A man who fled Vietnam as a refugee seeking a better life in New Zealand has been sentenced to seven years in jail after being caught running a multimillion-dollar cannabis operation to fund his methamphetamine and gambling addictions.
Van Hui Bui, 38, was considered the mastermind behind a "complex and sophisticated" cannabis operation run out of three Auckland rental houses, where plants were cultivated at high speed in order to make more cash, faster.
Experts estimated that Bui stood to make up to $3 million a year from the sale of his crop, which he managed to turn over every 60 to 90 days using extensive growing equipment and stolen electricity.
Bui came to New Zealand from Vietnam about 10 years ago and was granted residency through his refugee status.
In 2004, he travelled to Toronto, Canada, where he was that year convicted of "producing a controlled substance", understood to be cannabis. In 2006, he was arrested again and charged with producing cannabis and stealing electricity. He was convicted and deported to NZ.
It appears that soon after his return, he went to work setting up an almost identical drug operation in Auckland.
He and another man, Binh Van Le, rented the houses in Glenfield, Browns Bay and Mangere and unbeknown to the owners made extensive changes, kitting them out for commercial cannabis cultivation.
Each house had a series of plants at varying stages of growth. It is unclear exactly how much cannabis the men grew and sold, but when police raided the houses in 2008 they found soil and discarded plant material from older harvests.
Bui got into the drugs game after he struggled to get work as a painter. He had a family and was battling methamphetamine and gambling addictions. Selling cannabis, he thought, was the way to get ahead financially and provide for his family.
But after a series of anonymous letters police went to the Glenfield house and Bui's plan was foiled.
To avoid detection by power companies, Bui and Le had connected circuit breakers and timing devices to an un-metered power cable and may have stolen as much as $11,000 worth of power.
Police found almost identical setups at houses in Beach Rd in Browns Bay - where a further $15,000 of electricity was stolen - and Massey Rd in Mangere.
He denied some of the charges but a jury found him guilty of all of them. At his sentencing in the Auckland District Court yesterday, Bui was not supported by the family he claimed to be trying to provide for. He looked downcast through the hearing, barely acknowledging the information the court interpreter was relaying to him.
Judge David Harvey told Bui his offending was serious and needed a stern sentence.
"There can be no doubt that this was a commercial growing operation," he said. The operation was cold and calculated and greed-driven.
"There is little evidence of remorse," the judge said. "It's quite clear to me that you were prepared to embark on a commercial operation of making money, regardless of the damage or harm caused further down the line as far as people who use the drugs are concerned."