Only a pawn in the game

23:38, Aug 04 2012
Nathan Williams
ON TRIAL: Life turned into a bizarre movie for Nathan Williams – pictured with eight-year-old Brooklyn – one night four years ago when he stepped outside his lounge thinking friends were playing a prank on him with a megaphone.

In 2008, the murder of a teenager in the murky world of South Auckland drug dealers and street gangs created a ripple that quickly faded away. But when our reporter attended the retrial of Nathan Williams this year, he discovered an extraordinary tale of betrayal, mistaken identity and blackmail.

Two figures, dressed in black, bandanas over their faces, arrive at the top of a suburban South Auckland driveway on a cold August night in 2008.

One is carrying a gun. The other has a hammer in his hand.

Daniel Tumata
JAILED: Daniel Tumata.

It's a modest house - small deck, ranchslider. From the garage the sounds of a small party in the garage beside.

The men - one tall and slender, the other shorter and solid - advance onto the porch and peer through the ranchslider into the house. A teenager lurches out of the shed to pee in the garden.

The standover begins. The men grab the teenager, punch him and demand he give them cannabis and "tinnies".


Dogs bark and the house rouses at the sound of the violence. The mother of the house looks out before retreating when one of the figures advances with the gun pointed at her.

A second boy, just 14, comes out of the garage and one of the intruders grabs him and demands cannabis. He hits him across the face and yells, "Where's the tinnies?"

The hammer rises into the air and falls, hard, onto the boy's head.

The first blow lands on the boy's forehead by the left eye, the second blow hits him square on the back of the head and the hammer sinks in, creating the perfectly round depression that will cause his brain to bleed and will soon kill him.

The boy crumples to the ground and the two figures run out the back of the property and across a park.

The family of the boy crowds around. He dies in front of his mother a few minutes later.

I met the man convicted of murdering John Hapeta four years later outside the Auckland High Court. It was a bright autumn day in May, wet leaves plastered the ground, and I was at court to get the verdict of a murder retrial that hadn't gained much coverage first time around.

The press reports from the original trial sounded grimly routine - a couple of low-life South Auckland thugs kill a 14-year-old tinnie dealer in a standover gone wrong. I knew little about the case but noticed one of the original co-accused, Daniel Tumata, had popped up in another court charged with blackmail while the murder trial was going on.

Inside, the High Court had that tense, expectant hush that precedes a verdict.

Nathan Williams, a solid, barrel-chested Maori guy in a grey T-shirt with a sombre expression, was led into the dock and stood quietly.

The judge looked at Williams with true compassion and said "Mr Williams, your nightmare is over. You are discharged."

Outside court, Williams had a slightly stunned look on his face and he blinked in the sunlight, having a hard time doing the maths when I asked him how long he had been in jail.

"I haven't been free for a long time," he said.

Nathan Williams found out he was a suspect in the murder of John Hapeta when a Swat team descended on his house. In August 2008, Williams and his four-year-old daughter Brooklyn were living at his parents' house in Weymouth, the small suburb at the bottom of Manurewa that pokes out into the Manukau Harbour.

The Olympics were on and he and a friend had been sleeping on mattresses in the lounge when he heard what he thought was friends outside playing a joke on him with a megaphone.

He came outside to find the armed offenders' squad in combat fatigues training a large spotlight on him.

He felt like he was in a movie.

"I just listened to them - whatever they told me to do. They told me to follow the light. I could hear the dogs snapping close to me, feel the shadows running around with guns."

He was told to get on his knees and he was kicked in the back.

He was put into a police car as his grandmother, who lived in the house next door, looked on in horror.

Following Hapeta's death, police didn't have much to go on - except for an anonymous 111 call saying that Williams was responsible.

They had one other valuable asset - a co-accused who was singing like a canary.

Of those two men who invaded Hapeta's home that night, we now know for sure that one was Daniel Tumata.

Tumata was 22 at the time, just released from prison for wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm (more on that later), and with a history of drinking, drugs, and violence.

Tumata's tattoos identified him as part of a local gang called the Naborhood Wrekar'z.

Photos of them on their Bebo page showed guns, bandanas, booze and lots of young men contorting their fingers into elaborate gang signs.

Williams knew Tumata through his brother-in-law.

Tumata was arrested in connection with Hapeta's death after police received information that a friend of his had gotten rid of his bloody clothes for him, and the gun used in the standover had been with the friend for a while.

When police raided the friend's house they found a camera. He had photographed himself posing with the gun before he gave it back to Tumata.

In a lengthy police interview, Tumata immediately fingered Williams as the killer. He said he and Williams were at a friend's house, wanting marijuana, and Hapeta's name came up as he was known to sell "tinnies" on Justamere Place. Tumata said Williams proposed the standover and he "reluctantly agreed".

He said Williams had supplied him with the gun. He also said when he saw the hammer going for the boy's head he tried to stop Williams and cut his hand in the process.

The months leading up to the trial were bewildering for Williams.

He and Tumata were briefly put in a cell together after their arrest but at that stage he didn't know Tumata was putting him in the frame.

Tumata professed ignorance and told him the two of them were "in the same boat".

