Gang 'ordered' jail hit

The attack that resulted in the first killing of a New Zealand prison guard on duty was gang-ordered and the Corrections Department knew of the threat to dad-of-three Jason Palmer weeks before, a source has told Sunday News.

But Corrections has denied the threat and an internal investigation found prison management and staff were not at fault.

Springhill Prison guard Palmer died in Middlemore Hospital on May 16 after being felled by a single punch from inmate Latu Savelio Kepu at the north Waikato jail the previous day.

On July 13, 21-year-old Kepu pleaded guilty at Hamilton District Court to manslaughter. He is due to be sentenced at Hamilton High Court on September 7.

A source at the prison earlier this week told Sunday News that Kepu, understood to have links with the Killer Beez gang, had planned to attack Palmer, 33.

Former US Marine Palmer had laid several misconduct charges against Kepu, including one the day before the deadly attack, the source said. That final charge – for stealing from another inmate's cell – was enough for Kepu to be transferred to Auckland's maximum security prison at Paremoremo.

The source said an outline of the threat was contained on Kepu's prison file, details of which have been circulated around the prison in recent weeks between concerned guards.

"What that [the threat note on the file] does is put a hell of a lot of fear into other guards working there, that they could be targeted and that management might know about it [threats] and not do anything about it," the source said.

"The Killer Beez had approved for Kepu to go ahead and deal to Palmer. I do believe it [Palmer's death] could have been avoided."

A Corrections Department investigation into Palmer's death was completed last month. Corrections refused to release the report to Sunday News ahead of a coroner's hearing into Palmer's death but dismissed claims a threat existed against the guard.

"There were no recorded incidents of violence to staff [by Kepu]. The review found no information to indicate that Kepu was going to assault Jason," a statement by Corrections Department acting assistant general manager of operations Eric Fairbairn reads.

Fairbairn did admit "procedural matters were identified" by the department, but they had "no bearing on the tragedy itself".

Corrections Association president Beven Hanlon dismissed the internal investigation as a "joke".

"He'd [Kupe] been misconducted several times. There were numerous reports about threats to staff," Hanlon said. "Staff had... to use force on him in defence. They had to use force on him to get him to do things. He was well and truly identified as someone who was dangerous and they [Corrections] should have been managing him better."

Palmer's mother, Ada Palmer, also slammed the findings of the Corrections Department's investigation. "They said it was an accident... it is a cover-up," she told Sunday News last night from her home in Virginia, USA.

Palmer had open heart surgery three weeks ago. She said in an emotional sense there was still a "large hole" because "part of my heart... died when Jason died".

Hanlon said Kepu should have been kept in the prison's management wing – where inmates have no physical contact with guards or other prisoners – but couldn't because the unit was closed as it was being refurbished for double-bunking.

When Kepu struck Palmer, he and two other guards were escorting the 21-year-old to a recreation area for his allocated one hour's segregated exercise. Had Kepu been in the management wing, guards could have released him for exercise by pushing a button outside his cell.

Fairbairn said while the management wing was shut, "prisoners can be managed safely and securely" in the high-security unit.

Kepu had punched Palmer in the mouth with his right fist, causing him to fall back and hit his head on the concrete wall. Palmer remained unconscious while taken to Middlemore Hospital. He never woke up and was pronounced dead within 24 hours, having suffered a massive brain injury.

Sunday News