Before she had to face a packed media conference, Ivoni Fuimaono visited the grave of her precious son Halatau Naitoko, who had his young life taken from him, when he was accidentally shot and killed by police following a dramatic pursuit.
For four years, the grieving mother has been fighting for justice, after the horrific tragedy on Auckland’s Northwestern Motorway.
Last week, police finally offered $225,000 to Ivoni and her family as compensation.
But the guilt of receiving the funds – which Ivoni (42) describes as “blood money”– prompted the Auckland mother to visit the site of her son’s grave, and tearfully ask for forgiveness.
“I said to him I was sorry if it seemed that I was taking the settlement as an indication of how much he was worth, because nothing in the world is more valuable to me than my son. You cannot put a price on that,” an emotional Ivoni says.
“He used to always tell me, ‘It’s okay Mum, it’s fine.’ And I know, in my heart, he will be okay with everything that has happened.”
In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Ivoni reveals how she will move on – and why she is disappointed at how the authorities have handled things.
“For the police, this is closure, but for me and my family, justice has not been done,” she says.
“The pain and suffering is ongoing. No amount of money in the world can bring my precious boy back.”
It was January 2009 when Ivoni’s life changed forever.
Halatau, aged just 17 and working as a courier in the family business, was driving down the motorway when he was caught in a shoot-out between police and Stephen McDonald.
The father of a daughter, now six, Halatau was struck in the chest and killed by a bullet intended for drug-fuelled McDonald, who was armed and fleeing police.
McDonald was later sentenced to 13 years in jail after admitting 23 charges, including possessing a fiream, firing at police and aggravated robbery.
After hearing on the radio that an innocent bystander was killed during a police pursuit, Ivoni couldn’t believe that the victim was her son.
The devoted mother has never been angry with the police, or harboured any hostility towards them, fully co-operating with all of their investigations. She even invited officers into her home on many occasions, which she shares with her other 10 children and husband Kepueli (42).
“Being negative with the police won’t bring Halatau back. I’ve always wanted to work with them, turning what’s happened into a positive. Hopefully they can change things, so no other family has to go through the same experience,” she says.
“If I wasn’t positive towards them, then more people would get hurt, especially my family.”
But Ivoni admits that she felt betrayed by police, when they accidentally revealed details of the compensation – information both parties agreed would be kept confidential.
During the press conference, they broke down the $225,000 payment: an initial $100,000 was given to the family shortly after Halatau’s death, followed by $100,000 for the hardship and suffering that was caused, with
a further $25,000 towards the family’s legal costs.
Ivoni says it was the police who wanted to keep the original $100,000 a secret, and made her sign a confidentiality agreement to never reveal the details. She took it seriously, and was forced to lie to friends and family.
“People would ask me if I had received anything and I would always honour what I was told, to keep it confidential.”
She used the original sum to pay off her debts, after their courier business was forced into liquidation following her son’s death.
Ivoni felt publicly violated and blindsided when the police revealed the details during the press conference.
“I’ve never said a bad thing towards them and they take me, put me in front of the media, and make me feel humiliated.”
“I wanted to get up and walk out, but something in my heart made me stay and not break down. I’m a fighter.”
The next day, police representatives were very apologetic, and took Ivoni to lunch at an inner city Auckland eatery to apologise.
“Although I was upset, I didn’t want to break. I had to be calm, for the sake of my family.”
The compensation may be the final chapter for the police, but for Ivoni there is a void that still needs to be filled for her to have complete closure.
She is desperate to meet the nameless policeman who accidentally shot and killed her son. Known as Officer 84, Ivoni has written heartfelt letters to request a meeting, but he has refused every time.
“I want to bring peace into their life and share with them the kind of man my son was,” says Ivoni, who lovingly gazes at a picture of Halatau hanging in her lounge.
Despite the agony, Ivoni says she is slowly moving on with life, and finds strength in her children – particularly her youngest son, who she gave birth to five days after Halatau’s funeral, and named him after his older brother.
“Whenever I call Halatau’s name in the house, it’s like he is still here with me,” she says.
The former women’s refuge worker is currently writing a memoir, detailing how a mother can overcome such a heartbreaking experience.
She also hopes to use some of the money to open a refuge for Pacific Island women, which will be in Halatau’s honour.
Ivoni cherishes the moments she shared with Halatau – her fondest memories are the times spent working for their courier business, and the long days with each other driving in the van.
“He was the kind of son that every mother dreamed of. He was kind, loving and loyal,” she smiles. “Those memories will stay with me forever.”
POLICE STATEMENT: The issues have been discussed with Mrs Fuimaono and her counsel and police has offered its apologies for the breakdown in communication. The last thing police wanted was to cause embarrassment or distress to Mrs Fuimaono. With their agreement, police will not be making further public comment.
Photos: David White • Make-up: Kate Smith