Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe spoke repeatedly about how he could take a paid holiday if he shot someone while on duty, his former fiancee told detectives, according to a transcript of a police interview and a statement released by the NT supreme court.
In the wide-ranging interview the woman also said Rolfe told her at different times that he was the first to get his gun out on jobs, and did not turn on his body-worn camera as he did not want people at the police station to see what he was doing.
In response to questions from the Guardian, Rolfe has strongly denied making any of the comments, and questioned why his former fiancee, who was also a police officer, did not mention them to her superiors or colleagues at the time.
The NT supreme court has released a transcript of the woman’s interview and statement following Rolfe’s acquittal in March on charges of murder and two alternative charges regarding the death of Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker. Walker had been shot three times by Rolfe during an arrest in the remote community of Yuendumu, 300km north-west of Alice Springs, in November 2019. Rolfe argued at trial that he shot Walker in defence of himself and a colleague after Walker stabbed him with scissors and struggled with another officer.
Guardian Australia does not suggest that the matters raised in the interview and the statement had any bearing on Rolfe’s actions in respect of the death of Kumanjayi Walker or his acquittal by a jury in the subsequent criminal trial. However, as remarks alleged to have been made by a serving police officer, and included in documents put before the court, the Guardian considers there is a public interest in reporting the claims.
The woman, who Guardian Australia has chosen not to name, said she started her relationship with Rolfe in early 2018 when the pair both worked at Alice Springs police station. They became engaged within weeks, before Rolfe broke up with her later that year.
She said she left the force soon after the separation, and had not spoken to Rolfe for almost a year before the shooting. In August 2020, Det Sen Sgt Kirk Pennuto and Det Sgt Wayne Newell, the officers investigating Walker’s death, interviewed the 26-year-old woman for almost two-and-a-half hours. A year later, in September 2021, the woman made a further brief statement clarifying information she had previously provided.
The 92-page transcript of the August interview, along with the later statement, was included in a bundle of material tendered by the prosecution in a pre-trial application to determine what was admissible in Rolfe’s trial.
In that application, the prosecution relied on limited sections of the transcript and statement, largely concerning what Rolfe had allegedly said regarding a previous arrest. The remainder of the transcript, including the alleged statements in this story, was not raised and was not the subject of submissions. Rolfe’s defence team successfully argued none of the material was admissible as evidence, in part because no findings of wrongdoing had been made against Rolfe.
Justice John Burns ultimately found that including the material would not help a jury determine whether Rolfe was guilty of the murder of Walker.
“Nothing in the evidence of the tendency incidents could … assist the jury in understanding or inferring the accused’s state of mind of the charged events,” Justice Burns said in a January 2022 decision.
As a result, evidence about the matters in the transcript was not presented at trial and Rolfe did not have an opportunity to answer it.
The interview contains details about how Rolfe’s former fiancee viewed his relationships with policing, the army, and his colleagues.
While much of it details her impressions and opinions, it also includes her account of several statements she alleges Rolfe made to her.
“Zach said on several occasions to me … that he would like to shoot someone so then he can go on a paid holiday,” she said in the interview. In her later statement, she said Rolfe said words to the effect of “if I shot someone I could go on a six-month holiday”.
She said in the police interview: “Because obviously when you shoot someone you go under investigation, like what is happening now, and you go on a paid holiday.
“I don’t think he really understood the ramifications of if that ever actually did happen or would happen. And then it did happen. And I couldn’t imagine he’s in a good position now.”
Asked later in the interview whether she took Rolfe to be serious she said: “Mm yeah. Because he said it so many times. I think he really did – I think everything is said in like, said in jest is like, oh, it would be a paid holiday, but then when it really happens, is it really a fun paid holiday, like is it really not that serious?”
Asked again whether the comments were made flippantly she said “I think some were considered and some were flippant. ’Cause you have to consider something to say something on several occasions.”
She said she believed Rolfe had made similar comments on “maybe” five occasions, and that she had responded that it would not be a “fun holiday at all”.
In her later statement, she said this occurred when they were talking about going on a holiday and Rolfe would say it off the cuff. It happened several times during conversations at the home they shared in Alice Springs, she said.
In a statement to the Guardian, Rolfe strongly denied making any of the alleged comments in this story. He did not respond to individual questions, but raised the fact his ex-fiancee had not reported those comments at the time.
“I strongly deny making any of these alleged comments. During our relationship, despite the seriousness of her allegations, she never mentioned them to her superiors or fellow police officers.
“Despite me being such an apparently bad guy, [she] stayed with me until I broke off the relationship with her in 2018 and was devastated when I did so.”
