Part one of three.
How does it feel to have a family member shot and killed – gunned down, point-blank – and then have nobody convicted for their death? One family knows, because it’s happened to them – not once, but three times. Mike White investigates the heartbreaking losses suffered by the Whatuira family and their longing for the truth to be told. This is part 1/3 of the investigation.
They aren’t cases that captured great public interest or sympathy – they’re stories from the wrong side of the tracks, from suburban side roads and scruffy cul-de-sacs in Manawatū. They’re stories of gangs, guns and drugs. Of standovers, terrified witnesses, smuggled notes, and allegations of official cover-ups. Of houses being torched and people being stabbed at funerals. Of rivalry and revenge.
And this is the story of how, despite police efforts, there has never been any accountability; the story of the family members left behind, let down, and the children growing up without their fathers. It’s a story that opens a window on a world most of us aren’t aware of and have never experienced.
And throughout everything there’s blood: blood brutally spilt, and the blood that ties together the family who feels the justice system has completely failed them.
Aged 16. Killed Wednesday, 6 February 2002, 26 Coventry St, Palmerston North.
“And his stare was so intense, it started unnerving me,” recalls Dawson. “So I excused myself from my student and walked across the road to him but he didn’t respond, so I went round the fence, got down underneath the tree, and touched him. And he was really ice-cold. I tried to feel round his neck. Now, I’m not a bloody medic, but I couldn’t feel a pulse. So I lifted up his shirt – and put my hand straight into the wound, at the top of his stomach. And he’d bled out. I mean, the blood was down both legs.”
Hunched under the tree at the front of a stranger’s property, Wallace Whatuira had been dead for hours.
Sixteen-year-old Wallace had been hard to handle at times when growing up, and was already a Black Power prospect. The evening before, he’d been drinking at the Palmerston North home of his uncle, John Whatuira, who was the president of Manawatū Black Power.
He left the Pembroke St house with other gang members shortly before 2am, on their way to see an associate in Botanical Rd. For some reason, they cut up Farnham Ave, past Cowley Place on their left; the cul-de-sac was a well-known Mongrel Mob stronghold in Highbury, part of Palmerston North’s western suburbs – or Westside, as locals call it.
Another 16-year-old with Wallace told police what happened next. “As we were walking along, I could hear barking and people running towards us. We realised the Mutts were behind us.” (The Mutts were the Mongrel Mob, and their barking was a gang call.)
“As the Mutts were approaching us, they were saying, ‘Come on Niggers,’ and barking.” (Niggers is a nickname for Black Power.)
Up to eight Mob members then rushed out of Cowley Place, armed with weapons including baseball bats and knives. The youth was able to identify three assailants: Leon Hakaraia, who was his uncle, Andrew Popo and John Waara.
“Leon ran up to John and Andrew and in between them… As he did this, he jumped in the air and fired a firearm from chest height. As this happened, his scarf fell down off his face. He fired one shot. I didn’t recognise the firearm but saw the sparks as it was fired.”
The shotgun blast hit Wallace Whatuira at short range, tearing into his torso. As everyone scattered, Wallace staggered about 200m around the corner into Coventry St, where he knelt down under a tree to die, his body discovered several hours later by David Dawson.
Dawson still lives in the same house on Coventry St. He’s largely blind now, but he can’t forget the images of the boy he found across the road that morning.
“He hadn’t even started living. Shit, I had socks and shoes older than him.”
Dawson called 111, police arrived and locals started gathering. When a reporter from the Manawatu Evening Standard phoned another Coventry St resident, a child answered, so the reporter asked where their mother was. “She’s outside looking at a dead person,” the child replied.
Other neighbours immediately knew what was behind the killing. “It’s a gang-related problem that brought all this mess around our street.”
But all that disintegrated with Wallace Whatuira’s murder. Gang members from other towns flooded into Palmerston North, armed police patrolled Highbury, and on the day of Wallace’s funeral, the gangs clashed at the site where he’d died. Emotions escalated when Hakaraia was arrested for Wallace’s murder, and Popo and Waara were charged with manslaughter.
Police raided houses throughout Highbury, finding bins full of Molotov cocktails, drugs and firearms, and making numerous arrests. Supported by police in riot gear, Housing New Zealand began evicting some Cowley Place tenants. One resident told the Manawatu Evening Standard the gangs should be put in “a paddock with guns and left to blow themselves away”.
John Whatuira, Wallace’s uncle and head of Black Power, fired back, insisting the gang loved the community and the people in it. “They see our spine [gang patch] before they see our hearts. They see the patch before they see what’s inside. Gangs are against shooting young fellas. Beat him up, for sure, but he’s just a kid. Why go that far with a kid? ... We’re getting dumped on by the cops and getting the blame for everything. But I tell you this, it stops here.”
