As a 1.5m tall, 55kg mother-of-one, Liz Williams battled ridicule and ribbing to join the elite police Armed Offenders Squad. But by the time she was ducking bullets from Napier gunman Jan Molenaar, no one was laughing. Three years on from the Napier siege, she tells the story in her own words from a new book.
Winter was on its way, and spending time indoors was preferable to standing out in the cold. I had managed to get to work on time that day, a rarity when the 6-year-old procrastinates in everything from putting his shoes on to opening his curtains. The solution was easy. I left it all to my husband and went in to work early.
Then I heard the breaking news.
Three, perhaps four, police officers had been shot in Napier by an armed gunman. My heart dropped.
It was believed that one officer was dead, the other two were seriously injured and one civilian possibly injured. The offender was holed up in his house, which was surrounded by the Napier AOS, and he was still firing indiscriminately at police.
My first question was, "Can I go?"
Why did I want to go? Lots of reasons. Mainly the fact that cops had been shot, and were still getting shot at. Every cop wanted to be part of resolving what had happened to our fellow members of the police. The officer believed to have received fatal wounds was still at the scene, as the area was too dangerous to bring him out.
Twenty minutes later I got a phone call from P. Along with eight other personnel from the Palmerston North squad and three from Wanganui, I would be among the team that would be leaving at 4pm in two Iroquois helicopters. My immediate thought was how privileged I was to be part of this.
Terror wasn't to kick in until later.
* * *
We were only allowed to take a small amount of clothing, so I packed one spare set of black overalls, a couple of pairs of underpants and a toothbrush. I was wearing full AOS kit with extra supplies of smoke and stun grenades.
We all headed down to a park in town for our ride. My husband was the driver of the truck that transported us there, and I knew he was gutted not to be going with us.
At the park there were a few kids having sports practice who showed some interest in our arrival. Showing a bit more interest were their worried-looking parents.
"Hello, Mum." My wee guy was standing there with a bemused look on his face. I don't think he'd ever seen me in full kit. I peeled off from the team and went over to him. Going along with the cover story suggested by my friends, I told him I was off to do some AOS training but I'd see him really soon. I gave him a hurried kiss goodbye, and in doing so smacked him in the forehead with the rim of my Kevlar helmet. Please don't let him cry, please don't cry, I thought to myself.
Moments later the helicopters were lifting off the ground in a lazy hover. By now we had the full attention of the kids. One brave young lad turned around defiantly, whipped his shorts to his knees and slapped his bum cheeks at the hovering helis. I had to admire the audacity of the little rat, but I also hoped the downdraft of the rotors would dislodge a small pebble to give his bare bum a reminder of why bare skin and rotors shouldn't be within 30m of each other. And that he should respect his elders, especially when they are armed.
* * *
After landing we regrouped next to the vehicles that would ferry us to the army base at the foot of Hospital Hill. We drove through a number of police roadblocks - it was clear the gunman was controlling a large area.
Within five minutes of entering the hot zone I heard the first sign of things to come. Three high-powered-rifle shots could be heard. Apparently the guy was still shooting at the staff surrounding his house.
By now it was about 5.30pm, so we had a briefing to update us on the state of play. It wasn't encouraging. Police negotiators hadn't been able to contact the gunman, and the loud-hailer used by AOS members had been shot at. There was info to suggest the shooter had an arsenal and was prepared for a showdown. The calibre of his firearms was varied, and at least one was high-powered. The body of murdered officer Senior Constable Len Snee was outside the address, and it was still too dangerous to retrieve him.
Our team's first role was to go in under cover of darkness and replace the first response squad, from the Napier AOS. They had been in position since 9.30am - without food, getting shot at, and with the knowledge that one of their people was lying below them, most probably dead.
As night fell we assembled and checked each other's kit. God, I was nervous. Policing is a crazy job. When the shit hits the fan, the normal reaction is to turn and run. Today I had to fight that urge and march forward. I grabbed the camo face-paint I usually carried but had never used and plastered my face with it, not wishing for any part of my whiter-than-white skin to shine out in the darkness.
Once sorted, our team climbed into our transports and moved through the media, public and roadblocks.
Leaving the warm sanctuary of the car, we paired off. I was with G, the sniper, and our position was in the property behind the target address. We walked off into the darkness, eyes constantly scanning to our right where the offender's address was, ready to drop if we heard any shots. On reaching the designated driveway, we edged our way quietly down it then around the side of a house.
