CITY UNDER SIEGE
Inside the simmering gang tensions that brought Tauranga to a standstill
Tauranga residents say they fear that innocent people will become collateral damage in the districtʼs gang turf wars.
Three men have been shot dead in 48 hours — one after ring up to 20 shots from his car while eeing police.
Another man was arrested yesterday in relation to the slaying of two people in McLaren Falls on Tuesday.
It comes as a ʻperfect stormʼ of simmering gang tensions threatens to spill from the shadows on to suburban streets.
Suspicious fires and tit-for-tat shootings have Tauranga caught in the middle of a gang turf war. The fatal shooting of two men in McLaren Falls — not thought to be related to previous clashes — nevertheless created fear when the violence spilled into a quiet suburban street. Jared Savage reports
When simmering tensions between the Mongrel Mob and the Mongols in Tauranga boiled over a few weeks ago, the police arranged peace talks between their leaders: JD Thacker and “Socks” Taikato.
The Mongols arrived in town last year; the first Kiwi chapter of an international motorcycle gang with a fearsome reputation for violence in the United States and Australia.
Their president, Jim David Thacker, JD for short, was one of the thousands of individuals deported from Australia for failing “good character” grounds under section 501 of the immigration law.
He was a member of the Bandidos at the time, another international motorcycle gang, but soon fell out with the leadership in New Zealand.
So JD Thacker “patched over”; trading the Bandidos colours for those of the Mongol Nation — considered the US’ most dangerous gang — and was given the mantle of president.
About 20 others, many “501s” from Australia, joined Thacker to form a New Zealand Mongols chapter. Their presence, and perceived lack of respect to established gangs in the region soon rubbed their rivals up the wrong way.
The Bay of Plenty has long been a stronghold for the Filthy Few, Greazy Dogs, Mongrel Mob and Black Power. In recent years, the Head Hunters — a longtime Auckland gang — moved in and members of Australian gangs the Rebels, Comancheros and Bandidos are seen regularly on the roads.
Everyone stayed in their own turf, with no overt acts of violence which spilled into the public. The Mongols upset the equilibrium.
First, someone torched three cars parked on the driveway to Thacker’s home in Papamoa last October. Security cameras on the outside of the property captured the action, though by the time police turned up, the files had been erased.
On New Year’s Eve, a barber shop in Greerton linked to the Mongols caught fire but it soon sputtered out.
In late January someone smashed each window pane in the shop front. If the message wasn’t clear, days later the barber shop and tattoo studio on Chadwick St was gutted by fire, damaging neighbouring businesses. Retribution was swift.
Early one morning, a residential home linked to the Mongrel Mob was riddled with bullets fired from semiautomatic weapons. Police collected nearly 100 empty bullet cases which littered the street outside the house. Five children were inside at the time.
Detectives investigating the shooting at Hairini are working on the theory the attack was ordered by the Mongols, who blame the Mongrel Mob for the barber-shop fire.
The conflict escalated in hours, with reports of semi-automatic gunshots at a rural address in Te Puke where Mongol Nation members live.
Several 111 calls were made by frightened residents on No 2 Rd about 1.50pm on a Tuesday, which led to many police cars, the new Armed Response Team and the Eagle helicopter swarming the area.
Next day, two Mongol associates, aged 19 and 23, were charged in the Tauranga District Court with unlawful possession of a pistol, and were granted interim name suppression and bail. The investigation into the arson and both shootings is ongoing.
It’s understood the pair were arrested while walking towards a cache of semi-automatic firearms hidden under a bridge. The police had arrived first.
“This behaviour and level of violence is completely unacceptable and has no place in our communities,” Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Turner said in a press release.
After the tit-for-tat shooting, police called for calm heads to prevail.
A meeting was convened between JD Thacker and Terrence “Socks” Taikato, the president of the Tauranga chapter of the Mongrel Mob, to meet on neutral ground with police present.
Taikato started by airing grievances about how the Mob had controlled certain streets and suburbs in Tauranga for decades.
Thacker interrupted the older gang member to say “I don’t give a f ***”, or words to that effect.
This brazenness of the Australian gangs has ruffled feathers in the New Zealand gang landscape, where there is respect — even friendships — between rival gangs.
NEW ZEALAND had a history of gangs warring from the 1970s through to the 1990s, although the tit-for-tat violence largely eased as the rebellious young men with patches on their backs mellowed with age.
Older, wiser heads knew what gang war meant: constant pressure from the police and always looking over your shoulder.
As the metaphorical smoke cleared during the ceasefire, the various gangs were in a stalemate. Nobody could move as all the territory was roughly divvied up.
As long as no one made an aggressive move into someone else’s town or turf, the overt violence which made headlines and energised politicians looking for votes in election year remained in check.
Cynical detectives wryly noted the methamphetamine market, in which senior members of influential gangs soon became significant players, was so profitable there was more than enough room for everyone.
