Monday, September 6 was a good day for most New Zealanders living outside of the nation’s most populous city, thanks to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s confirmation that by the end of the next day the nationwide Covid-19 alert level 4 lockdown would end for all but Aucklanders.

Although they resided inside the Auckland region boundaries, equestrian and horse breeder William Willis and his partner, lawyer Hannah Rawnsley, appeared to see the announcement as an opportunity for them to cut loose as well.

At 3.49pm, just minutes before Ardern’s expected announcement, Willis purchased Jetstar flights from Wellington to Queenstown for that coming Thursday. At 6.03pm, two hours after Ardern outlined the details in a post-Cabinet meeting press conference, the couple bought separate Air New Zealand tickets for the first leg of the trip, from Hamilton to Queenstown.

Little did they appear to realise, a judge would comment three months later at a district court hearing attended by most of New Zealand’s major media outlets, that those purchases would set off a “firestorm” of intense media interest and “almost unprecedented public vitriol”.

Court documents obtained by the Herald this week show what unfolded next, and how the pair reacted after an anonymous tip-off to police caused their Wānaka holiday, taken on the sly, to disastrously unravel after three-and-a-half days.

Willis takes the blame

Willis, 35, and Rawnsley, 26, both pleaded guilty on Tuesday to failing to comply with an order under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, which carries a maximum punishment of six months’ prison and a $4000 fine.

Wellington-based Judge Bruce Davidson, who was called in to oversee the Papakura District Court hearing due to the pair’s ties to the Auckland legal community, convicted Willis and ordered him to pay a $750 fine.

Willis – the son of Auckland-based district court Judge Mary-Beth Sharp, who at the time was a shareholder in his equestrian business – said it was his idea to take the trip and that Rawnsley was initially reluctant.

“But I think you, Ms Rawnsley, quickly gave in to his persistence,” Judge Davidson said during the hearing.

He discharged Rawnsley without conviction, agreeing with defence lawyer Rachael Reed QC that such a mark on her record might unnecessarily destroy the young lawyer’s already “significantly jeopardised” career over a one-time mistake. The judge ordered her to pay $500 to charity.

Prosecutor Natalie Walker had sought convictions for both as well as sentences of community service.

“This is a situation where general deterrance is important,” she said. “We have a crisis that threatens our entire community.”

Vaccination rates were low at the time, she added, meaning a single case could have sent a region back into lockdown. The couple had already been to multiple locations by the time they received negative Covid-19 test results, she said.

But the judge ultimately took a softer stance.

“This was far from a case of a deliberate flouting of the rules by someone known to be carrying the virus,” the judge said shortly before announcing his sentencing decisions. “I severely doubt whether either of you gave any serious thought to the consequences of what you did – particularly the media firestorm that erupted.”

Hay delivery, then a flight

At 7.20am on Thursday 9 September – roughly three weeks into the strict lockdown for Auckland and two days after the rest of New Zealand adopted relatively light alert level 2 restrictions – Willis and Rawnsley pulled up to the State Highway 1 Mercer checkpoint at Auckland’s southern border.

They were in a Toyota Hilux, with a load of hay in the rear deck tray, and had legitimate paperwork allowing them to cross into Waikato.

Both had been granted travel exemptions just over a week earlier through Willis’ business Matawhio Sports Horses Limited, a stud farm which also offers services such as supply and delivery of hay to customers.

“The exemptions allowed the defendants to make ‘multiple business trips’ between the Waikato and Auckland alert levels for the purpose of ‘transport of goods related to animal health and welfare’,” according to a summary of facts submitted to the judge prior to sentencing.

Their exemptions explicitly noted, however, that crossing the border for other reasons constituted a criminal offence.

They arrived at a Matangi property near Hamilton at about 8.30am and delivered the load to a business associate of Willis’ who had previously ordered hay and had asked for another delivery next time Willis was in the area. Willis had called him two days earlier saying he planned to head that way – even though, police noted, the client wouldn’t need the feed for another two weeks to a month.

After unloading the ute, the couple then asked the client for a ride to Hamilton Airport and left their vehicle at the property.

