At 21, David Cerven was shot dead by police in what many assumed was 'suicide by cop'. Susan Strongman traces his story of love, debt and despair all the way from Slovakia to the Auckland park where he died.
Warning: this article contains discussion of suicide and other content that may be distressing.
The young Slovakian man limped down the aisle of an Auckland cathedral. It was the evening of August 2, 2015, a Sunday, and dark outside. He had committed three armed robberies and he wanted to confess his sins. Within hours, his body lay lifeless on a damp, grassy slope in a central city park. Had he known he was about to die?
After confession, the 21-year-old hobbled along Wyndham St, down the hill past the post office with the sleeping streeties cocooned in blankets on flattened cardboard boxes. It was cool. A misty drizzle fell on the grey, gum-pocked pavement.
He turned right onto Queen St, walked past the Kiwiana shop, waited for the lights. Past the currency exchange, 2Degrees, more lights. ANZ, Westpac, Smith and Caughey's, more lights, Burger King and the town hall and the place that sells kung fu shoes and samurai swords.
At 7.15pm, he arrived at the Queen St entrance to Myers Park and leaned on a brick wall. His light brown hair was always cut short. He was tall, sinewy, with a pleasant oval face and thick eyebrows. He was wearing blue jeans and a blue and white checked shirt under an orange high-visibility raincoat with reflectorised bands, that looked slightly too big for him.
After a minute, he walked down a scoria path that snaked under the overhanging limbs of a Moreton Bay fig tree and into the gully at the centre of Myers Park.
Was it a split second decision that Cerven made on that dank evening in Myers Park, to pull his hands from his pockets and point them at police, like a child pointing a finger gun? Did he want them to shoot him? And did he know they would?
Today - two years, 11 months and 22 days since Cerven was shot - Coroner Katherine Greig has somewhat answered that question, finding that his death could not be ruled 'suicide by cop', despite initial presumptions.
"It cannot be known what Mr Cerven thought might happen or whether he had a self-destructive intent, or even if he thought the police really believed he had a gun. I am not clear what, in the heat of the moment, Mr Cerven was or was not thinking (or even was capable of thinking given how quickly events were unfolding and the degree of tension) when he raised his arms as he did, or what he considered the likely responses of the police may be. I am left in a state of uncertainty about his actions and intent and accordingly am unable to conclude that his death was a suicide."
David Cerven was born in 1994 in the small Slovakian town of Dolny Kubin, which lies on the banks of the Orava river, an hour's drive from the Polish border.
He was 11 when his father died - a friend says it was a violent suicide. Cerven and his brother Mario were brought up by their mother Maria Cervenova, a special education teacher.
He began kickboxing in his early teens, and soon came to excel at the sport. He dreamed of moving to the United States and when he finished school in July 2012, he visited Vancouver, Canada, to train.
In Vancouver, he stayed with Renata Marko, a friend of his mother's. "He was well brought up, very helpful, very human. Everybody liked him," Marko said of Cerven. He loved Marko's two little dogs. "My chihuahuas," he called them.
Twice a day, every day, Cerven trained at a Vancouver boxing gym, where he befriended Yousuf Moghni and his partner Victoria Safronova. Safronova described him as a shy, kind person, who loved his mother dearly.
"His English was really bad, but that didn't put him off always wanting to get to know Canadian girls. We would always teach him words - my favourite one was how he pronounced 'avesum' instead of 'awesome'."
They became "like family," Safronova said. They loved to watch UFC fighting together. "We were always joking that in two-three years we will turn on the TV and see David there. Fighting for the championship. I can't believe it won't happen anymore. The David I knew would never, ever try to take his own life - this is very confusing for me."
After three months, Cerven's visa expired, and he returned to Slovakia to begin studying at a business academy. It was there that he met Eva Vyrvova. 'Evka,' he called her.
At the end of 2013, the young couple moved to Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, where Cerven took a job as a loan administrator at a bank. The following year, while kickboxing, he sustained the injury that was to end any hopes he had of pursuing a professional fighting career. Knee surgery left him with severe scarring and a limp for the rest of his short life.
It was around this time that Cerven's financial troubles began. In February 2015, he took out a €24,000 bank loan - adding to an already outstanding loan of €5500. He told his mother he needed the money to pay an insurance company, after an accident.
His dream of moving to the US never eventuated. Instead, in March 2015, he and Vyrvova travelled to New Zealand on one-year working holiday visas.
