Three killings, no justice: 'It was an execution. It was arranged'

by Mike White / 12 June, 2019
Part three of three.

How does it feel to have a family member shot and killed – gunned down, point-blank – and then have nobody convicted for their death? One family knows, because it’s happened to them – not once, but three times. Mike White investigates the heartbreaking losses suffered by the Whatuira family and their longing for the truth to be told. This is part 3/3 of the investigation.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Trina Culling with her favourite photo of grandson Sam Culling, who was Poto Whatuira’s nephew and Wallace Whatuira’s first cousin. Photo/Mike White.

Trina Culling with her favourite photo of grandson Sam Culling, who was Poto Whatuira’s nephew and Wallace Whatuira’s first cousin. Photo/Mike White.

Samuel Culling

Aged 26. Killed Thursday 6 August, 2015, near Savage Cres, Palmerston North.

Trina Culling spends a lot of time out here, beside her grandson’s grave. She’ll bring a seat, and just chat to him, moan to him, watch the rooster that often patrols the cemetery.

“And I bring my lunch sometimes. I always bring something.”

Sam Culling was Poto Whatuira’s nephew, Wallace Whatuira’s first cousin. He was murdered in 2015, shot point-blank in the head from behind, sometime around midnight on a drizzly winter’s evening, somewhere in Palmerston North. He was 26 years old, had two young sons, and a grandmother who thought the world of him, despite the trouble he’d got into.

Sometimes when Trina sits here, she remembers when Sam was born, the black hair on his head standing up. “He was a beautiful child, he had a beautiful nature.”

And sometimes she remembers when Sam’s first son was born, how Sam cradled him, then brought him to Trina and placed the baby in her arms. “And that meant the world to me. He did the most treasured thing he could have ever done for me.”

And so she sits here at Palmerston North’s Kelvin Grove Cemetery, looks at Sam’s photo on the heart-shaped headstone, looks at the trinkets left by his sons: the toy T-Rex and stegosaurus, the action-man figure, the rocks painted with bright colours and smiley faces.

On the headstone is an adapted Bible verse: “Sam is in paradise with Jesus.” It refers to when Jesus was crucified, flanked by two robbers, one who defended Jesus and asked to be remembered by him. Jesus replied the “penitent thief” would be in heaven with him that day. Trina’s sure Sam is in heaven now.

Others in the family wanted a different Bible verse, from Revelation: “And they cried with a loud voice saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost though not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?’”

But Trina didn’t want to dwell on revenge, on Sam’s bloody end, on the fact nobody has been convicted for his murder. So she chose something positive for the inscription, while noting Sam was “tragically taken”.

Trina, who’d helped raise Sam and supported him through his tough times, bought a double plot at the cemetery, “So Sam won’t be alone. If another family member dies, they can be buried there. If I die before any of them, I’ll go down.”

When Sam died, she put a small toy lion and clown Sam had sent her for Christmas when he was 12, in his coffin. “I don’t know why. I always had them sitting up in the kitchen. And now I regret it. But at the time I thought, here’s something that both of us shared.”

In his last Christmas card, Sam wrote: “Merry Christmas Nana. I love you so much. What would I have done without you. Your grandson, Sam, always.”

Trina says Sam was the grandchild who needed her. “And I hadn’t realised, until after he died, how I needed him.”

She stands for a long time in front of the grave, black coat and white hair reflected in the headstone’s marble. “Bye Sam,” she eventually says, then turns and walks slowly away, the first shower of rain catching her just before she reaches the car.

Sam Culling with his sons.

Sam Culling with his sons.

Sam Culling kept telling everyone that someone was after him, that somebody was trying to get him. He would crouch low in cars, turn off the lights when inside, keep scanning the street and his surrounds. Everyone thought he was being paranoid, maybe smoking too much P, perhaps worried the cops were on his tail for something he’d done.

On the evening of 4 August 2015, Sam was on Palmerston North’s streets, drifting, a sawn-off shotgun and police scanner in his backpack, when he had a strange and fateful encounter.

