Armed police stand guard outside the Sofitel Hotel on Auckland’s Viaduct yesterday morning. Photo / Jason Oxenham
A man has described “the moment of terror” when he heard gunshots while inside a luxury hotel in Auckland yesterday morning.
A gun was fired soon after 9am at Sofitel hotel at the Viaduct, sparking a citywide response with armed officers and the Eagle helicopter.
Up to 20 officers carrying guns were seen entering the lobby while customers and staff were bundled out to safety through a separate entrance.
The Herald has been told the shooting was linked to escalating gang tensions.
The witness, who does not want to be identified, said he heard two gunshots.
“The sound reverberated through the hotel. There were two shots. A second apart. Bang. Bang,” the man said last night.
A colleague then stood up and shouted “shooter!”.
“It was actually the authenticity of the reaction on my colleague that made it very scary.
“When some calls ‘shooter’, that’s almost like an Americanism that we are not used to. It gave us a sense of what it might be like in the US. It was just at that moment.”
He was with a group of people and they turned the lights off in the area they were in.
“We reacted as if we were threatened. We reacted as if we were in danger, and we felt we were.
“That time of when we didn’t know what was going on probably only lasted a minute, and then everything subsided, because the shooter had gone, but the police didn’t treat it as if they had gone, so they came in to secure the hotel.”
The Herald understands members of the Head Hunters had opened fire after coming across members of the Mongols in the hotel, sparking the armed police callout.
A source said police suspect the act of violence could have been retribution after the Mongols were suspected of opening fire on the Head Hunters gang pad early Sunday.
Police Minister Poto Williams also said she understood the incident was linked to conflict between the Head Hunters and Mongols gangs.
The hotel witness praised the police response, adding there was still a “heavy police presence” at the scene in the early afternoon.
He also said staff at the hotel had been “fantastic” throughout the ordeal.
“I felt sorry for the staff. It was a terrible shock for them, but their reaction was just outstanding, and professional, and continued to be before, during and after the event. They followed up with everyone to make sure we were all okay. They apologised, not that they had anything to apologise for.”
A police spokesman said early inquiries have established that those involved in the hotel shooting appear to have links to organised crime groups.
One person found at the scene is assisting police with their inquiries.
Shortly after the CBD incident, police also attended a property in Ōrākei, with the police Eagle helicopter involved.
“Two people at that address are also assisting police with our inquiries,” a police spokesperson said.
“Police are working hard to establish what exactly has taken place.”
Gang expert Jarrod Gilbert told the Herald the escalation of very serious public violence was hugely concerning.
“This isn’t a gang issue, it’s a certain chapter of certain groups and those chapters need to be targeted and policed incredibly hard.”
Blanket policing against those specific groups, rather than entire gangs, was needed so that they know any inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour will be prosecuted to the full extent, from roading incidents to the more serious crimes, he said.
Targeting gangs as a whole would be a waste of resources, he said.
“Police should be reinvestigating any old complaints against those groups that may not have been followed up, every single time they are on the roads they are pulled up and that any, even minor incidents that might previously be overlooked, are prosecuted.”
The gang scene in New Zealand was fundamentally changing, with new participants coming on board and new gangs setting up an established territory, which has been creating conflict, Gilbert said.
“We have seen this in the past when there’s been growth in the scene and violence is an inevitable consequence of that.
The Sofitel incident comes days after someone opened fire on the Auckland headquarters of the Head Hunters gang in the middle of the night.
The Marua Rd address of the gang’s East chapter, in the Auckland suburb of Ellerslie, was sprayed with semi-automatic gunfire during the brazen attack.
Meanwhile, police have set up a specialist Firearms Investigations Team in Auckland to focus on identifying illegal supply chains of firearms.
Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said the ring-fenced squad was modelled on the specialist teams in some Australian police states.
“We’ve been thinking about this for some time, and it was timely to start a firearms team as part of Operation Tauwhiro,” said Williams, who heads the National Organised Crime Group.
“The focus will be on people who are diverting guns, converting guns and stealing guns for organised criminals.”
The Herald reported in December 2020 that worsening gun violence linked to gang turf wars, illicit drugs and the insidious cancer of organised crime had left more than 350 people with firearms injuries across Auckland in five years.
Auckland mayor Phil Goff had serious concerns about the growing use of firearms and had written to the Police Minister.
“There is no single solution, but every available lever needs to be pulled to stop worsening gang violence and misuse of firearms in criminal and gang activity.”
The Sofitel shooting came on the same day as three men made their first appearance at the Manukau District Court, jointly charged with the murder of Meliame Fisi’ihoi.
The 57-year-old grandmother was shot dead in the early hours of January 15 last year through the window of her front door after waking up to answer it.