Rhonda Zielinski (centre) is comforted in the blackened remains of her Influence Kaikohe women’s gym by gym member Michelle Treadwell and son Rawiri Winder. Photo / Peter de Graaf
A business owned by a woman who has dedicated herself to helping some of Kaikohe’s most vulnerable people has been badly damaged in an alleged arson attack.
The blaze at Influence Kaikohe, a women’s gym owned by Rhonda Zielinski, left the first-floor business severely damaged by smoke and water.
A ground-floor florist’s shop was also water-damaged and unable to open yesterday.
Zielinski said the incident, which happened about 2.30am yesterday, highlighted the shortage of police in the Mid North because a family member had called police about the same man alleged to have started the fire around 1am.
Police had responded to the initial call, but she believed the man could not be placed in the Kaikohe police cells overnight because that would have taken an officer off the street for the rest of the shift.
Overnight arrests were held at the Whangārei police cells for that reason — but transporting an offender to Whangārei also took at least one officer, usually two, off the beat for hours at a time.
Zielinski founded Influence Kaikohe in 2019 for women who were too self-conscious to use a regular gym.
She also opened it up, without cost, to women recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Zielinski has also established a “recovery hub” further up Broadway, Kaikohe’s main street, to help recovering addicts rebuild their lives and get back into work and housing.
Police were called around 1am on Wednesday after a man staying at a residential rehab centre allegedly returned heavily intoxicated, a breach of the rules, and refused to leave.
After police removed him he allegedly walked to the gym, where Zielinski said CCTV footage showed him making multiple attempts to throw a piece of burning cardboard into a first-floor window that had accidentally been left open.
The burning cardboard ignited a corner of the gym, burning through the carpet and up the wall. Exercise bikes were destroyed and other machines, such as treadmills, cross-trainers and stair climbers, were badly damaged by smoke and water.
The entire first floor of the building was blackened with soot and smoke.
“He’s taken out his frustration on my gym,” Zielinski said.
“In the old days, he would’ve been arrested, left in the cells to sober up and maybe [issued] a warning. He would have got up the next morning and gone to work with his tail between his legs. Now he’s taken out two local businesses and he’s likely to go to prison.”
The arson highlighted the severity of the Mid North’s addiction issues and the under-resourcing of police.
Kaikohe residents believed there was no point calling police after hours because they didn’t have enough staff to supervise people locked up overnight.
That could, however, allow simple problems to escalate into life-threatening situations, Zielinski said.
“We know how bad alcohol and drug addiction levels are in Northland, and how volatile addicts can be, so to not have enough resourcing for the police is ludicrous and unsafe.”
Zielinski had set up the gym with her own money after a redundancy and wasn’t insured because of the “horrendous” cost.
All electrical exercise equipment would have to be inspected to make sure it was safe and still working after being subjected to so much smoke and water.
The weight machines and barbells would be cleaned and set up in a temporary gym on the ground floor at the back of the same building.
Ironically, she had been planning to open the gym up to men from the recovery hub for the first time this Sunday.
A police spokeswoman said a man had been taken into custody after the fire.
It was standard practice that anyone who was arrested in Kaikohe needed to be held in custody had to be transported to Whangārei because Kaikohe did not have a 24-hour custody unit.
Police were called to the man’s address earlier in the night because he was intoxicated. He was spoken to regarding disorderly behaviour and asked to leave, she said.
As well as the Whakaoranga Whānau Recovery Hub, Zielinski also runs the Whare to the Whenua scheme, which helps Northlanders without homes or living in poor conditions into relocatable cabins on family land.
■ A 39-year-old Kaikohe man, whose occupation was given as a labourer, was remanded in custody when he appeared in the Kaikohe District Court charged with arson on Wednesday afternoon. He was granted interim name suppression and is due to appear again in court via an audio-visual link for a bail application on June 13.