Why a judge dismissed a Class A drug conspiracy charge against Comancheros boss Pasilika Naufahu

He was a lay preacher, a former soldier in the New Zealand army and a “clean skin” without a parking ticket, let alone a criminal conviction.

The 51-year-old was also the chink in the armour of the Comancheros which the police, in Operation Nova, exploited to unravel the senior hierarchy of the Australian motorcycle gang which established a chapter in New Zealand after influential members were deported here.

The Fijian national, who cannot yet be identified publicly, was also the only connection between the Comancheros and an alleged plan to smuggle drugs from Mexico, either methamphetamine or cocaine, which the police claimed was sent by the feared Sinaloa cartel.

Pasilika Naufahu, the Comancheros president, was charged with conspiracy to import a Class A drug, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and was the most serious offence he faced at a High Court trial in September last year.

He had pleaded guilty to various money laundering charges, as well as participating in an organised criminal group, but denied the Class A charge and another of conspiracy to supply pseudoephedrine, a Class B drug.

But a High Court judge dismissed the Class A drug conspiracy charge and for the first time, the Herald on Sunday can reveal the reason why.

The charge relied entirely on the evidence of the “clean skin”, who can be referred to as D, who was seen meeting with Naufahu by Operation Nova surveillance crews during 2018.

Naufahu was the main target in the covert investigation after being deported to New Zealand on “character grounds”, among the thousands of so-called “501s” sent back here under controversial changes to Australia’s immigration laws.

He established the original chapter of Comancheros in New Zealand, who were a tight-knit group and surveillance-savvy, using encrypted messaging apps or devices to communicate, which the police could not intercept.

Instead, the police reverted to time-consuming physical surveillance of Naufahu, who was seen meeting regularly with D at a park in Bucklands Beach in east Auckland.

The police started following D who took them to the door of an Auckland lawyer, Andrew Simpson, whom they later learned had set up various trusts for Naufahu and other Comancheros.

D was visiting bank ATMs to deposit cash into the trust account of Simpson’s law firm – always under the $10,000 limit which triggers a suspicious transaction report to police – which added up to nearly $1.3 million.

Simpson then shifted the money into the various Comanchero trusts, or directly to real estate agents or car dealerships to buy property or luxury vehicles on their behalf, disguising the true source of the dirty funds.

It was a classic example of “follow the money”.

D had been introduced to Naufahu by his half-brother, S, who lived in Sydney.

S also introduced D to another man, Tallat Rahman, a 60-year-old Fijian Indian who travelled regularly to the United States and Mexico.

Operation Nova managed to intercept some conversations between Rahman and D, where Rahman 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 f***en work you can handle. We’re going to land it there [in New Zealand].”

The working theory was Rahman was promising to send at least 100kg of drugs– “a nice number with two zeros”– although nothing ever came of the large shipment.

Other smaller shipments of methamphetamine were smuggled into New Zealand, hidden inside kitchen appliances, with some addressed to D’s address in Karaka.

Rahman and D were arrested in February 2019, along with a 20-year-old Mexican man linked to the Sinaloa cartel, while Fijian police found 39kg of cocaine at the Suva home of Rahman’s son Joshua.

Two months later, Operation Nova came knocking on the doors of Pasilika Naufahu and other senior Comancheros, who were charged with various offences in relation to money laundering and participating in an organised criminal group.

Naufahu was also charged with conspiracy to import a Class A drug.

D eventually pleaded guilty to importing a Class A drug four times, as well as supplying methamphetamine, although seven money laundering offences were dropped.

He agreed, however, to give a written statement to the police. It was his evidence that the police relied on to tie Naufahu to a plot to smuggle drugs from Mexico into New Zealand with Tallat Rahman.

D told the jury at the High Court trial in September 2020 that he was trapped into following the orders of his half-brother S and Rahman. This was because he destroyed a suitcase of drugs in Fiji, instead of taking the luggage to New Zealand or Australia.

“It’s either my life, or my wife and daughter’s life, I had to co-operate,” D told the court.

“From there, I’m at their mercy.”

In trying to ingratiate himself with them, D promised to find a steady buyer in New Zealand and at his brother’s behest, asked Pasilika Naufahu if he was interested.

Naufahu was willing to pay between $120,000 to $130,000 per kilogram of meth, according to Vuisevuraki’s evidence at the High Court trial, and he passed the offer back to Rahman.

This was nothing but a self-serving lie, said Ron Mansfield, QC, the high-profile criminal lawyer representing the Comancheros president.

While accepting that D was helping launder Naufahu’s dirty cash, Mansfield accused D of giving the police what they wanted – evidence tying his client to drug smuggling – in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

“That’s not the motive at all sir, you’ve totally got it wrong, sir, because my true motive is I need to tell my side of the story,” D protested.

“I need to bring everything out so I could wash my hands clean, you know? I love this nation. I served with the New Zealand Army for over 10 years. I signed my allegiance to the New Zealand flag … I’ve never even had a parking ticket.”

The jury never had the chance to decide which story to believe. The charge of Naufahu being in a conspiracy to import Class A drugs was thrown out by the trial judge, Justice Graham Lang, at the conclusion of the Crown case.

At best, the judge said D’s evidence showed Naufahu was prepared to pay $120,000 a kilogram.

“I see this as an expression of willingness to purchase rather than to be involved in any importation,” said Justice Lang, in a previously unreported judgment.

“The importation was to be arranged solely by Mr Rahman and his associates without input or assistance from Mr Naufahu.”

However, Justice Lang declined to dismiss the conspiracy to supply a Class B drug pseudoephedrine, from a botched $1m deal caught on surveillance video, as he considered there was significant evidence to convict Naufahu.

So did the jury who found him guilty, along with Connor Clausen, a patched Comanchero caught on the surveillance video, who was acting on Naufahu’s orders.

The jury also found Naufahu guilty of two counts of money laundering, on top of the four money laundering charges and participating in an organised criminal group that he admitted ahead of the trial.

In sentencing Naufahu in February 2021 to 10 years in prison, Justice Lang said the pseudoephedrine conviction provided a useful insight into the modus operandi of the Comancheros as a unit.

“It demonstrates that to some extent you were involved in drug dealing activity that you conducted from a distance using intermediaries and agents to minimise the risk of the offending being detected,” said Justice Lang.

“In my view there is no other realistic reason why you and other members of the group would ultimately be the persons who stood to benefit from the proceeds of drug dealing activity.

“You were the President of the Comanchero organisation and, as such, you were in a position of influence to direct the activities of the organised criminal group. You also received the direct benefit of a significantly greater proportion of the laundered funds than did other members of the organisation.”

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