Story transcripts

A Special Breed

Friday, June 17, 2011

Reporter: Karl Stefanovic
Producers: Nick Greenaway, Ali Smith

He had a good life; a beautiful wife, a cute two-year old son and a new-born daughter, he had also just made detective.

But one day Damian Leeding went to work, and never came home.

Damian was shot trying to stop an armed hold up at a Gold Coast hotel.

He died a few days later, surrounded by the family he loved so dearly.

It's a risk every police officer takes when they're on the job, a risk they take willingly and with great courage and pride.

But when you spend a little time with those left behind, it just breaks your heart.

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If you would like to donate to the Damian Leeding Remembrance Fund established by the Queensland Police Union, visit:

www.qpu.asn.au

Full transcript:

KARL STEFANOVIC: Little Hudson Leeding is a carbon copy of his father Damian. Of course at two years of age, life is a pure joy. Oh, there’s bubbles coming out of your mouth! Far too young to comprehend the finality of his father’s funeral or the heart-wrenching impression he left, playing innocently alongside the coffin. But his mum, Sonya knows the harsh reality. Damian was killed by the very people he’d sworn to fight.

SONYA: They’re the ones that’ve gotta live with this. You know, I can, I can live with - well, still getting used to the idea that Damian’s not coming home but they’re the ones that’ve gotta live with destroying my family, destroying my shining light.

PRIEST: We are here as a result of an evil act.

KARL STEFANOVIC: 35-year-old Damian Leeding was one of a special breed – a front line officer who saw policing as calling, taking the fight to the crims on their turf. And there was something about his slaying three weeks ago at a Gold Coast pub, that affected not just his colleagues, friends and family; but everyone.

MARK PROCTOR: We only spoke for a couple of minutes, had I known this was the last time I spoke to Damo, I would have had so much more to say. I would have told him to be safe, to look after himself and to not be so brave.

SONYA: You just don’t realise how many people it’s touched.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Did you feel like they were lifting you up?

SONYA: Yeah. And I still do. And I think if I’d have worked for any other company or business or whatever, we’d be on our own trying to deal with this. We’re not. We’re very, very fortunate that we’re not.

KARL STEFANOVIC: I guess in a strange way in the space of a week you’ve seen the worst…

SONYA: Yep.

KARL STEFANOVIC: ..of being a cop, and the best of it?

SONYA: Yep, definitely. We certainly have. Yeah.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Sonya isn’t just a widow, she’s also a police officer. She met Damian 8 years ago when they were both rookie cops. Straight away Damien was smitten but initially Sonya wasn’t so sure. It was all a bit of a surprise to you?

SONYA: Yeah, yeah, and my mum came up for a holiday for a weekend, and she kept going, oh he’s really nice and he’s got a cute bum. And I’m like, he’s a ranga! I’m not going to go out with a ranga?

KARL STEFANOVIC: What’s wrong with a ranga?

SONYA: Nothing now! But at the time I was just like, no way, red hair and freckles, no way! So not my type, yeah. That must’ve been someone’s plan.

KARL STEFANOVIC: What was he like to be around?

SONYA: Lots of fun. We didn’t have to say a lot to each other, we just knew. He was always very thoughtful, especially with the kids. As a dad he just, he adored our kids. It was the making of him.

KARL STEFANOVIC: And parenthood only strengthened Damian’s resolve to keep his community safe. Typically, he was first to an armed hold up at the Pacific Pines Tavern on Sunday night, the 29th of May. And it was Damian who challenged the bandits as they fled through the carpark when he was shot in the head. Just before 1am came the knock on the door that every officer’s family dreads.

SONYA: As soon as I walked out and shone the torch through the glass next to the door, I saw one of his inspectors in uniform. And it’s probably your worst nightmare, especially knowing your partner’s doing the job that we do and it’s always a risk. I never thought it would be him. For two seconds I thought ‘stuff this, I’m not opening the door. I know what they’re here for’.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Damian’s heart had stopped at the scene. He had to be resuscitated before being rushed to the Gold Coast Hospital for emergency neurosurgery.

SONYA: We had a meeting with one of the doctors, with Damian’s family, and they said “he’s been shot in the head, he’s in surgery”. And I just knew then. I just - I knew then it wasn’t going to end well. I knew it was going to end, but not well.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Damian never regained consciousness, and the decision was made to take him off life support. The community reaction has been extraordinary - at Coomera police station flowers flooded in from complete strangers, bikies, even ex-cons. For the mates he worked with here, like his boss Mark Procter, one of the really good guys is gone.

MARK PROCTOR: It’s something I hope I never have to go through again. It’s losing a, not only a colleague and a staff member, but losing such a good mate. He’s worked, he’s worked with me and most of the people here for, you know, four to five years. He’s the sort of bloke that you become a mate with real quick. He’s a, you know, was a champion bloke, one of the team.

KARL STEFANOVIC: It’s just so sad, you know.

MARK PROCTOR: Yeah it is, and that’s probably the best word, it’s just sad. It’s not fair, is it?

