A Polish father and son working for a mystery West African man, a Russian sailor-cum-cocaine smuggler and $130,000 buried in Auckland. Sam Hurley tracked a police investigation for more than 18 months and today can reveal the story for the first time.
Ryszard Wilk and his son Ralph arrived in New Zealand in September 2016, telling immigration officials they were here for a holiday. They're unlikely to have attracted much attention — it was a record month for visitors, with almost 250,000 holidaymakers stepping onto our soil.
They were due to spend up to 30 days here. But two days later they were gone; back to Poland, the vacation apparently cut short.
That would have been the end of it — just two visitors who quit their holiday early. Perhaps there was a family emergency? Maybe they didn't like it here?
But two months later the Wilks were back for a second trip.
Ryszard, 56, and Ralph, 30, told immigration officers the same story on November 6 — they intended on staying for 30 days and were here for a holiday.
The quick return, however, had sparked the interest of New Zealand authorities.
The Police National Organised Crime Group and Customs began watching the pair and an investigation was launched, code-named Operation Moa.
Over the next year, investigators unravelled a plot stretching from across New Zealand, Germany, eastern Europe, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Phone taps and covert surveillance tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars and a scheme to flood New Zealand with cocaine and ecstasy.
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At least 10 people were involved in the conspiracy involving international money transfers, a West African mastermind, a local bag man, and a treasure map to buried cash at Auckland's Bastion Point.
The Wilks' first short visit to New Zealand eschewed the usual tourist trail in favour of a meeting in a supermarket carpark with a Russian sailor.
Aleksandr Cherushev was onboard the food vessel Discovery Bay, which travelled from South America and was due to dock in Auckland the same day the Wilks flew in.
He hoped to use the ship's journey to pick up kiwifruit as a shield to hide his cocaine haul, trafficked in a scheme run by the Wilks and another Polish man, Patryk Lukasik.
Lukasik operated as the point of contact between the trio, advising the father and son of the location of the ship in the Pacific Ocean.
"He is still 60-70km from the destination," Lukasik told the Wilks in a text message during the early hours of September 7, 2016.
"He is 60km from you. Now he will apparently be there between 7.30 and 9. You will have to wait.
"I heard that all is ok."
When Discovery Bay docked, the Wilks met with and paid the Russian sailor for about 4kg of cocaine - worth $1.2 million on the street. They continued to communicate and met again in the shadows of a New World supermarket near Tauranga's port to pay Cherushev the outstanding cash for his courier services.
Two kilograms of cocaine were distributed to an unknown New Zealand contact. Another large stash was buried at an undisclosed location.
And then the Wilks were gone.
Operation Moa was launched not long after the Polish pair returned in November 2016.
They returned, police later discovered, to retrieve the remaining payment for the rest of the cocaine and to arrange further supply drops.
But by this time — unknown to the Wilks — several surveillance device warrants had been granted to intercept their private communications.
The tapped calls led detectives to local builder Bryan Williams — the 53-year-old was the bag man. Of more interest to those behind Moa was the voice of a West African man.
The mystery caller was living outside New Zealand and was using a telephone number with a prefix for Ecuador, court documents show.
The calls also revealed this man appeared to be the mastermind of the whole scheme.
It was him, the calls revealed, who had orchestrated the Wilks' trip to New Zealand — and it was also him who asked the pair to supply a further 2kg of cocaine to the same unknown New Zealand contact the Wilks met in September.
The Wilks were amenable to this, however, they would only complete the deal if and when the unknown contact paid them an outstanding $90,000 debt.
A police surveillance team were watching Auckland's Aotea Square on November 17, 2016.
They saw Williams meet the Wilks at the Box Cafe and hand the Polish pair a gold-coloured gift bag.
It was filled with cash and police believed it was the $90,000.
Further intercepted phone calls between the Wilks and Williams showed talks were being held to find someone who could launder their drug money by converting it into US dollars.
Williams ultimately offered to exchange some of the cash himself and at one point said he could exchange $15,000.
Throughout all this the Wilks remained in contact with the architect, the West African man.
However, they fell out over the West African's suspicion that the Wilks were working directly with Williams. The day after the Aotea Square meeting he threatened them but after that no further communications were intercepted by police.
During their second New Zealand trip, the Wilks succeeded in exchanging $7878 and sending $17,856 abroad.
Due to leave New Zealand in the early hours of November 20, the Wilks had yet to collect all the money owed to them, so Ralph Wilk left — leaving his father behind.
But, prior to Ralph's departure, Customs carried out a covert search of his checked-in luggage at the Auckland International Airport.
Inside his suitcase, and hidden in four Chinese noodle packets, was $40,000.
Unbeknown to Ralph, the cash was seized and he returned to Poland.
Ryszard and Williams continued to work together. In December 2016 Patryk Lukasik arrived in New Zealand with Simon Kenmuir.
Lukasik put Ryszard Wilk in touch with 29-year-old IT engineer Mohammed Naseem Khan.
Khan was working for Chinese man Wenyue He, picking up cash from Ryszard.
Some of the money was delivered to Qiannan (Christina) Tang, who worked at money remittance company MCM on Queen St and would allegedly send the cash overseas.
Wenyue He left New Zealand before police could charge him, while Tang, 26, is awaiting trial for alleged money laundering.
As Lukasik and Kenmuir were checking-in for their flights on December 11, 2016 their luggage was searched by Customs.
