Bethlehem College has hired an outside investigator to probe why a New Zealand teenager was behind the wheel when a school minivan crashed in Kenya, resulting in four deaths.
Bethlehem College revealed yesterday that 18-year-old David Fellows was driving the van when it rolled nearly two weeks ago.
Kenyan man Christopher Mmata was killed in the crash, and was initially thought to have been behind the wheel of the new Toyota Hiace minivan.
The crash also killed Whakatane anaesthetist Dr Brian Johnston, his wife Grace, and former student Caitlin Dickson, who were part of a group of 19 people on a Bethlehem College mission building classrooms in a small village north-east of Nairobi.
Twelve members from the group required medical attention following the accident.
Chair of the Board of Trustees at Bethlehem College, Greg Hollister-Jones, said the board had met and commissioned an independent investigation into the crash. He said the focus of the inquiry would be into why there was a driver swap.
"We were very concerned to find out that arrangements had been made to have someone else driving the van," he said.
"Our belief and expectations were that a local driver would be driving at all times during the trip. We want to understand why this was not the case on this small part of the trip."
Any possible legal action would be up to Kenyan authorities.
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said that while New Zealand does "not have an extradition treaty with Kenya, Kenya is a Commonwealth country and there's a framework in place if needed".
Barrister Shane Tait said "a serious offence would have be established on behalf of the Kenyan police for that to happen and in this case it would have to be manslaughter or attempting to pervert the course of jusitce related offending".
Top lawyer hired
Fellows is seeking legal advice and has hired one of the
country's top lawyers, Paul Mabey QC. Mabey says he has received no
word from Kenyan authorities and has only recently been hired by
Fellows, therefore has no instruction yet about this matter.
In Kenya dangerous driving causing death carries a potential sentence of life in prison but first charges must be laid.
"It would depend entirely on the inquiry by the Kenyan police," Tait said.
Principal Eion Crosbie said that "after the funerals (for the victims of the crash) on Saturday we learned through the Fellows family that their son David was driving the minibus, not Christopher Mmata".
Bethlehem College verified this information on Sunday and informed the families on Monday. The school also told local police and informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of this new information.
'Pre-arranged' driver swap
Crosbie said on the relatively short journey from a nearby school to the village where they were staying it appears there was driver swap.
"This was pre-arranged between Christopher and David. After a few minutes of driving, David lost control and the accident occurred," he said.
"Those who remember the crash say there were no concerns about David's driving."
Crosbie said Fellows took responsibility for driving at the scene.
However, the school's Kenyan partner, Kalvine Ominde, arrived after the accident and did not accept he was driving because the last person he saw driving the van was Mmata and he found him lying outside the van on the driver's side.
He said in the chaos at the scene of the accident, Ominde concentrated on the dying and the injured.
He said this continued to be the focus on the days that followed, and over that time information was released that wrongly named Mmata as the driver.
Crosbie said Fellows was asked to wait by Ominde before revealing he was the driver.
"The reason, we think, we can only envisage, that Kalvine asked him to do that was because his priority was to get the team members home, and he didn't want a police investigation to inhibit that in any way.
"His priority was to get people looked after and back to New Zealand as quickly as possible."
Crosbie says he's worried for Ominde in Kenya. "He's I think acted in good faith all along, and we're just concerned he's left in this invidious position."
'A terrible burden'
Crosbie said Bethlehem College has apologised to the affected families, acknowledging that there should never have been a driver swap.
He said the school continues to offer support and provide information to the families.
"We are giving our support to David, who is bearing a terrible burden at the moment. We've talked to David and his family and they are supportive of making this announcement, and David again expresses his sympathies and apologies to the families.
He said Fellows told his parents that he was the driver when he returned to New Zealand from Kenya.
"Kalvine told him that when he came back he was to tell his parents, he was to tell his team leader Phil Russell, and he was to seek counsel."
Fellows has met with the families of the victims and has apologised.
"He's still obviously very upset for the part he's played in this accident. Meeting with the families and apologising to them I'm sure has helped but obviously that's going to be an on-going process," Crosbie said.
He said Fellows had to carry "a very heavy burden".
He said the families "expressed grace towards David" when they were visited on Monday.
"They are not hostile towards him. I guess they can put their own children in the same position and have great empathy for him and his family. So, he did not receive a hostile, judgemental response from these families but rather, a genuine concern about his welfare and how he was managing. And that was a very gracious thing for them to do."
Crosbie said Fellows received a minor bang to the head, but was able to assist in the aftermath of the accident.
Crosbie said Fellows was part of the first group that came back to New Zealand and he believes he attended the first vigil for the victims.
He said Ominde has told Kenyan police that Fellows was the driver, and also met with Mmata's family to ensure that the family knew.
"So I'm sure that will cause some relief for them, notwithstanding the fact that the decision for the swap was Christopher's responsibility."