In the hours after shooting constables Matthew Hunt and David Goldfinch — killing Hunt — Eli Epiha seemed calm, making only one startling but vague admission, an associate of his said at his trial.
“I just recall him saying he f***ed up,” Shane Conza told jurors he heard as the two drove north that June 2020 afternoon, away from the West Auckland neighbourhood where the officers were gunned down.
“Maybe foolishly, I didn’t ask” what Epiha was referring to, Conza continued, maintaining that he knew nothing of the shootings at the time. “Sometimes in situations you get a feeling.”
Epiha, 25, pleaded guilty last week to Hunt’s murder — although he maintains it was the result of recklessness instead of murderous intent. His trial for attempted murder of Constable Goldfinch began this week.
Goldfinch testified yesterday that Epiha crashed his car that morning after fleeing the officers, then emerged from the car with a military-style semi-automatic rifle. The officer, who was hit by four bullets, said he showed Epiha he was unarmed and tried to reason with the stranger, telling him to walk away. Epiha didn’t say a word in response, instead seeming to make a conscious decision to kill the officer instead, Goldfinch said.
Epiha was filmed leaving the residential street with co-defendant Natalie Bracken, who faces a charge of being an accessory after the fact to murder.
He later showed up at a rural property where Conza lived with his partner and child. Things were uneasy from the start, Conza said, explaining that his partner was arguing with him because Epiha showed up with a woman they didn’t know.
“She definitely didn’t want to be there,” Conza said of the woman, adding that he didn’t particularly want either of the arrivals at his home either.
The witness said the woman left on her own in the car they arrived in and he agreed to give Epiha a ride, first putting a large item wrapped in cloth — he later realised it was an assault rifle — in his own car. He often drove for Epiha, who he had known for about six years, so there was nothing particularly unusual about that, he said.
“Eli was pretty calm,” he recalled. “He was obviously concerned he had upset me because I got in a fight with my partner.”
As the two drove for nearly an hour they spoke about various things but never did Epiha mention shooting police officers, Conza said, adding that he also had heard nothing about the shootings in the news.
But Conza deduced enough from the situation that he suspected he had been put in an uncomfortable situation, he said. So at some point he pulled over next to a forested area and took the wrapped item out of the boot — covering it in pine needles off the side of the highway.
“It was a Kalashnikov AK-47,” he told the jury. “I have no idea where it came from other than the boot of the Mazda [that Epiha and the woman arrived in].”
Still, he said, he decided not to ask why Epiha had brought the gun.
During that same drive, the pair were pulled over by police.
“He said to be cool,” Conza said, explaining that the defendant asked him to snap Epiha’s cellphone, which he declined to do.
Senior Constable Robert Cato, one of the two officers to pull over the pair, said Conza appeared “rushed, anxious and cautious” that afternoon. After eventually telling Conza about the police shooting, Conza asked for a cigarette then asked to be taken out of Epiha’s earshot, the officer testified. The driver then told the officer about the broken phone request, and later about the guns on the side of the road.
Meanwhile, Constable Eli Antunovich said he was helping place Epiha under arrest after he gave a fake name and falsely claimed to live with Conza. After requesting a photo of the shooting suspect, he realised there was a “very, very strong resemblance” and told Epiha he was also under arrest for assaulting police.
Epiha then said he wanted a lawyer and to remain silent, and their conversation ended, he said.
Under cross-examination from Epiha’s lawyers, Conza acknowledged Epiha usually had a calm demeanour.
Bracken’s counsel, meanwhile, suggested it should be Conza sitting next to Epiha in the spot reserved for defendants.
“If you did know about the death of a police officer … you’d accept your actions were being done to help him avoid arrest and prosecution?” lawyer Adam Couchman asked, before being more blunt in his questioning: “You knew at that time that your mate had been involved in a murder.”
“No,” Conza replied.
The witness also took issue with Couchman’s suggestion he was helping Epiha to hide the guns left on the side of the road.
“You use the word stash, but it was more like to get it out of my vehicle, so the pretence is incorrect,” he said.
Crown prosecutors are set to continue calling witnesses on Monday.