Gangland: The inside story of how police took down the Comanchero gang

The Comancheros motorcycle gang from Australia flexed their muscles in photographs posted on Instagram which announced their arrival in New Zealand, in a move which upset the balance of power in the criminal underworld. In an exclusive extract from his new book Gangland: The Evolution of NZ’s Underworld, Herald reporter Jared Savage goes inside the covert investigation which brought about the downfall of gang’s hierarchy on money laundering and organised crime convictions.

We all know the stock scene from a thousand TV shows: a room full of cops, their shirtsleeves rolled up, gathered around a whiteboard with a single photograph pinned to it.

One of the detectives will say, “That’s all we’ve got to go on.” Maybe another one will say, “Let’s go to work.” And the cops will look at the face of the villain in the photo, and wonder where their investigation will lead …

In the summer of 2018, the Harlech House cop shop was quiet, close to empty, as National Organised Crime Group (NOCG) staff took annual leave over the Christmas and New Year break.

Detective Sergeant Damian Espinosa was tidying up paperwork from a Head Hunters meth operation when he was called into his boss’s office, where Detective Inspector Colin Parmenter showed him a single photograph.

The image of two men was literally all the police had to go on.

Most drug investigations begin with some intel from fizzes – criminal informants – or perhaps a drug importation picked up by a suspicious Customs officer at the border.

But this was a completely cold start. All police knew was the names of the two men featured in the photo.

The names of the Naufahu brothers, Pasilika and Vetekina, meant nothing to Espinosa.

The brothers were 501s, deported to New Zealand despite having lived in Sydney for nearly their whole lives.

Their frustration at being kicked out of their home had boiled over less than 24 hours after they stepped off the plane at Auckland International Airport. The brothers were soon embroiled in a drunken street fight outside a bar.

“I don’t want to be here. I’m forced to call this country home. I gave 27 years to Australia,” Pasilika Naufahu told a reporter from Television New Zealand.

“What can I say, the night just went bad. I apologise to all the staff members there and anyone who got hit.”

He went on to warn others deported from Australia under the tough immigration law that they could be forced into a life of crime.

But there wasn’t anything to say the brothers themselves might be committing crimes in New Zealand. Not yet.

The Naufahu brothers had been senior members of the Comanchero gang in Sydney.

Pasilika Naufahu had been the sergeant-at-arms, regarded by Sydney police as a larger-than-life character.

The guy was a gym junkie with huge arms; he also had acumen and a keen appreciation of business. He was among the new breed of Comancheros who had moved the gang forward from the bearded, scruffy white bikies of yesteryear.

He had been one of the earliest candidates considered by Strike Force Raptor in New South Wales for deportation under the new section 501 of the Australian Migration Act.

Police were desperate to rid Sydney of an influential gangster and he was the first of 14 Comancheros forcibly sent across the Ditch.

Operation Nova, the new investigation headed by Espinosa, was in no doubt that Pasilika Naufahu’s presence would lead to the setting up of a new Comancheros chapter in New Zealand.

He was a heavy hitter, charismatic and cocky, with a small band of reinforcements eager to live up to the Comanchero name.

That a chapter of Australia’s most dangerous motorcycle gang would establish itself in New Zealand was inevitable, and imminent. And while Operation Nova knew little about the Naufahu brothers, Espinosa and his team had read all about their brethren across the Tasman.

The turf wars, the firebombings, the shootings, the all-in brawl at Sydney Airport, the birth of Strike Force Raptor … Nobody was in any doubt that the arrival of the Aussies was bad news.

But no one could claim to foresee how quickly the Comancheros would change the gang scene.

Espinosa and his team of five detectives got to work.

They had only the photograph and some basic details, so they set about building an intelligence profile of Pasilika.

What was his daily routine? Where did he go? Who did he meet with? Who was in the Comancheros’ inner circle in New Zealand?

The Commos were a small, tight-knit group who kept to themselves and were constantly looking over their shoulders.

Their counter-surveillance techniques were like nothing Espinosa, a veteran of nine years in the drug squad, had ever seen before.

Every half-decent criminal knows not to talk business on the phone, but Pasilika and his friends communicated with one another using Ciphr devices with end-to-end encryption.

