SUNDAY EXPRESS March 2nd 2008
After a minor tiff,
Gray took 13 lives
by Sharon Feinstein
Survivor: Bill Owen,
writer of Out Of The Blue
NEW ZEALAND'S HUNGERFORD: David Gray, above, knew many of the people he murdered after an argument with his next-door neighbour. He had amased an arsenal of guns and ammunition before the bloodbath began.
In 1990, the village of Aramoana was shattered by a violent massacre. Now in a new film, survivors of New Zealand's biggest mass murder will relive the day when their neighbour turned his gun on them.
Waking up on that bright , crisp Tuesday morning none of them had any idea they were about to die. A beautiful blond five- year-old boy, a 62-year-old man, two 11-year-old girls - and the list goes on. It was their fate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when David Gray's mind snapped, he seized his secret cache of semi-automatic weapons and embarked upon a full-scale massacre.
This wasn't a teeming, tense inner city; this was an idyllic village by the sea, silent but for the colony of birds and greetings of friends among the 260 inhabitants. On a remote part of New Zealands's South Island, in tiny Aramoana, scenes of such terror broke out that nearly everyone went into total shock.
David Gray was 33. Just before 8pm on Tuesday, November 13th, 1990, he had a minor argument with his best friend and next-door neighbour, Garry Holden, 38, about Garry's daughters running across his land. He walked back into his ramshackle house, grabbed the nearest gun and killed Garry. Then he killed Garry's 11-year-old daughter, Jasmine and Rewa Bryson, Garry's girlfriend's daughter, also 11, by setting fire to their home and burning them alive.
He then turned the gun on James Dickson, 45, who lived nearby with his mother and happened to be passing, Tim Jamieson, 69, and Victor Crimp, 70. Then Dion Percy, 5, his father Ross, 42, and mother Vannesa, 26, who were driving by in their pick-up truck on the way to the beach, saw smoke and stopped to investigate. He also shot their remaining child, three-year-old Stacey. Somehow she survived.
He killed Aleki Tali, 41, and Chris Cole, 61. Leo Wilson, just six, died on his shiny new bike. Finally, he killed Sergeant Stu Guthrie, 41. Then he hid from police, their reinforcements and the military for more than 20 hours, prowling round in the dark as people cowered on the floors of their homes not knowing if or when the gunman would appear at their doors or windows and murder them.
Out of the blue, released on March 14, is the first film about New Zealand's biggest mass murder, a poignant, harrowing and honest portrayal, with no Hollywood sensationalism about it. It has all the chilling echoes of Hungerford, even though it happened 12,000 miles away.
INNOCENTS: Chiquita (Geogia Fabish) and sister Jasmine(Danaka Wheeler) in Out Of The Blue
Eighteen years later, the people of Aramoana still find it hard to talk about the day that changed their lives forever. Many of them have coped with their loss by burying it in silence, some have moved away. Chiquita Holden, the nine-year-old girl who ran across David Gray's land and sparked the argument between her father, Garry, and the gunman, even changed her name. Now aged 29 she has spoken out, and has also worked closely with the 14-year -old actress Georgia Fabish, who plays her in the film.
"I think it was the force of the shot into my stomach that sent me out the door," she said in a choking voice. "I got up and ran past my father lying on the ground. I think I knew he was dead."
Bleeding heavily, Chiquita ran to the house of her father's girlfriend, Julie Anne Bryson. "I said, 'David's gone crazy. He shot me and he shot Dad'," Chiquita remembers. "I was in survival mode. It must have been the adrenaline."
Shocked Julie Anne had a horrific decision to make. She drove to her partner's house, which Gray had set on fire, and realised that her daughter, Rewa Bryson, and Chiquita's sister Jasmine were trapped inside. But Chiquita was bleeding heavily and moaning beside her in the truck while Gray was standing there shooting at them.