Police told Williams someone was accusing him but he didn't know what they were talking about.

He maintained he had been at home the whole night and he was being set up.

Sensing danger, Williams told police a lie, that he hadn't seen Tumata on the night of the murder when he had in fact seen him briefly at 7pm.

He also saw him after the murder when Tumata came to his house and hid a gun in his garage. When Williams found out, he promptly returned the gun to Tumata.

Williams says his first trial felt like everything was against him.

The police, Tumata, his crew of friends, all seemed intent on putting him away.

"It was sickening. I felt like a pawn in a game."

Perhaps because of the lie he told police about not seeing Tumata that night, Williams did not testify in his own defence. Neither did Tumata but Tumata's police interview - which detailed Williams' alleged sins - was played to the jury.

Legally, what Tumata said could be used against him, but it couldn't be used against Williams, his co-accused. The jury were directed to ignore the interview when it came to Williams, despite the fact most of what was being said was about Williams.

They were also told to ignore four of Tumata's friends - all visible on the Bebo gang pages - who testified that Tumata had told them "Nate did it" or that "Nate hit him with the hammer".

Watching Tumata's police interview in court, Williams thought: "This dude's putting me away for life."

He was correct - the jury's verdict was guilty.

"It was like the room closed in on me - it all went black," Williams recalls.

Tumata pleaded guilty to assault with intent to rob and the jury found him guilty of manslaughter for being Williams' accomplice. He was sentenced to nine years, nine months.

Williams got life, with a minimum of 14 years.

In the dark days that followed, Williams was sent to The Rock - prisoners' name for the old, stone Mt Eden prison - and then to "maxi" - Paremoremo - the hardest prison in the country.

He was celled with murderers, rapists and career criminals, and his mother Valerie recalls her son's personality changing - her chatty, personable boy now talking with his head bowed, his voice low.

For Williams, it was more about what he was missing at home than what was happening to him. He had been preparing his daughter for her first day at school but he missed that. "They took that away from me." His son was two-weeks-old when he was sentenced. He was eight months before he held him for the first time.

For Williams, "the best decision I ever made" was hiring the experienced barrister and Queen's Counsel, David Jones, who saw the trial that had put Williams in jail was glaringly unfair.

The fact that the jury had heard so much about Williams from Tumata in his police interview, but were then told to ignore what they had heard, was an absurdity. And because it was a video statement - not evidence given in court - Tumata was not able to be cross-examined on what he had said.

"It's just impossible to ignore it. I just didn't think Nathan could have got a fair trial," Jones says.

He took the case to the Court of Appeal but it was a tense, double-or-nothing play because the Crown was also cross-appealing Williams' sentence, saying the 14-year minimum he had been given was too lenient and it should have been a 17.

The Court of Appeal found there was a "weak circumstantial case" against Williams who was placed at the scene only by Tumata and Tumata's statements to his friends - all of which was inadmissible against Williams.

The one witness who testified at depositions of hearing a confession from Williams was declared "unreliable" by the judge and defence evidence was called that he had admitted to lying.

On May 11, 2011, the court ruled that: "We cannot exclude the possibility that the jury acted on the very substantial body of inadmissible evidence, thereby leading to a miscarriage of justice."

A retrial was ordered. Williams was freed on bail.

His mum was a bit late to pick him up from prison - he was waiting on the footpath with a box of belongings - and the rest of the family were so overjoyed to see him they couldn't wait for him to make it all the way home. They met halfway, at Burger King.

Jones and his junior, Maree Shroft, decided the retrial had to be a "warts and all" affair - they've both used the phrase to me several times. For risk-averse lawyers it was a dangerous move - the fact Williams did smoke marijuana, the fact he had seen Tumata before and after the murder, the fact that he had lied to police - all had to be revealed to the jury.

Jones called it "putting his head in the lion's mouth". This time though, the case would be different: Tumata would be cross-examined.

It was strange that Tumata testified in the retrial at all. He hadn't testified in the first trial, he had already successfully deflected a murder charge and been convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, so why would he bother appearing as a Crown witness to help put Williams away a second time?

Jones's answer is that Tumata's greed and criminality trapped him into it - police catching him trying to blackmail Williams.

After police visited Tumata in prison to see if he would testify in the retrial, the prison phone system picked up Tumata ringing a friend trying to get in touch with Williams. He was heard on the tape saying: "I want to blackmail him for $5000".

Police went back to Tumata with this and his position changed over the next few days from "I'm saying nothing more" to "Here's a new statement".

Jones said Tumata got caught out and he then had to come to the trial and use his good behaviour in the witness box as leverage when he was sentenced for the blackmail.

I was there when Tumata had a year added for the blackmail and it was uncannily accurate: the judge gave him a sentence discount for giving evidence at the retrial in accordance with what he had told police.

To prove that Nathan Williams was innocent, Jones had to make the case that Tumata had set up Williams.

The set-up began the day after the murder with the mysterious 111 call that put Williams in the frame. An unidentified person said they knew who had done the "thing" on Justamere Place. He gave the name "Nate" and then Williams' address.

