Jun 01, 2023

Special report: How Dickason family's new life in NZ descended into tragedy and heartbreak

Senior Journalist - Crime

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WARNING: This story contains graphic and sensitive content.

It was supposed to be a new beginning for the Dickason family, full of promise in a town more than 11,000 kilometres from home. Within a week of arriving, the couple’s three beautiful daughters were dead, their mum charged with murdering them, while their father tried to process the unfathomable. Senior crime reporter Sam Sherwood reports.

Day six of the Dickason family’s new lives in Timaru was almost over. The girls had eaten supper, been showered, and the twins who had just had their first day in preschool were watching TV in matching pyjamas along with their big sister.

Their dad, Graham Dickason, sat with them on the couch before getting up to get dressed and brush his teeth.

About 7pm, as he walked out the front door, his wife of 15 years, Lauren Dickason, was standing next to the kitchen countertop.

Graham drove to a local steak restaurant to join his new colleagues’ journal club, where members took turns reading an orthopaedic journal.

Once dinner was done, he headed home, where he anticipated his three daughters would be fast asleep.

Instead he walked into their home and found each of his three girls dead.

Nearly two years on, his wife was found guilty of murdering the girls.

From the outside, Graham and Lauren appeared to have it all. They had three beautiful daughters - Liané, 6, and two-year-old twins - Karla and Maya and a large home in the Mooikloof Heights residential estate in Pretoria East.

They had a large backyard allowing space for a trampoline and a jungle gym.

The estate was blocked off by a 4km solid brick wall with an electrified perimeter fence and an on-site control room. It also boasted of its “sound security infrastructure”, which included an “efficient armed guard force supported by sophisticated security technology”.

Lauren grew up in Witbank, a small city in Mpumalanga, South Africa. From the age of 15, she developed an intermittent mood disorder and anxiety symptoms. She also had a propensity towards perfectionism and set high standards for herself.

High school was “a bit of a disaster experience,” she would later tell police, studying at Pretoria Girls’ High School as a boarder. She then studied medicine at the University of Cape Town and after graduating started a work placement at a rural hospital in Pretoria, where she met Graham Dickason. At the time, he was undertaking specialist orthopaedic surgical training.

Asked later what drew her towards the medical profession, she said in those days if you got A grades you either became a doctor, a vet or an accountant.

Graham would later say that Lauren, who he called Lol, had been through a lot in her life.

“She had a lot of problems at school with teachers and friends. According to her, she was not popular,” he said in his interview with police in the hours after his daughters’ deaths.

“She was never invited to the dance or the prom… she had a lot of social, traumatic memories from a young age.”

The couple married in May 2006.

From early on in the marriage, Lauren’s “primary focus” was to have children, Graham would say.

Lauren worked for about six years before stopping to try to have children.

However, the couple had difficulty conceiving and ended up turning to fertility specialists for help.

Around the same time, Lauren began to prescribe herself antidepressants. The couple went through seven rounds of IVF before she got pregnant with a little girl they were going to call Sarah. However, when she was just 18 weeks pregnant, Lauren suffered serious health complications and had to give birth to the baby. The baby had a heartbeat but died soon after.

Graham said Lauren cried “every single day for two months”.

After two more rounds of unsuccessful IVF, they then used a donor egg and Lauren became pregnant with Liané.

After Liané’s birth, the couple agreed on further IVF treatment, and Lauren fell pregnant again, this time with twins - Maya and Karla.

To announce the big news Lauren and Graham invited family to her parents’ home for dinner. When they arrived they gave each a white box with two cupcakes inside, signifying their twin pregnancy.

During the pregnancy, Karla was diagnosed with a cleft palate. Both girls were born in November 2018.

When they were four days old, Mendy Sibanyani came on the scene as their nanny helping the family in their home.

Sibanyani told the Herald the Dickasons were “an awesome family.

“Lauren and Graham’s life was awesome, with lots of love and happiness.”

Lauren was never aggressive towards the kids, Sibanyani said.

Liané was “very active”, and used to like making her birthday calendar caterpillar, while Maya was “very talkative” and liked books. Karla was into building blocks and was often “running around.

“All with very big smiles on their face and please and thank you whenever you did anything for them.”

Sibanyani said Lauren was stressed about Karla’s cleft palate, but “grateful” when the surgery was done.

“Karla was so beautiful with her big smile.”

Sibanyani saw her job was to take good care of the couple’s “beautiful angels”, while they worked. She started as a night nanny, and then once the twins had a better sleeping routine she swapped to the day shift. She was “in and out” from there on, but when the global Covid-19 pandemic struck she stayed at their house for a period of time. She said the couple also had a house cleaner.

