The untold story of how police shot Shargin Stephens

Author
RNZ,
Publish Date
Tue, 22 Jun 2021, 11:47AM
Police bail checked Shargin Stephens 64 times in 36 days - often in the middle of the night - before shooting him after he attacked a police car. (Photo / RNZ, Vinay Ranchhod)
Police bail checked Shargin Stephens 64 times in 36 days - often in the middle of the night - before shooting him after he attacked a police car. (Photo / RNZ, Vinay Ranchhod)

The untold story of how police shot Shargin Stephens

Author
RNZ,
Publish Date
Tue, 22 Jun 2021, 11:47AM

By RNZ

Five years after an officer shot and killed a young Māori man, Guyon Espiner reveals previously untold disparities between what the public knows and what the evidence reveals.

In a series of swift steps, Officer L05 crosses the grass verge and closes in on his target. He aims his Bushmaster M4 at the chest of the 35-year-old Māori man retreating from him.

L05 controls his semi-automatic rifle with an "excellent lockdown stance"- at least that's what another officer at the scene will later say.

His weapon skills have been honed in a four-year career with the army, but today he is the most junior of the 13 officers at the scene, having graduated from police college only a year ago.

Shargin Stephens is surrounded now. He holds a wooden stick, just over a metre long, with a 25cm metal blade at the top.

Later, an officer who picks it up off the road will describe it as a rusty, old weed slasher, "all busted up" and "starting to fall to pieces".

Stephens had intended to use the slasher to clear weeds from his mother's grave for its unveiling. But today - July 14, 2016 - things have gone horribly wrong.

For more than a month, police bail checks have woken him at all hours of the night, and this afternoon Stephens has lashed out and smashed up a police car, using the slasher to break two windows and crack the windscreen.

He's been chased by police and now stands in the middle of Te Ngae Rd, Rotorua. Officer L09 (the officers' names are suppressed and police have given each a code name) will later describe Stephens as "fidgeting on the spot, waving the machete above his head".

This is all happening just a few minutes' walk from where Stephens lives with his partner of 15 years, Estelle. It's the eastern suburbs of Rotorua, where the residential housing gives way to the semi-industrial zone, with its truck stops and mechanic workshops.

Several witnesses will later tell police it was like Stephens "had a taiaha in his hand" that day and rather than threatening anyone, he looked like he was doing a haka to keep the police at bay.

"It was almost like an old film of watching a witch doctor with a stick casting a curse over somebody," one witness will say, "rather than a feeling of, I'm going to attack you".

But Officer L05, his body and gun moving as one, has advanced right up to within five or six metres of Stephens. Another officer will later say L05 got "very close" and "looked like he didn't have options to move backwards".

For a few moments it looks as though the confrontation might be ending. Stephens backs away about six paces, moving from the grass median strip to the middle of the road. He drops his warrior stance, slings the weed slasher over his right shoulder, turns from Officer L05 and begins to walk away. But something makes him turn back and face L05 and hold the slasher in one hand above his head.

"Put it down!" an officer screams. A fraction of a second later another officer yells: "Put it down, you ...". But his sentence is drowned out by two shots, milliseconds apart, from L05's semi-automatic rifle.

Stephens falls to the ground clutching his stomach, his 'Mean Māori Mean' T-shirt ripped with bullet holes and feathers from his puffer jacket floating on the wind.

Police surround Shargin Stephens (Photo: Screengrab / TVNZ / Te Karere)

L05 puts his head in his hands and a numb feeling envelops him.

It will be 19 minutes before the ambulance arrives. In the meantime several police officers attempt first aid. Officer L04 gets his first aid kit out, but when he sees the pained look on L05's face he turns his attention away from the man dying in the street and towards the shooter.

"At that point all I wanted to do was go and give L05 a hug," L04 will later tell detectives, who investigate the homicide.

"(It) was just really upsetting because he's like our little brother ... so I wasn't really paying too much attention to the guy. I just remember seeing everyone huddled around him (Stephens)."

Just six minutes have passed since Stephens smashed up the police car, but the police pursuit really began more than a month before.

