Published: Stuff.co.nz, November 2017
When Hurimoana Dennis and Vaughan Perry appeared on kidnapping charges in the Auckland High Court this month, the result was legal arguments over police strategy and the place of tikanga Māori in law. But at the trial's core was a teenage love story. Harrison Christian was there.
Two police officers were waiting for him at Auckland Airport. They wore pistols on their hips. They said they had a colleague who wanted to see him. Right there he knew he'd been caught. For what exactly, he wasn't quite sure, but he knew he was in trouble again. He was attempting to escape back to New Zealand from Australia, where he'd been living in exile with an uncle. So much for that plan.
The officers escorted him to the baggage carousel to pick up his bag. They took him through a series of airport corridors that required authorized access. He handed over his passport, and was led to the airport police station. His mother and step father were sitting in the station's tea room. They had wanted him to stay in Australia, and to impress this upon him, they'd enlisted the help of a family friend who also happened to be a high-ranking police officer. After about 10 minutes, Inspector Hurimoana Dennis arrived in plainclothes.
Dennis sat down right next to him, and said, "What are you doing back here? You're not meant to come back here until I tell you to come back here." The teen gave no answer to the Inspector. His parents didn't say anything, either. "I'm going to get you a plane flight to go back to Sydney," Dennis continued, "And I don't want to see you back here again. You are to go to Australia and live your new life - don't be worrying about your girlfriend. How many times do I have to tell you this?"
Such was the evidence given by Tamati Smith* in the Auckland High Court this month. The trial of Dennis and his colleague Vaughan Perry, who faced kidnapping charges over their treatment of Tamati, raised questions about police strategies and the role of tikanga Māori, or cultural values, in New Zealand law. But beneath all that was a teenage love story, and the issue of whether it had been represented honestly. The jury had to decide whether Tamati was telling the truth, or distorting actual events to suit his own purposes. Over three weeks, the evidence kept circling back to the young man's relationship with his girlfriend, Jess*. That was the reason Dennis came into his life.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Speaking outside the trial, Jess said she was waiting for Tamati at Auckland Airport on the day he made his escape. She and her father were camped out at the arrivals area. She couldn't take her eyes off the gate.
"Excitement and happiness were flowing through me," she said. "It was like I was at peace. Then one hour went by, then two, and I knew something was wrong."
New faces kept coming through that gate, but none of them belonged to Tamati. It was like a bad dream. When she found out days later that he'd been sent back to Sydney on arrival, Jess said she experienced a pain difficult to put into words. "Even to this day, it still hurts."
Attempts by Tamati's whānau and Dennis to separate the couple would ultimately fail; their relationship has endured to this day. Perhaps their love for each other was the only certainty in this case. Their story, if it was to be believed, had all the trappings of a teen drama. They were Auckland's own Romeo and Juliet; two lovers kept apart by their whānau and a villainous cop. But again the question: Was Jess just singing the same song as Tamati? Did the teens have a reason to lie?
Tamati said in his evidence that he and Jess started going out in October 2014, when Tamati was 16 and Jess was 14. Soon they were seeing as much of each other as they could. Tamati was living with his mother and stepfather in Mount Albert; Jess lived with her parents and sister in Glen Innes. The following year, when the pair were 17 and 15 respectively, Tamati realised his parents weren't at all happy with his relationship. They were concerned the couple were having underage sex.
In March of 2015, he was at Jess' house when his mother and uncle came to pick him up unannounced. Jess' mother let them into the house, and an argument broke out right away. Jess and Tamati took off and started walking towards a nearby beach reserve. Tamati's uncle followed on foot, about 100 metres back, and his mother followed in her car, alongside them, telling him to hop in. He refused. They just walked. There was no thought as to where they would go or what they would do.
They got to the reserve, and Tamati's uncle caught up with him, and they got in a physical fight. Jess' parents turned up and managed to separate them. Tamati and his grandfather and uncle ended up on a rocky shore at the beach. The tide was out. It was muddy and slippery. Meanwhile, Jess' family were standing on the sand. It was a kind of stand-off, with both whānau shouting abuse at each other.
