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

When crime spills out of the shadows

Sex, drugs and money thrive in Auckland’s underbelly, but the death of a woman on a suburban street has now thrust them into the spotlight, as Jared Savage reveals.
Jindarat Prutsiriporn, whose life spiralled out of control due to drug addiction, debt and dealing.
Jindarat Prutsiriporn, whose life spiralled out of control due to drug addiction, debt and dealing.

How does a middle aged mum of three find herself trussed up in the trunk of a car, so terrified of her fate she jumps out of the speeding vehicle to her eventual death?

When that happened in an Auckland street early on the night of March 1, police described the kidnapping victim as "Asian, aged between 35 and 55 and of small build", with a distinctive dolphin tattoo, but were quick to rule out a domestic abduction and reassure everyone there was no risk of danger to the wider public.

Operation Sisal was soon escalated to a homicide inquiry when the woman, by then identified as 50-year-old Jindarat Prutsiriporn, died from her injuries.

A quick online search of her name revealed her criminal past: two and a half years in prison for the supply of pseudoephedrine, the class B drug and key ingredient in cooking P.

"We are keeping an open mind as to the motivation behind her kidnapping, however, an obvious line of inquiry will involve links to organised crime," said Detective Inspector Dave Lynch.

Inquiries by the Weekend Herald into the life of Prutsiriporn, known as "Nui" to her friends, show she came to New Zealand seeking a better life - which spiralled out of control due to drug addiction, debt and dealing.

As recently as a few days before her abduction, the mother of three was selling methamphetamine, according to a criminal source.

Her death has now thrown the spotlight on Auckland's underbelly; as a hidden part of society is dragged out of the shadows in the way only a dramatic act can push it into the headlines.

"This is the last thing the underground wants," said the source, referring to what is officially termed Asian Organised Crime. "When someone dies, it brings too much heat. It's bad for business."

ASIAN CRIME syndicates "dominate the organised crime landscape in New Zealand", alongside local gangs, according to a classified police document released under the Official Information Act.

"Over the next three to five years it is almost certain that New Zealand Adult Gangs and Asian Organised Crime groups will continue to exploit existing opportunities, as well as increase their involvement in criminal activity locally," according to the 2013 National Drug Intelligence Bureau report.

Police have been aware of organised crime in the Asian community in New Zealand since the late 1980s. From behind a facade of legitimate commerce, the groups work across a range of illegal businesses from money laundering, drug imports and prostitution to credit card fraud, extortion and paua-smuggling.

Back in the 80s and 90s they were relatively minor players, but the growth of P in the past decade gave them a huge opportunity. When gangs like the Headhunters saw the profits to be made from methamphetamine, they needed criminal contacts to buy the drug, or its main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, from a source country like China. Quickly, the Asian-organised crime groups in New Zealand became crucial players in the drug trade and, over time, their international links made them the real power-brokers.

"Having strategic alliances is basic economics," says Detective Superintendent Virginia Le Bas, who is in charge of all organised crime operations in New Zealand. "And it's all about money."

She prefers the term Transnational Organised Crime Groups, as opposed to Asian Organised Crime, as many of those involved now were born in New Zealand, or have lived here for many years.

"And they are the ones with the contacts offshore. But I don't think there is one big network throughout New Zealand."

New Zealand did not register on the international drug market until the millions of dollars being made from methamphetamine grabbed the attention of bigger players overseas. Police here do not call them "triads", as they're referred to in popular culture, as the hierarchy here is a fluid, molecular structure rather than the traditional pyramid but the links to notorious international syndicates are real. Gangs like Hong Kong-based 14K, rival Sun Yee On, Water Room, and Big Circle have all had a presence here, as well as Malaysian, Thai, Taiwanese and Vietnamese gangs.

There is plenty of business to go around. Police and underworld sources agree that the organised Asian criminal groups "sit around the board room table together" with the local gangs, rather than starting a turf war, in the interests of making money.

Nothing is worse for the drug business than violent crime, such as the death of Prutsiriporn.

FOLLOWING THE money is the best way to attack organised crime, police and the criminal fraternity agree.

Young men driving flash cars, teenagers carrying $20,000 cash in their pockets, $1 million stacked on a table in an apartment - it's on a completely different scale to the Mr Asia syndicate that shocked middle-class New Zealand in the 1970s.

"The money is staggering," says Le Bas. "And it's an indication of how big the market still is."

One of the most powerful tools available to police is the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery Act), which came into force in late 2009.

