Park ranger sacked over scuffle with group of French freedom campers
A rowdy group of French freedom campers have been embroiled in a scuffle with a New Zealand park ranger, leaving one tourist with bloody gashes to his head.
Ranger Jarron McInnes spent seven years helping build the TECT All Terrain Park in the Bay of Plenty into one of the best facilities of its kind – a Mecca for trampers, mountain bikers, motocross riders, horse riders and target shooters.
But his career came to an abrupt halt after the incident on January 12 when McInnes told the group, who were drinking alcohol late at night by the information centre near his ranger's home, to quieten down and move on.
His 13-year-old son was with him at the time.
What happened next is disputed, but one of the campers ended up in Rotorua Hospital with two gashes on his head. McInnes, who said he was defending himself, was also at the centre of an internal investigation by his bosses and the Western Bay of Plenty District Council.
McInnes said he had been advised not to comment, but the police report revealed two versions of events.
According to the report, it appeared things turned nasty after McInnes picked up the campers' alcohol and tipped it out. One of them, David Le Prunennec, a Frenchman on a working holiday, became annoyed and confronted McInnes.
McInnes claimed Le Prunennec grabbed him by the throat and pushed him to the ground. He said the others held him down while Le Prunennec jumped on top of him and assaulted him.
He said he struck Le Prunennec on the head a couple of times with his flashlight to get him off. McInnes, who is Maori, said a racial insult was also hurled.
Le Prunennec claimed the assault with the torch was unprovoked, and he retaliated by hitting McInnes before they scuffled on the ground.
Pictures on the police file show Le Prunennec with blood coming from two wounds on his head. McInnes was not injured.
Neither party wanted to press charges and Le Prunennec left the country soon after. He could not be reached for comment.
Police were unable to determine who was the aggressor and both men were described in the file at various points as victims.
"The stories are mixed, however there was no way of substantiating either story," the investigating officer wrote.
But McInnes struck the raw end of the deal - he was sacked for "breaching protocol" by venturing out at night and for injuring a park visitor. He was given a couple of weeks to vacate the ranger's house.
"I was going to be here until the day I retire. I built this park with my own bare hands more or less, with the help of a lot of people, and I just think it's disgusting the way they've treated me," he said.
The decision to sack McInnes has sparked a backlash from park users, who described the treatment as "disgraceful".
Someone wrote on Facebook: "What a bunch of gutless pricks we have in our council ... you should be ashamed. Jarron has put his own safety on the line time and time again only to be hung out to dry when he should have had the support of our council."
Another person put a sign on the window of the council's headquarters in Tauranga demanding the council "do the right thing" by reinstating McInnes and starting an independent inquiry.
McInnes, a rural firefighter who last year travelled to Alberta, Canada to help fight massive wildfires, hired a lawyer in his fight to be reinstated.
The council said in a statement it wouldn't go into detail publicly, other than to say it stood by its decision to dismiss McInnes and it had conducted a "thorough, robust and fair" investigation.
Murray Guy, a former Tauranga City Councillor and member of the park's management committee, said there had never been any issues with McInnes' performance and he'd never even received a warning. "You don't terminate someone's employment effectively because he's protected himself and his family," said Guy.
He believed the council had failed in its obligations to an employee by not providing him with effective communications in a remote location, 30km from the nearest police or ambulance, and by accepting freedom campers - sometimes dozens a night - without a proper registration process or facilities.
Guy was appalled that McInnes had been accused of breaching protocol by going out at night.
"On numerous occasions Jarron presented reports to us which included his night-time after hours activities, checking out boy racers, checking out headlights, gunshots...he felt that was part of his obligation," he said.
Guy said McInnes mistakenly believed it was an alcohol-free zone and it was remiss of the council not to have made it such.
The council said it took care to ensure the safety of all its staff, including those who worked in remote locations.
Rangers were provided with RT radios which were connected to a number of support networks.
Western Bay mayor Ross Paterson declined to comment, saying it was a staff matter.
- Sunday Star Times