You smell it before you see it. The odour of burning metal and rubber. Then the sight: the blackened outlines of three vehicles - two in the driveway and one on the verge. None of them has number plates. On Sunday morning all three vehicles were torched in circumstances police have described as suspicious. But there is more to the tidy house - traditional Papamoa brick and tile - in the quiet, half-built street than meets the eye. Samantha Motion reports.
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A house in a quiet neighbourhood where three cars were destroyed in a suspicious fire has been linked to a violent new gang that recently arrived in the Bay of Plenty.
Police and firefighters were called to Kanapa Close in Golden Sands, Papamoa East, about 2.40am on Sunday.
Three vehicles parked in front of the house - a car, a ute and a van, all without number plates - were in flames.
Police have labelled the fire "suspicious" and are investigating but have not made any arrests.
All that remained of the vehicles on Monday were blackened shells and burst tyres. The house also had some charring.
The air in the quiet residential street - a mix of new and under-construction homes - stank of burned metal and rubber and the drains along the road were lined with ash.
Residents of the area told the Bay of Plenty Times they woke up on Sunday morning to the sounds of "bangs" and a car alarm blaring.
One said she thought her house was being broken into.
"I went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife, but then I saw the light from the flames.
"I was sh***** myself."
Another resident said they thought the house was on fire until they got outside and saw the cars. One described the incident as "pretty unreal".
Three people living in the area said they had seen people wearing gang patches and logos coming and going from the address regularly on motorcycles for the last three months.
Five vehicles - including the three that were burned - were regularly parked outside the property.
None recognised the patches but all believed the men were members of a new gang that had recently come over from Australia.
One said the patch wasn't "one of the usual ones" seen in New Zealand. She also said it looked like the tenants had been preparing to move out before the incident.
While the gang members had mostly kept to themselves, the residents had some concerns about their presence, especially after the fire.
Other sources said the house was connected to Mongol Nation, a motorcycle gang that recently opened its first New Zealand chapter in the Bay of Plenty.
Earlier this month, the Bay of Plenty Times revealed the gang's arrival, reporting around 20 patched members were believed to be under the leadership of a 28-year-old man deported from Australia last year.
According to police, the Mongols are the "most violent and dangerous" motorcycle gang in America.
There were concerns the emergence of the gang could create conflict in the Bay of Plenty, which has long been a stronghold for the Filthy Few, Greazy Dogs and Mongrel Mob.
New statistics about gang membership released by Police Minister Stuart Nash earlier this month showed numbers in the Bay of Plenty had risen by 30 per cent between late 2017 and mid-2019.
Politicians blamed the region's drug trade - methamphetamine in particular - for the rise. Police said other factors included the low socio-economic makeup of the Bay of Plenty and growth in international gangs prompting local gangs to up their numbers.
Gang expert Dr Jarrod Gilbert, director of criminal justice at the University of Canterbury, said he had no knowledge of the fire incident but, in general, tensions between gangs were an "inevitable" result of the significant increase in gang numbers.
"A rise in tension and a rise in gang violence is inevitable with this type of growth."
He said police had two options for curbing any escalation: Identifying the likely culprits and policing them hard or trying to get gang leaders to talk and resolve issues without violence.
Asked what he would say to anyone feeling afraid, he said gang members tended to battle between themselves rather than targeting the public.
"The public need to keep a sense of perspective as well. These things happen from time to time but where gangs are involved people can lose all sense of rationality."
One of the owners of the property, a couple from Auckland, confirmed they had been told about the incident but referred all other questions to the property manager.
Josh Fitzgibbon, of Behome Realty, would not comment regarding the tenants, the gang link or the incident on Sunday morning.
He did say work to clean up the mess would start immediately.
A police spokesman said the investigation into the fire was continuing.
The Mongols link was put to police, as was the potential for public concern about gang retribution or a turf war.
They responded: "Police's priority is to keep our communities safe and we urge anyone with information that may assist to call 105 quoting file number 191020/3522."
- Additional reporting Katee Shanks