Undercover police officers paid $100,000 by Head Hunters to supply ephedrine, Class-B drug needed to manufacture methamphetamine. The drugs were later found with $10,000 in a bucket buried at the sand dunes of Papamoa beach.

A senior patched member of the Head Hunters who accrued more than $1 million in unexplained cash over a three-year period - the enormous profits of a drug-dealing network he controlled in the Bay of Plenty - has been sentenced to 12 years and 1 month in prison.

Stacy Walton Dennis Paora appeared in the High Court at Rotorua this morning after making eleventh hour admissions on the eve of his trial, more than three years after he was arrested in December 2016.

The Tauranga man pleaded guilty to participating in an organised criminal group, 11 counts of supplying methamphetamine, four counts of possessing the Class-A drug for supply, one charge of conspiring to deal in ephedrine, and one charge of unlawful possession of a pistol.

The gun was found hidden inside the false bottom of an LPG canister in a wardrobe in October 2019, along with $23,000 cash. Paora was on bail at the time.

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As well as facing an inevitable prison sentence, the 35-year-old forfeited property, cars, gold jewellery and cash seized under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act he accrued through his drug-dealing over several years.

A reconstruction of his financial affairs by the Waikato police asset recovery unit shows Paora had access to more than $1 million in unexplained cash between January 2014 and December 2016.

He boasted of making $10,000 a day, according to intercepted phone conversations, and lived a lavish lifestyle by hosting parties at penthouse apartments.

Senior patched Head Hunter Stacy Paora at his sentencing in the High Court at Rotorua. Photo / Andrew Warner
Senior patched Head Hunter Stacy Paora at his sentencing in the High Court at Rotorua. Photo / Andrew Warner
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The hearing began with powerful addresses by two of Paora's uncles, Wes Bowen and Wharehoka Wano, who spoke directly to their nephew and Justice Anne Hinton.

They spoke of the loving, loyal, strong and smart young man they knew, their dismay at the crimes Paora admitted, and urged him to use his time in prison to learn new skills and become the leader they needed him to be.

"I'm disappointed with the charges. I work in our tribal community and I've seen the havoc that methamphetamine wreaks among our people," said Wano, the chief executive of the Taranaki Iwi.

"You're a leader Stacy, and I need you to go through this journey and come back to be the leader of your generation."

Anna Pollett, the Crown Solicitor for Tauranga, said an aggravating feature of Paora's crimes was he was on bail at the time for different alleged offending.

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Those bail conditions were relaxed on compassionate grounds, in order for Paora to visit his ailing father in hospital. Instead, Paora attended Head Hunter 'church' meetings and running his drug syndicate.

"He was loyal to Head Hunters, over his whanau," said Pollett.

She said Paora had enjoyed the strong support of his family over many years, arguing any discount on his final sentence for becoming disconnected to his Maori culture or trauma he suffered should be limited.

"He chose gang life. He chose commercial drug offending. And he was leading that drug syndicate," said Pollett.

That's because he's a leader, said Justice Hinton. "He should be leading his iwi, instead of the blinking gang."

Barrister Ron Mansfield, Paora's lawyer, said his client was a loving husband and father, intelligent and polite, who had drifted into gang life but previously had only minor convictions.

It was too simplistic to say Paora chose the gang life over his family, said Mansfield, when it was clear he was also a dedicated family man as well as a gang member.

He said his client had drifted into alcohol and drug abuse after suffering a "personal trauma" of abuse at the hands of relative, which a report writer described as self-medication.

This anger led him down a path of joining the Head Hunters - whom Paora sees as an extension of his whanau, giving him a sense of belonging and success as a "warrior".

"The seed of that drift was the personal trauma...sadly, this court sees that time and time again, whether it's a victim or the offender," said Mansfield.

Paora supplied just over 500 grams of methamphetamine, a Class-A drug, and was in possession of around 2kg over a 13 month period.

In sentencing Paora to 12 years and 1 month years in prison, Justice Anne Hinton said it was "doubtless true" that he was motivated by profit in leading a methamphetamine syndicate.

But she was also persuaded the trauma he suffered as a teenager channelled him towards joining the gang, and subsequently into a "brutal and controlling" organised crime figure.

Justice Hinton set a starting point for Paora's sentence on the methamphetamine offences at 18 years, then increased it by 9 months for the firearm conviction.

She then reduced the final sentence to 12 years and 1 month on account of his guilty plea, features identified in the cultural report about his background, his remorse and the time he spent on restrictive bail conditions.

