Motorway shooting: Tearful officer tells of slain teen

By Jared Savage

An upset Constable Karl Pennington wept as he gave evidence yesterday. Photo / Brett Phibbs
An upset Constable Karl Pennington wept as he gave evidence yesterday. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A police officer broke down in tears as he described yesterday the seconds before the accidental fatal shooting of an innocent and "petrified" teenager on an Auckland motorway.

"His eyes were like saucers ... I thought he was in pain. It was like he wanted to get out," said Constable Karl Pennington, who choked up with emotion as he gave evidence at the inquest into the death of Halatau Naitoko. "We looked at each other and he looked absolutely petrified."

The emotional eyewitness account came during the coroner's hearing for 17-year-old Halatau, who was accidentally shot dead by police during a stand-off with Stephen Hohepa McDonald in January last year.

A dog-handler with the armed offenders squad, Mr Pennington was chasing McDonald in a police car at speeds of up to 160km/h through suburban Auckland streets, before the pursuit came to a halt on the north-western motorway.

He said the stolen Nissan Skyline slowed to a crawl near the motorway barrier, and McDonald was holding a sawn-off shotgun. "It looked like he was going to ditch the car and do a runner," Mr Pennington told the inquest at the Auckland District Court.

He watched as McDonald ran towards the barrier with the firearm in his right hand, but decided against releasing his police dog because of the heavy traffic.

Instead, Mr Pennington drew his pistol and pursued the gunman over the barrier.

He saw McDonald had opened the passenger door of a white van that had stopped, and believed the gunman was going to hijack the van, driven by Halatau.

He considered firing at McDonald, but he did not have a clear target.

"I knew I didn't have a shot because the driver was in my way. Then I saw the van lurch forward a metre, like he stalled it trying to get away."

Mr Pennington said McDonald then left the van and he saw the driver was a young Polynesian man. That was when he saw the fear in Halatau's eyes.

Mr Pennington's focus then switched back to McDonald, who had been knocked over in a slow-speed collision with a flat-bed truck. He saw two other armed offenders squad member with rifles drawn up to the shoulder position.

The pair, who can only be identified as Officer 81 and Officer 84, were about 15m away from the truck and were yelling at McDonald to drop his gun.

Mr Pennington said McDonald dived into the back of the truck and rolled into a kneeling position.

He heard four shots in quick succession - he described it as a "pop, pop, pop" - then saw McDonald collapse in the back of the truck.

With weapons trained on the prone McDonald, Officers 81 and 84 approached the truck. Mr Pennington moved in from the rear with his pistol drawn.

McDonald seemed to have no serious injuries and struggled so vigorously that three officers were needed to arrest him.

At this point, Mr Pennington was alerted that Halatau was injured. He ran to the van, mistakenly assuming McDonald had shot him. "We lifted his shirt up and I could see a small entry hole. There was some blood coming out but I could see a larger pool on the seat.

"We carefully pulled him into the back of the van. He still had a pulse so we knew he was still alive. I raised his legs to help with the blood flow, then we applied a field dressing to the wound."

Paramedics arrived but Mr Pennington learned later that Halatau had died.

He described McDonald, 50, as dangerous and desperate. "I have no doubt if the offender had the opportunity... he would have shot me."

McDonald pleaded guilty to 23 charges in July and was sentenced to 13 years' jail.

SECRET EVIDENCE
* The Halatau Naitoko inquest was opened to the public yesterday after Officer 81 gave evidence in secrecy to a closed courtroom. Members of Halatau's family are the only members of the public allowed to listen to the evidence after signing a confidentiality agreement. Officer 84 - who fired the fatal shot - is expected to give evidence behind closed doors today.
* Media are also barred from hearing the evidence of Officers 81 and 84 but will be given court transcripts this week.
* Detective Inspector Pete Devoy, who headed the police homicide inquiry, will be the final witness in the inquest, which is expected to close this week. Coroner Gordon Matenga's findings into the death will be reserved.

- NZ Herald

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