In early 2020, Lauren and Graham decided they would immigrate to New Zealand.

Asked later what brought about the move, Graham said life was not easy in South Africa.

“It’s a beautiful place, um, but a lot of politics. Um, as you’re well aware that there’s been racial issues and the current situation in South Africa is that white people are heavily in the minority and it’s dangerous. There’s a lot of crime and a lot of people getting hijacked, killed, murdered, innocent people,” he told police.

“Ah and she’s going backwards in terms of infrastructure, electricity supply, the land value has dropped significantly over the last couple of years. There’s a lot of people emigrating from South Africa all over the place. Ah especially people like us with, with young kids. Ah to try and secure better quality of, of life, safer life.”

However, the immigration process proved challenging for a variety of reasons including the onset of Covid-19 in South Africa.

They eventually sold their home in September 2020 and moved into a rental home. Graham was offered an orthopaedic surgeon role in Timaru. The plan was for the family to leave South Africa in early 2021, so they moved into Graham’s mother’s home.

The plan was for them to stay four or five days, but Lauren also had a minor foot operation which had been rescheduled due to Covid.

While staying at his mum’s home, the family went for a pre-flight Covid-19 test. However, one of the daughters tested positive, despite the family’s best attempts to isolate.

The result meant the family had to isolate for two further weeks at Graham’s mum’s home.

Lauren “really struggled”, Graham said.

“She didn’t eat much, she didn’t have a lot of conversation with anybody, she was really stressed.

“We continued with our immigration, continued with discussions if she’s OK to go. She always reassured me that she’s fine, she just needs to get here and get the kids into school,” Graham would say.

Lauren had been messaging friends in the build-up to their departure about the stress she was under.

In one message, she said the move was “stuffing with my mind right now.

“It’s like reliving infertility all over again, with people asking you every time you see them.”

On July 31 she messaged a friend saying her heart was “broken.

“I’m emotionally and physically exhausted… other people have no comprehension of the stress.”

She also told a friend she was “ready for a month in Denmar”. Denmar Hospital is a dedicated healthcare facility specialising in the treatment of psychiatric illnesses.

In another message, she said: “My mental health is the shittiest it’s ever been in my whole life”.

Days later she said she said the waiting and uncertainty of the previous 18 months had “killed me.

“I am scared for the super long plane trips, quarantine and I can’t eat. I look like a skeleton.”

She also told a friend “I want to die”.

The couple had recently reached their 15th wedding anniversary. Lauren had marked the occasion with a post on her Facebook page directed at Graham.

“What an adventure. We have truly created a beautiful family and had many good times together. May the next years be more blessed, more happy and may the kids let us sleep. Thank you for everything you do for us and your unwavering dedication to loving and providing for us. You are my everything.”

Sibanyani said goodbye to the family in the months before their departure. Lauren appeared “excited” and had shown her photos of where they would be living.

“I just remember we were happy, giving each other hugs, and I got some presents from Lauren she said, ‘Mendy I’m going to miss you’ and the kids also said ‘I’m going to miss you’, and I was like ‘I’m going to miss you guys, you will always be in my prayers but if you get time please give me a call when you’re there’.

“I asked the kids ‘Are you going to remember me when you come back?’ and they told me that the first thing they do when they come back to South Africa (is) ‘We’re going to call you Mendy and come and see us’.”

On August 26, 2021, the Dickason family finally began their trip and flew from South Africa to New Zealand, with stops in Doha and Brisbane, arriving in Auckland on August 28.

They then went straight to MIQ at the Novotel Hotel for their 14 days of quarantine. The family had two rooms with an adjoining door in between.

In one message to a friend, Lauren said the girls were “absolute champs” and she was “so proud of them”.

A day after they arrived, Lauren said in a message “I’m glad we are here.

“At least the elephant that was smothering me is off my chest.”

During their time, Maya was jumping on the couch and fell off, hitting her head. She had to go to the hospital to get some stitches. Aside from that, their time was without any real concern.

On September 4, Lauren posted on the South Africans Living in Timaru Connect page on Facebook, that she was arriving in town in a week and asked for suggestions for year two primary schools and nursery schools for the twins.

The family had applied for Timaru Christian School, but she was unsure if there would be space for Liané.

“With lockdowns and isolations in South Africa, she has basically been on very limited homeschooling for the whole of her grade one year. Any advice and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.”

On September 11 their time in MIQ came to an end and they flew from Auckland to Christchurch.

The family bought a car and were given a rental car from the South Canterbury District Health Board for two weeks to help with their move.

Once in their cars, they drove in convoy for about 160km before arriving at their new home - a modern townhouse on Queen St. The house, which was only a temporary home until they settled in, was about 250m from the hospital. His new work phone was on the kitchen table when they walked in.