Somewhere in Highbury, he met Hemi Te Poono, a 31-year-old Mongrel Mob member from Turangi, who was eventually charged with Sam’s murder. Te Poono had arrived in Palmerston North the day before to visit his mother and children, and was cruising for drugs when he saw Sam walking along the street. He yelled out, they got talking, and Te Poono invited Sam to jump in and go driving. In so many ways, it was an unlikely pairing.

Sam hadn’t been raised in the gangs, but had inevitably drifted towards Black Power. His father was John Whatuira, previously the gang’s Manawatu president, and that role was now held by one of Sam’s brothers, Hoani Rewi. Other family members were also patched, and there are photos of Sam wearing Black Power regalia. But by the time Sam met Te Poono, he appears to have switched his allegiance to the Rebels, a new gang trying to gain a foothold in Manawatu.

Te Poono had moved around as a child, and at 13 had been placed in the care of his uncle who was president of Turangi’s Mongrel Mob, and went to live at the gang pad.  

So for these two, from different towns and opposing gangs, to join up seems odd. But then, both were interested in the same thing – getting drugs – which overrode colours and loyalties. The pervasiveness of drugs on Palmerston North’s streets, particularly cheap methamphetamine, can’t be understated. According to one of Sam’s relatives at trial, “In our area, where we live, I just assume that most people use drugs.”

And Sam readily accepting a ride from Te Poono seems less strange when you consider he was wandering, homeless, and had texted a friend that day saying: “Feeling alone and need a friend.”

According to Te Poono, the pair tried to raid a house in nearby Bunnythorpe that evening, failed, let off a blast from Sam’s shotgun as they drove away, and then Te Poono dropped off Sam at a friend’s house.

The next evening, Wednesday, 5 August, Te Poono texted Sam: “Up to bro? I was with you last night. You on?” Te Poono eventually picked up Sam, they were seen on security cameras at a service station at 8.55pm, and... well, most of what happened thereafter is unknown, or we only have Hemi To Poono’s version of events to rely on.

What we do know is that around 9.30pm, Sam texted two women, asking if they wanted to join him and Te Poono. That was the last anyone heard from Sam. He didn’t reply when one woman texted back at 10.09pm.

About 7.45am the next day, truck driver Michael Gilmore was collecting recycling bins from Taeri Court, a small, lichen-flecked cul-de-sac barely bigger than a driveway, near the centre of Palmerston North, when he saw a man lying face down on the grass by one of the houses. He walked towards the person, calling out, “Hey mate, are you okay?” but got no response. Meanwhile, Teresa Winterburn had arrived at work next door, and also went over to the man on the ground, crouching beside him, and reaching to check his pulse, but could immediately tell he was dead, his skin pasty, a large wound on the left-side of his head. Winterburn backed away and called 111.

The man was wearing a black hoodie which was inside out, a cap, blue trackpants, socks and one shoe. When police rolled him over, they discovered a knife tucked into the band of his underwear.

An autopsy found he’d been killed by a shotgun blast to the back of his head that left a 50mm x 35mm wound and fractured his skull extensively. He would have died instantly. 

Fingerprints identified who the victim was: Sam Culling.

When Hemi Te Poono was arrested for Sam’s murder, a month later, he refused to give a statement to police. So the first details of what he claimed happened to Sam, were only revealed when Te Poono gave evidence at his trial, a year later.

Te Poono said that on that last evening, he and Sam again drove around, trying to find places to “go and get some drugs, kick the doors in, and stand over them”. At one point, he said they were surrounded by two or three cars he believed had Black Power members in them, and he fired a warning shot out the window using Sam’s shotgun. The pair smoked methamphetamine, and later returned to the area where they’d run into the Black Power members, around Savage Cres, to scope out a house to raid. Te Poono was in the driver’s seat and both had their windows down so they could see the house in the car’s wing mirrors.

