“Your brother Sean has been murdered.”

How a lifelong bond between a Victorian police officer and a team of NZ detectives was forged in tragedy

By Brendan Roberts

Emmeline McKinnon had been on the other side of the front door many times during her career as a police officer.

While her initial reaction to seeing her former boss and his boss at her home was that it was work-related, their serious but downcast demeanour and the familiar tone of voice that greeted her, gave their presence away.

”I could see them using the tone and communication style you use to effect entry into a house to tell somebody something terrible.

"I just said, ‘you’re not coming in until you tell me why you’re here’.”

That was the first day of the last 16 months of Emma’s life.

“They just said, ‘your brother Sean has been murdered’.

“It’s just a word that you never think you’re going to have any relationship with as a person, especially when it then defines your relationship with that family member from that time onwards, just the realisation that I’m not seeing Sean again and something very terrible has happened to him.”

Sean McKinnon was holidaying in New Zealand with his girlfriend in August 2019 when he was shot dead inside his van in an unprovoked attack by a methamphetamine-addicted criminal.

Thirty-three-year-old Sean had been in New Zealand for less than two weeks and was due to return home to Australia two days later.

His girlfriend managed to escape before running two kilometres in the darkness to raise the alarm.

By the time the news had reached Emma in regional Victoria, Sean’s body was still inside the van his killer had taken off in, and neither had yet been found.

“They said he had been shot.

"It’s just not the end that I saw Sean meeting.

"He could probably talk his way out of almost any situation, he just had a warmth to him, the sort of person who you just trust and I couldn’t imagine what on Earth had gone wrong.

“It was horrifying because I couldn’t even place where he was. I kept asking how they knew he was dead if they hadn’t found him yet.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time crying, and that’s where your policing skills kick in whether you like it or not. It’s like ‘okay, this has happened, put your reaction aside and try to get over there‘, basically.”

Emmeline has been with Victoria Police for 17 years, working mostly in the southwest of Victoria, she had a stint in the sex offences unit and was the first woman gazetted to Cobden police station.

Five years ago, she went to Geelong to experience a more dynamic policing environment, stationed at Waurn Ponds.

She recalls in the infancy of her career times when the embers of self-doubt crept into her mind and Sean’s simplistic, practical advice that had helped to douse it.

“I remember him saying to me ‘well, you just think about that patch that’s on your sleeve, Emmeline, and what that means and if you stick to that you will always be a good police officer.”

As a police officer, explaining the death of a loved one to an unfamiliar family is a challenging and necessary part of the job. But no amount of training can prepare someone for having to do it to their own family.

“Pretty quickly I received calls from (Welfare Officer) Rick Burton and (Secretary) Wayne Gatt at The Association, asking if there was anything I needed.

“The biggest thing for me at that point was how was I going to explain this to my kids (aged 8 and 10 at the time) and they put me in touch with the chief psychologist at Victoria Police and he was just absolutely brilliant.

“I had conversations with him around the language to use to tell the kids. I didn’t use the word ‘murder’ to them, I just said there had been an accident with a gun and Sean had died.”

After her initial flight was cancelled, Emmeline managed to fly into Christchurch and onto Auckland.

She then headed to the coastal town of Raglan in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island, where Sean had been murdered.

“By the time we had landed in New Zealand, they had found the van dumped with Sean’s body inside, and I just wanted to see him.”

In the meantime, TPAV had liaised with the NZ Police Association, which was able to organise a hire car and accommodation for Emmeline, allowing her to channel her time into getting to where and who she needed to, to learn more about what had happened.

That wasn’t easy in the early stages, as New Zealand Police doesn’t have a central homicide squad, instead the districts handle all the serious crime that unfolds in their respective regions.

The Waikato Police, led by Detective Sergeant Rene Rakete, were responsible for the investigation, but their commitment to Sean and his family wouldn’t cease with the criminal prosecution of Sean’s killer.

“Really, it was a difficult start to the investigation because there was no relationship between my brother and this person other than the murder.

“It was hard to comprehend the complete randomness… I just remember them saying at the beginning ‘you could guess a thousand reasons why that person was out there at that time but you many never come up with the answer, it was a completely random act’. 

“And that makes it harder, because I know my brother didn’t have a chance.”

