Nearly nine years after Operation Ark targeted a $50m designer drug ring, the final court case means nearly $14m of criminal assets have been forfeited.

A total of nearly $14 million worth of assets have been forfeited following an investigation into a designer drug ring, with the final criminal proceeds case ending this month - nearly a decade after the first arrests in Operation Ark.

The covert inquiry centred on the business activities of London Underground and its owner Christopher Chase, who purported to be selling legal highs or "party pills", but were in fact making Ecstasy analogue pills on the side as well.

Chase was one of 23 people arrested in November 2011 but the criminal prosecutions dragged on for seven years until a ruling in the Supreme Court in 2018.

However, the civil cases taken by the police under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act ended only this month with a final decision in the High Court.

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Luxury property, cash and expensive cars were seized as a result of the investigation, with the latest ruling bringing the total forfeiture of assets in Operation Ark to $13.8 million, said Detective Senior Sergeant Wayne Gray of the Financial Crime Group.

"Operation Ark has been extremely successful for Police on many fronts," said Gray.

"Criminal and civil cases by Police has seen the disbandment of a group who were involved in distribution of around $50 million worth of analogue MDMA."

Gray said the forfeiture of nearly $14 million in assets significantly inhibits this syndicate from being able to reoffend using profits from their operation.

"This also diminishes their lavish lifestyles forged out of profiting from the proceeds of crime and community harm."

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Christopher Chase, centre, during sentencing in the Auckland High Court in 2018. Photo / Mike Scott
Christopher Chase, centre, during sentencing in the Auckland High Court in 2018. Photo / Mike Scott

The final criminal proceeds case comes two years after suppression orders fell away to reveal the identity of the businessman behind New Zealand's $50 million designer drug ring.

In May 2018, Christopher Chase, then 44, was sentenced in the High Court at Auckland on Class-C drugs charges. He was one of the pioneers of party pills and one of the first to sell BZP "legal highs" in the country.

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When BZP was banned in 2008, Chase's company London Underground switched to a new chemical compound called mephedrone, or 4-MMC.

These pills were marketed and sold under the radar to compete with Ecstasy, a Class-B drug, in the Auckland dance and nightclub scene.

Chase claimed he thought the pills were legal as 4-MMC was not specifically banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

However, a covert police investigation, Operation Ark, targeted London Underground and Chase was among 23 people arrested in November 2011.

The police alleged the London Underground tablets were not legal and in fact were analogues, or "substantially similar" in molecular structure, to illegal drugs.

This was part of a worldwide phenomenon where chemists were tweaking the chemicals to skirt the boundaries of the law, the police alleged.

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Testing also revealed the powders London Underground thought was mephedrone, or 4-MMC, was in fact methedrone, or 4-MEC.

Nearly 255kg of powder was imported over an 18 month period; enough to make almost 1.3 million tablets.

The profits were enormous, with each pill costing around $1 to make.

London Underground sold them, at wholesale, for between $17 and $23 a pill.

Chase maintained his innocence, pointing to legal advice he received, at a High Court trial in 2015 which ran for 18 weeks.

The jury decided both 4-MMC and 4-MEC were "substantially similar" to methcathinone, a Class-B drug, which made them analogues.

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The Ecstasy analogue pills were designed to look like MDMA but the molecular structure was tweaked in a bid to skirt drug laws. Photo / Supplied
The Ecstasy analogue pills were designed to look like MDMA but the molecular structure was tweaked in a bid to skirt drug laws. Photo / Supplied

Analogues are considered Class-C drugs and in sentencing Chase to 10 years in prison, Justice Peter Woodhouse said the street value of pills sold was nearly $50 million.

"This was the largest Class-C drug importation and dealing operation that has come before the New Zealand courts," said Justice Woodhouse, "and the largest by a very long way."

"Your role in this offending was pivotal ... London Underground, at least in New Zealand, was you."

Chase was also charged with other analogue offences, using different powders from China, while on bail for Operation Ark.

This second investigation in 2012 was called Operation Greenstone.

