Seduced by the lure of narcotics and the mysterious dark net, two best friends went from a decile 10 high school to a criminal courtroom in less than 12 months. Sam Hurley has followed their case.

They were stereotypical modern teenagers who spent their lives on the internet.

Both grew up in wealthy suburbs of Auckland's North Shore and attended Albany Senior High School.

Their photos are proudly displayed in the back of the 2015 yearbook. However, that would be their final year of schoolboy innocence.

Elias Smith, now 20, was sentenced yesterday in the Auckland District Court on 14 charges relating to the attempted importation, possession and supply of class A and B drugs.

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He was imprisoned for two years and three months by Judge Russell Collins.

His best friend, Nicholas Michael Barker, also now 20, has already had his day before a judge. He was sentenced to eight months' home detention and 100 hours' community work on June 28 last year in the North Shore District Court.

The 2015 yearbook photos of Elias Smith and Nick Barker before they began importing drugs. Photos / Supplied
The 2015 yearbook photos of Elias Smith and Nick Barker before they began importing drugs. Photos / Supplied

Both are now known criminals caught during Operation Tiger and Operation Meerkat, a major police and Customs sting which began in 2016 after Waitemata detectives discovered cash-rich Kiwi teens delving into the dark web to source illicit drugs.

Smith wanted to study science at the Auckland University of Technology for the next few years.

He has interests in chemistry, computer science, and space exploration, according to his online footprint - which ironically was part of the same digital trail police followed.

The baby-faced criminal, a high achiever at school according to his lawyer Marie Dyhrberg QC, also openly describes on his Facebook page a predilection for a variety of drugs including benzodiazepine, methoxetamine and DMT.

While Smith's first attempt to import drugs came while he was in his last year of school, he didn't ask for the efforts of Barker until the first year out of their decile 10 classroom.

They, like many teens police caught as part of the police and Customs operations, began trying to funnel the drugs through their unassuming family homes.

As part of the wider investigation, police also found bitcoin was a typical payment method used for the more than dozen arrested, which has led to the discovery of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and drugs.

The cyptocurrency was used by Smith and is common on the dark net, with bitcoin known to allow a buyer to purchase items online with some anonymity.

Police discovered bitcoin helped to buy nearly half a kilogram of MDMA and 37 litres of gamma-butyrolactone (GBL) from several online traders, who can make large profits from dark net imports.

Netsafe's director of technology and partnerships Sean Lyons said cryptocurrency had for years had the perception of being the "dark currency".

"It's become quite mainstream to some extent," he said.

"But there is still a perception that the encrypted actions of the dark web, where you sit behind that layer of anonymity and encryption, and obviously what goes hand-in-hand with that is a currency that acts in the same way."

He said what is so enticing for dark net users about cryptocurrency is the ability to bypass traditional financial trading channels.

"You're not using banks, you're not using credit cards, you're not having to go in somewhere and riskily wire cash to an address that you don't know," he said.

"You can have some confidence in where [your cryptocurrency] goes, without revealing who you are."

There was of course a legitimate market for cryptocurrency, and used by many types of traders, but it was also "perfect" for those making illegal transactions, Lyons said.

Operation Tiger has also been linked to nationwide raids and seizures for psychoactive drugs and synthetic cannabis.

Smith and Barker's dark net crimes together were first recorded by authorities in 2016, after Smith asked his mate to help him out with a job.

He wondered if Barker could help facilitate the planned drug imports by having them sent to Barker's family home in the suburb of Greenhithe, court documents obtained by the Weekend Herald show.

Barker agreed - and he was to be paid $200 per package that made its way into New Zealand.

Police have found almost any drug can be procured from the dark net; meth, cocaine, LSD and MDMA among others, while Customs has noticed a significant rise in high-frequency, low-quantity seizures at the International Mail Centre at Auckland International Airport.

These types of seizures are often linked to the dark net and have nearly tripled since 2012, Customs figures show.

More than 700 tabs of lysergic acid and a sheet of blotter paper containing fentanyl from Poland were addressed to Nick Barker's home. Photo / Supplied
More than 700 tabs of lysergic acid and a sheet of blotter paper containing fentanyl from Poland were addressed to Nick Barker's home. Photo / Supplied

Smith and Barker's drugs were coming from Germany, among other European countries, and when Customs officers noticed a discrepancy with one of the packages they began to investigate.

One parcel found at the mail centre, destined for Barker's home, contained about seven grams of amphetamine sulphate.

More drug imports were found on October 19, 2016 - this time from Poland.

The package contained 760 tabs of lysergic acid and a sheet of blotter paper containing fentanyl.