Jess said outside the trial, "It was a day of horror, not for just me and Tamati but for my family.
"It's a day that I never ever want to live again. All me and Tamati wanted was to be left alone and be free, but Tamati's mum wouldn't let us."
Two police officers arrived and wanted to know what was going on. About 10 minutes later, a third officer arrived, but this one was in casual clothes. His name was Hurimoana Dennis.
Dennis said he'd got a call from Tamati's grandfather. He said it wasn't good that Tamati was in an underage relationship, and causing all this conflict between the two families. Tamati said, "I'm here because I love that girl over there."
In the end, Tamati agreed to follow Dennis back to the car park of the reserve. Dennis made him promise not to go back to his girlfriend's place. His family took him to his grandfather's house, where he would now be staying. Tamati didn't want to be at the house, but felt he didn't really have a choice.
After a couple of days, he climbed out a toilet window and shimmied down a two-storey gutter pipe, then ran the 30 minutes to Jess' house. He stayed there for the next several days, not answering calls from his mother. He was happy to be there, although his family was constantly ringing to find out where he was. In April, his mother made a formal complaint with police about her son, alleging he was having a sexual relationship with a minor.
At this time, Jess was 15 and Tamati was 17. Detective Sergeant Neil Hilton, the officer tasked with the complaint, called Tamati and asked him to come down to the Auckland Central Police Station to discuss his relationship with Jess. An officer picked Tamati up, and he went to the station with Jess' auntie as a support person, and they talked things over. Hilton determined no charges should be laid over the complaint.
In New Zealand, a 17-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old counts as statutory rape, as there are no close-in-age exemptions, termed "Romeo and Juliet laws" in the United States, to excuse the two-year age difference. But police use their own discretion in such cases.
In early May of 2015, Tamati got a second call from Hilton, who said he wanted another interview. Again, an officer picked him up and took him to the station. Tamati was taken into an interview room. Then Hurimoana Dennis came in, uniformed this time, and told the officer he was taking over from Hilton. Tamati's mother and grandfather filed in behind him.
Dennis sat down. The first thing he said was: "You look like a mess." He said he'd heard that Tamati and Jess were still seeing each other, and he didn't like it, and Tamati needed to apologise to Jess' father for the trouble he'd caused. Dennis said Tamati had two options: either fly to Australia and start a new life there away from Jess, or go downstairs and be charged with statutory rape.
His grandfather said, "Are you aware what the consequences will be? Because if you are, you'll make the right choice." His mother was just staring at him. Dennis asked him to stand up. He gave Tamati a pat-down search, then led him downstairs, where he was booked as though he'd been arrested.
Tamati stood inside a red square on the floor and gave his details over a counter. He was told to remove his shoes and his jersey, which he did. He was taken through a security scanner, asked to place his hands on the walls, and given another pat-down search by another officer. He was taken back to the red square, and had the cord around his pants cut off.
Dennis and his colleague, Perry, took Tamati to a custody cell. Perry was on duty at the station and had been briefed about the mock arrest. Dennis followed Tamati into his cell. Tamati's evidence was that Dennis said, "You need to look across to the other cell opposite yours." A man was standing in there. "Do you know," asked Dennis, "what he's in there for?" Tamati didn't know. "He's in there for rape," Dennis said. "If you want to end up in this type of place, like this fulla, like this man over here, this is what's going to happen if you don't make the right choice by separating from your girlfriend and moving on." At that stage, Tamati broke down.
Dennis went out and locked the cell door. Tamati said he remained in the cell for up to an hour and a half. Finally Dennis came back and presented him with the same options. Either he go to Australia and live out his life without any distractions, or he would be charged with statutory rape. Tamati told Dennis he would choose the first option. At that Dennis said, "We're going to speak with your mother and grandfather, and discuss a flight for you tomorrow morning, so you can go to Australia and start your new life."
Tamati hopped in his grandfather's car and left the police station. His grandfather took him to a meeting with a lot of his family. There was his cousin, his uncle, his uncle's girlfriend and his step father. He then went to the Mount Albert house with his parents, and was told to get ready for his flight to Australia. Nobody was talking to him much.