When asked by Pennuto during her interview why she had not “done anything” with the comments she said Rolfe made to her about a paid holiday, the former fiancee responded: “I don’t know … I loved him at the time and I just – I would say to him, ‘you don’t want to go on that kind of holiday, it’s not a holiday, it’s serious,’ and then he would just like kind of laugh it off.
“So I think I, in myself, tried to tell myself that it was – it wasn’t real, like he didn’t actually mean that sort of thing. But there’s no other reason, like I can’t think of why I didn’t tell anyone.”
Rolfe and the woman met in late 2017 and were engaged in March 2018, she told police. They separated about six months later. She said they had been planning a wedding before he broke up with her.
Pennuto and Newell asked the woman extensive questions about Rolfe’s conduct as a police officer.
The woman also told police during her interview that Rolfe had said to her – she believed when he was teaching her to shoot at a range – that he would always be the first person to get his gun out if required on a job. She said in her later signed statement that Rolfe had said to her at the home they shared “I always get my gun out first”, and that he had thought it was funny in the context he was saying it.
He also told her, she said, that he did not turn on his body-worn camera, because he did not want people at the station to see what he had been doing. Rolfe’s camera was on during the shooting of Walker, and throughout his time in Yuendumu, with portions of the footage played during his trial.
Rolfe’s former fiancee also told police that the “awful” and “terrible” culture at Alice Springs police station generally of “bitching” behind people’s backs was so bad that she ended up leaving the force.
In December last year, the prosecution in Rolfe’s murder case made an unsuccessful application to include material relating to his alleged history in policing, known as tendency evidence, in his trial. The prosecution sought to include evidence regarding four incidents in which they alleged Rolfe may have improperly used force while he was involved in an arrest.
But his lawyers argued in a pre-trial hearing that on all four occasions Rolfe had been cleared of using inappropriate force, and there had not been any finding of wrongdoing against him during his career.
Justice Burns said during the hearing that the prosecution appeared to have “cherrypicked” four arrests from potentially hundreds of others in which Rolfe had been involved without incident.
Most of the former fiancee’s interview and statement was not referred to in this application, but her claims relating to the arrest of a man called Malcolm Ryder were referred to by the prosecution as something they would seek to rely on to establish what they alleged was a pattern of behaviour by Rolfe.
She said in her interview that Rolfe told her he had asked a colleague at Alice Springs police station to scratch his face after he arrested Ryder in 2018. She said Rolfe wanted to make it appear that Ryder had scratched him during the arrest to justify his use of force. She and Rolfe were not dating at the time of the Ryder incident and she said in her statement that Rolfe told her this later.
Ryder was cleared of charges of assaulting police. The fiancee’s claims did not form part of that trial.
Rolfe’s lawyer, Luke Officer, said in a statement to the Guardian that it was important to note that so little of the former fiancee’s interview was used in the prosecution’s application. He said the portions referred to in this article were not raised in the application and the transcript and allegations in it were not raised at trial.
“If you chose to publish certain extracts of the transcript that were not relied upon by the prosecution and rejected by the trial judge in a failed application to introduce tendency evidence then in our view that is not fair, accurate and balanced.”
The transcript of the interview and other materials were released to the media just over two weeks ago after the Guardian and other outlets successfully argued for the lifting of about 20 suppression orders on the case. The woman also gave a second interview to police, but the transcript of this interview was not included in the prosecution’s evidence.
During the court hearing determining whether the orders should be lifted, David Edwardson, QC for Rolfe, argued that the tendency evidence was “misconceived” and that suppression orders regarding it should therefore remain in place.
He said the tendency material was “no more than an argument that was advanced by the prosecution, unsuccessfully, as to conduct imputed against Mr Rolfe”.
“It was inadmissible. It’s unsubstantiated. And there is no public interest, in my submission, in it being put out into the ether, so to speak.
“So that’s the basis upon which we maintain our objection.”
But Justice Burns said the public interest in open justice and scrutiny of the court’s decisions outweighed any potential damage to Rolfe’s reputation.
“Whichever way one looks at the matter, while there may be some embarrassment and potentially some damage to the reputation of Mr Rolfe if the material which is the subject of the suppression orders is published, that is of lesser importance … than ensuring that the public has the means of scrutinising the decisions which have been made by this court and of understanding the decisions that the court has made,” he said.
“In my view, it is in the public interest that the decisions made by the court surrounding the evidence which the Crown sought to lead at trial and which was rejected be subject to open scrutiny.
“This is particularly so in a case where there are post-trial claims made of interference in the charging process.”
Michael Riches, the NT independent commissioner against corruption, announced on 29 March that he was investigating “allegations of improper conduct relating to the arrest and charge” of Rolfe in relation to Walker’s death. The NT police have said they will fully cooperate with the investigation.