Niklas Gebhardt has been jailed over the death of his 6-year-old son Lachlan. [Photo: RNZ]
A father who deliberately drove off the road at 130km/h, killing his 6-year-old son in a fiery car crash, has today been jailed for five years.
An emotional sentencing hearing at the High Court in Christchurch this morning heard from Lachlan Gebhardt’s heartbroken mother Kim Manson, who called her ex-partner Niklas Gebhardt a “coward” and a “monster.”
Manson said her “beautiful, sweet son” – whom she called her best friend – was killed in a “planned and calculated” act.
Gebhardt – who claims he has amnesia and cannot remember why he drove off the road in the 2019 crash – was convicted of manslaughter, but she said it will always be murder to her.
And she will always question why he took her son.
“Why not just do it yourself, why did you have to take my sweet boy with you?” Manson said.
Former footballer Gebhardt, 32, stood with his head bowed as Justice Jan-Marie Doogue sentenced him to five years in prison. He earlier pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Although defence counsel Andrew McCormick acknowledged an “absolute tragedy” that has “affected many, many people”, he stressed Lachlan’s death was not murder and took issue with the Crown calling Gebhardt’s actions deliberate.
Justice Doogue, however, found his driving was deliberate, “highly dangerous and reckless”.
“This was a deliberate crash at very high speed,” she said, telling Gebhardt that he breached the precious trust his young son would’ve had in him.
“Lachlan should’ve expected to be safe in the hands of his father.
“He was completely at the mercy of your decision-making that day.”
The judge heard that Gebhardt lacks insight into his offending and has not taken responsibility for it.
McCormick said Gebhardt cannot remember why he drove off the road. He’s now a broken man, he said, suffering from diagnosed “complicated grief”.
The court heard that Gebhardt drove off the road at high speed through the bend of Lehmans Rd and River Rd near Rangiora Racecourse, North Canterbury, on 5 November, 2019.
The car launched 24m in the air before it hit a tree 7m higher than its take-off point.
It burst into flames and Lachlan died at the scene.
There were no signs Gebhardt tried to brake or slow down, the court heard today.
As members of the public dragged Gebhardt out of the burning wreck, he asked to be put back in to change places with his son.
“He’s such a nice boy. I want to swap with him,” Gebhardt told them. “I want a bullet.”
Crown prosecutor Mark Zarifeh earlier told the court Gebhardt shared custody of Lachlan with his ex-partner.
It was a “very sad case,” Zarifeh said, and one that defies explanation or description.
“There are really no words that can capture the loss caused by Lachlan’s death,” he said.
On 5 November 2019, Gebhardt picked up Lachlan from Dudley Swimming pool in Rangiora, leaving at 4.08 pm, with Lachlan in the back seat of his Mazda.
Gebhardt drove along Lehmans Rd on the westerly outskirts of Rangiora, faster than the posted 80km/h limit. He swerved sharply when he passed a vehicle and had to get back to avoid an oncoming vehicle.
At the end of the straight was a sharp right-hand corner with a 25km/h advised speed.
Police estimated his speed at about 130km/h when he reached the turn, but he made no effort to brake, slow, or swerve.
The car hit the speed sign, went up a stop bank and became airborne before hitting a tree.
The car spun to the ground and caught fire.
Members of the public called emergency services and dragged Gebhardt out. But the fire prevented them from getting back to the car.
Gebhardt received burns to 30 per cent of his body, a fractured femur and facial injuries. Lachlan died at the scene.
When he was interviewed by the police about seven weeks later, Gebhardt said he could not recall anything about the crash.
At a court appearance soon after, McCormick explained that Gebhardt was “having difficulty” with trauma issues.
However, Gebhardt insisted on pleading guilty immediately and was jailed for a month for obscene exposure.
The crash was across the road from Manson’s work at the racecourse and around the corner from where she lived with Lachlan.
She believes Gebhardt wanted to cause “maximum pain” and would never forgive him.
In the days after the crash, the family were led to believe it had been a tragic accident, Lachlan’s grandmother told the court today.
In September 2020, 10 months after the fatal crash, he walked into the Christchurch Police Station, took his clothes off and pleaded to be jailed.
He was arrested and charged with obscene exposure in public.
But after visiting the scene, she did not believe it was an accident.
“I believe you murdered my grandson,” she said in her victim impact statement.
“You used your car as a weapon.”
The distraught grandmother said Lachlan’s death has left a “yawning chasm” in their lives.
She is appalled by Gebhardt’s act, saying he never apologised or showed remorse, and told him today that she could never forgive him.
Lachlan was the “best grandson anyone could want” who knew right from wrong.
She said Gebhardt “took his life and stole his future”.
“I don’t know how anyone could be so cruel.”
Zarifeh said Gebhardt was unimpaired at the time of the crash and a report found Gebhardt was not suffering from any type of mental health issues.
And there was no suggestion it was an accident, the Crown says, with no evidence he’d tried to brake or slow down before the crash, on a piece of road he knew well.
Justice Doogue said the victims today eloquently described the heartbreak, pain, torture, torment and anger they continue to experience.
“Any sentence I impose, irrespective of its nature and length, will not address the victims’ loss,” she said, adding that no mother should have to attend their 6-year-old son’s funeral.
Gebhardt is disqualified from driving, once released from prison, for seven years.
Detective Senior Sergeant Damon Wells released a statement acknowledging Gebhardt’s sentencing today.
“The loss of a child is an incredible tragedy and I want to commend the strength and resolve of Lachlan’s wider whānau and loved ones through this process,” he said.
“I also want to acknowledge the members of the public and frontline staff who were faced with this horrific incident and did everything they could to help.
“Finally, I want to thank the investigation team. There is no way you can investigate a case of this nature and not be affected, but they have demonstrated professionalism throughout.”
Wells added: “Nothing will bring Lachlan back, but it is my hope that today will bring some closure in this very sad, senseless case.”