In the next aisle there was what sounded like a scuffle. “I thought it was people fighting. Then there were more screams and I heard someone say something about a knife.”
A surreal and horrific scene was unfolding in the pharmacy section of the central Dunedin Countdown supermarket.
A man in a frenzied rage had stabbed two people and was attacking two more, targeting their necks with two seven-centimetre knives, one in each hand.
He had slashed one supermarket worker from her left earlobe to her chin, pushed her to the floor and continued stabbing around her head and injuring her forearms and hands as she tried to defend herself. When another staff member intervened, he was stabbed in the pelvis.
As Sophie tried to make sense of what she was seeing, the man, who was attacking the male victim, turned to face her. She saw a knife blade. “He had that look… he was just going to go to the next person and the next person.”
Sophie knew she had to get him to the ground. “I went to grab him and that’s when I spotted Jeremy.”
A fellow Dunedin officer, Detective Constable Jeremy Toschi, who was on duty, but in plainclothes, was also in the store. In fact, they had passed each other briefly moments before.
After all, it was just a normal day at the supermarket next door to the police station and Jeremy was picking up a few supplies for that night’s dinner for his family… until he heard “blood-curdling yelling”. He dropped his groceries and raced to the pharmacy aisle.
When Sophie saw him, she says, “I knew we would both have the same intention.”
As she moved in to grab the man from behind, Jeremy began hurling bottles of cleaning products at his head, making a couple of good strikes. “One exploded on his head and one connected hard and dazed him a bit and then Sophie tackled him and got him to the ground.”
The next few moments happened in a blur as Sophie, Jeremy and a female member of the public wrestled with the enraged knife-wielding attacker on a floor that had become slick with cleaning fluid and blood.
Sophie recollects the woman had arrived with a chair from the pharmacy waiting area and thrown it at the offender. Sophie then used it to try to pin him down while dodging the slashing thrusts of the knife. Jeremy grabbed another chair and, likewise, sought to wrangle the man into submission, hitting him with it and then pinning the legs against his chest.
Meanwhile, the injured man was still entangled in the offender’s legs. Jeremy dragged him away and returned with the only tactical option available – the chair.
The man had dropped one of the knives and the officers pleaded with him to drop the second, but he wasn’t giving it up.
“The woman had hold of his arm with the knife in it. She was putting all her weight on him. It was like a Vulcan death grip,” Jeremy says. “Sophie was by his head.”
Eventually the offender did release the knife and uniformed police arrived to arrest him and remove him from the supermarket.
“It felt like it took ages,” says Sophie, “but I found out later that the whole thing was over in 70 seconds.”
Both Sophie and Jeremy say the overwhelming feeling during the awful incident was of one of absolute chaos.
For 27-year-old Sophie, who has been a sworn officer for four years after five years in non-sworn roles, it was a confronting situation.
“It would have been different if I had been in uniform, when you always have some idea of what job you are going to, and you can prepare on the way.”
She instinctively grabbed at her hoodie and thought, “I’m not wearing a vest. I’ve got no Taser, no spray. I’ve got no protection.”
She was in full fight or flight mode.
“I would have been able to subdue him a lot quicker and from a distance if I had been in uniform. I wouldn’t have gone ‘hands-on’ if I’d had another option.
“I haven’t had an adrenaline dump like that before. My legs were shaking. I was talking incredibly fast and bouncing off the walls.”
That didn’t stop her helping to escort the offender out of the store. “Once he was in the cuffs, I went into work mode. I was still hyped up and I wanted to get him to the station. I needed someone to pull me back and say, right, job’s done, you can stand down now.”
The four victims were taken to hospital and Sophie and Jeremy went to the station to type up their statements. They both called their families to let them know what had happened and that they were okay.
“The adrenaline didn’t slow down for about eight hours,” says Sophie. “I couldn’t quite understand what had just happened.” Not least, she says, the fact that she went to that supermarket in the first place. It was her day off, it wasn’t the most convenient store and the trip took her well out her way.
Reflecting on it now, she says: “I knew it was dangerous and I knew I could definitely be hurt because I had seen people be stabbed, but it wasn’t till I heard the news that he was being charged with attempted murder that I realised it could have gone very bad. The victims hadn’t been killed but there was a good chance someone could have died.”
Despite it all, she says, it was good to know that when the situation demanded a response, she had been able to act.
No one else knew they were police officers and Sophie says everyone did the very best they could in the midst of the chaos.
Jeremy, 39, who joined Police seven years ago after a career in outdoor retail, says it took a while for the reality of it all to kick in. He got home to his wife and four children and thought about how it could have turned out very differently.
“The woman who helped out did a tremendous job. Me and Sophie are trained, and we think about these sorts of scenarios, but when it comes to civilians, it’s not something they might ever consider. I was very impressed with her actions.“
While the Police Association Bravery Awards were completely unexpected, and both officers are wary of the attention, they say it was a good feeling to be nominated by their colleagues through the association’s Otago Coastal Committee.
They have also appreciated being able to talk to each other about the day that a quick trip to the supermarket turned into a dramatic crime scene.
It was a horrific attack that was widely reported and just four months later, a similar shocking but unconnected incident occurred at the Countdown supermarket in Auckland’s LynnMall shopping centre. It was upsetting for Jeremy’s 10-year-old son who developed a fear of going to the supermarket. “We had to do a bit of work to help him get over that.”
The 42-year-old attacker, Luke Lambert, pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to 13 years in jail.
The Bravery Award citation for Constable Sophie Allison and Detective Constable Jeremy Toschi noted that their courageous actions, along with the Countdown staff and members of the public, unquestionably prevented a highly motivated offender from killing and inflicting further serious injury. Presenting the award at the Police Association’s annual conference last month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Jeremy and Sophie had shown true humanity, selflessness and bravery.