It was October 2019 when rugby league legend Manu Vatuvei – two years after retiring from his starring role with the Warriors and just months after winning Dancing With the Stars – appeared in a much more private video with his older brother.
The two were filming the unpackaging of hair ties and other hair accessories, or so it initially seemed. They “then sort through the packages before removing nine packets of methamphetamine concealed in cardboard packaging”, authorities said in court documents released on Wednesday after Vatuvei pleaded guilty to importation of the Class A drug.
Vatuvei, 35, and his brother, Lopini Lautau Mafi, 48, are set to be sentenced together in December.
Each brother has pleaded guilty to a single representative charge carrying a maximum possible sentence of life in prison.
The package that day, from India, was one of many that found their way to New Zealand from destinations around the world. The sender, described in court documents as someone the defendants referred to as “Big Boss”, had requested them to send a “pic of the parcel” via encrypted messaging service Whatsapp.
What the crew didn’t know was that authorities has been on to them for months, monitoring them and others as part of a joint investigation by police and Customs called Operation Clydesdale.
“Operation Clydesdale demonstrates that … Mafi was chief in organising the importation of methamphetamine into New Zealand,” states a partially redacted agreed summary of facts released by the court. “… Vatuvei, on instruction from the defendant Mafi, assisted with import arrangements (particularly making inquiries about imported packages and directing others).”
Vatuvei’s appearance on Wednesday in a Manukau courtroom – nearly empty due to Covid-19 precautions but watched closely via audio-video link by most of New Zealand’s top media outlets – marked the culmination of a years-long legal battle by the star. Vatuvei spent over a year fighting to keep his name secret, with the media initially able to refer to him only as “one of the biggest names in New Zealand sport”.
“All these charges are accusations and I’ll be fighting my innocence for these charges,” Vatuvei said on social media earlier this year, in a video to fans he released the night before his name suppression was finally set to expire.
But by then, 33-year-old co-defendant Michael Naufahu had already pleaded guilty to his involvement in the scheme. Vatuvei’s older brother pleaded guilty last month.
Authorities say the crew was able to import at least two kilograms of methamphetamine into New Zealand from the beginning of July 2019 until the end of November that same year. But that was just the amount in the four packages that were intercepted.
Four other packages were not intercepted “for which the quantities of methamphetamine were unknown”, authorities acknowledged.
Skipping ropes and suitcases
Court documents state Vatuvei was directly involved in two of the imports – including a package labelled “sporting kits” that instead contained 487g of methamphetamine concealed inside skipping rope handles.
The other package, authorities said, wasn’t ever intercepted.
Documents also outline other instances in which the sporting star was mentioned.
One such shipment, labelled “import 4”, involved 1.7kg of methamphetamine concealed inside a suitcase sent from South Africa. It was intercepted on October 9, 2019.
Vatuvei called DHL from his own mobile phone inquiring about the package, and at one point his brother also came on the line, authorities alleged.
“Import 7”, from Africa, was delivered two weeks later to a Manurewa address that Vatuvei “has links to”, with his mobile phone data showing he visited a neighbouring home nine days earlier, documents state.
Less than an hour before the delivery, Vatuvei had been on the phone with co-defendant Naufahu, authorities reported. After talking for just over one minute, Vatuvei texted him the address where the package would soon arrive.
“Take home don’t open k let me know when your there,” he texted immediately thereafter.
After confirming the package was retrieved, Vatuvei typed: “Lesssgooooo once I’m done here I’ll come down and then we can open it up sweet.”
Naufahu typed back: “Nothing moves without you”.
In a text to another associate late that night, Vatuvei wrote: “just packed some stuff up but yeah you want me to bring you that bad stuff to check it properly”.
But it was “import 8” – the skipping ropes from India – that eventually resulted in the brothers’ arrests.
The package was set to be delivered to a Papatoetoe home neighbouring where Vatuvei and Mafi lived with their parents. Customs intercepted the package and removed most of the 487g of methamphetamine, replacing it with a look-alike, before conducting an undercover sting on November 28.
Officers added a “chemical marking powder” that would show up on anyone who handled the package, then a Customs officer posing as a delivery driver took it to the marked address.
Mafi met the courier driver outside and signed for it, and he along with Vatuvei opened the package just a few minutes later, according to the court documents.
Authorities executed a search warrant within 15 minutes of the delivery, and both brothers were arrested. Both were found to have tracking powder on their clothes and hands.
Vatuvei exercised his right to remain silent.
Long and varied career
Affectionately nicknamed “the Beast” by fans, Vatuvei played for the Warriors from 2004 to 2017 – the team’s top try scorer for many of those seasons – before spending his final year of professional rugby league in Europe with the Salford Red Devils.
During that same time, he represented New Zealand in 29 test matches, including the team’s triumphant 2008 World Cup, during which he set a tournament record for most tries in a single match by a New Zealand player. As a result, he was named international winger of the year. He also represented Tonga twice in 2017.
In 2018, Vatuvei fought in his first and only professional boxing match as an undercard for Joseph Parker, but he hung up the gloves after discovering a brain cyst.
He then transitioned to dancing, winning reality TV series Dancing with the Stars in June 2019, just months before his arrest.
But his court case is not the first time Vatuvei has faced public controversy.
In 2016, Vatuvei was one of five Warriors players who were dropped to reserve grade and stood down from test selection as punishment after they admitted taking pills and energy drinks on an unsanctioned late night out in Auckland.
“We’re all embarrassed by what we did,” he told the media after taking a week’s medical leave. “We’ve got standards in our team and something that myself, having been at the club for a long time, it was not something that I liked to do.
“To all the members and sponsors, (I’m) sorry to have put you in this position.”
In 2018, Vatuvei found himself at the centre of unwanted attention again after he appeared in a video promoting the Head Hunters gang. When approached by the Herald at the time, Vatuvei said he had no idea he’d be featured in the video.
“I was just there for a family day for a few friends who asked me if I could come and support it and join in with the kids,” he said. “I’ll always do anything for the kids – that’s why I went along.”
Asked if he had friends in the Head Hunters, Vatuvei said: “I’ve got heaps of friends everywhere – there are some in gangs and there are some who aren’t in gangs.”
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