Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Smugglers dumped cocaine in big police bust

Convicted syndicate member Beaumont Basil Blake (L) and girlfriend Kathryn Iorfino. Photo / Supplied
Convicted syndicate member Beaumont Basil Blake (L) and girlfriend Kathryn Iorfino. Photo / Supplied

Millions of dollars of cocaine was left hidden in the bush for two months after an international drug smuggling syndicate was busted in New Zealand and Australia.

Drug detectives managed to find six suitcases and two cosmetics bags dumped in scrub down an embankment on a secluded road in Maraetai, east of Auckland, before the arrested trafficker could tell his friends where the cache was hidden.

Inside the lining of the luggage was 5.5kg of the Class A drug - one of the biggest cocaine discoveries in New Zealand history.

Beaumont Basil Blake, an Australian surfer running the New Zealand branch of the enterprise, decided to hide the luggage when the courier carrying cocaine to Australia failed to deliver a 2kg package.

Ramesh Godschling, the courier, had been arrested at Auckland International Airport as part of Operation Ashby, a joint investigation between New Zealand and Australian authorities into drug trafficking from South America.

A suspicious Blake, 28, hired a rental car and managed to evade police surveillance on his way to Maraetai where he hid the drug-laden luggage in early March last year.

A few days later he was arrested with two Brazilians, Gutiery Martins Mota and Marcelo Nieves-Mendonca, while three others were caught in Queensland.

Blake was arrested at Auckland International Airport while checking in for a flight to Malaysia, while Nieves Mendonca was waiting to board a plane to Santiago.

Police believed Blake had put the drugs in a storage facility and released a photo of him and his girlfriend Kathryn Iorfino to the media in case anyone recognised them.

No one came forward and police became concerned that Blake, while in remand on prison, would try to tell his associates where to find the stash.

But two months after his arrest, police discovered the hidden luggage after close analysis of cellphone station data. Police were able to narrow the likely areas to search.

Six suitcases and two cosmetic cases holding 5.5kg of cocaine were found hidden in scrub down a bank in rural Maraetai.

In total, the 7.5kg - including the 2kg found in Godschling's suitcase - is one of the largest seizures ever in this country and worth an estimated $4.5 million at street level.

Blake, Mota and Nieves-Mendonca have now pleaded guilty to importing the drug and will be sentenced in April. Godschling, 50, was sentenced to seven years in prison in September after admitting possession of a Class-A drug to supply and also attempting to export it.

The men were arrested after an international investigation, dubbed Operation Ashby, which traced cocaine from South America, stopping in New Zealand as a staging point, and then to the bigger markets in New South Wales and Queensland.

The inquiry began in August 2011 when a 29-year-old Brazilian man was arrested at Brisbane International Airport and charged in relation to the possession of nearly 2kg of cocaine.

Another 16kg of cocaine linked to the syndicate was seized in Australia in the months leading up to the final arrests in March last year.

Among those arrested in Australia was New Zealander Neil Mark Robinson. The 27-year-old concrete cutter on the Gold Coast was offered $130,000 to carry 4kg of cocaine but was caught at Coolangatta Airport in February 2012.

More than $850,000 cash was found in the Gold Coast homes of two men, Ryan Thomas Litchfield and Daniel Nunes Negrine, accused of heading the operation.

The Organised and Financial Crime Agency New Zealand became involved when the Australian Federal Police alerted them to the presence of Beaumont Blake in Auckland in February 2012. He was sent here to control the New Zealand arm of the enterprise; liaising with incoming couriers from Chile or Argentina, taking control of the suitcases, then passing them to separate couriers from Australia. The cocaine was laced inside the shell of the suitcases.

A second courier, like Ramesh Godschling, would then attempt to smuggle the cocaine back to Queensland or New South Wales for sale.

Covert police watched Blake meeting with Godschling, Mota and Nieves-Mendonca at various locations in central Auckland, including a Burger King on Queen St.

Blake also asked his girlfriend to arrange a three-month stay at the Quadrant Hotel which was paid for upfront. As well as arranging for the cocaine to go to Australia, Blake also began building connections with drug dealers in Auckland.

He met a local man at The Langham hotel and provided him with a small amount of cocaine as a sample, seeking for him to distribute the drug through his network.

Blake, Mota and Nieves-Mendonca now face lengthy prison terms - the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

New Zealand does not have a large cocaine market - at $325 a gram for a short "high", the drug is extremely expensive.

But Operation Ashby is one of several recent busts which show more cocaine is in the country, either for the upper-class party scene or transit to bigger markets overseas.

- NZ Herald

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