Hell in the heartland

THERE'S a family portrait of sorts given pride of place on Myra Iraia's living room wall. It features her sons, Edward and Harmyn, their mates, and the popular Auckland rapper "Young Sid" Diamond.

 The young men in the photograph are throwing up their middle fingers, the salute of the Tribesmen gang. Diamond, a member of the hip-hop group Smashproof, is the son of a former president of the gang's Auckland chapter. In April, Smashproof's track "Brother" broke "Sailing Away's" 23-year record for the longest reign at the top of the charts by a local single.

There's nothing exceptional about the pose here in the gang's heartland, it's as commonplace as saying "cheese". What's striking is that one of the fingers Edward is brandishing at the camera has since been blown clean off. The 21-year-old on the far left of the picture now faces attempted murder charges for a rifle attack on Edward and Harmyn. And the bandanna-masked 16-year-old to Diamond's left is dead. Jordan Herewini was killed in nearby Murupara in January, when he was run down, then reversed over, by Mongrel Mob members driving his family's stolen ute.

Police say the community has to reclaim the village from the ‘thugs’, but Tribesmen leader Peter Hunt says the gang is the community.
Photo: Lawrence Smith
Police say the community has to reclaim the village from the ‘thugs’, but Tribesmen leader Peter Hunt says the gang is the community.

Kaingaroa Forest Village is a handful of scruffy streets, an isolated central North Island town surrounded by the largest planted forest in the southern hemisphere. It's a favoured hideaway for dope growers. It has about 480 residents (nearly 90% of whom are Maori), no permanent police presence and plenty of unlicensed guns.

Iraia is a member of the village's governing council, and publisher of its community newsletter. The rifle attack on her sons three weeks ago had its origins in May, with a late-night altercation that prompted an AOS call-out.

After bottles were thrown from the property of Harmyn's father, Errol MacPherson, into the yard next door, an argument broke out, resulting in MacPherson and his brother, Neil, allegedly smashing their way into the neighbour's house. Neil received serious facial injuries from patu blows. When the pair returned with reinforcements, pulling wheelies on the lawn in their vehicle, the neighbour allegedly fired a rifle into the ground.

Tensions remained high between the families, the younger generation taking up their fathers' squabble. When Iraia's sons "rarked up" their dirt-bikes on the lawns of their enemy's mate early one Sunday morning last month, it was read as a provocation. The brothers were paid a visit at home by armed young men, and the situation swiftly escalated.

At 9.30am, Harmyn and Edward were in their truck when they were boxed in by two vehicles, and shot four times with a rifle. Harmyn MacPherson, a 19-year-old mill worker, was wounded in the shoulder; his 21-year-old half-brother Edward Iraia, a forestry gang worker, lost two fingers. Their brother Tane, 16, rushed with a machete to the home of the man who had complained about their dirt-bikes, and started smashing things. "I went crazy," he explains, showing the 19 stitches in his forearm which resulted.

Local sympathy for the boys has been muted. The brothers have some notoriety as members of a crew of 20-odd young people, styled the KSE or "Kaingaroa Street Elite", blamed by many in the community for thieving, selling drugs, and tagging the Tribesmen's name throughout the village.

Like their South Auckland counterparts the Killer Beez (all but defunct following a major police meth bust last year), the group consists of younger relatives of Tribesmen and their associates. Edward and Harmyn count the local gang president, a Kaingaroa resident, as an uncle. They don't formally belong to the Tribesmen, but identify with them nonetheless: the KSE wear the senior gang's colours and paraphernalia, and help out around their Murupara pad.

A few minutes' walk away from Iraia's home, two sisters on the other side of the conflict are sitting in their kitchen, drinking bourbon RTDs. (They cannot be named, because to do so would identify their brother, who has been charged in Youth Court.) A hole in the wall remains, where one of the senior MacPhersons was thrown during the May incident.

