Police in Eastern Southland and Invercargill were armed as they searched for 24-year-old Hori Gemmell, wanted in connection with a stolen police car and the theft of two guns in Gore early yesterday.
The dramatic incident prompted a long pursuit around rural Southland involving a helicopter and armed police.
The significantly heightened police presence did not go unnoticed in downtown Gore, where Thomas Green duty manager Georgia Rhind was as surprised as anyone.
“It’s crazy when things like this happen in Gore,” she said.
“Things like that don’t really happen around here.”
As police scoured the region yesterday morning, Southern District Commander Superintendent Paul Basham told media Gemmell was considered dangerous and should not be approached.
Gemmell, of the Clutha district, had an existing warrant to arrest issued by the Gore District Court last month.
The manhunt was launched after what police described as a “serious incident” shortly before midnight.
Police attempted to stop a vehicle in Crewe St. The driver rammed the car he was driving into a patrol car, then ran off.
He was pursued by officers, who were also on foot.
They said the man circled back from behind a house and stole their patrol vehicle, which had the keys left inside.
The officers tried to stop the theft, smashing one of the patrol car’s windows and attempting to immobilise the man using a Taser. This did not work. Soon after, police in a second patrol car spotted the stolen police car – which had its siren lights and alley lights on – on Waimea St.
As police took stock of the situation, the stolen car was rammed into theirs, then made off. The police armed themselves and started “area inquiries”, Supt Basham said.
They found the stolen car in the area of Crewe and George Sts. The keys to the vehicle were hanging from the car’s arms safe. Two police-issued Glock 17 pistols were missing.
The protocol was for officers to take the keys with them when they left the vehicle, Supt Basham said.
He said the officers were at home yesterday and he did not want to pre-judge their actions during the “dynamic situation”.
When asked, he defended their actions: “Overall, they did a pretty good job.”
Police spotted a vehicle they believed was driven by Gemmell in Wyndham, about 1am yesterday.
This started a 30- to 40-minute-long pursuit between Mataura, Gore and other parts of rural Southland. That pursuit involved a helicopter using thermal search gear and the Invercargill-based armed offenders squad, but the fugitive evaded arrest and remained at large.
Police found the car at the back of an address on River Rd. The property was searched but the driver was not found.
About 30 staff were involved in the search through yesterday and specialist national staff travelled to Gore to support the operation.
Supt Basham said Gemmell was well-known in the area, but declined to give details on why the warrant was issued.
The incident would be referred to the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
Police said they were following strong lines of inquiry.