The Aramoana massacre

Aramoana is a small tranquil settlement, hardly big enough to be called a village, about half an hours drive north of Dunedin City, on the Otago Peninsular, situated on the south-east corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Most young NZers would have never heard of it and even many older ones would have trouble placing it on a map, but for NZers of a certain age the word Aramoana conjures up guns, madness and the murderous taking of 13 innocent lives, four of them children. It all started with a simple disagreement between neighbours, but quickly escalated into, what would later become known as a spree killing, followed by the spree killer employing, what would also, at some time in the future obtain a modern, trendy title of ‘suicide by cop.’

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The tranquil little seaside settlement of Aramoana, Otago Newzealand.

At around 7.30 on the evening of Tuesday the 13 of November 1990, an Aramoana resident called David Gray, a 33-year-old unemployed casual labourer, came out of his house at 27 Muri Street and complained to his next-door neighbour Garry Holden, about one of Garry’s dogs wondering onto the Gray property. David Gray was known to be a ‘bit odd’ so no doubt Garry gave as good as he got during the ensuing argument, which became quite confrontational. Suddenly, Gray stopped arguing and went indoors, no doubt leaving Garry Holden thinking he had won the row.

However, within minutes Gray returned carrying a .223, Norinco 84 S, semi-automatic rifle, and quite coldly and deliberately raised the rifle and shot Holden several times in the chest. Once Holden had fallen to the ground, Gray walked over and administered a coup-de-grace shot to the head.

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David Gray Spree killer.

This murderous attack was witnessed, by three young girls, who were Holden’s two daughters Chiquita and Jasmin and also Rewa Bryson, the adopted daughter of Holden’s fiancée, Julie-Anne Bryson. The girls ran into Holden’s house, closely followed by Gray who found 11-year-old Chiquita and shot her with a second weapon he was carrying, a .22 semi-automatic sporting rifle. The bullet tore right through Chiquita’s left arm entered her chest and embedded itself in her abdomen. Years later Chiquita said, “I think it was the force of the bullet that blew me out of the door where I just got up and ran for my life.”

Considering her injuries it was quite surprising that she was able to even stand up and even more remarkable that she could run and think, but as she recalled much later, “at the time I felt no pain and wasn’t really sure I had been shot, but I did know my Dad was dead.” Gray found the other two girls cowering under a table and callously shot them both and then set the Holden house on fire.

When Chiquita reached the Bryson house, bleeding and saying that Gray had gone mad and shot her and her father and that Rewa and Jasmin were still in the house, Julie-Anne assumed it must have been some sort of accident, so after bandaging Chiquita’s wounds with a towel, bundled her into the family van and drove back to collect the two girls and to see if she could help Garry Holden. However, as they got close they could see the Holden house was on fire and well alight and that David Gray was outside and fired shots at them as they approached, so Julie-Anne had no choice, but to put her head and her foot down and accelerate on past.

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Jacquita Holden with her mother Julie Holden, recovering in hospital.

At about this time The Percy family were returning home in their utility vehicle, or as NZers refer to them, their Ute, after a day at the beach fishing, when they saw the smoke and flames from the Holden house, they pulled over to see if they could help and David Gray callously shot them, every one. He shot Vanessa Percy in the back several times as she tried to run away, she didn’t die immediately but lay wounded for several hours because no one could reach her under the threat of Gray’s guns. Once Vanessa had fallen down, Gray turned his rifle on the three children in the back of the Ute and calmly, fatally shot six-year-old Dion Percy and Dion’s friend, six-year-old Leo Wilson and severely wounded Dion’s sister Stacey, who fell down and played dead. Ross Percy, the father, who had been driving the Ute, had when the shooting started taken cover underneath the vehicle, but David Gray saw where he was and shot him in the head killing him instantly. Gray also shot Aleki (Alex) Tali who had been with the family that day, fishing.

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The Percy family Ute the day after the tragedy, still standing where Ross Percy parked it showing the two boys bikes in the back and a fishing bucket discarded on the ground.

Gray then walked calmly along the road to the Jamieson house, walked in and coldly shot dead Tim Jamieson and a visiting friend, Vic Crimp, then back outside the house Grey encountered James Dickson who was out looking for his dog and without hesitation shot him dead. About this time Mrs Eva Dixon, James’ mother, and their neighbour Chris Cole came out of their houses to see what all the fuss was about and immediately came under fire from Gray’s rifle. Mrs Dickson had recently had a hip replacement operation and was unable to walk without assistance so just fell to the ground and began crawling along a ditch to get to her home to raise the alarm. Meanwhile, Chris Cole, who had actually entered the phone box to raise the alarm was shot through the glass. Mrs Dickson managed to crawl to her house, phone the police and also ask for an ambulance for Chris Cole, unaware that he was one of 12 people who had, by that time, been fatally shot by Gray. Once she had alerted the authorities Mrs Dickson bravely crawled back out to comfort Chris Cole and to assure him help was on its way, but unfortunately help arrived too late for Cole who although he was later rescued and taken to the hospital, died a few days later from his injuries.

