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Grinning inmates who spurred manhunt after motorway escape sent back to prison

Publish Date
Sun, 17 Mar 2024, 2:30pm
The three escaped prisoners who sparked a large-scale manhunt were (left to right) Zane Hepi, Billy Fepulea’i and Joseph Ng Wun.
The three escaped prisoners who sparked a large-scale manhunt were (left to right) Zane Hepi, Billy Fepulea’i and Joseph Ng Wun.

Grinning inmates who spurred manhunt after motorway escape sent back to prison

Publish Date
Sun, 17 Mar 2024, 2:30pm

Three men who sparked a massive, high-profile manhunt after they somehow managed to escape a Corrections van on an Auckland motorway, allegedly fleeing on foot with grins on their faces before stealing an SUV, have now all received prison terms for the wild getaway.

Takanini resident Joseph Junior Ng Wun, 47, appeared in the dock in Manukau District Court this week, the final member of the trio to face sentencing after pleading guilty to escaping a penal institution and unlawfully getting into a motor vehicle.

His hearing came six months after co-defendant Billy Malae Fepulea’i, 44 was sentenced at the same courthouse and seven months after the third man, 25-year-old Rosehill resident Zane KJ Hepi, was sentenced in Kaikohe District Court.

The three remand prisoners were being transported from Counties Manukau police station to Mt Eden prison in a Corrections van driven by two security officers on Friday, February 10 last year when they escaped near the Ellerslie-Panmure Highway off-ramp.

“Each defendant was held in separate holding cells in the van,” according to the agreed summary of facts that accompanied Ng Wun’s guilty plea. “The cells were individually locked by two bolts on the exterior of each cell door.

“Whilst in transit to its destination, the prison van was travelling on State Highway 1 in Penrose. The defendants have somehow managed to unlock their cell doors and have subsequently exited out the prison van.”

The trio then fled on foot to South-Eastern Highway about 2.40pm.

A witness told the Herald last year the men ran across the on-ramp, a few cars ahead of him.

The Corrections van at the scene after the escape.

The Corrections van at the scene after the escape.

“Then I saw the [Corrections] van pulling over with the back door wide open,” he said. “I didn’t realise they were escaping until I saw the van - so just wondered why they were running across the road.

“They looked pretty happy, though.”

Another woman recounted to the Herald how the youngest of the escapees, who she described as “covered in face tattoos”, tried but failed to carjack her vehicle.

“Go, go, go, go!” the offender allegedly yelled as he tried to get in the back seat of their car.

“I just had a full-on panic attack,” the woman recounted. “We were really scared.

“I was fully paralysed and I didn’t know what to do.”

The witness said the offender hadn’t closed the door when they swerved into the truck lane and sped off, causing the intruder to fall out.

Zane Hepi. Photo / NZ Police
Zane Hepi. Photo / NZ Police

“He couldn’t get the door shut and couldn’t get his legs in at that speed, so just fell out,” she said. “We didn’t know what to do, so we just kept driving.

“The other two men just ran off on their own over the train tracks.”

The trio had more success a short time later. Court documents state all three men got into a Hyundai Tucson SUV at a nearby auto repair shop on Great South Rd and drove off, managing to elude police for several days despite the dramatic escape attracting widespread attention.

Ng Wun was captured on February 14 last year but missed his first appearance in Auckland District Court later that day because he had been taken to hospital for observation after a police dog was used during his arrest.

Joseph Ng Wun. Photo / NZ Police

Joseph Ng Wun. Photo / NZ Police

Standing before Judge Ngaroma Tahana on Wednesday, Ng Wun expressed remorse for those crimes and all the others - nearly a dozen dating back to 2019 - that he was to be sentenced for.

“I would sincerely apologise for inconveniencing them and for possibly putting them under undue stress,” he said, when asked what he would like to tell the victims had any of them been in the courtroom. “I’d just like to tell them I’m really sorry for the harm that I’ve caused them.”

Judge Tahana ordered a combined sentence of three years and two months’ imprisonment for the slew of charges that also included dangerous driving and multiple counts of receiving stolen property. Included in the bundle of sentences was a concurrent one-year term for the escape.

Defence lawyer Samuel Georgiou had sought steep sentence discounts for his client during the hearing, pointing to a dysfunctional and traumatic upbringing that resulted in substance abuse problems and an early entry into the justice system. Ng Wun now has an “intense desire” to address his substance abuse issues, he said.

Billy Fepulea’i. Photo / NZ PoliceBilly Fepulea’i. Photo / NZ Police

Prosecutors for the Crown and police agreed some discounts were warranted for his background, remorse and efforts at rehabilitation but they described the defence’s suggestion that the sentence be reduced by 40 per cent for those factors as “excessive”.

The judge agreed, commending Ng Wun for his recovery journey but allowing a reduction of no more than 20 per cent.

Hepi last year was handed a sentence of one-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for the escape charge alone, while Fepulea’i was ordered to serve two months’ imprisonment. But as was the case with Ng Wun, their overall sentences were longer when judges took into consideration additional crimes unrelated to the February 2022 escape.

Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.

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