These sophisticated phones, which cost thousands to run each year, were well known in organised-crime circles overseas, but it was the first time they’d been seen in New Zealand.

While the covert surveillance was tricky, every now and again a piece of valuable intelligence fell into their laps.

A few hastily snapped photos of Pasilika Naufahu and five others wearing “Comanchero New Zealand” T-shirts cropped up on social media in February 2018.

The Instagram shots of six strapping Comancheros were soon to be made infamous in a Herald on Sunday scoop. It was clear that the 501s had now formed a local chapter.

Alongside Pasilika and Vetekina Naufahu was the tall figure of Tyson Daniels, who turned out to be the chapter’s vice president, as well as Pomare Pirini and Seiana Fakaosilea.

You could argue that Pirini was partly to blame for the fact that all of them were deported.

He had been one of the gang members brawling alongside Mick Hawi, the Comancheros’ Australian president, at Sydney Airport in 2009.

Pirini pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Anthony Zervas, the Hells Angel associate whose brutal death had triggered the setting up of Strike Force Raptor and eventually the creation of the 501 immigration clause.

Just 22 at the time, Pirini had been sentenced to six and a half years in prison, and came back to New Zealand a convicted killer.

Not long after the photograph of the New Zealand chapter was published online, Pirini’s old mate Mick Hawi was gunned down in his car in broad daylight by two masked men in Sydney.

It was the gangster’s circle of life.

The final figure in the Instagram post was a rather hefty fellow, sitting on a gold-plated Harley-Davidson on the left of the picture.

On the day the Herald on Sunday published its exclusive on the new gang chapter, a rather hefty fellow did a burnout on the rather distinctive Harley on the main street of Mount Maunganui.

The incredibly expensive bike was impounded, and its owner, Jarome Fonua, arrested.

He was the club treasurer, responsible for handling the finances. There was a lot of money floating around, too: a lifestyle of long lunches, gold bling and designer clothes.

Operation Nova’s picture of the Comanchero hierarchy was complete.

Unfamiliar faces kept popping up in the surveillance job, which the team scrambled to identify.

One of them belonged to Valovalo Peter Vaiusu, an associate of Pasilika Naufahu living in Sydney who was making regular trips across the Tasman to Auckland.

Returning from one of these trips in June 2018, the 34-year-old was dramatically arrested by Strike Force Raptor officers after stepping off the plane at Sydney Airport.

He was involved in a scuffle with police from the specialist unit, breaking free as he was being handcuffed to take a swing at a television camera crew, presumably tipped off about the arrest.

New South Wales police alleged Vaiusu was connected with a storage unit where suitcases of cash totalling AU$2.5 million, 13 firearms and several kilograms of cocaine and methamphetamine had been discovered.

Five of the illegal firearms were AR-15 semi-automatic rifles: the weapon of choice in mass shootings around the world, including the 15 March 2019 Christchurch terror attack.

Ongoing surveillance pulled up another new face: a “cleanskin”, as police call an individual without any criminal convictions. Having a friendly presentable face that can come and go without raising suspicion, a “cleanskin”, is useful for organised crime groups.

The real name of this particular cleanskin cannot be published for legal reasons, but let’s call him “Ronnie”.

Ronnie the Cleanskin had a brother based in Sydney – let’s call him “Reggie” – who travelled back and forth to Auckland frequently during the course of 2018.

The police theory was that the brothers were acting as a conduit between the Comancheros and their drug suppliers, arranging deals and handling cash on the gang’s behalf, which allowed gang members to keep their distance and keep their hands clean.

With limited surveillance resources at his disposal, Espinosa decided to keep a close eye on Ronnie and Reggie and see where the brothers would lead him and his team.

The tactic led to a lucky break. On 19 September, Nova detectives watched as Reggie– who’d flown in from Sydney the day before – had a rendezvous with a slightly built Asian man.

Sha He, a 33-year-old Sydney hairdresser, had flown into the country on 15 September and told Customs officers he was in New Zealand to visit friends and have a holiday.

Some holiday.

After making introductions and small talk, Sha and Reggie spent the rest of the day driving around Auckland.

The next day, Reggie picked Sha up in the same vehicle, a white Great Wall ute.