In court on Tuesday, the prosecutor suggested the unneccesary hay delivery was simply a ruse so the couple could cross the border and continue on with their trip.

“In my view there were likely dual purposes at play,” the judge later surmised.

But he didn’t let the couple off the hook, pointing to a statement from Willis that the final decision to go ahead with the holiday was last-minute, after dropping off the hay and learning of the ski conditions in Wānaka.

“I find that hard to accept,” the judge said, adding at another point: “Clearly, the trip was planned and pre-meditated… No other conclusion is rationally possible.”

Three airports and a bottle shop

At 8.59am, the couple checked in their luggage – weighing a combined weight of 27kg, police noted – with Air New Zealand. Their flight to Wellington lasted from 10.53am to 12.05pm, and they departed Wellington Airport just over an hour later, arriving at Queenstown at 2.50pm.

They then caught a shuttle to a Jucy rental car facility and left for Wānaka in a hired Suzuki Swift around 4.11pm.

Willis, it was noted by police and later by the judge, showed a level of deception as he filled out paperwork to hire the car, giving a false Waikato home address. Rawnsley paid for the vehicle, which they were set to have for four days, with plans to drop it off on Sunday.

“After visiting a liquor store and going through a fast-food drive through, the defendants drove towards Wānaka, which is approximately one hour’s drive away,” the summary of facts states, noting that during the drive they both received the results of Covid-19 tests they had taken a day earlier.

Upon arriving in Wānaka, they stopped at a grocery store before driving on to the holiday home owned by Willis’ family.

'Someone has narked'

The next day was somewhat uneventful, according to police accounts, which noted that Willis made purchases at four locations “relating to food, drink and recreation”. One of them was to book a ski trip with several other people for the following day.

But it was a critical day for authorities who would go on to investigate the case, thanks to a tip to the police online portal for reporting Covid-related breaches.

Officers with Counties Manukau Police were tasked with visiting Willis’ home address to follow up on the tip. They did so at 9.30 the next morning and were told he wasn’t home.

At that point on Saturday morning, Willis was already two hours into his ski outing with several others while Rawnsley remained in town.

Shortly after the police drop-in at his Auckland property, Willis abruptly abandoned his ski day and made his way back to Wānaka, court documents state.

“They came looking for me at the farm,” he texted later that morning to someone only identified in court documents as “an associate”. “Someone has narked.”

By 11.32 that morning, Rawnsley had purchased flights home for the following day.

Wānaka police arrived at the holiday home an hour later.

Meeting police

Rawnsley told an officer when he arrived at the property that her partner was out driving around.

“Police waited outside the address… for approximately 40 minutes for Mr Willis to return from his drive,” court documents state. “However, no car was observed returning to the address in that time by the officer. At around 1.05pm, Mr Willis walked from the house with Ms Rawnsley and spoke with police.

“While speaking to [the constable], Mr Willis stated they ‘travelled from Auckland to Cambridge with a load of hay, using a ute and trailer, before speaking with a buddy in Wānaka who said the snow was really good.'”

The couple then showed the officer “a series of travel exemptions and Covid-19 test results”, including a letter from the New Zealand Law Society for Rawnsley that would later become a topic of debate in court. The letter was issued to Law Society members to help them cross alert level borders for priority court procedings.

Walker, the prosecutor, suggested that by volunteering the document Rawnsley was likely to offer the false impression to the police officer that she was in Wānaka for court business. Reed, the defence lawyer, argued that wasn’t the case at all. Her client merely showed one of several documents to the officer after she was asked, among other things, what she did for a living, Reed said.

Ultimately, the judge agreed that it wasn’t intended to be deceptive.

The officer left and returned at 4.45pm, after consulting with health authorities. He instructed the couple to return home and await a court summons for failure to comply with a Covid-19 order.

Back to Auckland

The following morning, Willis and Rawnsley called the police crime reporting centre to share their travel itinerary. They left Queenstown Airport at 2.08pm and arrived in Hamilton, after a stop-over in Christchurch, at 7.50pm.