In the five weeks between June 7 and July 13 police bail-checked Stephens 64 times, even though he was wearing an electronic ankle bracelet. Sixty-four times in 36 days. The bail checks came deep into the night. At 1.45am. At 2.15am. At 3.49am.

On the night before he smashed up the police car and was shot in the street, Stephens texted a friend at 2am: "F*** this bro, they won't let me sleep."

Five years on, it is the Stephens whānau that cannot rest. Police investigated the shooting as a homicide and decided not to press charges. Backed by a tiny legal team dependent on legal aid, the family is now pleading for a full coronial inquest into his death.

Hamilton Coroner J P Ryan has ruled only a narrow inquest is needed because the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) has already established much of what happened that day. Ryan accepts the IPCA ruling that the bail checks were "reasonable" and that the police were justified in shooting Stephens.

Lawyers acting for the Stephens whānau have now applied for a judicial review challenging that ruling and are pressing for a full inquest into the death.

The coroner has been told "the New Zealand police do not see the need for an inquest" and that police believe a detective inspector could simply provide a statement to the family explaining the circumstances of his death.

But there are still so many questions.

There are questions about how police handled evidence. A report from a digital imaging expert says there are seven seconds missing from police taser camera footage that captured video right before the shooting. The missing footage is "of grave concern, inviting speculation that this evidence has been altered", the report says.

There are questions about the bail checks. Did police tell the IPCA the truth when they said they never woke Stephens up with their night-time visits?

Was Officer L05, who fired the fatal shots, among the officers who bail-checked Stephens?

The Stephens whānau won't talk to media about what happened that day, but documents filed with the coroner show they feel the circumstances of his death are unresolved. They want to know why the police didn't make greater use of an iwi liaison officer in the weeks leading up to the shooting.

They want to know why the police didn't use other tactical options, such as dogs, to disable him. One dog handler, Officer L12, gave something of an answer to that in the homicide investigation, telling detectives why he didn't set his dog on Stephens: "I'm not prepared to lose the dog over this. The last thing I wanted was a dead dog. I've only just gone operational so I don't want to go back to being a trainee."

Stephens clung to life for nearly two weeks after he was shot in the street that day, but he died at 2.40pm on 26 July, 2016. His whānau says while so many questions remain unanswered, he can't rest in peace.

***

"THIS IS THE YEAR," Stephens wrote on the opening page of a shiny, black 2016 monthly planner, alongside a list of food he needed to host a hāngī.

In delicate handwriting his goals are bullet-pointed and spelt out in black pen. Some are modest: he wants to save money and pay the bills. Others are aspirational: he wants a full driver license; he wants an education.

Stephens left school at 13. He was raised in Auckland but moved to Rotorua as a teenager to look after his elderly grandmother. After she went into a rest home he had the house to himself and got in with the wrong crowd, according to a pre-sentence report for a 2011 burglary.

Between 1997 and 2008 he racked up 57 convictions, mostly for burglary, drug cultivation and possession, dishonesty and driving offences. But his family say he was never violent.

"Shargs was always the cool one standing back watching," his partner Estelle said in a police interview five days after he was shot. "He doesn't do violence."

Joan, Stephens' cousin, said violence wasn't in his character. "I don't know and haven't seen that, man," she told police, a week after her cousin was shot. "He is a placid, down for a good time, giving, caring guy."

He was a small user of methamphetamine - about once a week, his close friends reckoned-and sometimes that caused him issues, but his family say alcohol was a greater danger for him.

Sometimes he heard voices and one person who was close to him suspects he may have had undiagnosed mental health issues.

But things were looking up for Stephens in the months leading up to the shooting. It certainly looked that way to the probation officer who visited his Vaughan Road home in October 2015, after Stephens had been sentenced to home detention on drug and burglary charges.

"Shargin requested an absence to go to his mother's grave to clean up the flowers around the grave and put some new ones down." The probation officer felt Corrections would need more notice before approving the request but was impressed with his efforts to rehabilitate.

"Shargin's compliance has been outstanding throughout his sentence and he has shown a huge motivation to complete his sentence successfully."

By April 2016 Stephens had completed a course in orchard management, partner Estelle was working in a hospital kitchen and the couple were hoping to decorate the house.

