News

After four people died and another was injured in a shooting spree on Tuesday, the close-knit population of Darwin is reckoning with the tragedy. By Kylie Stevenson.

Man charged over Darwin shootings

Police cordon off a block of units where a person was shot by a gunman in the Darwin suburb of The Gardens on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Michael Franchi

If you were driving along McMinn Street in Darwin, you probably wouldn’t even notice the Palms Motel. The small, red-brick accommodation is so indistinct, it’s almost invisible. Budget rooms with terrible bedspreads, crowded around a small pool, 2½ stars. Clumps of palm trees gather by the entrance, as if to prove the hotel can be trusted to live up to its name.

It’s as unlikely a place as anywhere in Darwin for a shooting spree that would see a killer on the loose for an hour, and would end with four people dead, one injured and a whole city in mourning.

On Thursday afternoon, the Northern Territory police charged 45-year-old Benjamin Glenn Hoffmann with four counts of murder, two counts of recklessly endangering serious harm and one count of criminal damage. The police said further charges were expected to be laid at a later date.

 

It was about 5.45pm on Tuesday when a man dressed in a yellow high-vis shirt and armed with a stolen 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and a hunting knife arrived at the Palms and began firing shots at guests in their rooms.

Witnesses reported the man saying he was looking for someone named Alex, continuing to shoot through doors and into rooms as he did so.

“He shot up all the rooms and he went to every room looking for somebody and he shot them all up,” witness John Rose told the ABC.

The first victim, 33-year-old taxi driver Hassan Baydoun, was taking his meal break. His employer, the Blue Taxi Company, sits inside a peeling white shed beside the Palms.

Police said the shooter also threatened two people at the motel and shot a 23-year-old woman in the legs.

As the loud bangs subsided, witnesses reported him taking off calmly in a ute towards The Gardens, a small suburb tucked behind Darwin’s botanic gardens.

Once he turned the corner and was out of their sight, he wouldn’t have attracted much attention – high-vis workwear and a Toyota HiLux are a common uniform and vehicle for Darwin workers. And no one paid much notice when the HiLux, one of three vehicles the gunman allegedly used at different stages of the rampage, slowly pulled into a small complex of white, single-storey units about halfway up Gardens Hill Crescent.

In the silence of the early evening, the gunman fired bullets into the first unit he came across, before walking up the driveway to the second unit and doing the same.

Neighbours said they heard what they thought were fireworks and came out to investigate, ready to be annoyed at some idiot letting off crackers illegally before Territory Day on July 1.

Instead they found a distressed woman calling out from the second unit, her front door shot to pieces. One witness said the woman told her a stranger had fired shots into her house, then asked for someone named Alex before leaving.

The witness said they had been assisting the woman for some time before someone remembered the first round of gunshots and went to check the other homes in the complex. Inside the first unit they found Nigel Hellings, a 76-year-old man who’d been their neighbour for years, lying in a stream of blood, already deceased.

Frustrated that police and an ambulance still hadn’t arrived almost an hour later, the witnesses said they hadn’t realised the situation was ongoing, with the gunman still at large.

After Gardens Hill Crescent, the shooter had continued 650 metres up the sleepy backstreet and on to the Buff Club, a mostly windowless working-class pub stuck in the 1970s, popular with long-term locals despite its rough reputation.

Just before 6pm, the alleged gunman shot and killed Michael Sisois, 57, in the gravel car park out the back while patrons inside continued playing the pokies and pool. Police believe Sisois was known to the alleged shooter.

Two-and-a-half kilometres down the highway at Jolly Street in Woolner, the alleged killer found his fourth victim, Robert Courtney, who was shot in front of his friend Johnny Reid.

Reid told the NT News he was watching television when a man with a shotgun burst through the door and looked right at him. “I thought I was dead for sure,” he told the local paper. “I asked him what he was doing but he went right past me and shot my mate.”

Police also believe the alleged gunman and Courtney, a 52-year-old security guard at Mindil Beach Casino Resort, knew one another. They said the gunman was injured in the altercation, sustaining stab wounds, which may have been why his rampage came to an end.

After this final shooting, police said, the gunman drove 11 kilometres to the emergency services headquarters in Berrimah, where he unsuccessfully tried to enter the building. He then phoned the Joint Emergency Services Communications Centre, requesting police protection. An officer negotiated with him to hand himself in.

A dramatic arrest unfolded on the edge of the Darwin central business district, at the corner of McMinn and Daly streets, bringing the shooting spree almost full circle, about 300 metres from the Palms Motel, where the first shots were fired an hour before.

Traffic was stopped at the usually busy intersection as the alleged gunman, by then wearing only a pair of dark shorts and sneakers, flailed on the ground, surrounded by police. Video footage of the arrest shows him kicking his legs and yelling as police shouted for him to put his hands behind his back. He was eventually Tasered and taken into police custody, then to Royal Darwin Hospital, where he required surgery for his stab wounds.

 

On Wednesday the Northern Territory police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, said the alleged shooter was on parole. He was released from prison in January this year and wore an electronic monitoring bracelet. Until Tuesday, he’d had only one minor breach of his parole, missing curfew by less than an hour and being sent back to prison for two weeks as a result.

The parole system was being criticised as many people wondered why such a violent offender had been released early, and the NT government announced an immediate review of all 103 Territorians currently on parole and all individuals using electronic monitoring devices.

Commissioner Kershaw said police had stopped Hoffmann earlier in the day for speeding but he had displayed no suspicious behaviour so he was issued with a ticket and allowed to leave. Later, about 4.15pm, they received reports of an individual acting strangely, possibly under the influence of drugs and possibly carrying a firearm, in Humpty Doo in Darwin’s rural area, where he was looking for a specific individual. It wasn’t clear if this was also the person named Alex he was searching for later in the CBD, but Commissioner Kershaw said police had located Alex, who was a Darwin local.

On Thursday, Commissioner Kershaw said a third party had purchased ammunition and a knife that police believed were linked to the incidents. The purchase had occurred on the morning of the crimes.

Now, NT police, with the help of forensics and ballistics experts flown in from New South Wales, have the grim job of recording hundreds of witness statements, examining crime scenes and speaking with families of the victims and the alleged perpetrator, trying to piece together how exactly this happened and the motives behind it.

 

The shooting spree was limited to about a four-kilometre radius, but it would be foolish to think that is as far as the grief extends. Sadness carpets this small city.

The NT chief minister, Michael Gunner, acknowledged the event had shocked the community and left many people traumatised, and said the government offered counselling services for anyone who needed it.

“This is not Darwin. We are a close community,” Mr Gunner said. “Today I speak for all Territorians when I say we feel the pain of those impacted by the events … the victims, their families, our first responders and, of course, all Territorians who watched the event unfold.”

In a population of about 130,000, this is a crime that affects most people in some way. In Darwin, the degrees of separation are small; almost everyone is connected. Whether they saw the killer, heard the gunshots, or know a victim or a grieving relative or a witness or an emergency responder – or maybe even the alleged killer – few locals will escape the aftershocks of this crime.

And no one will be able to drive past the Palms Motel without noticing it again. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "‘This is not Darwin’". Subscribe here.

Kylie Stevenson
is a Walkley Award-winning freelance journalist based in Darwin.