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Main suspect in New Zealand shootings that killed 50 charged with murder, believed to be lone gunman

  • Author: Emanuel Stoakes, Steve Hendrix, The Washington Post
  • Updated: March 16
  • Published March 16

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand - From pop-up relief tents dispensing tea and cookies to overwhelmed morgues, this placid city of parks and gardens struggled over the weekend to cope with the aftermath of a massacre as police announced the discovery of another victim, raising the death count to 50, and the suspected shooter made his first appearance in court.

Avowed neo-Nazi Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, flashed what appeared to be a white-power hand signal, a possible dark joke to online extremists, as he was escorted into the courtroom Saturday. He entered no plea to one count of murder related to the massacre at two mosques on Friday. Officials said he would face additional charges and make another court appearance in April. Police said evidence so far suggests Tarrant was the lone gunman.

Some families still waited to learn the fates of unaccounted-for loved ones. Others, freshly grieving, clamored for harried medical examiners to release loved ones' remains in time to meet Islamic rules for quick burial. Police were still processing the pair of massive, crosstown crime scenes as other investigators sifted through Tarrant's background, a puzzling mix of global travel and insular hatred.

Thirty-six victims remained hospitalized over the weekend, two in intensive care. It was the city's worst toll of death and injury since a lunchtime earthquake devastated swaths of the city and killed 185 people in 2011. To many, the hate-fueled violence of Friday's attack was an even more painful blow.

"The earthquakes were natural disasters. This is man-made," said a woman giving out refreshments from a Salvation Army church near one of the mosques. She had pies heating in an oven for passersby.

On a mild, late-summer weekend that normally would have been abuzz with activity in this outdoors-loving country, a quiet pall had settled on the city. Many shops remained closed, and the large park across the street from Al Noor Mosque, where at least 41 worshipers were killed, was empty but for the curious staring at the police tape and flashing lights below the golden dome.

Pedestrians paused in disbelief and shock, wrote on a giant plastic condolence sheet and laid flowers. No one spoke above a whisper.

Many expressed disbelief, sympathy for the victims and baffled fury at Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian who had lived on and off in New Zealand in recent years. Police named Tarrant as the primary suspect in what was called the deadliest attack in New Zealand history - and one of the worst cases of right-wing terrorism in years - after he allegedly stormed the two houses of worship during midday prayers and mowed down dozens of huddling and fleeing worshipers while live-streaming the killing over social media with a body-mounted camera.

Two others have been arrested in connection with the shootings: A second man, 18-year-old Daniel John Burrough, is expected to appear in court Monday and face charges of inciting racial hostility or ill will. Police said Sunday they do not believe he was involved in the shootings. A third person, suspected of being an accomplice, remains unidentified.

Photos from Tarrant's hearing, which was closed to the public by Judge Paul Kellar in the interest of safety - an unusual move for New Zealand courts - showed Tarrant standing at the dock in white prison garb. He stayed silent throughout. His face, by the judge's order, was pixelated in the photographs to protect the integrity of the trial process.

The shocking assault reverberated through the country over the weekend. After a pledge by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to update the country's gun-control laws, New Zealand Attorney General David Parker said at a vigil that semiautomatic weapons would be banned. Officials later demurred, saying more debate and analysis would be needed before new laws were adopted.

Ardern also promised an examination of why Tarrant had escaped official notice before allegedly launching a well-planned assault that plunged New Zealand into one of its "darkest days." Security officials are investigating whether they had overlooked warning signs, she said.

The New Zealand Herald reported Saturday that minutes before the attack began, Tarrant sent a copy of a lengthy manifesto explaining his actions to Ardern's office and many media outlets.

None of the three arrested suspects had criminal records, and Tarrant had a registered address in southern New Zealand but lived in the country sporadically. Instead, the former fitness trainer led an itinerant lifestyle and traveled extensively, visiting Bulgaria, North Korea and countries with large Muslim populations, including Turkey and Pakistan, officials said.

