Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Killer of Massey police officer Matthew Hunt to be sentenced

By Katie Todd of RNZ

The man who murdered policeman Matthew Hunt and tried to kill his partner is due to be sentenced this morning.

Eli Epiha opened fire at the two officers in a West Auckland street in June last year.

He fled a routine traffic stop, crashed into a parked car and a bystander in Reynella Drive in Massey, shot 10 bullets at the two officers with a Norinco semi-automatic weapon and then fled.

Epiha admitted to murdering Hunt and reckless driving causing injury but claimed he had fired the gun at Goldfinch only to scare him away.

In July, after a two-week trial and 10 hours of deliberations, a jury also found him guilty of the attempted murder of officer David Goldfinch.

Epiha and Goldfinch both gave evidence during the trial, and a second defendant – getaway driver Natalie Bracken – was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact.

In October, she was sentenced to 12 months in jail.

Eli Epiha's intent

Epiha will be sentenced at the High Court at Auckland today on the basis that he intended to kill both the police officers.

The jury found that Epiha had “murderous intent” when he shot Goldfinch, however Epiha maintained his murder of Hunt was unintentional.

Justice Venning issued a ruling explaining that Epiha would be sentenced on the basis he meant to cause Hunt’s death.

The reasons for the ruling are suppressed until the sentencing.

Reactions to the verdict in July

Matthew Hunt’s mother Diane Hunt spoke to media outside court following the trial in July.

Surrounded by family and friends, she said the past two plus weeks had been harrowing.

“Listening to what happened to Matthew and Dave in such raw detail on Friday, June 19 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.”

Hunt said the family had received a huge amount of support in the aftermath of her son’s death, but still felt his loss.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said it had been harrowing for those connected to the officers to listen to the facts of the case as they laid bare the extent of the violence perpetrated against Hunt and Goldfinch.

“The cold, calculated and deliberate murder of Matt, and the attempted murder of Dave were clearly demonstrated, as was Epiha’s intent and lack of remorse,” Cahill said.

“It was nothing short of disgusting to witness Epiha’s attempt to shift the blame away from himself.”

He said it rested with the judge to deliver a sentence that reflected the condemnation New Zealanders expected – that will “send a very clear message to police officers who take enormous risks in their daily job, that they are valued”.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the trial had been a brutal reminder of the inherent risks and potential danger that police officers face every day.

He acknowledged the officers’ families, who he said “spent two weeks listening to extremely painful and harrowing details of Matt’s death”.

“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.

“I want to thank all my staff for their commitment, and continued bravery to do the best possible job every day to protect our communities,” he said.

The guilty verdict for the attempted murder of Goldfinch was a relief to the officer and his family, Coster said.

“Dave has shown incredible strength throughout this process and we saw this when he gave his evidence recounting what happened to him and Matt on that tragic day.”

How the shooting happened

On 19 June 2020, 24-year-old Eli Bob Sauni Epiha claimed he was on his way to defend his brother-in-law from gang members.

He drove to an address in Massey and collected two loaded firearms from a friend, which he said he planned to “brandish” but not use.

Epiha had just turned onto Reynella Drive when his driving caught the attention of two police officers – Matthew Hunt and David Goldfinch – who began to follow him.

Epiha told the court he “gapped it” in a bid to get away from the police, then abruptly encountered a rubbish truck, braked hard, and spun 180 degrees.

His car hit a parked Toyota Prius and a 37-year-old bystander- whose skull was lacerated and back and ribs fractured.

When the two officers pulled up, Goldfinch got out and walked towards the crash site, expecting he might need to provide first aid.

Instead he encountered Epiha walking towards him, holding a semi-automatic firearm.

Epiha fired what he said was a “warning shot” towards a patch of trees, shortly followed by another bullet that hit a car tyre, and then more as Goldfinch hid behind a parked SUV and then ran down the street.

Epiha shot Goldfinch twice in the leg and once in the hip as the officer fled.

Matthew Hunt then stepped out of the car. Epiha shot him four times – in the chest, lower back, right buttock and inside of his right thigh.

Due to the upwards trajectory of three of the bullets, Hunt had no chance of survival.

He was taken to hospital and pronounced dead at 11.40am.

While Goldfinch sheltered and called for backup, Epiha waved down a bystander for a getaway ride.

Natalie Bracken was that bystander. She had been at a friend’s house enjoying a cup of tea and a cigarette, and was drawn outside by the commotion. She decided to help Epiha although she maintains she did not know him.

During the trial, the jury watched a phone recording of Bracken – dressed in jeans, a bra and bare feet – retrieving a set of keys and driving Epiha away in a silver Mazda.

She dropped him at his friend’s house in Taupaki.

That friend – Shane Conza – gave Epiha a lift to a patch of forest in Riverhead, where he ditched the two firearms.

Minutes later two eagle-eyed police officers – Robert Cato and Eli Antunovich – pulled over Shane Conza’s car “by intuition” and arrested the two men.

They knew to look out for a potential gunman with dark hair, who could be wearing a camouflage shirt. They found that shirt scrunched in the boot of the car.

Epiha’s use of the fake name “Trevor Thompson, spelt with a P” only served to further their suspicion.

Bracken was arrested at a house in Te Atatū the following day with freshly dyed hair.

The jury found that Epiha had “murderous intent” when he shot Goldfinch, however Epiha maintained his murder of Matthew Hunt was unintentional.

Justice Venning issued a ruling explaining that Epiha would be sentenced on the basis he meant to cause Hunt’s death.

The reasons for the ruling are suppressed until the sentencing.

Public reactions to the shooting

Matthew Hunt’s death was the first time a police officer had been killed on the job since 2009.

It prompted an outpouring of grief from the public and police right around the country.

Matthew Hunt was farewelled at a funeral at Eden Park stadium, and also livestreamed.

It featured a haka from police officers, and the Massey community created a flower wall tribute at the Henderson Police Station.

Diane Hunt went to Parliament and presented a petition with 40,000 signatures, asking for harsher sentences for police killers.

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