When police were conducting a yearly rural cannabis helicopter flyover, by chance they came across the largest cannabis operation ever seen in Northland, with an estimated street value of $24 million.
Now, that flyover has resulted in a jail term of more than seven years for the man in charge of it.
The bust in January 2020, uncovered the underground business of Oai Duc Truong, a New Zealand citizen, and a large commercial cannabis operation in Te Kōpuru which eventually led police to two more grow sites in Kerikeri and West Auckland.
The Te Kōpuru site was rented in Truong’s name at a sawmill site on Oturei Settlement Rd and had five poorly built garden sheds covered in polyurethane but with a sophisticated grown system inside.
Plants at various stages of growth indicated a year-round operation was in place, with each plant being individually fed, on timed lighting phases and in fertilised heat pots.
More than 6000 cannabis plants and 1000 pounds of cannabis bud were seized.
Officer Conan Brown said, in his long history with the police, it was “the largest I had ever seen”.
Brown described hovering above in a helicopter, and the heat and smell coming off the hot houses as “overwhelming”.
Police would then be led to another site on Montrose Rd, Kerikeri in July 2020 with the same set-up and the same rare Canadian trimming mill used to prune the plants of their buds.
This site had over 2000 plants seized and led police to the final site in Massey, Auckland.
In Massey, three adjoining units were found to be rented in Truong’s name housing more cannabis plants at various stages of growth, large-scale cables, lights, indoor hydroponics and a sophisticated power set-up.
The site had holes in the walls to enable the gardeners to move easily between units without having to go outside and raise suspicion.
Within days of Truong being released on bail following his arrest, he attempted to persuade his local horticulture supplier, who was already suspicious after Truong paid $32,000 in cash for pot plants, to tell the police he was just a translator for two men.
When that didn’t work, he sent his wife to the man to try to convince him again to lie for him.
The gardeners had arrived from Vietnam on visitor permits and lived on site in primitive conditions, four of those gardeners have since been sentenced to two years and nine months’ imprisonment.
They were Minh Nhat Nguyen, 24, and Nhat Quan Nguyen, 20, 44-year-old Chu Trong Thanh and 45-year-old Dang Gia Cu.
Truong, who was educated and lived in Auckland, maintained through trial he was merely helping two men known as “David and Lee” pick up gardening supplies, help with translation and hire rental cars.
David and Lee were never found by either the defence or the Crown.
Truong also claimed, that although he rented the sites, he believed the gardeners were growing blueberries for the markets in Auckland and had no idea they were growing cannabis.
At sentencing in the Whangārei District Court, Judge John McDonald said the explanation was “absolute nonsense”.
“Growing blueberries for Auckland markets. In a remote location. Out of the way, out the back and beyond of Poutu Peninsula, away from prying eyes.
“How you thought you could hoodwink a Whangārei jury you were innocently caught up in a criminal enterprise is completely beyond me,” Judge McDonald said.
Judge Mcdonald said perhaps there were others involved in the operation but Truong’s name was all over the evidence, in a role to support the growers.
“You were fully involved in this,” Judge McDonald said.
Truong was sentenced to seven years and five months’ imprisonment and will be required to go before the Parole Board for release.
Shannon Pitman is a Whangārei-based reporter for Open Justice covering courts in the Te Tai Tokerau region. She is of Ngāpuhi/ Ngāti Pūkenga/Ngātiwai descent and has worked in digital media for the past five years. She joined NZME in 2023.