In the morning his mum drove him to the airport and left him with one of his uncles. This uncle took the ticket that was bought for Tamati, along with his passport, and followed him through customs, and then the pair flew to Sydney. It was days before the teen could secretly phone Jess to let her know where he was. "It felt like a piece of me was taken," said Jess of the realisation her boyfriend had been sent to another country.
After several weeks in Australia, Tamati made an attempt to escape back to New Zealand. He took his passport back from his uncle, claiming he needed it to set up a bank account, and got on a plane with a ticket paid for by Jess' mother. That was when the police met him at the airport and Dennis turned him around, after his family caught wind on social media of his plan to come home. When he arrived back in Sydney, his uncle gave him a beating with a steel crutch. A few weeks later he escaped again and this time, he managed to come home for good.
THE 'BAD COP'
Dennis' iwi are Rongowhakaata from Gisborne, and Ngāti Porou from the East Cape. He's the chair of Te Puea marae in south Auckland, which is unusual for somebody of his affiliations. It's not every day that somebody from outside Tainui is put at the front of one of the Māori King's more prominent maraes.
Last year, then Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett apologised to Dennis, after one of her staff leaked to a journalist that he was under police investigation. The marae, in Mangare, had highlighted the housing crisis by opening its doors to the homeless.
In his 30 years with the police, Dennis rose to the rank of Inspector, and was appointed national Māori strategic advisor. Character witnesses at the trial described him as passionate, gentle, a master communicator. He was utterly professional, and hugely respected for his work to improve relations between police and Māori. He never lost his temper. If you had a problem, Dennis was there to guide you to a resolution; particularly if you were Māori and felt dubious about pakeha police officers. He had done a lot of good work.
Dennis has since been stripped of his duties as a police inspector. He remains the chair of Te Puea marae.
As part of the Crown case, the air conditioning in the courtroom was lowered to sub-zero temperatures to keep the jury awake through Dennis' seven-and-a-half hour police interview, which was filmed when investigators were looking into the kidnapping allegations against him. Dennis didn't give evidence at his trial, so the video was the only time the court heard his voice.
During the interview, Dennis sat in plainclothes at a small table with his lawyer, Steve Bonnar QC, and several police. Detective Vanessa Pratt questioned him with a Scottish lilt about the mock arrest he carried out with Tamati. Dennis said of Tamati's time in the cell, "I wouldn't even say it was more than a minute". He said he made it clear to Tamati this was a temporary visit.
"He was looking pretty shabby," Dennis recalled. "He was tired, he didn't smell too good. I moved in and said, 'Look, I'd like to take you for a bit of a visit down to our police cells.'" The purpose of the visit, Dennis said he told the young man, was a lesson in "choices and consequences". Prior to the mock arrest, the response by police and Child, Youth and Family to Tamati's case had been "limp," and Dennis was trying to put things right. "I wasn't going to abandon this family. Everyone else had, but I wasn't going to do that. They came to me for help, just like any other Māori family would come to me for help."
He told Pratt his approach to Tamati had been in line with tikanga Māori, which were covered by The Turning of the Tide, a police strategy to reduce Māori offending.
As for Tamati's sojourn in Sydney, Dennis said the teen had understood it was the best option and had even phoned him from Australia to thank him for his guidance. It was true, Dennis said, that he'd arranged for police officers to meet Tamati at Auckland Airport on his attempted return. But the purpose was to reunite him with his family in a controlled environment - namely, the airport police station - and prevent a fracas between Tamati and Jess' respective whānau in the arrivals area.
He said after his talk with Tamati at the airport, the teen had decided to go back to Sydney of his own free will.
THE QUESTION OF TIKANGA
The defence called as an expert witness Kim Workman, a former police officer and prison reformer specialising in the state sector's responsiveness to Māori. Workman said he had watched Dennis' career with interest, and was impressed by what he saw. "He is tūturu Māori, which means he is authentic, real, the genuine article."
He said that the tikanga Dennis had mentioned in his interview were indeed aligned with police strategy. There was the tikanga "hohou i te rongo (to make peace)," which was consistent with Prevention First. It referred, he said, to the need to support offenders who want to make a positive change, keeping young people out of the justice system, and using interventions that may prevent further offending and thus further victimisation and harm.
