Mistakes of the past will always catch up with you.
This is something that Eugene Ryder knows well.
He’s spent a lot of his 48 years of life making bad decisions that have cost him his freedom, his integrity and – perhaps of less lasting importance but grabbing more headlines – nearly cost him a dream holiday in Rarotonga that he and his wife Sheree had been planning for months.
Fifteen years ago he had no other choice but to change his ways: he was sick of being in jail, sick of using his fists to deal with his own anger and conflict, but most of all he was sick of hurting his wife and family.
The decision to overturn Ryder’s entry denial into Rarotonga has divided public opinion both here in the Cook Islands and around the world.
Many have accused Cook Islands Immigration of setting a precedent by allowing him into Rarotonga.
Some people believe Ryder deserves a second chance; others feel because he is still an active gang member he shouldn’t have been allowed into the country.
Mongrel Mob public relations officer (yes, they have one!) Lou Hutchison goes so far as to say that if decisions can be overturned as they were in Ryder’s case, then the same rule should apply to all gang members who have no criminal convictions and have been denied entry to other countries.
“What’s good for one should be good for all of them,” she says.
For some, the comment Ryder made about turning in his gang patch and pulling out of the Black Power right there and then, while stranded with his whanau (family) at Auckland Airport was a desperate attempt to change the decision.
“What’s he going to do, turn in his patch and then put it back on when he gets there?” was just one comment representative of many that flooded social media.
Renall Vogel says he believes in second chances – but rules are rules and, as an active member of a gang, he needed to stay in New Zealand. “We’ve had 40 gang members try to enter our island this year,” Vogel says, “I’ve been told that it’s because they’re checking out their potential drug market.”
“I’m not at all saying that this is the case with Eugene Ryder but I am saying that we have a duty to protect our island as does Cook Islands Immigration and the Government.”
In order to understand the life of Eugene Ryder it’s important to know where he’s come from.
Born in Auckland, Ryder’s early life was marred by horrific physical and psychological abuse. His father was a church minister and a convicted paedophile who served time in jail alongside his son, and took a hard line when it came to disciplining his children.
When he was 12, Ryder became a ward of the State – he spent time in nearly every boys’ home in the North Island of New Zealand.
While at school Ryder was constantly beaten for being “naughty”; school became hell on earth for the young man still trying to find his way. The abuse Ryder suffered at the hands of those entrusted with his care was never ending – it is graphic and it is confronting.
“I was abused by the very people who were supposed to protect me,” he says.
By the time he was 15, he was already well known to New Zealand Police.
He approached a Black Power gang president about becoming a member and was told he was too young at the time, but during a lag in jail after he robbed a bank when he was 17, he got his “patch”.
Ryder says he had finally found somewhere he felt he belonged – a family of brothers who shared his story.
Angry, volatile and traumatised, Ryder used his fists or a “hammer” to deal with anyone or anything that got in his way. He says he used violence against others to do the “talking” and didn’t care about what people thought or if they were hurt.
“If anyone got in my way, I smashed them.”
He wanted to be respected, he wanted to be scary and he wanted people who crossed him to know that he wasn’t to be “messed with”.
That was until he met Sheree, his partner of over 25 years and “beautiful” wife of 10.
“I never knew that there was anything else other than the world that I had grown up in.”
It’s probably the full face ta moko that scares people. Or maybe the fact that Ryder’s stature commands a presence. He’s not a small man.
But his smile illuminates from ear to ear and the words that flow from his tongue are soft, articulate and educated.
Ryder has no doubt about why he was on the list of known New Zealand gang members shared by New Zealand Police with Cook Islands Immigration.
“It’s because I am an active gang member,” he says.
Ryder has been in the Black Power for more than 20 years – he is also a social worker, an ambassador to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historic State Care Abuse and has received praise for his work with child ministry Oranga Tamariki.
He works closely with the New Zealand Police as a link between the police and hard-to-reach communities.
When he was turned away at the border, high profile doctors, lawyers, professors, politicians and musicians threw their support behind Ryder.
He’s earned their respect by proving that he’s not a typical gang member, and in fact, a lot would argue that being a gang member has helped Ryder diffuse gang tensions and bridge the gap between gangs and the Police.
He’s appeared on television panels with the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, he’s spoken at Women’s Refuge events and he’s on speed dial to New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush and deputy commissioner Wally Haumaha.
Yes, he has a list of achievements that is as long as his old criminal convictions.
But those are 15 years old, and this is the new Eugene Ryder – a man of mana who shares his story in the hope of helping others.
He’s an active gang member, but he refuses to live by the stereotype.
When asked by Cook Islands News why Ryder’s name was on the list shared with Cook Islands Immigration, a New Zealand Police spokesperson said: “New Zealand law enforcement agencies lawfully share intelligence with Cook Islands law enforcement to enable them to make a risk based decision as to the suitability of a person or persons visiting the Cook Islands. Decisions about entry to the Cook Islands are a matter for Cook Island officials.”
Cook Islands Immigration said the decision to reverse Ryder’s entry ban was a combined effort by both Cook Islands and New Zealand government agencies that allowed Ryder and his family a clear passage through to Rarotonga.
Ryder said he encouraged his family to leave without him while everything got sorted, but they refused. It was their dream trip of a life time that was months in the making.
“When I saw the looks of sadness on their faces, it broke me – it embarrassed me to think my past could be the reason why we weren’t going on this holiday,” he says.
His approval finally came through early on Sunday morning (CI time) and they were in Rarotonga by 6 o’clock that evening.
In the five days they were in Rarotonga, Ryder finally got the chance to propose properly to his whaiaipo (darling wife). They marked their 10-year wedding anniversary by planting a coconut tree on Muri Beach.
A visit to Avana, the harbour where seven vaka including Ryder’s (of Ngati Tuwharetoa descent) departed was extremely spiritual and moving. “Going there with my family made me feel like this is our Ipukarea – our spiritual homeland, such a special place.”
Their children Aaliyah and Davan got to learn how to scuba dive, they crammed in a visit to Palace Takeaways for the biggest burgers on the island, Mooring Café for a fish sandwich, went to a cultural night performance and kai and cruised Muri Lagoon with Captain Tama.
Most of all, they fulfilled the wish of their mokopuna Reeanne and found the place she likes to believe is the birthplace of the beautiful “Moana”, from the movie with the same name.
“This has been the dream holiday we had always imagined. My wife and I along with our children and moko have been truly blessed to have had this beautiful experience – one we will never forget,” he says.
“We will forget the challenges we had and will always remember the awesome welcoming people and beautiful beaches for all eternity.”