Brazilian police capture New Zealand fugitive murderer who fled during brief prison release

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A convicted pedophile and murderer from New Zealand managed to earn money while in prison, book his escape under his birth name, and flee to Brazil while on temporary release before authorities finally caught up with him Thursday.

Phillip John Smith, who sexually abused a neighbor's son and killed the boy's father, might still have been on the run if somebody — police won't say who — hadn't spotted him in Brazil after he got a two-day jump on his pursuers.

The case has raised plenty of questions about the competence of New Zealand authorities, who have suspended their program of temporarily releasing prisoners while they investigate what went wrong.

Brazilian federal police said in a statement they found Smith, 40, in a hostel in the bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. He was arrested after a week on the run and remained in Brazilian custody pending his return to New Zealand.

When Smith was allowed out of prison last week on a three-day release, he wasn't fitted with a monitoring device, and it took authorities two days since he fled the country to realize he'd disappeared, taking a large amount of cash with him.

Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1996, was able to book his plane tickets using a passport with his birth name, Phillip Traynor, according to police, who acknowledged the name wasn't linked to the man's criminal record.

"This should never have happened," Assistant Police Commissioner Malcolm Burgess said.

The nation's corrections department announced this week it had suspended its temporary release program, designed to rehabilitate prisoners into society.

While on the run, Smith brazenly sent an email to Radio New Zealand that said he'd planned his escape by running a criminal check on his birth name and finding it hadn't been red-flagged.

He said he'd also run various enterprises from prison that helped fund his escape, but didn't provide details.

"My only anxiety was that somebody that knew me might happen to be at the airport," he wrote.

Customs officials said Smith even filled out a required form when he left, declaring he was carrying a little over 10,000 New Zealand dollars ($8,000) in cash.

Authorities say Smith likely had outside help in making his escape.

Smith told the radio station he chose to flee to Brazil because he figured authorities would face difficulties trying to extradite him if they did catch him. That's because Brazil doesn't have a formal extradition treaty with New Zealand.

But Smith could face deportation, typically a much quicker process. Burgess said Smith likely breached immigration law when he entered Brazil by not declaring his criminal convictions.

Smith's offenses in the 1990s horrified many in his home country.

He sexually abused his neighbor's son for three years until 1995. Arrested and out on bail, he tracked down the boy's family at a new address and hid in their outdoor toilet.

"He came in at 3 o'clock in the morning. He'd cut the phone cord," the victim, whose name is suppressed, told television network TV3. "I woke up to see him with a balaclava, over my bed, and a knife at my throat, telling me to shut up."

The boy's father then rushed into the room to try and save his son but Smith killed the father by repeatedly stabbing him with a hunting knife. The boy managed to escape and raise the alarm.

Even after he was arrested for the murder, Smith managed to call the victim's family several times from jail, according to media reports, and authorities also found the victim's family members on a "hit list" he had created.

Smith was sentenced to life in prison in 1996, and has also been convicted of a string of other offenses unrelated to the murder.

He has since been denied parole several times but has recently been granted about 10 temporary prison releases, according to prison authorities.

The victim, who now has a family of his own and lives in Australia, told TV3 this week before Smith's recapture that he felt in danger, had trouble sleeping at night, and was keeping a knife under his bed. He said he was disappointed by New Zealand authorities in the past and felt let down once again.


Associated Press reporter Brad Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.