It's the eve of the elder sister's 20th birthday, although she has little to celebrate. Her father, 16-year-old brother, and the father of her unborn child are all in custody because of the feud, the latter two charged with attempted murder for the shootings. She and her sister, 17, are holding the fort now, raising their 11-year-old brother on their own. They feel increasingly uncomfortable leaving the house, because of claimed harassment from the MacPhersons' supporters.

"It will only take one night for them to get drunk and get silly again. It will happen," the older girl says. "But we're not going anywhere. This house is our life; our dogs are buried in the backyard. If they try to get at us, they'll lose. We could easily get them a hiding or get them killed, because we've got those kind of connections."

Her incarcerated boyfriend is himself the son of a Tribesman; he wears his father's patch in the photo on Iraia's wall.

Because both sides are associated with the Tribesmen, the police consider the shooting to be not gang-related. Similarly, the local gang chapter, which has six members in Kaingaroa, sees the feud as none of its business, and has not intervened.

But while it may not have arisen from inter-gang conflict, the shooting was, in every other sense, gang-related. The codes of aggression, territoriality and retribution which fuelled it are all part of a deeply rooted gang culture which has plagued Kaingaroa since the Tribesmen's previous incarnation, the Wairap Mob, emerged from the village's forestry camps. In the decades since, Kaingaroa has stagnated under dysfunctional leadership, deteriorating from a bustling rural community into another of the rotten, forgotten gang towns that shame our country, should anyone ever notice them.

TO GET to Kaingaroa, head south of Rotorua for half an hour, turn off SH38 at a road sign peppered with gunshot, and drive for 5km into the forest until you arrive in a different country.

Built in the 1950s as a hub of the forestry industry, "K-Raw" was a thriving village of about 1500 people throughout the 1960s and 70s. "The place was humming jobs galore," says Sgt John Cassidy of Rotorua police, who lived in the village during its heyday, and considered it a great place to grow up.

John Laing, a resident who spent 30 years as deputy then principal of Kaingaroa Forest School, said that living on "Granny Forestry Service" turf meant that the village generally remained law-abiding, despite its blue-collar make-up.

"If anyone did step out of line in the village, it was like stepping out of line at your job. You'd be out of there."

In the 1980s, the forestry sector was privatised, and the village dwindled to less than half its former size. Kaingaroa was earmarked for demolition, until a group of stalwart locals petitioned the government to save it.

They won but, in doing so, may have simply condemned their village to a slow, undignified death. The community's leadership drifted away to seek new employment; many of those who remained watched their children slink into lives of unemployment, gangs and crime. Into the vacuum came undesirables: transient associates of the town's gang population, drawn to Kaingaroa's cheap rents, squatting opportunities, and perceived isolation from the law. (The nearest police station is 25km away in Murupara; Cassidy says Kaingaroa has a culture of under-reporting of crime.)

Today, half of Kaingaroa is a ghost town of derelict buildings. Former community hubs a swimming pool, a playcentre are defaced with graffiti, fenced off with barbed wire. At least 20 homes are uninhabitable, stripped of anything of value.

A complex incorporating defunct institutions such as the single men's camp, the chartered club, the sports hall, is a boarded-up wasteland of dented roller doors and broken glass. In the middle of this mess is the village's marae, Te Huingawaka, housed in an old cookhouse; its urupa; and a kaumatua unit, where a couple of elderly residents still live. Someone has stolen the latch off the cemetery gates.

Locals bristle at outsiders photographing the dereliction; they're understandably protective of their home. At the village's administration centre, where three staff knock about in a comically oversized office complex left behind by the Forest Service, the council chairperson, Jan Bolton, refuses to give interviews, citing previous negative coverage of the village. "Why didn't you write about when I was runner-up in the Enterprising Rural Women Awards?" she asks, and suggests any information on the village can be found at the Rotorua Public Library.

Retiree Marge Parker, who moved from Kawerau three years ago, says Kaingaroa's problems "the little things like the drive-by shootings and that" are the same as you'd find anywhere else, only more noticeable in a small town.

