Raglan murder: Mark Garson sentenced to life in prison

Bianca Buckley and Sean McKinnon.
Bianca Buckley and Sean McKinnon. Photo credit: Facebook

Warning: This story contains graphic details.

The man who murdered Australian surfer Sean McKinnon and threatened to kill his Canadian fiancee has been sentenced to life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 15 years and 6 months. 

McKinnon was shot dead by Mark Garson in the early hours of the morning in August 2019 while he and his fiancee Bianca Buckley slept in a rented campervan.

The couple was enjoying a surfing holiday when they were woken by Garson who was banging on the window of their camper. 

The court heard Garson wanted to die and had asked his friend to shoot him. 

"You said recoil prevented you from shooting it yourself. Your friend traveled to Raglan with you despite his reluctance," says Justice Christine Gordon. 

Garson was high on methamphetamine when he arrived in Raglan, pulling up next to McKinnon and Buckley's campervan. 

Justice Gordon says Garson went into the bushes with his friend who refused to shoot him. 

He then left Garson stranded on the roadside. 

"You approached the camper and woke McKinnon and Buckley," Justice Gordon says.

"You told them you'd been left and needed a ride. McKinnon offered you a cellphone, but then you became aggressive when he didn't offer you a ride.

"You smashed a side window and then fired a shot into it. It hit McKinnon in the mid-right side of the abdomen."

Justice Gordon told the court Sean died from two shots - one to the head and one to the torso.

Shocked and scared, Buckley was able to escape, running 2.6 kilometres barefoot and in the dark to the nearest house to raise the alarm.

Garson then fled the scene in the couple's camper and dumped it in Gordonton near Hamilton with McKinnon's body still inside. 

In an emotional victim impact statement, Buckley spoke of her love for McKinnon. 

"I met Sean while surfing in Canada, and was immediately drawn in by his eyes and smile.

"He was fearless and sweet, the most beautiful human I've ever seen. We were two of a kind."

The couple had been enjoying Raglan the day of the shooting, Buckley saying she was too scared to surf that day. 

"Sean said 'we will try tomorrow'. Little did we know... tomorrow would never come." 

Buckley told the court she and McKinnon froze when they heard Garson circling their van and knocking in the darkness. 

"'I know you're in there', you threatened. So my partner poked his head out and asked how he could help you," she said.

"He tried to offer you a solution. Sean would've helped anyone in need." 

Buckley says Garson then pulled out his gun and started shouting "give me the f***ing keys to your car". 

"You smashed the window before we had a chance to concede to your demands," Buckley says.

"My naked body lying on the floor. Out of nowhere, you shot [Sean]. Straight in the liver point-blank.

"I heard him moan as his blood poured out, and he groaned 'you shot me'."

Sean McKinnon.
Sean McKinnon. Photo credit: File

The court heard even after being shot McKinnon still tried to diffuse the situation. 

"Then you shot him clean, at the base of his skull. It was not an accident."

Buckley says it was then she realised she was left alone with Garson and his weapon. 

"I begged for mercy, for which you responded: 'Yeah bitch, he's dead'.

"I'm never going to forget you said that."

Buckley says she asked Garson if she could have one moment to say goodbye.

"It was worse than the movies where you can hold your loved one and say goodbye. I didn't get that.

"You said 'no I'll take care of him'... as you shut the door between us."

The court heard Buckley then ran down the edge of a cliff to hide in case Garson decided to return. 

"A true f***ing horror story," she says.

"My whole world has changed since you entered the unthinkable." 

Speaking to Garson directly, Buckley said Sean should still be with her today. 

"But you took him away with two bullets."

Victim impact statements from McKinnon's family were also read. 

His sister Emmeline told the court her brother was special, handsome, funny, and full of life. 

She says her home and life were destroyed the day police came to her house in Australia and told her about her brother's death. 

"I called my family and told them he's been shot. Telling family down the phone was one of the most disgusting things I've ever had to do.

"After I called family, I lay on the floor and screamed. I have not had a moment of peace since."

Emmeline, who spent 17 years in the Australian police force, says she travelled to New Zealand straight after her brother's death. 

"I saw Sean dead in the morgue, the injuries told the story of his death," she said.

"I cut bits of his hair, but couldn't find a single piece that wasn't wet with his blood."

The court heard her brother's brutal death left her with little ambition, often unable to rise from her bed - only expecting bad news. 

Turning to face Garson in the dock, she told McKinnon's killer he destroyed so many moments. 

"Mark, you could've left Sean to be cared for, you could've treated him with dignity and honour. Given him a chance, or the very least lay him down on cold earth to die.

"He would've helped you, Mark.

"I wouldn't have, I would have taken that gun and pointed it at you."

The man who supplied Garson with the gun he used to kill McKinnon was sentenced for his part in the murder in July. 

Garson didn't have a firearms license so enlisted Roderick James Finlayson's help to buy it.

Garson reportedly told Finlayson it was for him to practice clay and duck shooting on a farm, and wanted "strong deadly ammo". 

Finlayson was sentenced to six months of community detention.