"He is waiting for his partner to pick a colour," the probation officer noted. "All the prep work is done."

But the following month things started to go wrong. Police searched the house on May 3 and charged Stephens with drug and firearms offences. He was put on electronically monitored bail, but despite wearing the bracelet police constantly visited the Vaughan Road house.

On seven occasions Stephens was bail-checked three times a day and once the police called at the house four times in 24 hours. Fifteen times the police arrived between 11pm and 6am.

"I could see he was getting frustrated at all the police checks," his partner Estelle later told police. "He had his home-D bracelet on and he thought that would be enough but the police kept checking. We would get checked day and night. It is hard to see the sense in that when he has his bracelet on. It seemed like it was a thing that any police gang going past Vaughan Road had to stop in."

***

Was it Stephens' frustration at the police checks that caused him to lash out when he saw a police car cruise down his street that day? Were there existing relationships between Stephens and the officers that surrounded him that afternoon?

A coroner's minute from 2 December, 2020 notes there had been some resistance to L05 giving evidence at any inquest, "given that he did not undertake any bail checks on Mr Stephens and had not met Mr Stephens prior to the day of the shooting".

But during the police investigation in 2016 detectives asked L05 if he knew Stephens. "At the time I didn't know who it was," he replied. "A couple of days later when they released the name I knew. I've bail checked him before."

Officer L04, whose sympathy for L05 distracted him from his first aid attempts in the aftermath of the shooting, had also bail-checked Stephens. He too told detectives it was only after the shooting, when Stephens' name was mentioned at the police station, that he remembered going to his house for bail checks.

In the IPCA report, released in 2017, there is no mention that the shooter, and at least one of the other police officers who surrounded Stephens, had previously bail-checked him.

The report does, however, address the bail checks.

"On the face of it, the frequency of the bail checks on Mr Stephens do appear to be problematic," the IPCA report concedes.

"However, in the context of the suspicions raised by Mr Stephens' uncooperative behaviour and restless demeanour ... it was reasonable for police to check Mr Stephens as often as they did."

The IPCA report says, given he was wearing an ankle bracelet, the "primary purpose" of the bail checks was to test for alcohol and drugs.

As for the all-night bail checks it says: "An officer also told the authority that Mr Stephens 'was always up, it didn't matter what time of the day or night it was' and it never looked like he had 'just rolled out of bed'."

But the police's own investigation into the shooting tells another story. While the IPCA report claims Stephens was never woken up by the bail checks, statements from the officers themselves show he was woken time and time again.

One officer, a sergeant working in the public safety team in Rotorua, woke Stephens up on six bail checks on different nights - at 11.06pm, 11.10pm, 11.25pm, 11.38pm, 11.45pm and 11.50pm.

Each time he noted what happened in a sworn statement. "It appeared he had just woken up as he was rubbing his eyes when I shone my torch on him. He waved at me and made no derogatory comments before returning inside the house," one says.

And each time the sergeant writes, "I did not conduct a breath test".

Why were police constantly bail-checking Stephens late at night? While there were 64 bail checks, Stephens was only breath-tested for alcohol 21 times and all the results came back negative.

In contradiction to the IPCA report, which describes Stephens as "uncooperative", sworn statements from the officers who bail-checked him say he was compliant. There is not one report of dissent.

This sworn statement, from a sergeant who bail-checked Stephens six times, is typical of the police bail reports and contradicts the IPCA findings both on his behaviour and on the claim that the primary purpose of the bail checks was to test for alcohol: "There was nothing to report about the defendant's behaviour. I never experienced any animosity from him at any of the checks. I did not breath test the defendant at any of my six checks."

Even the constable who bail-checked him at 3.49am reports Stephens was cooperative. "When he came out he waved out. I told him to come to the gate as I needed to do a breath test on him. This showed a result of no alcohol. There was nothing of note in terms of his demeanour, tired if anything."

Despite consistently having his sleep interrupted, Stephens was determined to work again. On July 12, two days before he was shot, Stephens got permission from Corrections to vary his bail conditions so he could leave the house during the day to work full time at an orchard in Maketu.

