Simon Bridges reviews a true-crime story of P in NZ by the Herald’s ace reporter Jared Savage
I began prosecuting methamphetamine cases in the early 2000s as a young Tauranga Crown prosecutor. Meth was a class B drug back then – and a train that New Zealand should and could have stopped.
I first met journalist Jared Savage during that time and have gotten to know him relatively well. While I’m of no use to him today as a parliamentary backbencher, prior to Parliament I was a “source” when he was an up and coming journo at the Herald on Sunday. Occasionally, I’d let him know about something quirky or serious going down in the Bay of Plenty court system. Today, of course, he’s our country’s leading crime journalist.
His book Gangland: New Zealand’s underworld of organised crime is a series of rip-snorting yarns about gangs, drugs, fancy cars, wads of cash, violence, and guns – Aotearoa New Zealand style. The scale and intensity of all these things grows exponentially, chapter by chapter, as time marches on.
Like most of the stories in the book, chapter three, Granite, Skull and Rocky: an Execution in Tauranga, tells a tale better suited for a Netflix mini-series, save that it’s true. The short, unembellished version, which I will never forget as long as I live, is of drug dealers’ falling out. ‘Granite’ Adams was invited up to Brett Ashby’s substantial home in rural Tauranga and was shot in the head point-blank by Ashby in the garage, rolled in carpet, and taken under the cover of night to Taupo where Ashby and another dug a hole using the killer’s earthmover, put the body in before dousing it in petrol and burning it, then covering it with soil.
Police never would have solved this missing persons case but for the painstaking detective work from Detective Sergeant Greg Turner (aka ‘Turbo”’) and his team. Their netherworld contacts led to a lucky break and an informant, or “fizz”, who was ready to talk. This, with the offer of a big reward for information, and then the talking by ‘Skull’ Cullen who was with Ashby (the killer) when the deed was done, were crucial in solving the case.
Cullen literally led police to the exact spot of the scant remains of the deceased. Basic detective work from there proved that Ashby had swiped in and out of his earthmoving business late one night and had stopped on the way back to Tauranga at a petrol station for Janola bleach, a box of Just Juice, a packet of Holiday cigarettes, two V energy drinks, Dettol disinfectant and a packet of bacon. After a big evening Ashby was hungry and had a home garage to clean up.
This is where I come in. As Cullen decided whether to spill the beans to police, I provided legal advice to police as it all unfolded. When the case went to court I was very involved and remember well the preliminary hearings over bail and the like that I conducted against the late great criminal barrister, Greg King.
In the end, Ashby never went to actual trial for the murder of Adams or for methamphetamine manufacturing. Liver cancer got the better of him.
The story of that cold-blooded murder is told thoroughly and dramatically – qualities which mark Ganglands as an easy to read page-turner, perfectly timed as a true-crime read these holidays. It’s destined to make Jared Savage some money, albeit nothing remotely comparable to the drug dealers he writes about.
His book traces the history of P in NZ. As Savage states, organised crime, largely by gangs, was small beer in the 1970s and 80s. It wasn’t until methamphetamine came along in the mid-1990s, with the extraordinary dollars attached, that gangs took off, becoming the terrifying subject matter detailed here. Meth made our gangs, more than the other way around, it seems to me.
Early on, Savage describes for us the exhilarating joy that users find in methamphetamine: “The science of consuming P is that when the methamphetamine hits the brain, it stimulates the reward centre, releasing dopamine in an intense rush that lasts around a minute. The heart races, breathing quickens, the body sweats or shivers. An extended high follows, for as long as eight hours, during which users feel energised, invincible, attractive and very, very awake. This intensely pleasurable rush is a joy that users wish would last forever. They want to do it all over again, and again. They want it more than anything. They will do anything to get it.”
Each chapter deals with some bad guys (gangs), some good guys (police), and how a crime of massive seriousness is solved. But as these graphic, gripping true stories are being told, wider ones are also being woven in, and they feature recurring gang members and police officers, and even a few members of the political rabble who have shaped and dominated this scene for both ill and good. We also build up a clear picture of the evolution of organised crime and drugs from the 1990s until 2020. From small beer to big time.
