A junior police officer who gunned down a man as he savagely stabbed his own mother in broad daylight may have committed homicide, according to Victoria's coroner, who has referred the case to state prosecutors.
Warning: This article contains content that some readers may find distressing.
Gabriel Messo died after being shot three times by a Victoria Police officer who confronted him as he brutally attacked his mother in a public park in Melbourne's north-west about two years ago.
The assault was so ferocious that his mother, Lilla Messo, lost an eye and developed an acquired brain injury. She ultimately survived the attack.
Mr Messo's death was being investigated by the Victorian State Coroner John Cain, who on Thursday found that the first two shots fired by Constable Emmanuel Andrew was an acceptable use of force.
"The level of force used was not disproportionate to Constable Andrew's objective to prevent the assault from continuing and to protect Lilla from really serious injury," Judge Cain said.
But Judge Cain said he was "gravely concerned" about the third shot which was fired just five seconds after Gabriel Messo, who was by that point unarmed, had stopped attacking his mother and was moving away from police as he clutched his torso.
"I have formed a belief to the requisite standard that an indictable offence may have been committed by Constable Andrew in connection with Gabriel's death," Judge Cain said.
"The indictable offences I have formed a belief to the requisite standard include but are not limited to … of homicide, causing serious injury intentionally, conduct endangering life or assault."
He has referred the case to Victoria's director of public prosecutions, who will ultimately decide whether to criminally charge Constable Andrew.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said he was confident prosecutors would assess whether to lay charges as quickly as possible.
"We will await the findings in due course," the chief commissioner said.
"I know this will be an incredibly difficult time for the member involved and Victoria Police will continue to support him during this process."
Police union backs officers involved in Messo shooting
Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt strongly condemned the coroner's findings and said the two police officers attending the Gladstone Park assault had made the right decision.
"We've got a decision to make as a community in Victoria. I can tell you now, police forces around the world are being roundly criticised for attending scenes and doing nothing," Mr Gatt said.
"These officers did something. They went and saved the life of a Victorian, a vulnerable Victorian who had been assaulted there for 17 minutes."
Mr Gatt said the situation needed to be quickly resolved by prosecutors for the benefit of police officers who had been "tormented" by the years-long wait.
He said that he had spoken to both officers and they were shocked by the coroner's findings.
"Does that make us angry? Yes it does," he said.
"Because police officers are asked to do this each and every day, and they shouldn't have to do it under the shadow of this sort of persecution."
Mr Gatt warned the findings could have lasting implications for policing in the state.
"Most people in the community would understand the terrible message this sends to police officers across Victoria," Mr Gatt said.
"Police officers who will get out of their cars and question 'should I rush in and do something or should I sit back, save I be criticised in the cool light of day, years and years later?'"
'Significant' evidence missing because body-worn cameras were off
The incident, at John Coutts Reserve at Gladstone Park, was not captured on body-worn camera, and prompted the coroner to recommend that Victoria Police invest in new technology which automatically starts recording when a gun is removed from its holster.
"This is not the first time that the issue of non-activation of [body-worn cameras] has come before this court and this jurisdiction," Judge Cain said.
"The absence of that evidence is significant.
"The advantages of [body-worn cameras] being utilised by police members cannot be overstated.
"They facilitate evidence being captured objectively, they significantly increase transparency in relation to the conduct of Victoria Police members and interactions with members of the public."
The Messo family's lawyer, Jeremy King from Robinson Gill, welcomed the finding for automatic cameras.
"It's pretty unfortunate that police can't be trusted to do that and that you now have to have systems like this to ensure that we do have an accurate recording of what goes on when police go to use lethal force," Mr King said.
"Gabriel's death was very sad and judging on what the coroner said, was potentially avoidable at several different stages."
Mr Gatt said the police union would support the equipment's implementation if it resulted in easier decision making in life-or-death situations.
"That equipment wasn't there for them. I also want to note that they didn't have tasers at the scene, that wasn't there for them," Mr Gatt said.
"Our members call for improvements to their equipment all the time."
Mr Gatt said the police association had repeatedly lobbied for equipment such as tasers to be issued for police officers, but that it was still years away from being delivered.
Messo mentally unwell when he attacked his mother
In July 2020, as Gabriel Messo was in the grips of mental illness, he texted his mother and pleaded with her to visit him.
"Come see me … I'm so sad, I need to see you," he wrote.
"Okay Gabby, I will see you," Ms Messo responded.
But when the pair met at John Coutts Reserve, things turned violent.
The inquest was told that Gabriel Messo viciously assaulted his mother for 17 minutes, using his fists at first and then nearby sticks, which he used to repeatedly stab her.
The coroner was told that Lilla Messo was not seen defending herself and ultimately suffered four heart attacks and a collapsed lung, as well as injuries to her head and neck.
In the lead up to the violent incident, the coroner was told that Gabriel Messo went through a "cycle" relapse.
The inquest heard that desperate family members made multiple calls to mental health services and that on the day of the brutal attack, they pleaded for help from Broadmeadows Hospital.
A staff member promised that Gabriel Messo's case would be put forward at a 2pm meeting but by then, it was too late.
Just minutes after police were called, Constable Andrew and his partner, First Constable Rebecca Churcher, arrived at John Coutts Reserve.
The inquest heard that when the pair turned into a street near the reserve, Constable Andrew dashed from the car as it was still moving, leaving his more senior partner behind.
"It is evident that Constable Andrew's conduct effectively excluded [First Constable] Churcher from any of the critical tactical decisions that occurred," the coroner said.
"Constable Andrew's conduct also demonstrated no regard for foundational aspects of his training."
Constable Andrew confronted Gabriel Messo who paused his attack to look at him.
"You are not going to shoot," Mr Messo said.
"As soon as the male stopped looking at me and looked back at the female, I fired one shot," Constable Andrew later told investigators.
Judge says officer could have used 'less than lethal' options
Judge Cain said he was "greatly" concerned that there was no evidence indicating that either officer considered less lethal options like their extendable baton or capsicum spray.
"This incident escalated from verbal negotiation directly to lethal force and the repeated discharge of a police firearm," Judge Cain said.
"The threat that faced the officers was a male on his knees armed with a tree branch stabbing an unconscious female," he said.
"It is difficult to understand why less than lethal tactical options were not attempted … In the circumstances, attempts could have been made to disarm Gabriel."
Mr Messo died at the scene.
Mr King, who is representing the Messo family, said the coroner's findings raised serious issues about Victoria's mental health system.
"This was a family that was desperate to get help from the mental health system, and that mental health system failed them," Mr King said.
"The coroner today has raised clear issues with policing, both in the way they handle people with mental health issues and in regards to the incident itself, but the [director of public prosecutors] will have to grapple with those issues," he said.
"The family dearly hope that the coroner's recommendations today … continue to be implemented so that this never happens again, that no other family has to fall between a rock and a hard place, and that people can get help when they need it."