CITY UN­DER SIEGE

In­side the sim­mer­ing gang ten­sions that brought Tau­ranga to a stand­still

Weekend Herald - - Front Page -

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

Photo / Alan Gib­son

Photos / Andrew Warner, Alan Gib­son

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.

JD Thacker

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