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Abbott was declared fit after shootout in bank

14 December 2002

Senior Constable Keith Abbott was declared fit to return to duty despite having suffered flashbacks, anxiety attacks, and tearful bouts of depression after a December 1991 shootout at a New Plymouth PostBank.

On April 30, 2000, Mr Abbott relived his worst nightmare. He confronted an enraged, baseball bat-clutching Steven Wallace in the main street of Waitara - and fired his pistol four times.

"I was in fear of my life . . . I honestly believe that he was going to smash my head to a pulp," Mr Abbott said during a ground-breaking murder trial that ended with his acquittal last week.

Spirited away with his family to a secret location after threats to his safety, Mr Abbott, 48, intends to resume work next year.

Police bosses said Mr Abbott was competent and fit to return to front-line duties. That could include a return to the armed offenders squad.

Mr Abbott was earlier judged fit to return to the front line after the PostBank shooting.

But documents and articles reveal just how traumatic that earlier incident was for him.

Police had been tipped off that armed robbers planned to strike the Moturoa bank, in suburban New Plymouth, on December 30, 1991.

Mr Abbott was part of an AOS team that lay in wait inside the bank. Other police officers posed as tellers.

What unfolded when two armed men stormed in was likened by one source to "The Gunfight at the OK Corral".

One of the robbers used a sawn-off shotgun to blast a hole in a door frame just half a metre from where Mr Abbott stood.

Pellets from the blast peppered the wall behind Mr Abbott, who did not have time to correctly hold or aim his .357 Ruger Magnum pistol as he "let it rip" at the offender.

"It was rapid fire in my case. All I cared about was getting as much lead out as I could," he said.

Mr Abbott fired four times at the gun-toting robber. He did not hit him. The accomplice was wounded by one of the seven shots fired by the other police marksmen.

Both robbers escaped and were caught a short time later.

The firefight lasted just a few terrifying seconds and left the bank "like cheese full of holes", Mr Abbott said.

A report by the Police Complaints Authority said the shooting was "wild and uncontrolled" and criticised AOS training methods, but no individual officers.

Mr Abbott struggled to cope in the aftermath of the PostBank showdown. A victim impact statement made in December 1992 said it was the most difficult period of his career.

"Coming to terms with how close to death I had come has played havoc on my life," Mr Abbott said.

"It has affected me long term and continued to haunt me with flashbacks to those few seconds inside the bank. It has brought about periods of anxiety and frustration.

"Repeated visits to a psychologist during the first few weeks has failed to clear the problem adequately.

"It has resulted in sleepless nights and, sometimes with no apparent warning, periods of tearful depression have overcome me."

Mr Abbott had sought transfers to other parts of the country "in an effort to forget".

He concluded: "I will be seeking to continue my professional therapy, but see the only cure as time."

Mr Abbott became the first police officer in New Zealand to face a private murder prosecution, brought by the Wallace family.

John Rowan, QC, who acted for the Wallaces, sourced the material on Mr Abbott's torment after the PostBank shooting, but decided not to introduce it at trial.

He declined to comment on his trial strategy.

However Mr Rowan said the psychological problems experienced by Mr Abbott raised "wider issues of care of police members".

Superintendent Neville Matthews, national police operations manager, said an appropriate trauma policy was in place.

Lawyer Susan Hughes, who defended Mr Abbott, said though he was affected by the PostBank shooting, "he was, nevertheless, cleared to return to full duties, including the AOS".

There was no suggestion of Mr Abbott having psychological problems at the time of the Wallace shooting.

"Even if he (Mr Abbott) was completely barking, he would have been entitled to have shot him to save his own life," Ms Hughes said.

Mr Abbott did not wish to comment.

[Published with photo and caption ... Keith Abbott: " All I cared about was getting as much lead out as I could." ]

Dominion Post / NZPA, © Wellington Newspapers Limited 2002

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