Police knew about the arrangement. In fact they emailed the orchard boss to check it out. The boss told them Stephens was "a trained pruner and is good at his work". But when Stephens' co-worker and long-time friend Shaun came to Vaughan Road to pick him up for work at 8.05am the next day, he found a police car outside the house.

"An officer was there trying to arrest him for breaching his conditions. It was because he was outside the gate that the officer thought he was breaching," Shaun said. "He let Shargin go but said that he will be double-checking ... that he was ok to work."

Stephens was livid and cursed police on the drive to the orchard. "Why won't they leave me alone?" he said.

Back at the Vaughan Road house that night Stephens drank a six-pack of Cody's Bourbon and Cola and shared about 0.1gm of meth with three others.

As Shaun left the house that night he hugged his friend and told him he'd see him for work the next morning. At 2am, however, Shaun says Stephens sent him a message.

"The text read 'f*** this brother they won't let me sleep f***'. I text back: 'all good my bro see you in the morning, got mahi tomorrow. We just cruise. See you in the morning'."

***

The morning of 14 July brought rain and a cold southerly wind. The showers were intermittent but the sun shone in between. Rainbows soared over the engineering workshops, spray-painting depots and tyre centres, carving a strange beauty through the semi-industrial zone where Stephens lived.

It was not a good morning to pick fruit. Pete, the orchard boss, called Shaun and said he and Stephens didn't need to come to work until early afternoon.

At 12.25pm Shaun swung by Vaughan Rd briefly to tell Stephens he would be back soon to take him to work. He noticed Stephens was tired and "sulking a bit".

When he drove back to fetch Stephens Te Ngae Rd was blocked with police cars. His sister-in-law called to tell him Stephens had been shot.

"I was really upset," Shaun later told police. "I was thinking at the time, 'f*** all of yous, you did this to my bro'. I was also angry at Shargin as well."

It seems Stephens had disabled his ankle bracelet-police say they found it later that afternoon on his front lawn. The last time the bracelet communicated to Corrections was 12.12pm. At 1.14pm - about the same time the ambulance arrived - Corrections says its electronic monitoring team received an alert saying the anklet hadn't communicated in an hour.

Corrections says it never received an alert warning that the bracelet had been cut and suspects this could only have occurred because a severe blow disabled it.

"Any cutting after this event will not register as an alert. While very uncommon due to the force required and the fact it is still attached to the ankle it is the only likely explanation."

If that is what happened, we don't know why it happened or why Stephens lashed out that afternoon.

What we do know is the events of that day start with Officer L07 driving down Vaughan Road at about 12.45pm.

L07 will later tell the police investigation that he just happened to be driving by Stephens' house on his way to set up an alcohol checkpoint nearby.

Shargin Stephens smashed the left side windows and windscreen of L07's police car. (Photo / File)

About five houses up from where Stephens lives, he hears a thump, stops and sees a round object rolling across the road. He gets out to check whether something has been thrown at the car.

He sees Stephens coming towards him. Stephens walks calmly past, ignoring L07 completely. He's only interested in the car. He throws a 2.5kg weight at the rear windscreen. The weight bounces off but L07 is annoyed. "The first thing was, 'shit, he's damaged my car'," he tells police later. "It's like ... almost anger because we're quite protective of our vehicles, road policing especially."

Stephens takes the weed slasher and smashes the left side windows of the police car and cracks the windscreen. He strikes the car seven times in all.

L07 gets back in the police car, slams it into drive and takes off. He calls 10-10 on the police radio, code for "immediate assistance".

That is the most serious call you can make, the detective who interviews L07 will later note. How many times in your career have you called that, he asks him.

"Ah, that would be the first time."

***

Police jump in their cars and rush to the scene. They get out and chase Stephens into a mechanic's workshop. They taser him at least twice but, protected by his puffer jacket, it has little effect, as do their attempts with pepper spray.

According to the IPCA report, Stephens throws a spanner about now, which "narrowly" misses an officer. But the report from the digital imaging expert, hired by the lawyer of the Stephens whānau, says video footage shows the spanner falls well short and to the left of the officer.

L05 has joined the pursuit. He fears Stephens is making for the nearby Redwood shopping centre and chases him on to the grass verge and then out on to Te Ngae Road.