Within minutes, somebody ran up behind the car, Te Poono said.

“I was looking out my side, and then I could hear it in [Sam’s] voice, he just told me, ‘Ah brother, go, go, go.’ He just sounded panicked.”

As Te Poono started the car and jammed it into gear, a shot was fired through the open passenger-side window, with experts estimating the shotgun barrel was between 25cm and 1m from Sam’s head. “I seen it out of my peripheral vision,” Te Poono said at trial. “I just seen, like, a flame. I didn’t see the gun, I didn’t see no one.”

Ears ringing from the blast, Te Poono took off, shouting, “Bro, bro,” but getting no response from Sam who was slumped forward.

“I could hear fuckin’ blood leaking out and shit. I had a look, there was blood all over the fuckin’ passenger seat. I didn’t know what to do, and fuck, you know, at the time he was my friend, he was my bro. He just got blown away in front of me ... I was shaken, high, fried. Fuckin’ heaps of things were going on, and I’m driving around trying to look at my bro, trying to call out to my bro, and he’s fuckin’ dead in the passenger seat.”

All Te Poono could think of, was pulling over and getting out of the car, so he swerved down Taeri Court, and leapt out, despite being just metres from several houses. “You know, I wasn’t gonna go to the police, I didn’t know where the hospital was, wasn’t gonna drive round with him in the car – and that’s when I thought, just pull him out of the car and leave him there.”

So he did. Pulled Sam Culling from the car and dumped him on the wet grass beside a flat, his left arm stretched out in front of him, his hood still up, blood seeping through it from his head, all life having slid away long ago.

Taeri Court, on the right, where Sam Culling’s body was dumped. After abandoning Sam here, Hemi Te Poono drove to a farmhouse where he thought a friend lived. The residents called police, who found Te Poono asleep in the garage when they arrived. Not noticing his bloodstained car or clothes, the police let him go. He was eventually arrested a month later. Photo/Mike White.

Taeri Court, on the right, where Sam Culling’s body was dumped. After abandoning Sam here, Hemi Te Poono drove to a farmhouse where he thought a friend lived. The residents called police, who found Te Poono asleep in the garage when they arrived. Not noticing his bloodstained car or clothes, the police let him go. He was eventually arrested a month later. Photo/Mike White.

In one corner of Trina Culling’s lounge there’s a bookshelf of family photos, four rows of framed smiles and memories. Many are of Sam, one of her 17 grandchildren, one she always felt a special bond with, maybe because she could see herself in him. One photo shows Sam in a nativity play, as Joseph. He’s six, maybe seven, smiling. “Before the world got at him,” says Trina.

Trina had four children of her own, ran a foster home for a while, had a lunch bar, a coffee bar, and helped look after Sam and his sister when they were young and lived beside her.

Though Sam’s father was a gang leader, John Whatuira had little to do with Sam’s life, his name isn’t on Sam’s birth certificate, and for a long time Sam didn’t know about his father or the gang links. When Sam was about 11, his mother, Wendy, married Atef Badawi and later went to live in Egypt. (Sam was also known as Sam Badawi, but would tell people that was his “criminal name”.) Trouble found Sam, or vice versa, he skipped a lot of school, spent time in boys’ homes and youth facilities. When he wasn’t there, he often stayed with Trina. A stint living with John Whatuira didn’t last long before Sam ran away. “Sam was a great runner,” says Trina, noting the 2007 manhunt when Sam escaped from a youth offending unit at Waikeria Prison. “He didn’t have any directions or guidance on how to handle his emotions. If he got upset, all he knew was to run – to get out.”

Trina has a stack of letters Sam wrote to her through this time. “They mean everything to me. I hide them under lock and key because I’ll never get them back again.”

They tell the story of Sam’s ups and downs – the downs winning out more often than not. He thanks Trina for things she’s sent him, and asks her to bring a Bible next time she visits. There are Christmas cards: “Well, I guess you heard that I’m back in here and that is sad coz I’m better than that, and we all know that. I don’t know what’s going on with me.”