A man and a woman are sitting at the back of room 7.1 at the Auckland District Court whispering loudly. Their conversation fills the small, windowless room.
It's December 2017, and Judith and Murray Steedman - the couple Cerven and Vyrvova stayed with when they arrived in New Zealand - are due to give evidence at the inquest into Cerven's death. There are four lawyers in the room - two for the police, one for the individual officers and one assisting the coroner. No one for the young man whose violent death is the subject of the hearing - his mother has chosen not to participate in the proceedings, (a friend emailed the coroner and police on her behalf, writing that the "neverending inquest" was putting "undue stress" on her and she no longer wanted to be involved.)
The whisperers abruptly stop and stand as Coroner Katherine Greig enters the room in a floor-length navy blue gown.
Murray Steedman is dressed in black. Judith is wearing a floral top and has her brown hair cut short. For 30 years, the couple lived in the same home on a suburban street in Glenfield, on Auckland's North Shore. They've moved away from the city now, in an attempt to leave the past behind them.
They look nervous. They've been waiting a long time and the inquest starts an hour late. Murray puts on a pair of glasses to read the statement he made to police after Cerven died. Judith prefers to have hers read out by a lawyer. She's spent the last two years trying hard to forget the night of the shooting, she says.
In early 2015, a former colleague of Judith's asked if she would have David and Eva stay when they first arrived in New Zealand. The colleague was Slovakian - a friend of David's mother - Murray and Judith had recently put up his daughter in their home. "We thought we might as well help them settle in," Murray tells the inquest. They didn't charge Cerven and Vyrvova any rent.
On March 20, 2015 the couple drove to Auckland International Airport, where they waited for Cerven and Vyrvova holding a hand-written sign that read "The Steedmans". Cerven's bad knee had swollen up on the flight and he limped into the country.
Over the following days, Murray and Judith showed the young couple around the city. They were keen to get jobs and, from almost the moment they arrived in the country, spent hours searching online. Murray took them to get sim cards at 2degrees. They visited a beach, where Cerven photographed Vyrvova writing 'New Zealand' in the sand. They lamented Auckland's poor public transport system, and bought themselves a car.
"They were a nice young couple," Murray says. "David loved kickboxing, he wanted to show me some videos, but I wasn't very interested. He was helpful around the house. One time he tried mowing the lawns. He had no idea what he was doing." Cerven and Vyrvova did the dishes after every meal.
On April 4, Cerven messaged Renata's husband in Vancouver to say he was happy and settled and had found a job. After three weeks with the Steedmans, they moved to a flat in Glenfield, then to an apartment in the CBD, opposite the Mayoral Drive entrance to Myers Park.
"They didn't ask for help moving - they wanted to be independent," Murray tells the inquest. "We told them we would help them if they ever needed anything. They left on good terms."
Cerven's first job in New Zealand was as a labourer for a Glenfield waterproofing company. He hoped to move his way up through the ranks, into a skilled position that would allow him to apply for residency. He and Vyrvova wanted to start a new life in New Zealand.
His colleagues said he was likeable, always happy and smiling. They joked around on site. Cerven liked to show off his kickboxing moves. They socialised together too: On June 12, they went to Eden Park to watch the Blues play the Highlanders - a photograph shows Cerven with his friends. He's grinning, wearing a new-looking brown zip-up hooded sweatshirt. Other times, they would go to a backpackers' bar in the CBD for a few drinks and a dance. One of the friends said that although Cerven's English was not the best, he could talk the hind legs off a donkey.
On the surface everything seemed good. "As far as I could tell, they were very happy with each other," Murray tells the inquest.
But within three days of arriving in the country, Cerven was chatting with a woman online, "I will find you one day… U very sexy," he wrote, via Facebook on March 23.
Vyrvova had noticed money had disappeared from their joint account. According to police, Cerven had gambled almost $7000 online, and had been watching videos of armed robberies.
Cerven told his new friends that he injured his knee in an explosion in Iraq, where he fought in the US Army. He said he had shot people. His mother, he said, has taken out a loan to pay for surgery. He worked long hours, and was always keen to take on more so that he could save enough money to pay her back. Some of those close to him thought he seemed stressed about the money he owed.
At work, he asked colleagues about guns - did they own them? Did their friends own them? Was it easy to get a gun in New Zealand? What were the laws?
