Some Ōpōtiki residents calm, others on edge as gang farewells leader

7:23 am on 15 June 2023

Days after schools closed in Ōpōtiki, members of the Mongrel Mob Barbarians have gathered at Hillcrest Cemetery to farewell their fallen leader.

Steven Rota Taiatini, 45, was killed last week. Police have launched a homicide investigation.

A convoy of hundreds of motorcycles and red cars took to the streets before midday travelling from Ōpōtiki to his final resting place, just outside of Whakatāne.

A close friend of the Taiatini family, Kylie Poihipi, told Aukaha News they were absolutely devastated at his loss.

Members of the Mongrel Mob Barbarians gathered at Hillcrest Cemetery between Ōhope and Whakatāne to farewell their leader Steven Rota Taiatini on 14 June, 2023.

Members of the Mongrel Mob Barbarians gathered at Hillcrest Cemetery in Whakatāne to farewell their leader Steven Rota Taiatini on 14 June, 2023. Photo: Supplied / Aukaha News

"He's a phenomenal leader for our community," she said. "Not just the Mongrel Mob, but also for our rangatahi, for our fathers, for our young people here in Ōpōtiki."

She said his death was a huge tragedy, and tension between the Mongrel Mob and Black Power gangs was nothing new.

"That tension's always been in Ōpōtiki," she said. "The community itself is very quiet, and I think that's to give respect to the whānau to allow them their space to grieve."

She said there would need to be big discussions between hapū leaders after the events of the past week.

Locals unfazed despite police concerns

Police had deployed an extra 100 officers into the area in preparation for the event. Many officers and patched members of both the Mongrel Mob and Black Power could be seen around town, some wearing balaclavas.

Shop owners and residents around town said they were mostly unfazed by the increased presence. Robyn Moody, a business owner on The Strand, said the entire situation had been blown out of proportion.

"We carry on like normal - they're normal people just like us, they're here to bury a family member and that's it," she said.

She said they should be left to mourn their loved ones.

"It doesn't matter if it's a gang member or not, they have the right to bury their own families in peace, like anyone else."

Whakatāne-Ōhope Community Board member and business owner Ozgúr Jahn agreed. He said he had never been concerned about gangs in Whakatāne.

"Those people are just there to support their whānau," he said. "I don't understand why people are making it as big as it is."

But the owner of a local vape shop felt differently. He was concerned with the number of patched members hanging around town.

"There is definitely going to be tension," he said, "because you don't really know what they're going to do and it's scary".

Police block the way to Hillcrest cemetery between Ōhope and Whakatāne.

Police block the way to Hillcrest cemetery between Ōhope and Whakatāne. Photo: RNZ / Finn Blackwell

Police blocked roads around the cemetery, allowing the mourners in and keeping onlookers out. Many locals left the blockade visibly frustrated after being turned away.

One police officer said the cordon would last at least half-an-hour, but later said the wait would be over an hour.

Tristain Murray, acting area commander for the Eastern Bay of Plenty, said police would maintain a visible presence in the area on Wednesday night.

"We are fully prepared for what may occur or what may not occur tonight," Murray said. "We've got all the resources we need and will be taking action against anyone that needs to be put back in line."

He said police had seen multiple road offences such as burnouts throughout the day.

One local told RNZ they visited the Taiatini household to pay his respects. They said the streets of Ōpōtiki were lined with red.

Police investigate reports of shots fired, collect footage of dangerous driving

Police are also investigating reports of shots being fired towards a vehicle in an area known as the hub just after 4pm.

There are no reports of injuries and one vehicle believed to involved has been recovered.

Police said they were making inquiries to find those involved.

In another incident in the region, two people were arrested for possession of a firearm and cannabis.

In a statement, Superintendent Tim Anderson said police would remain visible in Ōpōtiki as they "continue to capture unlawful behaviour" after the tangi for Taiatini.

"Police have been actively patrolling this afternoon and collecting footage of the dangerous driving behaviour of some of the procession members.

"We have already identified a number of drivers and registered owners and they can expect to receive infringement notices, and in some cases, be charged for their actions for driving behaviour and face the Court.

"Police have also today obtained a search warrant under the Criminal Activity Intervention Legislation Act 2023, which allows police to search vehicles of suspected gang members and seize their weapons during times of conflict."

Police said they were encouraging the public to assist by reporting or sending in their own footage of the group causing concern via 105 services online, or by calling police on 105.

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