There are fond but forlorn memories: “I miss how all of us used to be, back in the old days, like me, you, Mum and my two sisters, like when I was a bit smaller, like a kid. I miss running around your house and playing with things. But now it’s not like it was… I would die to be back like that, how I was. Nana, the thing on my mind now is that I don’t want to miss no more of those days. I want to feel like I’m at home again. Coz I don’t get that no more.”

The letters trace Sam growing up, his handwriting gradually getting better, the institutions getting tougher after he turns 18 and is sent to prison. “I’m going to have to handle it now, and have to be a man.”

But sometimes Sam was at a loss to know how to break out of his life, and how he got there in the first place: “It feels like I’m waking back in the past here … Can you tell me what went wrong or what happened to me. It’s about how I feel about everything. Love you always Nana, Sam xxx ooo.”

And after his sons are born but he still ends up in prison, there are new regrets. “They’re getting so big now. I can’t wait to hold them. It’s starting to hurt not being around them. It almost makes me cry. But it will be fine once I sort my things out.”

But Sam never did really sort his things out. He was in and out of jail, for things to do with driving, burglary, disorderly behaviour, guns. Between stints, he had two boys with his partner, Emma, was primary caregiver for their older son for a while, and started a mechanic’s qualification.

“But you’d see him take two steps forward then one back,” says Trina. “He just had so much hurt in him, so much heartbreak. But I couldn’t take the pain from him.”

It was another letter, however, that seems to have been crucial in Sam Culling’s final days.

In June 2015, while in Whanganui Prison, he wrote to the “Commissioner” of Corrections (chief executive) claiming prison officers were sneaking women into inmates’ cells.

When Trina Culling visited her grandson not long after, with Sam’s oldest son, she noticed a dramatic change in his appearance and mood. Sam was moving slowly, shuffling, and was extremely angry, clenching his fists at the four guards around them, “as if to say, ‘you come any closer and I’ll hit you.’” In more than 10 years visiting Sam in prisons, Trina had never seen him like this, and believed he’d been beaten, and may have been on drugs. “It wasn’t Sam. It was as if he’d given up on life.”

At the end of the meeting, as Trina and her great-grandson were leaving, prison guards pulled Sam back as he followed them. It was the last time Trina saw her grandson, the very last distressing image she has of him.

As she drove away from the prison, Sam’s son handed Trina a tightly folded letter and said, “Daddy told me to give you this when we’re off the prison grounds.” It was the letter to the head of Corrections with Sam’s allegations about women being smuggled into prisons, and other incidents.

After Trina posted it, Corrections told her it had investigated the allegations and they were false. (It refused to release details of this investigation until ordered to do so by the Ombudsman, after an appeal by North & South.) And nearly everyone spoken to for this story says it would be impossible for such a scam to exist within New Zealand prisons nowadays.

But Trina Culling believes Sam. The risks he took by speaking out indicate to her that he was telling the truth, and his appearance when she last saw him suggests he was suffering retribution for it. Her suspicions grew when Sam was suddenly transferred to Waikato’s Waikeria Prison, just days before his release in early July, with no explanation. (Corrections refuses to say why this occurred.) In a call from there, Sam said something big was going on, but he couldn’t tell Trina about it over the phone. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you when I see you.’ And I never saw him.”

Sam Culling is farewelled at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Palmerston North. Photo/Stuff Ltd.

Sam Culling is farewelled at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Palmerston North. Photo/Stuff Ltd.

When Sam was released from Waikeria in July 2015, he went to Tauranga, before arriving back in Palmerston North. His grandfather (Trina’s former husband) was alarmed by Sam’s behaviour and, believing Sam’s actions were due to drugs, he and Trina sought police help to get Sam into rehabilitation. The result was a trespass order against Sam, though it’s unclear if it was served.

In the fortnight before his murder, Sam moved around friends and family, many commenting on his paranoia, one even detailing how Sam thought government drones were following him.

