Friday, always Friday for Natalie Jane Bracken. She was sentenced this morning to 12 months imprisonment for her crazed role in one of the most deeply felt murders in recent New Zealand history – the killing of Constable Matthew Hunt, shot four times in the back when he got out of his car on twisty Renella Drive, up high in the hills and pylons of Massey in West Auckland. He was shot and killed on June 19 last year. It was on a Friday, at around the same time of morning that Bracken appeared in front of Justice Geoff Venning in the High Court of Auckland, and he said to her, “You have potential”.
Bracken acted as the getaway driver. She was having a cup of tea – and according to the Crown this morning, something a lot stronger – at a neighbour’s house on Renella Drive when she heard a loud car crash, followed by a woman’s scream. She ran outside. A large young man called Eli Epiha had crashed his car into the back of another vehicle, hitting the owner, who was lucky not to have died on the scene; it was his wife’s scream that Bracken heard, and which she thought must be someone “getting a hiding”.
She saw Epiha. He was armed with two assault weapons. A police car arrived, and when the cops got out, Epiha started firing. Bracken saw one of the officers, David Goldfinch, run like hell – in Epiha’s words, describing his own attempts that Friday morning, “he gapped it”. Epiha shot at him and hit him in the lower body four times. Constable Matthew Hunt then got out of the cop car. Epiha approached. Hunt turned, and was shot four times. Bracken saw most or some of this sudden attack. One of the things she did was help the woman drag her husband to safety. The other thing she did was run back inside the neighbour’s house, grab the car keys, and then drive Epiha away from the scene of the crime, as the sirens of cop cars drew closer.
She had originally been charged with accessory after the fact of murder. At her trial, her lawyer Adam Couchman, in an incredible sleight of hand, took the judge and the prosecution completely unawares when he submitted that the charge be amended on account of the fact Matthew Hunt was not, in fact, dead at the time Bracken performed her getaway routine, and therefore had not, at that point, been murdered. No one can argue that someone is dead when they are alive and the charge was amended to accessory after the fact to wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
Couchman was less successful at Friday’s sentencing. He once more played the defence line that Bracken had surely prevented further “bloodshed” by her own actions. Justice Venning reminded him the jury had found her guilty. Couchman headed immediately down another blind alley with some very fine talk about “actus rea” – the criminal act – until the judge reminded him that Bracken was appearing for sentence. Justice Venning said, “We’re not too…uh…” He looked for the right word, and found it: “refined, about legal issues at this stage.”
Sentencing is rather more blunt. Justice Venning examined the precedents for penalties for getaway drivers, and referred to a man who drove a fellow gang member away from a murder, and a woman who drove away her partner from the scene of a shooting. These were useful precedents but actually, they were completely different from the Bracken case. In both cases, they knew the accused, and acted out of friendship, love, loyalty, that sort of thing. Bracken had no idea who the hell Epiha was. She acted impulsively, really still quite inexplicably. The only clue came at today’s sentencing when Crown Prosecutor Brian Dickey mentioned almost in passing that on the morning of the incident, Bracken had taken methamphetamine.
Bracken is 31. At her trial, she ironed her hair straight, and applied very good make-up. “People speak positively of you,” the judge told her this morning. “You can still turn your life around.” Her family was described as loving, and supportive; there was a reference that she was the mother of twins.
“He would have risked his life to save yours and your children’s,” Matthew Hunt’s mother Diane told Bracken when she read out her victim impact report. It was a short speech and it was delivered in terrible grief and considerable bitterness. “Your selfishness is unbelievable.”
Selfish, impulsive, out of it on P – her actions continue to barely make any sense. Two of her friends rushed out with her that Friday morning, and then rushed back inside. They knew it was none of their damned business. Bracken decided it was very much her business, and conducted it while a policeman, aged 28, lay dying on the road. Her pre-sentenced report had recommended home detention. Justice Venning preferred jail. It wasn’t the final chapter of the events of June 19, 2020 – Epiha will be sentenced on October 30 – but for Natalie Bracken, the woman who weirdly and mysteriously helped a stranger resist capture after he had opened fire on two police officers, it was the final door, closing.
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