On June 25, Cerven turned 21. On July 10, a colleague unexpectedly received a Facebook message saying he had argued with Vyrvova, and needed to quit his job to return to the army. Cerven told the colleague he would fly to Seattle to meet a Russian man, then on to Afghanistan to join in the war.
"He was starting to lose hope that he would ever pay off the loan," the colleague said. "He would be paying off $800 a month interest if he moved back to Slovakia. His concerns about money were getting worse. His only option was to go to war, but there was a 70 percent chance that he would be killed. He said Eva had left him and he couldn't afford to live in New Zealand without her."
But the following day, instead of leaving the country to fight in a war, Cerven met up with a woman he had been chatting with on a Tinder account set up five days earlier.
On July 12, he began searching for guns for sale on Trade Me and Google. On July 16, he chatted with his mother on Skype. When she asked him about the loan, he told her not to talk about it.
On July 20, he began work at a plumbing and gasfitting company in Mt Eden. This time, he told his colleagues he had injured his knee in a knife fight.
A week later via Skype chat, Cervenova begged her son to repay the loan. He told her he couldn't, it was too much, and he would never return to Slovakia.
At the inquest, Cerven's conversation with his mother is translated into English.
"My life is in ruins," he says.
On a Sunday afternoon, six days after the Skype conversation, a man armed with a kitchen knife limped into Harbour City Liquor Store in Glenfield. He took $564. The victim described the man as having brown hair and a Russian accent.
The following day, in a Facebook conversation with a former colleague, Cerven said he was in Afghanistan, and the loan would be paid off when he died. "Heaven is waiting for me, it's my time to finish," he wrote.
On Wednesday, July 29, a man wearing a brown zip-up hoodie and armed with a knife, took $400 from Thirsty Liquor in Glenfield. CCTV footage showed the man entering the store and emptying the contents of the cash register into a black and grey Puma backpack. The shop owner later told media that initially she didn't realise she was being robbed, because the man looked friendly. "He didn't look like a criminal."
On August 1, the man in the brown hoodie entered the Pinewood Dairy in Browns Bay. He wrestled with the shopkeeper, before fleeing the scene. In the struggle, he dropped the Puma bag, a knife, and a pair of black knock-off Wayfarers with purple arms.
The bag contained a soup spoon, a blue pen, hand sanitiser, a coin, a tissue, a piece of lined paper with bank account and IRD numbers written by hand, a drivers licence and a Slovakian passport.
The black and white passport photo showed a young Cerven - only 16-years-old when the document was issued. In the photo on his drivers licence, he wore a fuschia t-shirt and grinned.
Whether Cerven and Vyrvova had broken up or not is unknown (Vyrvova did not respond to interview requests). But on the morning of August 2, the pair met with the tenants of a flat in Belmont. They had decided to move out of the apartment in the CBD, after Cerven and his flatmate argued about a knife that had gone missing from the kitchen. By about 11am, they had left the Belmont flat with a new set of keys, and had begun to plan their relocation.
But at 1pm, police released CCTV footage of the botched Browns Bay robbery to media. Cerven was named as a person of interest in relation to a spate of armed robberies. An accompanying photo, taken from his Facebook page, showed the young man grinning and pulling a double shaka.
Vyrvova asked Cerven if he was alright. He seemed sad, she thought, and had been hugging her more than usual.
It was about 2.30pm, and they were back at their apartment in the city after viewing the Belmont flat. Cerven told her about the robberies, and showed her the information that was online, alongside his photograph. He started to cry. The couple drove to the Steedmans' home, where they found Judith alone, cooking dinner.
It was chaos when they arrived on the doorstep, Judith said. Words were being spoken in Slovakian and English. Both Cerven and Vyrvova were in tears.
"I'm so ashamed," Cerven wailed.
Judith tried to get him inside, but he pushed her away.
"I've done something terrible, please look after Eva," he said, as he shoved his girlfriend into the house.
Judith was stunned. "He wouldn't come in, he told me I was like a mother to him, and he ran away," she tells the inquest.
After he fled the Glenfield house, calls and text messages to his phone went unanswered. Vyrvova told Judith she was scared that Cerven would kill himself.
Judith tells the inquest that she was worried too. Because Cerven was Catholic, she had a feeling he may try and get the police to shoot him, rather than to take his own life. She says she doesn't know why she had this thought - perhaps she'd overheard Vyrvova say something on the phone. "It may have just been my imagination."
Judith and Vyrvova drove around the quiet streets of Glenfield looking for Cerven, without any luck. At 4pm, he answered his phone, but wouldn't say where he was. At 4.09pm he answered again. He was in a car, heading to the city. He was no longer crying.