On 4 August, Sam sent several texts to his brother, Hoani Rewi, Black Power’s Manawatu president, asking for a lift. Rewi angrily replied that he was busy, “and here you are thinking it’s all about you. Don’t ask me for anything from now. You’re fucking ungrateful and disrespectful.”

Sam texted back: “Brother, I need help.” Rewi responded: “Ring the fuckin’ Rebels.”

At Te Poono’s trial, Rewi explained how Sam joining a rival gang had affected him. “Our whole life’s been Black Power, it’s the only life we’ve known, and the day my brother went jumped ship, I was pretty heartbroken … I told my brother, when you want things from now on, you go and ask those c***s, don’t come and ask me. But I just wanted him to feel my pain, that I was hurt that he’d gone that way.”

It was that night Sam met Te Poono for the first time, and they tried to bust down the door of a Bunnythorpe house to get drugs. Te Poono eventually dropped Sam at the house of Yikitara Mataora, an old schoolfriend, who said Sam looked like he hadn’t slept for days. Before going to bed, Sam pulled a shotgun from his backpack and put it on the cabinet beside him.

The next morning, Sam took a photo of himself in a bedroom mirror. The curtains are still drawn and he’s dressed in black, wearing dark glasses and a cap, and a sweatshirt with RFFR written on the front: Rebels Forever, Forever Rebels. He’s holding his phone in one hand, and making the sign of a pistol with his other.

He posted this photo on Facebook, along with a message attacking those claiming he was a nark (someone dealing with the police or authorities), and boldly challenging his accusers.

“This goes out to y’all. Niggaz b snitching, man. You can call me ultra. FTW Rebel fuckin’ power. Second to none and fuck the rest. Till death finds me. Who’s scared bitches. You scared? Stop fuckin’ making me out to be all sorts of things cos I’m still here, out there in these streets, and soon I’ll be coming for you. I’m sick alright, pockets deep!!!”

“Niggaz” most likely refers to Black Power, the gang Sam had spurned to join the Rebels.

Later that day, 5 August, he asked Mataora to pick him up as it was “really hot around here”.

“He was saying people were cornering him everywhere,” Mataora said at Te Poono’s trial. “He was hiding from someone but I don’t know who it was.”

Sam also visited his brother, Aku Rewi and his partner Shauntae Timoti, who always had an open door for him. Sam was jumpy, but wouldn’t disclose who was after him, and Shauntae eventually dropped him at a friend’s house early that evening.

At 7.10pm Hemi Te Poono texted him, and Sam said to pick him up from Highbury’s shops. The last text message from Sam was at 9.38pm.

After Sam’s body was found, Black Power members started hunting for Te Poono. But while the gang suspected him, police initially didn’t, and this gave Te Poono time to clean his car, offload it, and burn his clothing.

It was only when Te Poono was seen dumping a sawn-off shotgun in a skip bin that police visited his mother’s house, where they found ammunition, and the charred remains of clothes Te Poono was wearing when Sam was shot. Blood was found by a tap, in the washing machine, laundry, hallway and bathroom, and under a clothes line, where Te Poono had lamely tried to clean up the mess in his car. When his Mercedes was recovered in Hamilton, it still had Sam’s blood throughout it.

The connection between Te Poono and Sam’s death seemed obvious, his guilt evident. Or so thought the police. So on 15 October, two detectives visited Te Poono, who was by then in Rimutaka Prison, read him his rights, and charged him with Sam’s murder. Sitting handcuffed, Te Poono stared back at them, and said nothing.

Hemi Te Poono, a Mongrel Mob member from Turangi, was eventually charged with Sam Culling’s murder. However, police could never come up with a motive for Te Poono executing Culling, nor prove which shotgun was used. With no witnesses, and many questions about the police case, the jury took just 90 minutes to acquit Te Poono. Photo/Stuff Ltd.

