When a turf war between the Hells Angels and the Comancheros spilled into a Sydney Airport, the New South Wales police took action. A specialist team, Strike Force Raptor, came down hard in a crackdown with 'hostile' new tactics. Suspending drivers' licences, shutting down gang pads, even a ban on riding motorcycles together. Then Australian authorities realised they could deport them to New Zealand. Jared Savage reports on how the gang scene has changed forever.
It's a somewhat bitter irony. Some of Australia's most notorious criminals were deported to New Zealand because of a sickening brawl in an airport 10 years ago.
Terminal 3 inside Sydney Airport on March 22, 2009; Passengers watched in absolute horror as Anthony Zervas, the younger brother of a Hells Angel member, was clubbed to death with a 12kg bollard in front of them.
The Hells Angels and the Comancheros, another outlaw motorcycle club, were in the middle of a turf war.
On that particular day, some members of the rival gangs just happened to be on the same flight.
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The secret, brutal world of bikies - where violence is suffered in silence but given back in harsh retribution - had spilled into the public in the most horrifying way.
They had gone a step too far.
"Most people don't interact with gangs, not on a day-to-day basis," Detective Superintendent Deb Wallace of the New South Wales police, told the Herald on Sunday.
"But this was a total disregard for public safety - violence and selfishness and arrogance perhaps - where they thought they could cause havoc in a very busy public space. And kill somebody.
"That was the catalyst to say the community won't tolerate that."
Within days, Strike Force Raptor was born.
And while police had always investigated crimes allegedly committed by gang members, Raptor was proactive in its approach.
Creating a 'hostile' environment
Nothing was too big or too small.
If someone was punched outside a Kings Cross nightclub by a gang member, officers from Raptor would take over the case.
Tips were followed up assiduously by Raptor, houses and motorcycles raided for firearms and drugs.
If gang members didn't pay their traffic fines, Raptor would follow up to ensure their driver licences were taken away.
Raptor would check gang clubhouses and use council rules to shut them down for shoddy workmanship or unconsented work.
If alcohol was being served at the pad, Raptor invoked archaic legislation so the gangs needed to have a liquor licence.
Raptor officers checked benefit payments and tax records, revealing hundreds of bikies claiming taxpayer assistance they weren't entitled to.
A "consorting law" was introduced in February 2012 where anyone who ignores an official warning to not associate with criminals can be jailed for up to three years.
The consequences for gang members were far-reaching; unable to meet at clubhouses, ride together, or even hang out in the same room.
One of the first gang members charged with "consorting" appealed his case, arguing the laws infringed on the basic right to associate.
The High Court dismissed the appeal in a unanimous verdict. The decision meant the laws were legal.
"Our aim was to create a hostile environment. We call it consequence-based policing," Wallace said.
"We came up with all sorts of tactics to disrupt their behaviour. And from those successes, we realised there were other opportunities."
Encouraged by the success of Strike Force Raptor in New South Wales, police officers from other Australian states called them for advice.
The unofficial sharing of ideas soon evolved into a formal council - Morpheus National Taskforce - with officials from different police forces and government agencies.
One of those "opportunities" mentioned by Wallace, who sits on Morpheus, was the powerful ability of the Australian Border Force to cancel anyone's visa, or have someone deported.
It's a tough measure based on the "character grounds" test of Australia's immigration laws, section 501 to be exact.
It gave Strike Force Raptor another "hostile" tool to target specific gang members.
Alex Vella, the national president of the Rebels gang, had his visa revoked while on holiday in Malta.
One of his Rebels lieutenants, Shane "Kiwi" Martin was deported to New Zealand, where he was born, on the basis of secret evidence - none of which was strong enough to press criminal charges.
Just last month, Martin could only watch on television, through tears, as his son Dustin won the ultimate individual accolade in one of Australian's biggest sporting events, the AFL grand final.
Regardless of whether the deportation of an individual is fair or not, the deliberate tactic to deport hundreds of "501s" changed the criminal landscape of New Zealand forever.
Perhaps the most visible of these is the establishment of the Comancheros in New Zealand.
The name of Pasilika Naufahu, a senior figure in the gang's Sydney chapter, was raised as a top priority in a Morpheus meeting and deported in February 2016.
