10 Dec 2021

Matthew Hunt shooting: Killer Eli Epiha jailed for life with minimum non-parole period of 27 years

12:16 pm on 10 December 2021

The man who murdered police officer Matthew Hunt and tried to kill his partner David Goldfinch has been jailed for life - with a minimum non parole period of 27 years.

Eli Epiha at his sentencing in the High Court in Auckland.

Eli Epiha shot 10 bullets at the two officers, killing policeman Matthew Hunt. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Eli Epiha was sentenced in the High Court in Auckland this morning after fleeing a traffic stop in West Auckland in June 2020 and opening fire at two officers.

He admitted murdering Hunt and reckless driving causing injury but claimed he had only fired the gun at Goldfinch to scare him away.

In July, after a two-week trial - in which Epiha and Goldfinch both gave evidence - and 10 hours of deliberations, a jury also found him guilty of the attempted murder of officer David Goldfinch.

Today, Epiha was sentenced on the basis he intended to kill both the police officers.

Eli Epiha, wearing a rugby league jersey, sat up, blinked and showed no sign of emotion as victim impact statements were read out.

Diane Hunt, mother of slain police officer Matthew Hunt, speaks outside court after her son's killer was sentenced to 27 years jail.

Diane Hunt speaks outside court after the sentencing. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

The mother of Matthew Hunt, Diane Hunt, told Epiha "all I see before me is a coward".

"My son was unarmed and running away from you when you shot him four times in the back," she said.

She said she had never heard something so "vacuous and insulting" as Epiha's apology through his lawyer.

"I will never ever forgive you," she said.

"I couldn't have asked for a better son than Matthew. And I will never get over the fact he lost his life in such a horrific way."

She told Epiha she also got a sentence as she watched other people growing up and reaching milestones like getting married - which her son would never do.

Instead, she said she found herself sitting at home with Matthew's ashes.

"My life is also essentially over. Any meaningful purpose to move forward in life is gone."

Matthew Hunt's uncle, Robert Winterbottom, said Epiha had taken a slice of his family he would never get back, and he had cried every day after learning about the shooting.

"You shot him in the back ... your intent was clear and undeniable. Over the past 15 months I've had to deal with the trauma of dealing with this from afar," he said.

He requested that Justice Venning considered the "targeted" nature of the attack, and imposed a sentence that sent a clear message to others.

Another statement from Hunt's friends, read by Sam Swaffield, described him as a pillar of all of their lives.

"We weren't just friends. We were family. And Matt was at the centre," he said.

"Thirty-four seconds was all it took to change that - 34 seconds of selfish, unprovoked rage ... where you gained nothing and we lost everything."

Hunt's sister Eleanor said no word or explanation could describe her devastation.

"I will always adore and admire my brother for how decent he was as a person. And I will never get over how much he didn't deserve this."

Slain police officer Matthew Hunt.

Photo: NZ Police / Facebook

Officer David Goldfinch, who Epiha injured, said every move Epiha made the day of the shooting was cowardly, and so were his attempts to show remorse.

"You try to say you didn't mean to do it. I stared you in the face. I saw exactly what you were trying to do," he said.

"I'm not going to stand here and tell you what the physical toll has been ... you get to know nothing."

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the 14,000 police staff right across the country had felt the murder deeply.

He said it was a "shocking, senseless" act of violence which had heightened police officers' anxiety.

"Our people are only too aware it could have been any one of them," he said.

"The officers arrived at the scene in Massey thinking the offender had been injured in a car accident, and without hesitation went to help him," Coster said in a police statement.

"The cowardly and appalling act that followed has changed many people's lives forever."

A life taken in just a few moments, has left behind family, friends and colleagues who still feel deep pain and grief.

"The graphic video evidence showing the offender's actions, and the continuing gunshots we heard in another video, knowing that those shots were directed solely at two police officers, was upsetting for our staff and their families across the country."

Epiha's uncle Warren Epiha addressed the court.

He said Epiha had bestowed shame upon his family.

"He gets to live while your son doesn't. For that I apologise," he said.

From the back of the court, Diane Hunt told him "you should be ashamed".

In a judgment that can be made public today, Justice Venning said Epiha was "well-aware" of what the Norinco semi-automatic weapon could do by the time he turned from David Goldfinch - who he shot three times - and fired four bullets at Matthew Hunt.

He said the fact all four shots hit Hunt was "consistent with an intent to kill", as was the trajectory of the bullets and the sequence of the shots.

"The last two shots seem inevitably to have been fired when the constable was falling and closer to the ground with his back to Mr Epiha," he said.

"After the first two at Constable Hunt there was a brief gap before the last two. That suggests a deliberate intent to ensure the Constable's death."

The sentencing was watched by a packed public gallery including friends and family of Matthew Hunt.

