Roadworker's shooting a real mystery

KIRSTY JOHNSTON IN AUCKLAND, FLORENCE KERR IN TOKOROA AND LUCY TOWNEND IN LEVIN
Last updated 05:00 24/03/2013
George Taiaroa murder scene
BEN CURRAN/Fairfax NZ

MURDER MYSTERY: Police looking for clues under the bridge near where roadworker George Taiaroa was shot.

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Police are today sifting through a number of shock leads in the murder of road worker George Taiaroa, including suggestions the vehicle involved was stolen from celebrity chef Cameron Petley; that Taiaroa was gunned down as a simmering vendetta after his testimony put someone in jail; and that poachers or drug growers were responsible.

In a murder mystery of a type not seen since Feilding farmer Scott Guy was gunned down in his driveway in 2010, police say they have received more than 30 calls with strong tips but are having trouble sorting fact from rumour.

Detective Inspector Mark Loper told the Sunday Star-Times yesterday that a motive for the killing was yet to be established, but police are still convinced it was deliberate. "We don't believe it's random. Something has occurred for this to happen," Loper said.

Taiaroa, 67, was working as a stop-go traffic controller for HEB Construction near Atiamuri on Tuesday when he signalled for a car to stop. When the car drove off, he was on the ground with a bullet wound.

Fewer than 100 people live in the tiny settlement of Atiamuri, between Taupo and Rotorua, and these days many houses are holiday homes for Aucklanders. Taiaroa had been staying there while working on a construction site and had been out drinking several times at the Pukeko and Bull Hotel.

Those living in the town had a number of theories, but consistent themes have emerged.

A source who requested anonymity told the Sunday Star-Times the 4x4 vehicle police were seeking in relation to the cold-blooded murder was stolen from former MasterChef contestant Petley in Putaruru last year.

Petley last night said he was shocked, but confirmed he had no idea what had happened to his blue ute. Since Tuesday, police have described the blue vehicle as a "Jeep Cherokee-type" 4x4 but new information indicates a blue ute, like Petley's, was also seen in the area.

A contractor, who would only give his name as Josh, was one of the first on the scene, arriving as workmates tried to revive Taiaroa. He saw a dark blue ute speed through the area.

Police would not confirm or deny the Petley link, saying they would not comment on specific pieces of information "that may or may not sit within the investigation as to do so could jeopardise its progress".

A blue Jeep Cherokee was discovered abandoned and wrecked behind the Whakamaru service station on Wednesday, but police have ruled it out as being the vehicle they are seeking.

The source also said: "I was told that the licence plates were not on the truck when the man was shot."

This matches other tips police have received from locals.

Atiamuri resident Erina Maui described the road where Taiaroa was shot as a haven for poachers and drug growers. They routinely race through the area's network of logging roads, armed and with no licence plates on their vehicles.

"People have seen poachers and people going to check their weed [marijuana] crops out there sometimes. You know it's them because they sometimes don't have licence plates. I heard it was drug-related, but I don't know."

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Loper said police believed the killer may have local knowledge, due to the way the car drove off down the "web" of rural and forest roads.

Similarly, police are sifting through a tangled web of leads, with a number of suspects nominated. A full investigation into Taiaroa's past is also under way, including a tip that the shooting was a vengeance killing after he helped put a man in jail around 10 years ago.

Several people, including an HEB employee, have given similar information to the Star-Times.

"It's pretty much what is going around our circles is that the man that shot George had just done a long lag in prison and was on the run."

Loper said police had made inquiries but were yet to establish a case in which Taiaroa was a witness. "However, we will consider every piece of information and rumour," Loper said.

In a later statement to the Sunday Star-Times, police said they welcomed "all information and whether it is provided as rumour or fact, its relevance to the inquiry will be assessed".

Loper said anyone who came forward with information was assured of confidentiality.

The investigation team can be reached directly on 0800 Kingswood (0800 546 479). Alternatively information can be provided anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

A private tangi for Taiaroa was held yesterday, a haka ringing out as the white hearse left his family marae followed by family and friends in a cortege of 20 cars.

More than 100 mourners paid their respects at Ngatokowaru Marae in Levin, including co-workers at HEB and staff from Te Wananga o Raukawa, where his wife of 43 years, Helen, works.

- Sunday Star Times

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