Within 24 hours of landing in Auckland, Naufahu was embroiled in a street fight outside a bar.
"I don't want to be here. I'm forced to call this country home. I gave 27 years to Australia," Naufahu told TVNZ.
"What can I say, the night just went bad. I apologise to all the staff members there and anyone who got hit."
He warned others deported from Australia under the tough immigration law could be forced into a life of crime if they had no support in New Zealand.
Wallace described Naufahu as a "larger than life character" and part of the new breed of the Comanchero bikies.
"The Comancheros were an old school bikie gang dating back to 1966; bearded, scruffy, Anglo-Saxon ethnicity," says Wallace.
"In recent years, there has been a significant change in the make-up of the gang, with deliberate recruitment of members of Middle Eastern and Pacific Island ethnicity.
"They wear lots of jewellery, heavily tattooed, gym bunnies, with attractive girlfriends hanging off their arms...it looks like a very glamorous life."
In Wallace's opinion, the Comancheros evolved from a small-time Australian motorcycle club which expanded nationally into a sophisticated criminal group with international connections.
And they would soon be well established in New Zealand.
Pasilika eventually returned to New Zealand, where he was joined by 13 other deported Comancheros.
It wasn't long until the Comancheros announced their arrival, as first revealed by the Herald on Sunday last year.
Wearing the black and gold colours, six members gathered around gold-plated motorcycles in a series of photographs posted on social media.
"All done and sworn in...welcome aboard to my brothers in New Zealand," says the March 2018 Instagram post by an Australian member of the Comancheros.
"Another Comancheros chapter opened up. We growing stronger and stronger.
"F*** Peter Dutton," says the post, referring to the Australian politician who championed the "good character" clause to deport.
"But you made this possible #lol."
The display was a powerful statement - to the police and other gangs in New Zealand - which came a week after the ex-president of the Comancheros, Mahmoud "Mick" Hawi, was fatally gunned down in a Sydney gym car park.
Hawi was one of the Comancheros convicted of manslaughter following the Sydney airport brawl which triggered Strike Force Raptor.
A New Zealand arm of the gang was "inevitable" following the deportation of 14 Comancheros, Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, the head of the National Organised Crime Group, told the Herald on Sunday at the time.
"It's concerning. Like the other Australian gangs, the Rebels and the Bandidos, we expect the Comancheros will attempt to establish themselves in the drug market within New Zealand."
Given some of the extreme violence between rival Australian gangs which can spill into the public, Williams acknowledged the potential for the same to happen here.
"The reality of gang life, whether it's seen by the public or not, is one of violence. When dealing with the gangs, we're finding people with all sorts of firearms."
"And there is friction when gangs try to move into an established drug market. So there may be [violence] that comes out of this. To date, there hasn't been.
"It will be interesting to see what happens."
The police didn't have to wait long.
'Green light to kill'
Just a few weeks later, a husband and wife were both shot point-blank in the head in an "execution-style" slaying in Auckland.
The murder victim, Epalahame Tu'uheava, was a patched member of another gang in Australia, the Nomads, but sought to build ties to the Comancheros on his return to New Zealand.
Somehow his wife Yolanda (Mele) Tu'uheava survived and gave evidence at the trial.
Her husband was selling methamphetamine and his drug dealing led him to a meeting with associates of the Comancheros.
"I guess he admired them," she said.
"I noticed he was watching these videos of the Comos with their bikes, all these flash things that they had, so he was trying to find a way to get a hold of them."
Epalahame Tu'uheava took $63,000 to a meeting with a patched member, Viliami Taani, and two associates Fisilau Tapaevalu and Mesui Tufui. It was a set up.
The trio had been given the "green light to kill" by Comancheros leadership, the Crown alleged at trial.
This was because they believed Tu'uheava was "making money off the Como name and we're going to put him to sleep", Tufui told police.
The 28-year-old Epahalame was shot seven times: Twice in the arm, three times in the head, and twice in the back.
His wife was cowering on her knees, begging forgiveness.
She was shot twice in the arm, then twice in the head. She fell to the ground, playing dead.
Taani shot at her twice more, but missed.
