Father Who Went Missing With Three Children for 17 Days Charged by Police

A father-of-three has been charged after returning from a 17-day camping trip with his kids to discover a full-scale search-and-rescue operation had been launched to try and locate them, police said Tuesday.

The New Zealand Herald reported that Thomas Phillips, 34, from Marokopa has been charged with wasteful deployment of police personnel and resources and has been summoned to appear in the Te Kuiti District Court in November.

Police spent 12 days searching for Phillips and his three young children Jayda Jin, 8, Maverick Callum-Phillips, 6, and Ember Phillips, 5.

The family had last been seen on Saturday, September 11, while Phillips' ute was later found unattended close to the tideline at Kiritehere Beach. south of Auckland.

According to the news outlet, drones and a fixed-wing plane were both deployed to help search the area, while the coast guard and Raglan and Taranaki surf lifesaving teams also assisted in the operation.

On Friday, September 24, the search was suspended with police stating they would only resume looking for Phillips and his family if new information came to light.

Phillips' sister, Rozzi Pethybridge, told Radio New Zealand that they had feared the worst.

"We had no idea what had happened to him and the kids," she said.

"[It was] a very long ordeal fearing the worst, having no signs that they were alive and well somewhere. Hope was dwindling that we were ever going to see them again. Just very, very deeply sad."

Four days later on Tuesday, September 28, Phillips and his three young children walked through the front door of his parents' family home.

Phillips has yet to speak publicly about their disappearance other than to say he had taken the children camping in an area of dense bush. Police say it is not clear how Phillips and his children survived for so long camping in the remote, forested area, in cold and wet conditions.

Inspector Will Loughrin, Waikato West Area commander was nevertheless critical of Phillips for putting his friends and family through "17 days of hell."

"This is a family that experienced 17 days of hell, really," he told reporters. "This is a community that experienced 17 days of hell wondering what had happened to this family and these children."

Loughrin said the family had been camping around 15 km ( about 9 miles) south of where Phillips' ute was found. It is not clear as to whether anyone else assisted Phillips and his children during their stay in the bushland.

While the details behind the trip remain something of a mystery, one of the people who helped in the initial search, Wikitoria Day, said that many of the locals she spoke to expected Phillips to return.

"They all said Tom knows the place like the back of his hand," she told Radio New Zealand. "He was a hunter-gatherer, so he knew how to survive in the bush for long periods of time, and had passed on that knowledge to his kids as well."

Phillips has been charged under the Summary Offences Act of 1981 and could face up to three months in prison or a fine of up to $2,000.

The story comes as authorities in the U.S. continue to search for Gabby Petito's boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, who remains a person of interest in her killing.

Meanwhile, the case of another missing person who was photographed in a cage took a turn for the strange after the house belonging to the main suspect in her disappearance burned down.

A search and rescue operation.
Stock image of a search and rescue operation. A man and his children returned home after being missing for 17 days. photosbyjim/Getty