For seven years, New Zealand police were unable to extradite Lee Vincent on drug and money laundering charges. But he died in Thai custody after being arrested in an immigration crackdown on overstayers. Jared Savage reports.

One of the pioneers of "party pills" in New Zealand - who went on to sit at the top of a $50 million designer drug empire - has died in a Thai jail.

Lee Vincent, also known as Kemp Ashby, made a fortune by pushing the boundaries of science and law until a covert police investigation targeted the drugs sold by his New Zealand-based company, London Underground.

While his friend and business partner Chris Chase was eventually sentenced to 12½ years in prison after losing a Supreme Court battle, Vincent, who was living in Thailand, remained free.

Police seized some of Vincent's assets - there was evidence he made $5m in just 18 months - but were unable to extradite him to face criminal charges.

Advertisement

But seven years after Chase was first arrested in Operation Ark, Vincent was on the verge of being deported after being swept up in a Thai immigration crackdown on overstayers.

Vincent was arrested late last year but died in custody.

His death was not thought to be suspicious or self-inflicted, according to a senior detective preparing to prosecute Vincent on his return.

"We're aware he had not been in good health in recent years," Detective Sergeant Bruce Howard said.

According to a Facebook post dated June 2018, Vincent said he had been "pretty unwell" over the past two years.

He said he had 15 operations and spent six months in hospital after nearly dying from gangrene.

Amputation was avoided by "massive" antibiotic medications but Vincent said the treatment "ravaged" his immune system, leaving him susceptible to bacterial infections.

Read more: Inside NZ's $50m designer drug ring

A spokesman said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was aware of the death and confirmed the embassy in Bangkok gave consular assistance to a family member.

MFAT said any questions about a death in Thailand should be directed to the Royal Thai Police.

A spokesman for the Royal Thai Police said any questions about the death of a New Zealand citizen should be directed to MFAT, or Vincent's family.

Vincent's mother Diane Ashby, who was living with him in Thailand, and Vincent's wife did not respond to messages from the Herald on Sunday.

Lee Vincent, also known as Kemp Ashby, was wanted in connection to Operation Ark but arrested in a Thai immigration crackdown. Photo / Supplied
Lee Vincent, also known as Kemp Ashby, was wanted in connection to Operation Ark but arrested in a Thai immigration crackdown. Photo / Supplied
Christopher Chase, centre, during sentencing in the Auckland High Court for the importation of Class C drug analogues. Photo / Mike Scott
Christopher Chase, centre, during sentencing in the Auckland High Court for the importation of Class C drug analogues. Photo / Mike Scott

Vincent and Chase were among the first people in New Zealand to sell BZP "legal highs".

When BZP was banned in 2008, their company, London Underground, switched to what they thought was a new chemical compound called mephedrone, or 4-MMC.

The pills were marketed and sold under the radar to compete with Ecstasy, a Class-B drug, in the Auckland dance and nightclub scene.

Vincent moved to Thailand where he sourced the supposed mephedrone from China. It was shipped to New Zealand where the powder was pressed into pills, which sold for $30 to $40 each.

Chase claimed he thought the pills were legal as mephedrone was not specifically banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

However, a covert police investigation Operation Ark targeted London Underground and Chase was among 23 people arrested in November 2011.

A second investigation, Operation Greenstone, laid more charges against Chase and others as they tried to keep their business going while on bail.

The police alleged the London Underground tablets were not legal and in fact were analogues, or "substantially similar" in molecular structure, to illegal drugs.

This was part of a worldwide phenomenon whereby chemists were tweaking the chemicals to skirt the boundaries of the law, the police alleged.

Testing also revealed the powder London Underground thought was mephedrone, or 4-MMC, was in fact methedrone, or 4-MEC.

Nearly 255kg of powder was imported over an 18-month period; enough to make almost 1.3 million tablets.

The profits were enormous. Each pill cost about $1 to make. London Underground sold them, at wholesale, for between $17 and $23 a pill.