What they didn’t know was that just hours before, police had broken into the ute and planted a covert listening device that would capture all their conversation.

Blithely unaware, Reggie and Sha negotiated a deal throughout the afternoon for $1 million worth of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient to cook meth.

Pseudo was a surprise to police; it was a throwback to a different age in organised crime. Most groups had switched to bringing in ephedrine– which required one less step to convert into methamphetamine – or simply imported finished meth from South East Asia.

Sha was overheard speaking to someone on his phone in Mandarin, saying, “If you stand them up again … can’t stand them up, must do it today.”

Reggie and Sha each had “runners” on standby, waiting for the pseudoephedrine and cash so they could take it to the rendezvous point where the exchange would take place.

At about 3.50pm, the Comancheros’ runner, a patched member called Connor Clausen, arrived at the rendezvous point on the side of a busy road in Papakura carrying $1 million in a bag.

Sha had a quick look to inspect the cash, but soon afterwards received a message from his “boss”. No one was bringing the pseudoephedrine. The deal was dead, for now at least.

To the Operation Nova team, it didn’t matter that the transaction had fallen through. Nine months into the investigation, they now had concrete evidence implicating members of the Comancheros in a large-scale drug conspiracy.

A month later, another bit of good fortune. Ronnie the Cleanskin’s discipline slipped and he was caught talking on the wire, albeit in a guarded fashion.

The mystery caller on the other end of the line said: “You’re going to start off with a nice number with two zeros. I’m going to land it between you and me … [I’ll give you] all the fucken work you can handle. We’re going to land it there [in New Zealand].”

Translation? Police theorised the unknown caller was promising to send an amount of methamphetamine weighing at least 100kilos– “a nice number with two zeros”– and the two men agreed on the rather cheap wholesale price of $120,000 per kg.

The price per kilo had once been around $300,000, but had dropped markedly in the past few years.

Even so, the usual price was around $180,000; $120,000 was a bargain designed to undercut the competition.

“A nice number with two zeros” meant a huge amount of meth.

But “zero” also summed up exactly how much Espinosa and his team knew about the mystery individual making the deal: nothing, nada.

Yet again, a new face and name had cropped up in the investigation. They had no idea who had made the call – only where he was at the time: Mexico.

There were a few clues to follow up, though. Working with international partner agencies, Operation Nova soon identified the mystery man as Tallat Rahman.

He was a 60-year-old Fijian-Indian, with dual Fijian and Canadian citizenship, who lived in Suva and travelled regularly to Canada, the United States and Mexico.

There was lots of talk between Rahman and Ronnie the Cleanskin, but nothing came of the promised 100-plus-kilo shipment.

Everything went quiet – until Rahman flew into Auckland International Airport in December 2018, and checked into a hotel on Queen Street, the Four Points by Sheraton.

Three days later, Rahman’s son Joshua checked into the same hotel and met someone else who cannot be identified for legal reasons. Let’s call him “the Mexican”.

Two days before Christmas, Tallat Rahman departed New Zealand and left his son and the Mexican behind, but not before receiving a backpack full of cash.

The Mexican was waiting for a package to arrive in Auckland from the United States, but when the Mexican called the freight company to inquire as to its whereabouts, he was told the consignment hadn’t been cleared because of a missing tax invoice.

In actual fact, the consignment – a kitchen stovetop – had been seized by Customs and examined. There was nearly 5 kilos of methamphetamine inside.

The Mexican was overheard talking about previous methamphetamine imports, money they were owed, and the need to create professional-looking false invoices so future consignments wouldn’t be delayed.

Operation Nova heard every last detail of his chats, via a listening device hidden in their hotel room.

Two separate consignments from the United States– a waffle maker and coffee brewer – were stopped at the border by Customs in February 2019, with each piece of kitchen equipment containing 2.9 kilos of methamphetamine.

Customs let Tallat Rahman in, though, to be arrested together with the Mexican and a 33-year-old Chinese man named Wang Hui.

He was called “the Wire Guy” because he laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash via wire transfers overseas.

A search was also carried out at the home of Joshua Rahman in Suva in February. Fijian police discovered 39 kilos of cocaine at the property, presumably destined for the Australian and New Zealand markets.