"It is frankly a miracle she survived," said Justice Anne Hinton in sentencing Taani to serve a minimum of 17 years 6 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder.
Tapaevalu and Tufui were convicted of the same crimes by a jury after pleading not guilty.
'The perfect storm'
While gangs, firearms and violence are common in New Zealand, the ruthlessness of the slaying over a perceived slight to the reputation of the Australian interlopers was shocking.
The emergence of hardened gang members among the 501s, of which the Comancheros are the most visible so far, has led to an escalating evolution in the "quality and quantity" of those mixing in the criminal underworld in New Zealand.
Many of the gang members targeted by Morpheus for deportation are "office holders" in their respective clubs in Australia; presidents, vice-presidents, treasurers and sergeants-at-arms.
"These are influential positions," says Williams.
"They have bought their tradecraft, their international connections, use of encrypted devices with them. I think that's why we've seen quite a change in the gang scene in the last four to five years."
Like Wallace, Williams notes the "flashiness" of the new breed of gang member and how they market themselves to potential recruits on social media.
"It might look like a life of luxury but the reality for anyone who joins a group like the Comancheros is much different. It's a life of violence.
"And anyone who sees those photos on Instagram should be angry. Because we allege they're profiting from the misery of others."
In April this year, around a dozen patched Comancheros and associates - including a media personality, lawyer and accountant - were arrested following a covert police investigation.
Among those arrested was Pasilika Naufahu, the president of the New Zealand chapter.
Serious methamphetamine and money laundering charges were laid in Operation Nova , with around $4 million of assets restrained under the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act.
All of the accused have pleaded not guilty and are due to stand trial next September.
Gold-plated motorcycles, several late-model Range Rovers, a Rolls-Royce Wraith - which has a price tag of at least $500,000 - and two homes were among the assets seized.
As well as bringing a higher "quality", or calibre of criminality, the 501s have also escalated the quantity of members in existing local gangs.
There's now around 6500 gang members, according to police intelligence.
Williams believes there are two reasons for the noticeable surge.
To tap into New Zealand's lucrative, burgeoning methamphetamine market , and then strength in numbers to protect their turf from the Australian invaders. Or take someone else's territory.
Someone was recently shot at the Ellerslie pad of the Head Hunters, who were until recently the undisputed heavyweight champions of the gang scene in Auckland. Williams said this was unusual.
"New Zealand isn't a big place. Everyone was sharing the market, taking their slice of the pie. But we've seen gang numbers grow, arming up [with firearms], which shows that something has changed."
The arrival of the Australian gangs, or other deportees who "patched over" to existing New Zealand gangs, has "unquestionably" changed the local landscape says researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert.
"If you want a Petri dish to understand what's at the core of those issues, and what that means, it's the Comancheros," says Gilbert, who has written books about the history of New Zealand gangs and the deportation of Shane 'Kiwi' Martin .
"They are bold, a different culture, and seemingly not afraid of anybody. Without question, it's creating issues."
The last time New Zealand had experienced similar turmoil in the gang world was in the 1970s and 80s, says Gilbert, when "enormous" violence accompanied the jockeying for position.
"When all the smoke cleared, the country was in checkmate," says Gilbert.
"Nobody could move on the board because all the territory was divided up."
By the early 2000s, Gilbert says gangs were "moribund" with dropping membership and methamphetamine addiction "ripping apart" some groups.
Then the Rebels, Australia's largest motorcycle club, turned up around 2010 which Gilbert says "breathed new life" into the scene.
Chapters of the Rebels sprouted up like mushrooms around the country, says Gilbert, as existing gang members "patched over" to wear new colours.
Shortly after, the Bandidos and the Outlaws, two other international gangs, arrived to jostle for position.
Gilbert described them as "New Zealand franchises" where existing local gang members switched allegiances to new colours.
This period of dramatic growth coincided with the advent of the "501" deportees. To take the global business analogy further, Gilbert says international groups like the Comancheros "set up shop themselves", as opposed to the franchise model.
"It's the perfect storm in some ways. In a crowded room, someone invariably gets elbowed. When that happens in the gang scene, an elbow tends to escalate," says Gilbert.
"We've seen that before in the 70s and 80s. And we're seeing that now. The question is how far it goes."