DUNEDIN, New Zealand — When the stocky Australian man moved into the bluish-gray house perched on a small incline in 2017, he told the young couple next door he had traveled the world and was looking to settle down.
This quiet college town, surrounded by hills and a small harbor on New Zealand’s South Island, appealed to him, he said.
It was almost flattering to hear that a well-traveled bachelor in his late 20s would pick Dunedin — a city of 127,000 better known as an easy stop for visitors en route to penguin and albatross colonies.
For the next year and a half, the newcomer built a life of solitary routines, according to a dozen people who interacted with him.
He would exchange polite hellos and waves with neighbors and make frequent trips to a nearby gym, they said. His rent would always arrive on time for an apartment he kept meticulously austere, with bare walls and a bed in the living room as the only furnishing.
Brooke, one of the next-door neighbors, said he was so quiet that she never heard a sound from his house, even though they shared a wall. No friends visited. He had no job or discernible romantic partner.
“He was bizarrely quiet,” said Brooke, who asked to be identified only by her first name in attempts to maintain some privacy while the spotlight is on Dunedin. “You would never hear anything, not music, nothing. No one ever came round. He was always by himself.”
On the other side of the wall, Brenton Tarrant — the alleged gunman in last week’s mosque massacres — was apparently planning.
He trained with semiautomatic rifles at a gun club in a forest about a 45-minute drive south of Dunedin. He bulked up, hefting weights of up to 440 pounds at a 24-hour gym. Either by choice or happenstance, the gym he picked had a view of a day-care center for Muslim children across the street.
He trawled the darkest corners of the Internet, finding inspiration and kinship for his white-nationalist rage.
Investigators are still trying to piece together the full timeline and tipping points that led to the horrific spray of bullets — streamed live on the Internet — at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15 that claimed 50 lives and shook New Zealand to its core. They have named Tarrant, who posted a rambling 74-page manifesto on a Twitter account he created three days before the attack, as the only suspect.
A massive forensic effort, said New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush, includes the FBI, Australian police and officials from nations visited by the alleged gunman — Turkey, Bulgaria and elsewhere. It seeks “to build a comprehensive picture of this person that we will put before the court,” said Bush.
But in Dunedin — about 210 miles down the coast from Christchurch — it’s also about what may have been missed.
“The other poignant feature of this for Dunedinites is, of course, the revelation that the evildoer lived among us — in my case, just three blocks away from my home,” said Michael Woodhouse, a member of Parliament based here. “He was hiding in plain sight.”
Tarrant was born in Grafton, a town of 18,000 near Australia’s east coast known for its annual jacaranda festival, when trees bloom in a canopy of purple-hued flowers. His grandmother, 81-year-old Marie Fitzgerald, told The Washington Post she remembers him as a “lovely boy” from the early years she spent babysitting him.
“He was mostly a good kid — naughty at times just like ordinary children,” she said.
Speaking separately to an Australian news network, Fitzgerald said he spent most of his time on the computer, playing video games, and was awkward around girls.
Tarrant, who never went to college, became a personal trainer at a gym in Grafton between 2009 and 2011. Tracey Gray, the gym’s manager, told ABC News he worked in a program that offered free gym training to children in a community hit hard by bankruptcies in the dairy industry and falling agricultural subsidies. Tarrant, in his manifesto, described his own family as “low income.”
He showed no obvious interest in firearms, Gray said, which are heavily restricted in Australia.
In 2010, Tarrant’s father took his own life at age 49, turning to suicide after he was diagnosed with cancer as a result of asbestos exposure, Fitzgerald said. He had been a competitive athlete who participated in triathlons, according to an obituary at the time.
Tarrant’s mother, Sharon, and sister Lauren have been under police protection, sequestered since the attacks. They have not spoken with the news media.
“This news is like hell on earth,” Fitzgerald told The Post. “We had no idea — it hurts so much. It’s a hard thing to swallow.”
Few in the city will even say his name.
