Then he started talking in her ear.
“People are trying to hurt me, but I won’t hurt you”, he told her. It was then she started to panic, and her teenage daughter Jess screamed out for help.
For the next 90 minutes, Wheeler was the man’s hostage, as they stood near the Burger King in the food court of the Westfield Manukau Shopping Centre. Her ordeal only ended when the man dropped the knife to the floor and surrendered to police negotiators.
READ MORE: Hostage situation at Auckland Mall
When it was over, Wheeler gave her statement to police. Then she and Jess went straight to Rainbow’s End amusement park, as planned, and then to the Taylor Swift concert at Mt Smart Stadium. The trip was Jess’ 14th birthday present, and nothing was going to ruin it. Not even her mother being held at knifepoint.
“[Jess] deserved to go,” Wheeler said.
The pair had flown in from their home in Christchurch early on Friday morning. They were queuing for breakfast at Burger King in the mall when the man appeared “out of nowhere” and grabbed Wheeler. It was early and most shops in the mall hadn’t opened. Only a handful of food court staff saw what happened.
Wheeler quickly realised it wasn’t a prank.
“Even though he said he wouldn’t hurt me, I just didn’t know what to think,” she said, “It took a fair while to even process it.”
“I was asking him ‘why me?” and [telling him] that it was my daughter’s special day and he was ruining it. I didn’t know what had led him to be desperate enough to get into a situation like that.”
Her daughter was escorted away so she didn’t have to watch what unfolded next . Members of the public were evacuated from the mall as security teams moved in.
“It just seems like it was a bad dream … it doesn’t feel real.”
A food court worker told Stuff the alleged attacker was agitated when he entered the food court and appeared drunk and disoriented.
Wheeler, now back home in Christchurch and counting her blessings, wasn’t so sure.
“He wasn’t drunk. I don’t know what was going on with him but he was all there.”
The drama ended only when the man gave himself up and let Wheeler go, after 40 minutes of negotiating with police.
“He let me go because I asked him to. He was worried about the police shooting him so … [I said] I would stand beside him so he would not get shot … He knew he had to give up but he was really worried the minute he let me go that they would shoot him.”
Wheeler said despite what she had been through, she did not want the man to get hurt.
“If I’d tried to fight him, somebody would have got hurt … I didn’t want my daughter to see that.”
Her husband, Tobi Wheeler, said it was “completely surreal” when she called to let him know she was OK.
“It was really weird … I didn’t even know it was happening, I’d seen a bit on on the news but wow, I never thought that it would be Laura involved.”
Wheeler said in retrospect it was lucky the man had taken her and not touched her teenage daughter otherwise it could have been “a whole different situation”.
“I certainly wouldn’t have stood back and just let that happen. I don’t know what I would have done, that would have been horrendous.”
He was arrested without incident and appeared at Manukau District Court on Saturday charged with kidnapping.
He has been granted interim name suppression and was remanded in custody until his next appearance on November 12.