“Yeah bro don’t worry,” Willis texted an “associate” 20 minutes later. “…We never signed in and we have said to be low risk by risk assessment team so they won’t be contact tracing.”

They picked up their ute at the client’s property in Matangi and headed north to the Mercer border checkpoint, returning back to Auckland at 9.49pm.

Officers manning the checkpoint had been told to let them pass without arrest because the matter was already being dealt with.

That same evening, police didn’t name the couple but used them as an example in a press release updating the media on lockdown compliance. The incident reflected “a small number of disappointing incidents… at Auckland’s southern boundary in recent days”, the police statement said.

“This calculated and deliberate flouting of the alert level 4 restrictions is completely unacceptable and will be extremely upsetting to all those who are working hard and making great sacrifices in order to stamp out Covid in our community,” the statement continued.

'Firestorm'

Multiple media outets quickly seized on the unnamed police example. Media interest in the case grew when reporters discovered, although not yet publically disclosed, that one was a lawyer and the other was the son of a district judge.

Interest in the case reached a fever pitch the next day, after media outlets were notified that the couple had hired a senior lawyer with a prestigious Queen’s Counsel title and that the lawyer was seeking emergency name suppression for the couple – a rare legal manoeuver when someone hasn’t yet been charged.

They also asked a judge to bar media from reporting who Willis’ mother is. The Herald, among other media outlets, hired legal counsel to oppose the proposed restriction.

Judge Davidson granted the pair suppression for 24 hours following a teleconference that Monday evening – exactly one week after they booked the tickets – but warned they would have to take it up with the High Court at Auckland if they wanted it to last beyoind the following day.

On Tuesday night, with just minutes to go before the deadline to file a request with the High Court or give up the name suppression fight, the couple relented. They instead issued a media statement outing themselves and admitting the trip was “was completely irresponsible and inexcusable”.

“We are deeply sorry for our actions and would like to unreservedly apologise to the Wānaka community, and to all the people of Aotearoa New Zealand, for what we did,” the statement read. “We understand that strict compliance is required to stamp out Covid-19 from our country. We have let everyone down with our actions, and we wholeheartedly apologise.”

Judge Sharp, Willis’ mother, issued a statement shortly thereafter also denouncing the trip and saying she had no knowledge of it.

Police filed charges one week later.

'People know'

At the hearing on Tuesday, which was the couple’s first appearance due to two prior postponements caused by Auckland’s lingering lockdown, Judge Davidson took into account the public apology and the impact of media coverage.

While mainstream media seemed to get the facts straight, he said, the case took on a life of its own online and on social media, which he described as “out of control”.

“I have to say I’m shocked by its inaccuracy, hostility, anger and vitriol,” he said, pointing to emails to Rawnsley’s employer and Facebook comments that amounted to death threats – provided to the court by the couple’s lawyer. “What unfolded was probably the most nasty and vitriolic I have ever seen.

“Both have been victims of savage social media attacks. Clearly this has affected both of you.”

The proscution had asked that Willis be sentenced to between 100 and 130 hours of community service and that 60 to 80 hours be assigned to Rawnsley. Their lawyer, however, argued that Willis has been struggling to keep his business afloat and wouldn’t have time to complete community service too.

She argued her clients had, at worst, mid-range culpability and had posed little risk to the public due to mask use, social distancing, testing themselves before departure and keeping within their bubble. Additionally, she noted, Willis has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and he hadn’t been on his medication for the month prior to the trip.

She pointed to other cases in which lockdown or MIQ absconders had received light sentences and two high-profile cases in which police haven’t yet said whether they will file charges at all – one involving two Auckland women blamed for causing Northland’s snap lockdown in October and an investigation involving a high-ranking police officer accused of crossing into Waikato for non-sanctioned purposes.

Given what has transpired since booking the flights, the judge said he believes neither of the first-time offenders will end up as defendants in court again. Appearing before the judge via audio-video feed, Rawnsley wiped away tears and Willis also dabbed at his eye.

“The gravity of the offending is relatively low,” Judge Davidson said said, adding that the real risk for Rawnsley is her career aspirations.

“All of these people know what you did.”

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