Even the judge who sentenced Josh Masters to 10 years in prison recognised the genuine leadership and business acumen. The rapper tapped into US hip hop culture to grow an army - the Killer Beez. Less than 12 months after being released from prison, Masters lay in a hospital and one of his closest friends was accused of putting him there, Jared Savage reports. This story was first published in 2019 - Akustino Tae today pleaded guilty to the shooting .
They were close once, like brothers. Josh Masters, the charismatic leader of the Killer Beez, and Akustino Tae, a staunch enforcer.
The pair were founding members of the Killer Beez, one of the new breed of street gangs which popped up like mushrooms in Auckland in the early 2000s.
Even after Masters - an impressive physical specimen, kickboxer and aspiring rapper who started his own music label - was jailed for 10 years for drug dealing, the Killer Beez survived.
But less than 12 months after being freed from prison, Masters is lying in a hospital bed and lucky to be alive after being shot in the back.
And Tae, now a patched Tribesmen gang member, is behind bars for allegedly being the one who pulled the trigger.
Was the shooting gang-related?
If so, the violence could boil over in tit-for-tat retribution, according to New Zealand's foremost researcher on gangs.
"If it's a wider beef, between the Killer Beez and the Tribesmen, there's an opportunity for someone in the Killer Beez to step up and make a name for themselves by avenging their leader," says Dr Jarrod Gilbert.
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"Because in some ways, Josh Masters' mana is on the line."
Joshua James Masters was born in Otara in 1978.
The suburb in south Auckland is sandwiched between Papatoetoe and the affluent Botany, jammed up against the eastern edge of State Highway 1.
The population of Otara is largely Polynesian and poorer and Masters came into the world at a time when the divisive dawn raids - when Pacific people were targeted as overstayers by the government - were still raw.
Masters had an unsettled upbringing and education. He was passed around family members and lived all over Otara. Court records show he attended every primary school, both intermediates, and both secondary schools in the district.
After repeating the fifth form, Masters left school at the age of 17.
He had passed some academic subjects but excelled at sport, especially rugby league.
Otara was also the home of the Tribesmen, an outlaw motorcycle gang whose yellow-and-black patch carries a skull with a raised middle finger.
By 21, Masters was a patched member.
Although young, he was fearless, tough, strong and within a few years, Masters was believed to become the president of the Otara chapter. Rising through the ranks alongside him were his friends: Akustino Tae, the Solomon brothers Michael and Denis, and Dion Snell.
The Tribesmen were an established gang, like the Head Hunters or Highway 61, who rode motorcycles, hung out at their pad and protected their turf.
All around them in Otara was a new breed of gangster who could never afford a Harley Davidson. Or even want one.
Some disaffected Pasifika youth felt connected to the hip hop culture of the United States, whose heroes rapped lyrics about growing up poor, wore heavy "bling" jewellery, and glamourised street feuds and violent retribution.
Most would never likely become fully fledged gang members but Dr Gilbert said the Tribesmen made a smart strategic move.
"The Tribesmen looked at these rebellious youths running around and asked how can we use them to be part of our army? So they set up the Killer Beez."
Gangs have had feeder groups for recruitment before.
Even at the time, other youth gangs had ties with older gangs: Juvenile Crip Boys (JCB) to Black Power, Red Army to Mongrel Mob, Dope Money Sex (DMS) to Head Hunters.
What made the Killer Beez different was Josh Masters.
"He was 25 years old, built like a barn, charismatic, a fighting machine," says Gilbert.
"And with genuine leadership attributes. What did we see? The Killer Beez survived, and thrived in fact, while so many of the LA-style street gangs disappeared."
An aspiring rapper who called himself Gravity, Masters appeared in music videos and even set up a music label Colourway Records, which promoted South Auckland musicians, held concerts and sold CDs, clothing and merchandise.
"This was the sort of stuff kids would see on MTV. Bling, wealth, glamour. But this was Otara not Los Angeles," says Gilbert.
"His rhetoric had more than a hint of politics. He was saying 'if my people don't get opportunities, we'll take them'.
"Masters was very appealing to a certain person and they flocked to him. He created an army."
Armies bring violence and the Killer Beez were no different.
There were a spate of attacks, often unprovoked, sometimes against entirely innocent parties across Auckland. Golf clubs, bats and even fence palings used as weapons.
When challenged by the media, Masters publicly distanced the Killer Beez from the negative headlines, positioning himself as a leopard who had changed his spots.
Police in Counties Manukau had no question the Killer Beez were being used as cannon fodder for the Tribesmen, if enforcement was required.
The violence was not always random either.
In January 2008, a group of Killer Beez and Tribesmen drove to Othello Drive to confront a former Tribesmen.
Nine shots were fired, two people were admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds.
Masters' profile was growing. In an infamous interview with John Campbell, Masters denied any connection between the Killer Beez and violence, or any rumoured dealing of methamphetamine.
"We're against it, we hate it," said Masters, when asked of the gang's attitude towards P.
"I've got nothing to hide."
At the time of the interview, a covert police investigation called Operation Leo was already underway.
More than 110,000 communications were intercepted between February and May 2008 when Masters and 43 other Killer Beez and Tribesmen associates were arrested.
Police seized about $500,000 worth of meth and cannabis, $20,000 cash, a large amount of stolen property, and motorcycles and cars under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
At the time of the arrests, Detective Inspector John Tims - now a deputy commissioner - said the Killer Beez tried to portray themselves as "modern-day Robin Hoods".
"They have attempted to achieve status through music and videos in connection with the youth of our community," said Tims.