Of course, it didn’t.
Clashes continued. More arrests were made. Hui were held. Cabinet ministers attended. Locals railed against the gangs. And the fighting went on.
On the eve of the anniversary of Wallace’s death, the leader of Black Power offshoot Mangu Kaha, Brian Taylor, and three others lured Mongrel Mob president Sovite Sua out of his Ferguson St house and shot him. Sua spent a week in hospital but survived. Taylor was sentenced to 14 years in jail for the shooting and a host of other charges.
The war continued, with Wallace’s name a rallying cry, his blue bandana a totem, but the young man himself often forgotten.
Wallace had spent three months in a youth justice centre when 14, for a series of non-violent offences. While there, he was in a play, Mokopuna: Our Daughters, Our Sons, Our Future, directed by actor Jim Moriarty. He described Wallace as “a beautiful young man” whose performance stole the show.
“He was very bright,” added Butler. “Quite cheeky, but not cheeky to be bad, cheeky to be cheeky.”
He had started a mechanic’s pre-apprentice course. “But he didn’t last there,” Butler told the meeting. “Wallace needed that extra support… not everyone can walk by himself.”
Butler lamented how kids were sucked into gang life, with Wallace’s journey made easy by so many family members already being in Black Power.
Several months later, Hakaraia, 23, Popo, 26, and Waara, 29, were led into the Palmerston North District Court for a depositions hearing – where evidence would be produced to see if the three should stand trial. It was expected to take three days. It lasted barely an hour.
When the Crown’s key witness, the 16-year-old who’d been with Wallace when he was shot, was called by video link, he clammed up. As Crown prosecutor Matthew Downs attempted to get the witness to repeat what he’d told police after Wallace’s murder, the youth said the details were wrong.
“Which part of it is wrong?” Downs asked.
“All of it,” answered the youth.
Downs asked the witness if he’d forgotten who was there and who fired the gun.
“Yes, we were all drunk,” the youth replied.
Without the witness identifying the men who shot Wallace, the police and Crown case collapsed. Few thought the boy had simply forgotten what happened, but believed someone had got to him, threatening him if he identified the Mob members. His mother later admitted her son had been scared what the Mongrel Mob might do if he testified. “I was scared for his life.”
As the accused were released, they began barking, while their supporters applauded. The Whatuira family sat stunned.
Detective Inspector Doug Brew said, “The investigation is not so much unsolved, but unresolved.” Mourners continued to stop at the small shrine where Wallace’s body was discovered in Coventry St. Around the corner at the Mongrel Mob’s Cowley Place pad, Leon Hakaraia was feted for beating the rap.
He denied being present when Wallace was shot, insisting he was at home with his girlfriend, and told reporters he planned to stay with the Mob. “I’m gonna keep doggin’ on, getting on with life to the best of my abilities – it’s a dog’s life.”
Hakaraia has kept his word, remaining with the gang, and being in and out of prison, most recently for a vicious assault on his partner that left her nose “in bits”, according to a doctor’s report.
Andrew Popo has ended up in prison six times, with more than 50 convictions. In 2008, while speeding in a stolen car, he hit and killed policeman Derek Wootton in Titahi Bay north of Wellington, as Wootton lay road spikes in an attempt to stop Popo. Popo pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison. He was paroled in 2017.
John Waara also spent time in prison. In 2008, he was stabbed in both eyes with a fork by another inmate at Manawatū Prison. It is understood the attack was in revenge for Wallace Whatuira’s murder, with Waara suffering the most literal interpretation of “an eye for an eye”. He is believed to now be blind.
She has no doubts the Mongrel Mob got to the teenage witness who’d previously described who shot Wallace, making him too scared to speak in court.
“I’ve seen him now and again, but I don’t talk to him, I just walk past, because I know that he knows.”
Koia insists Wallace wasn’t the target that night, the shot was meant for another Black Power member and Wallace was an innocent bystander. And that’s what she told all those who came to her afterwards, wanting revenge.
“I tried to stop that retaliation. I said to them, ‘What happens if I give the okay? You’re going to do exactly the same and their family’s going to suffer how I’m suffering.’ So I said to them, no. As much as I hate the Mongrel Mob, and it was gang related, I still wasn’t willing to let an innocent family suffer what I was going through – even though I was angry and wanted that person dealt to.”
But urges for revenge sometimes stir. It’s hard to keep hatred down when you’ve been through what she has.
“It’s just ugly feelings. Ugly thoughts and feelings. I’m never going to forget it, but I try not to think about it.”
This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.