Hemi Te Poono, a Mongrel Mob member from Turangi, was eventually charged with Sam Culling’s murder. However, police could never come up with a motive for Te Poono executing Culling, nor prove which shotgun was used. With no witnesses, and many questions about the police case, the jury took just 90 minutes to acquit Te Poono. Photo/Stuff Ltd.

And that was the problem police had throughout their investigation and Te Poono’s trial.

The code of Highbury, fear of retribution, requisite staunchness, gang custom – all contributed to a silence that hindered police getting answers. At trial, one of Sam’s brothers, Richard Taffs, stated, “I never cooperate with the police at the best of times,” and admitted lying in his first police statement. “I just sold them a dream … to get them off my back so I could do my own digging.”

Despite knowing Te Poono, and both of them having children with the same woman, another of Sam’s brothers, Black Power president Hoani Rewi, refused to talk about him in court. “I’ve told you from the start, any questions asked about Hemi, I’ve got no answers for you. I don’t even want to be here today, I’ve been summonsed here.”

This reluctance to help the authorities reached almost farcical heights when Kohai Martin was asked about receiving Te Poono’s Mercedes shortly after Sam’s death. “Hold on,” she immediately told the court. “I just want to plead the fifth, your Honour. I’ve got nothing to say. I really want to plead the fifth and nothing but the fifth and nothing to say.”

It wasn’t until Te Poono himself took the stand, the trial’s final witness, that his version of Sam’s death was heard for the first time. In his telling, someone simply ran up behind the car as he and Sam sat parked in Savage Cres, and shot Sam from behind, through the window.

It might seem unlikely, or incredibly bad luck for Te Poono to be innocently caught up in an anonymous slaying and then implicated.

But the possibility couldn’t be discounted. And here are a few reasons why.

Despite it being obvious Te Poono was connected in some way to Sam’s death, police never came up with any motive for why he might have murdered him. He’d known Sam barely 24 hours, and the manner of the killing – shooting Sam in the head from behind – meant it was a deliberate execution, not something that happened during the heat of an argument.

If Te Poono did shoot Sam, why on earth would he do it while Sam was sitting in his car, with the certainty the mess would eventually be detected by police, no matter how much he cleaned it? Surely he would have shot Sam away from the car? And would a hyper-vigilant Sam really have allowed Te Poono to get out of the car with a loaded shotgun, come around to the passenger’s side, and fire at him without reacting? Police couldn’t rule out Sam might have been shot outside the car, then bundled into the passenger seat to be driven away. But no other murder site has been found, and this scenario makes little sense, for the same reasons as above – why put a bloody corpse in your car, only to dump it 2km away, with all the incriminating mess to clean up?

(Despite many attempts by North & South, police wouldn’t comment about Sam Culling’s case, or those of Poto Whatuira and Wallace Whatuira, citing “respect for the families of the victims” and “the passing of time”. They refused to say if they had actually contacted any family members to see if they wished police to comment; or why they wouldn’t comment on a case the Coroner had only just ruled on. Police claimed there was no connection between the cases, other than all the victims being from one family.)

Experts couldn’t say whether the shotgun that killed Sam was the same weapon Te Poono dumped in the skip bin three weeks later. And the jury didn’t know Te Poono had violently attacked four prison officers and two inmates with crude weapons, in four separate incidents while in custody, for which he was later sentenced to more than eight years’ jail.

So effectively, the jurors were presented with a case where there were no witnesses, no motive, no murder weapon, and no murder scene, other than the car – and that made little sense if you believed Te Poono was the killer. Whatever their considerations, they took just 90 minutes to find Te Poono not guilty.

As the crestfallen Whatuira family filed out, one of Sam’s aunts couldn’t contain herself. “That’s three now!” she cried, the memory of two nephews and a brother killed without anyone being convicted, too much to comprehend.

sam culling

Sam Cullling with one of his sons.

When two police officers arrived at her door and said Sam had been killed, Trina Culling insisted there’d been a mistake. “I thought they had the wrong person, because it’d take a hell of a lot to take Sam down. I didn’t believe it – until I saw him.”

