Senseless killing, crazy trial, one verdict that satisfied the public but was reached in a complicated, reluctant manner and another verdict that punished a bystander who initially acted heroically. The case of the murdered policeman was strange from beginning to end. It will continue to resonate for a long while beyond the High Court of Auckland, where the trial of Eli Epiha and Natalie Bracken was held these past three weeks, a jury finding both guilty on Tuesday afternoon. Something imposed itself behind the entire trial, gave it shape and force: the issue of whether the police should be armed. It was like a background static, an ambient noise. You could hear it every time Epiha entered the courtroom: cop killer, a guy who took the life of a police officer who was unarmed, defenceless, at his mercy.
Natalie Bracken didn't notice any mercy. She saw what happened. She described it in her police interview with detective Ash Matthews.
The video was played in court. They sat in a small grey room at the Henderson police station. She drank water from a paper cup. She tipped it over onto his notepad. "Sorry," she said. "That's okay," he said. He had been asking her about the bright winter's morning of June 19 last year, when she was at a neighbour's house having a cigarette and a cup of tea on Reynella Drive, Massey, heard a car crash, ran outside, and saw Eli Epiha, a round man in wraparound sunglasses and a camouflage T-shirt walking down the street and shooting a semi-automatic weapon.
Matthews asked, "Could you see at what or who he was shooting?"
"At the cop that died."
"Can you describe that to me?"
Matthews was playing the good cop in their interview. It likely came natural to him; in court and on the video, you could tell he was one of life's nice guys. He made little jokes about his bad handwriting and his height ("I'm 5'9" on a good day"), at one point reached across the table and stroked her arm – she cried a lot, was actually a total mess. He let her talk.
She said, "I see the guy walk up to him and shoot him. He just went up to him and shot him like that. And then he shot him again." She sat hunched over in her chair in the police station, and yawned a lot; it was the day after she witnessed the murder of Constable Matthew Hunt, then drove Epiha away from the scene of the crime, and it's reasonable to suspect she hadn't had a lot of sleep. She continued, "The fact that he went back and shot him again is all f***d up."
"Yeah," said Matthews. "Yes, it is."
Good description. Hunt and Goldfinch were on traffic duty on Triangle Rd, that long, swooping street that acts like a motorway in West Auckland, on a Friday morning; Epiha came into their lives on his way to run an errand – he had "armed up" with two guns, to scare off gang members at the home of a family member in Ranui. "He was driving at incredible speeds," Goldfinch told the court. They put on the sirens, took chase. Epiha turned onto Reynella Drive and swerved to avoid a rubbish truck – Friday is rubbish day out West – and crashed. Goldfinch and Hunt drove through smoke and parked in front of Epiha's car. Goldfinch got out, and walked back. Epiha got out, and shot 10 rounds at him, wounding him in the lower part of his body, then approached Hunt and pulled the trigger on him four times at close range, the last three bullets hitting him in the back. Epiha described his 14 rounds as warning shots. They were maybe the worst-aimed warning shots in the history of homicide and attempted homicide.
He had initially denied the murder charge but changed his plea to guilty at the 11th hour. He continued to deny the attempted murder of Hunt's partner, Constable David Goldfinch. It often felt like it was a trial held in lieu of the Hunt killing. "With respect, sir," Epiha said prissily in cross-examination, "I'm very, very sorry to his family, but I'm not going to discuss Constable Hunt." Justice Geoffrey Venning leaned over and put him right. He answered the questions. There was no getting away from the point of the trial: its full terror and its wider impact was all about the killing of Matthew Hunt.
No one expected Epiha to actually give evidence. It was his choice, and it gave the trial its craziness. In his closing address, Epiha's lawyer Marcus Edgar reckoned, "He gave an honest and pragmatic account ... He presented as essentially honest." Well – yes and no. There was this exchange with Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey, who asked, "Is it just a coincidence that you hit Goldfinch with four of your last five shots? Is it just an accident?" Epiha, weakly: "Yes. I reckon." And this, when Dickey again reached for a pretty relevant statistic, and asked, "Do you accept that hitting the two officers eight times from your 14 shots is very high?" Epiha, flailingly: "Yes. It's just how it happened."
