Gang feud mediated from prison

By PATRICK GOWER

When Peter Vitali shot a member of the Headhunters gang, police turned to a convicted killer to broker a truce and stave off a underworld feud.

The gang had a grudge with Vitali, and had already been threatening his life.

When he found seven senior members at his house, stealing his 1970 Ford Mustang and his boat, he drove at them in his four-wheel-drive truck, jumped out, and picked up a pistol that had been knocked loose and opened fire.

He let off five shots.

Two hit cars in the driveway, two hit his neighbours' shed. The other hit Graham "Choc" Te Awa, tearing through his torso and leaving gaping entry and exit wounds. Te Awa was a Headhunter, a convicted killer, and Vitali's friend.

"Choc's my mate," the 47-year-old would later tell police.

Te Awa was left bleeding at the shooting scene while his mates and Vitali made their separate getaways.

After failing to car-jack a 60-year-old woman, he was finally rescued by a carpet salesman, who took him to an ambulance at the armed offenders cordon.

Friends or not, Vitali hid for 12 days after the West Auckland shooting last August until the police got to him before the gang did.

He was this week sentenced to two years in jail for the shooting.

But he proved to be more cooperative than his victim - 44-year-old Te Awa refused to lay a complaint despite spending three weeks in hospital and being told he was lucky to survive - by helping police arrange a mutually beneficial end to the violence.

Fearing the gang was planning to take the law into its own hands and make a retribution "hit", police decided to get into bed with the devil rather than let the violent feud spill on to the streets again, says top West Auckland detective Mark Franklin.

So the police gang liaison unit arranged a phone call to Vitali's friend, Wayne Doyle, in prison.

He, it was felt , would be the ideal mediator - a one-time Headhunters member who was still held in high regard and who had been convicted with Te Awa of the murder of King Cobras member Siaosi Evalu on a Ponsonby back-street in 1985.

Once the 46-year-old had spoken to Vitali, police arranged for him to call Te Awa at his hospital bed, and the feud - to the police's knowledge anyway - has since seemed to have been quelled.

"The last thing we wanted was more bloodshed in the community," said Detective Senior Sergeant Franklin.

"So we went to the lengths we had to, to facilitate an end to it."

The shooting provided a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of the Auckland criminal underworld.

Police still do not know why the gang was after Vitali, a former Hell's Angel with a reputation as a "good criminal, but a loose unit".

They had taken him to a park on the day of the shooting, threatening to beat him up him with pipes and throw him in the mangroves.

Despite "being millimetres from a homicide", police could not press the charges they wanted to lay against him without the help of Te Awa and his associates.

So Vitali pleaded guilty to a charge of recklessly discharging the .45 Webley, and nearly avoided going to jail at all.

Judge Simon Lockhart, QC, this week said he was considering a suspended sentence, after hearing lawyer Allan Roberts describe how Vitali faced an "unforgiving lot", who would make any time spent in prison "uncomfortable".

But last month Vitali was found in possession of a loaded Colt AR15 semi-automatic rifle, a Smith and Wesson .45 calibre pistol and 214 rounds of ammunition.

With these new charges added, he was sent to jail, saying to the judge, "thank you, sir", as he left the dock.

So Vitali added another entry on a criminal record that spans nearly 20 years - one of his former lawyers says he is "doing a life-sentence by instalments" - and is still at odds with the Headhunters, one of New Zealand's gangland pillars.

Police say the tightly knit inter-racial gang has roughly two dozen patched members.

With seven of them believed to have been at Vitali's, they had enlisted a strong presence to see him.

Detective Senior Sergeant Franklin said the gang's now mature members rarely let their affairs surface in public and "would be fairly gutted the Vitali incident turned out like this".

The gang was formed in 1967. Police say the current members have more than 1000 criminal convictions gathered between them, and now like to keep themselves to themselves.

Vitali doesn't wear any patch, but he has shared decades of lawlessness with many of the Headhunters and other underworld figures - the address of the shootout was owned by someone at the centre of a police investigation into a high-profile suspicious death - and the code of silence among the heavyweight criminals is almost impossible for police to break.

Detective Senior Sergeant Franklin said police were lucky to even find Vitali, to have some idea about the shootout.

But they can still only speculate about what was going down.

It appears "honour among thieves"may have saved those involved from more serious convictions.

"These guys are into big business, we know that. When that blows up, then it is a big event."

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