Initial chapters move from the emergence of P in New Zealand in the mid-1990s through gangs like the Hell’s Angels and Highway 61, to the rise and rise of the Head Hunters. Before meth, the Head Hunters were “only in the middle of the underworld pecking order”, but muscled their way, literally, to taking control of gangland in our country. The gang teamed up with Asian organised crime and the really big importation began. As the author notes in one case, there’s a “diminutive Asian man and the large Maori with facial tattoos, tooling around together in a late-model BMW… a good illustration of how organised crime in New Zealand had evolved.”
From the early to mid-2000s police began busting some of these bigger operations with record methamphetamine hauls that grew and grew from under 100 kilos to many hundreds by the end of the book. As you’d expect, the piles of cash (sometimes into the many, many millions) also grow commensurately. You get the sense that our constabulary never get on top of the criminals. Some are caught, but too quickly more take their place, so no vacuum is created. Over the course of the decades covered, the multiple busts have virtually no effect on the street price and availability of P.
Incidentally, the Asians in the stories of the book are often caught by their over enthusiastic penchant for gambling, commonly as VIP regulars at Sky City. One Kingpin, Van Thanh “Peter” Tran, whose main legitimate income was the unemployment benefit, went through a mind-altering $67m in gambling at Sky City over a small number of years (just enough to buy one house in Herne Bay these days).
But eventually even the Head Hunters, for a time renowned for their bling and violence, are surpassed. Godfather-like crime figures like ‘Little Dave’ O’Carroll and William ‘Bird’ Hines, who re-emerge in chapter after chapter, are caught and imprisoned by painstaking and, in the finish, dramatic detective work.
The next power players come with “a brash Aussie twang”. Generally speaking, the new breed are Polynesian but with thick Aussie accents. The era of the Australians takes us right up to today.
The Australians are sometimes 501s, deported for their criminal behaviour as Comancheros, Bandidos or Mongols from the country of their upbringing. While even more ruthless than what had been the norm in NZ they mark a stylistic change from the past, as “Nike Bikies” who “wore designer clothes and jewellery, spent hours in the gym honing their physiques, and had attractive girlfriends hanging off their muscular and heavily tattooed arms.”
The Comancheros announced their arrival shamelessly on Instagram in 2018. The photo was of six of them behind customised, gold plated Harleys in their tight tops, gold chains and designer sunglasses and watches. As for the caption, “… Fuck Peter Dutton. But you made this possible #lol.”
In this modern era, we see more violent chaos: “The emergence of new Australian gangs with a take-no-prisoners mentality, coupled with the sharp intake of new recruits in local gangs, many brimming with the brash confidence of youth, meant the precarious state of peace in the gang scene was over. Alongside the huge spike in the gang population, police noticed the proliferation of pistols and semi-automatic firearms, which were being seized in routine searches on an almost daily basis. And to swing the balance of power, gang members weren’t afraid to use them.”
To illustrate this point, Savage details the work of the first New Zealand chapter of the Mongol Nation, set up in the Bay of Plenty in 2019. It didn’t take long that year and they were involved in gang warfare involving cars being torched, setting fire to a barbers shop in Greerton Village, Tauranga, and unprecedented street warfare early this year involving semi-automatic weapons. It was a miracle that people, including innocent civilians, weren’t killed by this fighting over market share in the illegal drugs trade.
It’s what we would expect to see in the Bronx or the Middle East, not provincial New Zealand. As Savage writes, “This is suburban Tauranga, not Kings Cross in Sydney. It’s crazy stuff… I can’t help wonder if the madness will ever end. With so much at stake, no doubt there’s much, much more to come.”
I remember this very well. It was in the middle of a political campaign against gangs I was waging then as Leader of the Opposition. My phone was lighting up with texts from constituents telling me in real time about the gun fire. I knew gangs were a big issue but this, as they say, was next level.
The cops are portrayed as good, salt of the earth, types in this book; over-worked and under resourced, and unsung heroes. This is largely right in my view. We also see the broader framework they are working within. The agencies and acronyms they work under are changed (from AMCOS to OFCANZ for example) by the powers that be, while the honest coppers simply seek to get on with catching the bad guys. We also learn about their evolving techniques and surveillance and interception technologies which must keep changing as the crims become wise to them and change what they do as a result.
