Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

First day of spring heralded a tragedy

The morning began like all others for three women in the Winz office

Police and forensics officers at the Ashburton Winz office on Monday where Russell Tully allegedly killed two women and injured another. Photo / Ashburton Guardian
Police and forensics officers at the Ashburton Winz office on Monday where Russell Tully allegedly killed two women and injured another. Photo / Ashburton Guardian

Monday morning in Ashburton is bustling but not busy.

It's the first day of spring, but the weather is bleak and cold as Peggy Noble, Leigh Cleveland and Lindy Curtis head to work for the day.

Ms Curtis, 43, drops her grandchildren at daycare and school, Ms Cleveland no doubt farewells her three beloved dogs and Mrs Noble makes the short 250m trip from her home to the Ashburton Community Link building which houses a number of welfare services including Work and Income New Zealand.

The office opened at 9am and for an hour, it was business as usual. And then, at 10am the sound of gunshots pierced the chilly morning and the terror and pain began.

Mrs Noble was at the reception desk when the gunman walked into the office. He allegedly had been served a trespass notice the week before, due to his behaviour towards Winz staff.

Mrs Noble was only 10 minutes away from her morning break when the balaclava clad man eyed her up and allegedly shot her at close range.

A source close to the investigation said police believe he then turned and opened fire on Ms Cleveland. He stopped, reloaded his shotgun and scanned the room again, stopping at a Winz client before spotting Ms Curtis and pulling the trigger.

It has been reported that Ms Curtis was scrambling to hide under a desk when the bullet hit her in the leg, causing a serious injury and heavy bleeding.

The gunman turned and walked out of the building. He unchained his bike from a nearby post and biked away.

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Minutes later police converged on the building. It is understood they found Ms Curtis on the phone to a paramedic desperately taking instruction on how to stem the bleeding from her wound.

They found Mrs Noble and Ms Cleveland dead. Then, they began to hunt for the gunman responsible.

As police spread out across Ashburton, witnesses to the terrifying attack began to emerge.

A man named David was being interviewed by a Winz staffer when the gunman shot her. He was sitting less than a metre away from her.

"It was incredibly loud, I could feel the air whoosh past my head," he said.

As the gunman walked away, calmly and in no rush, David ran after him - swearing at him and demanding he stop.

Another witness also ran after the man, shouting "You bastard, you've blown her to bits ... they are only trying to help."

Another grappled with the gunman but managed only to thump the back of his head as he fled on his cycle towards the Ashburton River.

News of the shootings and the fact that an armed man was on the run from police spread across Ashburton, and the country. Shops, businesses and schools locked down and nervous residents stayed home, their eyes and ears on the news.

Just after the shooting, Bruce Henderson was on his morning run on the Ashburton River track.

As he and his running mate were heading east, a man wearing camouflage clothing and a balaclava sped past them. The track is well used by mountain bikers, but the man looked odd, out of place.

"And he was in a real hurry," Mr Henderson said.

Cops raced to Ashburton from all over the Canterbury area, 100 in total, and it soon became clear that the focus of their search was the river area. A helicopter slowly swept its way up and down, a dark-clad sharpshooter hung out the doors, his eye fixed at the sight of his high-powered rifle.

Police dogs scoured the land, their barks audible in nearby suburbs.

Patrol cars raced up and down the empty streets and armed plain clothes officers set out on foot, peering around corners and up alleys, ever hopeful of spotting the gunman and ending the terror.

At 12.30pm police circulated a photo of a "person of interest", local man Russell John Tully and appealed for sightings. Police later swooped on a vacant Housing New Zealand property, throwing smoke bombs and ramming in the back door. The gunman was nowhere to be found.

The relief was palpable when Canterbury District Commander Superintendent Gary Knowles announced at 5.30pm that the alleged gunman had been apprehended and was en route to the police station. Hours later Tully was charged with the murders of Mrs Noble and Ms Cleveland and the attempted murder of Ms Curtis.

Farmer Dan White would later reveal he chanced upon the accused in his paddock when he went to move a mob of sheep.

"He was out in the open, out in the middle of the paddock ... I carried on driving in my ute, away from him, called the police, told them where he was."

The news the alleged gunman had been caught finally settled the community, and allowed the grieving to begin.

Service details

Susan Leigh Cleveland, 55
Funeral to be held at the District Club in Alexandra today at 2pm.

Peggy Turuhira Noble, 67

Funeral to be held at 11am on Monday at the Ashburton Trust Event Centre, followed by interment at the Ashburton New Lawn Cemetery.

Civic Service, organised by the Ashburton Council Thursday September 11 at 12.15pm at Baring Square East, central Ashburton.

The Ashburton Benevolent Trust has established a fund for the victims of Monday's tragedy. Donations can be made online or at any Westpac Bank branch to The Ashburton Victims Fund, account number 03-0835-0342252-00.

- NZ Herald

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