One of the Kiwis arrested in Europe as part of an alleged global drug syndicate controlled by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang was among the first methamphetamine cooks in New Zealand 20 years ago.
Marc Patrick Johnson and Michael Murray Matthews, both New Zealand citizens, were arrested in Romania last week along with the president of the Bucharest chapter of the Hells Angels.
The pair were caught in a sting operation in dramatic footage captured on a drone-mounted thermal image camera.
The Romanian police allege Johnson and Matthews were arrested “immediately after negotiating the payment of a quantity of cocaine… to be transmitted to New Zealand”.
Two luxury cars and 12 motorcycles were seized in the raids, along with US$200,000 cash, a “lethal weapon”, and 100g of cocaine.
The raids came after the United States Drug Enforcement Administration requested help from the Romanian authorities to investigate an organised criminal group “responsible for obtaining significant amounts of cocaine and methamphetamine in the United States and other states and the distribution of these drugs within the European Union and New Zealand”.
The Bucharest Court of Appeal has ruled that Murray and Johnson are to be remanded in custody for 30 days and will decide in December whether the pair will be extradited to the United States to face charges.
Police National Headquarters have not commented on whether any members or associates of the Hells Angels have been arrested in New Zealand.
Court documents and parole board decisions obtained by the Herald show Matthews is a patched member of the Hells Angels in Auckland.
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But Johnson, in particular, has a long and chequered past in New Zealand’s drug trade.
With a university degree in chemistry and years of experience working in laboratories in the United Kingdom, Johnson returned to New Zealand and started an event lighting business in the nightclub scene.
His drug addiction intertwined with his business interests, leading to bankruptcy. So Johnson put his chemistry skills to work in the difficult art of manufacturing methamphetamine, a relatively new and extremely popular drug.
Johnson was among the first meth “cooks” to hone his skills in the lucrative new trade, as underworld figures and gang members soon became rich off the profits.
He was convicted in two separate trials in 2001 of attempting to manufacture and conspiring to manufacture meth, which was then only a Class B drug. He was sentenced to 3 and 3½ years in prison.
“What saddens me is that you are a person of intellect and ability, and you have displayed a commitment in obtaining your qualifications,” the sentencing judge told Johnson.
“It is a matter for you, but let me say this to you, there is no future in being involved in the manufacture of drugs. All that will happen to you is that you will spend a lifetime in prison and you will know that all those individuals who consistently become involved in the narcotic scene, whether by way of manufacture, supply or importation, eventually end up by serving very, very lengthy terms of imprisonment. It would be sad to see a person of your talents and ability endup like that.”
The negative social effects of methamphetamine were belatedly recognised by Parliament in 2003 when the stimulant was reclassified to a Class A drug, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
By this stage, methamphetamine was now entrenched as the drug of choice in New Zealand. And it seems Johnson was unable to shake his own addiction issues.
Only a few years passed before he was back before the courts, jailed in 2007 for 1 year and 9 months for possession of equipment to manufacture methamphetamine.
The following year, the now 42-year-old Johnson was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture and supply the Class A drug in a Nelson drug ring.
“You describe yourself as living ‘week by week’ and being ‘lost in a maze of meth’, and on a ‘downhill run; at the time of your offending,” Justice Lynton Stevens told Johnson in 2008.
“You state that you are ‘appalled with the whole thing’. And so you should be, because this is a nefarious drug, the effects of which are pernicious, not just for you, but for the whole of society.”
Justice Stevens said he would give Johnson “one last chance” on account of his early guilty pleas, and attempts to turn his life around, and so gave a generous sentence of 2 years 10 months.
Four years later, Johnson was arrested for running a laboratory making a different sort of drug altogether, gamma-butyrolactone or GBL.
Better known as fantasy, the Class-B drug is popular in the United Kingdom nightclub scene where GBL had a more sinister nickname – “coma in a bottle” – as a so-called “date rape” drug.
Due to its liquid form, GBL can easily be slipped into someone’s drink to make them an easier, stupefied target for sexual assault.
The now 47-year-old Johnson was convicted of making GBL and sent to prison yet again, this time for 4 years and 3 months.
He was released by the Parole Board in 2015 and the three-person panel urged Johnson to “use the intelligence he undoubtedly has”.
With dual British citizenship, Johnson told the Parole Board he wanted to complete a fluid engineering course in the United Kingdom in order to become a “mud doctor” in the drilling industry.
Johnson was “determined to not return to prison”, noted the Parole Board.
Five years later, he now faces the prospect of lengthy prison sentences in either Romania or the United States, if convicted of the cocaine trafficking charges laid in the DEA sting on the Hells Angels.
The relationship between New Zealand police and the DEA has strengthened in recent years, with officials from the US agency posted in branch offices in Wellington and Auckland.
The DEA is perhaps best known in this part of the world through the Netflix hit Narcos, which delved into the life and crimes of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, and more recently the prosecution of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Likely to receive a life sentence on drug trafficking convictions, “El Chapo” was the leader of the Mexican cartel Sinaloa as the organised crime group rose to power globally.
Attracted to the relatively small market of New Zealand because of the high prices for drugs, the Mexican cartels are believed to be smuggling methamphetamine and cocaine into the country.
The link to the Hells Angels motorcycle gang is also significant.
The Auckland chapter of the Hells Angels, established in 1961, was the first to be officially sanctioned outside of the United States. Since then, the Hells Angels have become a truly international gang with chapters around the globe.
Members of the gang in New Zealand were believed to be the first to manufacture methamphetamine, according to police intelligence, having been taught by their United States brethren.
Some were found guilty of meth manufacture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, although very few members of the senior hierarchy have been convicted in the decades since.
The Angels have kept a low profile in recent years but have expanded across New Zealand, as international gangs such as the Comancheros and the Mongols established a presence through members being deported as “501s” from Australia.
In particular, the arrival of the Mongols – traditionally bitter enemies in the United States – has ruffled feathers in the criminal underworld. Members of the “Quake City” chapter of the Hells Angels in Christchurch “patched over” to the Mongols last year and the defection triggered tit-for-tat arsons at properties linked to the gangs.
The number of gang members in New Zealand grew by 50 per cent between 2016 and 2019 to more than 7000 individuals.
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