Darwin tragedy ‘could have been avoided’

John Maxwell

The alleged gunman who shot four people dead and wounded a fifth had repeatedly sought help for his mental condition the day before his shooting rampage in Darwin, it has been claimed. A report in The Australian said Benjamin Hoffman, 45, told associates he called triple-0 seeking assistance, contacted the NT corrections department and attended hospital three times in the preceding 24 hours.

The Australian further reported that an hour before the shooting started, a  Darwin woman had called triple-0 after spotting a man wearing an ankle bracelet monitoring device and carrying a shotgun. She described the man and his vehicle and gave its registration number. Although a police station was only a short distance from her property, it took officers half an hour to respond.

“I told them he was a criminal with an ankle bracelet and he’s running around with a gun - he’s on a mission,” she said. Later that night she saw television news showing armed police dragging the same man from a car in Darwin. She claims if police had acted, the tragedy could have been prevented.

Northern Territory Police themselves admitted Hoffman attended their Darwin headquarters at one stage during his four-hour rampage, possibly seeking to surrender, The Australian said. Furthermore, he telephoned a police superintendent on duty, asking to be placed in protective custody.

NT Police also revealed that officers stopped Hoffman for speeding at 10.52am that day but said there was nothing in his behaviour that was out of the ordinary. The same silver-coloured Proton car was detected speeding twice more during the next two hours.

All of which indicates a catalogue of errors by police and other NT authorities which  allowed this tragedy to unfold, errors which are likely to be canvassed in detail if, as expected, Hoffman pleads not guilty on grounds of mental illness.

The tragedy unfolded on June 4 when Hoffman allegedly embarked on a rampage in Darwin, shooting dead Rob Courtney, 52, Hassan Baydoun, 33, Michael Sisois, 57 and Nigel Hellings, 75, at four different locations. Two were apparently complete strangers. He was arrested that night and subsequently charged with  four counts of murder and other charges. At time of writing hadn’t yet entered a formal plea.

During a brief preliminary appearance in June, Hoffman apologised saying: “I am very sorry about what happened. I do need help. I’ve asked for help.”

Not yet revealed, though it certainly will be, is where he acquired the pump action shotgun and ammunition he used that night. Northern Territory gun laws are fundamentally the same as every other state and territory, with severe restrictions on possession of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and pump action shotguns.

Under no circumstances could Hoffman have legally possessed a pump action shotgun. He’d been released from jail in January after serving the four-year non-parole period of a six-year sentence for bashing a man with a baseball bat. With his criminal history he could not have held a firearms licence.

As a parolee he was wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle, which should have given his probation and parole officer real time information on his location. What’s more, he had actually been locked up again for 14 days in April for breaching curfew conditions of his parole. Hoffman is in prison pending further court appearances.

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