Auckland Airport meth bust: Identities of alleged organised criminal group revealed

Auckland Airport meth bust: Identities of alleged organised criminal group revealed

Most identities can be revealed of a group of baggage handlers at Auckland Airport and associates who deny smuggling more than 250 kilograms of methamphetamine into New Zealand.

Name suppression lapsed today for Sitaleki Maka, Tungane Manuel, Sanlolan Piukana, Kimela Piukana, Paul Toroma, Tokofa Toroma, Martin Pritchard, Rhys Tualevao and Mairiau Samson during a hearing at Auckland District Court this morning before Judge Thomas Evangelos.

However the identities of two alleged King Cobra gang members remains a secret. A name suppression hearing will be held for the pair next week.

Three other defendants were granted interim name suppression until next week also.

All members of the alleged organised criminal group denied all charges and elected a jury trial. Not guilty, or deemed not guilty, pleas were entered by counsel on behalf of their clients.

Fourteen men and women were arrested on November 17 after a joint operation – called Operation Selena – between New Zealand Police and Customs.

It revealed an organised criminal group was involved in smuggling, or conspiring to smuggle, close to 500kg of methamphetamine from Malaysia and the United States into New Zealand between January and October this year.

The group is made up of six baggage handlers and eight associates, including two King Cobra members, police allege.

Many of the defendants were excused from attending today’s hearing because they are on bail and cannot appear in court physically under the current Covid-19 restrictions.

Others appeared via audio-visual link from an isolation custody unit wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE).

The defendants are aged between 18 and 43 years old, and lived in a range of properties across Auckland including Whitford, New Lynn, Lynfield, Māngere, Manurewa and Mt Wellington.

A number of people have been charged with the import, possession and supply of at least 118kg of methamphetamine from Malaysia on July 31 and 113kg on June 9.

The group was also allegedly involved in the failed attempt to smuggle 200kg of methamphetamine destined for New Zealand that was intercepted at the Malaysian border last month.

Five people allegedly imported at least 10kg of methamphetamine from Los Angeles on July 12.

Rhys Tualevao also faces a charge of selling “at least 100 pounds” worth of cannabis since December 2020.

Others are accused of having cash with the intent to launder money. Martin Pritchard allegedly engaged in a money laundering transaction of $25,000.

Some charges hold a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Many were ordered to surrender their passports.

A case review hearing for the group is scheduled for March.

Auckland Airport meth bust: Identities of alleged organised criminal group revealed

Properties across Auckland were searched, with police finding more than $500,000 in cash. Photo / NZ Police

Operation Selena

A number of defendants are alleged to be Air New Zealand baggage handlers, and at least one is accused of being involved in removing methamphetamine from Auckland International Airport to vehicles waiting in nearby carparks.

Instructions would be received from the lead offenders via encrypted messages and face-to-face meetings in relation to impending importation of methamphetamine on Malaysian Airline flights, the court heard last month.

Bagagge handlers assisted by obtaining drugs from cargo flights and facilitating the handover from the aeroplane to other defendants, the Crown alleged.

Others were directed to drive drugs away from the airport and supply them as directed, the court heard.

New Zealand is an ongoing target for the expansion and increasing importation of drugs, said Detective Inspector Paul Newman from the National Organised Crime Unit.

“There is a global glut of drugs in the world, and New Zealand is among the highest paying price per gram for drugs across the spectrum.

“The traditional higher volume markets are now well saturated and the organised crime groups are now looking for their share in a lucrative market.

Auckland Airport meth bust: Identities of alleged organised criminal group revealed

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