Despite that, she says, "there are heaps of good points. Where else can you get free firewood and they bury you for free?"

Villagers are quick to point out Kaingaroa's other undeniable charms: its proximity to nature, the relaxed pace of life, the minimal living expenses, the warmth of (most of) the people. As Cassidy points out, "the good people outnumber the bad". Most of Kaingaroa's residents are decent, their homes as good as anybody else's in the country.

But he remembers a time when residents did not live in fear. "I feel for the good people that are scared to leave their front door sometimes," he says. "The community has got to take back the village from these thugs."

THE FLAW in this proposal is neatly identified by a mohawked man with a skull tattooed, in profile, on either side of his face. "We are the community," says Peter Hunt, better known as "E.I.", the Tribesmen's self-described "team leader".

Sitting in his living room (a portrait of Rua Kenana on the shelf; Slayer and Van Halen CDs in the rack), with a hot drink and a chocolate biscuit, Hunt says the gang has matured in outlook since emerging from the thug jamboree that was the forestry camps of Kaingaroa's heyday.

"Back in the day, it was: `Down with the public, the government, the po-lice.' Now it's just: `Down with the government, and the po-lice.' We've learned how to live with our community."

Support for his claim comes in the unexpected affection occasionally verging on reverence with which the gang is regarded in Kaingaroa. Not just from delinquents, but from adults interested in improving the community.

"They were such an awesome gang when I was growing up," says Kiya Ransfield, leader of a community development group. Former school principal John Laing speaks fondly of the way Tribesmen used to help with school maintenance, and coaching sports, although he admits this has tapered off. One of his son's childhood league team photos was taken in the gang's pad.

The closest to criticism you'll hear of the gang is a mild dismay they have lost control of the young associates who cause grief in their name.

Hunt acknowledges the gang's influence over the youth of Kaingaroa, his home of 19 years, saying "they're inspired by what we do".

"They see us ride our motorcycles. We go right across the country when they can't even get out of the square." He says he does not like the Tribesmen's name spraypainted by young "wannabes" across the village, and thinks the boys involved in the shootings were "idiots". But he is reluctant to rein them in.

"I can, to a certain extent, put the finger down if I want to. But I haven't exercised that authority," he says. "I don't like to growl. That's what happened to us, and I don't want to do the same to our young ones coming through."

ECHALON MORUNGA has been meaning to make improvements to her home for some time, but has had too many diversions. "We've had tangi after tangi," she says.

It's not just the elders dying. Her teen daughter died four years ago, after being hospitalised with seizures; a clairvoyant told Morunga it was "because of the P". She's buried in the village urupa, a yellow scarf tied to her cross. Bongs and beer bottles line the fringes of other graves in the cemetery plot.

To her daughter's left, his headstone adorned with skulls and a Harley-Davidson, lies a Tribesman who swallowed cyanide a decade ago. To her right, a Black Power logo on his gravestone, lies David "Blue" Poumako, who died, aged 27, in Paremoremo, having cemented the term "home invasion" in the national lexicon with the murder of Beverly Bouma.

There was another funeral, just days earlier. Brian Pari, one of Kaingaroa's good guys, died at just 47. He too had lost a teenager recently. Pari had been leading efforts to transform

an abomination of a building into a drop-in centre. Now, Morunga, heading the project's planning committee, fears the project could fall by the wayside.

"He had the knowledge of measurement," she says, as if it were an esoteric science.

That a building project in a rural town could be abandoned for lack of anybody with measurement skills illustrates the crisis of leadership in Kaingaroa. It's a village where even the Tribesmen have abdicated the role of community influence, which some have looked to confer upon them. As Ransfield puts it: "No one takes an interest beyond their fence line these days."

Kaingaroa's governance arrangements are described as dysfunctional and secretive both by councillors, and those who elected them. A fog of rumour and mystery surrounds the activities of the village administration.