KARL STEFANOVIC: Damien knew there was an armed hold up in progress at the Pacific Pines tavern, he knew it was a potentially very dangerous situation, but as he always told his mates, if he could take down the crooks, he would. Well, they got him first. Understandably there has been a massive outpouring of grief for Damien and his family. But the reality is what happened to Damien, could happen to any police officer anytime, anywhere. Nearly 10,000 Australian police officers are assaulted in the line of duty each year. And when the worst happens - a tragedy like Damian’s – every officer feels the pain.

STEVE DE LORENZO: I cried, I sat here and I cried, it still makes me teary thinking about it now.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Yet is so easily could have been you?

STEVE DE LORENZO: Yep, it could have been, yep, it was close, very close.

KARL STEFANOVIC: As a frontline officer in Sydney, Sergeant Steve De Lorenzo has faced death twice. In 2009, with an armed robbery underway, Steve entered the Lakes Hotel in Rosebery. Security footage captured the thief - Tevi Koloamatangi - holding three hostages at gunpoint as Steve approached unseen on the other side of the bar.

STEVE: I saw that there were at least three other people in there begging for their lives. There was a lot of screaming going on and I quickly retreated back, knew that Koloamatangi hadn’t seen me, and ah just briefed the other police officers. I said, “we’ve got the element of surprise, and I said I’ll sneak up and I’ll taser him”.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Steve De Lorenzo crept up and fired, hitting Koloamatangi in the chest but the high voltage barb bounced off the zipper on his jacket.

STEVE: I didn’t realise that I thought it had brought him down because he stepped back inside the counting room and what I did then I stepped into the counting room and walked towards him and he got into a combat stance and took two shots at me point blank, one of them I think narrowly missed my heart and the other one I believe only missed me by millimetres in the head area.

KARL STEFANOVIC: But this battle had only just started. Steve de Lorenzo believed in never taking a backward step. He put on a flak jacket, armed himself with a glock pistol and went back in to confront the gunman. Who goes back in?

STEVE: The NSW Police go back in. We don’t back off. When someone’s holding a gun to a person’s head and threatening to execute them, and also threatening to kill other hostages, we don’t back off and I think that’s the message that these gunmen, have gotta understand, the police will not back off. We will never back off. We will protect life and property even at the expense of our own lives.

KARL STEFANOVIC: In the ensuing firefight, Steve shot the gunman Koloamatangi three times and he eventually surrendered. But Steve didn’t escape unscathed. He’d been shot in the shoulder.

STEVE: When I got hit I got hit with a 40 calibre full metal jacket round, that went straight through me, it went through the front of my shoulder and went through the rear, it goes through you at 3,500 feet a second and it’s a hot round.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Today, the bullet wound in his right shoulder is still plainly evident. But the scars of 16 years on the frontline for this swimming coach turned police officer, are not only external.

STEVE: Nobody thinks when they are leaving the academy they are going to be walking through the gates of hell more than once or twice, but you do – and it can happen to anyone at anytime, no doubt about it. You’ve got to be ready.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Steve first entered those gates of hell in February 2000 during a domestic dispute in Bondi. A 24-year-old man attacked and beat him to the ground, trying to drown him in this pond. Steve’s only escape was lethal force.

STEVE: When he was over the top of me he was smashing me, pounding me, only he was kneeling of course in this position just smashing me so I was unable to get up. When you’ve got a 100kg guy on top of you and you’re in that sunken trench full of water, you can’t get up so there was no opp…

KARL STEFANOVIC: You had nowhere to go.

STEVE: There was no opportunity for me to get up at all. I was on my own. Yeah.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Did you think the worst at this stage?

STEVE: Oh, well not only did I think the worst, I knew it was the worst. I knew he was going to kill me or I had to discharge a firearm to get him off me. That was it.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Despite a coronial finding of justifiable homicide, Steve still has nightmares about the shooting. Swimming is one of his main therapies to deal with post traumatic stress. He’s now retired from the force, but wants the public to appreciate just what an asset our frontline police are.

STEVE: But those blokes and women that elect to stay and serve on the frontline, are a particular type of breed. Damian Leeding was one of them. I never met Damian Leeding and I’ve never met his family, but I can understand the type of bloke he was, and I understand why he got shot straight through the face. I understand why. I feel connected to him. I’ve never met him. But I know why he did it, because he wanted to serve the community in Queensland and he wanted to do the right thing, you know, I take my hat off to the guy.

KARL STEFANOVIC: And perhaps even in death, Damian has continued to serve his community. From around Australia, to his own suburban street, has come a renewed appreciation for our police. Here neighbours have tied blue ribbons as a mark of respect, not only for Damien but for Sonya too. Because remarkably - in spite of everything - she plans to return to duty.

SONYA: The job we do is unique, and this last week I’ve just seen everybody stand up and be counted and still get up and go to work and put their firearms on and know that they’re going to perhaps encounter something similar. But at the end of the day we are, and I’ve always maintained this, it is, it is our job. Everybody has their own job. We were both very proud to be part of the job, I guess we can call it. And even now everyone says, “oh, you don’t have to come back, you can do whatever you want”. Well, but I can’t. This is what I do. It’s who I am, and it’s who all of us are.

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