Worst of all, though, was when he claimed he looked at Hunt lying on the ground after he shot him in the street, and said, "He asked for help. I thought about it for a few seconds. I thought about jumping in the police car and driving him to Waitakere Hospital." How many seconds? One? A split? A fraction closely resembling zero? Or just a plain and absolute zero? It was a moment of high fantasy, Epiha's vision of himself as a hero and saviour; it was a low insult to Hunt's family.
The cross-examination finished a few minutes later. Epiha's claims of sympathy for the man he had just shot and killed sounded like water gurgling down a sink. "I was very concerned," he said. And then, "I cared." Brian Dickey stood in court with his hands in his pockets, and looked away. There was nothing else he wanted to ask. The sink had emptied.
Easy and popular to view a killer who performed a kind of execution on a police officer as an animal, as inhuman. But Epiha had obvious and striking qualities. He held his head high, and there was a fervour in the way he held the Koran tight in his hand when he walked to the witness box. He was articulate, thoughtful, well-spoken, confident in his choice of language – "retrieve", "analyse", "function", "mindfulness". Now and then he made mention of "family home", sometimes meaning his family, sometimes meaning other people's family, and every time he said it with real meaning, like it was something sacred that needed protecting. "He was embarked on an obligation to help," his lawyer Marcus Edgar rather fruitily described his decision to arm up and head to the family house where gang members were demanding "tax". Family members were in court every day – his dad, an uncle, his Nana – and their close, loyal bond was evident. "Tell my uncle I love him," Bracken heard him say on the phone when she drove him away from Reynella Drive that morning. On his first day in court, when he was led by security to his cell for lunch, he fixed his eyes on his family and beat his chest with his fist. Standing firm, staying together.
Epiha said the murder of Hunt was reckless. He said firing at Goldfinch was reckless. Neither shooting, he said, were with the intent of killing them. That was his defence. After his cross-examination, defence lawyer Vivienne Feyen attempted a re-exam. It was a wretched and pitiful attempt. Most of the time she silently turned the pages of her pad forward, then back again; then forward, and back again, finding nothing of interest. There wasn't a lot written down. There wasn't much she could ask. A defence is only as good as the available material and what did Epiha's defence have to work with? Answer: lack of intent. It was a simple and powerful argument. Freyen finally found a question to ask, and Epiha replied, truthfully, that when he woke up that morning, "I wasn't in the mood to kill anyone."
Right from the start of the trial, the Crown ran its prosecution with special interest in the killing of Hunt, a charge which Epiha had already admitted. "He tried to kill both of them," said Crown prosecutor Alysha McClintock. "It is part of the very same activity. In that moment, as he got out of that car, Mr Epiha formed an intention to kill the officers in that police car."
Marcus Edgar tried to separate the murder from the attempted murder. He went to great lengths. He stretched that length to absurd limits when he put Epiha into the witness box, asked him about the phone call he got on the morning of June 19 about gang members standing over his "family home", about jumping in his car and driving to visit a friend who gave him a semi-automatic and a rifle wrapped in pillow slips, about crashing the car on Reynella Drive, about firing "warning shots" at Constable Goldfinch, and about politely asking bystanders for a ride. The end, except there was a lacuna in that story, a glaring omission: the killing of Matthew Hunt. Edgar had put it to one side, like it was a taboo subject.
"How do you sleep?", Edgar was asked, in a loud mutter, one day on the stairwell when he was leaving courtroom 11 and heading for a cigarette. It came from someone supporting Hunt's family. Edgar has a face like an unmade bed. It makes him look like a man who sleeps late, and well. He ran a "It's not a black-and-white case," line to the jury in his opening address. But he ran it as not much more than black and white: his argument was lack of intent, full stop, just the wild and reckless firing of a guy who wanted to scare the cops away so he could, in Epiha's words, and they were heard many, many times at the trial, "gap it".