The following day, they went to a barbecue with some of Graham’s new colleagues and their families, several of whom had also emigrated from South Africa.

On September 13, Graham went to Mitre 10 as he needed an Allen key. One of his new colleagues had given Liané a bike. Graham had checked the brakes and believed they were a bit too tight. He wanted to loosen the brakes a bit so she wouldn’t pull them too hard and fall off.

While in the store he walked through the aisles looking to see what they might need.

“[I] didn’t really have a list of stuff, had an idea of stuff that we need. I just walked through the aisle and so I see if my eyes caught something,” he said.

He then spotted a bag of cable ties.

“Cable ties are a very useful thing, I always have cable ties with me… I didn’t even think about it, I just popped it in my trolley.”

He would later use the cable ties for a power cord for the computer to the table’s legs to stop the kids tugging on it.

While at Mitre 10 he also purchased a screwdriver set, some driver car mats, two dust bins, some electrical plugs, and some lunchboxes for the girls - one purple and two turquoise ones.

Graham would later say in court that Lauren had hoped he would stay at home with her for the first week and help organise things. However, he felt he needed to spend a couple of hours each day at the hospital.

“They required me to start at the hospital the next week and I needed to familiarise myself at the hospital,” he said.

“She was not very pleased with that arrangement… she was definitely taken aback by that arrangement and was annoyed with me.”

On September 15, Liané had her first day at Timaru Christian School, which also had a preschool for the twins.

At trial, the jury was shown a photograph of Lauren tying Liané’s hair for her first day.

Liané could be seen sitting on the floor in front of her mother in her uniform while Karla sat nearby cutting paper with some plastic scissors.

The family also got some photos of Liané standing outside their home with her parents.

Liané’s first day was a success. She was one of 17 children in the class, and Graham would later say the school had “faffed around her”, and she enjoyed the attention.

Thursday, September 16 was the Dickason family’s sixth day of their new life in Timaru. It was also Karla and Maya’s first day of preschool.

The family travelled to school in two cars, as Graham was planning on heading to work afterwards. After dropping the girls off, Graham drove his rental car to a local car dealership and looked at a few cars before heading to Timaru Hospital.

Graham had not started his job yet, so spent the morning observing his colleague with patients as well as trying to learn the system. He was then invited to lunch with a colleague and his wife.

Following lunch, he returned home. Lauren was having a rest on the bed. Graham would later tell police it was the first day in a “long time” she had not had the kids with her.

“She was tired so I assumed she wanted to rest”.

Graham did some admin on his laptop while Lauren spent time by herself before she left at about 2.30pm to collect the girls from school.

The girls were “fine” when they returned, although the twins were “a little bit groggy” after a big day at their new preschool.

They were given some food, usually some raisins or pretzels and some fruit, and a drink and sat down watching TV. They also played on the carpet with some wooden blocks.

Graham asked Lauren how Liané’s second day at school went, and if the teacher had said anything.

Lauren told Graham the second day had not been as good, but that was all. To Graham, Liané, who was fully bilingual in Afrikaans and English, appeared happy.

After their snack, the family went down to the Timaru Botanic Gardens across the road. It was the family’s fourth trip to the picturesque park since they arrived.

“It’s an amazing park, we don’t have something like that back home,” Graham said.

The girls played at the park for about an hour. Graham said he sat on the swings while the girls were “running around.

“Lauren stood a bit closer to the steps that go up the slide, I think she was scared that they fall here or something.”

They also went and had a look at the bird aviary before returning home at about 5pm.

Once they got home, the girls sat back down on the couch and watched some TV, while Lauren put chicken nuggets and vegetables in the oven. She would usually pack the girls’ lunches for the next day as part of her routine.

Graham sat with the girls as he watched some surgical approach videos on his phone.

Eventually, the family sat at the table, and the girls said grace for their food and then ate.

After supper, Lauren bathed the girls one by one and Graham dressed them.

The twins would usually wear the same pyjamas, either their blue or purple set.

They then went back to the lounge, where the TV was still on. Graham sat with them for a while before getting up to get dressed and brush his teeth.

When he left, about 7pm, Lauren was standing next to the kitchen countertop. When asked later if he’d had much conversation with Lauren that day, he said she was “quiet today”.

“I tried to give her space. We had you know basic communication but no deep conversations about anything. Um, I think the only thing we really spoke about was something to do with our visas.”

Graham asked if she’d communicated with the HR person at Timaru Hospital who had helped them in the last year with Immigration New Zealand.

“She was quiet and I... and I just thought I wouldn’t, you know, try and force her into conversation but I didn’t think much of it… to be honest,” he told police.

