The award-winning investigation which ended a Mongrel Mob leader's grip on a small town was launched only after a frustrated local officer went over his bosses' heads and made a plea for help directly to the Police Commissioner.
Frank Milosevic was the president of the Kawerau chapter of the Mongrel Mob and a dominant figure in his home, a once prosperous town in the eastern Bay of Plenty now struggling with unemployment and poverty.
Watching Milosevic and the Mongrel Mob closely was Stu Turnbull, a senior constable who had worked in Kawerau for most of his 25 years in the police.
He saw Milosevic drive past the station in his oversized Ford F-150 Raptor ute, worth about $100,000 brand new, and knew the money had come from supplying methamphetamine in the town.
So much crime in Kawerau was driven by the drug; but there was only so much that Turnbull could do about it by himself.
Armed with a search warrant, he could kick down the door and arrest one of Milosevic's minions; perhaps seize some meth, cash or firearms.
But to unravel the entire network and prove Milosevic was the one pulling the strings, Turnbull believed a long-term covert investigation was necessary to gather the evidence.
Such investigations require intercepting conversations, either on phones or listening devices hidden in cars or homes, surveillance and sometimes even undercover officers to pose as drug dealers.
They are expensive and resource intensive, often for months on end without immediate success.
It was far beyond the capabilities of the Kawerau station, so Turnbull tried to attract the interest of the Bay of Plenty organised crime squad, five detectives based in Rotorua.
They always seemed to be busy with other work and so frustrated by the lack of backup in the Bay of Plenty, Turnbull went straight to the top with a plea for help.
On December 8, 2016, Turnbull sent a long email to Police Commissioner Mike Bush.
"You talk of the harm meth causes to society. In small communities that harm is devastating," Turnbull wrote in the email released to the Herald on Sunday under the Official Information Act.
"I have criminal acts of burglary and violence on victims caught up in the meth trade...standover tactics with firearms, violent 'taxing' of property and stabbings.
"On the other end of the scale, I have unemployed gang members driving $100,000 vehicles, purchasing real estate, holiday baches, renovating homes, buying classic motor vehicles, riding expensive motorbikes, going fishing in their expensive boats and jetskis."
Turnbull described his own efforts to investigate the gang and his unsuccessful attempts to get support from the Bay of Plenty organised crime squad.
"As I see it, big success stories from the metropolitan newspapers are heralded as a victory over organised crime and the police are on top of things," Turnbull told Bush.
"Sadly, the reality in the provinces is the opposite and that unemployed gang members are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and meth is easier to buy than a pint of milk."
• Cops, cameras, crims: Exclusive video of gang's $1m drug deal
• Air NZ baggage handlers in lockdown meth bust
• Shipping container linked to gang vanishes with help of port worker
• The Head Hunters' $1m man in Tauranga
• From Harley Davidson to wheelchair: Inside the downfall of Killer Beez boss
• Gangs of New Zealand: Why gang numbers spiked by 50 per cent
Bush replied quickly to say work was under way with the previous and current Police Ministers (Paula Bennett had recently replaced Judith Collins in the role) about the increasing demands on frontline staff.
"Whilst I'm not in a position to say anything further, be assured that we understand the challenges facing staff and are working hard to address them."
Bush asked BOP district commander Andy McGregor to address the specific concerns raised. That task fell to senior detectives in the region, according to emails.
No one was able to spare any staff. The eastern CIB was struggling with the fallout of Operation Waiotahi, ironically a series of shootings and violence between the Kawerau Mongrel Mob and Black Power in Whakatāne.
The organised crime squad in Rotorua was still heavily committed to Operation Centurion, which was a long term investigation into Head Hunter gang member Stacy Paora.
While Paora had been arrested in December 2016, the team still had a lot of work to do around preparing the file for court and following the money trail. Detectives were also seconded to work on a spate of homicide inquiries across the region.
Another avenue suggested was to work up a profile of Milosevic's wealth to see whether the Asset Recovery Unit would investigate. The ARU uses the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act to restrain the suspected ill-gotten gains, often drug dealers, but the threshold for action can be high.
"Unfortunately a gang member in Kawerau with $100,000 of assets doesn't stack up against an Asian drug dealer from elsewhere with a million dollars," wrote Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson. "These things are all relative."
With no progress made in five months, Turnbull forwarded the entire email chain to the Police Commissioner in a new message.
"I get the distinct impression that the rural areas will never be an organised crime target," Turnbull said in May 2017.
"I already have the intel and warrants prepared. That's not the hard part. The difficulty is in proving the course of business. Without going live on phones, using a [undercover officer] or a surveillance team, I am back to square one."
Turnbull finished the email to Bush with an anecdote about the harm methamphetamine was causing in Kawerau.