Attempted murder is one of the hardest charges to prove; it goes to state of mind, and every mind is a dark maze of conficting thoughts, notions, guesses, terrible decisions. Epiha's argument, which he repeated many times, is that if it was intention to kill Goldfinch, he would have killed him. None of the shots that hit Goldfinch were kill shots. They were all at his lower body. And yet the chatter in court, during breaks and at that hive of gossip, QC's Café in the downstairs courtyard, was that Epiha didn't stand a chance with the jury but that Bracken might be found not guilty. In fact, it appears it was the other way around.
Their deliberations were long and clearly tormented. Justice Venning sent them out to deliberate on Monday morning, and they came back with a question that obviously related to Epiha – they asked to listen to CCTV audio of the gunshots, which sounded like thunder, a truly terrifying series of insanely loud explosions, preceded by a man howling, "Wooooo!" Yes, said Epiha to Brian Dickey, and you have to credit this as an honest answer, he thought that was his "Wooooo!" The first shot followed about two seconds later; the suggestion was that Epiha had reached for his weapon, howled "Woooo!" in excitement, and starting firing. It was potentially a very incriminating "Wooooo!" but even without it the gunshots told their own story of a steady, controlled rampage.
That audio was replayed at 2.16pm. At 4.36pm, the jury knocked on their door again, with another question, and this time it was obviously related to Bracken. They had moved on from Epiha. A verdict was expected on Tuesday morning. But at 11am, another knock, and this time a question seeking direction on recklessness – that is, they had moved on from Bracken, and shifted their attention back to Epiha. Justice Venning did his best to explain matters. The back row of the jury looked bored to tears; the front row gave the judge their full attention; the middle row wrote furiously, their four pens bobbing up and down on the page. After a conversation in chambers with Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey, the judge got the jury back to tell them it was possible Epiha's intentions changed during the course of the shooting. "What you need to do is be sure that with at least one of the shots, he deliberately shot with intent to kill." But this was a totally different narrative from the way the Crown ran their case. The shooting of Goldfinch and Hunt belonged to "the same activity"; now, though, they were saying it was possible to separate the shots fired at Goldfinch, that an intention may not have formed from the first round, but that it came later.
It gave the jury a window to reach a verdict of guilty. The window did not open. At 12.30pm, they announced they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Very well, said the judge, he would accept a majority verdict of 11-1. "If only one of you disagrees," he instructed, "you are in a position to deliver a verdict." But that wasn't the way the numbers went. At 1.20pm, they announced they were unable to reach a majority verdict. So they were hung, at 10-2, or some other permutation. "It sometimes happens," said Justice Venning. He made it sound like a matter of small importance. And then: "I have the power to discharge you." The courtroom stiffened; it was Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey's birthday, but he looked sick as a parrot, and suddenly a lot older; the likelihood of an actual retrial for a cop killer swung into view. Among all the factors to consider, one was that a jury had taken the word of Eli Epiha over the word of Constable David Goldfinch, who told the court a graphic account of running for his life with bullets flying around him. He was the star witness. He appeared in court with other officers in full uniform, sending a message of law and order, a picture of the thin blue line, in full view of the jury. Goldfinch had radioed for help. "He's hunting me," he claimed he told police, and then added: "Or words to that effect."
What words? Words like that, or quite different words? Throughout the rest of the trial, the Crown reminded the jury that Goldfinch said he was being hunted. Epiha said it wasn't like that at all. His intent was not to kill. At least two jurors initially seemed swayed by this defence.
Two hours later, at 3.35pm, they came back with a verdict. It was not unanimous. But one or maybe more jurors had changed their vote, and a majority verdict of 11-1 was reached. "Guilty," said the foreman. It had come so very close to a hung jury and the need, with all its associated trauma and dread for the family of Matthew Hunt, to arrange a retrial.
As for Bracken, the jury had indicated they had no such problems reaching a unanimous verdict. "Guilty," said the foreman. Impossible to know the ways a jury works, what they get up to behind closed doors. They had the confidence to provide a simple solution to the cryptic case of the getaway driver who sobbed, "I thought I was doing the right thing."
