It was a small piece of evidence in the case against the Comancheros: a photograph of the motorcycle gang celebrating a birthday party on a charter boat.
Birthday boy Pasilika Naufahu, the gang’s president, was seated up front on the right, with the taller figure of Tyson Daniels, the vice president, beside him.
Other key figures of the Comancheros, a new force in Auckland’s underworld after members were deported from Australia, stand around Naufahu, smiling on the deck.
Crouching behind them, flashing a “C” hand signal is Connor Clausen.
The photograph was among the evidence used in the case against Clausen and Naufahu, who were found guilty of conspiracy to supply the Class B drug pseudoephedrine after a High Court trial last October.
Earlier this year, Clausen tried to get the conviction quashed in the Court of Appeal by arguing that key strands of the case against him – video and audio surveillance – were either inadmissible as “hearsay” evidence or did not prove his knowledge of any drug deal.
Clausen also argued there was no evidence to show he even knew his co-conspirators before he was filmed meeting them in an aborted drug deal on September 20, 2018.
However, the Court of Appeal, which released its ruling this week, was not persuaded the verdict was unreasonable – and said the jury were making inferences from each piece of evidence, including the social media post.
“There were, in our view, sufficient evidential strands that together provided a basis on which the jury could properly draw the inference that Mr Clausen knew what he was being asked to pay for, pick up and deliver,” wrote Justice Edwin Wylie.
On top of the visual and audio surveillance evidence, Justice Wylie said the jury saw a photograph of Clausen on a boat with other members of the Comanchero gang.
“Mr Clausen is crouching down. He is holding up his right hand and making a ‘C’ sign. One other person is making the same sign. Mr Naufahu is shown in the photograph. As we understand it, the photograph was taken on a vessel chartered to celebrate Mr Naufahu’s birthday.”
While the evidence against Clausen spanned only a few minutes, the Court of Appeal said he must have been privy to the arrangements in place for the sale and purchase of the drugs.
“The chain of command and the involvement of intermediaries indicated that there was a level of sophistication and organisation involved.
“The amount of money and the drug involved point to the fact that he must have been a reasonably trusted member of the purchasing organisation.”
The covert footage played at the trial – and obtained by the Herald – provided a rare insight into the secretive operations of a new force in Auckland’s violent, lucrative drug trade.
The police in Operation Nova bugged the conversations between He Sha and another intermediary, who cannot be named for legal reasons at present, in which they openly discussed the sale of $1 million worth of pseudoephedrine, a precursor drug used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Both men had flown to Auckland from Sydney, within a few days of each other in September 2018, and police surveillance followed the intermediary from his meeting with Pasilika Naufahu at a Howick cafe.
Sha was acting on behalf of the drug supplier in Australia, while the intermediary suggested the buyer was “the biggest gang in New Zealand”.
They drove together to a road in Takanini on September 20, 2018, where they expected someone to bring cash on behalf of the buyer at 3.45pm.
The plan was for Sha, referred to as Su’an in the video, to check the cash and once satisfied, call a “runner” to bring the pseudoephedrine.
At 3.53pm, a Volkswagen Golf pulled in and parked directly in front of the ute where Sha and the intermediary were waiting.
The VW’s passenger door opened and Connor Clausen, a member of the Comancheros, wearing a taut black T-shirt, emerged to open the hatchback’s boot.
The deal quickly started to unravel.
“Su’an, Su’an, hop in the car, look at it, verify, call the runner to come,” the intermediary called out to Sha, according to the audio secretly recorded by the police.
“Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry up, Su’an!”
Sha appeared to lose his nerve, refusing to wait in the hatchback with Clausen for his associates to arrive with the supplies.
“Su’an, listen to my instructions!” said the intermediary, growing increasingly exasperated.
Sha returned to the white ute.
“May I make some calls?” he asked.
“Yes, come,” said the intermediary. “They’re ready, bro. Say come, you’ve seen the money, it’s ready.”
Sha phoned an associate in Sydney, telling them in Mandarin that the Comancheros were ready to make the deal: “We’re here, your guy needs to come now.” But the supply wasn’t coming.
“What do you mean not coming?” Sha said to his contact. “We’re here and waiting.”
Clausen got back in the VW, and it drove away. The deal was off.
The intermediary exhaled an expletive in frustration.
But if the transaction was a bust for the Comancheros, to the watching police detectives it was a spectacular success.
It is incredibly rare to get the opportunity to observe a potential high-value exchange of drugs and cash, and capturing such evidence on camera would be compelling to a jury if a prosecution went to trial.
Legally, it did not matter that the drugs and cash never actually exchanged hands.
For someone to be convicted of conspiracy to supply drugs, the transaction does not need to be completed — only that there was an agreement to do so. And now, finally, the officers behind Operation Nova had concrete evidence implicating senior figures of the Comancheros in a serious drug crime.
He Sha pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply a Class B drug and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Naufahu and Clausen denied the charge but were found guilty following a High Court trial which ended last October. Naufahu was also convicted of two money laundering charges.
He had earlier pleaded guilty to participating in an organised criminal group and money laundering in relation to a $1.3 million home and expensive cars.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison while Clausen, who separately pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a pistol, was sentenced to 3 years and 8 months.
The Comancheros motorcycle gang was founded in Sydney in the 1960s and became prominent in New Zealand in recent years after 14 members were deported from Australia.
Operation Nova was launched because police were concerned the gang’s connections to international organised crime groups and sophisticated tradecraft would give it outsized influence in New Zealand’s criminal underworld.
The operation was terminated in April 2019, when most of the Comancheros’ hierarchy were arrested and charged with money laundering and participating in an organised criminal group. More than $4 million worth of assets were seized.
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