This route took us out to the back of the target's house, elevated high above it because of the lay of the land.
We crept forward to a hedge that ran along the fence on the offender's house boundary. Reaching it, I dropped to my knees and tried to find the best position for view and cover from fire. The offender's section was terraced going downhill from where we were. Our location at the rear was probably about four storeys higher than the main house. Slightly to our left, about 10m away, was a smaller hut, also on the offender's property. Other AOS members were set up near this.
Once I had established the optimum sniper spot, I motioned for G to move in. He shuffled forward to the fence line, poking the muzzle of his rifle through the hole I had made, settling in a prone position.
We settled in for a long night. I was nervous about where the offender might appear from if he did choose to come our way. Did he have a little path through the vegetation in his backyard that we couldn't see? Was he intending to stay and fight or would he try to escape? Did he have a secret tunnel from his house to the hut in front of us?
As G and I lay there we could hear the eerie sound of the murdered officer's pager, which kept beeping a 10-minute reminder. The noise created in me a feeling of intense sadness for the murdered man, followed by intense anger at the offender's actions.
By now the cold had started to set in, and I began to shake uncontrollably. Occasionally I rolled on to my back and tucked my gloved hands under my arms, my M4 resting by my side.
Lying on my side wasn't much better, and the discomfort began to get demoralising. G and I fuelled ourselves with the snacks I was carrying, scoffing a bag of gummy snakes and packets of crackers with cheese dip. My spirits lifted with the sugar, but all too soon this was replaced with more shivering. I tried to cosy up next to G, but he was having none of it.
Below us, other squaddies were calling in activity from the offender. He was flicking outside lights on and off in a taunting fashion. At about midnight, my earpiece reported that the negotiators had finally made contact - he was going through many different emotions. After some time this initial contact was severed, so we waited until morning for his next move.
Without warning, the silence was shattered by the cracks of a .22-calibre firearm. My eyes shot open and I didn't dare move. Sensing no movement from me, G dug me in the ribs with his elbow and told me to wake up. I didn't answer because I was trying to figure out in which direction the shots were aimed. They seemed to be just off to my right. The radio chatter sparked up, with the shots reported to Zero Alpha.
After a short spell, the shooting stopped. My breathing slowed again, and I began to feel less tense. At least with the offender firing shots we could confirm he was still in the house. I also tried to rationalise why he had used the .22 when he had a larger calibre.
We got another few bursts from the same firearm, and one shot took out a street light. More lights went on and off at the house with no one to be seen, followed by a long, quiet spell. Then I heard the worst sound imaginable - the crack of a high-powered rifle. He must have had it on semi-auto, as there were about eight shots in rapid succession fired to the left of us.
My shivering from the cold became shivering from fright as I gripped the stock of my M4, laid myself flat and hoped like hell he wasn't taking aim in our direction. After a bit the shooting stopped again. G suggested I try to get a better look by getting higher. "F*** off," I retorted, through gritted teeth. Getting above cover was potentially fatal.
I'll pause here to introduce you to G. While he was a laugh-a-minute kind of guy, when we were deployed he was serious, professional and an excellent operator. A laid-back Maori dude, he had been on the squad for a few years longer than me. His sense of humour was unrivalled, and that night his presence was like a soothing balm. If he wasn't ruffled, then I wasn't. If he panicked then the situation was really bad.
After the rifle shots there was much more silence. I didn't know when the next action would be, so was unable to relax. It was a relief to hear that the negotiators were trying to call the offender again. When the radio in my ear was transmitting, at times I could hear the negotiator talking to the target. But the gunman didn't want to talk much, and after a while he left the phone off the hook and could no longer be reached. So we waited.
Close to 5.30am, we heard the radio crackling with dialogue. The replacements had arrived. I led them to our location and we briefed them on their arcs of fire, best vantage points and exactly where the area of operation was below us.
Walking the short distance back to our ride got the blood circulating and I began to feel better. We all climbed into the car and turned the heater on. Despite the tiredness and cold we all talked over what had happened at our individual vantage points. Having had the advantage of surprise at most AOS jobs I had been deployed on, getting shot at was a surreal experience.