He had arrested a patched Mongrel Mob member, high on methamphetamine, who fractured the eye socket of a 67-year-old woman in a home invasion.
"She lay unconscious for 12 hours before being discovered. He stole her purse."
Bush replied in 39 minutes to say Deputy Commissioner Viv Rickard would give the matter his attention, with the support of the National Operations Group led by Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement.
"It is my view that we should not let opportunities to disrupt organised crime go past us," Bush wrote to Turnbull.
The task was given to the National Organised Crime Group [NOCG] to handle and by August 2017, Operation Notus was underway.
By the standards of NOCG, Operation Notus was relatively simple compared to some of the investigations conducted by its detectives.
Since the arrival of methamphetamine in the late 1990s, NOCG (or its predecessors) has been at the forefront of targeting the top of the supply chain: international crime syndicates, hundreds of kilograms of drugs hidden in freight containers, or large scale laboratories manufacturing methamphetamine on a commercial scale.
What was happening in Kawerau - essentially the bottom of the supply chain - did not meet the traditional threshold for NOCG.
However, the value of the involvement of the specialist squads - where staff are ring-fenced solely for covert investigations - was underlined by the social harm they discovered.
In Kawerau, a town of 6000 people already struggling to cope with unemployment and poverty, Operation Notus identified at least 600 people buying methamphetamine.
Their children would sometimes go without food, or clothing, while Frank Milosevic collected toys like his jet skis, a $100,000 ute, and a classic AC Cobra sports car, and his family home.
Those toys were hauled away on the back of a truck when Milosevic and about 50 others were arrested in March 2018, with some neighbours clapping from their lounges.
The 52-year-old has been in custody ever since. On Thursday, nearly three years on, Frank Milosevic was sentenced in the Tauranga District Court by Judge Paul Mabey QC.
At his trial last year, Milosevic claimed he was talking about crayfish, whitebait and venison - not methamphetamine or cannabis - in the conversations intercepted by police in Operation Notus.
These were "obvious references to drugs", said Judge Mabey. "I was not impressed with your evidence and neither was the jury. It cut no ice with them."
He was found guilty of being in possession, or conspiring, to supply nearly 2.4kg of methamphetamine, cultivating 400 cannabis plants, and money laundering of $260,000.
The judge went on to describe Milosevic as arrogant, entitled, with no regard for the law or authority.
"You traded a pernicious drug in what is well known to be an impoverished community, to people who could least afford it.
"That community needs protection from you," said Judge Mabey in sentencing him to 17 ½ years in prison.
He must serve at least half of that time before the Parole Board can consider him for early release. His son Slobodan, described as his right-hand man, was convicted on similar charges and sentenced to 15 years 9 months. He will also serve at least half that time behind bars.
For the police officers sitting in the back of the courtroom, Detective Sergeant John Sowter and Detective Mark Pickles, the final numbers don't really matter. But it was recognition of a job well done, despite it masking wider issues.
The lack of police resources which led to their involvement was a vivid illustration of frontline staff, across the country, struggling to cope with the demands of their job.
After Turnbull's second email to Bush in 2017, Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers was the one who travelled to Kawerau to listen to his concerns.
Like any organisation with limited resources, Chambers told the Herald on Sunday that the police in the districts did have to prioritise different jobs.
Kawerau kept getting bumped down the local pecking order, in the eyes of Turnbull, but to Chambers it became quite clear the size of the job needed resources and support from outside the Bay of Plenty.
Even though Operation Notus was a relatively small job for the NOCG, there is now a greater understanding within the police about the harm the likes of the Milosevics can wreak in the regions.
Of the 1800 new police staff promised by the 2017 Labour-led coalition government, 700 were earmarked to bolster investigations into organised crime.
Of the 700, Chambers said 239 positions have been filled as it takes time to train and recruit specialist positions.
"The issues faced by Kawerau are faced by other communities too," said Chambers. "And I know the extra investment in police will give us opportunities to make a positive difference in the lives of many people."
And Operation Notus did make a difference. For a time.
For months after the investigation, the crime rate plummeted in Kawerau and dozens of methamphetamine users voluntarily sought help for their addiction.
It was a success story. Operation Notus won a national award and was even shortlisted for an international gong.
However, the reprieve was short. The vacuum left by the Milosevics has been filled by others peddling methamphetamine, and support for health and iwi providers trying to help people overcome addiction in the eastern Bay of Plenty is sorely lacking.
"You can get rid of one family, lock them up for years, it still doesn't stop the problem," says Malcolm Campbell, the mayor of Kawerau, who's lived and worked in the town his whole life.
"Kids with no clothes, we're feeding them at school, the crazy stuff that happens here at night. We need help.
"We need people in power, in Wellington, to come and have a look for themselves and talk with us about the real issues. We need to help people so they don't want to take drugs, there's no rehab here.