murdered, and he breached the conditions of his release twice in a matter of weeks. Due to that he was deemed a danger and as such, an order was made stating that he had to be monitored for a decade and was required to wear a 24 hour GLS tracking anklet. That was the maximum period of an Extended Supervision Order. The Judge in that case, Justice Edwin Wylie, made the order due to the risk he posed:
"I am satisfied that Mr Robertson poses a very considerable risk indeed. I consider that it is likely that he will commit an indecency on a child under the age of twelve years, and that he will abduct a child for the purpose of sexual connection.
The evidence compels the conclusion that he is impulsive, and that he is unable to control his anger and aggression. Mr Robertson has a predilection for, and a proclivity towards, sexual offending. He has shown no remorse. Indeed, he continues to deny it."
Despite that order being given before Blessie's murder and despite the fact that Tony was wearing the GPS anklet and was being monitored at the time, it did not deter or indeed prevent him from the violent attack he inflicted on Blessie. The circumstances surrounding his release from prison, the order requiring him to be monitored and stating he was a risk, caused extra pain and anger for Blessie's family at a time of already unimaginable grief. He should have never had the opportunity to rape and murder her if he was being monitored.
A Government report was conducted but it found there was no fault in the handling of Tony's case on the part of police or Corrections and that Tony alone was responsible for Blessie's death. They made twenty seven recommendations as to how management of high risk offenders can be improved.
Blessie's husband Antonio spoke to the media after the report was released and said that his family were disappointed and devastated by the inquiry's findings and he believed that Corrections:
"do not have the capabilities to manage high risk sex offenders. In fact, we think think the offenders manage them."
The Department of Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, said:
"Tony Robertson had served his full eight year term in prison for his previous offense (the kidnap and molestation of a five year old girl), having been denied parole on three occasions because of his lack of remorse."
The residents of Birkdale, Auckland were not told he had been released into their community.
In a statement released by New Zealand Police, Antonio said that Blessie:
"is the light of our home and without her we will be lost in darkness. Right now we are just trying to pretend that everything is OK but deep inside we are broken hearted. We have been robbed, she is gone too soon.”
*someone dark and evil
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"My family and myself are good, decent and very honest people."
"He is the single most blatant, arrogant, yet curiously effective liar and manipulator of the truth.”
- Deputy District Attorney Christopher Evans
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