Conquering the anguish - again

By Bonita Bigham

As police look into mounting questions about why they had to fatally shoot fleeing burglar Adam Morehu, we talk to a family and community who have seen too much death and grief

Kaly Gilbert inconsolable after learning her partner Adam Morehu was shot dead by police. She had to break the news to their children and his family. Photo / Rob Tucker
Kaly Gilbert inconsolable after learning her partner Adam Morehu was shot dead by police. She had to break the news to their children and his family. Photo / Rob Tucker

North Taranaki was quiet at 4 o'clock on a Saturday morning. So, too, was the silent alarm at the New Plymouth Golf Club, allegedly tripped by Adam Morehu and Kevin Bishell while burgling the club for, some say, nothing more than a bottle of whisky.

The gunshots that followed, though, continue to reverberate through the community and beyond.

When Adam Te Rata Charles Morehu was shot and killed by police early in the morning of June 8, the townspeople of Waitara woke to the news with a grim sense of deja vu.

There was shock at the circumstances of the 33-year-old's death, which so closely followed his mother Tania Bailey's unexpected passing a month before. And there was dread at the political and media scrum they knew would again engulf their town.

Police say Morehu and Bishell broke into the golf club, halfway between New Plymouth and Waitara, and tripped the silent alarm.

The official record says they tried to flee police on a motorbike but crashed it on the golf course. Bishell ran but was caught by a police dog; Adam stayed with his bike.

Police say Adam was acting aggressively - he twice threatened to kill officers, fired a shot from a cut-down firearm, and was Tasered and then shot twice in the torso with a Glock handgun when, in the darkness, an officer "believed he heard the offender reloading his firearm".

A preliminary pathologist's report has been given to the family, who last week took Morehu's body back to his marae to bury him. That report, and information about the nature of the two bullet wounds to Morehu's torso, has not yet been made public. Three official inquiries into the shooting are in progress, but the community of Waitara fears the public has already reached its own conclusions.

A town that has worked so hard to rebuild after the Steven Wallace police shooting, the brutal murder of truck driver Kenneth Piggott, and the fatal shooting of Rosemary Kurth by 13-year-old Jordan Nelson, a Waitara High School student in her care - is now being judged again, and found wanting.

Morehu may have been shot by a police officer, but the future of Waitara is in the hands of the New Zealand public, sitting as judge, jury - and executioner.

Kaly Gilbert found out about the death of her partner, the father of her two young children, before police could send around officers to break the news gently.

A friend had driven past the scene, recognised Adam's motorbike and gone to tell Kaly.

"She said she'd seen his bike and a tent. I said 'what tent, get in this car, let's go check it out'," Gilbert tells Maori Television's Native Affairs.

Approaching police at the scene, she learned what had happened to her partner. The Herald on Sunday was there as she sank to the ground at the edge of the road, and dropped her head.

"That was hard," she says. "I found out the hard way."

It fell to Gilbert to tell the rest of the family. She tells of the difficulty trying to explain to their children what happened to their dad, a man whose record shows he may not have had much respect for the law, but was certainly dedicated to his family.

"It's tough for them and they are coping well, there's heaps of support for them."

Gilbert talks about the children keeping things fun and light, considering the circumstances.

"They have their innocence, which is important."

The Gilbert and Morehu families are seeking answers. They want to know if there were other options available to the police that night.

"Why?" asks Morehu's brother Josh. "That's the question on everyone's mind."

John Niwa acted as spokesman for Morehu's whanau throughout the tangi, and continues to be closely involved as they seek answers.

The close-knit community has rallied around the family, he says. Outsiders may judge and make assumptions, he adds, but those judgments are irrelevant to a town where the strong family ties and friendships between Maori and Pakeha are what gets everyone through the rough patches.

A teacher and educationalist all his working life, John lives a few steps away from Waitara High School where the next generation of Waitara youth are working hard to debunk the myths about their town.

He admits that when Morehu died, there was initially a feeling of deja vu - another Waitara whanau farewelling a loved one killed by a police bullet.

Waitara was thrust into the media spotlight in 2000 when 23-year-old Steven Wallace was shot and killed by Senior Constable Keith Abbott in the town's main street, after a destructive rampage through the town with a golf club and a baseball bat.

Niwa says the circumstances were different this time, but Wallace's mother Raewyn paid her respects to Morehu and his wider whanau at Owae Marae during the tangi.

The support of the community is helping Morehu's whanau, who describe themselves as "cocooned with love".

An unexpected but welcome outcome of Adam's tangi was the opportunity for many of Adam's friends, who were unfamiliar and initially uncomfortable in the marae, to be welcomed into the proceedings and become involved.

Some have indicated they want to continue to be involved, Niwa says.

"It needs to happen, to get our young ones involved again. Adam made that happen."

The whanau have also engaged a lawyer, who Niwa says will help them interpret all the inquiry results and assist them to understand any subsequent ramifications.

They are just seeking the truth of the sequence of events that led to Morehu's death, he says, even if that truth ultimately brings them more pain.