The haul was worth about $20 million. Joshua Rahman was charged with unlawful possession of the drug and will stand trial in Fiji.

When brought in for questioning by police, Tallat Rahman lied through his teeth. He denied knowing Ronnie the Cleanskin and the Mexican, claiming to be in New Zealand
on holiday.

When told that an audio device had been covertly installed in the Mexican’s hotel room, Rahman said, “Oh, shit.”

Oh shit, indeed. Two months later, the second phase of Operation Nova wrapped up.

Among those arrested were gang president Pasilika Naufahu and vice president Tyson Daniels, who were charged alongside Vetekina Naufahu and Jarome Fonu with a variety of offences, including money laundering and participating in an organised criminal group.

Pasilika Naufahu and Connor Clausen were also charged with conspiracy to supply a Class B drug: the aborted pseudoephedrine deal.

Among the $4 million of assets seized in the raids under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 were the two gold-plated Harley-Davidsons the Comancheros had proudly displayed in their Instagram posts, as well as a Rolls-Royce Wraith valued at nearly $500,000.

A trio of late-model Range Rovers worth $150,000 each were also towed away on the back of a truck, and the homes of Naufahu and Daniels in the plush eastern Auckland suburbs were frozen by the High Court order as well.

If you’re making millions of dollars from drugs, you’ll need help to hide it.

Among those charged was a surprising name. Andrew Neill Simpson of Lynfield, 40 at the time of his arrest, was charged with 13 counts of money laundering. Occupation: lawyer.

“Follow the money” has been a mantra for law enforcement everywhere for decades.

While organised crime figures are able to distance themselves from illegal products through the use of lieutenants and foot soldiers, it’s far more difficult to disguise the fruits of their labour.

Money is, after all, the driving factor behind their criminal enterprises.

Since stronger measures came into force in 2018 under changes to the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act 2009, real-estate agents, accountants and lawyers have been required to report suspicious transactions.

Police have long been aware that white-collar professionals have often acted as “enablers” for organised crime– setting up trusts and accounts, moving money offshore, and purchasing assets in someone else’s name.

Now they had a lawyer caught dead to rights handling money for the Comancheros, and they were going to make an example of him.

Just like Sha He, the pseudoephedrine dealer, and Tallat Rahman, the meth importer, Operation Nova found Andrew Simpson by following Ronnie the Cleanskin.

He took them right to the door of Simpson’s law practice, at the Mount Roskill end of Dominion Rd.

No one who knew Simpson, a happily married father of five actively involved in his church and community, could fathom what had happened over several months in 2017 and 2018.

On 1 November 2017, Simpson had created the Kea Trust for Pasilika Naufahu and the Kiwi Trust for Tyson Daniels.

Cash deposits had then been made into the trust account of Simpson’s law firm, either by Simpson himself or by Ronnie the Cleanskin, nearly always under the $10,000 limit, which triggers a mandatory Suspicious Transaction Report by the bank to the police’s Financial Intelligence Unit.

There was also a transfer of $32,000 from Australia, deposited into the law firm’s trust account by Valovalo Peter Vaiusu, the alleged Sydney drug dealer linked to the storage unit containing the drugs and guns and $2.5 million in cash.

Between November 2017 and August 2018, associates of the Comancheros deposited a total of $1,269,067.10 into Simpson’s trust account. The lawyer then shifted different amounts into the Kea and Kiwi Trusts, or bought expensive property and vehicles on behalf of patched Comanchero members.

Simpson kept only $18,384.33 as payment for his services.

When police interviewed him after the termination of Operation Nova in April 2019, they could immediately tell he was no hardened criminal. Instead of exercising his right to silence, Simpson “coughed” and made some partial admissions.

Explaining his out-of-character deeds, Simpson told detectives he had become suspicious about the source of the funds after the second or third large cash deposit.

Ronnie the Cleanskin had assured him that everything was above board.

Well, not exactly above board, but Simpson was led to believe that the deposits were cash payments to a concreting business.

He assured police he thought he was helping his clients avoid tax, not launder drug money.

Their conversations about their shared Christian faith and love of basketball had pulled the wool over Simpson’s eyes.