Under the law, police can seize assets from suspected criminals without first securing a conviction.

The evidential threshold is lowered from the criminal "beyond reasonable doubt" to the civil "balance of probabilities" and the onus is on defendants to prove how assets were paid for.

Homes, luxury cars, piles of cash, boats, motorbikes, paintings, jewellery - even a $300,000 digger - as at October, police held restraining orders over assets worth $230 million. Of this, $50 million is linked directly to methamphetamine. A further $63 million of assets have already been forfeited, with $31 million connected to P dealing.

On Thursday, in the latest major drug bust in Auckland, a stash of military assault weapons hidden in the ceiling of a house and a sophisticated P-lab with a secret room were uncovered. And a man was arrested after allegedly being found in a central city apartment with a kilo of freshly made methamphetamine worth around $500,000 along with $150,000 in cash and a 9mm handgun by the bed.

And just last week, police seized $1 million in cash from a Mt Wellington man and $1 million worth of his late model cars, including a Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.

The 39-year-old has been arrested in connection with 41kg of methamphetamine, hidden inside marble table-tops, discovered by Customs inside a shipping container at the Ports of Auckland.

It's the third massive cache seized in the past 12 months, coming on top of 40kg and 83kg stashes found in separate investigations, Operations Wand and Sorrento, last year.

To put that in perspective, just one bust, the 95kg found during Operation Major 10 years ago, is bigger in New Zealand history.

All up, there was 334kg of methamphetamine seized last year - nine times the amount intercepted in 2013.

This does not include the huge amounts of pseudoephedrine uncovered in recent years.

Taskforce Ghost nabbed a total of 744kg of the pink granules in late 2013 - enough to cook 22.5 million hits of P - which smashed all records.

"Unfortunately it also suggests that the market for methamphetamine remains strong in New Zealand," Detective Inspector Bruce Good said in a press release trumpeting the successes of Wand and Sorrento.

THE SOBERING statement from a senior detective who has supervised most of the largest drug investigations in New Zealand is somewhat at odds with an official drug taking survey.

In 2009, Prime Minister John Key launched the Methamphetamine Action Plan -a cross-agency approach overseen by his own senior staff - in response to public concern about the pernicious effects of the drugs. One of the first steps was to ban cold and flu medicines containing pseudoephedrine sold over the counter.

Around 80,000 adults - or 2.2 per cent of the population - had tried P according to a Ministry of Health survey back in 2007-2008. Seven years later, the same household survey showed the numbers had dropped to 0.9 per cent, or 26,400 users.

But those figures conflict with other data published in the same Tackling Methamphetamine progress reports released by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Price, purity and availability of the drug are seen as the key indicators of success and, despite the occasional fluctuation, those figures have remained relatively stable over the same period of time.

A "point" of P, or 0.1g, cost $100 in 2008 and is the same price today.

So can the meth smoking population shrink by more than half and the demand for the drug remain so high?

According to a classified police document previously released under the Official Information Act, this could be because an estimated 75 per cent is consumed by 11 per cent of "heavy" users.

"Despite the increased focus across Government, law enforcement and industry to minimise methamphetamine-related harms, there does not seem to be a discernible change in the drug's domestic popularity and availability," according to the National Strategic Assessment paper written by police analysts in 2011.

"The manufacture, supply and trafficking routes of methamphetamine and its precursors continue to adapt and evolve in response to law enforcement operations and legislative change both here and overseas," the report states. "An expanding range of criminal groups based offshore continue to target New Zealand for importations of methamphetamine and precursors, given New Zealand is likely perceived as a profitable market for such products."

Our Asian underworld source confirmed the P market is as "big as ever". Many seizures at the border - "a kilo here, a kilo there" - were minor players who simply distracted law agencies while even successful investigations like Ghost still did not net the "biggest" fish.

He described them as silent shareholders living overseas.

With start-up funds, influence and the contacts to get the business off the ground, they then sit back to receive their cut from their lieutenants actually running the distribution networks in New Zealand.

"They have been driven even deeper underground."

AND THAT is where police investigating Prutsiriporn's death hope to find answers.

A mother of three adult sons, she had struggled to shake her addiction, and mounting debts, after her stint in prison. She was back in trouble with the law, charged with possessing P for personal use, but was dealing small amounts too, to make ends meet.

She died poor and lonely.

Nui was "clearly mixing with the wrong people", said another source, and fearful of being suspected as a "nark" by her criminal associates.

"She was a tough cookie though ... you can see she was fighting for her life until the end."

- NZ Herald

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