"Based on the evidence secured throughout this operation and today, in simple terms they are drug dealers who are causing destruction and chaos in our community by their actions."
Masters, 30 at the time, was declined bail and, before finally, on the eve of trial in 2010, pleading guilty to supplying methamphetamine, conspiracy to supply the Class-A drug, and laundering money through Colourway Records.
He dragged the case out for two more years by firing lawyers, claiming poor legal advice and disputing key facts to minimise his criminal culpability.
In giving evidence at the disputed facts hearing in July 2012, Masters said Colourways Records was set up so he could be a role model to demonstrate legitimate ways of earning a good living.
While tolerant of drug dealing by others, Masters said did not approve of, or encourage it.
In response, bugged conversations between Masters and convicted drug dealer Ming Nguyen were played to the court as evidence.
MASTERS: All good for three friends?
NGUYEN: Um yeah should be soon
MASTERS: 9 o'clock tonight?
The deal was set up, but Nguyen never arrived.
"This fella is not usually that late," Masters was recorded as saying.
Nguyen had been arrested by police as he drove towards Masters' home. Three one-ounce bags of methamphetamine were found underneath the driver's seat.
The Crown said these were the three "friends" Masters was talking about.
Masters told the court the "three friends" was a reference to three Killer Beez who wanted to meet the supplier about a drug debt, a car and bike.
While Masters said he was aware this man was dealing drugs to the three friends of his, and Masters was in a position to facilitate meetings, he had nothing to do with the transactions.
"I found this explanation completely lacking in credibility," said Justice Kit Toogood at the hearing.
In sentencing Masters a few months later, the High Court judge noted Masters had been "playing games" and "toying" with the judicial system with his constant delays.
"You said, however, that those around you did what they needed to do to get on in life and that, while you were aware that some of them were dealing drugs, you did no more than put people in touch with each other.
"I regarded your evidence to be a complete fabrication. I was distinctly unimpressed by your attempts to lie your way out of evidence, which in my opinion, provided compelling proof that you were deeply involved in receiving and supplying large commercial quantities of methamphetamine."
Masters did not use methamphetamine and was motivated by greed and "easy money", said Justice Toogood, by using his mana to control a willing drug distribution network.
"I accept that you have genuine leadership qualities and undoubted business acumen. It is a great shame that your obvious qualities as a charismatic leader amongst your peers were not confined to legitimate business enterprises."
He was sentenced to 10 years and five months in prison , having to serve 5 years and 9 months before being eligible for parole.
While the influence of the Killer Beez in the community was greatly diminished by Operation Leo, Masters' army continued to grow inside prison. They wreaked havoc.
One of the worst attacks was the fatal assault on prison guard Jason Palmer in 2010 in Spring Hill Prison.
Latu Kepu punched Palmer, who fell backwards and hit his head on the concrete. The Killer Bee was later convicted of manslaughter.
Members of the Killer Beez were also involved in the riot at the same Waikato prison in 2013, as well as attacks on prison guards at Auckland Prison in Paremoremo in 2016.
His own behaviour in prison was described as "confrontational and at times intimidatory", according to the Parole Board , while still running the Killer Beez from behind bars.
This was the main reason he was declined release on parole on several occasions until May last year.
With only a few months before his full sentence would end in October 2018, he was no longer considered an "undue risk" to the community.
Despite this Masters was a "high to moderate risk of reoffending", according to a psychologist's report, and the Parole Board imposed a number of special conditions on his release.
He is not allowed to associate with gang members, except those approved by his probation officer such as family members, or enter places where gangs meet, such as gang pads or fight clubs.
This "whereabouts" condition was monitored by GPS tracking.
Masters was not allowed to drink alcohol, or take drugs, and had to attend another psychological assessment.
These special conditions ended last month. It wasn't long before Masters, now 41, was in trouble again.
In November, he was charged with breaching his parole conditions by associating with an unnamed gang member.
However, in a quirk of the justice system, Masters could not be recalled to prison because his sentence had just ended.
Then on Friday 26 April, a shocking moment of violence glamourised in the rap culture which spawned the Killer Beez; a gangland shooting in broad daylight.
In the middle of the day, Josh Masters was shot in the back while at a Harley Davidson store in Mt Wellington. The entire incident was captured on CCTV cameras.
The alleged shooter fled the scene and Masters was taken to hospital in a critical condition.
Shortly after midnight, the alleged shooter handed himself into the Manukau Police Station.
It was Akustino Tae; one of Masters' closest friends in the days when the Killer Beez were founded.
Tae, a 39-year-old member of the Tribesmen, was charged with attempted murder. Masters, who was feared to be paralysed at one point, has now regained some feeling in his legs.
The pair were once so tight, several sources told the Herald they were shocked Tae was alleged to have pulled the trigger.
Sources said the Tribesmen, such as Tae and others who grew up with Masters as Killer Beez, wanted him to rejoin their ranks.
This was rejected by Masters, who wanted to retain his own status, but also aggressively muscle his way back into Otara.
"Masters feels he is owed his dues. The Tribesmen were happy for everyone to go their separate ways, but he's been pushing," said one source.
A power struggle or a personal feud? Maybe both.
Either way, Dr Jarrod Gilbert sees the shooting of someone with the reputation of Masters could lead to retribution and revenge violence.
"We haven't seen the ongoing tit-for-tat wars since the 1990s. Why? Older, wiser heads know what war means," says Gilbert, "Incredible pressure from the police and always looking over your shoulder to see if someone's going to have a pop.
"Older heads can get around the table and find compromise. But the more serious an incident is, the more difficult it is to reach compromise. And it doesn't get much more serious than an alleged attempt on someone's life."