EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: How police broke into Northland's Breaking Bad-style lab to plant audio bug and listen to P cooks

No one lived in the house, but the lawn was mowed every week.

Monday to Friday, cars would come and go from the remote address in Waiotira, a rural community about 30km south-west of Whangarei.

They didn't come on the weekends; just the caretaker turning up to keep the grounds tidy.

Nothing out of the ordinary for a casual observer driving past on the isolated Northland roads; just an otherwise unremarkable brick-and-tile 1950s bungalow.

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Those looking more closely discovered the most prolific methamphetamine "factory" in New Zealand.

"There wasn't a stick of furniture inside consistent with a three-bedroom home," said Lloyd Schmid, a senior detective in the National Organised Crime Group.

"Just a set of bunks which the cooks sometimes used to sleep in."

The entire house was stripped bare to house the chemicals and lab equipment need to cook massive amounts of the Class-A drug.

The word "factory" was used deliberately by Justice Simon Moore when sentencing the ringleader, patched Head Hunter Brownie Harding, in April.

"Its sole purpose was to provide a clandestine environment to accommodate your sophisticated and well-equipped laboratory to manufacture massive quantities of methamphetamine."

The otherwise unremarkable bungalow, centre, in Waiotira. Photo / supplied.
The otherwise unremarkable bungalow, centre, in Waiotira. Photo / supplied.
Head Hunter Brownie Harding was the main target under surveillance. Photo / supplied.
Head Hunter Brownie Harding was the main target under surveillance. Photo / supplied.

Operation Easter was launched in mid-2014 after police were told members of the Head Hunters' East Chapter in Auckland were running a P lab in Northland.

Investigating the tip in Waiotira, without tipping off the targets, posed its own unique challenges.

"It's a small rural community, everybody knows everybody," said Schmid.

"We needed to be careful how we moved in that community, who we might ask for assistance and the ongoing maintenance issue looking after our equipment."

By equipment, Schmid means two covert motion-activated cameras which captured who was coming and going.

Nearly every day, over the course of the five-month inquiry, Schmid said there was a strict routine.

The P cooks would arrive around 7am and work until lunchtime, have a short break, then keep working until around 6pm.

"In terms of how they went about their business, I could only describe that as very regimented," said Schmid.

"In my career, I would say this is one of the most professionally run clan labs I have seen."

A hidden camera caught Head Hunters coming and going from the address. Photo / supplied
A hidden camera caught Head Hunters coming and going from the address. Photo / supplied

As well as watching, the police were listening.

Listening to bugged phone conversations is standard practice in a covert investigation like Operation Easter, where those under surveillance try to speak in code.

But in this case detectives were also eavesdropping on unguarded moments.

Members of a covert police unit broke into the house at night when no one was home.

They took photos of the materials and equipment they found, as well as swabs which revealed methamphetamine contamination consistent with manufacture.

Crucially, and for the first time in a New Zealand investigation, the police also planted an audio listening device inside an active P lab.

"What is of particular significance, and unusual in cases of this sort, is that the recordings from the listening device enabled the police to roughly calculate the amounts of methamphetamine produced," Justice Moore said.

Photographic evidence taken by police who broke into the P lab at night. Photo / supplied.
Photographic evidence taken by police who broke into the P lab at night. Photo / supplied.
Police broke into the home at night to discover chemicals and equipment needed to manufacture methamphetamine. Photo / Supplied
Police broke into the home at night to discover chemicals and equipment needed to manufacture methamphetamine. Photo / Supplied

The investigation culminated in December 2014 when the police swooped on a Mercedes Benz owned by Brownie Harding, a patched Head Hunter of 12 years.

Inside the car was a sports bag with 80 ounce bags of P - nearly 2.3kg - and Harding's two teenage sons, Evanda and Tyson.

On the instructions of their father, the brothers were taking the drugs to the Head Hunters gang pad in Marua Rd, Ellerslie.

"You seemed more concerned about yourself and your own predicament than what you had done to your own kids," said Justice Moore.

"Even then you carried on and made arrangements the next day to supply the remaining 40 ounces to others."

Inside the car was a sports bag with 80 ounces of P inside. Photo / supplied
Inside the car was a sports bag with 80 ounces of P inside. Photo / supplied

In total, Justice Moore was satisfied Brownie Harding was in charge and responsible for manufacturing "at least" 6.5kg of the Class-A drug, by co-ordinating a large group of cooks and helpers.

