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501 tribunal rejects appeal for police attacker; allows meth-dealing grandfather to stay in Australia

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Isikeli Titoa, 29, was branded a 501 deportee last September following a series of ram raids that he described as “fun” and an attack on a female police officer. Photo / File

A New Zealand citizen who has lived in Australia since he was 11 has lost his appeal against deportation after an Australian tribunal noted his long criminal history, including grabbing a female police officer by the throat and repeatedly punching her during a traffic stop.

Isikeli Titoa, now 29, was branded a 501 deportee last September – following in the footsteps of his brother who was also ordered out – but had hoped the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia would overturn the decision. It declined.

But the tribunal issued two decisions concerning New Zealand citizens last week – the other one allowing a 56-year-old who has been in Australia since he was 19 to stay.

In that case the long-time Australia resident, whose name was redacted, said a serious bite after a spider fell into his workboot had led to an eventual relapse into drugs and crime. He was convicted in 2019 for trafficking methamphetamine.

Titoa, who arrived in Australia as a child in 1994, acknowledged in a hearing last month in Brisbane that he did not pass the character test – having been sentenced to more than 12 months’ prison.

“The applicant’s offending in this country has been extensive,” tribunal members Theodore Tavoularis and Lee Benjamin wrote in their decision upholding his deportation. “His criminal history discloses the commission of some 66 separate offences that were dealt with at 12 separate sentencing episodes.

“We are talking about an offending history that runs for approximately 11 years, or put another way, for a period representing over 60 per cent of his time in this country … This applicant’s offending has consumed considerable Australian law enforcement resources and court time.”

The tribunal seemed to focus on the July 2013 traffic incident which resulted in the police officer’s hospitalisation. Titoa, who was then known by the name Junior Pedbone, was convicted the following year of serious assault on a police officer.

But Australian authorities also directed attention to a series of burglary sprees and ram raids, including one night-time home invasion he admitted to in which he took a bracelet off someone who was sleeping. The ram raids included a jewellery store in October 2020 in which he was seen wearing a New Zealand-branded “boxing fight club” jumper as the assailants placed a large amount of jewellery in “jumbo bags”. That same month, he admitted participating in another ram raid in which Bic lighters were placed in jumbo shopping bags.

Titoa said he was under the influence of either cocaine, methamphetamine or alcohol during the offences. He agreed the lighter heist didn’t result in items of high value and agreed with the characterisation the ram raid was just for fun.

He was involved in another ram raid in February in which a safe was stolen from a grocery store, as well as a high-speed chase of up to 150km/h – sometimes against the flow of traffic – that continued even after road spikes were deployed.

In a statement to the tribunal, Titoa said he was extremely embarrassed, remorseful and ashamed. He said he’s had a “wake-up call” following the cancellation of his visa and emergency open heart surgery in March. He also wants to stay in Australia to help his sister and her partner look after their autistic nephew, he said.

Family members submitted numerous letters describing him as an “amazing uncle”.

“I don’t want to go back to New Zealand because I might join a gang,” he wrote in a statement to the tribunal. “I lived in Australia most of my life and I love living here and had my first job as a kitchen hand at a KFC and had all my friends that I met here. I went to college here and love it. I hope to have the opportunity to get back in the community, so I can get a job and get my life back together. So I can support my family.”

But the tribunal report noted that Titoa has not enrolled in any formal rehabilitation courses for his drug abuse. He said in an affidavit that he hadn’t touched drugs in five years but admitted while speaking to the tribunal that that wasn’t true.

He continued to sling “vile abuse” at police in incidents well after his assault conviction and just days before the hearing was accused of verbally abusing nurses as he attempted to retrieve his medical records.

His remorse, the tribunal suggested, does “not appear to us to be particularly credible”.

Drug-trafficking case

But the tribunal took a softer stance in a separate opinion released the same day last week, involving the 56-year-old from Perth who was convicted of drug trafficking.

The man was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ prison in November 2019 after pleading guilty to the charge.

Like Titoa, the man had a lengthy criminal history in Australia – although the vast majority were for relatively minor charges – and he admitted he didn’t pass the character test. But to his credit, he’s taken solid steps to address his addiction over the past four years, the tribunal noted.

He said he had managed to go nine years without offending when he was bitten by a redback spider, resulting in an ulcerated wound that wouldn’t heal and his eventual inability to work.

“After he was bitten by the redback spider, he became depressed due to his slow recovery and started to use alcohol and drugs more often,” the report said. “His evidence was that he used methamphetamine approximately one to three times a week because it helped block his pain and gave him energy and motivation.”

He admitted to selling methamphetamine over a five-month period to further his own habit. Without his admission of guilt, the sentencing judge noted, it was unlikely prosecutors could have sustained the charge.

A drug rehabilitation centre wrote a letter of support for the man, describing him as “highly engaged, motivated, and proven to be polite and courteous”.

But the tribunal appeared to pay particularly close attention to another aspect of the man’s life – his close relationship with his stepdaughter and her four children.

Known as “Poppy JJ” to the children, he has been in their lives since they were little and has played an important role as the children don’t have a father figure in their lives, the man’s stepdaughter said. His deportation, she said, “would rip away my children’s grandfather from their lives” and cause them to be “absolutely shattered”.

The grandfather has an especially critical role with his oldest grandson, 18, who was described by his mother as having mental health issues that have resulted in attacks on his siblings. One child was kicked in the ribs violently enough to have an ambulance called, she said, while another was pushed down the stairs and had a knife held to their throat.

The woman described her stepfather as a calming influence on the teen who, critically to the rest of her family, intends to have the teen live with him if allowed to continue residing in Australia.

“I am genuinely concerned that [the teen] will end up in a mental ward or prison if [the applicant] is deported because his behaviour well and truly will become out of control,” the teen’s mother told the tribunal.

Tribunal member Michelle Evans-Bonner agreed that deporting the man to New Zealand would be strongly against the children’s best interests.

“He understands they are relying on him, and I believe he is highly motivated not to let them down again,” she added.

Evans-Bonner also noted in her report that the man’s parents were Australian citizens at the time of his birth, and a DNA test showed his ancestry to include indigenous Australians and early settlers.

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