David Fisher

Senior reporter of the year

Greatest NZ stories: Ruatoria's cop on horseback riding to the rescue

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.
Sergeant Regan Horsfall and his horse Zoro in a paddock near the police station at Ruatoria. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sergeant Regan Horsfall and his horse Zoro in a paddock near the police station at Ruatoria. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A Ruatoria policeman explains how he apprehended a naked, axe-wielding man.

Day 15: Ruatoria

There was an axe in the hands of a man who was clearly upset. It wasn't an ideal situation.

The story came as we were leaving Ruatoria when a jump-suited, fluoro-wearing police sergeant stepped out on to the road and waved us down.

Video


Regan Horsfall likes to meet people this way. It's one way of many he stays in touch with the community he polices. There are five police officers on this long coast which runs from Gisborne out to East Cape.

He leans in the window of the campervan and explains how the knowledge from the traffic stops shortens the distance, bringing the community closer and reducing the need for distant backup.

"It's one hour and 40 minutes from Gisborne and that's at a quick drive," he says. "But you can't really drive quick because the roads are buggered all the way through to Gisborne."

And they are. The pitted tarmac is striped with ruts, trucks heavy with logs scoring the road all the way to Gisborne.

As at any other traffic stop, Regan asks who we are, where we're from and where we're going.

Then, he leans a bit further in and says: "I'll tell you a story."

A few months back he was heading to Tokomaru Bay to ride horses with Constable Brian Leach. It was something he used to do then picked up again five years ago when he moved to Ruatoria.

"Myself and Brian, we're right into horses. We take kids horse-trekking all the time."

So he's on his way to Tokomaru Bay with Brian for an off-duty ride, horse trailer on the back, when a call comes through for a "1M" - police code for an incident involving a mental health patient.

A community patient recently returned from residential care to Tokomaru Bay had just taken an axe to his elderly mother's home, destroying its interior.

"I heard him say the guy's taken all his clothes off and he's waving the axe around ranting and raving, yelling from the top of the hill. I told him I wouldn't be far away."

The "top of the hill" was a fair hike straight uphill. Pulling up in Tokomaru Bay, he and Brian put their heads together to work out a way of approaching the man, who was on the ridge, still holding the axe.

"It was just pointless trying to chase him up there because it's all scrub, it's all bush, and once he gets into the scrub we'll never find him."

There were options - but the distance of these remote East Cape communities means help is always a promise that has yet to be kept. The dog handler in Gisborne had heard the call and was on the way - and the armed offenders squad was also an option - but they were almost two hours' drive away.

Another police unit turned up, and that was about when Brian and Regan made a plan.

"As long as he could see a police vehicle down here he'll hopefully stay where he is. Brian and I shot off. We saddled up a couple of horses and took off up the ridge line behind him."

They figured that coming up behind the man reduced his options and would hopefully keep him from taking to the bush.

"If he got in the bush we'd be looking for him all night and all the next day, and some more. That's the last thing we wanted."

Horses saddled, Regan was carrying pepper spray and Bruce the Taser, which was holstered but ready. "If we had to, we were going to run him over on the horses."

There was risk, no doubt, and they knew what they faced - a man wielding an axe poses a significant threat.

"It was a threat but we don't have any resources up here, pretty much. Time is of the essence because if we don't act quickly we could lose him. And you know, horses are really safe. We know what they're capable of.

"If it turned to custard we could easily get away. Brian said, take a couple of jumpers so if it all turned to custard we could just go straight over the fence."

So up they went, bearing for the ridge from the other side.

"On the other side of the ridge line was all open and we couldn't hide from him any more, once we got out of the bush."

By then, another officer had borrowed a quad bike and was heading up the ridge from the opposite side.

"He took off and we took off after him."

From horseback, the pair bore down on the man. Brian drew the Taser and targeted the the man.

"He gave up and threw the axe down the bank ... then he hit the ground in front of the horses."

One of the horses jumped over the prone man, such was the nature of the pursuit. The other stopped. The officers dismounted, handcuffed the man and got him back down the hill on the back of a quad bike.

It was a bit different when it came to paperwork. The drawing of the Taser requires a "use of force" report - one which cracked his boss up.

He sent it to an urban colleague, asking how many reports he gets like that - Taser deployed on horseback during encounter with naked axe-wielding man.

"Sometimes," says Regan, "you just have to think outside the square. You don't have the resources available or the manpower you have in the city."

It is a long way from anywhere, Ruatoria, and in years gone by it has been even further distant.

The town was notorious in the 1980s with the rise of "Ngati Dread", a movement which combined Rasta teachings with those of Te Kooti Rikirangi. They were set on a collision course with the Government, with police and a group of local residents standing in opposition.

Over five years, there were more than 30 arsons, including the courthouse, and eventually a fatal shooting. It was about as far from the rest of New Zealand as you could get.

We've all come a long way, including Regan who says that when he arrived in Ruatoria as a reliever he had no expectation of staying.

"If you asked me before if I would end up in Ruatoria I would have told you that you had rocks in your head.

"It wasn't until I came here to work and realised how much I loved the place - and how hearty the people are. They give you the shirt off their back and they don't have much.

"It's a great place. They're the most hearty people I've known in all my time in the police. And that's why I'm still here. I'm not from here but I feel part of it now and one of it."

It's a realistic relationship. He coaches rugby, loves it, and loves a beer in the clubrooms after. But then he goes. He knows if he stays longer, his uniform is going to get in the way somewhere - even if he's not wearing it.

That's the reality of policing a small community.

That's not to say there aren't good relationships but they come from respect, something which Regan clearly holds for the people of Ruatoria. And it makes a difference, obviously. He rattles off statistics on crime reduction and reoffending rates falling which speak more to the way the police work with the community than officers putting handcuffs on people.

"It's easy to arrest people and put them before the court. Is that the answer? It might be a short-term fix but is it a long-term fix for the future? We really try and engage with our community and our youth and get out there and do things with them.

"There's always been that stigma about Ruatoria. Things did happen back in the day but those days are well and truly gone. The door is open and people come through the door rather than bypass the police station because they feel they can come in and talk about things that have happened.

"When you consider 95 per cent of the community are benefit-dependent and 99 per cent are Maori. The average income is below $15,000 a year. You'd probably think you've got a cocktail for disaster but it's the total opposite.

"Everywhere you go everyone wants to give you a cup of tea and something to eat. Sometimes you've got to be rude and say 'no', and it's quite hard to be rude, and say, 'I had a cup of tea at the last house I was at.'

"You've got to work hard for your community. I look at it along the lines that we are probably the highest-paid people on the coast, police officers. I would say we would be.

"We owe the community the best service we can provide and I try to tell my staff that all the time.

"It's just about breaking the barriers down, and that empowerment. The community will engage with you if you work for them.

"You call on your community to, and your community is all willing to help."

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