While the motive for Sean’s murder was hard to fathom, the subsequent manhunt was comparatively straightforward.

Sean’s killer showed up at an address not far from where he dumped the van, 80 kilometres away in Hamilton. New Zealand Police sent their equivalent of the SOG in to arrest him, but he was unarmed.

The arrest was made within 18 hours of the murder, nine hours after Sean’s body was found.

The following day, Emmeline was sitting eight metres from her brother’s killer in court.

“They were discussing suppressing his name and they asked me if I had anything I would like to say and so I told the judge ‘mine is an emotive argument, if you want to talk about privacy, where’s my family’s privacy, it’s all over the media, Sean didn’t get any privacy and in terms of his dignity, he was discarded on the side of the road like a piece of rubbish’.”

The argument resonated and 24-yearold Mark Garson was publicly named as the accused murderer.

Over the following months, in the lead up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Emmeline returned to New Zealand four times to be in court to represent Sean and her family through various stages of the criminal case.

But the burden of intently following the case, of keeping her family updated with its progress, grieving for her brother, working to settle his estate and working as a police officer back in Victoria was taking a growing toll.

“I remember I was on the van one shift and I got called out to a dead body. It wasn’t particularly traumatic for me, but I just had nothing left for the family involved and I remember just walking into my Sergeant’s office and saying, ‘I’ve got nothing for this job, I’ve got nothing for the public and I’ve got nothing for my colleagues either, it’s not fair on anyone, I just need you to put me in an office somewhere for a bit’, and he said that wasn’t a problem.

“My bosses were really great throughout the period, they just sent me to a CI office to help out as an extra member, I didn’t take on any investigations, just helped out, in case I needed to go quickly.”

Emmeline followed subsequent hearings for both Garson and the man who sold him the murder weapon, via a phone link.

She had planned to return to New Zealand and undertake the necessary quarantine arrangements for the trial, which was due to run for five weeks in November last year.

“But, in October he just suddenly pleaded guilty. That was a good moment.”

Emmeline managed to make it back to New Zealand for the December 9 sentencing hearing.

As the date neared, she had carefully managed her family’s expectations on the severity of the sentence that was to come.

“For me, being in policing, I had to be realistic and keep explaining to the rest of the family that you have to understand that it is based on a fair application of the law in combination with the circumstances of the offender.

“I was just trying to get myself and everyone else prepared for the sentence, so that it wasn’t a further traumatic experience, and we could all just accept it.”

Garson was sentenced to life, with 15-and-a-half-year non-parole period.

Sean’s family and the investigators who worked the case were happy with the sentence, but for Emmeline it was a hollow happiness, tempered by the reality that the severe sentence reflected her more severe loss, and the two could never equate or cancel each other out.

“I just wanted so much more for him than this and it didn’t even need to be anything spectacular. Nobody has the right to take someone’s life away. We all have the right to live our ordinary lives. Sean didn’t need to go off and achieve anything amazing, just to be happy in the things he was doing would be enough.”

For The Waikato Police, a successful prosecution and sentence ended their duty to Sean and his family, but not their commitment.

“NZ is a very cultural and spiritual. The crime scene examiner was a really lovely man and he said there was some of Sean’s blood from the crime scene that he didn’t want to just wash down a drain. He asked my permission to wash it into the sea nearby because he lived in the mountains just behind where Sean died and it had deeply impacted him. That was very nice of him and Sean was treated with complete dignity by them, as were we.”

Two of the Waikato investigators who worked on Sean’s case travelled to Australia for his funeral, with assistance from TPAV.

In another gesture of respect and condolence, Detective Sergeant Rakete, who led the investigation, had his father, who lives in Australia, lay flowers for Sean on his behalf.

“I will always remain in contact with those people, even if it’s just a Christmas card once a year. They will always be connected to my family and to me.”

Personal message from Emmeline:

The Association was such a great help to me, they put me in contact with people who really helped me with a lot of things to help me get through. (Welfare Officer) Rick Burton especially, he was there with everything I asked for and some other things that I hadn’t thought of. I’m very thankful. I have absolute appreciation for my organisation, Victoria Police, TPAV, the Waikato CIB, Detective Sergeant Rene Rakete and his team.