“I gave her space because she wasn’t talkative but I assumed she was stressed or tired.

“She’s not a very talkative person, she never was. So when she’s not feeling great I tend not to, ah, you know, try and push her into conversations. It’s just the way it’s always been. But it was not different than previous times, there was no indication.”

Still new to town and a bit worried about being late, Graham left home just before 7pm, with the girls in front of the TV.

On the way, he stopped at a car yard. Before getting out of the car he called his mother in South Africa. She was eating with his aunty, so he said he would call back.

He quickly checked how much the Toyota Fortuner on sale cost, got back in the car and headed to the Custom Steak House.

Graham was a little early but there were already about six of the group there for their journal club which would meet up every few weeks. Each member would have their turn to read up on some orthopaedic journal and then summarise it to the group.

Three of Graham’s main colleagues were in attendance along with some junior doctors. Graham left about 9.15pm, with his three main colleagues settling the bill as he had just got his bank account, had not been paid yet and did not have a credit card.

Graham then drove back home to Queen St. The twins’ bedroom was right next to his park, so he tried to be quiet to avoid waking them up by quietly unlocking the door and taking off his shoes. The lights were off in the girls’ rooms.

He then went into the living room and walked towards the kitchen, putting his keys down in a basket on the microwave. He then saw Lauren standing in the kitchen and realised she looked “strange”, he told police.

She was holding what he thought was a glass or a cup in one hand, while holding onto the kitchen top to stay upright.

“She looked wobbly like as if she wanted to fall over and I asked her if she’s OK, she didn’t really reply and I asked her what’s the matter and she told me it’s too late… I asked too late for what and then asked her if she took something, why is she looking like this. I assumed the kids were sleeping.

“And then I realised something is wrong,” he said.

He walked to Liané’s room. The door was open, and he turned the light on to find her duvet covering her head. He pulled the duvet back and saw her face was pale.

“I tried to wake her up and that’s when I noticed the cable ties around her neck,” he said.

He then shook Liané, and spoke to her, trying to wake her.

He rushed to the twins’ room and saw the same thing.

“I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. I ran back asked her what’s she done.”

He grabbed a pair of scissors and ran to Liané’s room and broke the cable tie, then went to the twins’ room and cut their cable ties. He could not see any signs of life.

“I screamed their names, checked, grabbed their shoulders. I think I could see in the colour of their faces that was futile but I cut the cable ties.”

The girls were “pale and cold.

“I got Liané onto the floor, tried to listen if I could hear her breathing, couldn’t hear any heartbeat,” he said.

As he recounted the tragic events that unfolded before him, the detective asked if the twins were identical.

“They’re not identical, no. Both gorgeous.”

As soon as he cut Liané’s cable tie he called a friend, fellow orthopaedic surgeon Mark Cvitanich, to help as he did not know the number for police.

“I didn’t know what else to do, I just asked him to come help me,” he said.

When Graham realised the girls were dead, he went to walk out of the house and he saw Lauren in Liané’s room.

“I think the last time I saw her she was just lying across the foot end of Liané’s bed with her eyes closed. I wasn’t sure if she’s dead or alive, I didn’t check.”

Graham recalled “yelling and screaming” while crying once he got outside. He then sat outside waiting for Cvitanich to arrive.

“It felt like an hour but it could’ve been a minute before he arrived,” he said.

“I think I just sat there against a wall, waiting for him. I wasn’t sure what to do.”

Once Cvitanich arrived with his wife, he called the police.

One of the first police officers on the scene said Lauren was lying on her bed, in her pyjamas with bare feet.

It appeared she was “affected by something”, she said.

“She was occasionally saying words but it appeared like she was talking like she was sleeping,” she said.

“She was sleepy, weak, pale.”

The following evening, at about 5.20pm Lauren was sitting on a couch inside the Timaru Police Station being interviewed by Detective Michael Kneebone, after a short stay at Timaru Hospital.

Kneebone began by telling her how the interview process worked, how she had the right to a lawyer, and that she did not have to say anything.

“We’ve probably got a different system here in New Zealand than South Africa and it’s really important that you understand everything. There’s no tricks in here, we’re not gonna try and trick you or anything like that, this is just a conversation about what happened last night so at any stage of this process you’re thinking ‘What’s going on?’, then you ask me, OK?”

He asked if she understood, and she nodded.

Lauren began by talking about the process of moving to New Zealand. The application process began in January 2020 and took about 20 months to get Graham registered, she said.

“In between we’ve had Covid lockdowns with children in school and children not at school and just really stressful times losing family members to Covid. And then when we, we got out, we got our visas, we did all our medicals and stuff and, and yesterday we got letters back from the immigration officer saying no they need more medical information, and I, I don’t even know where to start with that. It was all so overwhelming. Just in a new country.”

