Gas station and liquor store staff terrified of armed men in disguises

Locked in a Whangārei liquor store because staff were checking the door the night before they opened it, a group of four would-be thieves moved on.

One of them, Jahmarley Ututaonga, was brandishing a fence palisade and in the second store – Super Liquor in Kamo – swung it baseball bat style in the face of a male staff member, causing a 5 cm notch.

Ututaonga then used the post to threaten a female worker whom he found hiding under a desk in an office where she had seen the incident unfold on CCTV.

The group got away with about $1,800 worth of stock, but no cash – the worker insisted staff couldn’t access it.

Ututaonga appeared for sentencing last week in Whangārei District Court, after pleading guilty to robbery and attempted robbery on May 23, 2019, and robbery on November 1, 2018, of the station- GAS Tikipunga service.

He was acquitted of wounding with intent to injure, the Crown having failed to act.

Judge John McDonald imprisoned Ututaonga for four years and nine months.

The 2018 gas station breach was committed by Ututaonga and a companion who waited outside before removing their hoodies, donning bandanas and arming themselves with sharp wooden stakes that they fired from the ground around a nearby tree.

They walked through a parking lot to the store and discovering no one was inside, Ututaonga’s companion jumped off the counter and began loading tobacco into a bag.

When a vendor appeared, Ututaonga threatened him with the stake and demanded that he lie down on the ground, but the man ran out of the store to an office.

Ututaonga and his companion fled with $400 worth of tobacco.

Ututaonga was cleared after a pre-trial request, but was re-indicted after his co-offender later gave a statement to police.

The 2019 offense involved two youths.

Targeting Super Liquor Tikipunga, the group – who were variously armed with fence posts and a knife – were foiled by the gate control system and were unable to enter.

They tried to force the door open but gave up and headed for Super Liquor in Kamo.

Arriving around 7:45 p.m., they entered through the front doors, with one of the youths threatening a customer who was exiting. After robbing the scene, the group found the front doors locked but managed to escape through a rear exit.

Later, victim statements from the personnel involved revealed how terrified they were.

In his submissions on the sentence reductions, attorney Matthew Ridgley said Ututaonga was a young man – aged 18 and 19 at the time of the offenses – and had let himself down.

He had “grown up seriously” over the past two years, eight months, while he had been on onerously restrictive bail and electronically monitored, and only breached it a few times in minor ways.

He now had two children – one almost three years old and a baby.

While on EM bail, Ututaonga had completed the Salvation Army Bridge Program and the Making Changes course.

A cultural report showed a clear link between Ututaonga’s upbringing, his childhood food thefts, his early involvement in gangs and this offence.

Two families Ututaonga was placed with when he was young had hope for his future, but at 16 he returned to his whanau and was derailed, Ridgley said.

Judge McDonald noted that Ututaonga’s pleas followed an indication of jail time, but no starting or ending point was specified.

The judge imposed the same sentencing starting point – six and a half years – as the Court of Appeal set when considering his conviction of the adult co-offender from Ututaonga in the 2019 incident .

For Ututaonga, it was generous because his co-aggressor had used no actual violence, the judge said.

The 2018 offense warranted an additional three and a half years, but the overall starting sentence was reduced in full to eight years.

There were no factors requiring an additional increase, the judge said.

The discount for Ututaonga’s late guilty pleas was 10%.

The youth discount was also limited to 10%. As it was a planned offence, Ututaonga could not claim youthful impulsiveness, the judge said.

He accepted that the cultural report showed disadvantaged education, but it was not as bad as some, so the reduction for these factors was also limited to 10%.

The judge awarded Ututaonga additional credit for his time on bail under electronic monitoring, his participation in programs and his remorse.

– by Sarah Curtis, Open Justice