Grieving family farewells Michael Asher who was found dead in Auckland

Michael Pikikotuku Asher.
Michael Pikikotuku Asher. Photo credit: Supplied / Angelique Asher

By Sam Olley for RNZ

A family grieving the death of Michael Pikikotuku Asher say their perception of police has "somewhat improved" since their handling of his daughter's disappearance 20 years ago.

The 73-year-old who was Iraena's father, was believed to have died of a heart attack.

He was reported missing for three days, before his body was found on 2 January in bush, in West Auckland.

His whānau said they were not only grieving him but also his daughter who disappeared in 2004.

Iraena Asher was never found. Police were criticised at the time for not taking her emergency call for help seriously, and sending her a taxi instead of a patrol car.

Iraena's sibling Angelique Asher told RNZ her father, called Piki by close friends and family, was "a real character".

"He was really funny, and he was very quirky. And so everybody has been sharing stories about a lot of his humour, his quirkiness, but also his shyness and quietness."

She said: "Those stories that have been shared and all of the laughter has been a wonderful healing and a wonderful honouring and remembering of Dad."

Piki shared whakapapa to Tūhoe, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Pūkenga and a tangi was held after his body was returned from a coronial post-mortem.

"With the very many years of having such deep grief for our sister Iraena, his heart was so broken from that. It seems like a horrid alignment for him to die of a heart event," Angelique Asher said.

"And of course losing our mum three years ago - that heart of his was just so broken."

Although he was not found alive, Angelique said it was a relief to have Piki's body, because that closure had never come when Iraena disappeared.

In 2012 a coroner ruled Iraena was likely swept out to sea and drowned, and that the police decision not to send a patrol car was a contributing factor in her death.

Police accepted those findings and later apologised.

Angelique said Piki's disappearance was "extremely difficult ... for everybody to be taken back to that place of October 2004" - when they were searching for Iraena.

The wait before Piki was found "felt like an age".

"We always held hope that Dad would be found alive. But the fact that he was found was a relief - and the fact that it was nothing untoward, no foul play."

Angelique Asher said her whānau found it much easier to work with the Waitākere police this time, than in 2004, and their perception of police had "somewhat improved".

"Because we're dealing with the same police station, we I suppose carry some cynicism, resentment, distrust with the police in general. But to be especially working with and having to listen to, communicate with, keep in contact with the Waitākere police, was quite triggering for a lot of our whānau.

"And I have to say, it was a significant improvement from what I can remember, and from the involvement I had at the time. This shows an improvement."

But she said the progress now "doesn't change how things were back in 2004".

"It's not brushing the brush over all of the police now, as to what happened then. That will never change - how badly they responded, and how badly they behaved and communicated with or didn't communicate with our family."

Angelique Asher said her family had also changed since.

"We've also all grown and matured in different ways as well. And so we don't have to hold a horribly, distrusting relationship, particularly with that police station or that police group, region anymore...

"I wouldn't be reluctant to contact them or engage with them again like I would have been, even two months ago."

Angelique Asher and her two surviving sisters "really cherish" the incredible job their father did, overcoming his own struggles.

"To really improve as a father, as a parent, and give us so much more than he had. And we just really appreciate that he had to struggle through losing a child... And then he had to lose his number-one rock, which was my mother, and then continue to struggle on his own."

In particular, Piki had reconnected with Māoritanga later in life, including tikanga and te reo, after growing up in a time when these were not acknowledged in many parts of Aotearoa, and he felt disenfranchised.

"We really honour and respect our father for having had to overcome a lot of barriers from his generation, to have the courage to do that as an older man," his daughter said.

"We really love how our father sought that out for himself, and did his best to do that for us... It inspires all of us daughters of his to continue on in that journey."

Angelique Asher also said Piki was a dedicated, church-going Christian and his whānau had comfort he was now "with the Lord".

In a statement to RNZ, police said: "Extensive enquiries were undertaken, including utilising Search and Rescue teams, to locate Mr Asher after he was reported missing".

"Police extend our sympathies to his whānau and thoughts remain with them at this difficult time."