Graham had not been able to work since June, and the schools had been closed so she’d had the kids “around me 24/7″.

“It just got too overwhelming and, with the new visa thing that came through yesterday I just, I see no hope for us here in the future… even though we’ve only just got here.”

In their short time in Timaru, they’d struggled to find a rental home, and there was a lot of paperwork to be done.

“Getting here on the aeroplane was enough of an effort”, she said.

“Then there was the two weeks in MIQ which almost had us crazy. Something, something just snapped last night.”

She said the three girls were “being wild again”, jumping on the couches, and would not listen to what she was telling them.

“So I got some zip ties from the garage and I put it around their necks.

“And I made them all go and lie in one bedroom so that they were together, but during the end, I basically had to suffocate them.”

Kneebone asked how she suffocated them. Lauren cried as she said, “I basically took a towel and hold it over their faces”.

She then put the girls into bed and tucked them up.

Kneebone mentioned Lauren had said at the hospital it had been brewing for a while and asked if she had been having thoughts about doing something to the girls.

“I have been thinking about it, sure,” she replied.

“I was trying to find a way to ease the pressure”.

The family had been able to manage the pressures back home with the family of family and friends. But in Timaru, they had “nobody”.

Kneebone asked if she had the thoughts while in South Africa, or if it was just when they got to New Zealand.

“Oh, the whole immigration process finally kicked off like probably eight, nine weeks ago.

“When the visas came through. So I managed to brush them aside and just be like unimportant so now I’ve got three dead kids.”

She said her previous thoughts were not to the degree of what happened the prior night.

“Last night something just triggered me and I just, just the end.”

The interview then turned to what happened after Graham went out for dinner at about 7pm.

Originally the girls were watching TV, and then they “started their normal hijinks” - jumping on the couches, pushing each other around and not listening to her.

“I think that’s one thing lockdown’s taught me is I don’t know my kids at all, even though they’re with me most of the time. And it’s just, and you think you’re going to move to a different town and things are going to be different. And it brings up a whole lot of new problems.”

Lauren then said how she went to the garage, looking for something, and saw the cable ties.

“I thought that could possibly work. So I told them we were making necklaces, and I put the cable ties on. That didn’t work very well. Made them lethargic and made them lie down but they could still breathe. Then I literally had to hold a towel over their faces until they stopped breathing.”

She then said she killed the twins first, starting with Karla.

“She was being really, really, really horrible to me lately, she’s been biting me and hitting me and scratching me and throwing tantrums 24 hours a day and I just don’t know how to manage that. That’s why I did her first.”

After killing the girls she listened to their hearts and pulses. She then put them back in bed, covering their heads with blankets.

Lauren then decided to try and kill herself and ran through the house, but none of the knives she could find were sharp enough.

“I just started drinking my medication that I could find,” she said.

“I wanted to die.”

After taking the medication, the next thing she recalled was waking up in Timaru Hospital.

Lauren then spoke about her childhood in South Africa, her study and how she met Graham. She referred to him as “my rock”.

She said the couple “struggled” with infertility for years and the miscarriage they had before Liané.

“Then Liané came along and, then the twins were born four years later and they really put, put a lot of strain on us, just two busy bodies the whole time 24 hours a day.

“Probably functioning on about two hours of sleep a day.”

In the last three months, she believed she’d lost about 10kg from the stress she was under and couldn’t sleep at night.

Lauren said there were some “good times”, with the girls, but added most of the twins’ lives had been in lockdown which left them unable to go out and interact with others.

“So they’re truly like can’t do those mummy things like go to the shops or go grab a coffee with a friend, I don’t think my twins have ever been in the shops, to be honest.”

She recalled some riots back home, which she said were about nine or ten weeks prior. She said she told Graham she was worried the rioters were going to come and storm their property and “take us out.

“It was from that day that I just haven’t felt normal.”

Kneebone asked how life was before then.

“Oh we were happy and we were, we had a big garden where we lived so we could have a trampoline and a jungle gym and, it was just, it was nice and Graham and I were getting along so well and then um all the immigration stuff started.”

Lauren agreed that she believed moving to New Zealand would fix any problems, but when she arrived it was “very different” to home, and “much colder”.

The interview changed focus again. This time Kneebone wanted to know about the three girls and their personalities.

Lauren said Liané was a “dreamer”.

“She’s always thinking of some weird and wonderful plan or experiment or magic potion.”

She then added she “doesn’t have ears”.

“Very lovable little girl but we’ve definitely seen her regress during the lockdown period and she’s not like she was before we left.