Finally, Justice Hinton did impose a minimum period of imprisonment (MPI) as sought by the Crown. Paora must serve 50 per cent of his sentence, or six years, before being eligible to seek early release on parole.

When an MPI is not ordered, an inmate can seek parole after serving 1/3 of the sentence.

"I acknowledge you have expressed an instinct to leave the gang, but have taken no concrete steps to do so."

Shortly after pleading guilty to the criminal charges in February, Paora agreed to stop fighting the police asset case and handed over a house in the Bay of Plenty township of Matata, a Mercedes Benz, a Chevrolet Impala and two trucks.

A late-model Harley Davidson motorcycle he owned cannot be found. The Crown will also receive the sale proceeds of a gold bracelet and necklace, as well as two gold rings.

Large sums of cash were also seized: $15,000, the $23,000 inside the LPG bottle, and $10,000 found with ephedrine (the main ingredient needed to manufacture meth) in a bucket buried in the Papamoa beach sand dunes.

On top of that, the police kept $100,000, which the Head Hunter crew paid two undercover police officers for the 1kg of ephedrine.

Some of the cash seized from the Head Hunters at the end of the undercover operation in December 2016. Photo / Supplied
Some of the cash seized from the Head Hunters at the end of the undercover operation in December 2016. Photo / Supplied

Paora was the principal target of a covert investigation by the Bay of Plenty organised crime unit, Operation Centurion led by Detective Sergeant John Wilson and Detective Sergeant Kevin Morshead, which started with a suspicious house fire in Whakatane in 2014.

The house burned down a few weeks after the patched Head Hunter moved in and, after a scene examination, Paora was charged with possession of equipment and materials to manufacture methamphetamine.

The charges were thrown out by a judge for lack of evidence, but the police kept investigating and obtained High Court warrants to allow them to intercept phone conversations and plant tracking devices on vehicles.

The investigation also focused on a freight forwarding business, Priority Movers, owned and operated by the gang member's partner.

The police suspected the business was a cover to launder money and also move drug shipments without suspicion. Their suspicion was confirmed by Paora himself.

Two undercover police officers twice hired Priority Movers to move freight between Tauranga and Auckland, implying they were shifting illicit goods.

Intrigued by the prospect of making new criminal connections, Paora said to one officer: "This is my business but it's a front. We don't give a f*** about moving stuff but I need to know what I'm moving."

The undercover officer inferred Paora was interested in a different sort of business deal.

A few weeks later, one of Paora's underlings approached the officer to talk about supplying "kilos", which the undercover agent took to mean methamphetamine.

This led to another meeting where a second Head Hunter associate said he was authorised to make decisions, while "our boss" - Paora - was "banged up". Paora was in custody on unrelated criminal charges.

He wanted a steady supply of "precursor ephedrine" of around 1kg a month, to manufacture methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine in snaplock bags ready for sale. Photo / Supplied
Methamphetamine in snaplock bags ready for sale. Photo / Supplied

Through Head Hunter associates, Paora reached a deal where the undercover officers supplied 1kg of ephedrine, a Class-B controlled drug, for $100,000.

In December 2016, when the undercover operation terminated, the police covertly dug up the ephedrine and $10,000 in a bucket buried in the sand dunes of Papamoa Beach.

Paora blamed one his Head Hunter prospects for the loss of drugs and cash, choking and beating him as a punishment.

The police also found the pistol hidden inside the LPG bottle. Paora's lawyer Mansfield explained Paora obtained the weapon, not to further his criminal offending, but to protect his family after a masked gunman tried to break into their home.

"Make no mistake, methamphetamine is a scourge, and peddling this misery is all about organised crime and making money," Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson said at the time of Paora's arrest.

"The damage that this drug does to our communities is immense, and operations like this one targeting those who would seek to make money from the addictions and misfortunes of others sends a clear signal that crime, in the end, does not pay."

The sentencing of Paora comes a few weeks ahead of father-and-son duo, Dick and Paul Tamai, who pleaded guilty to similar meth dealing in Rotorua.

The pair were earmarked to help establish a chapter of the Head Hunters in Rotorua but were also targeted in an undercover sting.

A senior patched member of the Head Hunters, Stacy Paora, was caught dealing meth in an undercover police operation. Photo / Brett Phibbs
A senior patched member of the Head Hunters, Stacy Paora, was caught dealing meth in an undercover police operation. Photo / Brett Phibbs