But Australia nonetheless has had to grapple with the fact that the alleged shooter was one of its own, adding to the ongoing debates over Islamophobia and racism against groups including Australia’s native inhabitants. Tarrant views Australia as “simply an offshoot of the European people,” he wrote in the Twitter manifesto.
“It hasn’t come as a complete shock to people that things have come to a head like this,” said Tasneem Chopra, chair of the Australian Muslim Women’s Center for Human Rights. “There has not been a strong counterattack to it, [and] there’s also been a lot of platforms that has been provided those views.”
Coming into some money from his father’s estate, Tarrant traveled the world, apparently solo.
In 2016, he visited Turkey twice, first in March and later in September, according to the Daily Sabah newspaper. Late that year, he visited Serbia, Montenegro and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, stopping at the sites of battles between Muslims and Christians during the centuries of Ottoman rule.
By early 2017, he was traveling through some of the bloodiest spots of the 1990s Balkan wars, including mostly Muslim Bosnia and mostly Roman Catholic Croatia.
That spring, he was making his way across Western Europe, Tarrant said in his manifesto. Here, his views on immigration were “dramatically changed.” He traveled through France, Portugal and elsewhere, he wrote in the screed, and was unsettled by a truck attack in Stockholm around that time that left a young girl dead.
His fury grew, he wrote, as he observed the 2017 French elections. In the document, he lashed out against immigration to France in particular, claiming there were so many immigrants “the French people were often in a minority themselves.”
At some stage, he also went to North Korea, apparently with a “friendship association” on closely monitored tours. A photo shows Tarrant, in jeans and a black sweater, kneeling in the front row of a group that had visited the Samjiyon Grand Monument. Behind them stands a huge bronze statue of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
It was right after these travels, according to property and hotel records, that Tarrant came to set up base in Dunedin. After spending four nights at the cheapest available room in a city center hotel, he moved in August 2017 to a one-bedroom duplex apartment on leafy Somerville Street, which is dotted by shadows from surrounding hills.
He was unemployed but provided a reference, according to the property manager, and agreed to pay eight weeks of rent — about $1,550 — upfront. He told the property manager he had money from his father’s estate. Tarrant, in his manifesto, said he invested in cryptocurrency, which he used to fund his travels.
“The rent came through like clockwork. All the inspections checked out fine,” said the manager of the real estate company, who spoke on the condition that neither he nor his company be named because of an ongoing police investigation. “He seemed to be in and out of the place quite often. He was doing a bit of traveling around while he was here, but we had no reason to suspect anything.”
Tarrant kept the flat impeccably clean. Nothing was on the walls — no posters, photographs or paintings. Oddly, the property manager said, he had no furniture, just the bed in the living room.
“[He] didn’t have any lounge furniture. But I mean, that’s just quirky rather than raising a red flag or anything like that,” the property manager added. “It’s just like, okay, this is the way this guy lived, that’s fair enough — each to their own sort of thing.”
Three months later, in November 2017, Tarrant obtained a gun license, a prerequisite for owning a firearm in New Zealand. He purchased his first firearm from Gun City, among the biggest gun retailers in the country, the next month. He bought three more up until March 2018, said David Tipple, the store’s managing director.
He also bought a hunting rifle from the Dunedin branch of Hunting & Fishing, an outdoor store, in late 2017, according to Radio New Zealand.
Tarrant apparently sought out a gun club and found one that suited him: Bruce Rifle Club, nestled in a forest near Milton, south of Dunedin, which has confirmed he was a member.
Recreational shooters say that no other club in the area offered shooting and target practice with military-style assault rifles. A video on YouTube of the rifle club that has since been deleted shows its members practicing on human silhouette targets, frowned upon by the vast majority of shooters in New Zealand.
“New Zealand shooting culture is very conservative,” said Grant Dodson, a recreational shooter and president of the Dunedin Clay Target Club, which uses only shotguns and clay targets. “There’s not a lot of military-style semiautomatic weapons used for shooting.”
