Extraordinary surveillance footage helped to convict senior members of the motorcycle gang on drug charges in a High Court trial last year.
It was the moment detectives had been waiting for.
On a Thursday afternoon in September 2018, on a busy street in Manukau, a major drug deal was expected to unfold.
Watching from a distance, covertly filming, were officers from the National Organised Crime Group (NOCG). For nine months they had been conducting surveillance on the Comancheros, a motorcycle gang from Australia suspected of being major players in Auckland's criminal underworld.
That morning, the detectives running "Operation Nova" followed an associate of the Comancheros' president and a representative of a suspected Chinese drug supplier as they moved across the city, preparing what police officers expected would be a $1 million deal for chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
With a camera rolling and a microphone secretly planted in their vehicle, the officers watched as the pair arrived to meet a Comancheros representative on a road in Takanini.
To anyone driving past the white ute and grey VW Golf hatchback, it would've looked like an everyday scene — perhaps two motorists awkwardly checking for damage after a minor nose-to-tail prang. To the police surveillance team, however, it was potentially an enormous step forward in their long-running investigation into the Comancheros.
Their footage — obtained exclusively by the Herald — shows a slender man, dressed in dark pants and a zipped jacket, walking from the ute to the passenger-side window of the VW.
This was He Sha, referred to in the video as "Su'an", a hairdresser from Sydney. He was acting on behalf of a Chinese supplier of pseudoephedrine, a Class-B drug used as a precursor ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Waiting in the ute, in the driver's seat, was an alleged middleman with links to the Comancheros' leader Pasilika Naufahu, who was believed to be overseeing the business transaction on Naufahu's behalf. We have not named the intermediary for legal reasons.
The VW's passenger door opened and Connor Clausen, a member of the Comancheros, wearing a taut black T-shirt, emerged to open the hatchback's boot.
Sha was to check if Clausen had the cash before contacting one of his associates who would deliver several kilograms of pseudoephedrine, also known as "pink" on account of the colour of the granules.
The deal quickly started to unravel.
"Su'an, Su'an, hop in the car, look at it, verify, call the runner to come," the intermediary called out to Sha, according to the audio secretly recorded by the police.
"Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry up, Su'an!"
Sha appeared to lose his nerve, refusing to wait in the hatchback with Clausen for his associates to arrive with the supplies.
"Su'an, listen to my instructions!" said the intermediary, growing increasingly exasperated.
Sha returned to the white ute.
"May I make some calls?" he asked.
"Yes, come," said the intermediary. "They're ready, bro. Say come, you've seen the money, it's ready."
Sha phoned an associate in Sydney, telling them in Mandarin that the Comancheros were ready to make the deal: "We're here, your guy needs to come now." But the supply wasn't coming.
"What do you mean not coming?" Sha said to his contact. "We're here and waiting."
Clausen got back in the VW, and it drove away. The deal was off.
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The intermediary exhaled an expletive in frustration. But if the transaction was a bust for the Comancheros, to the watching police detectives it was a spectacular success.
It is incredibly rare to get the opportunity to observe a potential high-value exchange of drugs and cash, and capturing such evidence on camera would be compelling to a jury if a prosecution went to trial. Legally, it did not matter that the drugs and cash never actually exchanged hands.
For someone to be convicted of conspiracy to supply drugs, the transaction does not need to be completed — only that there was an agreement to do so. And now, finally, the officers behind Operation Nova had concrete evidence implicating senior figures of the Comancheros in a serious drug crime.
The Comancheros motorcycle gang was founded in Sydney in the 1960s and became prominent in New Zealand in recent years after 14 members were deported from Australia.
Operation Nova was launched because police were concerned the gang's connections to international organised crime groups, relatively sophisticated methods, and propensity to use firearms would give it outsized influence in New Zealand's criminal underworld.
Operation Nova continued gathering evidence for another seven months after the surveillance footage. The operation was terminated in April 2019, when most of the Comancheros' hierarchy were arrested and charged with money laundering and participating in an organised criminal group. More than $4 million worth of assets were seized.
Naufahu, the group's leader, was charged with importing a Class A drug, alleged to be either cocaine or methamphetamine, and conspiracy to supply a Class B drug in relation to the aborted pseudoephedrine deal.
In a High Court trial last September, a judge dismissed the Class A charge but the jury found Naufahu guilty on the Class B charge.
A video clip of the failed Takanini drug deal was one of the key pieces of evidence that the prosecution presented to the jury in that trial.
Naufahu was also convicted of two money laundering charges. He had earlier pleaded guilty to participating in an organised criminal group and money laundering in relation to a $1.3 million home and expensive cars. He has yet to be sentenced.
At the High Court trial, Clausen was also found guilty of conspiracy to supply a Class B drug. He separately pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a pistol. He was sentenced to 3 years and 8 months in prison.
He Sha separately pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply a Class B drug and was sentenced to three years in prison.
The intermediary has been charged with numerous methamphetamine offences including importing, conspiracy to supply, and supply of the Class A drug. He has pleaded not guilty and has not yet been to trial. The allegations against him remain unproven.
The intermediary came to the attention of Operation Nova in 2018 when officers were conducting surveillance on Naufahu and his lieutenants. Police alleged he acted as a conduit between the Comancheros and their drug suppliers, arranging deals and handling cash on the gang's behalf, allowing its members to keep their distance.
According to evidence given in the High Court trial, the intermediary flew into Auckland around midnight on September 18, 2018, and met Naufahu in Howick early the next morning.
The pair were observed in a cafe together, before driving to a park near Naufahu's home in Bucklands Beach. They talked at a picnic table for an hour and made calls on their mobile phones.
Police followed the intermediary around Auckland for the rest of that day. Around 6.30pm they observed him meeting Sha in Takanini. Like the intermediary, Sha had arrived in the country from Sydney only days before.
During the next few days, the pair drove around Auckland in a white ute trying to put together the huge pseudoephedrine purchase on Naufahu's behalf.
Detectives from Operation Nova secured a warrant from a High Court judge to place a covert listening device in the vehicle, recording their conversations as they planned the transaction, and filmed their movements.
Eventually, their efforts were rewarded when they observed the meeting with Clausen.
As the Crown Prosecutor David Johnstone put it in the trial against Naufahu, the covert footage provided a rare insight into the secretive operations of a potent new force in Auckland's violent, lucrative drug trade.