By Gabriella Payne
The man responsible for hitting beloved local legend Kelvin Rees, aka ‘Lefty’, with his bicycle and leaving him severely injured lying in a Pakenham car park almost two years ago has faced the County Court for sentencing.
Johnmaki Tatira, a 25-year-old homeless man with a long history of mental health issues, is facing a charge of negligently causing serious injury and a charge of failing to stop and render assistance after he hit and abandoned Mr Rees in the Main Street Plaza car park back in 2019.
Mr Rees, a one-armed man who was famous for voluntarily cleaning Pakenham’s streets every day, was busy sweeping the gutters of the Pakenham Place Shopping Centre car park at about 8.15am on 12 November 2019 when the incident occurred.
Mr Tatira, who was homeless and squatting in an abandoned shed in Pakenham at the time, was riding his bicycle erratically through the car park that morning when he collided with Mr Rees.
The court heard that Mr Rees was wearing a fluorescent yellow top at the time and was “clearly visible”, but Mr Tatira did not have “proper control of the bicycle” and failed to avoid Mr Rees, instead riding “straight into him”.
The impact of the crash caused Mr Rees to fall forward face first to the ground and slide about 30cm along the gravel, losing consciousness immediately.
In the collision, Mr Tatira lost his shoe and partially fell from his bicycle but instead of going to check on Mr Rees and render assistance, CCTV showed him putting his shoe back on before riding off towards John Street, making “no attempt” to check on the welfare of Mr Rees.
Nearby witnesses quickly rushed to Mr Rees’ aid, calling ‘000’ and providing CPR until paramedics arrived on scene.
When the ambulance arrived, Mr Rees was found unconscious, not-breathing and with no palpable pulse and paramedics worked hard to resuscitate him.
The air ambulance was later called to the scene and at about 10.05am, he was flown to the Royal Melbourne Hospital for treatment.
Mr Rees suffered a long list of injuries from the incident, including “blunt force trauma to his face and the front of his head” which resulted in “fractures and skin injuries to the front of his head, a bleed on his brain and a flexion/ extension injury to his neck affecting the spinal cord”.
The court heard that as a result of these injuries, Mr Rees suffered a cardiac arrest which lasted for over 30 minutes, and “were it not for timely medical intervention, death would have inevitably followed”.
Mr Tatira was arrested by police later that same day and has remained in custody ever since.
He has pleaded guilty to both charges and the court heard that he has “expressed remorse in a number of ways” for his fateful actions.
In his defence, Mr Tatira’s counsel noted that “ultimately, the offending was a tragic accident caused by Mr Tatira’s poor judgement”, but conceded that his actions were of a “serious nature” due to the severity of Mr Rees’ injuries and the lack of assistance rendered by Mr Tatira after the crash.
In his personal life, Mr Tatira faced his fair share of struggles before the car park incident occurred.
The court heard that he had struggled at school and dropped out when he was in year nine due to homelessness, as he was asked to leave his family home.
Since the age of 15, he has had ongoing polysubstance use and when he was 19, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but it is likely that he had suffered the effects of this illness for a period of time before his diagnosis.
Having been born in the Cook Islands and being a citizen of New Zealand, Mr Tatira is at risk of being deported at the end of his sentence.
His defence conceded that due to his ongoing mental health issues and struggles with daily life, his “prospects of rehabilitation are somewhat guarded”.
As at, but not including 7 May 2021, Mr Tatira will have completed more than 500 days of pre-detention custody.
He will be sentenced at a later date.