Rebuilding a life after Raurimu killings

In 1997 Stephen Anderson went on a rampage in Raurimu, the central North Island settlement where his parents had a ski lodge. Anderson shot 10 people and killed six, including his own father.

Naturally enough some people wanted him locked up for life, but in the end he was found not guilty due to insanity and ordered to be held in a secure psychiatric hospital rather than prison.

Now he's gradually being allowed back into the community. So is he safe to be living among us?

"I guess in a way there are so many barriers I have to overcome to be considered Steve," he says. "I'd just like to be Steve."

But being just Steve isn't easy. Almost 18 years ago he shot 10 people, killing six of them, in one of New Zealand's worst mass shootings.

"Raurimu could have been even worse than what happened," says Anderson. "If I was just out to get everybody I saw, well, there would have been more victims. So I wasn't out just to get as many people as I could. That wasn't what happened."

This is the first time Anderson has spoken so publicly about his delusions, his treatment and what happened that day in 1997. We met Anderson on the 9:05, heading up the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington. He looks like a regular commuter with everyday freedom, but that isn't the case.

He's what's known as a special patient at the forensic mental health hospital in Porirua.

"We've had some recent publicity, which is something which occurs from time to time and that has a real effect on people – not only me but people who were affected by my actions years ago. So I think it's important to put a human face to events in the past and perhaps show people that I'm not the monster they might imagine."

Anderson has been granted leave and will spend the day at mum Helen's place, a place Steve considers a sanctuary. As part of his conditions, Anderson is allowed to go there two days a week. But he can only stay eight hours at a time before he needs to return to hospital.

"It means everything," he says. "We need our family. We need our friends. No one is an island as they say. I'm just so lucky to have my mum in my life. Things could have been worse on the day thinking back. I don't even think I would have survived without my mum's support in hospital or even in the day if something had happened to Mum."

"I'm just so pleased I'm here for him," says Ms Anderson. "I sometimes wonder what might have happened had I not survived that tragedy also and who would have looked out for Stephen. The comment was made at some stage, 'They should lock him up and throw away the key.' But people with mental illness can get well again. He needs to be given that opportunity to show how well he is and to get on with his life."

A jury found that Anderson was insane and so he was acquitted on all six murder charges and four of attempted murder. This means he doesn't have a conviction; he was found not guilty because of his mental state.

"I wake up to what's happened every day and so many other people have to deal with the fallout too," says Anderson. "This was a national shame, a national tragedy what occurred."

Anderson has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a chronic condition that alters a person's perception of reality. For much of the past two decades he's been getting treatment.

"I wish I could wave a magic wand and change it all and help those people," says Anderson. "I think the best we can do is show we are trying to make an effort. Given the opportunity, I can be a productive member of society. I can give back some of the goodness I have taken away."

Anderson says he is remorseful for what happened that day.

"Most definitely. I maintain a sense of regret for what's happened. I have regrets. Of course I'm sorry for what happened; it was a terrible mistake. It's been recognised for a long time that in that altered state we're not that person; we're not the person who you see before you now. So it's a difficult question to answer. What words can I say that would help people accept what's happened? What words can I say that would change their mind? I just have to accept that for some people, I will always be that bad guy. I will always be the guy that they want to blame."

So what exactly happened at Raurimu Lodge in 1997? What was Anderson thinking when he started shooting and took the lives of six people?

A troubled past

Anderson had a loving and supportive upbringing.

"I think as a child I had the perfect conditions. I had two parents that loved me. We lived in some beautiful homes in a good suburb of Wellington. I had everything I needed."

"Typical young boy I think – he liked getting on his plastic trike thing," says Ms Anderson.

There were trips overseas and of course regular visits to the family holiday home at Raurimu. The family lodge was built by Steve's dad, Neville, in the mid-1980s.

"I would have liked to have been closer to my dad, and I would have liked to have learned from him an awful lot more than I realised would have been valuable to me. The way we bonded was going out into the outdoors. I've got really happy memories from a really young age of going into the New Zealand bush and camping out and cooking over an open fire, doing a bit of hunting when I got a bit older."

But as Anderson grew into his teens, he became troubled and confused.

"I think I was coming down with depression and I didn't know how to label it as such. All I knew was the world didn't seem a very friendly place and I didn't like myself, and so that was a tough time in my life. So that's kind of where things that I'm consciously aware of probably started to get on a slippery slope."

Anderson started using cannabis. He'd had run-ins with police and in 1995, for the first time, Anderson was admitted to hospital and prescribed anti-psychotic medication.

"My compliance with the treatment was sporadic. Sometimes I took it and sometimes I didn't. But certainly before Raurimu took place I wasn't on traditional pharmaceutical medications for a period of some time. I think my parents were monitoring my use and I was pretending I was using the treatments, but it was like I said before – I couldn't tolerate the side effects of the pills."

Without the pills, Anderson began to lose his grip on reality. It was on February 8, 1997 when the delusions took over. The Andersons had invited guests to their lodge for the long weekend.

"Stephen only came with us because we were concerned he may harm himself being home alone by himself, at home being on his own, because he was not very well at that time," says Ms Anderson. "We wouldn't have knowingly put our friends in the way. None of us knew. Sometimes I think if we hadn't invited him up or insisted he came with us actually on that occasion, how different things might have been."

By the time they got to Raurimu, Anderson was seriously sick.

"I was deluded about the guests at the lodge and I thought I had to take action against them, and that's what I did," he says.

He was suffering from psychosis. He was paranoid, confused and convinced his father and friends were part of a conspiracy to end the world. His father, he thought, was the ringleader.

"I just felt totally alone, and that it was up to me basically to save the world. It sounds crazy, and it is. I didn't feel that I had a choice in the matter. So you think, if you have a choice I have to do this or the world will end, and even though I loved my father and my father loved me, I saw him as the leader of this group of people and he was first on my list of things to take care of that morning."

It was breakfast time on a Saturday morning when Anderson entered the room.

"I thought I'll give them a chance; I'll make sure that I'm taking the right action here. By how I interpreted their response, my mind found a way to take that as confirmation of the people that I thought they were, so I went to my room and I came back with a shotgun.

"My dad, he saw the direness of the situation, and he jumped up from the table and tried to take it from me and that's when he was shot. The place erupted into pandemonium and some people got away and some people didn't."

"When Steve's father was shot , he was the first one to be shot, I knew right then Stephen couldn't be reasoned with, and I am pretty certain that if I had gone up to console his Dad or try and talk Stephen out of it I don't think I would be sitting here today talking to you," says Ms Anderson.

"I think we would have had the same outcome. I would have been shot as well. So everybody scattered when they saw me moving."

"It is within the realms of possibility that she could have died that day had she not got to safety," says Anderson.

"I went through a window actually at the time and I heard other people getting away , but I knew some of them hadn't," says Ms Anderson, "by the gunshots that I heard later as I was rushing through and getting through the bush.

"I went next door to the neighbours to try and alert them to the fact that we needed to call the police."

By the afternoon, six people had been found dead, four others were seriously wounded and the police had closed in.

"I think it took a couple of hours for them to make everything what they considered safe around the place, and I was arrested by a couple of officers who were in a helicopter," says Anderson. "I thought that they were going to shoot me, and that it would all be covered up and hushed up somehow, so I had to, even though I was paranoid and quite fearful of the police even before Raurimu happened, I had to trust them and just let myself be taken."

"We were told that we could go to Waikeria Prison, and I said that I don't know if I can go and see him because I had such mixed feelings about what had happened," says Ms Anderson. "But I knew that he would be feeling very alone, very mixed up in his feelings. So who better to go see than his mum? So immediately when I saw him I just hugged him and just wanted to know that he was all right and I haven't looked back."

The two are now trying to move forward. Although they both know Anderson is a different man to what he was all those years ago, they realise some simply won't accept that, nor will they forgive.

"That's a fair enough opinion," says Anderson. "People can experience a psychosis and recover and I try to take responsibility for my mind these days. I do that in a number of ways. I take medication.

"I think I've let myself off the hook to some degree. I still have, like we discussed before, I've got the images and everything of what happened. I don't know if I've totally forgiven myself. I don't know how to answer that."

Eighteen years after that day, Anderson hopes he can make amends by contributing to society. He says he's ready. The question is – are we ready for him?

Looking forward

Anderson has become a talented jeweller, crafting and creating in gold and sterling silver.

"I just love creating something, and also the process where you have to devote all your attention to what you're doing gets you out of any negative stuff that might be going on. It's almost like being in the now or being mindful of your activity."

Such is the quality of his work, Anderson was recently asked to teach a class at Inverlochy House in Wellington.

"What was wonderful about it was that people took me as they found me and they gave me an opportunity."

But his time at the jewellery school didn't last. His boss didn't know about his past, the story made the paper and Anderson lost his job.

"Even though I'd mentioned to management a number of times, 'Hey, I'm a patient in hospital,' I guess it wasn't a full disclosure. I don't go around saying, 'Hi I'm Steve. I shot 10 people.' I think that it would have come out, that a little bit down the track I would have realised the importance of the need to do that."

