New Zealand renews search for father who vanished into forest with children 2 years ago

Police in New Zealand offered an 80,000 New Zealand dollar reward and immunity from prosecution on Tuesday to anyone who could help them secure the safe return of three children missing since December 2021

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Credit: AP

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand authorities offered a reward and immunity from prosecution Tuesday to anyone who can help their search for three children who have been missing since their father vanished with them from a remote rural community more than two years ago.

The December 2021 disappearance of Tom Phillips and his children — now aged 8, 9 and 10 — has confounded investigators. They are not believed to ever have travelled far from the remote rural settlement where they lived, but there have been no credible sightings of the family for months.

Police officers converged on the township, Marokopa, population 69, to seek fresh leads in a case that has fascinated the country of 5 million people.

Phillips is accused of committing an armed bank robbery while on the run in May 2023. He allegedly shot at a member of the public and fled on a motorbike with a passenger who investigators believe was one of his children. Phillips no longer has legal custody rights for his children, Acting Detective Inspector Andrew Saunders said at a news conference in the city of Hamilton, south of Auckland, on Tuesday.

“These are not the actions of a good father,” said Saunders. The children have not had access to formal education or healthcare since they went missing, he added, and police have concerns “for the welfare of the children who have been living in isolation for the past two and a half years, with no connection to others."

Saunders said that a reward of 80,000 New Zealand dollars ($49,000) — large by New Zealand standards — and an offer of immunity from prosecution is targeted at people who already know the family’s whereabouts. The authorities have long said they believe that Phillips has had help concealing his family.

The reward, approved by New Zealand's Commissioner of Police, expires in two weeks, Saunders said.

“We don’t want them waiting months and months to decide,” he said. “Come forward and tell us where the children are.”

It is not the first time Phillips prompted national news headlines after disappearing with his children. The family went missing in September 2021, provoking a 3-week land and sea search after Phillips’ truck was found abandoned on a wild beach near where he lived. Authorities eventually ended the search, concluding the family might have died, before Phillips and the children emerged from dense forest where he said they had been camping.

He was charged with wasting police resources and was due to appear in court in January 2022, but weeks before the scheduled date, he and the children vanished again. The police did not immediately launch a search because Phillips, who is experienced in the outdoors, had told family he was taking the children on another trip. He never returned.

Less than a year later, with the trail cold, the authorities said Phillips and the children might have moved elsewhere in New Zealand and changed their names. But the search began again after several sightings of Phillips in 2023 in the same region where he had vanished, including in the alleged bank robbery.

The children’s mother was happy the reward had been offered, Saunders said. A spokesperson for the family could not be contacted for comment.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP