Just 24 hours. That was the time lag between Heta Ropitini's release from prison on methamphetamine dealing charges and him getting back in touch with his underworld contacts. Six days later, he was dealing again and between January 27 and August 7, 2015, sold methamphetamine with a wholesale value of $73,720 on the streets of Rotorua.
A year long Fairfax NZ investigation, which has included court visits, access to numerous court documents and interviews with the police officer involved, has shone a light on the dark underbelly of New Zealand's methamphetamine business. It's a story that includes a court escape, almost $90,000 worth of drugs sold in little over six months, the discovery of methamphetamine lab equipment and firearms. It's ended with jail terms of 17 years shared across five offenders.
The central figure in the five-strong operation was Adam Kohunui, a senior patched Black Power member and wholesale supplier of Methamphetamine, described in court documents as "the central and dominant figure in a group of persons involved in the ongoing retail sale of methamphetamine".
A police investigation that commenced in June 2015 revealed that alongside his partner Sena Lockwood, Kohunui ran a syndicate of three street dealers - Ropitini, Ruth Wheeler and Slade Elliott.
Court documents revealed a simple business model. "Kohunui would supply the dealers with the methamphetamine in gram lots, for $700 per gram. The dealers would then break these amounts down into smaller quantities and sell these amounts off for a higher price, hence creating a profit".
Detective Sergeant Mark Van Kempen, who oversaw the operation that shut down the syndicate, said Kohunui ran a "tight ship". "He used quite aggressive tactics with his street dealers to make sure that any money made was passed on, and no product lost. They didn't blow half up their noses," he said. "He ran quite a tight ship in that regard. He was very forceful, very clear in his directions".
Return to dealing no surprise
Amazingly, Van Kempen said the speed of Ropitini's return to dealing was no surprise. He said when a dealer is busted, and drugs confiscated, it's often incumbent on them to repay the drug 'debt' to dealers further up the supply chain. "How they repay that debt is getting back into drug dealing." "It comes back to the fact they are responsible for the product. If we bust them and get their product they have incurred a debt and that has to be repaid, and that won't be through legitimate means." Van Kempen said the syndicate was targeted as part of wider moves to disrupt gang activity, and the operation involved numerous surveillance techniques, including phone taps.
Court documents also revealed that a search of Kohunui and Lockwood's home address and a storage unit uncovered two shotguns, lab equipment and precursor chemicals for methamphetamine manufacture, ammunition and an assortment of gang patches.
The paperwork also reveals the amounts of methamphetamine Kohunui supplied. As well as the $73,720 to Ropitini, Elliott was supplied with drugs with a wholesale value of $5,410 and Wheeler $8,700. Police conceded too that these estimates were likely on the conservative side as they relate only to intercepted messages and not face to face meetings held between Kohunui and his dealers.
At his sentencing on June 24 this year, Ropitini claimed gang threats of violence against him and his family prompted his return to dealing, an explanation that failed to convince Judge Christopher McGuire. Citing probation reports McGuire said Ropitini was "more entrenched in the gang illegal activities that you are willing to admit". Sentencing Ropitini to two years and 11 months imprisonment, McGuire also had a warning. "You are 35 years old. You may have been quite a hard dude in the gang. I do not know, but what I am absolutely positive and sure about is, it is going to be all downhill from here because these young guys coming up through the ranks are going to be younger, stronger, more powerful than you and that is going to mean it will be all bad for you," he said.
McGuire also sentenced Kohunui to six years imprisonment on February 24 this year. The charges included supply of methamphetamine, possession of precursor substances to manufacture methamphetamine, possession of equipment to make methamphetamine, possession of firearms, possession of ammunition. "You have chosen for yourself the life that you have been leading with your deep involvement with the Mangu Kaha/Black Power and, in part anyway, that has resulted in you being before the Court today facing a significant period of imprisonment," McGuire said.
Prison sentences were also handed down to Wheeler (three years eight months) and Elliott (two years, seven months). Lockwood, Kohunui's partner, was the only member of the syndicate not sentenced to prison, receiving 12 months home detention instead.
Van Kempen said the arrests and imprisonment of Kohunui and his dealers has dealt a blow to Rotorua's drugs underworld, but he's realistic. "The supply and distribution of methamphetamine in Rotorua continues," he said. "Demand remains. It is frustrating but it's a fact of life. Methamphetamine is an epidemic and we have to keep investigating and trying to deal to these groups".
As far as escape plans go it was unsophisticated - but effective. It was September 23, 2015 and Heta Ropitini was in the holding cells at Rotorua District Court. He was remanded in custody to reappear for a bail hearing on September 25 and awaiting transport to the Rotorua Police Custody Hub later that day.
Court documents spell out the ease with which he was able to abscond. "While he was waiting in the Court cells, he obtained the name and date of birth of another prisoner who was waiting to be released on Court bail. When this person's name was called by Police staff to sign his Court bail papers and be released on bail, Ropitini answered claiming to be this person," the document said. "Ropitini was taken out of the holding cell and signed the bail papers in the name of the prisoner who the Court had given bail to. He was also given the property of this person. Once the bail papers were signed and property returned, Ropitini was released."
While no mention is made in the court papers as to the method of persuasion Ropitini used, a source close to the case claimed it was a simple stand over. Ropitini was rearrested by Police at approximately 6am the following day. He even referred to the escape himself at a pre-trial hearing on November 9, addressing Judge Tony Snell directly. "Judge, I didn't escape," he said. "How can I have escaped when they let me out?"
4 October 2016
Photo: FAIRFAX NZ