There is no policy dictating Anderson must disclose his history. But what's obvious from the fallout at Inverlochy is that his past will always affect him. Even the court finding him not guilty through insanity is still a problem for some.

"It's very hard for some people to accept or understand, because he clearly did do the act, but he's not guilty in that legal sense," says clinical director at the central regional forensic mental health service Nigel Fairly. "Even just getting that understanding is quite challenging for people."

Mr Fairley has known him for 16 years and helps make decisions about his leave.

"I don't really want to comment on victims," says Mr Fairley. "We can only have huge sympathy for victims and the impact of what happened had on their lives. But that's simply just not true [that Anderson is hiding behind his disability].

"It's very hard to make 100 percent guarantee [the community is safe]. I don't think anyone can make that kind of guarantee, but what I can do is make a guarantee around the system and the checks and balances that are in place to ensure that public safety is taken account of and his own safety is taken account of."

The checks and balances include monitoring, restrictions on his leave and medication.

"There's a chain of command now," says Anderson. "To some degree I can move around in the community and do things, but I have to answer to my doctor, who has to answer to hospital health authorities, who have to answer to the ministry. If I don't play the game, they come down on me like a tonne of bricks."

That's exactly what happened in 2011 when Anderson had full leave in the community but then admitted using synthetic cannabis. He was recalled to hospital.

"I don't want to go down that path again," he says. "I would be back in a forensic unit and I don't want that. Also, it's not just about me. People are backing me up and it's almost like their reputation's relying on me as well. So I've got the doctor who's already walking a tightrope, as far as my leave and so on is concerned, and then there's the hospital authorities, and then there's the ministry, and I just don't want to do anything that's going to ruin that for both myself and them."

What about his regime of medication? As we know, Anderson didn't take his pills before the horror at Raurimu.

"I comply with doctors' orders; I take my pills. Although I've described them as mind-numbing, I mean just look at me. I've put on a lot of weight. That's the most obvious thing I have to live with, but I do get benefits. I'm less sensitive to the kind of trauma that I still perceive comes at me from certain things."

That perceived trauma comes in ordinary, everyday information, like television advertisements. In the past, he's interpreted such messages to be significant and directly relevant to his life.

"They describe them as ideas of reference, but I reckon they are genuine references from the system, so you know," he says. "But I live with them now. I find I take the pills, I can live with them."

That's the reality of Anderson's condition; it will likely be a lifelong battle. What's different now though is that he recognises his illness and is getting better.

"I think I've got tools now in my mind that help me cope, in the sense that for 18 years I've never been off my medication to the point where I got psychotic again. I can't see the same stresses and getting to that level ever again."

"I would hope that it's not an impossibility [for society to accept people like Anderson], but I do think it is a challenge," says Mr Fairley. "I would hope that programmes such as this would help stimulate the debate."

So what are the chances of special patients like Anderson reoffending? There have been two recent studies that show yes, there is a small risk. But it's a dramatically lower risk compared to reoffending by criminals who are released after being in prison.

His legal advisor and now friend, Michael Bott, thinks society needs to try harder to accept people like Anderson.

"In Stephen's case, he responds to treatment and has something to give back," says Mr Bott. "The question is: Is society ready to accept him? Are we mature enough and do we accept that people who are mentally unwell can become better and can become well and that they have something to give society? Or are we going to label them like lepers that we want to be distanced from?"

Some have already accepted Anderson. Chrissy O stocks and sells his jewellery, even though she's aware of his past.

"I realised that, but I wasn't going to let that change what I was thinking about him and how we were doing business. He's someone who is having to deal with what has happened and obviously he wasn't in a good space then but he is now."

The reality though is that not everyone will think like this. To a degree, it'll always be a bit of a hostile world for Anderson. What is clear though is that the health authorities do have confidence in him and he is stepping towards greater freedom. We've been told within six months, he'll likely be given overnight leave to stay at his mum's place.

"I guess I just want as regular life as I can manage, you know," he says.  "I'm not in control of what people think. They're entitled to think what they want and I can't really dictate that, but I can ask for another go and I'm not going to let them down."

"I do; I love my son," says Ms Anderson. "I want to see him get on with his life. He's got a lot to give, just let him do it. He's not a danger to anybody."

"I guess I just want to reassure people on some level that there are checks and balances," says Anderson. "Also put a face to that person that's been cast as just a terrible, evil man. And I'm not that person."

If you have any concerns about yourself or a loved one, you can contact the Mental Health Foundation through this link or call Healthline on 0800 611 116.


  • Reporter: Michael Morrah
  • Producer: Phill Prendeville
  • Camera: Arthur Rasmussen
  • Editor: Toby Longbottom

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