"He looked like he was possessed," L05 will later tell detectives investigating the shooting. "I've seen that same look a number of times on different people who I know were all affected by methamphetamine."

Stephens might swing the slasher at a passing motorist, or try to jack a car, he thinks.

"I remember yelling, 'stop, put your weapon down'. I can't remember whether I said, 'I don't want to shoot you', or whether I was thinking it," L05 will tell detectives.

In his interview with the IPCA, L05 says Stephens "started to move purposefully towards him".

But L09 will remember it differently. "He wasn't wandering, he was just fidgeting on the spot, waving the machete above his head," he will say.

"He's obviously stepped forward in the direction of L05 and L05 felt that he had to take action and he's done what he's done. The distance probably hasn't altered greatly, but it's been enough to make L05 … make his decisions."

L05 will say the decision came down to him or Stephens.

"I felt he was gonna kill me," he says.

"I centred my rifle sights on his chest, opened my sight dust covers and turned the safety catch from "safe" to "fire" with my thumb, and that's where I shot him twice to the centre of his body."

L05 feels numb and begins to hyperventilate.

L09 takes the Bushmaster M4 rifle off him. "L05 looked shocked and I didn't want him in charge of a rifle in that state," L09 later says. Then he escorts L05 to a patrol car and tells him to keep quiet. "Do not talk to anyone even if they are an inspector."

But what did L05 say before L09 told him to keep quiet?

The detective who later interviewed L09 wanted to know.

"Tell me everything that he said to you about what had happened," the detective asked.

But L09 didn't want to answer the question. He turned to the support person he brought to the interview. "Um, can we talk," he asked. "Yeah," the support person responded. The detective obliged. "Okay, so we'll just take a break, it is 03.35pm and I'll just press stop."

The tape went off. When it came back on three minutes later, the question had evaporated. L09 went on to simply recall his colleague's demeanour, describing him as shocked and surprised. "It wasn't the outcome that he was expecting."

Police surround Shargin Stephens (Photo / Screengrab, TVNZ, Te Karere)

Stephens was shot just before 1pm on a busy street during the school holidays, so police had dozens of witnesses to interview.

One of them, Caitlin, said L05 was too quick to shoot. "It was very fast and so it was like, "put down your weapon, put down your weap ..." and he pretty much cut off the end bit of what he was trying to say and then shot him immediately."

Caitlin's father Anthony reached similar conclusions. "The Māori guy, he didn't have time, they didn't give him time," he said. "The people that were around me couldn't understand or believe how quick they shot him."

Damien was working nearby and saw six police in a semi-circle around Stephens. "I was expecting him to just drop what he was holding and then the police would smoke him and we would all laugh that he got what was coming to him," Damien said.

"I didn't think he wanted to hurt anyone, members of the public, because I saw him walk past people and he didn't hurt them or take them, but it looked like he only wanted to hurt the police."

Warren told police Stephens was "dancing like a haka or a witch doctor doing a curse".
"When he was shot, he was not moving forward or approaching the police. He was holding his ground. He looked angry but he didn't look at that point, at the point of being shot, that he was out of control."

But Aaron believed the cops were too soft: "I would have f***** shot him way before that," he said. "You go over in America or you go over to Australia, the cop tells you to get down on the ground you get down on the ground, you try to fight it, mate, that's it. New Zealand is just stupid, mate. You've got guys wielding the thing, you know? What if there was a poor kid or a mother, a pregnant mother or something?"

Karl, a worker in a factory, also thinks Stephens should have been shot earlier. He saw Stephens go into a mechanic's workshop, where four workers were inside, chased by police and dog handlers.

"I started yelling out 'shoot him, don't fuck around. Stop him, take him out,' Karl said, recalling that the police were shouting too. "They were really yelling and you could tell that things were getting tense. Because of that I continued yelling 'shoot the bastard'."

L08, an officer at the scene with 10 years' experience in the Armed Offenders Squad, told detectives that a firearm was the only option.

"There was a threat of death or grievous bodily harm to the staff that were present and to those members of the public who he was running towards at the shopping centre. I don't believe that there was any less violent means of arresting that offender."

