Otago Uni graduations: Woman sentenced for threats that led to events being axed

By Qiuyi Tan and Lynley Ward of NZ Herald

A woman sent fake bomb threats to Otago University warning of carnage greater than the 2019 Christchurch mosques attacks to stop her parents from finding out she wasn’t graduating.

Otago University Campus

Otago University Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The former Otago University student was sentenced to five months community detention and nine months supervision when she appeared for sentencing at the Auckland District Court on Thursday.

The accused, who has interim name suppression, was a top student in primary school whose mental health and grades suffered after her move to New Zealand, and dramatically worsened in university, said Judge Claire Ryan.

“Your parents, family and friends were proud of you, and you were too frightened to tell them of your failures,” Ryan said to the woman.

Now in her early 20s, the woman sat in the public gallery with her head bowed, accompanied by her parents and brother.

She failed her first year of university twice, and suspended from enrolling a third time under the institution’s academic policy, transferred to a polytechnic course. She did not tell her parents, who thought she was doing well at Otago University.

She also tried and failed to get a bank loan to buy a fake graduation certificate online.

At her wits’ end, she went to a public library and sent her first email with the title “Beware, gun attack at graduation ceremony” on 4 December, 2020, using a new email she had created with the user name ‘far.right’.

It bounced back, so she created more email accounts including ‘white.supremacy.rocks’ to send the same message again that afternoon.

“Dear University of Otago,” she wrote, “Since you c***s have suspended me I’m going to ruin your graduation with some firearms and a little touch of explosives. The town hall will make quite a boom.

“I will make the mosque attacks look like child’s play … Are you going to take the gamble?” the emails read.

University staff received the email threats, and the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic eventually called off their December 2020 graduation ceremonies and parades at the 11th hour.

The woman did not deny the facts when questioned by police, saying she feared her parents would disown her if they found out she didn’t have a degree.

She was seen wiping away tears and her parents wept audibly during the more than two-hour sentencing hearing.

Thousands of students and tens of thousands of their whānau had travelled to Dunedin for the December 2020 graduations after a challenging year of Covid-19 lockdowns, restrictions on school and home life, suffering what the judge called “significant loss emotionally and financially”. Not all were from wealthy, stable, happy homes, Ryan said.

The alarming specificity of the gun and bomb threats was chilling, said the Chancellor of Otago University in her victim impact statement read out by the judge, and the link to the Christchurch mosque massacre especially disturbing and callous.

The cancellations and its aftermath cost the university an estimated $1.3 million, the equivalent of six full-time salaries for a whole year, the Chancellor said.

Otago Polytechnic students were often older, second chance learners, said the Otago Polytechnic chief executive’s statement, also read out in court.

They were former refugees, people turning their lives around and becoming the first university graduates in their family, and many had travelled from the North Island for the graduations.

“The cost was far beyond what money could buy.”

Discharge without conviction request refused

The judge declined the defendant’s application for a discharge without conviction, saying the offending was serious because of her use of right-wing white supremacy and Christchurch mosque attacks in her threats.

She also rejected the defendant’s permanent name suppression, which lapses later this month.

At the name suppression hearing earlier on Thursday, defence counsel John Munro said the defendant suffered from anxiety and depression – relying on three different drugs- and publication of her name could lead to a downward spiral.

She did not fit the mould of a person facing charges aligned with terrorism, he said, describing her as kind, diminutive and timid.

Crown prosecutor Robin McCoubrey said the scale of offending was “very grave”, robbing thousands of graduands and their whānau of the chance to see the reward for years of study.

She had many opportunities before graduation day to tell her parents the truth, he said.

Responding to the sentence, police said the investigation into the bomb threats was technically challenging and involved staff from around the country.

“The message today’s sentencing outcome gives is clear – if you threaten to do harm to members of your community, or places they may be, police will investigate, we will identify who you are, and we will hold you to account,” Southern District Commander Superintendent Paul Basham said.

This story first appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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