The hunt for Tommy Baker: on the trail of Papua New Guinea’s most-wanted man

As the sun set over the coast of Alotau, a town in the east of Papua New Guinea, on a Friday night in April, four boats zoomed from the beach into the night. Onboard the dinghies there were close to 100 men, fully armed with high-powered firearms, including the country’s most-wanted fugitive: Tommy Baker.

Baker, who is wanted by police for alleged crimes including murder, piracy and robbery, has been on the run from police since 2013. He has twice escaped jail – one time by faking a knee injury and fleeing while he was being taken for medical treatment.

Police pursued Baker and the men to the coast, but by the time they arrived, the gang were long gone.

In April, the days leading up to Baker and his gang’s flight from the coast saw Alotau, the once-peaceful capital of Milne Bay province, in the country’s east, reduced to a war zone – the police barracks were burnt down (something Baker says he and his gang were not responsible for), shops looted, and a gun battle between Baker’s men and police lasted more than seven hours.

Locals from the area who wished to remain anonymous say they watched helplessly as the violence erupted and as the gang left, but claim they are suffering as they are caught in the middle between the police – with scores of officers being brought into Alotau to deal with the aftermath of the violence – and the gang.

“We just watched them leave – there were about nearly 100 of them or more, some came over the mountain from Alotau, others came in trucks with and some were waiting with the dinghies,” one said. “They were armed with guns but now we are being threatened by police… we live in fear, watching the roads. Who will we call for help?”

The hunt for Tommy Baker has left a trail of destruction across the province of Milne Bay including shootouts with police, officers killed and homes burnt down, but also claims by locals of heavy-handed policing that has allegedly seen innocent people, who claim no affiliation with Baker, turned out of their homes, arrested, beaten and, in one case, killed.

Police say they are not aware of any mistreatment of civilians by officers and the claims are not supported by credible evidence.

In early August, police raided a village in Cape Vogel after receiving information that the village was allegedly harbouring Baker’s right-hand man, Michael “Mekere” Yawi, and other members of his gang. Locals claim around 20 homes were burnt down during the raid.

A villager who did not want to be named said his home and all his belongings were lost in the flames. “We are not criminals and we are not hiding them – our crime is been related to them. We cannot be blamed, we do not choose who our relatives are.”

Police confirmed the raid took place but say that just six homes, which they claim were used by the gang, were burnt down.

With a blanket of silence covering the province, many are afraid to talk and do not know who to trust.

A woman in Alotau, who also did not wish to be named, said she was afraid of both police and the gang members. “Who will protect us? Police they blame us, they beat our young men while the gang threatens us. We are afraid to speak,” she said. “Who do we go to, who do we trust? So we stay silent, praying for our families, praying for our Alotau.”

Tommy Maeva Baker, 35, was born in Rabaraba, a village in Milne Bay. His name first started to appear in news reports in 2013, when he and his gang of close to 200 men started conducting armed robberies in Alotau. His crimes have resulted in a slew of deaths of people – police and villagers alike – across Milne Bay province and Papua New Guinea’s former prime minister Peter O’Neill labelled him a terrorist.

Baker has sometimes been painted as a folk hero – “Papua New Guinea’s Ned Kelly” – amid claims he is a man of people, standing up against “white men-colonisers” who “prosper and build their business empire using our land”, according to an interview he gave the Post Courier earlier this year. But David Manning, Papua New Guinea’s commissioner of police, has warned against Baker being glamorised in the media.

“This fellow is no Robin Hood, and is a violent thug who has brought death and misery to peace-loving people around Milne Bay,” Manning said.

The first report of his crimes was in 2013 when Baker’s gang allegedly broke into the Alotau Enterprise shop. A probationary police constable, a security guard and a female staff member were killed during the armed robbery.

The story of Baker’s alleged crimes involves a tit-for-tat relationship with police, with Baker responding to police incidents, and police responding to Baker’s alleged crimes, in an escalating cycle.

In 2016, after another of Baker’s right-hand men, Whitey, was shot and killed by police in Lae, police say Baker’s gang attacked police in Alotau, killing another police officer during the shootout. In 2018, Baker and eight members of his gang were arrested in Central Province and detained but he escaped from custody at the Port Moresby general hospital after faking a knee injury.

In January 2019, Baker and his gang allegedly engaged in a gun battle with police, killing a legal officer in the crossfire. They also allegedly burnt down eight police houses and a police vehicle, killing the wife of a police officer and her four-year-old son, who had locked themselves in a bathroom in the barracks. Their bodies were found in the ashes.

After the gun battle in April this year, which ended with Baker and his men departing Alotau in their dinghies, there have been deaths – including of Baker’s right-hand man Mekere in a shootout with police – and arrests.

In late July, locals claim a young man suspected of being involved with Baker was arrested and beaten by police in front of villagers. He later died in the Alotau police station, allegedly from the injuries he sustained.

The man’s father has called for an investigation into his son’s death.

Police say they are currently investigating the death of the young man and have invited his family to submit a formal complaint. There is an “investigation task force on the ground in Alotau that aggrieved persons or families can approach and register their complaints” and “all complaints will be investigated and acted upon”, police say.

Manning acknowledged there had been some issues with police behaviour in response to the gang’s actions.

“Yes, there have been discipline issues with some of our personnel and these matters have been dealt with though disciplinary procedures,” the police commissioner said. However, it was important to distinguish between fact and rumour spread by Baker’s supporters, he said.

“We have no intention to be light-handed as we deal with this situation, because the killings and looting by this gang must be stopped and where appropriate this requires a heavy hand from law enforcement agencies.”

In the immediate aftermath of the April gun battle, police arrested nearly 40 people, suspected of been gang members, for arson or for looting. Among the group were two women believed to be Baker’s aunts – one says she is not related to him – who were arrested on charges they allegedly harboured Baker.

Speaking to the Guardian in May through the fence of the women’s section of Giligili Correctional Service Institute, Laurinda Kauma, 57, and Agnes Miro, 67, maintain they haven’t seen Baker since he went on the run from police.

Miro said: “He usually lives in the bushes with his gang. We have never seen him since he started his criminal activities, nor do we know where he is hiding.”

Kauma and Miro have since been released on bail.

On the other side of the prison, in the men’s wing, stood men of all ages, scooped up by police in the wake of the violence between police and Baker’s gang. A 56-year-old man who was accused of arson during the violence was furious, claiming he was innocent.

“Look at me, I am a father, I have children and grandchildren,” he said. “Why would I go around burning down government properties?.

Police said that they could not comment on the arrests as some people had now been charged and their cases were before the courts.

At the end of April, after the gun battle, half a dozen homes including Baker’s family home and the home of his ex-girlfriend were burnt down at Bottom Town following a police raid.

A member of Baker’s ex-girlfriend’s family said police went to her home and asked them where Baker was. “We didn’t know, we don’t know where he is. Our niece went out with him a long time ago, they are no longer together, but they told us to leave. They were fully armed. We were scared so we just left.

“We didn’t take anything, we ran out of the house and our home was burnt down. We don’t know where to go.”

Manning said Baker and his gang were “cunning criminals who take over the homes of people and try to stir confrontations with police, and they damage private property claiming this was done by police”. He did not answer questions about whether police burnt down the homes at Bottom Town or whether they believed that to be the work of Baker’s gang.

Donald Yamasombie, the deputy commissioner of police operations, said there were ways to resolve issues and Baker and his gang should turn themselves in and solve their issues through the proper channels.

“Do it for Milne Bay, for your people – surrender.”

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