Above the police hierarchy, we also see the broader public policy changes over the years, as politicians and bureaucrats play catch up with the gangs. We see methamphetamine move from a class B to A drug and pseudoephedrine become class C. Higher sentences followed, all a result of Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Government. We see pseudoephedrine banned, a good move against drug dealers, but a bad one for flu sufferers, by a new PM, John Key. These and other lesser profile moves saw the importation and the methods of cooking the stuff change, meaning meth was still getting to the streets.
Some of the policy changes to affect us happened on the other side of the Tasman. Section 501 of the Australian Migration Act has already been mentioned. The other initiative of note was the Strike Force Raptor squad in New South Wales. Mentioned a number of times in the book, it was set up as an elite police gangs unit to proactively “look for trouble, whether the alleged breach of the law was criminal or otherwise. Nothing was too big or small.” When tied in with s501, this outfit made life increasingly difficult for patched gangs, drove down crime, and drove it out of town to our country.
This leads to one more synchronicity between Jared Savage and myself. Jared unwittingly gave me the idea that gave birth to me notoriously seeking to bring Strike Force Raptor to our country when I was National Party leader. I emphasise he has no direct responsibility for this, it was simply his neutral description of the renowned unit in a Herald piece that I read that set me on a train of thought about how we could subdue gangs over here with the same regime.
Savage is more or less scrupulous in not revealing his view whether gangs are wholly bad or have some positive, warm and cuddly attributes, and also whether tough on crime or Kumbaya (ok, ok, neutrally described as a more rehabilitative and restorative approach) is better. Of course, there is something of value in both sides of these debates.
He does note that while some gangs were peddling every vice there is, the Waikato Mongrel Mob Kingdom chapter and a public adversary of mine, leader Sonny Fatu, were “hosting community events, establishing a separate all-female chapter, and guarding a Hamilton mosque after the 15 March 2019 Christchurch terror attacks”. They were forging a new Kaupapa. While police and I were sceptical it was all a PR ploy, Savage infers that given Sonny’s chapter had gone a bit soft, his own brother and nephew left the chapter for the meaner Comancheros.
Another ongoing jousting partner of mine over the years, the marvellous John Campbell, interviewed Josh Masters, charismatic head of South Auckland gang, the Killer Beez, way back in 2008. It was, as Savage notes, a “somewhat soft interview.” He writes, “With remarkable sangfroid, Masters earnestly rejected any suggestion that those wanting to join the Killer Beez must commit an act of violence saying he was disgusted by those acts.’ He also rebuffed any rumours of drug dealing. ‘We’re against it, we hate it… I give you my word. No drugs.’” As Savage says, Masters gave a “masterclass in presenting an innocent front.”
The problem was this was all lies. Police Operation Leo had intercepted over 100,000 phone calls and texts, and the termination of the operation saw Masters arrested, which was the ultimate right of reply to the cuddly Campbell interview. The Killer Beez tried to portray themselves as modern day Robin Hoods. But in simple terms Operation Leo showed them as drug dealers who caused destruction and chaos in our community.
I draw a moral lesson from this John Campbell vignette that Savage may not necessarily have. But in the end, perhaps we can all agree that there is sometimes disingenuous PR played out by the gangs and some gangs are worse offenders than others.
In the epilogue to Gangland some value judgments are given and they are hard to disagree with whether you’re Jarrod Gilbert or yours truly. First, the threats of corruption and of firearms are now upon us in a way they just haven’t been before. Largely, we can thank the Aussies for these problems and Constable Matthew Hunt’s death in West Auckland earlier this year is a tragic reminder of the gun issue we now face.
Second, the authorities such as police and customs have their finger in the dyke when the dam has already burst. We can’t arrest our way out of this now. End users need help with addiction, not jail. This is a supply and demand issue and if all the time is just spent tackling supply, well, good luck with that: “Counselling and rehab centres are jam-packed, and their waiting lists are long. In July, the government promised an extra $20 million in funding for regional treatment programs across the country, but it’s a drop in the ocean. Those in frontline social and health services say much more is needed – and urgently – to curb the seemingly insatiable appetite for methamphetamine.”
In Tauranga where I am focused, there are ridiculously few rehabilitation beds. I say that with modesty as it’s a plague on all our political houses. Now is not the time to suddenly go soft on the gangs and dealers who peddle the misery of methamphetamine, but it is the time to move on stemming demand with the same passion and vigour.
Gangland: New Zealand’s underworld of organised crime by Jared Savage (HarperCollins, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.