Steve Braunias: Eli Epiha trial – Defendant tells his story for the first time

OPINION:

So now at least we know some of the background to what remains the inexplicable and completely senseless murder of a police officer on a quiet suburban street in West Auckland last year. Eli Epiha, who has pleaded guilty to that killing, but not guilty to the attempted murder of another constable that winter’s morning, told his story for the first time when he appeared on Wednesday afternoon as the first and probably only witness for the defence at his trial at the High Court of Auckland.

“He’s a big, big boy,” he was described in court, by Natalie Bracken, accused of accessory after the fact of murder. But he wasn’t that big. Certainly his black suit was slimming but when he made the short walk to the witness stand, the jury would have seen a man of not much more than average height. He was large around the waist but not of epic proportions. The most striking thing about him was the way he held his head: high, and proud.

“That’s when it all started,” he told his lawyer, Marcus Edgar. He meant the phone call he got on Friday morning, June 19, 2020, the last day of Constable Matthew Hunt’s young life. Gang members were at the house of family members in Ranui. They were demanding “tax”. Epiha said he would come over and sort it out. And so he drove over to a friend’s house, and took possession of two guns, including a semi-automatic assault rifle.

“That thing,” said Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey, pointing at the weapon inside a perspex case at the front of the court. He pointed to it 10 times in his cross-examination. The jury followed his finger and looked at the murder weapon. Epiha glanced at it, just the once; that head held high continued to look directly at Dickey.

“I wanted to scare them,” Epiha said of his intention to drive to Ranui and wave the gun around.But two police officers parked on Triangle Rd, one of the great arterial routes in West Auckland, observed him driving at speed. They took chase. Epiha lost control, and crashed; when he crawled out of the passenger side, because the door handle to the driver’s side snapped and cut open his hand, he thought to take the semi-automatic.

“I didn’t aim at him,” he told the court, describing the 10 shots fired at Constable David Goldfinch. He must have terrible aim. Goldfinch was shot four times. Epiha said many times when he gave evidence that his only intention was to make Goldfinch run away, so he could run away, too. He had a term for it. He used it many, many times.

“I wanted to gap it,” he said. To where? Ranui, to sort out the “tax” collectors? He settled for a house a few doors down at the crash site on Reynella Drive. He knew a guy who lived there called Ben. He had gone to West Harbour primary school with Ben, played for the Massey Rugby Club with Ben. He saw a couple who came out onto the pavement to see what had caused the crash. One of them looked like Ben.

“Ben,” Epiha called out, but it wasn’t Ben. Nevertheless, and considering the circumstances – he’d just shot at two police officers, and could hear sirens approaching – Epiha was, according to his testimony in court, in front of the jury, his family, the family of the police officer who he killed, exceptionally polite.

“Can you please give me a ride?”, he claimed he asked the guy who wasn’t Ben. These were not the words used by Natalie Bracken. She had also come out onto the pavement – she’d been at a neighbour’s house, drinking tea and smoking a cigarette – after hearing the crash. She was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, bare feet.

“West Auckland style, eh?”, detective sergeant Ash Matthews joked to her, in the interview she gave to him the next day at Henderson police station. A recording was played at the trial on Wednesday morning. Yes, quite a day in courtroom 11; the co-accused both telling their stories, giving their version of events.

“Get me the f**k out of here,” Bracken said Epiha yelled on that winter’s morning in Massey. Massey, Ranui, a house in Te Atatu South where Bracken was arrested the next day; this is a West Auckland saga, random and armed, sudden and fatal. Bracken told the court she drove Epiha away out of fear. Epiha told the court he didn’t intend to murder either of the two police officers.

Epiha’s cross-examination continues tomorrow. Much of what he will say and has already said comes down to a remark he made over the phone to a family member during his getaway from the scene of the crime. He does not dispute he said it. He does not argue that his actions he described in that call led to the murder of a police officer. He said over the phone, “I f***d up.”

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