It was only later, around November 2018, when Simpson searched the internet, that he realised his clients moved in Comanchero circles.

By then, it was too late.

His arrest in Operation Nova brought shame, but also a sense of relief. He pleaded guilty to the money-laundering charges and was sentenced in the High Court at Auckland in February 2020.

Standing next to him in the dock was Tyson Daniels.

What a couple. The 30-year-old Daniels was tall and strong, powerfully built across the chest and shoulders, his frame covered in a tight-fitting designer Versace top in his gang colours of black and gold.

The bespectacled 42-year-old Simpson, bookish and slender, wore a bland grey suit, blue shirt and tie. The vice president of the Commos drove a fleet of luxury sports cars. Simpson drove a seven-seater van to ferry his family around.

The two men had almost nothing in common – except that they were about to be sent to prison for laundering the vast profits creamed by the Comancheros through commercial scale drug importation and distribution.

“It is perplexing,” said Guyon Foley, Simpson’s lawyer, in trying to explain his client’s fall from grace to Justice Gerard van Bohemen.

Friends, family and clients wrote 20 letters of support for Simpson, all of them shocked and dismayed by his offending, which was labelled ‘completely out of character’.

Words like honourable, respectful, humble and patient were used to describe Simpson, who sometimes would not charge clients who couldn’t afford his services. If they needed help, he’d just do the work anyway.

“He was known as a good lawyer, an honest man, who consistently placed the interests of his clients ahead of his own,” said Foley. “He asks for mercy.”

The judge said there was little doubt that Simpson was “at least naïve and incredibly foolish”, but noted the disgraced lawyer’s own words that he had turned a blind eye to the source of the funds.

That was reckless, said Justice van Bohemen, and made the point that Simpson had used his skills, knowledge and membership of a professional body to set up the money-laundering scheme.

“You made it work… even when your suspicions were raised, you not only placed your personal gain above your duties as a lawyer but you risked bringing your profession into disrepute.”

At this point in the proceedings, it was clear that Simpson was going to prison. What kind of message would it send if a lawyer who’d laundered millions of dollars for criminals were to serve his sentence in home detention?

Even taking into account his early guilty plea, genuine remorse and previous good character, Simpson was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison.

“I deeply regret a father being separated from his young family… sadly, that is the consequence of your decisions, Mr Simpson.”

One of the clients whose interests Simpson had placed above his duties as a lawyer was the man next to him in the dock, Tyson Daniels.

It was a surprise when the senior Comanchero pleaded guilty to nine charges of money laundering, and one of participating in an organised criminal group.

He was recently married, and now a stepfather.

Perhaps it was because putting his hand up – and receiving a generous discount for the early admission – would mean he would be reunited with them faster.

The money-laundering offences related to Daniels’s purchase of an almost unbelievable swag of expensive vehicles.

There were four Range Rovers – with price tags of $175,000, $255,000, $218,000 and $280,000 respectively – a $200,000 Mercedes-Benz, a Lamborghini for $285,000, and two Rolls Royces that had respectively cost $364,000 and $595,000.

The entire fleet was seized in April 2019 when Operation Nova ended. Yet just one month after his arrest, Daniels arrogantly purchased another Mercedes-Benz for $215,000 while on bail.

The police grabbed that too, as well as the extra $247,000 cash found in his home. While Daniels faced no drug-dealing charges, Justice van Bohemen was under no illusions as to how he had afforded such a lavish lifestyle.

“You clearly knew that the money was derived from a significant drug importation and supply operation by the group of which you are a member and Vice President,” the High Court judge said, in sentencing Daniels to four years and eight months in prison.

“Your place in the Comancheros hierarchy means you were one of the directors of this serious offending, which exemplifies how organised criminal groups can obtain significant financial benefit from offending without putting themselves directly at risk.”

The remarks of the judge succinctly assessed the evolution of gangs and drugs in New Zealand over the past 20 years.

While Operation Nova started with just one photograph, another image sums up what organised crime in New Zealand is all about right now: a nerdy lawyer and a macho gangster standing side by side in the dock.

Edited extract from Gangland: New Zealand’s Underworld of Organised Crime
By Jared Savage
Publisher HarperCollins NZ
RRP $36.99
Out 2 December

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