Jury finds Eli Epiha guilty of attempting to kill second officer

Eli Epiha on trial at the Auckland High Court. Photo: RNZ
Eli Epiha at the Auckland High Court. Photo: RNZ
A man who shot dead a police constable in West Auckland last year has been found guilty of attempting to murder another officer during the armed rampage.

The jury has also decided to convict the woman who drove him away from the rampage, despite claims from her lawyers that she was actually a good Samaritan only trying to prevent a "bloodbath" of police colleagues about to be ambushed as they rushed to the scene.

Eli Bob Sauni Epiha, 25, was found guilty of the attempted murder of Constable David Goldfinch after 11 and a half hours of deliberation over two days following nearly two weeks of testimony. In a somewhat unusual step, Epiha pleaded guilty to the murder of Goldfinch's partner, Constable Matthew Hunt, several days before his trial began.

Co-defendant Natalie Jane Bracken, 31, was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact to wounding Hunt with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. She started the trial charged with accessory after the fact to murder, but her lawyers successfully argued to the judge that Hunt hadn't been officially declared dead yet when she drove Epiha from the scene.

"Love you, Eli" a supporter yelled out as he was led out of the courtroom.

Diane Hunt, mother of slain Constable Hunt, was surrounded by family and supporters outside the High Court at Auckland following the guilty verdict.

"It's been a long time to get here.

"The past two-plus weeks have been harrowing for all of us. Listening to what happened to Matthew and Dave on Friday the 19th of June 2020 can't be described in words. The loss of Matt has been made all the more traumatic by having to hear every possible detail that happened that day," Diane Hunt said.

"Our thoughts are with Dave and his family and we would like to acknowledge his incredible courage. We would like to extend our sincere thoughts to the injured member of the public and his family who also became victims on this terrible day. We've had the most unbelievable support over the past year, and we are forever grateful for the kindness shown to us from hundreds of people across the country. This Friday will mark Matthew's 30th birthday. We miss him terribly. We hope that no other police family will ever have to go through this. And I just want to thank all of Matthews's friends and their families for all their enormous support of us. Matthew loved them and I loved them as much as he did."

Justice Geoffrey Venning is set to sentence Epiha for both crimes — as well as for his guilty plea to dangerous driving resulting in the injury of a bystander that same morning — on October 1.

Epiha indicated before his trial began that'll he'll argue at sentencing that Hunt's murder was the result of recklessness rather than murderous intent. But the jury's guilty verdict means it's been proven he had murderous intent when shooting at Goldfinch, who was hit by four bullets but survived.

Constable Hunt was the 33rd New Zealand police officer to be killed in the line of duty when Epiha shot him four times with a military-style semi-automatic rifle in Massey on 19 June 2020.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster acknowledged Constable Hunt's family had to endure "extremely painful and harrowing details of Matt's death" during the two-week trial.

"They have shown immense strength despite the fact they are still in the midst of their grief and mourning the loss of their much-loved son and brother," Coster said.

"The guilty verdict for the attempted murder of Constable Dave Goldfinch is a relief for him and his family – their journey to recover from what has happened continues and we will support them through this."

Coster said Goldfinch had shown "incredible strength" throughout the trial.

"We saw this when he gave his evidence recounting what happened to him and Matt on that tragic day."

Epiha, who testified on his own behalf during the trial, claimed he had just received the gun that morning and was en route to his brother's house to scare off gang members when the police officers decided to pull him over.

Driving fast through residential Reynella Drive in an attempt to evade the officers, he ended up swerving to miss hitting a rubbish truck and instead crashed into a parked car, injuring the bystander who was loading his vehicle ahead of a weekend trip to Rotorua.

Witnesses have given slightly varying accounts of the mayhem that followed, but it was uncontested that Epiha is the one who fired 14 shots that day — hitting each officer four times. Constable Goldfinch told jurors he tried to reason with the gunman that day.

"I put up my hands again and went, 'Just f***ing stop. Just f***ing walk away. I won't arrest you,'" he testified. "I saw him almost contemplating what I said to him. After a few seconds, he just like made a decision: 'I'm going to kill you.'"

Bracken declined to testify during the trial, but in an interview with police on the day of her arrest that was played for jurors, she said she was afraid she would be shot next. When she first ran outside she tried to help the injured bystander, others testified.

Driving Epiha away from the neighbourhood, she told police, was also her way of trying to help.

Both defendants said they did not know each other prior to that day.

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