At 4.30pm Murray returned home, and the trio took the motorway over the harbour bridge and into the city. They drove to Myers Park - Vyrvova thought she might find Cerven there, as it was near their apartment. But after searching for him and calling his name, she and Murray returned to the car where Judith was waiting. It was getting dark. They hadn't found him.
Between 4.32pm and 6.24pm, Vyrvova sent Cerven 66 text messages. She was grief-stricken, and blamed herself for nagging him about money. "I'm dying of fear," she wrote. He responded 12 times.
"You have nothing to do with it. I love you."
"I'm on the run my dear. I want to be free just for this one day. I will confess tomorrow."
"You don't understand, I've ruined everything."
"Every moment with you is amazing. I'm grateful to God that I had a girl like you, Evka"
"I'm still thinking that all of this is just a dream and that we will wake up."
"It's no longer working. You have no future with me."
"Please forget about me bubby. Don't suffer Evka, I love you. It's not your fault."
"Bubka, I don't want to go to hell."
At 6.57pm, Vyrvova spoke to David for the last time. He was crying and laughing. He told her he had gone to church to confess his sins. He told her not to worry about him, that he would go to heaven.
Myers Park, a gully carved out by the Waihorotiu Stream, is now a grassy mish mash of exotic palms, lamp posts, rubbish bins and scoria pathways.
It was 7.16pm when Cerven made his way down the path that led him past a playground to the bottom of the hill. He turned right, and walked through the centre of the park, along an alley of lichen-crusted palms towards a marble statue of a writhing family of goats - a gift from China.
At 7.20pm, Cerven sat down on a bench and called police. He asked them to come to the park.
A recording of the nine-minute conversation is played at the inquest:
"Everybody is thinking I robbed a liquor store," he says, in a thick Slavic accent. "I am in May-ers Park, on the grass in the middle… Everybody thinking that I robbery something, but I nothing robbery." He says he is alone in the park, and spells out his name: "C-E-R-V-E-N."
The operator mishears, and is unable to find his details in the police database. "Are police coming here?" Cerven asks. She tells him to walk to a nearby station, a few hundred metres from the park. "The police are very busy," she says.
Eight minutes into the conversation, the operator asks for his name again, this time entering the correct spelling into the system. She sees he is wanted for aggravated robbery. Police are sent to the park. "Nothing about this job feels right," one of the officers remarks to her colleague, as they get into the squad car.
A man walking his little dog saw Cerven pacing, looking fidgety. He said Cerven was moving erratically and was speaking heatedly on the phone. The man wondered if, perhaps, he was talking to himself.
Vyrvova texted David again. "Please go and confess, we will return the money you stole and you will not go to jail."
Cerven walked up a grassy slope, and into the shadows cast by a stand of trees. It was 7.38pm. He was off the phone. Police were watching him via CCTV cameras installed in the park.
The lights in the courtroom are turned off, and a grainy video showing the man in an orange raincoat is played on a TV set wheeled in on a trolley.
The video shows two police officers arriving. Cerven calls out to them from the shadows: "Hey guys, I'm over here. I'm the one you're looking for."
He continues to pace back and forth. The officers say he was talking to himself. They say he ignored requests to come into the light, then to show his hands, to bring his phone out of his pocket and to lie down on the ground.
The video shows torchlight shining on him from where the two officers stand, about 30 metres down the hill. Cerven paces back and forth. Two more officers have entered the park from behind him.
Police say Cerven told them he had a gun.
Two figures take cover behind a Phoenix palm. At 7.44pm, two more officers, codenamed 12 and 16, arrive - one armed with a Glock pistol, the other carrying a Bushmaster M4 rifle. They enter the park from an entrance to Cerven's left and walk towards the goat statue.
William Peters was putting his washing out on the balcony of his ground level apartment, which overlooked the park. His children were inside. Cerven was about 20 metres from where Peters stood, pacing back and forth on the slope. Peters saw the reflective strips of Cerven's raincoat glowing in the police torch light. He heard a shout: "Armed police, get down," and watched as Cerven pulled his hands from his pockets and clasped them together, outstretched in front of his body like he was pointing a gun.
As Peters ducked behind the balcony, Cerven rushed towards police.
Both officers shot.
In the grainy video, the orange clad figure falls to the ground. The timestamp is 7.45pm.
