EXCLUSIVE: Police and Customs in New Zealand have long warned of the threat of corruption posed by organised crime, which investigators believe has accelerated with the arrival of deported Australian gang members. The Weekend Herald can now reveal a shipping container - with a large amount of drugs suspected to be hidden inside - disappeared from the wharves of the Ports of Auckland before Customs could check it. The extraordinary heist was achieved with the help of a port supervisor, who had $90,000 hidden in a shoebox at home. Jared Savage reports.
Almost $100,000 was found in the home of a Ports of Auckland supervisor who helped shift a freight container off the wharf in the middle of the night, which Customs and police believe concealed a shipment of drugs destined for a notorious motorcycle gang.
In scenes reminiscent of the popular television crime series The Wire, the container was loaded onto the back of the truck at the port at 1am, soon after it had been flagged for suspicion by Customs.
The container purportedly held 24 air compressors from Thailand and Customs wanted to take a closer look at the contents, as the company which imported the freight was set up by a member of the Mongols motorcycle gang recently deported from Australia.
The container never arrived at the secure Customs facility to be searched. It had been put on the back of a truck at 1am on 1 July 2019 with the help of Aroha Hadfield, a longtime supervisor at the Ports of Auckland.
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Her job meant she had the authority to bypass security to let the truck onto the port, as well as control the straddle cranes to move the container onto the vehicle.
It was several days before Customs was alerted to the missing container, and investigators eventually tracked the truck to an address in Auckland.
However, the container disappeared before a search warrant could be executed. It was eventually found, empty, on a Bay of Plenty property linked to a member of the Mongols gang.
Detectives from the National Organised Crime Group are still investigating the "suspicious circumstances" in which the container was removed from the Ports of Auckland, confirmed Detective Inspector Paul Newman.
"We have not ruled out charging those responsible."
The air compressors were never found although Customs and the police believe a significant volume of Class-A drugs were concealed inside them.
"It's pretty clear they weren't air compressors," said Bruce Berry, head of investigations for Customs.
"The circumstances are such that we strongly suspect it was a consignment of controlled drugs."
Berry said organised crime needs to corrupt people and systems to survive, and in his opinion the exploitation of a port worker to bypass border control was a "classic example of the emergence of corruption in our society".
New Zealand has a reputation for being one of the least corrupt countries in the world.
But Berry says the arrest of Hadfield, and the recent prosecution of a police officer for leaking sensitive information to a gang, shows law enforcement and industry cannot be complacent to the threat posed by organised criminals.
Vili Taukolo, a constable working in Auckland, accessed the police intelligence database to view sensitive information about a $50 million importation of methamphetamine stopped in Christchurch.
He printed some of the documents, searched for other details on the progress of the investigation, and even the home addresses of his work colleagues.
Taukolo was paid $70,000 for acting as the mole for the organised criminal group, and was sentenced to 2 years and 2 months in prison after pleading guilty to accessing the police intelligence system for a dishonest purpose.
When police searched Aroha Hadfield's home on Auckland's North Shore, they found $90,000 cash inside a shoe box. The money has been seized.
But at the time of her arrest, there was no evidence of any drugs inside the container or that Hadfield even knew what was inside, so she was charged with relatively minor offences.
She pleaded guilty to removal of goods from a Customs-controlled area and accessing a computer system for a dishonest purpose.
Hadfield was sentenced in the Auckland District Court in June to 5 months' community detention, 12 months supervision and a $3000 fine.
Her brother Paul Hadfield was the driver of the truck. He also pleaded guilty to the removal of goods from a Customs-controlled area and was sentenced to a $1000 fine.
Aroha Hadfield no longer works at the Ports of Auckland after her offending came to light. She declined to comment, when approached through her lawyer Belinda Sellars, QC.
Hadfield has also refused to co-operate with the police investigation.
Hadfield was initially successful in seeking name suppression on the grounds she had been intimidated and feared for her safety, although the suppression order was overturned in the High Court.
"Organised crime thrives on intimidation and threats," said Berry. "I've no doubt she was intimidated at some point. "
But he believed Hadfield probably wasn't "strong-armed" into helping at first.
"You don't get paid nearly $100,000 if you're strong-armed," he said.
Berry believed Hadfield's "primary motivation was greed".
Berry says it's unclear how Hadfield first came into contact with the Mongols, but she was clearly targeted because of her position at the Ports of Auckland.
She was the perfect "insider threat" because her job allowed her to control the movement of containers within the wharves, as well as manipulate the ports' systems so her brother could drive the truck through the security gates.
When containers are flagged by Customs inspection, it's not unusual for several days to pass before they are moved from the wharves to the secure Customs facility to be opened up.
In this case, the alarm was raised when Customs asked the Ports of Auckland why the container hadn't arrived yet.
The port company quickly identified the container had disappeared on the back of the truck and the involvement of Aroha Hadfield in manipulating the ports' systems.
While Customs investigators were able to track the movements of the truck to the address in Manurewa, Berry said the "head start" of several days meant the trail had gone cold in the hunt for the container itself.
"We don't know whether the group behind this knew we flagged that container for inspection, or whether they always planned to rip the container from the wharf early," said Berry.
But it was a "big coincidence" the container was taken off the wharf so soon after it was flagged for inspection, leading Berry to believe they had inside knowledge from Hadfield.
A spokesman for Ports of Auckland declined to answer questions, other than to say the company had a good working relationship with Customs, the police and the Ministry for Primary Industries.
Berry agreed with that assessment, but added all industries needed to be vigilant as there was a "moral and corporate responsibility" to support law enforcement in preventing corruption.
"This kind of corruption is not unheard of internationally but New Zealand has been isolated from it for a long time.
Now, we've been thrust into this space very quickly with the arrival of the '501s', with their greater sophistication and international connections. It's a scary story."
The '501s' are a reference to deportees from Australia, nicknamed after the section of the immigration law used to remove them from Australia on character grounds.
Among the thousands forcibly evicted to New Zealand over the past five years are dozens of members of Australian gangs such as the Mongols, Comancheros, Bandidos and the Rebels.
Although a small fraction of the "501s" deportees, New Zealand law enforcement believe these new gangs have a disproportionate influence on the criminal underworld because of their international organised crime links and sophisticated tradecraft, including use of encrypted phones.
In response to the potential corrupting influence of the Australian newcomers, the police established a National Integrity Unit earlier this year to investigate links between officers and gang members.