"At this point that's the main issue for the family. Waiting and then understanding what it all means."

Resilience is a word normally associated with an individual, a business or an organisation - not a place on the map.

But the seaside town of Waitara, with a population of around 6,000, has proved its resilience over the centuries.

It has survived the devastating legacy of land wars and subsequent confiscations, the closure of major industries, and it has even bucked the global recession.

It's a pretty little town, with a long main street full of well-maintained buildings housing a wide variety of businesses and community organisations.

The slow-moving Waitara River bisects the northern residential area, separating Owae Marae, where the tangi for Wallace and Morehu were held, from the central business district.

Only a few main street premises are empty; the town seems devoid of the graffiti and scribblings of disaffected youth.

Flourishing, colourful hanging baskets under every veranda brighten up a dreary, cold winter's day, while the green and gold foliage of the planted trees look more suited to an Australian town than one with a nearly 40 per cent Maori population.

Despite the rain storms and wind this week, the town is humming. People on the street are chatty and courteous, even as they try to get indoors and out of the foul weather.

It is a town with a proud sporting pedigree, churning out national and world champions in many codes, including rugby league, softball and surfing.

Waitara sports teams compete in the highest levels of provincial rugby, netball, rugby league and football competitions.

Its kapa haka groups often set the bar at regional competitions, and frequently represent their schools and wider community on the national stage.

There's a keen sense of connectedness in Waitara, a strong feeling of belonging, a staunch commitment to community.

But it is the resilience of this town's spirit and community identity that separates Waitara from its contemporaries as its people rally against what they say is constant and unfair negative portrayal of their hometown.

Resilience is the word that comes up time and time again in conversation with its residents. They say they are bigger and better than the local events that seem to make the national headlines.

In 2003, 13-year-old schoolgirl Renee O'Brien brutally murdered local truck driver Kenneth Piggott, enlisting two friends to distract Piggott before she attacked him.

With the help of her friends, she dumped his body in the Waitara River.

National attention and speculation again focused on the town, still raw after Steven Wallace's death.

Questions were framed more as accusations.

What was going on with Waitara's youth? Why didn't anyone see the warning signs? How was the community going to stop things like this from happening again?

Then, in April last year, 13-year-old Jordan Nelson shot and killed his caregiver, Rosemary Kurth, at her rural farm in Okoki, inland from Waitara.

He was arrested driving the family's car within the Waitara township.

In the meantime in Opunake, another beautiful coastal Taranaki township, 46-year-old Anthony Ratahi had been shot and killed by police after taking his former partner hostage at gunpoint.

While the circumstances of Ratahi's fate brought back uncomfortable memories for some Waitara residents, it was Adam Morehu's death that would put the spotlight back on the town.

Kaumatua Ray Tito sits in an armchair in his cosy little seaside cottage. The waves thunderously pound the beach metres from his home.

Uncle Ray, as the community knows him, has lived in Waitara most of his 77 years.

He was at Owae Marae to support the Morehu whanau, who he knows well.

Amid tragedy, Uncle Ray is gently pleased that so many rangatahi turned up to the tangi.

"I thought, 'well boy, look what you've done, we wouldn't get them together like this otherwise'," he muses.

"When I looked around the room there weren't very many elderly there; they were all around his age. The way they conducted themselves was exemplary."

Tito hopes the way Wallace, Ratahi and Morehu died will make others realise the ultimate price that can be paid when confronting police, and the devastation it brings to the families left behind.

"You can talk to your tamariki - you can only hope."

Long-time Waitara resident, business owner and district councillor Sherril George is babysitting her young grand-daughter at her Waitara home as the weather breaks and the sunshine floods through her dining room window.

Amid the soothing and baby talk, she gives an emphatic denial that Waitara has a violence problem.

"The issue is, why should Waitara be belittled every time something bad happens?"

George says the town is no different to any other small, provincial, rural community with people and behaviour at both ends of the spectrum.

"I just get so frustrated that as soon as something bad happens, we are all thrown back in the thick of it.

"We're a hard-working community and yes, we have our problems, we acknowledge that. We are all shocked by the tragedy the surrounds the families. They are good families but this is not a Waitara township issue."

George also has nothing but praise and support for the police. "Nobody wants to be put in the position that they have to shoot someone."

Iwi leader Peter Moeahu says some of the town's sons and daughters have made decisions with disastrous consequences - but, he asks, who hasn't made mistakes? "It's how people learn from those choices and get on with their lives."

Moeahu acknowledges individuals must be accountable for their actions, but be also refers to the town's proud history of producing sports stars.

"Waitara people understand what it means to be part of a team, that you need to be strong and committed to win," he says. "That's how people look after each other here."

Answers will come to some of the questions about Morehu's actions, and the police response. Those answers will inevitably satisfy some people, but not others. They can never be enough for his whanau.

"There is a big void in my heart," Morehu's father, Ed, tells Native Affairs.

"No one should have to go through that. They're supposed to bury you, not you bury them. It's devastating."

- Herald on Sunday

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