Real Life

A grieving father speaks out: ‘Halayna should still be here’

Losing his young daughter Halayna Wagstaff and her unborn child to violence has ripped Darren's family apart.

Two minutes before she lost her life, pregnant teenager Halayna Wagstaff desperately tried to escape the vice-like grip of her boyfriend. The 17-year-old, urged by others to take her partner Jason Anaru-Emery home from a party, had already been attacked by him earlier in the evening. He’d grabbed her by her neck and thrown her around a room in front of others.

Now parked up on the main street of Te Puke, the athletic teen made a desperate dash for freedom, opening her car door and running away from the father of her unborn child, only to be caught and dragged back into the front seat.

According to evidence given in the Hamilton High Court, no-one can be sure who was behind the wheel that winter’s night two years ago when the car sped out of the small Bay of Plenty township so fast it shook an oncoming van.

But 90 seconds later it had careened out of control, smashing into a metal guard rail of a bridge on the outskirts of town before going down a bank, only stopping when it hit a concrete power pole.

Halayna’s injuries were unsurvivable, her heart bursting the moment her body struck the dashboard.

Broken-hearted, Darren says he wishes the abuse she suffered had not been shrouded in secrecy.

It’s those last tragic minutes of her life that grieving father Darren Wagstaff, 47, would give anything to have saved his daughter from.

He’s talked to a mate who saw the couple’s car drive erratically along the main road, and even forced himself to watch the gut-wrenching footage of the deadly smash.

“I hit the bottle for three days,” the dad-of-six admits.

Darren is a man with a broken heart, wishing desperately his strong and stubborn middle daughter with a phenomenal smile had confided in him before she paid the ultimate price.

In the 18 months following her death, he claims many knew Halayna had suffered at the hands of her boyfriend. And he wishes the abuse she suffered had not been shrouded in secrecy.

“This code that your friends know but don’t tell … Friends need to tell because that’s being a true friend,” he insists. “If you know there’s violence, then don’t hold that code of silence.

“I understand the code of silence in friendship, but there are times things just really, really need to be spoken about.”

Halayna at age 16, teaching her dad to take selfies.

It’s been a difficult time for the Tauranga rugby league stalwart – he’s faced a marriage break-up, financial hardship, the death of a grandchild at birth and now he’s coming to terms with the tragic loss of Halayna.

Trying to make sense of why his newly pregnant daughter, her sister and her friends kept quiet about what he now believes was an increasingly violent relationship, he acknowledges there were tell-tale signs, but any attempt to address the issue was rebuffed by his daughter.

“I don’t think the violence was right from the start but came a few months in,” alleges Darren.

“I had a suspicion after three or four months and I even talked to her about it. She said, ‘Dad, you know I can deal with it myself,’ but he must have broken her.

“She had bruises on her arms that I knew were not normal bruises. Her sister told me that Jason had punched her in the arm. People are still too scared to tell me everything, so I’m still finding things out slowly.”

A father lost: “That banter that we had. I really miss her,” says Darren.

Darren says the young couple, who had known each other since meeting at Te Puke Intermediate, had only been with each other for a year and nothing seemed amiss to start with.

“They had a crush on each other at school but never went out,” says Darren. “They met up at a party and started going out.He seemed a really, really nice boy. He helped me shift house. I didn’t know the other side of it.”

Darren claims that he has since discovered his daughter, who had a rocky start to life – born three months early with a heart condition and weighing just 840g – was planning to get out of the relationship.

“I was told they had bought tickets to Perth and were flying out the following week, saying they wanted a change of life. Then this happened. But I later found out she was going to go there and come back to get away from him.”

Halayna was the light of any family gathering.

But the relationship ended on a far more tragic note, and Darren says he’s not spoken to Halayna’s partner since he turned up at her tangi and put a positive pregnancy test in her coffin.

“It says in the Bible that you’ve got to forgive, to move on. At the moment, I can’t. It sounds so wrong, but I can’t,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion.

“I’m struggling to deal with it. I’m just starting to grieve now.”

He says there is a gaping hole since his daughter died, with everyone dearly missing the girl whose generous spirit was the glue that bound the family unit.

“She was very strong,” he tells. “She would help anyone. She’d bring friends home and say, ‘This is my friend,’ and they would end up staying a couple of days. Then I would find out later the girls had problems with their parents.

Halayna, aged, two, three and 16. “Her smile came from the heart,” says Darren.

“Her smile was just phenomenal,” he continues. “It was genuine.

It came from the heart. She had such a love for life. Her nickname was ‘Boof’ because she never went around – she always went over or straight through. She did that in life too.

“She was the heart of the family, the one that kept us together. Her brothers and sisters are missing her terribly.”

Darren says the family held a three-day celebration of what should have been Halayna’s 18th birthday in November, four months after her death.

“We had a big party here for her,” he recalls. “We set up a big tent and it went all weekend. We invited family and made a birthday cake for her. It was a chance for us to do what she wanted to do for her 18th, which was to have a party with all of her friends.

“We had music playing and everybody was in their own buzz. The family did a huge haka and I spoke. It was a really good thing for her friends and to be able to celebrate because that’s what she would have wanted.”

Darren often visits Halayna’s grave.

But Darren, a youth worker, admits marking special milestones have been hard.

He explains, “I tried my best but Christmas didn’t feel right. I’m wondering, ‘Where’s the text? When’s my daughter turning up?’ That banter that we had. I really miss her.”

It’s meant that instead of celebrating Halayna’s new chapter as a mother and welcoming another grandchild to the whanau, Darren instead was tasked with unveiling her headstone, which he designed.

“That’s my sanctuary,” says Darren of her resting place. “I feel close to her and talk to her.”

But he’s struggling to deal with going near the stretch of highway that claimed her young life.

“I can’t drive over the bridge,” tells Darren. “I get to the expressway and it’s so hard for me. I start shaking and sweating, and start crying even now just thinking about it. It’s a terrible feeling and I’m not normally like that. I know I’ve got to go there sometime and make peace, but I can’t do it at the moment.”

“People are still to scared to tell me everything, so I’m still finding things out slowly,” the grieving father shares.

Halayna’s 19-year-old partner was found guilty of kidnapping and assault but cleared of manslaughter due to lack of evidence at his trial last week, and Darren hopes that speaking out will make a difference for others who are in violent relationships.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes and haven’t been a good parent in so many ways,” he sighs. “But the biggest thing I’ve learnt since Halayna’s passing is parents need to know where their daughters are, where their sons are. I only wish I had known more.

“There are lots of wishes – if she had confided in me or talked to me more, it could have been different. If she had just told me, I would have gotten her out.”

Where to get help

If you are experiencing or witnessing domestic violence, please contact one of the following services for information, advice and support. If you are in immediate danger, call the police on 111.

Are You OK: 0800 456 450

Shine: 0508 744 633

Women’s Refuge: 0800 733 843

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