A British man has been jailed for his role in assisting an international organised criminal syndicate which imported about 200kg of meth into New Zealand.
James Edward Woodley was arrested on August 4 last year as he attempted to flee New Zealand for Bali. He'd been apprehended as part of a major multi-national drug investigation by the National Organised Crime Group, code-named Operation Essex.
He later pleaded guilty to one charge of possession of methamphetamine for supply and today Woodley, who is in his early 50s, was sentenced in the High Court at Auckland by Justice Paul Davison.
Woodley arrived in Auckland on May 20 last year from Bangkok via Bali.
He told Customs officers he was in the country for a 28-day visit and planned to meet a friend for a trip around the South Island. He said he was to leave in June for Australia.
But, as Justice Davison explained, Woodley's lies were later revealed and his reason for visiting New Zealand was to provide financial and logistical support for an international crime syndicate importing drugs.
After making his way into Auckland, Woodley stayed at a central city hotel and would help assist a fellow British man from Thailand and another Brit, Ashley Kevin James Cooper, by hiring a rental car and making and extending hotel bookings.
On one occasion Woodley was observed to be in possession with "wads of cash", the court heard.
The case then moved across the ditch and on July 29, Queensland police executed a search warrant, uncovering 766kg of MDMA.
The MDMA powder was considered the highest purity ever recorded in Queensland and police there believed it was destined for production into pill and capsule form to be sold across Australia at a conservative value of $90 million.
Queensland police said the drug would have been diluted with other agents and had the potential to make between six and 12 million capsules.
Cooper was arrested as part of that operation.
He had been communicating with Woodley using an encrypted communication system and code words, the court heard.
Court documents viewed by the Herald show Woodley used the code-name "Fat Boy Slim" and Cooper was called "Flat earth" in messages exchanged between the pair.
Back in New Zealand, the National Organised Crime Group then raided a central Auckland apartment and found a wardrobe full of cardboard packing boxes.
In those were plastic storage containers filled with some 194kg of crystal meth. It was estimated that the drugs were worth $27m on the NZ market but could cause $239m of social harm, Justice Davison said.
It was one of New Zealand's largest drug seizures.
A second British man was found at the apartment and has been charged with possession of methamphetamine for supply. He denies the single charge he faces and is due to stand trial later this year.
At the time of the arrests last August, police estimated a $144m street value. Justice Davison said today in any case it was a "very significant quantity".
He said Woodley, who was recruited by the syndicate in England, had involved himself for some quick cash and "clearly had no concern whatsoever for the many people's lives and families which would be seriously harmed and in many cases destroyed" by the drugs.
The judge said the Brit's offending was a "heartless and calculated exploitation of the vulnerable people".
He said those responsible for importing meth, described by New Zealand's courts as a scourge on our society, can expect nothing less than a stern response and lengthy stint in prison.
Justice Davison jailed Woodley for nine years and seven months, which will be served with a minimum period of imprisonment of 50 per cent. He will be deported at the conclusion of his sentence.
Woodley's lawyer, Ron Mansfield, said his client was "the most unlikely person to get caught up in this type of activity".
"He's lived a rather ordinary life," the barrister said. "He's not someone who has moved in the underground and been involved in criminal offending and worked his way up to this role."
He said a family tragedy and subsequent substance abuse had seen Woodley, who had no previous history of criminality, lured into the world of organised crime by those far more sophisticated.
His client, Mansfield said, had been paid a fee of A$15,000 to help with the drug importation but had no knowledge of the amount or what the drugs were.
Detective Inspector Paul Newman has said Operation Essex's seizure will come as a blow to the meth market in this country.
"Wastewater analysis indicates New Zealanders are using about 16kg of methamphetamine a week. The quantity seized then is equivalent to four months of national methamphetamine consumption," he said.
"New Zealand is being targeted by overseas criminal networks looking to exploit our families and communities for their own gain. This quantity of methamphetamine would have caused an extraordinary amount of harm and we would have all suffered as a result."
Along with NZ's National Organised Crime Group, the global investigation also involved the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, New South Wales Police Force, Australian Federal Police, Australian Border Force, the UK's Department of Home Affairs Intelligence Division and the UK National Crime Agency (NCA).
Mark Bishop, the head of Asia and Pacific Region at the NCA, has said the operation targeted a British criminal network, where the majority of the suspects resided in the UK.
"Organised crime transcends borders, so it is important we work internationally to tackle it," he said.
"With our Five Eyes partners, which include Australia and New Zealand, we have an active burden sharing arrangement and real time intelligence and capability sharing through the international liaison officer network, and are always ready to catch British organised criminals that pose a threat to the UK and elsewhere."