Bill O'Brien, a policeman in charge of the response team and the man who has written Out Of The Blue, spoke to me exclusively from New Zealand.
"I went into auto-pilot that night. I can remember Julie Bryson's vehicle outside the police station covered with bullet holes, and her sobbing about her huge dilemma. She had a little kid in the car who'd just been shot, she stops outside the burning house to get the girls out, it's her child in there, but then David Gray starts shooting at her. What does she do? Does she keep that girl at risk or does she try to save the children in the burning house? She would have died for sure if she'd done that and so would Chiquita. She saved Chiquita and the girls burned."
Chiquita now has a six-year-old son, the same age as Leo Wilson who was shot while riding his bike. The young actress who plays Chiquita, 14-year-old Georgia Fabish, spent weeks getting to know and understand Chiquita.
Also speaking to me from New Zealand, she said: "I feel pretty privileged to portray Chiquita because she went through so much and is such a strong person now. She told me all the details of her childhood, talked about her sister and her friend, who was going to be her sister because her dad and Julie Anne were about to get married.
Police outside Gray's ramshackle house in Aramoana
"She was obviously very upset, the only one who survived, reacting on her gut instinct to run away. I wasn't alive when the massacre happened but I put myself in her shoes and tried to feel how she was feeling. It could have happened to me, so now I appreciate my life a lot more. One time I cried during filming, just because of the other brilliant actors and feeling overwhelmed knowing what these people had gone through, that these were real children around the same age as me."
Bill O'Brien had been in the police force for 20 years at the time but had never encountered horror and violence of this level. He told me "From the outset there's absolute disbelief. Then you see the reality of people dead, shot, screaming and moaning, pleading for help and you're absolutely shocked. I was in charge of the operation, taking calls, directing the force and a lady rang up saying: 'Have you seen my little boy? He's on a bike and he's got blonde hair.' Later I knew that was Leo Wilson. "The police armed defenders squad was lined up trying to see where Gray was in the failing light and there's this chap lying in a pool of blood on the road saying: 'Please help me, can't you see me?'
"We knew he needed help but what do you do? If you walk towards him, you're likely to be shot, and eventually we did this right in front of where David Gray could have been hiding. One guy drove like a lunatic out of Aramoana and suddenly stopped. When an ambulance man went up to him, he said: 'I've left the wife and kids in the village.' That's how terrified he was, he didn't even stop to get his family.
Bill went on to describe what it was like for him desperately trying to stop Gray from killing more people as gunshots continued to ring out through the darkness. "You don't know what's going to happen. You've no training for something as huge as this," he said, his voice choking with emotion. "You're watching the most horrific thing you've ever seen and you've just got to use your wits. When the initial police arrived at Aramoana, David Gray had more fire power than the whole lot of them so how do you deal with that?"
Helen Dickson, awarded the George Medal by the Queen for bravery at Aramoana, was in her sixties at the time, all alone crouched on the kitchen floor of her house, not knowing that her son, Jimmy, had been shot dead in their yard. Unable to walk without her sticks because of a recent double hip replacement, she crawled through the long grass to help a dying man and bring him water. She was so close to Gray she saw him go past her and later described how she could feel the heat of his bullets whizzing past her ear.
Gray knew many of the people he killed. He helped to build his first victim Garry Holden's house, looked after his children and walked his dog. But in the last six months of his life he became reclusive and lost touch with his neighbours. They had no idea he was slowly becoming unhinged, collecting an arsenal of guns and filling up his fridge with ammunition. The bloodbath finally ended 22 hours after it began when Gray was shot by a police marksman.
The Aramoana massacre shocked New Zealand, gun laws changed, people rallied round and funds were set up to help survivors. But Bill O'Brien said: "I've been back to Aramoana recently and it's still an idyllic, peaceful place, yet it has changed for ever. Thirteen people died and many have died since from cancer and other post-stress diseases. No one will ever ever forget that on one awful night, something truly terrible happened there."