David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

The Big Read: The police files on TV3's gun buy

Detectives probed the method used by TV3 journalists to illegally buy a rifle and found the "fake" details used to purchase the gun to be based in reality.
TV3 journalist and Story presenter Heather du Plessis-Allan displays a .22 calibre sporting rifle that she purchased via the internet using fake documentation on TV3's Story current affairs programme
TV3 journalist and Story presenter Heather du Plessis-Allan displays a .22 calibre sporting rifle that she purchased via the internet using fake documentation on TV3's Story current affairs programme

TV3 star Heather du Plessis-Allan told viewers a rifle had been bought illegally with "fake" details - but the police investigation found mainly genuine information was used to pull off the stunt.

Mediaworks, which owns TV3, will not resolve the apparent gap between claims by one of its star current affairs hosts that "fake" information was used and the detail outlined in the police file, obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act.

The company is refusing to discuss any aspect of the story for which three staff received formal police warnings earlier this year - even though du Plessis-Allan said this week that she would willing to discuss the matter.

After the Herald relayed her desire to comment to Mediaworks, one of the company's public relations specialists, Charlotte McLauchlan, emailed saying there would be no interview or comment.

The Story show - fronted by du Plessis-Allan and Duncan Garner - bought a .22 rifle from Auckland store Gun City through mail order last year claiming there was a "public interest" in the illegal purchase because it revealed a "loophole" in our gun laws.

Du Plessis-Allan revealed the gun buy on the show, saying: "We used a fake name and a fake gun licence."

She then explained the form needed to be signed by a police officer, adding: "We can tell you we didn't take the form to a police station."

But the police file says that the "fake gun licence" and police officer's name were genuine. It also expressed the view that the criminal action believed to have occurred outweighed any public interest.

The file also suggests the police identity number - a combination of six letters and numbers assigned to an individual officer throughout their career - was a deliberate alteration of a genuine number.

The Inquiry did not establish where Story found the genuine identity number, although a spokesman for police headquarters confirmed detectives believed "a past speeding ticket is one theory".

It means the gun purchase passed two safety nets in the mail order purchasing system - one in which the seller checks whether a firearms licence is real and another in which the authorisation is checked by police.

The exploit carried out by the Story team was "easy", conceded Gun City owner David Tipple. But he says it was only buying the rifle which was easy because it would have been very difficult to get away with it when the false details were uncovered.

He said there was enough genuine information - including the delivery address - to track down the unlicensed buyer.

The exploit carried out by the Story team was conceded as "easy" by Gun City owner David Tipple.
The exploit carried out by the Story team was conceded as "easy" by Gun City owner David Tipple.

Tipple also said the journalists who set out to buy the gun "knew exactly the format" for the firearms licence and police officer's identity.

"It was easy for them to do something but they were bound to get caught. People don't do this because they know at some stage someone is going to go and check the address the firearm was delivered to."

Tipple had pledged to take a private prosecution against du Plessis-Allan for the stunt. It's a promise he has yet to follow through on. He claimed Mediaworks' former news boss Mark Jennings - who did not return calls - had offered to meet legal expenses in return for a promise to not prosecute.

Tipple: "My big issue with it is how smart arse she was that night on TV."

Du Plessis Allan was a clear subject of the police investigation in the file released to the Herald. Her husband, and Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper, filmed police carrying out a search warrant on their Wellington home.

The police file reveals the aim of the search was to recover handwriting samples which could be used to compare with handwriting on the Gun City mail order form. Police document examiner Nicole Chandler studied the form and found "the purchase/purchaser sections of the Gun City mail order form have been completed by the author of the specimens attributed to Heather du Plessis-Allan".

The examination found there was another person's handwriting on the form in the section marked "police only", although the identity of the person is not revealed. Chandler also found there were three different types of ink.

The police file shows that the form was emailed to Gun City at 3.37pm on October 16, 2015. It was a Friday afternoon - the day of the week Story does not broadcast - but the team were working on a story being lined up for broadcast the following week.

The form emailed to Gun City was quickly picked up on by a staff member who called to check details on the order. The credit card number used belonged to Justine Devine, a producer on Story, but the phone was answered by a man claiming to be "Justin" Devine, the name used on the Gun City form.

Later questioned by police, Jayne Devine said she "wasn't even there when it was used" before refusing to say anything else. In fact, no one from Mediaworks would talk to police.

The only verbal record - aside from Jayne Devine's potential admission - is the recording of the phone call with the purchaser, "Justin".

Gun City: "Okay... 22 and a half inch bolt action gun... okay, going to Takapuna. You'll see that Tuesday morning."

"Jayne Devine": "Did you say Tuesday morning bro?"

Gun City: "Yeah."

"Jayne Devine": "Sweet."

