Rotorua-based drug bust: Bogus companies, leased premises, stolen power and 19 offenders

The masterminds behind an elaborate $4.2 million Rotorua-based cannabis growing operation set up bogus companies and leased buildings to grow premium crops that supplied drug dealers in bulk.

The drug syndicate partnered with a Unison foreman who tampered with wiring at their leased buildings to steal power, saving the offenders thousands of dollars but also helping to avoid suspicion.

Details of the sophisticated indoor cannabis growing operation can now be revealed after court documents were released to the Rotorua Daily Post Weekend.

The operation saw 4102 cannabis plants found inside the commercial premises leased by the offenders in Rotorua, Taupō and Hamilton. Police estimate the plants would have given a total yield at maturity of 769 pounds, which would have a street value of $4.2m.

Four men have admitted their role in being the masterminds behind the operation and a fifth man, who had earlier pleaded not guilty, died recently.

Joseph Horopaera, Gareth Tabener, Clayton Grant and Tony Herbert are to be sentenced on December 6 on a range of charges including stealing electricity valued at more than $1000, possessing equipment to cultivate cannabis, cultivating cannabis and participating in an organised criminal group. The fifth man was Macarthur Atkins, 30.

Duane Simon, 42, who was the Unison foreman who re-routed the wiring inside the buildings, will also be sentenced on December 6 after admitting charges of stealing power and conspiring to sell cannabis.

Thirteen others, who were considered the workers, also faced a range of charges including cultivating cannabis and unlawful possession of firearms.

They are 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, Tamahou Wirihanga Ruffell, 28, Tamihana Ruffell, 33, Hamiora Mason, 29, and Jason Robinson, 29.

All of the offenders are from Rotorua except the Ruffells, who are from Auckland. Sentencing has been set down for December 7 and 8 for the other offenders.

The police summary of facts said good quality indoor-grown cannabis fetched a premium.

The syndicate was selling pounds of cannabis priced between $5000 and $6000 depending on the number of pounds they bought.

One deal outlined in the summary was worth $50,000 for 10 pounds.

Police began investigating the syndicate in January last year and soon discovered it was accumulating wealth and assets.

Police 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 went about their growing, dealing and selling for several months while police watched to work out the key players and associates.

The operation was busted by police on August 19 last year.

It involved indoor cannabis growing operations in leased buildings on View Rd and Riri St in Rotorua, Rakaunui Rd in Taupō and Te Rapa Rd and Bandon St in Hamilton.

Between February 2019 and November 2019, the main offenders established three companies in an attempt to show a legitimate means of income, the summary said.

The companies included BOP Automotive Ltd, which purported to be an automotive repair shop specialising in customising Harley Davidson motorcycles at 55 Pururu St in Rotorua.

Another was Royale Vegas Escorts Ltd which purported to provide motorcycles and custom cars or functions and special events – also operating out of Pururu St – and the third was Central Bay Firewood Ltd, operating out of Rakaunui Rd in Taupō

During the police investigation, a large amount of cash went through the bank accounts of the businesses, including $382,000 for BOP Automotive and $213,000 for Central Bay Firewood account.

The summary said the firewood businesses did advertise a firewood service but surveillance only picked up three and a half trailer loads of firewood leaving the yard.

The majority of the cash deposited into the bank accounts was from the sale of cannabis.

Inside the leased buildings police found growing tents containing thousands of cannabis plants at various stages of propagation.

Police described the setup as “elaborate”. Each tent had dedicated lighting, ventilation and nutrient feeding systems. There was an extensive wiring network inside the buildings supplying electricity to large switchboards known as light management units.

There were numerous fans and each tent had a large carbon filter that filtered the air being expelled from the tents.

The equipment in the View Rd operation was valued at more than $30,000.

The summary said the offenders often commuted to Taupō in vans and would spend the morning working inside the warehouses tending to their plants.

As part of the operation, police carried out a covert search of one of the Rakaunui Rd premises in Taupō and found an estimated 500 cannabis plants being grown inside 26 tents.

In the following days, surveilling police watched as they harvested the cannabis inside the premises and then dismantled the equipment.

When police did their raids on August 19, the Rakaunui Rd premises was found almost empty but Horopapera, Hoani, Cochrane-Daniels, Rititahi, Selwyn, Clarke and Waaka were found inside the other Rakaunui Rd premises in the process of harvesting mature cannabis plants.

The Te Rapa Rd premises in Hamilton had wiring tampered with to bypass electricity but there was no cannabis growing equipment inside.

An extensive cannabis growing operation was found at Bandon St.

The role of the Unison worker

Duane Simon worked for Unison for 10 years, working his way up the company to become a line mechanic foreperson.

The 42-year-old’s job meant he managed a crew of line mechanics and had a company car and access to the company computer, which provided him with information such as where the power is fed for individual properties.

Police surveillance picked up Simon having phone calls with the offenders involved in the growing operation.

The phone calls between Atkins and Simon revealed the two parties arranging for Simon to modify the electrical wiring at the Riri St premises in Rotorua and the two Hamilton premises.

Simon had already modified the wiring at the two Taupō premises and the View Rd building to steal power.

The summary said Simon used his expert knowledge, specialist skills and privileges from working at Unison to help the offenders cultivate cannabis.

Simon tapped into the electricity supply lines at the various commercial buildings and installed new cables to deliver electricity into the buildings that bypassed the electricity meters.

The summary said this was mainly done to save money but also avoid suspicion from the electricity providers about hefty electricity accounts.

Simon also used his role at Unison to buy at a discounted rate electrical items and materials such as cabling and fuses which were used in the buildings.

In return for his work, he was promised at least $25,000 cash. There was no evidence to confirm whether the money was paid

A police summary of facts said it was unclear how much power was stolen but given the scale of the offending, it could “easily be described as significant”.

The summary said at the Riri St premises alone, based on six weeks during cannabis cultivating, $9668.74 worth of power was consumed but only $175.98 was billed by Contact Energy.

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