Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

'I'm his rock and his light. He's the reason I don't fall apart'

A drunken brawl left George Siaosi trapped in his own body and the man who hit him trapped by the justice system. The case highlights the battle to create a safe city at night, writes Olivia Carville.

It was a double-barrelled king hit thrown by a drunk teenager that cracked George Siaosi's skull. The deadly one-two combo was fuelled by alcohol, arrogance and an argument in a bar.

It ended with Siaosi's blood staining the concrete outside a Denny's restaurant in Manukau at 3am while his assailant, Pelepesite Poai, 19, fled.

Before that night, the pair had never met. Now their lives are forever entwined.

Poai is trapped on home detention, living under the weight of what he did.

Siaosi, 36, who used to be "the life of the party" with a wicked sense of humour, is trapped inside his body, unable to think for himself.

"George made this world a brighter place and I haven't allowed myself to think of how he's not that person any more, how he's never going to be that person again," his partner, Melissa Ansin, told the Herald on Sunday.

"How many more people have to be king hit until the council realises something needs to be done?"

Controversy over bar trading hours has polarised authorities, with police contesting Auckland Council's provisional Local Alcohol Policy.

The two authorities are fighting over the time bars should be shut to best prevent alcohol-related brawls.

The argument has come down to one hour that they can't agree on. A lot can happen in 60 minutes.

Both sides cite contradictory research and statistics to back up their arguments.

A 2013 law change limited the latest closing hour of bars to 4am and handed over the power to councils to enforce earlier closing times and one-way door policies within their own jurisdictions.

Since then, 20 councils have delivered provisional alcohol policies that are now under appeal.

The Auckland Council has proposed closing bars in the city centre at 4am, and a 3am curfew for suburban bars.

George Siaosi was attacked outside Dennys restaurant in Manukau in September 2015. Photo / Givealittle
George Siaosi was attacked outside Dennys restaurant in Manukau in September 2015. Photo / Givealittle

The council justified its position by saying closing city-centre bars any earlier would result in a mass exodus of punters at the same time, likely increasing violence.

Police say the council's argument is "just wrong" and want to see suburban bars close by 1am and city-centre bars shut by 3am - with a 1am one-way door policy - to reduce the consumption of alcohol and, in turn, the fights.

However, police data obtained by the Herald on Sunday under the Official Information Act shows violent disorder offences, often linked to alcohol intake, have decreased consistently over the past nine years - from 3569 in 2007 to 2541 last year - in the Auckland Central area.

Inspector Gary Davey says the rate has fallen because of successful prevention campaigns, but even with the ongoing decline the current figure is still "far too high".

"It's about the victims, not the numbers," he says.

A massive brawl at 4am on Fort St last month, which left two men in hospital and another two facing jail time, saw the police come out swinging at the council over its proposed policy.

A council spokeswoman declined to comment or respond to police criticism saying the matters would be determined during the appeal process, which is yet to be given a hearing date.

Every weekend, police witness drunken disorder in the city, ranging from extreme intoxication to vomiting, assaults, fighting and mass brawls, Davey says.

The number of victims created as a result of alcohol-fuelled bravado was "unacceptable in modern society", he said.

"I have an 18-year-old son coming into town and I worry for him."

Police CCTV footage of early-morning brawls in Auckland city centre show men taking their shirts off, thumping their chests and shoving and punching one another, as police try to pull them apart.

Auckland District prevention Inspector Gary Davey at the Auckland Central command centre. Photo / Mike Scott
Auckland District prevention Inspector Gary Davey at the Auckland Central command centre. Photo / Mike Scott

Davey says the council must decide whether it's more important to keep bars open an hour later to appease the alcohol and hospitality industries or to close them earlier and reduce the levels of harm.

"At the moment, police believe the council has the balance wrong."

Hospitality New Zealand Auckland vice president Russell Gray backs the council's proposed late-night trading hours and raises concerns about earlier closing times forcing drunk people out on to the streets.

"It's far better for people to be drinking in a supervised environment with measured pours rather than drinking outside, unsupervised, in public spaces," he says.

But, Davey counters that reducing the availability of alcohol by even one hour would prevent "some of the needless death, serious injury and violence".

Nights generally take a dark, seedy and violent turn about 2am, but by 3am or 4am the levels of intoxication are so high the fights become deadly, he says.

For nine years, Siaosi worked with Maori youth struggling to overcome mental health issues. "He was so good with those kids," says Ansin. That life is over for him now. "I'm not only the breadwinner, but I'm the only person who can make decisions," she says.

The attack on Siaosi occurred about 3am on September 26 last year and was labelled "macho bullshit" by police at the time.

Siaosi and Poai first started to bicker outside Club 1981 in Manukau. A bouncer broke up the argument and Siaosi and his friend left the bar, heading 500m down the road to the 24-hour Denny's restaurant.

