'Crap, what have I done?' – former cop reveals final moments of Napier siege

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A former top cop says he is "disappointed" about tactical decisions in the 2009 Napier siege.

In an interview with TVNZ’s SUNDAY programme, Lance Burdett revealed new details about the armed standoff.

He was responsible for the team of negotiators who were speaking to gunman Jan Molenaar.

As New Zealand's top police negotiator, Lance Burdett was in the business of saving lives. But he faced a private battle that nearly destroyed his own life.
Source: Sunday

Molenaar had fired at three police officers conducting a drug search at his Chaucer Road home.

He killed Senior Constable Len Snee, whose body lay on the driveway as the two-day siege unfolded.

No rest for gunman

"My suggestion was that perhaps we should allow [Molenaar] to have at least two or three hours’ sleep, so he can calm down," recalls Mr Burdett.

However, he says the commander disagreed, and instructed negotiators to phone Molenaar on the hour, every hour. Mr Burdett believes it was the wrong decision.

"I was disappointed, to be honest. I felt like I'd been overruled. My personal opinion is that we let people sleep through the night, because the demons come in the dark. And if you try and keep people awake, they'll make irrational decisions."

Molenaar kept firing shots from the house. He was often in "fits of rage", while "rambling and ranting". At other times, "you could hear the sadness in his voice".

Secret text messages

Mr Burdett told SUNDAY that Molenaar was receiving text messages from an ex-girlfriend, "telling him basically to kill himself".

According to Mr Burdett, police detectives were reading those texts, but never passed them on to the negotiators who were speaking to Molenaar.

Having access to the text messages would "certainly" have changed the negotiators’ tactics.

"In these types of environments, it needs to be more collegial. There should have been a war room. We should have all sat round the table and said, 'Here’s our part'… And that wasn’t happening".

Last words

The final key decision in the siege was to allow Molenaar’s partner to speak to him on the phone. Delwyn Keefe was allowed to tell Molenaar: "I’m here, I’m waiting for you, come on out".

Mr Burdett says Molenaar replied that he had "really stuffed up."

"A shot was heard, and it came back through the police radio… And there was just silence. Straight away you go, ‘Oh crap, what have I done?'"

Mr Burdett says he felt like he had failed, because it was his idea to put Keefe on the phone to Molenaar. That call had allowed Molenaar to say a final goodbye to Ms Keefe, before committing suicide.

"As a negotiator you go to save lives… Everyone's life. Even the life of the person that had started this whole thing."

In hindsight, he says police should have played Molenaar a recorded message from Ms Keefe, rather than allowing him to speak to her directly.

Police respond

The Independent Police Conduct Authority did not launch an inquiry into the Napier siege, but a coronial inquest took place.

Police told SUNDAY that the tactics used in the siege "followed international best practice at that time".

They acknowledge Mr Burdett’s views, but say it was a "volatile and dangerous event", and that tactical decisions were based on "all the known facts".

Making a difference

After the siege, Mr Burdett helped to improve police processes around negotiation, and was a made a national advisor.

He is proud of his 22-year career in the force, and does not want to be seen to be criticising his former colleagues.

He spoke about the siege as part of a story about his burnout and depression, after many years of harrowing experiences at the frontline.

"I hear people say, 'You can't get over these things. I can never get over it'. Well, you can."

Police say Mr Burdett was "well respected", and they wish him well in his future endeavours.

Mr Burdett now coaches others in resilience, and has written a book, Behind The Tape, to shed light on the demanding nature of Police work.

He wants to encourage others to ask for help if they are experiencing mental illness.

If Lance’s story has raised any issues for you, and you’d like to speak to someone, phone Lifeline on 0800 543 354.

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