true crime

The New Zealand family who went missing. Twice.

On a gloomy day in 2021, at Kiritehere Beach on New Zealand's North Island, two men came across a bizarre sight: an abandoned Toyota truck was parked on the sand, facing the ocean above the high-tide line, as the ominous weather loomed and violent seas swirled. 

In the rear of the truck sat a row of child seats, the passengers nowhere to be seen.

News spread quickly, as it does so often in close-knit communities, and it was soon realised that the car belonged to local man Tom Phillips. He lived not too far away, in Ōtorohanga, with his three children, Jayda, eight, Maverick, six, and Ember, five.

It had been a difficult few years for the family, with Tom splitting from his wife three years earlier and the pair subsequently estranged. 

Tom's brother caught wind of the empty car on the beach and headed down to see for himself, calling police after inspecting the site. Headlines and news bulletins came through thick and fast, and an official hunt began for the father and his children.

Everyone feared the worst.

But what had become of the owner of the truck and the missing children turned out to be the kind of tale you just can't make up.

The first disappearance.

A full-scale search was launched and no resource was spared in the hunt for Tom and his children — and while a tragedy seemed the most likely outcome, the community hoped for a miracle.

Police combed land and sea, local communities members kept search parties fed, and unofficial swimmers went diving through local waters hoping to uncover the slightest glimmer of hope. Helicopters buzzed overhead and bushland was scoured for 12 days straight before the search was finally called off. Everyone assumed the worst; the outcome nobody wanted seemed all but cemented.


Tom Phillips and his children gone forever.

And then, they returned.

Nineteen days after they were first reported missing, Tom and his three children showed up at his parents' sprawling property, just outside of nearby Marokopa. Apparently the family had been sleeping in a tent, on an extending camping trip.

While their return should've been a moment that spread joy through the community, it was met with mixed feelings.

Police were initially buoyed by the sudden appearance after an extensive search. "It is extraordinary," said Waikato West Area Commander Will Loughrin. "It is the scene that we hoped. We wanted Tom and the family to be alive."

But Tom's attitude after the family's return put some people on edge. The case that had rocked the community, with many risking their lives and livelihoods to find this family, and Tom had something of a blasé response to the large-scale search operation. Public sentiment turned to contempt, for some, and Tom was eventually charged with wasting police time and resources.

Watch: The disappearance of Ursula Barwick. Story continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

The official charges said he had "behaved in a manner that was likely to give rise to serious apprehension for the safety of himself, Jayda Phillips, Ember Phillips and Maverick Phillips, knowing that such apprehension would be groundless".

After running the full gamut of emotions, everyone was ready to move on and forget what had happened.

That is, until the family went missing again.

The second disappearance.

Around three months after the initial disappearance, in December 2021, Tom and his children vanished again. However, this time things were a little less dramatic with authorities saying Tom had let family members know he was going bush.

"He notified family of where he was going," police said in response to bewilderment from the community. "In terms of current court restrictions of what he can and can’t do, he's doing nothing wrong."

After his first disappearance had caused such a stir, it seemed as though this time around, everyone was content to let this man and his kids live a reclusive existence.

But when it came time for his scheduled court date in January 2022 to address the charges for wasting police time, Tom was a no show. His lawyer asked the judge to be removed from the case, and an official arrest warrant was issued for his capture.

Tom Phillips had not only vanished again with his children, but was also now evading the law — and all signs pointed to him never coming back.


A mysterious bank robbery and a life hidden.

Differing opinions of Tom's behaviour ran wild in the local community. Some felt that he was a bit of wildling and wasn't interested in conforming to being a community-involved parent — he loved the outdoors and he was showing his kids the world. 

Others still felt disgruntled over his blasé attitude towards vanishing here and there with little apparent regard for how this might affect others.

But almost two years after disappearing a second time, things took a strange turn.

In May 2023, a pair of masked robbers held up a bank in Te Kūiti — a town not far from where Tom had lived in Ōtorohanga before his second disappearance. Brandishing guns, they stole money from the tellers. 

Four months later, police placed Tom as the prime suspect in the robbery, charging him with aggravated robbery, aggravated wounding, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

CCTV of the alleged bank robbers. Image: NZ Police.


In the months that followed, it's alleged that Tom stole a ute and a quad bike, and was suspected of stealing from farms across the country. He wasn't just foraging the land and sleeping under the stars — the father of three was allegedly committing serious crimes and bringing his children along for the ride.

The children's mother set up a missing persons page and released a statement via police voicing her concerns:

"People will understand our wider family situation is complex, but putting that aside, our focus is solely on the children and putting their wellbeing first," she wrote. 

"We are beside ourselves with worry and need more than anything to know the kids are well."

The wellbeing of those children — who are now 10, eight and seven — is still unknown. The community still holds out hope that one day they will return to the family farm, but whether Tom would be welcomed back with open arms is yet to be seen.

Feature Image: NZ Police.