It was probably more, said the High Court judge, but 6.5kg was a "massive quantity" and it made no difference to the sentence given to Harding.

"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."

Justice Moore considered imposing the maximum sentence of life imprisonment, but decided against it "by a fine margin".

This was mostly because of the 40-year-old's lack of previous drug offending - most of his 43 convictions were for driving - and the guilty pleas, albeit late, to the 11 charges.

Harding had never smoked P himself and could not blame addiction, said Justice Moore.

"This means the only reason you embarked on this exercise was to accumulate wealth.

"Even more concerning is your total lack of remorse for what you have done despite your comment that you 'hate meth'.

"You insist you did nothing wrong and even more startling you are recorded as saying that you would do it all again. That is a breath-taking statement."

He was sentenced to 28 ½ years in prison and will serve at least 10 years before being eligible for parole.

While Harding was the undisputed "boss" of the Northland operation, said Justice Moore, there was evidence he answered to someone higher up the chain in Auckland.

In one unforgettable conversation bugged by police, Harding was "incandescent with rage" after some of the drugs leaked out of the manufacturing apparatus and was lost.

He talked about having to explain a $200,000 loss "down in Auckland".

Then later, when his boys were arrested, Harding rang the gang pad in Ellerslie wanting to speak with "Bird".

"Bird" is William Hines, one of the most senior Head Hunters.

William Hines AKA Bird is a senior member of the Head Hunters. Photo / supplied
William Hines AKA Bird is a senior member of the Head Hunters. Photo / supplied

The 64-year-old Hines was not arrested in Operation Easter, but was recently jailed for 18 ½ years for manufacturing P after a separate investigation, Operation Sylvester.

In a third recent inquiry involving the Head Hunters, another senior member David O'Carroll was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison.

On top of the $1m cash later found at O'Carroll's home, police said they seized more than $3m of assets in Operation Genoa.

That included a further $2m cash, luxury cars including a Ferrari, a Porsche and a Maserati, a 9m launch, five properties and gold and silver bars.

Much of the ill-gotten wealth belonged to another patched Head Hunter, Michael Joseph Cavanagh.

He was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to money laundering, possession of a pistol and supplying the Class B drug used to cook P.

Detective Senior Sergeant Lloyd Schmid said manufacturing methamphetamine was a money-making business and the Head Hunters were at the forefront of the lucrative enterprise.

He had "no doubt" Harding was answering to more senior members of the gang, who were able to pull strings and "reap the rewards".

"There are a few key players behind the scenes. The Head Hunters have expanded and have a significant number of members now, able to task to run clan labs like this," said Schmid.

"And they work just as hard, if not harder, in their criminal endeavours as you or I do in regular employment. The shame of it is if they applied themselves in regular employment, I'm sure they'd be successful."

Schmid said the long sentence given to Harding sent a message.

"The community will not tolerate this kind of activity in their neighbourhoods, they will report it to the police, we will investigate it and you will be held accountable."

Brownie Harding at his sentencing in the High Court at Whangarei. Photo / Northern Advocate.
Brownie Harding at his sentencing in the High Court at Whangarei. Photo / Northern Advocate.

• Brownie Harding (Head Hunter) 28 years 6 months
• Elijah Rogers (Head Hunter) 19 years
• Jaydean Hura (Head Hunter) 16 years 8 months
• Anthony Mangu (Head Hunter) 15 years
• Kiata Pene (Head Hunter) 9 years
• Mark Lang 14 years 4 months
• Evanda Harding 9 years 6 months
• Sharn Keogh 8 years 6 months
• Casey Rewha 12 months home detention
• Jasmine Green 8 months home detention
• Stephanie Samuels 9 months home detention
• Wiremu Parao 10 months home detention

Why methamphetamine is so evil: What Justice Simon Moore told Brownie Harding at sentencing

"Put bluntly, it is the most dangerous and destructive drug in this country. 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.

"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 ever-growing 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.

"All of this is well known to you. You are not and never have been addicted. You have never been a user of the drug. This means the only reason you embarked on this exercise was to accumulate wealth.

"Even more concerning is your total lack of remorse for what you have done despite your comment that you 'hate meth'.

"You insist you did nothing wrong and even more startling you are recorded as saying that you would to it all again. That is a breath-taking statement."