Tarrant obtained a license in November 2017 for the guns that police say were used in the shootings at the two mosques; he began purchasing the weapons that December, according to officials, and at least some of them had been modified.

Harried coroners and pathologists raced to determine official causes of death for the unprecedented number of criminal casualties even as families pleaded to begin their Islamic death rites.

"We are so aware of the culture and religious needs, so we are doing that as quickly and as sensitively as possible," Christchurch Police Commissioner Mike Bush said Sunday.

The medical staffs, along with victim assistance teams being deployed across the city, were bringing their experience from the 2011 earthquake to the current crisis, he said.

"Unfortunately, we have been through traumatic things before," Bush said.

Residents, too, were offering each other solace in ways they learned when their city was so recently devastated.

With many shops still closed after the shooting rampage, people laid flowers and handwritten signs during large vigils. Others volunteered at comfort stations near the mosques.

Outside the Christchurch courtroom Saturday, Omar and Yama Nabi spoke about their slain father, Hajji Daoud Nabi, 71, a refugee of the Soviet-Afghan war who arrived in New Zealand decades ago.

Survivors told Omar Nabi that his father had leaped on top of another worshiper as a human shield when the attack unfolded at Al Noor Mosque. Nabi went to the court to get a glimpse of the man who killed his father, he said, but the public was not allowed inside.

"I need to sit there and watch what's going on," Nabi said. "One part of me wants to kill him, but this is not what I want to portray Muslims as."

Yama Nabi narrowly escaped danger after arriving late for Friday prayers. By the time he arrived, he said, he saw a Somali man cradling his dead son and bodies strewn in the mosque's hallway, a grisly scene visible from the street.

As the overcast sky gave way to gently pattering rain, Rami, 28, stood outside Christchurch General Hospital and recalled his desperation on Friday as he spoke on the phone with his father, who had been shot and was bleeding inside the mosque. Police would not let Rami - who spoke on the condition his last name not be used - or paramedics into the mosque immediately after the shooting while they tried to ensure that the area was secured.

"It was a horrific incident and horrific to be on the phone to my dad," Rami said as he waited outside the hospital for his father to emerge from nerve reconstruction surgery.

"He was shot in the thigh and the buttocks; it hit his hip," he said. "He's in a lot of pain."

Officials canceled sporting events and religious gatherings scheduled to take place in Christchurch over the weekend, including a Saturday cricket test match between Bangladesh and New Zealand. Some members of the Bangladeshi team narrowly escaped the attack Friday. Isaac Herzog, chairman of the New York-based Jewish Agency for Israel, tweeted that synagogues in New Zealand were closing their doors over Shabbat "for the first time in history," with some remaining closed over the weekend on police advice.

The killings touched a nerve around the world. In Australia, right-wing Sen. Fraser Anning released a statement on Friday saying that "the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place." Anning doubled down at a news conference in Melbourne on Saturday, where a scuffle broke out when a teenager smashed an egg on the back of the controversial senator's head. Anning responded by punching his assailant in the face, and some of his supporters then seized and restrained the 17-year-old.

Authorities in Australia said Tarrant's relatives in the small city of Grafton had come forward to assist with their investigation into his past and his path to radicalization. In the manifesto laying out his thinking and influences, Tarrant said he developed racist views and began planning his operation in 2017 after a trip to Europe. On Friday, Bulgaria's chief prosecutor, Sotir Tsatsarov, said Tarrant flew to Sofia, the capital, in November 2018 and spent about a week in the Balkan country. Prosecutors there are investigating whether he visited as a tourist "or if he had other objectives."

Tarrant titled his 16,000-word screed "The Great Replacement," echoing the name of a book by far-right French polemicist Renaud Camus. The phrase has also been the rallying cry of others in the far right including the torch-bearing protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Hendrix reported from Washington. Rebecca Macfie in Christchurch and Siobhán O’Grady in Washington contributed to this report.

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