Pete Breidahl, a former member of the New Zealand military and a competition shooter, said he raised concerns about the rifle club in late 2017, according to an interview and to Facebook posts from the time that he shared with The Post.
“Its ethos is appalling, everything from the ‘You can take these guns from my cold, dead hands’ mentality to their members turning up to a military shoot wearing camo,” he said in an interview. “They said stuff that scared me.”
In a statement, the Bruce Rifle Club’s vice president said Tarrant “seemed like a normal person and never gave anyone reason to suspect he would carry out an attack like he has.”
“The club is feeling shocked, stunned, betrayed and used that we’ve had this person in our Club who has used our facilities to hone his skills to do these horrible things to some innocent human beings,” the statement added.
In late 2018, Tarrant took off on travels again. He visited the Gilgit-Baltistan area of northern Pakistan on the edge of the Himalayas, according to an archived version of Facebook posts that has since been deleted from the Osho Tang hotel.
In comments to CNN, the owner of the hotel described Tarrant as polite, and did not notice anything out of the ordinary.
Bulgarian officials confirmed that he also had visited the country in late 2018, flying to the capital, Sofia, and later driving to Hungary. Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor, Sotir Tsatsarov, said that Tarrant spent around a week in the Balkan nation and that prosecutors are now probing whether he visited as a tourist “or if he had other objectives.”
Sometime that year, he went back to Grafton to celebrate his sister’s 30th birthday, according to Fitzgerald, his grandmother.
“He was no different,” she told The Post. “We all went out for dinner to a pub in Grafton, and he was pleased to see all of us. He made a speech for Lauren. He seemed happy.”
Back in Dunedin, neighbors said, Tarrant seemed obsessed with working out.
“He’s a big guy — as in, he works out a lot,” said Jess Corbett, 35, a neighbor who went to the same gym, Anytime Fitness, as Tarrant. “I did remember thinking when I saw him at the gym just how thick he was.”
Anytime Fitness lies directly across the road from An-Nur Childcare Center, a day care for Muslim children under age 5. The treadmills face out directly toward the center.
Tarrant’s manifesto does not mention the center but does state that he initially was planning to attack the Al-Huda Mosque in Dunedin. Muslim community elders there say the mosque’s security-camera system was stolen about three weeks before the Christchurch attacks.
An-Nur’s owner, Mohammad Alayan, happened to be in Christchurch on March 15 and was critically injured in the attack on the Al Noor Mosque, the first site targeted. The shooter’s bullet hit his shoulder, just missing his heart. His son, 33-year-old football player and entrepreneur Atta Elayyan, was among those killed.
“We are still unraveling all of this,” said Haizal Hussaini, 45, who moved from Malaysia to Dunedin in 2007. “It could have been me. It could have been any of us.”
The city’s small Muslim community, he said, certainly had felt pockets of racism before but never had experienced a presence of organized white nationalist or extremist groups, or felt their lives were threatened.
“There’s always intolerance — you know, some words or someone pulling off a scarf [from a woman’s head], or telling us to go back home,” he said. “But we never imagined this would happen, never anything like this.”
A road outside the Al-Huda Mosque is lined with flowers stretching the entire block, with declarations of solidarity and sorrow. On Thursday evening, 15,000 people — approximately a tenth of the city — gathered for a vigil to honor the lives lost.
Officers remain stationed outside the apartment on Somerville Street, where Tarrant had paid his rent up to April 2. He told the property manager, however, he would move out by mid-March.
Investigators have not spoken publicly on forensic work or any other possible evidence they have collected. On a recent visit by The Post, electricians were installing sensor lights as a precaution, guarding against harm to the property.
“Someone might try to torch the place,” said the police officer on duty.
The new tenants, a young couple in their late teens, have now changed their mind. They will not be moving in.
Shuttleworth reported from Cairns, Australia. Anna Fifield in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Siobhan O’Grady in Washington contributed to this report.