"Hohou i te rongo means restoring the mana and tapu of the individual as part of the collective. The notion is to return something to its rightful and respectful place.
"In this case I see it as the boy to his whānau, hapu and iwi. We all belong to a wider collective and in the Māori world we do not sit as individuals."
Workman said he would not express an opinion on Dennis' guilt or innocence, or the legality of his actions, but that he saw Dennis' stated actions in his police interview as "consistent with responsiveness and Māori police policy".
Meanwhile, Dennis' lawyer Steve Bonnar QC asked the jury to keep in mind that Tamati had been breaking the law by having underage sex. It had been necessary to remove him from the influence of Jess' mother, who encouraged his offending by allowing him to live with Jess and sleep in her bed.
He said the teen's evidence could not be taken at face value, because he had clearly lied about a number of matters. For example, Tamati's account of his mock arrest had been an "absolute shambles". The teen had described a fair European police officer with a "big face" who made racist remarks at him. "He asked me what my nationality was," Tamati recalled in his evidence. "I told him I was of Māori descent, and he said to me, 'Oh yes, well, we've got a lot of you in prison.'" However, there was no other evidence that a European officer had accompanied him to the cells, and it appeared he'd substituted that mystery officer in for Perry, who is Māori.
Tamati also claimed that his mother had pulled him out of school early in 2015, because she felt he was spending too much time with Jess. But the school's year 13 dean was called as a witness by the defence, and described receiving a call from Tamati himself, where he said he would no longer be coming to school and he was trying to find work.
During the mock arrest, officers put a yellow band around Tamati's wrist, which he said he believed was a tracking device. Dennis had ordered him not to take it off until he was told. That band remained on his wrist, even months later when he touched down at Auckland Airport trying to come home. The defence argued it was "absolute rubbish" that Tamati, a smart young man who enjoyed playing video games, believed the simple plastic band was being used to track his movements.
Bonnar said Dennis' version of the events was not perfect, but it had the "ring of truth" about it.
In his summing up of the case, Justice Edwin Wylie laid out for the jury exactly how it should go about its work.
Although the term kidnapping conjures images of an abduction, in law it can be as simple as restricting a person's movement against their will.
To prove the charges, the Crown had had to show beyond reasonable doubt that Dennis and Perry knowingly detained Tamati without his consent, or with consent obtained by duress or fraud.
This had to be determined separately for the two men, who were jointly charged over the mock arrest incident in the police cells, and again for Dennis, who was also charged over the Auckland Airport incident.
Justice Wylie said tikanga Māori could not constitute an excuse for the illegal detention for an individual.
"When you are considering whether Mr Dennis' detention of [Tamati] was unlawful, you must disregard these matters."
The jury started deliberating around 2.30 on Wednesday afternoon, then retired for the night at 5 o'clock.
It resumed deliberations at 10 o'clock on Thursday morning, and after a total of four hours, it was ready to deliver a verdict.
Dennis and Perry, both well-built Māori men in collared shirts, stood for the jury as they'd done throughout the trial. If convicted, they could well have gone to prison; the charge of kidnapping carries a maximum penalty of 14 years' jail. The jury's foreperson put them out of their misery: Perry was not guilty of his charge, and Dennis was not guilty of his two charges. Applause erupted in the public gallery. There were tears.
Outside court, Dennis gave a statement to media, saying the past two and a half years, and indeed the past few weeks, had been "absolutely humiliating" for him and his family.
He said, "The only thing that Vaughan and I have done wrong is be very proud Māori officers, who were quite vocal about the number of Māori men coming into the judicial system."
And he made ominous mention of the teenagers who had caused him to be dragged into court: "I wish the young people well in their very young lives. I hope that they pick better role models as they move forward in their lives." In that last remark, he appeared to be referencing Jess' mother, who had enabled the teens' relationship to flourish.
Meanwhile, Tamati and Jess, now aged 19 and 17, are still a couple. They live together in Auckland.
"Our love for each other gets stronger and stronger each time an obstacle comes our way," said Jess.
* The teenagers' names have been changed in this story due to court suppression orders