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Mrs Dickson shortly after the massacre.

Around this time, as it was getting dark, Police Sergeant Stewart Guthrie arrived in the township by car. Back then NZ Police did not routinely carry firearms so Sergeant Guthrie had been obliged to first go to Port Chalmers Police station, to draw a Smith and Wesson model 10 revolver and ten rounds of ammunition. Guthrie was soon joined by Constable Russel Anderson who had arrived, unarmed, with the fire engine. Guthrie quickly armed Anderson with a rifle borrowed from a helpful resident and after instructing the fire crew to retire to a safe distance and with night closing in the two policemen moved to contain Gray in his house, with Anderson covering the front, while Guthrie moved around to cover the rear.

About this time Detective Constable Paul Knox and two uniformed Constables arrived to strengthen the cordon, in the hope they could prevent Gray from escaping in the darkness. From his position at the rear Guthrie could actually see Gray moving about inside his house and reported what was happening to the police control and his colleagues. Guthrie knew Gray and was hoping if an opportunity arose to call out to him and ask him to put down his gun and surrender. However, after a while, Guthrie lost sight of Gray and warned the others that he could be attempting to break out. Almost at once Constable Anderson saw Gray at the front of his property and shouted a challenge, but Gray ducked down and ran through to the back of his property and took cover in the sand dunes. Sergeant Guthrie spotted Gray and called out for him to surrender and fired a warning shot, to which Gray replied “don’t shoot”, leading Guthrie to believe Gray was surrendering, but Gray levelled his rifle and fired several shots, one of which struck  Sergeant Guthrie in the head, killing him instantly.

While this was going on the Dunedin Armed Offenders Squad arrived and was able to secure a perimeter all around the township and block the only road out and simultaneously, Detective Paul Knox and constable Nick Harvey crept forward to investigate the many bodies strewn around the Percy family’s Ute and heard a small voice say “don’t shoot me please.” Tiny Stacey Percy was lying there wounded next to her dead brother Dion and his friend Leo. Knox stayed with Stacey for 20 minutes trying to keep her conscious, until Harvey returned with a blacked out car which took her to an ambulance and then to the hospital, where the bullet lodged in her abdomen was removed and she survived.

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Sergeant Stewart Guthrie killed in the line of duty.

During the night there was no further action in Aramoana, David Gray had gone to ground and was contained within the township, but elsewhere in Newzealand there was a great deal of activity, getting the Police Special Tactics Group from the major cities hundreds of miles south to the remote location, but shortly after sunrise the heavily armed group had arrived and had decided on a plan of action. Gray was holed up in an unoccupied holiday house, which the armed police spotted because of a broken window, Gray was challenged to come out, but when there was no reply the police threw in a stun grenade, which unfortunately struck a mattress, with which gray had placed against the inside of the window and bounced back. However, Gray emerged from the property firing his semi-automatic weapon from the hip, the police fired back and Gray went down shouting “shoot me shoot me”, but the police did not fire again. Eleven rounds had been fired at Gray and five hit him, but even then while on the ground Gray fought like a madman and he actually broke out of a pair of plastic handcuffs, but then quite suddenly the fight went out of him and he stopped fighting and died.

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The AK47 lookalike semi-automatic rifle, really a .223 Norinco 84 S with a 30 round magazine used by Gray.

So who was David Gray, the man responsible for the worst public massacre in NZs history, surprisingly he was a nobody, a loner, a man of 33 who rarely worked, didn’t have a girlfriend, or even any men friends, he didn’t own a vehicle and even the house he lived in was his deceased parent’s holiday home and his only interests in life were guns and the ‘Soldier of Fortune magazine’. David Gray may have gone through his whole life just being a ‘mister average low achiever’ but something, and we will never know what, happened in Gray’s brain that sent him on his murderous rampage of destruction.

Chiquita Holden survived her wounds and went to live with her mother in Auckland under an assumed name for a while but eventually, with her Mum, she returned to Dunedin using her own name. Little Stacey Percy who lost her entire family that day, survived and went to live with her grandparents in Port Chalmers and has since led a successful but quiet life.

For a long time after the massacre Julie-Anne Bryson suffered from depression brought about by the feelings of her inability to rescue the two girls from Gray’s murderous rampage, but eventually, she remarried and now lives in Perth Australia. Sometime after the massacre, Julie-Anne had a film developed from her camera and found one picture of the three girls, Rewa, Chiquita and Jasmin taken on that very last day. Rewa was wearing a red sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Be Happy.”

FOOTNOTE. Since writing this story a news report has prompted me to add what is probably the last chapter in what has been until now, a very sad story. On the 19th of August 2018, it was announced that Steve Vaughn, 55, the then, Police-constable that was shot in the ankle by David Grey, has married 37-year old Chiquita Holden, 27 years after the original incident. At the time, 9-year old Chiquita was shot in the arm and stomach and severely wounded, but after surgery and a long stay in hospital survived to lead a fairly normal life. I for one would like to send them my very best wishes for long and happy lives. They deserve it.

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