Natalie Bracken was a lively presence in courtroom 11. She had good looks – the long, straightened hair, the careful make-up – but what made her arresting was her continual movement whenever the jury had retired. There she was, spinning around in a chair on wheels, fluttering her hands, taking hurried strides in her white sneakers; jumpy, impulsive, not good at staying still, this tallied with the Bracken who got caught up in the shootings that day in West Auckland. Maybe she acted without thinking. "She acted under compulsion," said her lawyer, Adam Couchman. Either way, she did what seemed to come naturally to her: she acted.
The cup of tea and a smoke with a neighbour, the racing outside when Epiha crashed his car. He smashed it at speed into the boot of a car that a man was filling with food for a trip: his wife ran out, and started screaming to see her husband lying on the ground with blood coming out of the back of his head. Bracken told Ash Matthews in her police interview, "I thought someone was getting a hiding."
As ever, she acted, fast: the woman asked Bracken to help drag her husband away from Epiha and onto her property. Bracken did exactly that. Alone of all the neighbours who came out to investigate, she rushed to the side of the injured man. She had bare feet, and left her phone on the kitchen table: she hadn't wasted time in collecting her things, she just sprang into action.
Were similar kinds of impulses at work when she got the keys to her car and drove Epiha away, with the sirens wailing from approaching police cars? Cellphone footage shows her jumpy, running hither and yon, in a flap, always moving. She claimed Epiha yelled, "Get me the f**k out of here." To Matthews in their police interview, she said, "I just, I didn't want him to shoot at anyone else, and he was like, 'Hurry the f**k up", and I'm like, 'Okay.' He's like, 'Drive, drive!' He's like, 'I just killed a cop.' I felt fearful. I didn't know what else to do. He coulda shot any of us. Why wouldn't he?"
Later in the interview – she'd been charged, and a lawyer had been summoned – she said, "Like does everybody think I wanted to go through that shit? I don't even know him."
"Not at all?"
"Like I've seen him once probably. Like he looked familiar. Like I've seen him once at the pokies or something."
The pokies, her beat-up Mazda, Epiha's car with one whole side covered in stickers for the Warriors and other NRL teams, the way he described buying it from a guy who brought it to his house: "I left three grand on the table and went to have a shower because he was acting hoha, very hoha. Annoying. I come back and he was gone, the money was gone, but the keys were there." Life in Massey, where you fight your own battles; Epiha's family and friends in courtroom 11 were people of colour who stuck to themselves, Hunt's family and friends were European, looked after by the police.
Bracken's story was that she helped Epiha get away because she was frightened. In her police interview, Matthews stepped outside, leaving Bracken alone in the small room that was surely closing in around her. She said out loud, "I had no choice driving him. I had no choice."
Reject that, and what are you left with? Why did she do it? What was the point? Any other motive for getting involved is a puzzle, something cryptic and random, unless you place her alongside Epiha - that they both had the same sense of what life was like in Massey as brown people, that they recognised each other that morning not by name or having had anything to do with each other but out of an immediate understanding they played by the same rules. The day after the shooting, and before her arrest, she was in a car with her ex when he slammed the door and told her not to talk to the cops. You've got to know what side you're on or you're nothing.
Well, maybe. Something like that? Bracken got caught out in her police interview for lying about her appearance.
Matthews asked, "Has your appearance changed at all since that day?"
"Oh no, not really, no."
"Okay. Like your hair?"
"It looks wet."
"Oh yeah I've been dyeing it over the last few days ..."
As Matthews said in court, "I could see the colour dripping off the back of her head."
Okay. And she also lied to Matthews about the keys to her car – she claimed they were by the car, when in fact mobile phone footage showed her hurrying away to get them from her house. She could have got inside, and not come out. But fear was surely some sort of factor. She'd seen what Epiha did to Constable Hunt. He still had the gun in his hands, a black, sleek length of metal, that looked light in its Perspex exhibit case at the front of the court – Epiha was able to fire at Goldfinch one-handed over a car roof.