“She’s become much more babyish. It’s different than with her sisters, but yeah she’s intelligent and she just doesn’t like to learn so much.”

Karla was a “real little firecracker”.

“She has got such a temper on her that you can’t describe the aggression that, that comes out of that little body, and it scares me, and it scares her dad, it scares her sisters because she climbs into them as well and bites them but then at school, they say no she’s an angel, no, no problems.”

Maya was a “fruitcake”, Lauren said.

“She just laughs and smiles at everybody. She’s a real happy-go-lucky but also experiencing the terrible twos right now.

“If they can’t have, they throw a tantrum and throw stuff on the floor, even if it’s a full box, full bowl of cereal and milk. Do you know it’s, one thing I say to Graham is if, ever since they were born mums always feel this instantaneous love for their children and I never really experienced it with my kids, like I don’t know what people are talking about so, it was yeah, and then I think there was something wrong with me for not feeling that and I did my best I could… did arts and crafts with them, I read them stories, I’d cuddle with them on the couch, they definitely preferred dad over me.”

Kneebone tells Lauren she’s not the first parent to get frustrated and think they’re not up to it.

“What I’ve done now is irreversible,” Lauren replies.

The interview goes back again to that day. After dropping the girls off at school she went back home. It was her first day by herself in four months.

“So I just literally crawled onto the bed with my hot water bottle and just tried to process everything that’s happened.”

Kneebone asked what it was she was pondering.

“Yeah, I just, my biggest concern was that we’ve made a mistake and we’ve never been to Timaru before, so had no idea what the set-up was here.”

She said she felt “lost”, and did not feel like the couple had a parenting style that worked for them.

She spoke of making the girls supper, which they “surprisingly ate for the first time in ages”.

“Because they don’t eat much. They have a very specific, a number of items that they will eat and um so yeah they, they ate all their food and then they wanted more and there wasn’t more and they had their bottles and settled down in front of the TV and then Graham had left.”

She said she wasn’t on any medication before they left South Africa, but after one of the girls got Covid she started to drink an antidepressant again.

She told Kneebone she had been diagnosed with a “major depressive disorder” in 2015. It was “basically post-partum depression”, she said.

“I can still do like all my activities of daily living and look after myself. I manage yeah to just, getting out of bed every morning, doing all the routine stuff.”

About 80 minutes after the interview began it was finished.

A week after the girl’s deaths, a candlelight vigil was held outside their home, with hundreds of people in attendance.

Graham penned a heartfelt statement that was read out. In the letter, Graham wrote he and Lauren’s lives had been “turned upside down” when their “three precious angels were ripped away from us.

“It is a loss that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

He asked that people pray for him, his family and friends.

“Please also pray for my lovely Lauren, as I honestly believe that she is a victim of this tragedy as well.

“People that know her well will testify to that - I have no doubt.

“I’ve already forgiven her, and I urge you, in your own time, to do the same.

“It is the key to healing from this loss we have all experienced.”

He thanked the people of Timaru, New Zealanders, South Africans and people around the world.

“We have been blessed with love and support,” he said.

“My faith in humanity has been restored, I thank you all.”

A letter was also read out by Graham’s mum and sisters. They said Liané was a “typical big sister”. The last video they were sent of Liané from Graham was from after her first day at school.

“She seemed so excited about the new friends she had made,” they said.

Maya was known for carrying around dolls, while Karla was an “explorer”.

Lauren’s parents Wendy and Malcolm Fawkes also wrote a message to the girls - their “angels”.

“We wish we could see you one more time ... we will hear your voices no more,” they said.

“You were the light of our lives ... our hearts are broken, our tears are flowing.”

Graham eventually left Timaru and moved back to South Africa, initially living with his mother.

Nearly two years on, Lauren sat in the dock inside Court Room 12 in the High Court at Christchurch as her murder trial began.

The public gallery was full, with members of Lauren and Graham’s families also in the courtroom.

Crown prosecutor Andrew McRae told the jury there was no doubt Lauren was responsible for killing her daughters.

While it was likely Lauren was “suffering from a major depressive episode”, the Crown believed she knew what she was doing and intended to kill her daughters.

“She acted methodically and purposefully, perhaps even clinically,” he said.

Lauren’s lead defence lawyer Kerryn Beaton KC said she was a loving mother and wife who went through 17 rounds of IVF to have her children. She mounted a defence of insanity or infanticide.

When Lauren killed the girls she was suffering a severe breakdown in her mental health, Beaton said.

“Not only did she think she had to kill herself, she thought she had to take the girls with her,” she said.

Lauren was “not a bad person”, but by the time of the killings she was “very unwell.

“But tragically no one realised how unwell she was until it was too late,” she said.