Again it was addressed to Barker's family home.

Detective Sergeant Tim Williams headed the investigation code-named Operation Tiger. Photo / Peter Meecham
Detective Sergeant Tim Williams headed the investigation code-named Operation Tiger. Photo / Peter Meecham

At Barker's sentencing Judge Lawrence Hinton talked about how the two young men were pulled into the criminal web.

"You and Mr Smith were apparently, I understand, best mates at school," the judge said.

Barker's lawyer Geoffrey Anderson said his client had been lured into the scheme by Smith, whom he described as the leader.

Judge Hinton agreed.

"He was the leader with a capital L as I see it and you were, as Mr Anderson puts it, frankly seduced," the judge added.

At Smith's sentencing, Judge Collins also said the teen was the mastermind.

"It is clear that your involvement was significantly more serious than [Barker's] - in fact I regard it as an aggravating factor that you enlisted him in this criminal enterprise."

When police raided both Smith and Barker's homes in November 2016 their parents were horrified.

"It's an absolutely chilling thought that you would put your parents through that," Judge Collins told Smith.

Barker was charged with attempting to import a class A drug (lysergic acid), attempting to import a class B drug (amphetamine), two charges of possession of class A drugs, and one charge of possession of a class C drug.

"You must have been, I accept, under considerable pressure at the time to have agreed to this. It seems quite out of character for you," Judge Hinton told Barker.

"This glitch was entirely out of character, borne of pressure on you I am sure, but borne out of the particular circumstances that you were in at the time.

"I have had the benefit of letters from your parents, which attest to quite a fine young man, and I have no doubt you are still a fine young man and you have got a promising future ahead of you," he said.

Many of those arrested during the joint investigation were barely out of high school and still living with their parents.

Barker's father described his son's arrest as a surreal experience and said the offending came at a time when Barker was taking prescribed medication, court documents show.

Some of the cash seized by police and Customs during Operation Tiger. Photo / Supplied
Some of the cash seized by police and Customs during Operation Tiger. Photo / Supplied

His mum also referred to her son's medical problems as a reason for the offending.

In 2014, Barker was involved in an accident which caused him to suffer from severe pain and persistent headaches.

It also affected his sleep pattern, mood deterioration and disturbance through 2015 and last year. Last year it was said he was returning to normal.

Barker and Smith's cases were also extraordinarily similar young Orewa man Cameron Jari Alexander Britton, also nabbed in Detective Sergeant Tim Williams' operation.

The detective has told the Weekend Herald that most of those his team arrested had little to no previous dealings with police.

He said often the young offenders lacked social skills and didn't have a large group of friends - many hoped importing drugs from the dark net would make them popular.

Britton was one such criminal.

He was arrested at about the same time as Smith and Barker in 2016, after being caught importing LSD and ecstasy from Poland.

However, instead of sending it to his family home he had the drugs delivered to a private post office box in Auckland.

After the parcels raised suspicion with Customs, police searched Britton's home on November 1, 2016. They found a large quantity of drugs and seized his phone and computer.

Investigations found Britton had also been importing the drugs through the dark web - using a special software in an effort to remain anonymous and untraceable.

Evidence of computer programs that conceal a user's location and allows anonymous communication was also found.

Britton, like Smith, had asked his friends if he could use them as drop-off locations to have his drugs delivered to. He also approached others to ask if they would open post office boxes in their names.

"You did all this through the internet and largely through the dark web," Judge Anna Johns said when sentencing Britton.

"You supplied to friends, and friends of friends and also consumed the drugs yourself and did make money out of the venture."

Albany Senior High School was approached for comment about its former pupils, Smith and Barker, but its principal Barbara Cavanagh declined to talk.

She also refused to discuss if there had been signs of drug use and distribution within the school community.

A Customs officer opens a suspicious package at the International Mail Centre at Auckland Airport. Photo / Nick Reed
A Customs officer opens a suspicious package at the International Mail Centre at Auckland Airport. Photo / Nick Reed

Barker now attends drug and alcohol counselling, as ordered by Judge Hinton, while Smith is behind bars.

Judge Hinton, like Judge Collins, said the sentences of Barker and Smith also needed to have a deterrent effect.

"It does not need to deter you in particular, Mr Barker, because I think you have clearly been deterred. I do not think you are going to come within the court's purview on any matter, let alone any drug matter, in the future," he said.

"But the sentence must be seen as a serious one and as a deterrent to the community at large and anybody else who was thinking of importing or attempting to insidious class A drugs. The Court has a substantial interest in protection of the community in that regard."