Caging the Devil

TONY WALL AND CLIO FRANCIS
Last updated 05:00 18/11/2012
Rongo Stevens
PHIL DOYLE/Fairfax NZ
GRIEF: Rongo Stevens, pictured by the door of the house where her partner, John Maeva, was shot, with their sons, Dennis, 4, who never knew his father, and John,

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Tears rolled down Rongo Stevens' cheeks as she stood near her front doorstep last week, the exact spot where her partner, John Maeva, was gunned down.

He had banged desperately on the door that August night in 2008, saying: "Honey, open the door, hurry up and open the door." Stevens had been sleeping in the lounge of her Papatoetoe, South Auckland, home with her children.

As she grappled with the lock, three gunshots rang out. By the time she got the door open, Maeva, 26, lay dying from wounds to the head and abdomen and the gunman was running towards his getaway car.

"You f..... wait, Wayne," a seven months pregnant Stevens yelled, as she told Maeva, "Don't you die on me." She was sure that the departing figure was Wayne James Bracken, Maeva's friend and fellow drug dealer.

Four years on, she has not changed her mind.

"I know in my heart it was Wayne Bracken. There was enough light to see, the outside light was on, the security light was on. There's no doubt at all," she says.

Stevens told her story at Bracken's murder trial, but the defence, led by high-profile lawyers Gary Gotlieb and Jonathan Krebs, insisted she was mistaken.

Plenty of other people could have killed Maeva, the defence said - he had fallen out with gang members over drug money.

Bracken took the stand, explaining how Maeva and his cousin had been terrified after being beaten up at gunpoint by the Black Power. And Bracken's brother-in-law testified that Bracken was with him at the time Maeva was shot.

It took the jury three hours to decide Bracken was not guilty.

"I was so scared. I was worried he would come after me," Stevens says.

Prior to the trial, police had given her a tour of the High Court in Auckland and asked if she had any questions. "My only question was: ‘What if he gets off not guilty?' [They said] ‘Oh no, Rongo, there's enough evidence to put him away for life.' So I took their word on that."

She believes that because of Maeva's criminal history, police did not work the case as hard as they could have.

Stevens never heard from Bracken, but 2 years later, she got a phone call to say Jack Davis, a close mate of Maeva's from school, had been murdered.

"When I heard that, Wayne [Bracken] came to my head."

In February 2011, Davis, 30, was hog-tied and kept overnight in a woolshed near Kaeo in the Far North before being driven into remote bush, where Bracken cut his throat with a thistle-grubber, an instrument similar to a garden hoe.

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In September this year, a jury found Bracken guilty of kidnapping and murdering Davis, while a co-accused, Neville Dangen, 24, was found not guilty.

The Davis murder came like a kick in the guts to the Maeva family, who always feared Bracken would kill someone after he was acquitted.

"It was a major shock for it to happen, and to find out it happened to [John's] friend, that's just too close to home for us," says Esther Maeva, John's sister.

Police too were dumbfounded.

"I just couldn't believe it," says detective Kate Smith, second in command of the Maeva inquiry. "I was absolutely flattened."

Smith says Bracken's acquittal had come as a surprise. "It was really hard breaking the news to [Stevens]."

Zelma Davis, Jack's mother, who lives around the corner from Stevens and has formed a close bond with the Maeva family, feels sorry for them.

"The system failed them. They wanted justice for their family and they never got it. I kind of feel there is justice now, not just for Jack but for both of them. It's just heartbreaking that it had to take another [death] - and it's my son."

Bracken, 35, grew up in Northland and was from a large family of six brothers and five sisters. He worked as a digger driver, an electrical cable layer and on fishing boats long-lining for snapper and tuna.

He is thought to have connections to the Head Hunters gang, and gained a fearsome reputation as a man of violence, terrorising people who he believed had ripped him off over drugs.

He first met Maeva at a friend's house before Maeva went to prison on drugs charges. At 2.1 metres tall and weighing around 140kg, Maeva was a giant, and needed a custom-made coffin.

After Maeva was released from jail, he and Bracken became friendly again, dealing methamphetamine together.

At trial, the Crown described how, a week before the shooting, Bracken had fallen out with Maeva's cousin over an ounce of cannabis, and later bought a .22 rifle. Three days later, Maeva was dead, but no clear motive was established.