Sam’s body was brought back to Trina’s house where it lay for two nights before his funeral, family members, gang members and Sam’s friends sleeping wherever they could find space on the floor.

Trina went to court each day during Hemi Te Poono’s trial, and grew more convinced Te Poono would be acquitted. Prior to the trial, Trina had shown the prosecutor photos of Sam from her living room shelves.

“And I put those seven photos in front of her and said, ‘This is my grandson – he’s got his son, he’s with his cousins – this is a real person I’m talking about. I don’t want him to come across in court as just a name on a piece of paper.’”

Trina wanted to show the jury these photos when she gave evidence, but wasn’t allowed. She wanted to tell them all the good things about Sam, but never got the opportunity. She wanted to share the story of the time Sam was waiting at court and got a pie for his lunch, then gave it to a stranger sitting nearby, telling Trina, “Nana, that boy needed it more than I did.” But they never asked her about these things. In the end, she understood why the jurors returned the verdict they did, but it didn’t make it any easier.

“When I was leaving Wellington this morning,” Trina said the day after the trial, “I just felt I was leaving something behind. And maybe the thing was not getting justice. Maybe that’s what I was leaving in Wellington.”

The fact she doesn’t know who killed Sam, and why they did it, makes it harder to deal with. The fact police have no interest in continuing any investigation, makes it worse. So does the fact nobody will speak up and help the police – and Sam’s devastated family. Now in her 70s, with fickle health, Trina prays she’ll know the truth before she dies.

What she already knows is that Sam’s death wasn’t a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, an accident, or bravado gone wrong.

“It would be easier for me to think that. But it was an execution. It was arranged. And how can they live with that on their conscience? How can they sleep at night? Just fill themselves with more drugs, more alcohol, that’ll fix it? I want to look them in the face and ask them, why? Because I don’t understand. What happened in their life to make them do that?

“I think Sam had known someone was after him for a long time. The signs were there. I just regret I didn’t see it.”

sam culling

On the day he was murdered, Sam Culling, wearing a Rebels gang sweatshirt, posted this photo on Facebook, with a defiant message for his enemies: “Soon I’ll be coming for you.”

Aku Rewi and Shauntae Timoti saw signs too, before Sam’s murder. Most of his life, Sam had been looking over his shoulder, on the run from the cops, his brother and sister-in-law say. “But in the last couple of weeks, I thought, yeah, there was more going on,” recalls Shauntae. “But he wouldn’t talk to me about it, wouldn’t go into details. He’d just sort of ask for advice. I’d just tell him to have a shower and a feed and stay home.”

That’s what they told him when he came to their house the afternoon before he was killed.

Lots of rumours swirled around Highbury’s streets after Sam’s murder, and Shauntae says she told the police everything, but they didn’t investigate the leads.

“I think they just picked their man and tried to build their case around that. I think [Te Poono] was the easiest person, the easiest solution, so they focused purely on him and I just think that’s where they stuffed up.”

After Te Poono’s acquittal, they felt police lost any interest in finding the truth about what happened to Sam, leaving the impression Sam wasn’t worth any more time and energy – he was just trouble, just a criminal, after all.

“That’s three in our family now,” says Aku, 38, referring to the killing of his brother (Sam), his uncle (Poto), and his cousin (Wallace), with nobody convicted for any of the deaths.

“I got shot too,” Aku mentions matter-of-factly. Shortly after Wallace’s murder, a car pulled up beside him as he was walking his two-year-old son near the Highbury shops, and “just started letting fire out the back window”. One bullet hit his left arm and pierced his chest – fragments are still inside him. Nobody was caught for that one either, and Aku says police never really investigated it.

After Sam’s death, the couple admit they lost it, turned to alcohol and drugs to push all the hurt away. It took another shave with death for them to snap out of it and change their lives. In January 2016, Aku suffered a heart attack as they drove into town. Passersby began CPR until an ambulance arrived and Aku was shocked back to life.