The police documents - used to apply for a range of search warrants - take the hurly-burly of television and break it down into precise steps. It stated du Plessis-Allan presented the episode on Story and that "of note is that at 11.15am on the 20th of October 2015 a person named Heather Allan signed for the receipt of the firearm package from a Courier Post delivery driver".

Greg O'Connor, the retiring president of the NZ Police Association said his discovery of the "loophole" was a "eureka" moment. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Greg O'Connor, the retiring president of the NZ Police Association said his discovery of the "loophole" was a "eureka" moment. Photo / Mark Mitchell

That was Tuesday - the next day was show day. Du Plessis-Allan kicked it off by emailing police media adviser Grant Ogilvie, requesting an interview with police and attempting to arrange the surrender of the .22 rifle.

Acting inspector Dick Corbridge returned the call, his diary note recording that du Plessis-Allan had asked him to take possession of the gun on Story as it was broadcast that night.

"I declined the invitation and informed her that a criminal investigation would be commenced," he recorded, asking that the rifle be handed in before 5pm at Auckland Central Police Station

By the time du Plessis-Allan was recounting the tale on Story that night, police were already investigating.

Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Saunders set out the plan for the inquiry. The first two objectives were not surprising - to see if there was any law broken and, if so, to find out who broke it.

But his job sheet also states an "aim of investigation" was: "To identify and mitigate any potential risk to NZ police." Asked about the "risk", police headquarters did not explain further other than to state it was "standard consideration for any high-profile investigation".

Confirmation the firearms licence number was genuine - and that the police identification number appeared genuine - meant police expended effort to rule out involvement by the licence number owner and its own staff member.

The investigation also focused on two concrete pieces of evidence - the television broadcast and the form used to buy the gun.

Search warrants were used by police to get handwriting samples. Police also used its team of communications staff to analyse the item which was broadcast to help with detectives' search for clues.

Deputy chief executive of public affairs, Karen Jones, watched the episode with her team and was able to identify how many cameras were used, which sections were audio-only and how footage was likely to be stored.

"Story co-presenter Heather du Plessis-Allan said during the airing of the TV article that false details were used in order to make the purchase and it was 'necessary due to the public interest in this issue and to highlight failings identified with this current process'."

But the legal production order - the formal application made by police to the courts to get search warrants - stated: "It can be clearly demonstrated by their actions however that the criminal offence of Obtains By Deception (Under $500) has still been committed in order to complete this purchase. I believe that this precedes any public interest claimed by the Story programme.

"A further aggravating feature is that it appears that the organisers behind this TV article have used personal details belonging to 'real' persons without their consent or authority."

In the end, no charges were laid. The police officer who filed the production orders was not the officer who made the decision on laying charges. Those "decisions were made by more senior officers involved in the investigation", said a police headquarters spokesman.

The decision was "reviewed by a Detective Superintendent, and the Solicitor-General's prosecution guidelines applied".

Those guidelines include a public interest test - one which asks whether the offence is serious and whether it is likely to be repeated.

The offence listed in the production order has a maximum penalty of three months in prison. And the loophole, such as it was, appeared to have never been exploited and was closed immediately.

The police spokesman said: "We also reiterate that police were satisfied that in this instance, there was no evidence that the acquisition of the firearm was for a sinister purpose, a factor which was taken into consideration in reaching our decision."

Police announced in March that three warnings had been given but that no one would be prosecuted. As well as du Plessis-Allan, the other staff members likely to have been warned were the person who filled out the "police only" section of the firm and the one the phone used to check on the mail order was registered to.

At the point police announced there would be no prosecution, Mediaworks offered apologies. "The Story team would like to apologise to Mr Tipple, the owner of Gun City.

"The intention behind the story was to put a spotlight on an issue rather than any one individual business - and Story regrets any impact that may have inadvertently been caused to Mr Tipple as a result of the story."

And yet the "issue" is still waiting to emerge. Almost a year on from the sting, police are unable to point to a single case of a gun being bought illegally through the mail order system.

One firearms lawyer has claimed there was not a single case in 18 years - and that the Story problem created a risk rather than highlighting a problem.

There was enough concern, though, to change the system. Just hours after the exploit was detailed on Story, police announced changes to the mail order system.

Oddly, the man who claims to have sparked the idea for a story in du Plessis-Allan could not name to the Herald a single case in which the exploit was used to buy a weapon illegally.

Greg O'Connor, the retiring president of the Police Association, the police union, said his discovery of the "loophole" was a "eureka" moment.

"I was telling everybody who would listen this was a loophole." He raised it on Mediaworks' Radio Live. At the point Story's gun stunt emerged, he says he was aware other media were also preparing to publish on the "loophole".

"I thought the story was strong enough without going to purchase one," said O'Connor.

While he labels the mail order issue a threat, the Police Association's submission to Parliament's inquiry into illegal possession of firearms makes no mention of it.​

- NZ Herald

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