In Lukasik's suitcase was $35,000, concealed within the pages of books and a bundle wrapped as a Christmas present. A further $5000 was found on him when he was spoken to by authorities.
Kenmuir also had $35,000 concealed in his luggage in a similar way.
But when questioned by Customs officers, both men told a similar story. Lukasik claimed he owed money to "bad men" in Ireland, where he lived with his wife and children. He explained to clear the debt he was told to travel to New Zealand and bring back $75,000 that a "scruffy looking Irishman" had given them during a meeting in downtown Auckland.
Operation Moa revealed the cash was in fact money owed to the Wilks. Lukasik and Kenmuir were allowed to depart New Zealand the next day without the money.
Police raided Williams' home in Whenuapai in April 2017.
Officers found $15,000 in his car.
Ryszard Wilk was due to leave New Zealand three days after the raid, but Customs stopped him at the border. When his carry-on bag was searched several currencies totalling $72,762 was found.
He told Customs officers the cash was for a holiday cruise with his partner but was unable to buy tickets because the cruise was fully booked.
Customs seized the cash and Ryszard was released - he flew out the next day.
During Ryszard's time in New Zealand from November 2016 to April 2017, Moa found some $26,000 had been exchanged, while $775,000 was sent overseas.
Surprisingly, Ralph Wilk flew back to New Zealand in June, 2017. Police suspected he had returned to collect more cash from previous cocaine supplies.
Upon his return, he again made contact with Williams. But police watched him handing Williams a bag later found to be containing $51,800 on June 20.
As Williams made his way home that evening after a day of work at a construction site off Karangahape Rd he was stopped by police.
Williams told officers the cash, which was seized, was from his wages and he was saving to buy a Toyota Hilux.
Police then carried out a covert search of Ralph's apartment at the Quadrant Hotel in Auckland the following month. They found a locked bag with $116,100 and $10,000 of US currency.
Six days later Ralph Wilk was arrested.
His three cell phones were seized and analysis found he was using them to communicate directly with his father. The text messages revealed Ryszard told his son he was organising the next shipment of drugs into New Zealand.
He also said the suppliers had a "constant" stream of drugs and in the next haul of cocaine they wanted to include MDMA (ecstasy).
The texts also revealed Ryszard had buried $116,100 and US$10,000 at Bastion Point before he left the country.
A treasure map of sorts was then sent by Ryszard to help his son find the cash.
"First go get the documents from that place you were at before. When you get to the top, take 13 small steps and turn right. You have to get to the point where you see running water and you will see a doorway/archway. I will call if I can at 11pm my time. I will explain it," the message read.
Police were watching as Ralph entered Bastion Point on June 15, 2017. He left a short time later with what police described as a "considerably heavier bag" than when he went in.
After Ralph's arrest police returned to Bastion Point in August 2017 and found the embankment near the running water. Three torn black plastic bags were found which had been previously taped up, while a plastic bottle with a small bag of cocaine inside was also discovered.
Ralph Wilk, Williams, Khan and Tang were all due to go before a jury in the High Court at Auckland earlier this year.
But on the eve of trial Ralph, Williams and Khan indicated they would enter guilty pleas.
Ralph was sent to prison for eight years and five months on two representative charges for supplying a Class A drug and money laundering. He will be deported once he has served his sentence.
Williams was sentenced on a representative charge of money laundering to 12 months' home detention. He was discharged on the other charges he faced, including one charge of participating in an organised criminal group.
Khan will spend 11 months on home detention for his money laundering.
Tang went to trial after being charged with money laundering but it was quickly aborted. Her retrial is due to be held in June.
For a while Ryszard and Lukasik remained at large and Interpol issued global wanted notices for them.
Ryszard was arrested in the Venezuelan city of Maiquetía, while Lukasik was picked up in Germany.
They now facing extradition back to New Zealand to face charges.
• September 2016: Ryszard and Ralph Wilk arrive in New Zealand but leave two days later.
• November 2016: The Wilks return to New Zealand, sparking a covert police operation.
• Ralph Wilk leaves New Zealand, but Customs finds $40,000 in his luggage.
• December 2016: Patryk Lukasik and Simon Kenmuir arrive in NZ to set up a meeting between Ryszard Wilk and local IT engineer Mohammed Khan.
• Lukasik and Kenmuir leave New Zealand but are searched by Customs who seize $75,000.
• April 2017: Police raid home of "bag man" Bryan Williams. Ryszard Wilk tries to flee the but is stopped with $72,762.
• June 2017: Ralph Wilk returns to NZ and gives Williams a bag with $51,800 inside.
• July 2017: Police search Ralph Wilk's Auckland apartment and find $116,100 and $10,000 of US currency. Six days later he is arrested.
• Ralph Wilk's cellphones show his father was organising the next shipment of drugs and reveal $116,100 and US$10,000 was buried at Bastion Point.
• September 2018: On the eve of a High Court trial, Ralph Wilk, Williams and Khan enter guilty pleas for supplying a Class A drug and money laundering.
• October and November 2018: Ralph Wilk sentenced to eight years and five months' imprisonment. Williams and Khan sentenced to home detention.
• December 2018: Ryszard Wilk and Lukasik face extradition back to New Zealand after being arrested by Interpol in Venezuela and Germany.
• Cash exchanges - NZD$33,970
• Cash remittances - NZD$802,611
• Cash seized - NZD$384,835
• Cocaine street value - NZD$1.2 million