Eli Epiha trial: Defendant testifies that he never intended to shoot cops

Eli Bob Sauni Epiha, the man who murdered unarmed Constable Matthew Hunt, initially got an illegal firearm on the day of the shooting with the intention of protecting his family, he told the jury today as he took the witness stand on his own behalf.

Epiha, 25, is charged with attempted murder of Hunt’s partner, Constable David Goldfinch, who was struck by four bullets that day. Epiha was the first witness to take the stand after prosecutors finished presenting evidence earlier in the day.

His troubles on the morning of June 19, 2020, started with a call from his brother, Leroy, who sounded scared, he said.

“I understood it to mean some gang members were on their way over to attempt to tax my family,” he said, explaining that the term “taxing” meant taking the family’s possessions. “He said that all the kids were scared — everyone was scared.

“So I decided to arm up.”

He went to a man’s house and asked for a shotgun, he said, explaining that he was instead given the two rifles.

“I planned to scare the gang members away from my family house where my nieces and nephews are. I just wanted to scare them away and tell them to never come back to my family house.”

He was driving towards his brother’s house when he noticed the marked patrol car following him, he testified. He sped up, he said.

“I wanted to put as much distance between me and the police car as possible,” he said. “I didn’t want to engage with the police at all.”
But moments later, he crashed his car while trying to avoid hitting a rubbish truck, he said, and the car was undriveable.

That’s when he first encountered Constable David Goldfinch, he said, explaining that he grabbed the gun from his crashed car after the officer shouted at him to show his hands.

“He was flexing, you know. He was being aggressive — just trying to demand. I told him a few times: ‘Get in your car and f*** off,'” Epiha told jurors, explaining that he didn’t want to turn his back to the officer.

“He was just getting too close and yelling at me … so I gave him a warning shot.”

Epiha claimed Goldfinch’s testimony last week that Epiha just kept pulling the trigger with an intention to kill the officer was incorrect.

“If I wanted to kill him, I would have killed him straight away instead of firing a warning shot,” the defendant said. “I just wanted him to get in his car and f*** off … so that I could run away.”

Epiha said all his other shots at the officer that day were also warning shots.

“I lifted the gun over the roof [of a car Goldfinch was hiding behind] with one hand … angled down towards straight into the ground,” he said of some of the shots. “He started running. I remember firing one shot — not really at him but towards his direction to keep him running forward.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just keep him running that way … so I can get away.’

“I wasn’t trying to take him out. I just wanted him to gap it so I could gap it. If I wanted to kill him, I could have done it right there. It was never my intention to kill him.”

When asked by his own lawyer why he fired so many shots, he said he “can’t really explain it”.

“But I do know the first shot was definitely away from him,” he said. “I think, from what I recall, the first three shots were away from him.”

After Goldfinch ran away, Epiha said he achieved what he intended and so planned to run away himself. But first, he said, he needed to go back to the crashed car to retrieve the other gun.

“It would have been some pretty heavy consequences for me,” he said of not getting both guns back. “It wasn’t my guns. I had to get them back to the owner.”

He started asking bystanders for a ride, he said, insisting that he never pointed the gun at others despite contradictory statements from witnesses and his own co-defendant.

“Uce, uce, call an ambulance,” he told others, he said. “Do you have any keys? Give me a ride.”

Epiha agreed with Goldfinch’s earlier testimony that the two had made eye contact after he ran away from the gunfire. But he disagreed with the officer’s contention he was being hunted that day.

“Did you at any stage hunt Officer Goldfinch?” defence lawyer Marcus Edgar asked his client.

“No, absolutely not,” the defendant replied.

It wasn’t until Epiha’s own lawyer finished questioning him that he spoke, reluctantly, about Constable Hunt’s death.

“At what point did you murder Officer Hunt?” asked Adam Couchman, the lawyer for co-defendant Natalie Jane Bracken.

Epiha responded that he wasn’t on trial for Hunt’s murder, which he pleaded guilty to earlier this month.

“I’m very, very sorry to his family,” he said before Justice Geoffrey Venning ordered him to answer the question.

He murdered Hunt after the confrontation with Goldfinch, he said.

His testimony is continuing at the High Court at Auckland.

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