Graham was the first of more than 30 witnesses called by the Crown. He spoke of how his wife was diagnosed with post-natal depression after Liané’s birth.

Lauren was seeing someone around her mental health, and he did not have any major concerns about her or Liané.

“Lauren was an extremely good mother,” he said.

He said there were three occasions where Lauren had spoken to him about harming the children.

The first incident was around May 2019 after she had been helping settle the twins. He could not recall the exact words, but believed she said she felt like she could “do something to the babies”.

Lauren went and saw a psychiatrist and was told she likely had post-partum depression. She continued having treatment and took medication.

The second incident was in July 2021 when the couple were still working towards emigrating which he said was a very stressful time.

She had a “severe anxiety attack” and mentioned, “she could make an end to it all.

“When I inquired further... she said she feels like she can sedate the children and cut their femoral arteries so it can just all be over,” Graham said.

He said he was not worried about her “doing it” but more about “why she was saying it.

“Lauren was not a violent person,” he explained.

Graham asked his wife to see her doctor again and said the next morning things seemed to be back to normal.

The third incident was when the family were staying with Graham’s mother before they moved to New Zealand.

“Lauren came to me out of the blue... I believe her words were ‘I’m having that feeling again’,” he said.

“I told her to immediately take her anti-anxiety meds... it was a much lesser incident.”

As part of the police investigation, a detective went through more than 330,000 messages sent and received by Lauren from her husband, family and friends.

In many of them, she spoke about having “rough” days with the children, being overwhelmed emotionally, stressed and crying or on the verge of tears.

On one occasion a friend asked her what Netflix show she was watching and Dickason replied the show, Bloodline, was “very good - otherwise I’m just trying not to murder the twins”.

In another message, she said, “It feels like my fuse is so short… I want to explode over the smallest things”.

McRae also referred to “revealing” messages she sent to a friend the night before the girls died.

“Our kids are driving us crazy, they are wild, cheeky and disobedient. Graham and I are run down.”

They spoke about a couple they knew who had separated as a result of stress with their children.

“I would rather divorce my children,” Lauren said.

“I wish I could give them back and start over, I would decide differently.”

There were also a number of positive messages sent by Lauren talking about being happy and “super excited” about their “new adventure” in New Zealand.

She felt the move would be “scary” but she was “looking forward to a simpler life”.

She also spoke often about how much she loved her “beautiful” kids and husband.

Graham was asked about some of the messages by one of Lauren’s lawyers, Anne Toohey, during the trial.

When speaking about spending two weeks in managed isolation when they arrived in New Zealand Dickason messaged a friend:

“God knows we probably might commit murder in that small room and those two weeks.”

Graham told the court his wife swore and had a “satirical” sense of humour so many of the things she wrote were in that context.

He said both he and his wife would “vent” occasionally about their parenting frustrations.

Based on those messages he was never concerned about his children’s safety.

The jury heard from five experts, three for the defence, and two for the Crown.

Defence expert Dr Susan Hatters-Friedman, forensic and reproductive psychiatrist, said Lauren’s actions were that of a parent killing “out of love” rather than out of anger or hate.

“She had been severely depressed and had developed psychotic thinking,” she said.

“She attempted to kill herself… she viewed the world as dangerous for her children to grow up in.

“She saw a joint suicide and filicide as a way out of this for her beloved children and herself… She thought she was getting her children to safety.”

Regarding the defence of insanity, Dr Hatters-Friedman said it was her opinion that at the time of the killings, Lauren was labouring under a “disease of the mind”, to such an extent that it “rendered her incapable of knowing that the act was morally wrong”.

In terms of infanticide, she said Lauren described circumstances consistent with an altruistic motive for the murder of her children.

“It is further my opinion that at the time of her alleged offending, the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of a disorder of consequence upon childbirth - specifically, she had been suffering from a severe depression which was closely tied to her infertility, pregnancy loss, post-partum and parenting.”

Crown expert Dr Erik Monasterio, opined while there was no doubt Dickason had a mental illness, it did not extend far enough for her to have a defence of insanity or infanticide.

Further, he found there was no evidence of an altruistic motive and it was more likely that Dickason killed out of “anger and frustration.

“She systematically strangled the children and seemingly methodically checked for vital signs before resorting to smothering them until they were dead,” he said.

“The alleged offences are unlikely to have been impulsive.

“In my opinion, as the defendant maintained awareness and behaved systematically, there is no evidence that she was in an automatic state or that she did not understand the nature and quality of her actions at the material time.”

Monasterio said as Dickason had battled depression since she was 15, she could not claim her “disease of the mind” was connected to childbirth, thus removing infanticide as a defence.

