In an exclusive extract from his new book Gangland: The Evolution of NZ's Underworld, Herald reporter Jared Savage goes inside the covert investigation which smashed an unparalleled methamphetamine factory in Northland.
No one lived in the house, but the lawn was mowed once a week.
The only person on the property was the caretaker. Passers-by would see him pottering around outside, keeping the grounds tidy. Monday to Friday, loud cars would come and go from the three-bedroom house in Waiotira, a tiny community about 30 kilometres southwest of Whangārei.
No one ever visited on the weekends. It was an unremarkable brick-and-tile bungalow like any other in small-town New Zealand, nothing that would catch the eye of anyone who saw it.
Only those who knew what they were looking at, like Detective Sergeant Andy Dunhill, would have noticed that the thick liquid the caretaker was pouring on the garden was the chemical waste left behind from cooking meth.
The highly toxic sludge is a terrific weed killer.
If anyone had cared to stop and peer through the windows, perhaps via a crack in the curtains, they wouldn't have seen a stick of furniture inside.
The entire house was stripped bare, right down to the wooden floorboards, so it could house the chemicals and lab equipment needed to manufacture massive amounts of methamphetamine, every single week.
For years, there had been rumours of a mythical clan lab somewhere in Northland, controlled by the East Chapter of the Head Hunters.
Its senior members kept a safe distance hundreds of kilometres away, in the gang pad at 232 Marua Road, Ellerslie.
P had begun its life in New Zealand as a drug of choice for the white middle and upper classes. It was cool, its white lines a faster, more powerful form of speed.
But over the years since, meth had become a dirty word. The insane rage of P-freak Antonie Dixon, who chopped off the left hand of one of his two partners and partially severed both arms of the second when he was on a meth high in 2003, made him the poster boy for everything that was wrong with the drug.
It messed you up, turned you into a monster. But Dixon was an extreme case. For the most part, P was more of a private living hell for addicts.
Impoverished urban areas and provincial townships, with high unemployment rates and social deprivation, were hit hardest, and none more so than Northland.
There was so much meth swirling around Whangarei the locals would often say it was 'snowing'.
With members of the Head Hunters aggressively expanding and controlling the market, there was now an urgent need to find the rumoured Northland clan lab.
Operation Easter started in July 2014, with Dunhill in charge, soon after the end of Operation Genoa, the previous operation targeting the Heads.
A former member of the legendary investigator John Sowter's squad at Harlech House, Dunhill had spent years dealing with the Head Hunters and their ilk.
Now leading his own team, Dunhill was keen to show that anything his old boss could do, he could do better.
The intelligence-gathering phase of Operation Easter led to the identification of Brownie Joseph Harding as the principal target.
Swarthy and stocky, the 37-year-old had joined the Head Hunters' East Chapter 12 years earlier, and now had a crew of other patched members who answered to him.
Browning had a sister who lived with her husband in Australia, but owned a brick bungalow on Taipuha Road in Waiotira, population 500 and counting.
It was their father, Joseph Harding, who was later seen tipping out the toxic waste.
Everyone knows everyone in Waiotira, so surveillance of the property posed its own unique challenges.
The detectives were careful in how they moved around in the community, as well as who they approached for help.
When the surveillance phase started in September 2014, a single motion-activated video camera was installed to scan part of Taipuha Road and the northern side of the house.
But it was too far away to properly capture the faces of those coming and going. So a second camera, also motion-activated, was covertly placed much closer to the action.
It covered the front driveway and the eastern face of the dwelling. It recorded a strict routine.
Nearly every day over the next three months, Head Hunter gang members and their hangers on would arrive by car and enter the house around 7am. Then, around lunchtime, they'd emerge for a short break, and go back inside until 6pm.
It was one of the most professional meth clan labs Dunhill and other experienced drug detectives had ever seen.
As well as watching, the police were listening. While monitoring bugged phone conversations is standard practice in a covert investigation, Operation Easter was the first in New Zealand history in which an audio device was planted inside an active meth lab.
The audacious feat was achieved by members of the Special Tactics Group, who broke into the house on the night of 17 October 2014 when no one was home.
They took photos of the materials and equipment they found, as well as swabs in the kitchen that revealed high contamination readings consistent with manufacture.
Planting the audio bug inside the meth lab gave Dunhill and his team a crucial advantage: they were able to make calculations about how much of the drug was being cooked at any one time.
A rough total became immediately apparent: a lot.
When the surveillance started in September, it was only Harding and one other who would cook.
By the time the listening device was hidden inside the house the following month, at least four cooks were working at the same time on different stages of the extraction and distillation process, like a factory production line.
As for the working conditions, the worst of it was that everyone had to answer to a despot.
Head Hunter members cooking at Taipuha Road called Brownie Harding 'the Boss', according to the intercepted conversations.
They were apologetic at times, and at others submissive, compliant, perhaps even scared.
The most telling example of Harding's total domination of his cooks emerged during the fifth manufacture observed by police, on 28 October 2014.
Elijah Rogers and Jaydean Hura, two patched Head Hunters, arrived at the address shortly after 7am. By the evening, it was obvious they had experienced technical difficulties.
The product was leaking from the lab apparatus.
The hapless pair called Harding at 9.30pm. He drove straight to the property. Incandescent with rage, he harangued them for their ineptitude and made it clear they would have to explain the loss 'down in Auckland'.
'You fullas have got no choice. I don't know what went wrong … but it's somewhere … You find it. It's somewhere,' Harding was recorded as saying.
