Ninety Mile Beach meth trial: The bizarre story behind NZ's biggest drugs bust

2019-06-11 05:29:37

The 500kg meth importing trial has all the hallmarks of a great crime novel: codenames, a bungled boat launch, a second boat bought with a shoebox of cash, international players meeting a 'big boat' offshore and a chance find of a campervan full of drugs.

But as the account was relayed in the High Court in Whangārei, the jury decided Stevie Cullen and Selaima Fakaosilea were guilty of importing methamphetamine and participating in an organised criminal group.

The verdict came after a six-week trial, where the jury of eight women and four men heard from nearly 50 witnesses.

But such a long trial was not unusual given the charges related to the country's largest ever meth bust, with police seizing a total of 501kg of the Class A drug.

On June 12, 2016, police in Far North seized 449kg of methamphetamine from a campervan, driven by a 19-year-old known as Witness X, who became the Crown's key witness. A further 52kg of meth was found by police the following day, buried in sand dunes on Ninety Mile Beach.

If sold in 1kg lots, the 501kg of meth would be worth between $130 million and $150 million.

Six people already pleaded guilty to their roles in the importation.

The end of the trial wraps up a three-year investigation by the police's National Organised Crime Group, which involved working backwards from the seizure to unravel the operation.

Kaitaia policemen Sergeant Kevin Anderson and Detective Constable Thomas Nankivell received praise from then-prime minister John Key, plus police commissioner's commendations for their professionalism and commitment leading to the seizure, which remains the largest in New Zealand history.

Both defence counsels admitted the case was unusual and bizarre.

Maria Pecotic, defence counsel for Fakaoselia, said the execution of the meth importing operation was "bungled and sloppy".

"It was not well planned and not well organised."


​Codenames played a key part in the trial, with the Crown saying Cullen went by the codename Marvel and Fakaosilea was known as Blaze.

Other key players in the organised criminal group had codenames like Mack, Thugga, Gravel and Tall Guy, which were used throughout the trial instead of the offenders real names - Malachi Tuilotolava, Jermiah Iusitini, Amoki Fonua and Ulakai Fakaosilea respectively.

The Crown's key witness - Witness X - who was known by the codename Louis, had his identity suppressed. Strict security, including the banning of cellphones, ensured members of the public in the courtroom would not be able to spread photos of the witness.


The criminal group's poor seamanship skills and inability to launch a boat at Ninety Mile Beach raised the suspicions of locals in the area and helped lead police to the operation.

Witness X told the court the plan was to launch a small boat at Shipwreck Bay, at the base of Ninety Mile Beach on the Far North's west coast.

This small boat, with two "Chinamen" on board, was to rendezvous with a big boat out at sea, picking up 500kg of methamphetamine and dropping off supplies of food, petrol and water, he said.

But the first attempt to launch the boat, a fibreglass Bayliner, was unsuccessful in the large swells.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to launch the boat, which suffered damage in the process.

The boat's trailer got bogged in the sand and its tyres blew, and the tractor pulling the trailer out also got bogged. Passers-by helped drag the tractor and trailer out.


To further raise suspicions of Ninety Mile Beach locals, the group returned from Auckland with a brand new rigid-hull inflatable assault boat.

The $98,000 boat was bought with cash from Family Boats in Auckland's East Tamaki on June 11 2016, presented in a plastic shoe box in $20 notes.

Police found the new boat abandoned at Hukatere on Ninety Mile Beach the next day with cut bags inside, helping lead to the seizure.


The criminal group included an international element with Witness X saying two "Chinamen" were in command of the inflatable boat that would rendezvous with a "big boat" out at sea.

GPS tracing showed the boat was launched at Ahipara, at the base of Ninety Mile Beach, and went approximately 12km out to sea in a straight line before the GPS was turned off.

Ka Yip Wan was convicted of importing methamphetamine but another man Chin Chan Tsai, a Taiwanese national, was still wanted by police in relation to the operation.

Detective Sergeant Michael Beal, who was in charge of the police operation through his role with the police's National Organised Crime Group, said Tsai left New Zealand a matter of hours after the shipment had been landed at Ninety Mile Beach and could not be found.


The police's meth bust on June 12 2016 happened almost by chance, when Detective Constable Thomas Nankivell spotted a suspicious campervan while driving home from work.

He was able to verify through licence plates that it was the vehicle police were after, and pulled it over near Totara North, in the Far North.

The campervan was full of 449kg of methamphetamine driven by Witness X, who was meant to be driving to Taipa Beach but did not know where to go.

"I pulled over and the police officer came around to the door and I thought 'it's all over' from there," Witness X told the court.

Witness X said he was thinking of his children at the time, and agreed to help police with their investigation because "it was the right thing to do".

Cullen and Fakaosilea have been remanded in custody to appear in the High Court in Whangārei for sentencing on July 12.

Fakaosilea has already pleaded guilty to charges of supplying methamphetamine and cocaine, both Class A drugs, in September and November 2016.

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