However, multiple trials for Greenstone and Ark were put on hold while Chase and others appealed the convictions all the way to the Supreme Court.

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A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2017 upheld the convictions and effectively ruled out the defence relied on by Chase and others.

This led to a string of guilty pleas and sentencings this year - nearly seven years after Chase was first arrested.

For all that time, his identity has been kept secret to protect his rights to a fair trial.

Name suppression fell away only when he was sentenced on the Operation Greenstone charges in 2018.

He pleaded guilty to 7 charges of importing a controlled drug, as well as charges of conspiracy to import, possession to sell, and selling Class-C drugs.

His lawyer Ron Mansfield quoted lyrics from a hit by The Clash - "I fought the law and the law won"- in reference to his client.

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He said London Underground was one of a number of companies selling compounds which were not specifically listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Chase had sought legal opinions from three lawyers, said Mansfield, and Chase was confident in his interpretation of the law.

While this was arrogant, Mansfield said this is why Chase did not believe the drugs to be illegal - despite being arrested in Operation Ark - and offended while on bail.

However, this was considered to be an aggravating factor in the sentencing hearing.

Justice Geoffrey Venning effectively added an extra two years and six months in prison, on top of the 10 years Chase received for Operation Ark.

"You ran a sophisticated, commercial operation. By dealing in drugs, you took a business risk and now have to pay the price."

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The London Underground saga

2001:

Chris Chase and Lee Vincent start importing BZP and sell the first "legal high" party pills in NZ.

2008: BZP banned as a Class-C drug. Turn to mephedrone (4-MMC) from China as the new active ingredient.

2010: Police start Operation Ark to investigate pills mimicking Ecstasy.

2011: Chase among 23 arrests from Operation Ark. Police claim 4-MMC and other compounds are not "legal highs" but analogues – or "substantially similar" in structure – to illegal drugs.

2012: Chase arrested, while on bail, for importing new compounds like alpha-PVP in Operation Greenstone.

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2015: Jury finds Chase and others guilty of 69 charges of importing and selling Class-C drugs. The verdicts mean 4-MMC and 4-MEC are analogues.

2016: Chase appeals the findings, which puts all connected trials on hold. Court of Appeal upholds convictions.

2017: Chase appeals to Supreme Court but findings are upheld. Supreme Court decision means defendants in connected Operation Ark and Greenstone trials start pleading guilty.

2018: Chase pleads guilty to Operation Greenstone charges and sentenced.

2020:Final case taken under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 concludes bringing the total forfeited in Operation Ark to $13.8 million

Sentences for Operation Ark and Greenstone

2013 - Operation Greenstone

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Allen Stubbington - 5 years 10 months (55 per cent discount for early guilty plea and giving evidence for Crown).

Michael Hall - Home detention (8 months)

2015 - Operation Ark

Chris Chase - 10 years

Dr Andrew Lavrent - 8 years 6 months

Jamie Cameron - 8 years (later reduced to 5 years and 7 months)

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Johnny Be Good - 9 years

Stanley Leone - 7 years

Kevin Challis - 3 years 6 months

Kelvin Cress - 5 years 6 months

Grant Petersen - 2 years 6 months


2016 - Operation Ark

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Jeremy Hamish Kerr - 1 year 3 months (on top of 8 years 6 months for Fonterra 1080 blackmail charges)

Other Ark and Greenstone cases were put on hold until after Court of Appeal (2016) and Supreme Court (2017) decisions.

2018 - Operation Greenstone

Dr Andrew Lavrent - 1 year 2 months (on top of Ark sentence)

Simon McKinley - Home detention (10 months)

Cameron Broxton - Home detention (8 months)

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Jeanette Morris - Community detention (6 months)

Gerald Hill - Home detention (6 months) and 150 hours community work

2018 - Operation Ark

Allen Cho - Home detention (10 months)

Shalendra Singh - Home detention (6 months)

Alzain Khan - 9 months

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Brendon Nguyen - Community detention (6 months)

2018 - Operation Greenstone

Chris Chase - 2 years 6 months

Craig Williams - 12 months Home detention