After searching the park, Vyrvova, Murray and Judith had returned to Glenfield.
At 8.58pm, Murray called 111 to report Cerven missing. He told police he was concerned he would kill himself. An hour later, two officers arrived at the house. Eventually, they told Vyrvova that Cerven was dead.
At the inquest, Murray learns that when he called police, Cerven had been lying dead in the park for more than an hour. "That's a bit disconcerting, somehow," he tells Coroner Greig.
Judith's reaction to the news is similar. "So it was too late, anyway."
After Cerven fell, the officers ran to him. He lay face down on the grass, his feet pointing uphill.
They searched the ground for a weapon, but all they found was a black Sony Xperia cellphone lying near his head. They rolled him onto his back to administer CPR. He was bleeding from bullet wounds to the jaw and the abdomen and from his right thigh, where a fragments of bullet and jaw bone had pierced his skin. He had no pulse. Officers were advised that an ambulance was 10 minutes away. "We don't have 10 minutes," one of them said.
Five minutes later, paramedics arrived, just in time to hear Cerven gasp his last breath. He was pronounced dead at 7.57pm.
In hearing room 7.1 at the Auckland District Court, a newspaper clipping sticks out from under a pile of papers in front of Todd Simmonds, the lawyer representing the two police officers who had fired at Cerven two years and four months earlier.
Simmonds stands, sliding the clipping out of its paper sandwich. It's a front page story from the Sunday Star Times on police shootings. The article questions whether New Zealand police are too rash, too trigger happy in high-risk situations, citing the Myers Park shooting as an example. Simmonds addresses Coroner Greig. He is concerned, he says, that media reports on the shooting will be sensationalist. He is arguing for the permanent name suppression of officers 12 and 16 - their names are never made public.
The cover story of the February 2018 issue of Police Association magazine Police News is on fatal police shootings too. The article, headlined 'Burden for Life,' reported that the reactions of officers involved in fatal shootings to the Sunday Star Times article ranged "from anger to weary disappointment".
Some of the officers, the author writes, are going through hell. "They are stuck in anonymous isolation" waiting on the outcomes of investigations, unable to talk openly about what has happened.
Since August 2, 2015, officers 12 and 16 have been involved in four investigations. In March 2016, police announced that a criminal investigation - Operation Delaware - found the shooting was justified under section 48 of the Crimes Act: The officers were acting in self defence.
A police practice, policy and procedure investigation recommended that the police communications centres have access to live CCTV footage.
A third investigation, this time by the Independent Police Conduct Authority, also found the officers were not at fault, though the finding did criticise some decisions made that evening.
Police Association president Chris Cahill says cops are human too. "Taking a life is something that none of them want to do."
Each new investigation is a new milestone for them. It brings back the trauma, the sleepless nights, the second guessing, the hindsight, the media enquiries, the talk on Facebook and Twitter, the lawyers, the counsellors.
"Everything is happening all at once for them. Then it all goes away and everyone forgets about it until the next enquiry. The constant reliving of that moment in Myers Park, it brings the trauma back. Not just for them, but for their families, their partners. The partners would read about it in the papers, hear it on the news.
"It's the biggest thing that will ever happen to them. And rightly so. Taking someone's life is a big deal."
Both officers have chosen to transfer to new policing districts since the shooting.
Barbara Rogers can be seen on CCTV opening the curtains of her apartment overlooking Myers Park. Her husband thought the loud bangs sounded like "Chinese fireworks." "Oh my gosh" said Barbara, as she looked out the window, "someone's been shot."
Officer 12 had fired three shots from his Glock. One hit an apartment building. None hit Cerven. Officer 16 fired five shots from his bushmaster rifle. One bullet - the fatal shot - hit Cerven's abdomen. One hit his jaw. Another was found in a karaka tree, behind where Cerven was standing.
Police put a sheet over his body before it was removed from the park at 12.35pm, leaving an outline on the grass marked in paint. Media videoed a grey hearse driving out of the park. A white tent was erected over the scene.
On August 4, Vyrvova visited the morgue at Auckland City Hospital to formally identify Cerven's body. She left New Zealand soon after. Back in Slovakia, friends fundraised to help pay for Cerven's body to be cremated and returned to Dolny Kubin. His funeral was held on September 18, 2015.
Back in room 7.1 at the Auckland District Court, Judith tells the inquest that Cerven always spoke very fondly of his mother.
"I just wish that we could have sent him home to her in one piece."
Where to get help:
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