Operation Morepork busted a $4.2 million hydroponic cannabis growing operation in Rotorua, Taupō and Hamilton that has been described as "massive" and based on an "excellence model". The masterminds used bogus companies and stolen power to yield top quality cannabis that was being sold in bulk amounts. They were family men and workers with either no or little criminal backgrounds. Now they're in jail. Journalist Kelly Makiha reports.
They had a dream dangled before them.
They wanted out of their financial ruts and to give their families the things they didn't have growing up.
It was "just dope" and there are worse things out there.
Those are just some of the reasons a group of five men came together to build a massive commercial cannabis growing operation with the help of 13 others, considered "workers".
Their plan worked for nearly two years and they accumulated wealth and assets and their "business" grew.
But their dreams came crashing down when police busted the syndicate in August 2020 following a long surveillance period that revealed what they had been up to.
Clayton Grant, Joseph Horoparapa and Gareth Tabener - three of the five key players - have now been jailed for four years and six months after appearing in the Rotorua District Court on Thursday for sentencing.
Tony Herbert was jailed for five years in December and the fifth man, Macarthur Atkin, died not long after being charged.
Tamahou Wirihanga Ruffell, 28, was among the workers and sentenced on Thursday to three years and two months' jail.
Another worker, Andrew Donaldson, was jailed for three years and seven months in December and the remaining workers are yet to be sentenced. They are Tamihana Ruffell, 33, Jared Steven Wepa, 26, Andrew David Donaldson, 35, Tumanako Waaka, 22, Eddie Clarke, 42, Rima Selwyn, 21, Sharn Kelvin Mahuika, 21, Thomas Joseph Hoani, 28, Charles Frederick Poi Poi Te Whaarangi Riritahi, 30, Trent William Cochrane-Daniels, 30, Hamiora Mason, 29, and Jason Robinson, 29.
The three key players sentenced on Thursday pleaded guilty to three charges of cultivating cannabis, three charges of possession of equipment used for cultivating cannabis, three charges of theft of electricity and one charge of attempting to cultivate cannabis.
The syndicate used bogus companies as a front to move money and lease commercial premises.
They partnered with Unison foreman Duane Simon who tampered with wiring at their buildings to steal power, saving the offenders thousands of dollars but also helping to avoid suspicion.
The operation saw 4102 cannabis plants found inside buildings on View Rd and Riri St in Rotorua, Rakaunui Rd in Taupō and Te Rapa Rd and Bandon St in Hamilton. The plants would have given a total yield at maturity of 769lb (348kg), which would have a street value of $4.2m.
The syndicate was selling pounds of cannabis priced between $5000 and $6000 depending on the number of pounds they bought. One deal was worth $50,000 for 10lb (4.5kg).
When police suspicions grew, they tapped cell phones and got warrants to install surveillance devices to monitor the group's movements.
These included fixed cameras installed at three commercial properties being used by the offenders.
The syndicate grew, dealt and sold for several months while police watched to work out the key players and associates.
Police described the setup as "elaborate". Each tent had dedicated lighting, ventilation and nutrient feeding systems. The equipment in the View Rd operation alone was valued at more than $30,000.
At sentencing, Judge Greg Hollister-Jones described the set up as "massive" and of an "industrial scale based on an excellence model".
Clayton Grant was working 70 hours a week, had a partner and two small children and was struggling to get by.
Then a dream was dangled in front of him and he took it.
Now he's serving a prison sentence of four years and six months.
His long-term partner and mother of their children, aged 6 and 3, cried in the public gallery of the court when Judge Hollister-Jones handed down the sentence.
The 27-year-old's lawyer, Moana Dorset, pleaded with the judge for a "hefty" discount given Grant had gone to great lengths to rehabilitate himself, had no relevant previous convictions and was an intelligent and hard-working family man.
In a cultural report presented to the court, Grant said he saw the syndicate as a way of giving his children a good future - something he never had as a child.
Grant said in the report he had a "dream dangled in front of me" and took it. When he realised the scale of the operation, he felt he was "in way too deep" to pull out.
To Joseph Horoparapa, his cannabis-growing syndicate was like the family he never had.
His lawyer, Scott Mills, described Horoparapa as a family man with three children to his long-term partner who wanted to give them things he didn't have as a child.
"It was an operation that grew beyond the intentions of the offenders," Mills said.
When it started to get out of control, Horoparapa "didn't want to leave the boys".
Horoparapa, 30, has had issues with alcohol, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse but he had a strong work ethic and was a positive role model for his children.
Mills said Horoparapa was trying to do the best for his family.
Judge Hollister-Jones noted there was a common thread with why Horoparapa and the others joined the syndicate.
Judge Hollister-Jones declined Mill's application to have the sentencing adjourned while he completed one of his rehabilitation courses, saying he could catch up on the course when he was paroled.
Gareth Tabener has never been convicted before and figured what he was doing was "only dope and there's worse stuff out there".
His lawyer, Tim Braithwaite, said since Tabener's arrest, he had taken a good look at his life and realised it was a big mistake.
The 42-year-old is a father of five who has his father living with him.
His sister is the partner of Macarthur Atkins, who died after his arrest, and his death had left a big impact on Tabener's life.
Braithwaite said the family had already lost Atkins and he asked for Tabener's prison sentence to be as short as possible for the sake of his grieving sister.
Judge Hollister-Jones said Tabener had found it hard to pass up being involved in the syndicate.
"You got involved because you were stuck in a rut financially and it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. You got involved to benefit your family."