Council members Iraia, a homemaker, and Eynon, a forklift driver, complain they have been unable to learn details of Kaingaroa's finances. Basic questions such as whether the region falls under the ambit of a larger regional council, and who really wields power in the administration remain unanswered, let alone the broader issue of why the administration is failing its residents so badly. The only thing clear is that the village is in trouble.

"We've been told there's money invested but we don't know where," says Eynon, adding that it took a visit from Internal Affairs to explain to councillors that "the village manager works for you, you don't work for him". "We didn't know that before."

The manager in question is Rawiri Te Whare, a former Waiariki Institute of Technology Maori studies lecturer. Te Whare, who lives in Rotorua, is widely perceived as devoting more energies to his other work as Te Arawa's chief treaty settlement negotiator.

"With his involvement in all the treaty stuff, they've forgotten about our little village," says Ransfield. The 29-year-old mother-of-four formed the community group Te Ahi Whakamura (The Burning Light) last year, in response to the village administration's inability to deliver basic services like street lighting. The group has secured $22,000 from a Rotorua District Council safety fund to replace the village's streetlights. Only 20 of 60 worked.

Ransfield's take on her village's predicament is blunt. "Everything's gotten out of hand. The people aren't educated enough [to fix things], and the ones that are, have let it slip. We want better. We deserve better."

TE WHARE is a very busy man, say Kaingaroa's administration staff. There's no way he will be available to deal with media inquiries.

It is not surprising that Te Whare has his hands full. As well as village manager, a post he has held for the past decade, he has a fulltime position as general manager for Te Pumautanga o Te Arawa, a trust representing 11 Te Arawa hapu, which he has held since 2003.

Te Whare, who was shortlisted last year as one of the New Zealand Herald's New Zealanders of the Year for his treaty negotiation work, says he believes he spends an "adequate" amount of time working for the village, fulfilling his contracted 30 hours a week. He had been "kind of hoping" his treaty settlement work would have some spin-offs for the village.

If Kaingaroa seems forgotten, isolated from the outside world, that's because, in an administrative sense, it is. The village, he explains, sits in a "no-man's land", beyond the jurisdiction of neighbouring councils. It receives rubbish collection and dog control services from Rotorua District Council, but, excepting the street lights, that was it.

When the Forest Service was disestablished, and the campaign to save the village had succeeded, Kaingaroa's buildings and infrastructure were handed over to an incorporated society the village council which would maintain the village, with revenue from rentals, rates and the sale of the village's houses. But throughout Te Whare's 10-year employment by Kaingaroa, the village has not been able to sustain itself.

Matters were not helped by the way the administration was managed by his predecessor. The council tried to run the village for three years, then hired Te Whare. He signed on for a $60,000 salary, then discovered the village had only $98,000 in its accounts. He subsequently arranged for funds to cover his salary to come from another source.

Te Whare says he has "hammered down doors" to get the village the funding it needs (although he has not approached anybody in the present government about the crisis in the village). The only significant contribution has been a Health Ministry grant of $1.3 million to replace the town's leaking, 50-year-old water reticulation system. It is nowhere near enough. Several years ago the council commissioned an engineering report which found it would take $4m to overhaul infrastructure to the point where it could be maintained at a cost of $1m a year. These days, he believes the overhaul would cost $5m-$6m.

The standard of the village is unacceptable, he admits, and acknowledges the obvious: that the deteriorating conditions in the village make it a breeding ground for social dysfunction and crime.

"If there's not government intervention, it will be very difficult for the village to survive." He seems not to have noticed that it hasn't.

Te Whare, who has suffered ill health recently, will shortly be leaving his role as village manager. Ten years ago, he left a "cushy academic job" to come to the village, because he felt a calling, and wanted to see if he could make a difference. He is not sure whether he has succeeded, but is certain of one thing: "That village wouldn't still be here today if I wasn't here. It would be even worse than what it is now. There would have been some government intervention. Someone would have insisted on it being closed up and relocated."

Regardless, he says: "I think if something of that nature does not happen, the village will not continue to exist."

Sunday Star Times