His rave continued: 'I don't give a f*** if it's on the floor. Mop that s*** up. Everything goes in there. I don't give a f*** if you have to f***** pull this floor up. You chuck it in there.'
At no point did either Hura or Rogers – hardened gangsters in their own right – attempt to contradict or challenge him.
He was the Boss.
Brownie Harding was in complete control of every step of production: sourcing pseudoephedrine; arranging the premises; finding the chemical reagents and equipment; organising the shifts of cooks, giving them instructions and advice on their techniques, as well as transport to and from the address; and delivery of the methamphetamine to Auckland.
Even when Harding was sentenced to home detention for an assault on his partner part-way through Operation Easter, he maintained an iron grip.
He relied on his youngest son Evanda, just 17 at the time, to pass on orders while he was stuck at home in Whangarei with an electronically monitored ankle bracelet.
The teenager acted as his father's eyes and ears for a while. Later, he was promoted to right-hand man.
When pseudoephedrine supplies were running low, dad dispatched son to Auckland to pick up 50 sets of ContacNT hidden in a bucket and courier them back to Northland.
Evanda was right in the thick of the family business now. Bad move. When Operation Easter terminated, Evanda would be caught with a massive haul of meth.
Heading south in their father's Mercedes-Benz saloon, Evanda and his brother Tyson – each named after an American heavyweight boxing champion – were on their way to the gang's headquarters in Marua Road.
Tailing the brothers on State Highway 1, an unmarked police car put on its lights and sirens so the Mercedes-Benz would pull over, just north of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
Sitting in the rear footwell on the passenger side was a black sports bag. Inside were 80 self-sealable bags of methamphetamine, each weighing an ounce.
If sold for the going rate of $12,000 an ounce, the total of 2.2 kilograms would be worth nearly $1 million.
The discovery meant Dunhill could prove 'beyond reasonable doubt' that the group was manufacturing methamphetamine.
After Evanda's arrest, Brownie Harding's crew hastily tried to clean up the meth lab at Taipuha Road and destroy all the evidence.
But it was far too late for that. A month later, in December 2014, Harding and four other patched Head Hunters were arrested, along with six other gang associates.
The raids came just a few weeks after $900,000 was discovered in senior member Dave O'Carroll's waterbed: a double whammy for the East Chapter of the Head Hunters.
Eventually, in a steady trickle of court appearances, everyone pleaded guilty to the serious charges. In the final sentencing hearing, Justice Simon Moore said that Brownie Harding had escaped the maximum of life imprisonment only by a 'fine margin'.
The High Court judge was sure Harding had been in charge, and responsible for manufacturing "at least" 6.5 kilograms of the Class A drug.
"To put it in perspective, it is the largest single case of manufacturing to have come before the Courts in New Zealand, and that is by a very substantial margin indeed," said Justice Moore.
"Neither counsel nor I have found any other cases of methamphetamine manufacture which are even comparable in terms of quantity. That puts you in an unenviable league all of your own."
Harding was sentenced to 28 and a half years, and would be required to serve at least 10 before being eligible for parole.
Having served as Auckland Crown Solicitor before his appointment to the judicial bench in 2014, Simon Moore had first-hand knowledge of the destruction wreaked on people's lives when meth first emerged in the city.
"To describe it as a scourge is an understatement. It captures those who use it, even if only for a short period, and inevitably leads them down a path of personal ruin," Justice Moore told Harding at the April 2017 hearing.
"Otherwise decent people are robbed of their dignity and, eventually, their self-control. The frequent consequence is that those addicted resort to crime and violence to feed their evergrowing habits. Not only are they left dreadfully physically and psychologically damaged, but their cohort of family and friends are caught up in the maelstrom of their misery. The unadorned truth is that no part of our community is left untouched by the effects of this awful substance."
The charges against Tyson Harding were dropped, although Evanda Harding received a nine-and-a-half-year sentence for obeying his father.
Justice Moore noted that Harding senior was more concerned about himself than the fact he had put his own children in a terrible predicament.
He was the undisputed ringleader of the 'factory', as Justice Moore deliberately called the laboratory.
The judge did acknowledge, though, that there was evidence Harding answered to someone above him in the Head Hunters hierarchy. There was no hint in the High Court as to who that might be. But there was a clue in the transcripts of calls intercepted by police.
On learning the police had arrested his sons, and seized 80 ounces of meth bound for 232 Marua Road, Harding had made a phone call. He dialled the gang pad's landline and asked to speak to Bird.
He was told Bird happened to be out. Everyone in the underworld knew William 'Bird' Hines. He sat at the very top of the Head Hunters hierarchy, revered by gang members as a godfather figure and, despite being in his 60s and riddled with health problems, was still feared in the criminal fraternity.
Bird was a hard man with a ruthless streak. He had a crew of young troops keen to prove their loyalty and obey his orders. No one in their right mind would cross Hines.
Since being targeted along with Waha Saifiti and Brett Allison in Operation Flower way back in 2000, and sentenced to seven years in prison for his lead role in 'the Methamphetamine Makers Co Ltd', Hines had kept out of trouble.
Like any senior criminal figure, he was often the source of rumours or pieces of intelligence from police informants, but these were never enough to prompt police to start an investigation. Bird was always just out of reach. Until now.
Edited extract from Gangland: New Zealand's Underworld of Organised Crime
By Jared Savage
Published by HarperCollins NZ