The man who allegedly spent years masterminding one of New Zealand’s largest drug importation syndicates while living a jet set lifestyle overseas will claim he is not the “Mr Big” the Crown claims.
Former Auckland man Xavier Valent, aka Harry Whitehead, is standing trial at the Auckland High Court on more than 100 Class A and B drugs charges and faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
A lawyer assisting Valent, who is representing himself, told the jury on Thursday the defence case will be that the Crown cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt he was the leader of the transnational drug ring.
Prosecutors say he was the mastermind of a sprawling syndicate that brought masses methamphetamine, ephedrine, MDMA and cocaine into New Zealand while extracting about $26 million of cash overseas via a corrupt money remitter.
Five alleged former accomplices of Valent, aged 34, are set to to turn Crown witnesses and give evidence in his trial.
It had a dramatic start on Wednesday when Valent declared from the dock that he wanted no part in proceedings.
“I refuse to participate in this trial,” he said.
“Should this trial proceed under the present circumstances I deem it a railroading and want no part in it.”
The jury was sent out for a brief time then called back to court, when Valent entered not guilty pleas to all charges.
Terrique Treasurer, whom the Crown says was for a time a key worker in the syndicate, is standing trial alongside his alleged former boss.
Over the next two days of the trial he remained quiet in the dock, listening attentively while pouring through the booklets containing thousands of pages of Crown evidence provided to the jury, prosecution and defence.
From time to time he would confer with the lawyers appointed as amicus curiae to assist him with legal matters as part of his self representation - Sumudu Thode and Nicholas Leader.
The opening remarks from Crown Prosecutor Fiona Culliney lasted from about noon Wednesday through all of Thursday.
Culliney painted a picture for the jury of Valent as an international drug mastermind pulling the strings of the syndicate from overseas, as he spent several years on the run from New Zealand police.
He fled New Zealand in 2016 as police and Customs closed in on his nascent operation, the Crown will allege.
The Crown is alleging Valent organised the importation of tonnes of drugs into New Zealand while extracting about $26 million via a corrupt money remitter in Auckland, much of it in bitcoin.
He allegedly travelled widely until he was arrested on an Interpol warrant at the Italian border in 2020 and extradited to New Zealand.
Part of the evidence the Crown will present to the jury is a postcard sent by a man prosecutors will say was Whitehead, from the Maldives, promising similar luxury and riches to one of the workers in the syndicate.
The postcard was signed “Don Yoza” - the Crown will say that was Valent referring to himself as a “Don” in the Mafia boss sense.
On Thursday morning, Valent and lawyers for Treasurer took the opportunity to briefly address the jury ahead of the first witnesses being called.
Justice Sally Fitzgerald told the jury they should read nothing into the lengthy Crown opening statements compared short comments from the defence, as this was the usual practice.
“Inevitably, they are much much shorter than the Crown’s opening address,” Justice Fitzgerald said.
Leader told the jury the opportunity for the defence to dispute the merits of the Crown case would come later in the trial, set down for six weeks.
The defence case is that Valent was not the person responsible for the offences alleged by the Crown.
“The essence of this case is identity,” Leader said.
“Mr Valent submits the Crown evidence cannot and will not satisfy you beyond reasonable doubt that he was the person leading this organisation.”
Ian Tucker, one of the lawyers representing Treasurer, urged the jury not to be overwhelmed by the evidence against Valent and therefore treat Treasurer as guilty by association.
“Mr Treasurer did not, and does not admit involvement in this offending,” Tucker said.
“The burden of proving these charges to the required standard remains with the Crown from whoa to go.”
After the defence opening, Detective Sergeant John Sowter took the stand as the first witness.
Sowter is a 40-year police veteran who joined the CIB in 1991 and the drug squad in 1998.
He is now part of the National Organised Crime Group as one of the senior detectives responsible for busting transnational organised crime rings.
The detective was the officer in charge of the operation that brought down the drug ring Valent is alleged to have created and ran.
Sowter, who is set to be called throughout the trial as the Crown interposes different witnesses while it builds its case, introduced the jury to the arcane world of illicit drugs.
He described the paranoia and violence that prevails in the drug scene.
Dealers are regularly stood over for their stash meaning they often arm themselves and store large quantities in safe houses, Sowter said.
“They get ripped off all the time,” he said.
“They’ll also arm themselves just to protect themselves from rip off.”
His evidence provided a glossary of code words used by dealers, forever fearful the police are listening in.
The coded language used in encrypted messaging apps refers to homemade meth as “local”, or “USA” for drugs imported from the states. “Round ones” are ounces while “keys” are kg.
Standard pricing for meth is $100 (sometimes $80) for a “point” meaning 1/10th of a gram of meth to the usual $120,000 to $180,000 range for a kg, Sowter said.
That dwarfs the $5000 a kg of meth can be bought for in some countries overseas, explaining the attractiveness of the Kiwi market for drug cartels, he said.
Foreshadowing later evidence from police and customs, Sowter said the case against Valent and Treasurer drew in part on electronic device interception warrants - wires - where police were able to listen into phone calls between various alleged players in the syndicate.
Detectives were also able to obtain messages sent via encrypted app Wickr after they seized cellphones of alleged syndicate members and handed them over to their digital forensics specialists.
Covert searches, where police moved into safe houses used by the syndicate, gathered evidence then left without alerting the suspects of their visit, will also form part of the Crown case, Sowter said.
Culliney’s opening address alleged Valent progressed from a relatively small time dealer, arrested and jailed for the supply LSD, MDMA and cocaine when barely 20, to a cartel boss thanks to connections made in prison.
While behind bars, he allegedly became close with a man who would go on to help him start importing drugs, starting with ephedrine that was sold to be used in methamphetamine production, Culliney said.
When the accomplice was jailed on unrelated matters he approached the man’s mother and brother, who agreed to provide addresses where he could have drugs delivered.
Customs caught wind of this alleged activity in 2016 and Valent fled the country, the Crown alleges.
Chief Customs officer Nigel Barnes was called as a witness on Friday where he discussed some of the covert surveillance used after Customs officials investigated the recipients of parcels in which drugs were concealed.
He said on one surveillance operation, a woman who was later arrested for her part in receiving the illicit packages was seen driving a rental vehicle hired in the name of Harry Whitehead - Valent’s former name - and using the address of the Howe St flat in central Auckland Valent allegedly abandoned when he fled the country.
Items from that flat belonging to Valent Whitehead were later found in storage lockers rented by people alleged to have been working for Valent, the Crown alleges.
The trial continues on Monday.