Crown lawyer Brian Dickey asked the court to consider a sentence of life with no parole.

He said Epiha posed an extremely high risk, particularly to uniformed police officers.

He said Epiha had a history of offending with semi-automatic weapons, and any remorse could not be genuine as Epiha did not seem to understand what he had done.

Dickey said it was the attempted murder "right before the murder" that made the offending so serious and cruel.

Epiha's lawyer Mark Edgar argued life without parole would be manifestly unjust and disproportionate.

He said Epiha had grown up surrounded by poverty, gang affiliations, violence, and alcohol and drug abuse - and that may go some way to explaining his decisions on Reynella Drive.

He also noted Epiha's youth, guilty plea and remorse.

"In his own words he is not proud of the fact of taking the life of another human being," he said.

Justice Venning told Matthew Hunt's family that the sentence was in no way an attempt to measure the value of Hunt's life.

He told Eli Epiha's mother it must have been difficult to hear of her son's actions - and said it would be important for her to support him throughout the sentence.

Justice Venning said Epiha's actions on the day showed no thought for anyone but himself.

He rejected that Epiha had shown remorse.

"Shortly before the trial you pleaded guilty to the murder of Matthew Hunt ... despite that you maintained throughout the trial that your actions were reckless and you refused to take responsibility for your actions," he said.

He said the focus of the sentence was the murder, but he did not want to discount the seriousness of Epiha's offending against Goldfinch and the bystander.

Justice Venning considered whether imprisonment without parole would be a "manifestly unjust" sentence.

He said Epiha's youth was in his favour.

However said Epiha's actions had a high degree of brutality and callousness, and showed "a real determination" to kill police officers.

"You could have stopped any time ... but you persisted," he said.

Justice Venning said Hunt's family would never fully recover from their loss, and Epiha's actions had caused unnecessary anxiety and stress on police officers as they go about their work each day.

In October the getaway driver, Natalie Bracken, was sentenced to 12 months in jail.

She went on trial alongside Epiha in July and was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact.

Diane Hunt, mother of slain police officer Matthew Hunt, centre, is supported by family after speaking outside court where her son's killer was sentenced.

Diane Hunt, mother of slain police officer Matthew Hunt, centre, is supported by family after speaking outside court where her son's killer was sentenced. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

How the shooting happened

On 19 June 2020, 24-year-old Eli Bob Sauni Epiha claimed he was on his way to defend his brother-in-law from gang members.

He drove to an address in Massey and collected two loaded firearms from a friend, which he said he planned to "brandish" but not use.

Epiha had just turned onto Reynella Drive when his driving caught the attention of two police officers - Matthew Hunt and David Goldfinch - who began to follow him.

Epiha told the court he "gapped it" in a bid to get away from the police, then abruptly encountered a rubbish truck, braked hard, and spun 180 degrees.

His car hit a parked Toyota Prius and a 37-year-old bystander - whose skull was lacerated and back and ribs fractured.

When the two officers pulled up, Goldfinch got out and walked towards the crash site, expecting he might need to provide first aid.

Instead he encountered Epiha walking towards him, holding a semi-automatic firearm.

Epiha fired what he said was a "warning shot" towards a patch of trees, shortly followed by another bullet that hit a car tyre, and then more as Goldfinch hid behind a parked SUV and then ran down the street.

Epiha shot Goldfinch twice in the leg and once in the hip as the officer fled.

Matthew Hunt then stepped out of the car. Epiha shot him four times - in the chest, lower back, right buttock and inside of his right thigh.

Due to the upwards trajectory of three of the bullets, Hunt had no chance of survival.

He was taken to hospital and pronounced dead at 11.40am.

While Goldfinch sheltered and called for backup, Epiha waved down a bystander for a getaway ride.

Natalie Bracken was that bystander. She had been at a friend's house enjoying a cup of tea and a cigarette, and was drawn outside by the commotion. She decided to help Epiha although she maintains she did not know him.

During the trial, the jury watched a phone recording of Bracken - dressed in jeans, a bra and bare feet - retrieving a set of keys and driving Epiha away in a silver Mazda.

She dropped him at his friend's house in Taupaki.

That friend - Shane Conza - gave Epiha a lift to a patch of forest in Riverhead, where he ditched the two firearms.

Minutes later two eagle-eyed police officers - Robert Cato and Eli Antunovich - pulled over Shane Conza's car "by intuition" and arrested the two men.

They knew to look out for a potential gunman with dark hair, who could be wearing a camouflage shirt. They found that shirt scrunched in the boot of the car.

Epiha's use of the fake name "Trevor Thompson, spelt with a P" only served to further their suspicion.

Bracken was arrested at a house in Te Atatū the following day with freshly dyed hair.

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