On Monday, 528 days since a terrorist gunman carried out mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, he will come face to face with his victims and their families.
This is the day when sentencing begins for Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 29, on 51 charges of murder, 40 charges of attempted murder and a charge of committing a terrorist act in a hearing due to start at 10am in the city’s High Court.
The Australian national, who entered surprise guilty pleas in late March, could become the first person in New Zealand to be jailed for life without parole.
While details of Operation Curtain, the major security operation surrounding the high-profile, unprecedented sentencing, are a closely guarded secret, Stuff understands law enforcement agencies have been quietly working on it for months.
The gunman, who’s been held in isolation at Auckland Prison, the country’s only specialist maximum security facility, since his arrest, was flown to Christchurch on a New Zealand Defence Force aircraft – a C-130 Hercules – on Sunday afternoon accompanied by a small, hand-picked group of dedicated Corrections staff responsible for his management.
For the duration of the sentencing, he is being held at the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct where he can be escorted from a cell below ground to the courtroom, rather than having to be transported between the court and Christchurch Men’s Prison every day. This is mainly to mitigate the risk of him being attacked while in transit.
The cell, where he’ll be monitored around the clock when not in court, is thought to have been fitted with special screens on the outside to prevent people using the lift to the High Court from seeing him.
When the terrorist walks into court, the level of restraint he’ll be subject to is unclear, but in the past high-risk individuals, such as double killer Russell John Tully, have been manacled to chairs and cuffed to prison officers during court hearings.
On Sunday, security outside the justice precinct, which combines the city’s main police station and court buildings, was tight. Armed police stood guard, surrounding roads – Tuam and Lichfield streets – were blocked and two military all-terrain vehicles were present.
Canterbury district commander Superintendent John Price previously said there would be a heightened police presence in the city prior to and during the sentencing.
It’s understood police have visited a number of high risk individuals, some with known ties to white supremacy, in the city and other parts of the country in recent weeks. They’ve been closely monitoring discussions on online forums and message boards.
Anyone entering the court this week will be subject to rigorous screening.
Only essential court services such as priority proceedings, criminal arrests and urgent Youth Court matters will be running while the sentencing is underway, and court counters have been temporarily closed.
The sentencing, which will take place in front of Justice Cameron Mander, will start with a reading of the summary of facts which could shed light on some of the unanswered questions that still remain after the massacre.
It is then expected that victims will begin reading their statements describing the impact of the terror attack. These will continue on Tuesday and likely through Wednesday with at least 66 victims indicating they would like to read, or have their statements, read in court.
Following the conclusion of the victim impact statements, the shooter will have an opportunity to address the court.
The sentencing hearing is expected to conclude on Thursday. However, if more time is needed the hearing will resume on Monday, as Friday is the Muslim day of prayer.
Significantly fewer people will be able to attend the sentencing due to level 2 coronavirus restrictions meaning fewer victims and their support people will be allowed in the main courtroom. Proceedings will be streamed to seven overflow courtrooms with a total of 230 people able to be present.
While 11 New Zealand news organisations and 18 overseas media organisations have applied to report on the sentencing, live reporting of the proceedings has been prohibited.
News of the hearing will be embargoed until the lunchtime and end-of-day adjournments.
THE KEY NUMBERS
– 35 people allowed in the main courtroom under alert level 2.
– 66 victims have indicated their intention to read victim impact statements.
– 7 courtrooms are reserved for victims not in the main courtroom.
– 47 have entered New Zealand from overseas through a special exemption process for the sentencing.
– 29 local and international media organisations have signalled their intent to report on the sentencing.
The unanswered Questions:
On March 15 last year, an Australian white supremacist left the Dunedin home he rented, drove to Christchurch and fatally shot 51 people at two mosques. Much has been reported about the terror attack, but questions remain. Blair Ensor and Martin van Beynen report. (This article was first published in March and is being resurfaced ahead of Monday’s sentencing for the shooter.)
WHO VOUCHED FOR THE TERRORIST SO HE COULD GET HIS FIREARMS LICENCE?
The gunman filed an application for an A-category firearms licence in Dunedin in September 2017, a month after he arrived in New Zealand. That licence type, the one commonly held by hunters in New Zealand, allowed him to own guns that could easily be converted into military-style semi-automatic weapons, using unregulated parts.
According to police, he initially listed an Australian family member as one of his referees, but because that person did not reside in New Zealand, as required, new referees were requested.
The gunman provided two further referees who, police said, met the requirements of the process and were interviewed face to face by a police firearms vetting officer.
Police visited his rented home in Somerville St, Andersons Bay, in October 2017. At that time, he was interviewed by the vetting officer and the property was inspected to ensure it was up to scratch.
Following that visit, police said “the available information was reviewed”. The licence was approved in November 2017.
According to the Firearms Licence application form, one of the references must be a “spouse, partner or next of kin” and the other must be a “person who is unrelated … and over 20 years of age and knows you well”.
Police say that if an applicant doesn’t have a spouse, partner or next of kin they will be “the person who … is likely to know them best in a personal sense”.
The identity of the gunman’s referees remains one of the crucial questions yet to be answered publicly.
There’s no evidence the terrorist had a job in Dunedin, or that he had forged any friendships or relationships of note in such a short space of time. Who vouched for him?
Since this article was first published in March, Stuff has reported, based on information from police sources, that the gunman was wrongly granted a firearms licence due to a string of police failures.