Before he began his closing address, Adam Couchman slugged back a raspberry lemonade Kombucha, binned it, and opened another. Maybe it acted like a slow release because he began with a fairly boring, rather vague preamble but then found his thread and delivered a magnificent speech. The nub of it saw him pose several quite good questions: "She sees Epiha shoot Hunt. How do you process that? How do you assimilate that? How do you respond?"
"Process", "assimilate" – these are lawyer's words. Bracken put things more directly. She said in that cupboard at the Henderson police station, "He's got the gun out and he's like, 'Someone f**ken get me the f**k out of here'."
"He's like, 'F**n hurry up'."
Asking Bracken to f**ken hurry up would be like asking her to breathe.
She was found guilty, but on a different and considerably reduced charge than when the trial began. Bracken was charged with accessory after the fact of murder. It seemed curious that Couchman didn't take the opportunity to give an opening address, and didn't cross-examine a number of early witnesses. In fact he was sitting on a secret. Eventually the Crown figured it out, but they were too late to prevent it. Couchman motioned for the charge to be amended to accessory after the fact of wounding with intent – because, he reasoned, Hunt wasn't actually dead when she drove Epiha away. It can't be called murder because he was still alive. Time of death was called in long after she disappeared. It was like a sleight of hand, almost a dark art, but it passed muster.
Bracken will be sentenced on October 1, along with Epiha. It will close the case, deliver the final word on the consequences of those 16 seconds of shooting on a pretty, dipping street in Massey. "You will become very familiar with this street," Crown prosecutor Alysha McClintock told the jury in her opening, and that was true. There were a great many aerial and street-view photos. A lot of them looked like the kinds of photos in real estate advertisements. A massive Phoenix palm tree on a front lawn, a row of trees in thin wintery light in the distance…And in the middle of the street, Matthew Hunt, dying.
Constable David Goldfinch showed considerable courage and poise in getting away from Epiha. He relived it in court, talking in a kind of stream of consciousness: "The grass is exploding." And: "It was just crack after crack." Also: "I saw the flash of the muzzle. The flash. That flash." But there was another instance of remarkable bravery, from the first officer on the scene, not to mention his instinct, or his intuition, that something was about to go down.
Constable Ilya Kokine was on his first day in a section. He was parked on Triangle Rd in an unmarked police car, being taught the no doubt fascinating mysteries of radar detection. He noticed Epiha driving past. Something caught his eye. "It was just a personal thing," he told the court. "I like my vehicles to be nice and clean, but that car was dirty. It seemed as though it hadn't been washed in a while. And it had some weird stickers on it. Stickers I'd never seen before. I was going to say, 'Maybe we should go after this vehicle. Something's not right.'"
Seconds later he saw Hunt and Goldfinch take chase, and then just after he heard a muffled voice on the police radio saying, "We are under fire. We need help." Kokine: "It was on a West Auckland channel so it could have been anywhere. But my gut feeling that it was the same vehicle and that we needed to go after it."
It was the same vehicle. They were first on the scene. Kokine's partner urged caution, but he got out of the car and approached the woman who was by now lying on top of her husband, to protect him from Epiha's rampage, and commanded, "Show me your hands!" She shrieked back, "It wasn't us! It wasn't us!" And then he saw Constable Hunt.
The woman shrieked, "Help my husband! Help my husband!"
He said in court, "All these ideas are flying in my head. I have all these questions. I had to make a quick decision. A voice in the back of my head is saying, 'Make a decision. Make a decision.' I approached the officer. He was lying in a starfish position. I said, 'You okay, mate? You all good?' I kneeled in front of him. Do I drag him to the car? I was trying to figure things out."
All the while, he was armed: he'd taken a rifle from his car. He had it pointed in front of him, he had it ready. Couchman had said in his closing address that Bracken's decision to drive Epiha away meant she had prevented "further carnage", that if he'd stayed on Reynella Drive then he would have got into a shoot-out. Guns drawn on a Friday morning in Massey, more shots, more risk – but it didn't work out that way. "I was just trying to save everyone," said Bracken. Epiha was in the passenger seat of her crappy Mazda, on the phone to family, saying, "I've f**d up." They were out of there. The street had gone quiet.