The caller was Tumata. He admitted to making the call in the police interview where he was, as Jones put it, "coughing like an asthmatic sheep".

The defence theory was that after Tumata tried to hide the gun at Williams' house, and Williams returned it, Tumata did not think Williams could be trusted. Tumata had also cut himself at the scene and would have thought his DNA could be found - he said at the retrial that he had given a blood sample in one of his previous run-ins with the law.

Tumata thought he was going to be caught and had to deflect blame. Remember, at the time of the 111 call, no-one had been identified, yet Tumata voluntarily called police and gave up his supposed co-accused - an action that would surely have led to his own arrest.

One of Tumata's previous convictions for wounding with intent to injure occurred in December 2006. He and a friend were on a suburban street in Weymouth and walked up to a man sitting on his deck and asked him for a lighter. When the man didn't have one, Tumata, unprovoked, smashed him with a bottle, fracturing his eye socket and cheek. They then took the man's hat and glasses and left him to a future that involved having metal plates surgically implanted in his face.

The house was on Justamere Place, where Tumata would later commit another violent robbery.

At the retrial, Jones's cross-examination of Tumata began with the question: "You have lied today, Mr Tumata, about Nate being involved in the standover, haven't you?" Over the next few hours, Tumata admitted to inconsistencies in what he told police.

In his police interview he stated Williams suggested doing the standover. At the retrial Tumata admitted he had suggested a standover on Justamere Place to another friend in the days leading up to the murder. He admitted the gun was his rather than Williams' and a motorbike he told police was Williams' was actually his cousin's. Tumata told the jury about his 50 previous convictions, his lifestyle of smoking marijuana, taking methamphetamine and skulling 40 ounce bottles of bourbon.

One of Williams' unlikely allies in the first case against him was the victim's mother. Patricia Pokaihau-Rogers testified that she was the one who came to the door when the violence started and had the gun pointed at her. She got a good look at the man and described him as slender with a long face and very dark features.

Nathan Williams did not fit the description - and neither did Tumata.

The court heard that in the days leading up to the murder, Hapeta became nervous for his safety. He bought an airgun off a guy whose street name was Black, or the Black One, because of his dark features. A private investigator hired by the defence also testified about tracking down "Black" whose real name begins with K.

"What is Mr K------'s complexion?"

"Very dark."

"And his appearance facially?"

"Facially and his body, he was very thin, gaunt in the face."

The court was told on the day of the murder, Black and another man known as Dero went to Hapeta and told him he needed to pay the rest of his debt for the gun he had bought or he would be killed.

Hapeta was so scared of the threats from Black and Dero he barricaded his door and asked his father to kill them before they were able to get to him. As Jones said: "The very night they say they are going to come back and kill him, someone comes back and kills him. Isn't that incredibly coincidental, incredibly bad luck, that you get a threat to kill and they say they are going to come back that night and lo and behold someone comes back?"

Hapeta's mother said it was the slender, dark-featured man who had the gun, which made Williams' defence team believe that the hammer-man was actually Tumata. Jones put it to Tumata that he was the murderer and with his record for violent assaults he needed to deflect the blame. If he deflected it on to the real person who was there, that person could have told the truth about what happened. Tumata denied it and said he was telling the truth, but by that time his credibility was shot.

Watching Tumata testifying, Williams said he knew he would be caught out.

"It looked like he was lying, just digging his hole deeper."

"Scum of the earth, basically. I wish I'd never met him."

On March 29 this year, Williams was found not guilty of Hapeta's murder. He ran into members of the jury on the way out, who told him, "It was the easiest decision. Don't worry, have a good life."

It hasn't been so easy though. Williams now lives on a family marae south of Auckland. He spends a lot of time with his kids and it took him a while just to leave the marae.

"I want to work but I can't. It's funny in the public now - it feels like people are judging me. The whole of Manurewa freaks me out," he says.

His mum says he's got a few things to work through now - shopping, crowds.

His friends came to take him out for a night recently, she said. He made it to the gate but he started having panic attacks and had to come back.

I can't tell you that Nathan Williams didn't kill John Hapeta because only a select few people actually know the truth.

Police, for example, say the not guilty verdict does not necessarily mean the jury thought someone else was involved. They said in a statement: "There is no evidence available to police which would enable charges to be laid against anyone else." A source close to the case said when you engage a QC, you get what you pay for - awesome legal representation.

Williams' family are convinced it wasn't him; an uncle of Williams testified that he grew marijuana and gave Williams all he needed, destroying the motive for a standover of a tinnie dealer.

Williams has six previous convictions for minor stuff - no violence and nothing worse than drink-driving.

He's a bit of a cleanliness freak and he spends a lot of his time cleaning the house and having frequent showers.

He's the oldest of five with four younger sisters, who describe him as the one who looks after family.

He now has a six-acre block to mow and he put off our interviews several times because his grandfather was getting out of hospital. He is slowly readjusting to life on the outside.

"I've got my kids with me. That's the best bit. We're slowly changing. We'll get there."

Daniel Tumata is serving a 10-year, nine-month sentence. "Black" is still at large. Police are not looking for anyone else in connection with Hapeta's murder.

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