One of the guys captured perfectly how I'd felt. He said an SAS friend of his once remarked that people who say that when you're fired upon your training just takes over and you react, are talking a load of crap. In fact, all you want to do is bury your head down out of the firing line and get out alive. The only time it would be different was if you were fighting for your life; if it was either them or you, and to not fight back meant death. That SAS guy sounded like a wise man.
* * *
We were told we would have to be kitted up and ready to go again at 4.30pm, so after cleaning my kit and polishing off a breakfast of muesli bars we headed back to the base.
Things had revved up a bit. There seemed to be more people around, and many familiar faces I had come across in my police career. We were all there for the same reason: we couldn't bear the thought of not being there. After a detailed briefing, we were allocated roles again. This time G and I would be at the front of the house, near the bottom of the street.
As night fell we watched the army's light armoured vehicle (LAV) roll out of the yard with a contingent on board. They were going to get the fallen officer. We stood there quietly, listening to the radio chatter. Some time later the gates opened and they rolled back in again, our dead colleague on board. No one from the squad said a word. We just stood there in a darkened corner of the yard, watching the LAV back up into a hangar. Before he was brought out many of us wandered off, feeling it was disrespectful to stand there and watch. By the time we returned, the CIB had shown up and had begun their role. Twenty minutes later we headed out again.
G and I were dropped within metres of our position. Using banks and bushes for cover, we set ourselves up with the best possible view. This time we had a low brick wall to shelter behind as well as shrubbery, but to get a view of the front we had to make a break from cover. In the briefing that evening we had been told that the gunman was possibly dead after taking his own life that afternoon, but there was no way to confirm this.
This time I sat at our vantage point with the night-vision goggles (NVGs) while G lay prone with his rifle. I was even more uncomfortable than the previous night. We were on a slight rise trying to look up the street, and it wasn't long before the cold set in again.
By now it was raining. During my times off guard, I walked back up a track that wound behind the cemetery opposite the offender's house, windmilling my freezing arms above my head to try to warm them up. The track was steep, and walking up it allowed my blood to circulate again. On these trips, I encountered the Wanganui dog-handler who was waiting behind cover. Stopping to furnish him with food, we chatted about the night. I felt safe with the cover of a large hillside between the gunman and us. I wished I could have had a police dog on nights like this. I would have it tucked in next to me and would be making full use of its warmth.
Following the recovery of the murdered officer's body, a decision was made to try to retrieve the police dog, Fi, who was still in the van. Although there was a possibility she was dead, her rescue still had to be attempted. This was timed to coincide with the arrival of an army robot, which we were calling Wall-E. He was a tremendous little thing.
Then came a wonderful, wonderful sound. As I listened to Wall-E smashing something at the offender's property, I caught a whining noise. It sounded like it was coming from the dog wagon. Fi must have heard the sounds Wall-E was making and given a small reminder that she was still there. She wasn't overtly giving her position away; more reminding anyone who cared that she'd quite like some time-out soon as she needed to pee, eat and have a run around - in no particular order.
As Wall-E did his thing around the house, we waited for the news that the gunman's dead body had been found.
Wall-E went back to his operator for refreshments while a team moved forward to see what they could do for Fi. Through the NVGs I saw them pop open the back of the dog van, and watched with delight as Fi leaped out.
Back at the motel the next morning I turned on the TV listlessly, trying to find additional news; after two hours I gave up and tried again to sleep. Another hour later and I was woken by a hammering on my door. We were going home. The gunman had been found dead.
One police officer lost his life, and two other officers and one civilian were seriously wounded. The person responsible for all that carnage took his own life, taking away any possibility of asking him why.
Afterwards, many heroes were spoken of, and their actions in saving people they didn't know was admirable and incredibly brave. Many people will never get over the events of that day. They are certainly indelibly marked in my mind. While we can all comment on what could have prevented the tragedy, it doesn't change the fact that it happened. I will say one thing, though: from the small part I played and from what I saw and heard, it reinforced why I am so proud to be a member of the New Zealand Police.
During my time in blue, many officers have lost their lives in the line of duty, and that is a tragedy. While none of us goes out to work each day with a belief that this will actually happen to us, it is an ever-present consideration. Let's face it: you never know which day is going to be your last, something I always reflect on when the news reaches me that a colleague has been killed or injured in their line of work. Did they have any inkling that this day was not going to be like any other? Do you know? Can you prepare?
Five Foot and Fearless by Liz Williams, RRP $39.99