Vivien, a St John ambulance worker and first aid tutor, was at the scene and tended to Stephens. "I could smell the alcohol coming from his breath," she said. "I said to him, 'other than the alcohol, what else have you taken?' His response was 'I've taken meth'."

Police say they called an ambulance at 12.55pm, but it didn't arrive until 1.14pm. The IPCA report says the ambulance was "held up by the heavy traffic".

The Stephens whānau have been held up too. For years they've tried to get a full inquest into the death of Shargin Stephens. The legal team working for the family managed to scrape together enough legal aid funding to hire a digital imaging expert to analyse the police video of the shooting.

The report by Wellington based company Security Risk Management (SRM), dated December 2020, raises serious questions about how police handled video of the shooting.

"The video recording from the taser camera operated by Officer L06 appears to have been edited to remove seven seconds immediately prior to the shooting of Mr Stephens," the report says.

The time stamp on the taser footage jumps from 00.55.51 to 00.55.58 - right before Stephens is shot, it says. The missing footage is "of grave concern, inviting speculation that this evidence has been altered".

The missing seven seconds could contain video or audio explaining why Stephens, who had begun to back away, turned back to face L05 before he was shot, the report says.

The police deny tampering with evidence but the SRM report says there are 'red flags' around the video recorded by L06's taser.

Four police tasers used in the incident were handed in as evidence on the day of the shooting. L06's taser was not.

The next morning, Officer L06 told a detective sergeant "that he has another taser that was also used during the incident". He had already downloaded the taser's video footage himself.

The SRM report says the L06 taser footage given to the defence team appears in a different codec, or video format, than the footage from the other tasers.

Why did L06 download his own footage? It turns out it wasn't his footage. Officer L06 didn't use the taser on the day of the shooting. Armed with a pistol, he gave his taser to Officer L09, who didn't have a weapon. L09 used the taser, capturing video and audio of the shooting. Then the taser was returned to L06.

"I was initially unaware that L09 had activated the taser," L06 said in his interview with police investigators, six days after Stephens was shot. "But given that the taser was issued in my name, I subsequently downloaded that footage and assigned it to myself."

Detectives who interviewed L06 offered to play him the footage, but he declined to listen or watch.

When L09, the officer who actually used the taser, was interviewed he told detectives he had watched the footage but that it didn't match his experience of what happened.

"I checked that my taser was on. I remember having it raised at the offender constantly and for some time but the video footage doesn't appear to show that," L09 said.

He seemed bemused. "I believed I had the taser lighting him up-pointing it at him, ready to fire but the video suggests otherwise," he said. "I recall walking across the road pointing the taser at him," he said. "But, yeah, as I say, the video doesn't really go 100 percent with my recollection there."

There also appear to be two different versions of the video footage-one nearly twice as long as the other.

When a police weapons expert examined the taser 12 days after the shooting he reported that the video file created by taser L06 was 20 seconds long. But a detective inspector's job sheet from 15 July, the day L06 handed the taser in, described the taser footage as 11 seconds long.

The weapons expert, from the Police Armoury, said his tests showed the taser's battery was wearing down and this meant the weapon's camera was not always recording.

It's possible that a battery malfunction could explain why there's missing footage from the critical moment.

What's the police explanation?

They deny tampering with evidence but their explanations to RNZ about the missing footage raise more questions than answers.

"We can confirm that the lawyer for the family has been provided with a copy of the edited footage showing the complete footage from start to finish in the form of a video compilation plus all the raw footage."

"The edited version was prepared for evidential purposes and provides footage of the incident. It is standard practice as part of investigations for an edited version of footage to be prepared for evidential purposes."

Police say that before being submitted as evidence the edited version of video footage was reviewed by both the Crown and the defence to agree it was an accurate record of the incident.

"Any questions the family may have in regard to the footage provided are best addressed through the coroner's hearing," police told RNZ.

But we have come full circle. The police have told the coroner they don't believe an inquest is necessary.

The whānau say they cannot rest until they get a full inquest.

It's the same feeling Shargin Stephens, after five weeks of late night visits from police, shared with his friend the night before he died: "They won't let me sleep."