By Craig Kapitan of the New Zealand Herald
Two Crips gang members who killed a father of three in a shotgun ambush outside a South Auckland home – shooting him in the back at close range, after having already inflicted a fatal wound to his torso – remained stand-offish today as they were each handed life sentences.
“Neither of you express any remorse for what you have done,” Justice Sally Fitzgerald told Sosaia Vaitohi and Methuselah Talakai as they sat in the dock in the High Court at Auckland.
She ordered Vaitohi – who wore a jumper emblazoned with the words “blue cartel”, mumbling insults to the judge throughout the hearing – to serve a minimum period of imprisonment of 13 years and seven months before he will be eligible to apply for parole. Talakai was handed a minimum period of 13 years and six months.
The duo were found guilty by a jury in August of opening fire on Alec Junior Moala, 31, in the early morning hours of May 23, 2021. Vaitohi was accused of firing three shots, the first of which missed the victim, while Talakai was found to be the driver and the person most responsible for having instigated the fatal confrontation.
All three men were members of the Crips-affiliated gangs, although Moala, known as “Blacc8”, was in a different sub-group than his attackers.
The bad blood between the victim and the defendants had started a day earlier, after Talakai went to the same home for a drug deal set up by Moala’s cousin that fell through, prosecutors said during the trial. The cousin, Chanelle Mafileo, was allegedly slapped by Talakai as he demanded money from her.
Hours later, Moala got into a heated phone exchange with the defendants about the slap, prosecutors said.
During their five-week trial, Vaitohi claimed he wasn’t at the Ōtāhuhu property where Moala died and didn’t open fire on him. He took the witness box to testify on his own behalf, but the evidence was stymied by his refusal to answer any questions about his co-defendant, saying that doing so would be a violation of his gang code.
“To be clear, gang code will never be something that can come into this courtroom and override… the law,” Justice Fitzgerald said today, finding him to have committed contempt of court but declining to impose an additional sentence, in light of his life term.
The judge also noted that many witnesses in the case claimed memory loss when it came to that night and had to be declared hostile – meaning their initial police statements could be shared with the jury. She described the police statements as “remarkably consistent”.
“No doubt, because of your gang connections a number of witnesses were reluctant to come forward and give evidence,” she said.
The judge today had to warn Vaitohi that he would be taken to a cell and the sentencing would continue in his absence if he didn’t comply with her simple instructions, such as not loudly playing with the folding seat next to him. At one point she referenced his mother, who was pleading with him across the courtroom via pantomime to obey.
Defence lawyer Anoushka Bloem, who represented Vaitohi, has asked for a minimum term of imprisonment of 11 to 12 years, with an additional substantial discount due to his deprived background. He grew up in a gang environment – his father a Black Power member and his older brother in the Crips – and has been in state care and in prisons since a young age, according to a cultural report prepared for the hearing.
The judge allowed a modest six-month discount for Vaitohi’s background but declined to reduce Talakai’s sentence, noting that he seemed to come from a loving home. She weighed possible discounts against the need for denunciation in the wake of an increase in firearms offending in Auckland in recent years, she said.
The hearing started with a victim impact statement from Moala’s widow, who described through tears her struggle to find peace and forgiveness. The couple had been together 16 years and had three young children together.
“You took someone that meant the world to my family,” she said. “My now 9-year-old daughter… always wanted to ask you, ‘Why did you kill my daddy?’
“You will never know the pain you have caused my children and I.”
Vaitohi leaned back with his arms spread over the backs of the two chairs next to him as the widow described her anguish. He wore sunglasses for a medical condition but showed no emotion as she spoke.
Waiting outside the courtroom, a larger-than-usual presence of uniformed police officers waited for the hearing to end.
Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.