Detective Smith: "The events leading up to the shooting were really odd - there was nothing to show exactly why it happened."

Smith says Bracken is smart.

"He is very careful . . . very calm and calculated. He had a quiet swagger about him. I think he is a cold-blooded man. He is a totally scary guy."

She says police are not looking for anyone else for the Maeva murder, but "if someone had [new] information we'd be more than happy to hear from them".

Bracken was charged with kidnapping and killing Davis after earlier picking him up from South Auckland and giving him a lift up north for a fishing competition.

The court heard how Bracken, Davis and Bracken's half-brother, Kenneth, a former North Harbour national provincial championship rugby player, gathered at Dangen's property and smoked methamphetamine before Bracken "turned ugly" and ordered that Davis be tied up. The next day Davis was driven to bush off the Wairakau Track on the northern side of the Whangaroa Harbour, where he was executed.

The defence, again led by Gotlieb and Krebs, said Bracken wasn't there - there was no scientific evidence to place him at the scene. Only this time, the Crown had more cards up its sleeve. It was able to call propensity evidence to demonstrate to the jury Bracken's history of violence.

In an incident echoing the Davis murder, a man called Matthew Raharaha had described to police how in 2003 Bracken and another man tied him up, fired a shotgun near his head and left him in the boot of a car with his head covered before returning the next day to torture him with knives. Bracken believed Raharaha had stolen his cannabis.

Raharaha eventually escaped and got help, but later refused to testify and the case fell over.

Raharaha, now serving a prison sentence for armed robbery, was called to give evidence at the murder trial, but said he couldn't remember any details.

More helpful were Melissa Cochrane and her partner, Bradley Johns, who described how Bracken arrived at their place late at night about a month before the murder, terrified them with guns and tried to take a boat.

A star witness was Kenneth Bracken, who was given immunity from prosecution and described how his brother had stood over him with the thistle grubber and made him tie Davis up.

"Jack was begging me to try and get me to help him. He was going, 'Please bro, please bro' I couldn't do anything."

Kenneth Bracken described how his brother used to refer to himself as "the Devil".

The court heard that Dangen, Bracken's co-accused, was terrified of being Bracken's next victim and had gone along with the Davis kidnapping out of fear.

Dangen described to police how he heard Davis pleading with Bracken, then heard a squeal. Bracken emerged from the bush "dripping with blood" and smiling, then stripped to his underwear and later burned his clothing.

The Crown also called Mano Warmington, Bracken's brother-in-law who had been his alibi witness in the Maeva trial. This time Warmington's testimony was damaging, describing how Dangen told him in detail what Bracken had done.

All through the trial, Zelma Davis was terrified of one thing: that once, again, Bracken would be found not guilty.

"He was quite cocky and confident that he was gonna get off. We were lucky we had a good jury and good lawyers.

"He's so cold, calculating and callous. He shows no remorse, it's like just another day to him."

John Maeva may have been huge, but he was known as Baby John. Big John was his dad, who was serving a five-year sentence for meth dealing when his son was murdered. (At one point, father and son had shared a prison cell.)

Maeva senior says he is now a changed man, having become a born-again Christian in prison. He plans to attend Bracken's sentencing on Friday, and wants to tell him he forgives him. "Hating this person ain't gonna bring my son back."

He even says he will attend Bracken's first parole hearing and "put in a good word".

Esther Maeva says she can never forgive. She didn't know what to feel after Bracken was acquitted.

"You can't lock away a person if they are innocent, but to find out he did it to John's friend, it was bam, black and white."

She is applying to join the police.

"I want to be out in the community and save lives, and put people like Bracken away."

Stevens wants to see Bracken given a long non-parole period, and hopes he will finally take responsibility for his actions.

She had to take a break from her children after the murder, but is now back with them, including 4-year-old Dennis, who never met his dad. She has thrown herself into the church, and says she's getting her life back together.

While it will be good to see Bracken out of the community, she fears what will happen when he is released.

"He's capable of killing and killing, I believe."

Though it's not Bracken she will be thinking of when she attends his sentencing.

"I'll be thinking about John and Jack.

"I'll be able to sleep quiet at night, and not worry."

- Sunday Star Times

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