Maketū, also known as Maketū Wharetōtara, the son of Ngāpuhi chief Ruhe, was born in the hinterland of the Bay of Islands. In 1841, when he was about 16 years of age, he was employed to do farm work on Motuarohia, in the Bay of Islands. His employer was Elizabeth Roberton, a widow. Her household comprised her eight-year-old son, Gordon; her two-year-old daughter; a servant, Thomas Bull; and Isabella Brind, the grand-daughter of Ngāpuhi leader Rewa. Isabella's parents were William Darby Brind, a whaling captain, and Moewaka, Rewa's daughter.
For some time Thomas Bull had been mistreating Maketū, and kicked him during a dispute about payment. Two days later, on 20 November 1841, Maketū killed Bull by splitting his head with an axe as he slept. He then killed Elizabeth Roberton and later explained that she had sworn at him. Clearly he had felt sufficient provocation to strike them down. They had offended his mana. He also killed the two girls, pursued the boy across the island and threw him over a cliff. Maketū provided no explanation for the killing of the children.
After the murders he took refuge at his father's village. Hundreds of Māori gathered; Bay of Islands settlers, without military protection, feared that the murders signalled the beginning of a Māori uprising. Some settlers suspected that Pākehā ruffian elements were fomenting trouble in the hope of gaining from Māori unrest. In the midst of these tensions Thomas Beckham, police magistrate, refused to involve himself or his men in apprehending Maketū, for fear of offending Māori kinsmen.
However, Maketū's own actions led to his surrender and ensured his death. In killing Rewa's grand-daughter he had given good cause for intertribal hostility. Christianity and the Treaty of Waitangi had largely brought peace to the Bay of Islands area and, to avoid war with Rewa, Ruhe surrendered his son.
Ngāpuhi leaders, among them Pōmare II, Waikato, Tāmati Wāka Nene, Rewa, and Ruhe himself, met at Paihia on 16 December 1841 and issued a statement dissociating themselves from Maketū's action, saying that he had acted alone and that they had no wish for war. Only Hōne Heke spoke against handing him over to the government. The statement was forwarded to the government at Auckland with the request that Maketū not be returned to the north.
On 1 March 1842 Maketū was tried at Auckland in the new Supreme Court building before Chief Justice William Martin. The Crown appointed C. B. Brewer as Maketū's legal counsel and the missionary George Clarke, with his son (also George), as interpreters; the proceedings were translated into Māori by Edward Meurant. Maketū pleaded not guilty. In his address to the jury Brewer observed that all the witnesses to the killings were dead; the only evidence against Maketū was his own confessions, one to Thomas Spicer, a Kororāreka (Russell) storekeeper, who had mounted an impromptu investigation of the murders, and another to the coroner at the inquest. Maketū, however, had on several occasions admitted his guilt and witnesses were called to confirm his presence on Motuarohia on the day of the murders. He was convicted, and hanged on 7 March 1842.
On the morning of his execution, at his own request, Maketū was baptised in the Anglican rite by the Reverend John Churton. He took the name Wiremu Kingi. After his death his relatives asked for his body but this was refused and it was interred within the gaol. Ten months later Ruhe begged for his son's bones and the request was granted. Maketū's body was exhumed and deposited in the family cemetery at the Bay of Islands.
Maketū was the first person hanged by legal process in New Zealand. Although there was little Māori opposition to his execution, there was shock over the way in which he was executed; it was seen as drawn out and cold-blooded. Under Māori custom Maketū would have been killed immediately and probably by a blow from a mere. Māori also contrasted the hanging of Maketū with the failure of British justice to convict and execute the European murderer of a woman, Rangihoua Kuika, at Wairau in April 1843, despite overwhelming evidence of guilt.
To the newly established colonial government, Maketū's surrender, trial and execution were the first major test of the application of British law to a Māori offender; the authority of the Crown and its officials was successfully upheld. The case went some way towards establishing that the government would have jurisdiction over cases of inter-racial violence. However, as the CMS missionary Henry Williams noted, it was the killing of Rewa's grand-daughter that made Ngāpuhi auxiliaries for the government.