It was smart business to get along, rather than attract unwanted attention. Surveillance jobs recorded members of rival gangs — the Hells Angels, Highway 61, the Head Hunters, Mongrel Mob, Black Power — visiting one another at home.
And this precarious state of peace was, by and large, kept in place until relatively recently. The arrival of the Australian gangs, or other deportees who “patched over” to existing New Zealand gangs, changed the local landscape, gang researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert said in October.
“They are bold, a different culture, and seemingly not afraid of anybody. Without question, it’s creating issues.”
New Zealand gangs were “moribund” with dropping membership and methamphetamine addiction “ripping apart” some groups, said Gilbert, until the Rebels, Australia’s largest motorcycle club, arrived around 2010 to “breathe new life” into the scene.
Rebels chapters had sprouted up like mushrooms around the country, as existing gang members “patched over” to wear new colours.
Shortly after, the Bandidos and the Outlaws, other international gangs, arrived to jostle for position. Gilbert described them as “New Zealand franchises” where existing local gang members switched allegiances.
This period of dramatic growth coincided with the advent of the “501” deportees. To take the global business analogy further, Gilbert says international groups such as the Comancheros and Mongols “set up shop themselves”, as opposed to the franchise model.
“It’s the perfect storm in some ways. In a crowded room, someone invariably gets elbowed. When that happens in the gang scene, an elbow tends to escalate. We’ve seen that before in the 70s and 80s. And we’re seeing that now. The question is how far it goes.”
The tensions between the Mongrel Mob and the Mongol Nation seemed to ease after the peace talks between Thacker and Taikato, who spoke privately after asking police to leave.
There was an assumption around Tauranga the deaths of two men near McLaren Falls on Tuesday night was an escalation of the turf war, although a source told the Weekend Herald that police believed neither the Mongols nor Mongrel Mob were involved.
Children ran from the house on Ormsby Lane in terror and neighbours heard rapid gunshots before the bodies of Paul Lasslett, 43, who owned the property, and Nick Littlewood, 32, were discovered.
Lasslett, who recently became a grandfather, had relatively minor convictions for cultivating cannabis while Littlewood had links to the Head Hunters.
While the brutal deaths shocked neighbours in the rural community, most Tauranga residents simply carried on with life. Most have no dealings with the underworld, therefore no reason to fear.
That all changed when the fall-out from the double homicide spilled into an upmarket Tauranga suburb and brought the city to a standstill.
ON THURSDAY night, police tried to pull over a car on Carmichael Rd, a quiet road in Bethlehem surrounded by retirement villages, million-dollar homes, a primary school and a busy shopping centre.
The driver refused to stop, firing a semi-automatic weapon at police before fleeing at high speed towards the city on State Highway 2.
Police gave chase until the driver, believed to be a suspect in the McLaren Falls shootings, stopped near the intersection of SH2 and Fifteenth Ave.
He shot at least 15 rounds before police returned fire and fatally injured him, Superintendent Andy McGregor told the media.
Hours later, a 25-year-old Bay of Plenty man was arrested in Christchurch in relation to the double homicide.
The elite Special Tactics Group was involved and police said the man arrested was an associate of the man shot on Thursday night.
The stretch of SH2 — the main route for anyone travelling east towards Tauranga — remained closed yesterday as police gathered evidence, with traffic diverted through suburbs and clogging residential streets for hours.
A team of 45 officers, led by Detective Inspector Mark Loper, was investigating the double homicide.
“I just wanted to reassure the people of Tauranga, the community there, that they are safe,” McGregor said. “That we are talking about one motivated offender here, who did not want to be captured by police.”
While technically true, it would take only one stray bullet to kill an innocent bystander.
Just 11 years ago, 17-year-old Halatau Naitoko was tragically shot and killed by police trying to stop an armed gunman on a busy Auckland motorway.
The circumstances were eerily situation to Thursday night’s shooting.
The gang violence of the last few weeks has heaped more fuel on what is already a heated political debate, with National Party leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges comparing it to the turf wars once common in Los Angeles.
Last year, National vowed to “crack down” on gangs and blamed Labour for a 26 per cent increase in gang members — now believed to be 6500 — since they took office in 2017.
In response, Police Minister Stuart Nash points out the Government has already “cracked down” on gangs by promising millions of dollars to fund dedicated staff to investigate organised crime and the meth trade.
In what will be a close election, Labour and National will likely promise to “crack down” harder if voted in. It’s a vote-winner among the middle-class.
The only winners from the gang wars may be the politicians.
In a crowded room, someone invariably gets elbowed. In the gang scene, an elbow tends to escalate. Dr Jarrod Gilbert
Left, a search on State Highway 2 yesterday after a man was shot by officers. Right, the property in McLaren Falls where two men were killed on Tuesday night.