Two Waikato men who were part of an international plot to smuggle "unprecedented" amounts of drugs into New Zealand have been sentenced to prison.
Three massive drug shipments, two weighing at least 500kg of methamphetamine and 625kg of cocaine, never reached the country. One was intercepted by overseas law enforcement, one is believed to have sank in a storm, the other for reasons unknown.
But Raynor Denton and Peta Evan Taukiri pleaded guilty to three charges of conspiracy to import the Class-A drugs, as well as participating in an organised criminal group, following a long-running covert police investigation called Operation Van.
The pair appeared in the Hamilton District Court this morning for a sentencing hearing in front of Judge Simon Menzies.
Crown Solicitor Jacinda Hamilton said both men played leading roles in a series of ongoing conspiracies to import "unprecedented" quantities of Class A drugs, in which they were promised a share of up to $1 million.
She said Denton and Taukiri made "concerted efforts" between June 2016 and May 2018 including meeting the head of the organised crime group, who lived overseas, and communicating with encrypted Blackberry phones which police cannot intercept.
They also purchased boats worth $100,000 and travelled out to sea to record GPS coordinates, where the group planned to meet the shipments of drugs sent to New Zealand.
"You could never call these defendants patsies," Hamilton said.
Despite the best efforts of Denton and Taukiri, the ongoing two-year conspiracy to import three huge drug shipments failed only for reasons beyond their control.
The maximum penalty for conspiracy to import Class A drugs is 14 years' imprisonment.
If the planned imports had been successful, the defendants would have been facing far longer prison sentences as the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
Taukiri and Denton were motivated by greed, said Hamilton. They were promised a fee of $500,000 for the 500kg methamphetamine shipments, which increased to $1 million for the 625kg of cocaine.
"They were prepared to shoulder significant risk for huge gain," said Hamilton.
Roger Laybourn and Thomas Sutcliffe, defence lawyers for Taukiri and Denton respectively, asked the judge to reduce their clients' prison time on account of their early guilty pleas, trauma in their dysfunctional childhoods, and genuine remorse.
Taukiri also offered to pay a $100,000 donation to the Salvation Army in recognition of the charity's drug rehabilitation programme.
"He has to look his whanau in the eye," said Laybourn. "He's a good man who has done a very stupid thing."
In sentencing Taukiri to two years and six months in prison, and Denton to three years, Judge Menzies said the pair had succumbed to the temptation of fast money.
The judge said Denton was recruited to the international criminal organisation in June 2016, and in turn recruited Taukiri for a mission.
The pair took a charter boat out on the Kawhia Harbour as part of the plan to import the first shipment of methamphetamine.
The purpose of the trip was for Denton and Taukiri to confirm their capability in navigating the boat at sea.
In July 2016, the pair attended a meeting in Te Awamutu where they were given $10,000 to travel to Thailand.
The following month, Denton and Taukiri went to Thailand where they met other members of the criminal syndicate including the person responsible for supplying the drugs, as well as a crew member of the boat bringing it to New Zealand.
The first shipment never came. In November 2016, the group was contacted about another shipment of methamphetamine and made preparations for its arrival. But the boat was intercepted by overseas law enforcement. Each consignment weighed more than 500kg.
Plans for a third shipment, this time 625kg of cocaine, were made in August 2017. A new shipping route was planned to come by the Cook Islands, and be smuggled through the Bay of Plenty.
Again, the shipment never came. Judge Menzies said the boat, the crew, and its illicit contents were believed to be lost at sea.
After the third failed attempt, Denton and Taukiri left the organised criminal group but kept the boats they had purchased and upgraded.
"The importation and distribution of such quantities of drugs into the community would have had a devastating impact, and you knew that to be the case."