Witness now focus of fatal police shooting

By Elizabeth Binning, Andrew Koubaridis, Beck Vass, Edward Gay, NZPA

Police investigating the slaying of undercover officer Don Wilkinson found numerous items of interest today, but they're still keen on finding one witness.

Search warrants netted guns, cash, drugs, precious stones and gold for police, along with what may be the car used to chase Mr Wilkinson and a colleague before he was shot to death in Mangere yesterday.

But Counties Manukau Police crime manager Detective Inspector John Tims said police were keen to speak to a man who was fishing or eeling in a creek behind the Hain Ave property Mr Wilkinson and his colleague were working at.

Mr Tims said the man had dark skin, was of solid build, in his 30s, and was wearing a green hoodie-type jacket and no shoes. He was sitting down and had a white bucket with him.

A 37-year-old was charged with murder and a 33-year-old man charged with assault over the incident. Both appeared in Manukau District Court yesterday and will reappear next week.

Mr Wilkinson, 46, and his partner, 44, were trying to install a tracking device on a car outside a house being used as a suspected P lab.

They were disturbed by occupants of the house, chased 75m down the road and Mr Wilkinson was shot dead.

His partner, whose name is suppressed by court order, was shot several times but his injuries were not life threatening.

Superintendent Ted Cox said today that a search warrant executed at a bank vault resulted in police finding three firearms, $120,000 cash, pseudoephedrine with a street value of $52,000, precious stones worth $200,000, and 15 30-gram gold medallions of an unknown value.

An air rifle was found at the Hain Ave property yesterday, though Mr Tims said it was too early to say if it was the rifle they believe was used to shoot Mr Wilkinson.

He said a car which police believed was used to chase Mr Wilkinson and his partner has also been recovered.

However, Mr Tims said police had not found any evidence of a methamphetamine laboratory in their canvassing of the Hain Ave property.

"We haven't finished the scene examination, so to date we haven't found any evidence to suggest that, but it doesn't mean that we won't," Mr Tims.

A third officer was involved in the undercover drug operation, police revealed earlier this afternoon.

At a media conference this afternoon, police said three police officers were involved in the Hain Avenue operation - two were installing a tracking device on a car, while another acted as look-out.

When seen by occupants of the house at the property they sprinted off but were chased by two men in a car. Sergeant Wilkinson was shot dead by a single gunshot wound to his upper chest and one of his colleagues was bashed and shot several times.

Police have seized the car believed to have been involved in the chase and are searching for a possible witness after a man was seen kneeling in a stream behind Hain Avenue. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and had bare feet.

Detective Inspector John Timms said police had also recovered a high-powered air rifle but it was too soon to say whether it was the gun used to kill Sgt Wilkinson and wound his colleague.

Guns and cash seized

Investigators seized three pistols and ammunition from a storage unit and also searched a bank vault in connection with those arrested for the shooting - finding precious stones, gold and $120,000 in cash.

Cards, flowers and emails have poured into police stations as the public pay tribute to Sgt Wilkinson.

Superintendant Ted Cox said results of a post-mortem examination carried out on Sgt Wilkinson would be known late tonight or tomorrow.

His injured colleague is recovering in hospital and still under the watchful eye of medical staff.

Police declined to comment on where the man's wounds were but said he would be interviewed in the coming days and was already talking about returning to work.

'Difficult and dangerous'

Don Wilkinson told friends only that he worked in "security".

In fact, he was a highly skilled policeman who had previously worked in war-torn Bosnia - an officer working in a secret and specialised team that carried out "difficult and dangerous" operations.

It was during one of those operations became the 28th NZ police officer to die in the line of duty.

His death came during what police say was a "routine" job - something the sergeant had done countless times in his nine-year policing career.

Although it was routine, police say by its very nature the world of covert operations is dangerous.

The men were unarmed and didn't have bullet-proof vests. The man who was injured - whose name has been suppressed by a judge - was wearing stab-resistant body armour.

However, armed back-up was just one block away.

They were targeting a property they believed had links to P when things went horribly wrong.

It was just after 1.30am when Mr Wilkinson and the other officers were spotted by the occupants of the house while putting the tracking device on the car in Hain Ave, Mangere.

Two men emerged and disrupted their plans.

Avoiding confrontation, the policemen sprinted off.

They radioed for help but got just 75m away into Earlsworth Rd when they were caught by the two men, who had chased them in a car.

One resident heard what she said sounded like a "car blowing up". Others were woken by gunshots followed by the screeching of car tyres.

Sam Aiono heard two shots and when he came out of his house about 2.30am, saw Mr Wilkinson's body on his driveway.

"It happened out on the street but the body ended up on our driveway. We saw him lying on the ground, covered up ... The police were there. We had to walk around [the body]."

Despite the noise, the small group of armed officers standing only a block away never made it to help. Police said yesterday those officers did not hear the gunshots and everything unfolded too quickly for them to react.

When they arrived seconds later, they found Mr Wilkinson dead and another officer badly injured.

Later, back at the suspected drug house, police found the two men they allege shot the policemen.

"Clearly it's an absolute tragedy for us to lose an officer and have another seriously threatened," said Superintendent Ted Cox, head of the Auckland metropolitan crime and operations support unit.

"If we knew there were weapons in the house, we would have approached it entirely differently."

Mr Wilkinson had spent most of his nine years with police working under Mr Cox in the technical support unit.

Those who knew Mr Wilkinson, who was single, say he was "exceptionally good at the job he did".

"I know he'd been [in the unit] for a long time because I've had dealings with him for a number of years," said Counties Manukau field crime manager Detective Inspector Mark Gutry.

"He was a hard-working and dedicated officer."

Mr Wilkinson served overseas, in Bosnia, before joining the police, although it's not clear if his background is with the Army or a private security-type company.

Over-the-counter gun

The gun suspected of killing Sgt Wilkinson can be bought over the counter without a gun licence.

It is understood there are thousands of the high-powered air rifles in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Council for Licensed Firearms Owners said such guns had become increasingly powerful.

"Some of those air guns are as powerful as a high-powered hunting rifle," the council's executive director, John Howatt, told Radio New Zealand.

"You need to have a firearms licence, training and be assessed by police to have a high-powered hunting rifle.

"It is unreasonable you should be able to go out and buy an air rifle just because you are 18."

Police Commissioner Howard Broad said today he would be reviewing the Arms Act and the availability of air rifles

"Policy responsibility for the Arms Act is actually mine so I will have a look at that."

- NZ Herald

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