When he was in Wellington hospital having a pacemaker fitted he decided, “My four kids mean more to me than smoking drugs. What sort of parent am I if I choose drugs over my kids?” He’s been clean ever since.

Though they’ve lived their lives around the gangs and guns and drugs and hits of Highbury, Aku and Shauntae are determined their kids’ experiences will be different to their generation, and the one before that. “You just have to get some normality back into their lives after all the shit they’ve seen and been through” says Shauntae. “So for our kids, it’s school, work, sports and try and be busy, busy, busy with them.

“You don’t benefit anything from being in a gang,” she adds, noting two of Aku and Sam’s other brothers are serving lengthy prison sentences. “Our eldest boy – I wouldn’t know any other kid that’s been through what he’s been through in his life. He’s only 17 and he’s bloody seen it all. We were young and we were supposed to protect him and keep him away from all that shit, but we made him live that life. We can’t take that back but we can try and work on it from now. That’s what we’re trying to do – just turn our lives around for their sake. That’s all we can do.”

whatuira

The relationships between the Whatuiras.

A couple without a brother. A mother without a son. A grandmother without a grandson. A father without a son. A son without a father. And all of them needing answers, all of them still seeking justice.

For the Whatuira family, this has happened three times. Three times someone in their family has been gunned down point-blank, and nobody has paid any price – except them. A witness too terrified to speak; a claim of self-defence; a case with no evidence – three times the family has trusted the justice system, only to be left devastated.

You can blame the world the victims lived in and say this kind of thing happens if you run with gangs, do crime, take drugs and all that. But it’s still an unbelievable trinity of tragedies. It’s still three harrowing voids for the remaining family, most of whom aren’t caught up with gangs and crime. It’s still three completely open wounds because nobody has fessed up.

The coroner refused to hold an inquest into Sam Culling’s murder. And while police say Wallace Whatuira’s case remains open, they’ve closed the book on Poto Whatuira and Sam Culling’s deaths, claiming they are “resolved”. But there’s no finality for the family. Nothing is “resolved” for them.

Shauntae Timoti hugs her young daughter who will never know her uncle Sam, her cousin Wallace, or her great-uncle Poto. “I just don’t have any faith in the New Zealand justice system. I honestly don’t think we’re ever going to get the justice we want and need. And it’s hard to move on from where we are now. It’s just so much for one family to go through. We will never, ever forget what’s happened, but you have to push it to the back of your head otherwise it really does eat you up and the grief just takes over your life. But we’re still here, so we just push through everything.”

Koia Whatuira recalls her son Wallace, and remembers going to court for him, her beloved brother Poto, and nephew Sam, only to be left angry and empty. “I’m hoping [a murder] doesn’t happen again, because if it ever does, I’m not going to go – they’ll probably just end up walking again. As soon as the Whatuira name pops up, the police don’t want to know about it. Three times – it’s too much. It’s over.”

Trina Culling picks up her favourite photo of grandson Sam, taken as he and his son sat in their car outside her house and it started snowing. “He just looks so happy. You didn’t often see that. I’ll never forget Sam, or what happened to him. I want justice for Sam – he never had any in his life. As long as I’ve got breath I won’t let it go, or stay silent.”

John Whatuira thinks of Sam, Poto and Wallace, and wonders whether the family has to take justice into their own hands. “There’s been things that have happened and people are saying it’s utu. You know what utu is? And things have happened to certain people and things that have come back and bit them.”

Tama Whatuira cradles a photo of him with his father, Poto. “Three times. I know, it’s insane. We’ve been through the wringer. There’s a lot of love in our family, but our strength has been tested multiple times now. It’s times like this that pull you all together, but it’s at the cost of losing someone. And to go to court and get nothing is just a huge slap in the face – again and again and again. I don’t know what to say. We’re broken, we’re a broken family – almost.”

Return to: Part One | Part Two

The July issue.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.

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