12 Dec 2008

12 convicted over Wanganui toddler's death

9:06 pm on 12 December 2008

Just one of 13 men originally charged over their involvement in the death of a Wanganui toddler in a drive-by shooting has walked away a free man.

Three of the accused on Friday were found guilty of murdering two-year-old Jhia Te Tua, who was asleep at her parents' home when fatally shot on 5 May 2007.

Luke Check, who was accused of being an accessory to murder, was the only person to be acquitted.

Many of those arrested have gang links and pleaded guilty before the trial to a range of charges - from manslaughter to participating in an organised criminal group. They have been sentenced to jail terms.

On Friday, a jury at the High Court in Wellington reached verdicts on five men being tried over Jhia's death.

Hayden Wallace, the man who fired the fatal shot, was found guilty of murder.

Karl Check, the man who ordered the shooting, was found guilty of murder.

Ranji Forbes, the man who drove Wallace to the shooting, was found guilty of murder.

Richard Puohotaua was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter, but was convicted of participating in an organised criminal group on the night Jhia died.

The men will be sentenced in February, along with Godfrey Muraahi and Erueti Nahona, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter during the trial, which began on 10 November.

The jurors were visibly moved, with many in tears as the foreman delivered their verdicts on Friday.

Earlier convictions

James Challis and Tyrone Box earlier pleaded guilty to manslaughter and have been jailed for seven years.

Chance Church, Ken Smith, Michael Kumeroa and Noel Broughton each pleaded guilty at depositions hearings to being a member of an organised criminal group.

They have been sentenced to various jail terms.

Police pleased with verdicts

Detective Senior Sergeant David Kirby, who led the police case, says he is pleased with the guilty verdicts for three of the four men charged with Jhia's murder.

Mr Kirby says it is a great end to what has been a long investigation, with more than 23,000 pages of documents given to defence counsel.

He says the trial has sent a message to gangs in Wanganui that such behaviour will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.

More than 100 witnesses gave evidence during the trial, some on condition of anonymity.

Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws says Jhia Te Tua's death exposes the true evil of gangs, and should serve to remind people that nothing good ever comes of gangs or gang membership.

Mr Laws says the verdicts will allow the community to move on and he congratulated police on their investigation and successful prosecutions.

He says Wanganui District Council has a bill before Parliament to ban gang patches in nominated public areas, and the city must continue its war against the scourge of gangs.