A man who fatally shot an Australian surfer in his campervan at Raglan has been sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 15 and a half years.
Mark Ronald Garson, 24, entered unexpected guilty pleas in October after being due to stand trial in November for the murder of Sean McKinnon and threatening to kill his partner Bianca Buckley.
Garson approached them in their campervan during the early hours of August 16 last year.
The couple had hired the campervan and driven to Raglan, deciding to spend the night parked at the gorge, which has panoramic views of the Tasman Sea.
During the early hours they were woken by banging on the window.
Some of McKinnon’s family watched this morning’s proceedings via audio-visual link, while his sisters Emmeline and Mary made the journey over the Tasman to look Garson in the eye and share their grief in the courtroom.
Buckley was the first to share her statement in the High Court at Hamilton this morning, startling Garson – who would go on to wipe tears from his face and bend over in grief – as she turned part-way through to go through the horrific details from that night.
She told him how they heard him knocking on the side, and all around the caravan, saying”I know you’re in there”.
Lying there naked, Buckley said McKinnon popped his head out and asked how he could help him, “in a non-threatening way”.
“He tried to offer you a solution. Sean would have helped anybody … given you anything that you needed.”
Buckley told Garson she had a bad feeling about him as he muttered “something like, ‘I have a gun'”.
Garson then demanded the keys to the campervan before smashing a window, and Buckley eventually getting cut from the glass, her naked body bleeding.
“Sean tried to reason with you … and without any warning you shot him, straight in the liver, point blank.
“He groaned and said, ‘Mate, you shot me’.”
However, McKinnon continued to look for the keys as blood poured from his body and attempting to defuse the situation.
“Then with no warning you shot him at the base of his skull, killing him instantly.”
She said she could only watch as he collapsed to the ground “watching his life leave him”.
“Then I realised I was alone with you and your deadly weapon.”
Buckley managed to stumble out of the van, covered in not only her blood but that of McKinnon’s, and stood before Garson naked with her hands up.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was stunned that a human being could do that … I begged for mercy, saying, ‘He’s dead’.
“You replied, ‘Yeah bitch, he’s dead’. You said that. I will never forget you saying that. You knew what you were doing.”
Garson then forced her back into the campervan to find the keys as he pointed the gun to her back, swearing at her and calling her names.
He then told her, “I’m not going to kill you, just give me the f****** keys”.
She eventually found the keys and asked Garson if she could have a moment with her fiancé before he drove off.
“No, I will take care of him,” Garson replied.
“You were so cruel,” she told him.
Garson then left and Buckley began running back towards Raglan along the side of the cliff, hoping that he wouldn’t return.
She told Garson that what he did “shocked the world” with a series of events that not even a director of a horror movie could script.
Garson had destroyed her life and her dream with McKinnon which were going to include a wedding and eventually children.
“I am forever changed.”
Garson fled in the campervan, dumping it on the roadside near Gordonton on the outskirts of Hamilton.
McKinnon’s body was still inside.
Roderick James Finlayson was sentenced to six months community detention for supplying the gun.
Family members speak
McKinnon’s sister Emmeline also turned to speak Garson near the end of her statement.
She looked him in the eye and told him that he could have left her brother behind to receive care or at least take his last breaths under the stars.
“To face the heavens so Sean could return to the heavens,” she told him.
Their sister Mary told the court she would never be able to reconcile her brother’s deathand her life would now never be the same.
“Since Sean has been gone, I feel like someone has blown out the sun.”
She said the blood had drained from her and a great weight had been drawn from her.
Choking back tears, she labelled his death meaningless, cruel and unprovoked; it occurred for no reason.
Having run to him when in need since a child, Mary, now a doctor, said she was of no use to her brother at all when he needed her most.
Instead, he was left to die alone on a cold and isolated road.
She said neither she nor her family were unaccustomed to death, their father died when Sean was 20. But at least the family was by his side when he died, she said.
“I would give anything to see him … lie next to him in the sunshine.
“He belonged to us .. our brother, our uncle, our son, and he was important.”
His other sister, Jess, speaking via audio visual link, said her brother was never judgmental, and was full of life.
“Sean’s death is on my mind constantly throughout the day and when I go to sleep. I can’t even get to sleep.
“My heart feels like it has been breaking on a daily basis.”
His death had affected her ability to socialise, be a parent and also her relationships.
Lachlan, Sean’s brother, said they were more than brothers, “we were best mates”.
His death had also had a “devastating effect on my everyday life.”
His thoughts are consumed with grief, but soon after followed by hate and the question, “why, why?’.
“Sean was a kind, caring, life of the party guy. He was generous to a fault.”
Garson’s lawyer Charles Bean said the shooting wasn’t a hate crime or a crime of vengeance, and his client was still baffled to this day as to why he pulled the trigger.
He said he was in Raglan with a loaded shotgun to shoot himself.
“He had made an arrangement for his friend to kill him that evening. We know that how Mark Garson came stuck in Raglan … is that while consuming methamphetamine, his friend had gone back to their motor vehicle and left.
“It doesn’t excuse but provides a context unlike other acts like this.
“Mark Garson didn’t pick up a firearm with any plan. He didn’t source it to commit a robbery.
“This gun was sourced for Mark Garson to kill himself.”
Bean said his client was binging on methamphetamine and suffering from depression at the time.
He had since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It doesn’t excuse but it certainly explains why, in the context of this senseless act, there was a firearm in Raglan that night.”
Bean said there was nothing that either he or his client could say that “could diminish the genuine tragedy of what occurred here”.
As for Garson’s history, by the age of 12 he was addicted to cannabis and aged 15 he was becoming addicted to methamphetamine.
He couldn’t recall, from age 20, when he didn’t have addiction issues, and by 24 “he was suffering his own delusions … in the weeks leading up to this took multiple attempts on his own life”.
His client had written letters of apology but knew that he was unlikely ever to receive forgiveness from the family.
As for the delay in entering a plea, he said Garson wasn’t mentally well enough to take instructions from until 2020 and then had his appointments repeatedly put off until finally seeing a specialist in August, and a report received by Bean in September.
The earliest he could get to court to enter a guilty plea was October 7.
He urged the judge to hand down a minimum non-parole period of 10 years.
'Makes for desperately sad reading'
Justice Christine Gordon said she was struck by the victim impact statements, including the bond Buckley had with McKinnon.
“She had found the person she was going to be with for the rest of her life.”
The close bond McKinnon’s family had was also evident, she said.
“It will be many years before they could come to terms with the grief that they are suffering.
“It makes for desperately sad reading.”
As for what happened, Gordon said although his friend was reluctant, Garson managed to convince him to come with him on the evening of August 15.
They drove around Hamilton before heading out to Raglan about 11pm, with Garson behind the wheel and smoking methamphetamine.
After stopping at Manu Bay they drove to Te Toto Gorge.
On seeing McKinnon’s campervan, Garson’s friend convinced him to drive further up the road and parking up.
They then walked into the bush and smoked more cannabis and methamphetamine.
“You gave your friend the firearm and asked him to shoot you … he declined. He put [firearm] down and made an excuse to go back to the car and left you on the road side.”
Garson then walked back to the gorge and began knocking on the campervan door.
Where to get help
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
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