Some of the analogue pills, embossed with the Rolling Stones' logo, seized in Operation Ark. Photo / Supplied.
Some of the analogue pills, embossed with the Rolling Stones' logo, seized in Operation Ark. Photo / Supplied.

Over the course of the 18-month police investigation, about $11 million in cash had been stored in the Takapuna home of Vincent's mother, Diane Ashby.

London Underground staff took cardboard cartons - filled with bundles of $20, $50 and $100 notes - which were stacked behind a chair in her lounge.

Every so often, "couriers" would arrive to collect the boxes and take the cash to Hong Kong where it was banked into accounts controlled by Vincent.

Those companies then "loaned" millions of dollars back to a company in New Zealand controlled by Chase.

At his High Court trial in 2015, which ran for 18 weeks, Chase maintained his innocence and pointed to legal advice he received.

But the jury decided both 4-MMC and 4-MEC were "substantially similar" to methcathinone, a Class-B drug, which made them analogues.

Analogues are considered Class-C drugs.

In sentencing Chase to 10 years in prison, Justice Peter Woodhouse said the street value of pills sold was nearly $50 million.

"This was the largest Class-C drug importation and dealing operation that has come before the New Zealand courts," said Justice Woodhouse, "and the largest by a very long way."

Police seized around $1 million in cash during Operation Ark raids. Photo / Sarah Ivey.
Police seized around $1 million in cash during Operation Ark raids. Photo / Sarah Ivey.

The London Underground saga

2001:

Chris Chase and Lee Vincent start importing BZP and sell the first "legal high" party pills in NZ.

2008: BZP banned as a Class-C drug. Turn to mephedrone (4-MMC) from China as the new active ingredient.

2010: Police start Operation Ark to investigate pills mimicking Ecstasy.

2011: Chase among 23 arrests from Operation Ark. Police claim 4-MMC and other compounds are not "legal highs" but analogues – or "substantially similar" in structure – to illegal drugs.

2012: Chase arrested, while on bail, for importing new compounds like alpha-PVP in Operation Greenstone.

2015: Jury finds Chase and others guilty of 69 charges of importing and selling Class-C drugs. The verdicts mean 4-MMC and 4-MEC are analogues.

2016: Chase appeals the findings, which puts all connected trials on hold. Court of Appeal upholds convictions.

2017: Chase appeals to Supreme Court but findings are upheld. Supreme Court decision means defendants in connected Operation Ark and Greenstone trials start pleading guilty.

2018: Chase pleads guilty to Operation Greenstone charges and sentenced.

Sentences for Operation Ark and Greenstone

2013 - Operation Greenstone

Allen Stubbington - 5 years 10 months (55 per cent discount for early guilty plea and giving evidence for Crown)

Michael Hall - Home detention (8 months)

2015 - Operation Ark
Chris Chase - 10 years
Dr Andrew Lavrent - 8 years 6 months
Jamie Cameron - 8 years (later reduced to 5 years 7 months)
Johnny Be Good - 9 years
Stanley Leone - 7 years
Kevin Challis - 3 years 6 months
Kelvin Cress - 5 years 6 months
Grant Petersen - 2 years 6 months

2016 - Operation Ark
Jeremy Hamish Kerr - 1 year 3 months (on top of 8 years 6 months for Fonterra 1080 blackmail charges)

Other Ark and Greenstone cases were put on hold until after Court of Appeal (2016) and Supreme Court (2017) decisions.

2018 - Operation Greenstone
Dr Andrew Lavrent - 1 year 2 months (on top of Ark sentence)
Simon McKinley - Home detention (10 months)
Cameron Broxton - Home detention (8 months)
Jeanette Morris - Community detention (6 months)
Gerald Hill - Home detention (6 months) and 150 hours community work

2018 - Operation Ark
Allen Cho - Home detention (10 months)
Shalendra Singh - Home detention (6 months)
Alzain Khan - 9 months
Brendon Nguyen - Community detention (6 months)

2018 - Operation Greenstone
Chris Chase - 2 years 6 months in prison (on top of the 10 years)
Craig Williams - Home detention (12 months)