Dr Simone McLeavey, a forensic psychiatrist at Hillmorton Hospital, first interviewed Lauren six days after her daughters’ deaths. She said while there was no question Lauren had a “disease of the mind” there simply was not any evidence of insanity.

“It remains my opinion that the defendant’s disease of mind did not seriously impair her reality, testing ability and capacities… such that she did not know the alleged offending was morally wrong, having regard to the commonly accepted standards of right and wrong,” she said.

“I am of the opinion that this is a tragic case where a mentally disordered woman with a vulnerable personality killed her children in the context of the situation which she perceived to be beyond her limited capacity to manage stress... in addition to underlying mental illness.”

Dr McLeavey said she did not believe Lauren would be eligible for a defence of insanity or infanticide.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr Justin Barry Walsh said his preliminary opinion on Lauren after his initial assessments was that at the time of the alleged offending, “she had a major depressive illness” and he was “satisfied that would represent a disease of the mind”.

Further, he said there was “a continuity of mental health problems following the birth of the twins” and post-partum depression was “still an active problem for her” when she killed the children.

His view was that Dickason had a defence of insanity or infanticide.

Forensic psychologist Dr Ghazi Metoui was the final of the expert witnesses to be called. He said while the killings were brutal, callous, determined and deliberate, Lauren could not be held criminally responsible.

“I do not consider that Miss Dickason’s mental state at the time of the alleged offending precluded her from understanding the nature and quality of the acts.

“To the contrary, I consider that she was purposeful and deliberate throughout her offending and acted with full conscious awareness of her actions and with great determination to pursue her aims, the killing of her three young children.

“However, such was the severity of her depressive illness and associated distorted thinking at that time ... that ultimately, she thought she and her three children were better off dead.

“It is my opinion that she did not know that the alleged acts were morally wrong to the commonly accepted standard of right and wrong ... she has a defence of insanity.”

Further, he said the defence of infanticide was clear to him. In his opinion her problems with depression in the 11-year period leading up to killing her daughters were “very much embroiled” in her fertility problems, losing her first child, antenatal anxiety and then postnatal depression that “remained chronic”.

After 15 hours of deliberating the jury returned its verdict on Wednesday, finding Lauren guilty of three counts of murder.

Her parents, Wendy and Malcolm, then released a statement to the media.

In it they said post-partum depression was a “terrible thing”, as was evident in what happened on September 16, 2021.

“This was not our daughter, but a debilitating mental illness which resulted in an awful tragedy, the details of which you are by now well aware.

“Our beloved Lianè, Karla and Maya were taken from this life to another as a result of this crippling disease.”

The family wanted to thank the people of New Zealand, South Africa and around the world who had been “so understanding” of the effects of post-partum depression and mental illness, and who had given them “incredible support”.

“There are no winners in this tragedy. We would like to encourage families and individuals around the world to be aware of the symptoms of post-partum depression as early as possible, both for yourselves as well as close family and friends around you. If treated early and managed correctly, people can experience a full recovery.

“The person experiencing depression and those closest to them may not be able to recognise the signs or how serious post-partum depression can become.”

Speaking from her home in South Africa, Sibanyani recalls getting a phone call from a friend asking if she had heard what had happened.

Confused, Sibanyani asked what she was on about.

“She just told me Lauren had killed all the kids.”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing and called one of Graham’s former colleagues who confirmed the news.

“I was shattered, I couldn’t believe it… the Lauren that I know couldn’t do that,” she says.

“It was unbelievable to me that Lauren could do that because Lauren went through a lot to have the kids, spent a lot of money for the kids… and she was such a lovely mum, she had a bond with her kids, she wouldn’t want to see her kids be hurt.”

The passing of time hasn’t made anything easier she says.

“It’s a lifetime scar for me. I won’t forget about it.

She says she never saw Lauren be aggressive to the girls.

“She was just like a loving and caring person and not only for me, for the community at large, I remember when she used to buy some presents for the poor and everything that she did for the people.”

Sibanyani felt “deep pain” for Lauren, and believed she was “possessed”.

“I am not angry at Lauren, I forgave her because I know she was a number one mum in a million. She played an important role to my kids, she was like a sister to me and she is still in my memories.”

She has not spoken to Graham since the family left South Africa but says the faces of the three beautiful girls are never far from her memory.

“I can’t forget those little kids”.

She often thinks back to the final time she saw them as they said goodbye and exchanged hugs, as they spoke of their excitement and their life ahead of them.

There’s also the painful memory of them telling her they would call when they returned one day and arrange to see her.

“Now it will never happen,” she said.

“Heaven has gained three beautiful angels.”

Sam Sherwood is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers crime. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2022, and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.

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