World

Coroner: Police should have moved in earlier in Sydney siege

Police responding to a deadly hostage crisis in a Sydney cafe underestimated the gunman's threat and should have stormed the building earlier, rather than waiting to act until the gunman had killed a captive, a coroner said Wednesday after concluding a 2-½ year inquiry.

The coroner's findings follow intense criticism from many of the 18 hostages and families of the victims, who have long questioned why police waited nearly 17 hours to enter the Lindt Cafe and end the December 2014 siege. Police moved in only after an erratic Man Monis fatally shot cafe manager Tori Johnson. Monis was then shot dead by police and another hostage, lawyer Katrina Dawson, was killed in the crossfire.

Though New South Wales state Coroner Michael Barnes took pains to say that the only person responsible for the deaths was Monis himself, he concluded police made a series of mistakes, most notably by failing to immediately storm the cafe after Monis fired at a group of hostages who fled the building more than 16 hours into the crisis. Another 10 minutes elapsed before Monis fired his shotgun into the back of Johnson's head, killing him instantly and finally triggering the police response.

"An emergency action should have been initiated following the first shot of Monis at 2:03 a.m.," Barnes said. "That made it clear there was little to no chance of resolving the siege, and those within the cafe were at an extreme risk of harm. The 10 minutes that lapsed without decisive action by police was too long. Tori Johnson was executed in the meantime."

Barnes said that while police correctly followed their standard policy of trying to negotiate with Monis and not cede to his demands early in the siege, alternatives should have been considered as the crisis wore on. A psychiatrist called in by police also gave erroneous assessments of the situation inside the cafe and issued ambiguous advice, which contributed to police underestimating the threat Monis posed, Barnes said.

Multiple calls by hostages to a number they had been told would connect them with a police negotiator went unanswered, compounding their fear and frustration. At one point, hostage Marcia Mikhael called a Sydney radio station on Monis' behalf and said police were doing nothing to end the crisis, saying: "They have left us here to die."

The attack unfolded in the most unlikely of places: a cheerful chocolate cafe in the heart of downtown Sydney, at the start of a workday and just a week before Christmas. Australians were horrified and bewildered, and they demanded to know how such a thing could have occurred in their normally placid city. Barnes summarized the horror of the attack in his findings, saying the terror the hostages felt was akin to torture.

"Monis oscillated between feigning regard for their welfare and threatening to blow them apart," he said. "They had entered a familiar environment only to find it transformed into a prison run by a vicious maniac."

The inquest, a court-like proceeding convened after unusual deaths, examined everything from the police response, to whether the siege could have been prevented, to precisely what motivated Monis to attack. Though Monis demanded police deliver him an Islamic State flag at the outset of the crisis, there was no evidence that he had ever established contact with the militant group. Many thought the 50-year-old Iranian-born man was simply a disturbed individual lashing out against a series of perceived personal injustices. In the lead-up to the siege, Monis had lost custody of his children, fallen into debt and was facing possible jail time on charges of sexual assault.

Barnes determined that while Monis was not psychotic, he almost certainly had a severe personality disorder. And though the coroner said it remains unclear whether Monis was actually motivated by the Islamic State movement or simply used the group's reputation to bolster his agenda, in the end, he engaged in extreme violence in a bid to influence public opinion.

"That clearly brings his crimes within the accepted definition of terrorism," Barnes said. "The siege was a terrorist incident."

The coroner also concluded that prosecutors' attempts to keep Monis off the street before the siege were inadequate. At the time, he was out on bail despite facing a string of violent charges, including 40 counts of sexual assault and accessory to murder in the slaying of his ex-wife. He was on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's watch list in 2008 and 2009 over offensive letters he sent to the families of dead Australian soldiers, but was later dropped from the list. He had also once attracted the attention of the FBI as someone who had "the potential to incite others to violence," according to a 2009 FBI memo obtained by The Associated Press.

Barnes said police made a mistake two months before the siege when they failed to arrest Monis on multiple new sex offense charges, and instead served him simple court attendance notices. That error, Barnes said, increased Monis' chance of being granted bail. Barnes also concluded that the prosecutor's arguments against Monis' bail application were inadequate.

Outside court, Johnson's partner, Thomas Zinn, said the inquest had exposed a series of inadequacies by authorities.

"We were confronted with a systematic failure of various authorities, who at times were confused, ill-informed, unprepared and under-resourced to deal with Monis," Zinn told reporters.