Encrypted phones, covert boat trips, a clandestine meeting in a Phuket restaurant, and a yacht lost at sea with $4 million worth of cocaine on board.
Two Waikato men who had leading roles in a complex – and ultimately ill-fated – plan to smuggle an “unprecedented” amount of drugs into New Zealand, namely 500 kilograms of methamphetamine and 625kg of cocaine, have been jailed for their part in the scheme.
Te Awamutu builder Peta Evan Taukiri, 36, and Taharoa electrician Raynor Denton, 33, were imprisoned for two years and six months, and three years respectively when they appeared in the Hamilton District Court on Monday, on charges of participating in an organised criminal group, conspiring to deal in methamphetamine and conspiring to deal in cocaine.
The pair were arrested as part of Operation Van, which targeted a two-year-long scheme that was led by a person living overseas, who cannot be named. Others allegedly involved also cannot be named because they are still before the courts.
The same police operation helped lead to the seizure of 137.5kg of methamphetamine from a storage unit in Rotorua in 2019. It involved a variety of local and international agencies.
It targeted money laundering activities and the importation of huge quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine by a transnational organised crime group.
Court documents state the offending happened between June 2016 and March 2018. Taukiri was initially contacted by members of an international crime syndicate and he subsequently recruited Denton.
As the court heard, the pair used encrypted Blackberry phones to communicate with the head of the crime syndicate, however some of their text messages and phone calls ended up being intercepted and monitored by overseas law enforcement agencies.
Sea-borne drug smuggling plot hatched
Taukiri and Denton and others hired a charter vessel which they took for a trip on the harbour near Kāwhia to discuss the plan, and another clandestine meeting was held in a cafe in Te Awamutu not long after.
Taukiri and Denton were given $10,000 and dispatched to Thailand to meet with the suppliers of the drugs in August 2016. They met with one of the facilitators and a crew member of a boat to make arrangements.
A plan was hatched to use two aluminium boats outfitted with professional radar equipment and an arrangement was made to rendezvous at a location off the Kāwhia coast with a shipment of methamphetamine.
The two defendants were told they stood to garner a windfall of $500,000 each, if the scheme proved a success. However, one of the boats was intercepted by an overseas law enforcement agency soon after setting off from a port in Asia.
A subsequent plan involved sending a yacht with 625kg of cocaine on board to a rendezvous in the Bay of Plenty. This would have given the pair a promised $1 million payday.
Bad weather struck that vessel and it and its illicit cargo are believed to have been lost at sea.
Leading role for $1m payday
Crown prosecutor Jacinda Hamilton said Taukiri and Denton had leading roles in the schemes which, in terms of the amounts involved, was unprecedented.
“These were not simply men who were passive receivers. They were involved every step of the way in importing the drugs into this country.
“They were prepared to shoulder significant risk for huge gain ... You could never call these defendants patsies.”
Hamilton urged Judge Simon Menzies to take a starting point for sentencing of 14 years in jail.
“There needs to be a very clear deterrent message. The community needs to understand that the risk is just not worth it.”
The judge obliged – however heavy deductions, including three years each for the findings of cultural reports, previous good standing in the community, prospects for rehabilitation, and a 25 per cent discount for their guilty pleas, greatly reduced the amount of jail time.
Judge Menzies did accede to the Crown’s request for a 50 per cent non-parole period on each sentence.
$100,000 Sallies donation
Prior to sentencing, barrister Roger Laybourn, who acted for Taukiri, said his client wanted to give further substance to his contrition in the form of a $100,000 donation to the Salvation Army’s drug rehabilitation programmes.
“It is absolute concrete proof of his remorse ... It is not crocodile tears, this is actually going to happen.
“He wants to demonstrate he is a good man who has done a stupid thing.”
Denton’s counsel, Thomas Sutcliffe, argued his client was not one of the main offenders.
“He willingly participated ... and does not resile from that but he was not a leading force.”
Also, the drugs never actually made it to these shores, he said.
“While it was serious, it did not actually bear fruit.”
Denton was now a changed man, he said.
“He has given quite immensely back to the community in which he is involved.
“The loss of a decent man, which he now is, to be able to provide support for his family and his community is tragic. It is truly tragic.”