From smiling 5-year-old to axe-wielding teen robber and New Zealand’s youngest prisoner

By Sam Sherwood, Stuff

How did a smiley 5-year-old become an axe-wielding, drug-addicted robber who is now New Zealand’s youngest prisoner? SAM SHERWOOD reports.

John Burrowes looks at two photos of his son Liam. One shows a happy, smiling 5-year-old, the other is an image taken from CCTV footage. It shows a drug-addicted 16-year-old robbing a dairy armed with an axe.

Burrowes, a painter, shakes his head.

“Look what’s happened to him . . . Other than doing crime he’s actually a nice boy.”

Growing up, his parents say, Liam gave no hint he would end up a delinquent. He wanted to be painter like his dad, was intelligent, loved rugby and had a good group of friends.


Axe in one hand, a bag in another, Liam Burrowes enters the Woolston Night ‘n Day with two others.

Then in May 2015 they received a call from Shirley Boys’ High School’s principal.

Liam had been caught outside the school with another boy, with drug utensils in his bag. That was his last day at school.

Liam’s mother, Liz, says her son didn’t come home that night and wasn’t seen again by the family for two weeks. The running away continued for the next two years. One night police returned Liam to his home three times.

“It just went from zero to full on in a couple of weeks,” John says.

“The police would bring him home and then he would be gone out the window again, sometimes for days and sometimes for weeks.”

Liam and his mates would shoplift and steal cars to feed their drug addictions. They also broke into red zone homes and smoked cannabis.


Liam Burrowes aged 3.

Each time Liam went missing, John and Liz would call police and John would get in his car to look for his son.

“I went to all sorts of houses in all sorts of places the first couple of months or so. We would get him home and then he would take off again.”

The trips were “incredibly frustrating” for John. He would often turn up at a house only to be lied to by adults there.

One parent had a group of the teens living in her garage smoking cannabis.

The couple believe Liam’s associates are to blame for his crime wave, saying he just got in with the wrong group of people.

“He was hanging out with kids that are allowed to go out all hours of the night. Their parents don’t care where they are.”


Liam Burrowes aged 15.

Drugs also played a part in Liam’s offending. Liz attended a drug and alcohol assessment with Liam where he was asked what drugs he used.

“I just sat there as he listed all this stuff – he had cannabis, synthetics, ecstasy – I was blown away.”

Sergeant Jeff Alford, of the Canterbury youth crime unit, has seen that combination too many times. As of December, 3.6 per cent of the prison population was under 19 years old, according to the Department of Corrections.

“It’s that whole circle of drugs and association – once you’ve got those two things running together, that’s when you start really falling off.”

As upsetting as it was, John and Liz weren’t surprised to hear of Liam holding up a dairy.

“I feel it’s like getting a patch,” John says.


CCTV footage of Liam Burrowes robbing the Woolston Night ‘n Day on December 3.

Liam had only been out of Canterbury youth justice facility Te Puna Wai for five days when he robbed the Woolston Night ‘n Day for the first time on December 3 last year. John had gone to check on him in the middle of the night but he was gone.

They found out about Liam robbing the dairy through his 22-year-old sister. Liam hopped in her car one morning with a whole lot of money and cigarettes.

She asked where he got it all from and he told her he had robbed a dairy.

Prone to exaggeration, he wasn’t believed until she saw the story online. She then told her parents, who called police. They were already on his tail.

Liam robbed the same dairy again on December 22. Police came to the door of the Burrowes’ two-storey New Brighton home with a search warrant for Liam’s bedroom. Inside they found the socks he had worn while robbing the dairy.

Liam’s parents tried everything to help him, including sending him to Ashburton to stay with his aunt. That didn’t last long, with Liam getting his friends to steal a car and drive to Ashburton to pick him up and bring him back.

As time went on they started to expect every knock on the door to be the police.

“It was hard for the first year, and then you get to a point where you’re actually past it, you get used to it. It’s like he’s going to do what he chooses to do and there’s nothing we can do to stop him.”

Alford says such a pro-active family as the Burrowes is “rare”.

“It’s refreshing to have had that. They were clearly frustrated by the lack of control they had over him and I think they hoped the justice system would bring that control back in the family for them but it didn’t.”

Burrowes was sent to jail for three years last week, becoming the youngest inmate of any of New Zealand’s adult prisons. His parents weren’t surprised.

“It makes more sense for him to be locked up and paying for his crimes because he hasn’t learnt anything from it,” John says.

Liam hasn’t called them since entering prison and they wonder what will happen when he gets out of jail.

“At 16 with a criminal record already and no potential job prospects in sight, I really don’t know what he’s going to do,” Liz says.

They agree it’s going to be nice not having police knocking on their doors looking for their son for the next few years.

“It sounds horrible, but when he’s in custody at least we know where he is and he can’t be committing crime.”

The Children’s Commissioner was unavailable for comment.

(Previously published On Stuff, click here for more)

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