His referees were a Cambridge father and son who knew him through an internet chatroom, the sources said.
The terrorist’s licence application came at a time when the Dunedin arms office was overloaded with applications and they were being shunted through at speed.
Police said they were unable to comment about the revelations at the time due to the ongoing Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terror attack.
WHERE DID THE TERRORIST GET THE GUNS USED IN THE MASSACRE?
The gunman had at least six guns in his car shortly before he entered the Masjid An-nur, also known as the Al Noor Mosque, on Deans Ave. Two of them were military-style semi-automatic AR-15s.
Police later said they’d recovered five weapons in the aftermath of the shooting (police previously wouldn’t clarify the inconsistency while the matter was before the courts). The Prime Minister said they were two semi automatic rifles, two shotguns and a lever action firearm. The gunman began purchasing the weapons in December 2017. They were obtained legally, but appeared to have been modified with the addition of high capacity magazines, making them illegal for someone with an A-category licence to own.
In the wake of the shooting, Gun City owner David Tipple told Stuff police had shown him a list of eight to 12 guns the gunman owned. Tipple said he reviewed his business’ records and found the terrorist bought four A-category weapons and ammunition via mail order from his store between December 2017 and March 2018. The gun dealer is adamant he did not sell the gunman either of the AR-15s.
Police investigating how the terrorist obtained the guns used in the shooting questioned staff at Reloaders Supplies in Auckland, a shop that’s been selling guns and ammunition for 35 years. The store’s manager Scott Stonex previously said his business was cooperating with investigators. Police had asked him not to speak to the media.
WHY DID THE TERRORIST CHOOSE CHRISTCHURCH AS A TARGET?
On March 15, the gunman could have attacked the Al Huda Mosque on Clyde St, Dunedin, a 10-minute drive from his home. Instead, he ventured 350 kilometres north to Christchurch. Why?
In his manifesto, the terrorist says New Zealand was not originally intended as the location for the attack – he only intended to plan and train here – but he soon learned it was a “target rich environment”. He also highlighted how a mass shooting in a country such as ours would show “no where in the world is safe”.
The mosque in Dunedin was the obvious target. However, a larger Muslim population frequented the mosques in Christchurch and attacking those buildings allowed for an additional assault on the mosque in Ashburton. He also noted one of the Christchurch mosques, presumably the Masjid An-nur, was a more prominent and “optically foreign” building, with a “prior history of extremism”.
Stuff previously reported that Daryl Jones and Christopher Havard, two suspected al Qaeda terrorists killed in a United States drone strike in Yemen, had attended the mosque.
Jones converted to Islam in Australia where it’s believed he was radicalised. Havard’s parents previously said they believed their son was radicalised in Christchurch, claims vehemently denied by the city’s Muslim leaders.
WHAT WERE THE TERRORIST’S PLANS FOR THE BOMBS STASHED IN HIS CAR?
Despite shooting dead scores of people, the gunman’s attack at the Masjid An-nur in Deans Ave doesn’t appear to have unfolded as he’d hoped.
In the boot of his car were at least two red petrol containers with what appeared to be devices strapped to them.
After leaving the mosque, the gunman can be heard in his streamed video saying he’d left too early and there was “time for the fuel”. Much of the audio after that is inaudible, but he talks of wanting to burn “the mosque to the ground”.
The petrol bombs – what the police referred to as improvised explosive devices – were disarmed and secured after his arrest.
There’s no way of knowing whether he’d have used them if he’d made it to his third target, a mosque in Ashburton.
DID THE TERRORIST GET FINANCIAL SUPPORT FROM THE FAR-RIGHT?
As already mentioned, the gunman didn’t appear to have a job in New Zealand, so how was he able to finance his life here?
According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald last year, it’s thought the terrorist received a share of a possible $500,000 payout his father received as compensation for an illness commonly caused by exposure to asbestos. He also claimed to have made money from cryptocurrency investments.
Whether that was enough to sustain his lifestyle in New Zealand will have been of keen interest to investigators exploring whether he had other backing.
It’s known the gunman travelled extensively in Europe, visiting Austria, the home of Martin Sellner, the leader of a far-right group. Sellner told the BBC the pair never met, but they’d exchanged emails. The gunman later donated about $2500 to Sellner’s cause and Austrian authorities have investigated links between the pair, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Nothing has surfaced yet to suggest the gunman, who said he acted alone, received any money from overseas. Whether police have uncovered evidence to the contrary remains unknown.
WERE RED FLAGS MISSED?
The major unknown is whether New Zealand authorities missed any warning signs.
This question is the essential focus of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the shootings, along with whether enough was being done to investigate extreme far-right activities in the country prior to March 15.
Much of the investigation has been conducted in secret. The inquiry, which has been granted several extensions, has until November 26 to submit its final report.
The commission will no doubt look at the gunman’s involvement with Dunedin gun clubs, which he used as training grounds for the attack. He was a member of the Bruce Rifle Club in Milburn in South Otago, and at least one other club in the area.
Former military machine gunner Pete Breidahl said he raised concerns with police about the culture at the Bruce Rifle Club following a visit in November 2017. Police said they had no record of any complaints from Breidahl, who was charged with a firearms possession offence after going public – for which he was discharged without conviction after pleading guilty, the judge citing his remorse, that it was his first offence and his desire to travel to the United States.
The club’s vice president Scott Williams previously told Stuff there were no warning signs the gunman was preparing to commit such an atrocity. “We certainly don’t breed any mass killers.”