Poai and a group of his friends followed the pair, taunting and challenging them to a fight.

On the stairs leading into the restaurant, Siaosi, drunk from a night of booze, turned around to take on the teen. This was the last real decision he made.

After the double-blow, he tripped, fell down the stairs and cracked his head on the concrete in the carpark.

He underwent emergency surgery to reduce the swelling on his brain and was in a coma for nine days.

Two months into his recovery, Siaosi suffered a massive stroke linked to the injury.

George Siaosi's father, Papali'i Seiuli Johnny and fiancee Melissa Ansin appeal for information after the assault. Photo / Greg Bowker
George Siaosi's father, Papali'i Seiuli Johnny and fiancee Melissa Ansin appeal for information after the assault. Photo / Greg Bowker

He is now paralysed down his right side and is a shadow of his former self after losing 30kg. He can no longer hold a conversation. He responds "yes" when asked if he would prefer to drink Coke or Fanta.

"He was this person who cared about everybody and who could just make everybody laugh," Ansin says.

"He was my rock and now I'm his. I'm his rock and his light and his reason and he's the reason I don't fall apart."

Police base their argument for earlier closing times on what they claim are "success stories" in Sydney and Newcastle.

The 1.30am one-way door policies enforced in the Australian cities led to an almost 40 per cent reduction in alcohol-related harm, Davey says.

Research shows alcohol is a factor in about 50 per cent of assaults in New Zealand and for every hour bars close earlier there is a 12-17 per cent reduction in harm, he says.

"The [alcohol] industry may try to rubbish these claims, but it's sustained and real."

Police want to reduce harm in the community but the alcohol industry is only interested in "making money", he says, adding that the industry "brings a lot of pressure to bear on the council".

The path to change opened in December 2013 when the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act came into effect, restricting trading hours for on-licences to between 8am and 4am instead of a 24-hour set up - and allowing councils to develop local alcohol policies.

Police Minister Judith Collins says councils had "repeatedly" asked the Government for control over alcohol policies before the law change three years ago.

But it has opened a can of worms for many local authorities. Wellington City Council was slammed after seeking a 5am closing time, which would have given the capital the most liberal drinking hours in the country. It is now exploring its wider Alcohol Management Strategy.

Christchurch City Council is also facing appeals after proposing closing hours of 4am for nightclubs, 3am for central city bars and 1am for suburban pubs.

Hamilton City Council has chosen to delay its decision-making until the 20 councils facing appeals have gone through the rigmarole.

Sergeant Rod Sue, left and Constable Tony Foster watch outside 1885 bar on Galway Street. Photo / Mike Scott
Sergeant Rod Sue, left and Constable Tony Foster watch outside 1885 bar on Galway Street. Photo / Mike Scott

Collins supports police calls for bars to close earlier, saying they are "the ones picking up the pieces" in the early hours.

But long-time Auckland DJ Rob Warner, who says he was heavily involved in the council's alcohol policy discussions, says it is easy for authorities to make bars "the whipping boy" in this issue.

"The general opinion that bars should close earlier is based mostly on ignorance. It's a temperance movement mindset, which refuses to accept that people can enjoy themselves after midnight while drinking responsibly," he says.

Warner says police are releasing statistics and research that is flawed and out of context.

He says "3am is not the magic hour" to avoid drunken brawls and believes more police on the streets would help deter the violence.

"Police should not be telling people what to do. They are dead wrong on some of their opinions and some of the things they say as fact."

That view is not shared by Auckland Regional Public Health Service, which wants even earlier closing times. It has also appealed the council's provisional alcohol policy, recommending all city bars close by 1am.

Dr Barry Snow, director of adult medical services at Auckland District Health Board, says alcohol is a huge burden on the health sector.

Every weekend, Auckland Hospital treats about 10 to 14 patients with alcohol-related injuries.

Drunk patients are often volatile, difficult, noisy and some pass out while they are being treated, he says.

In one case, a young man was so drunk he thought he could jump between two buildings, fell several storeys and broke a number of bones, including teeth.

"This is a costly burden on our health services of young people who are otherwise healthy," Snow says.

Regardless of the heated disagreements over closing times, Ansin says no one can deny alcohol-related violence has become too costly.

It breaks the hearts of families and friends, is a burden on the health system and costs taxpayers millions of dollars, she says.

"It really just costs everyone all around - even the offender. I know that [Poai] is sorry. But he has changed a lot of people's lives."

In February, Poai was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with reckless disregard. He was ordered to serve a year's home detention, do 300 hours of community work and pay Siaosi $1000. For Ansin that's an insignificant sentence for the loss of a man's mind.

- Herald on Sunday

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