A year-long police operation into drug dealing in Central Otago and West Coast has led to the seizure of more than 20 firearms, 1000 rounds of ammunition and multiple charges laid with more to come.
Police arrested three men yesterday, with more charges and arrests expected to come with the men appearing in Queenstown District Court last week.
The charges related to methamphetamine, cannabis and firearms. Two of the trio were remanded in custody when they appeared before Judge Russell Walker in the Invercargill District Court via audio visual link from Queenstown District Court.
A 44-year-old Tarras man faces eight charges — five of offering to sell cannabis plant, all dated between January 15 and February 9, at Cromwell and Haast; one of selling cannabis plant, between January 14 and 15, at Haast; and two of supplying class A-controlled methamphetamine, between January 19 and 20, and February 7 and 8, both at Cromwell — those charges carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He was remanded in custody.
Also remanded in custody was Brian Edward Lyttle, a shearer, also 44, of Cromwell, who also faces eight charges, all dated between December 1, 2022, and April 18.
He was charged with failing to assist police exercising a search power in Queenstown, and unlawful possession of a 0.22 rifle, at Haast, both on April 18; unlawful possession of a rifle, between March 24 and 25, at Tarras; two charges of offering to supply methamphetamine, between December 1 and 18, at Haast and Cromwell; offering to sell cannabis between December 1 and 17, at Alexandra, and between February 20 and 23, at Cromwell; and supplying methamphetamine, between December 24 and 26, 2022, at Alexandra.
Alan MacDonald, 52, was remanded on bail and faces 12 charges — supplying methamphetamine between December 1, 2022 and March 1, at Haast, and between November 23, 2022 and February 28, at Cromwell; offering to sell cannabis between February 1 and 22, on February 9 and February 20, all at Cromwell; offering to supply methamphetamine on November 9, at Cromwell, between January 23 and 28, at Cromwell, and between January 31 and February 1, at Alexandra; offering to supply cannabis between February 20 and 23, at Cromwell; possession of cannabis plant, unlawful possession a .17 calibre HMR rifle and a .223 Remington rifle, all on April 18, at Cromwell.
All three were due to appear in the Alexandra District Court on May 17.
The trio were arrested after warrants were executed at properties in Cromwell, Tarras and the Haast area on Tuesday.
Police said cannabis recovery was continuing yesterday and further arrests and charges were expected.
Southern District criminal investigations manager Detective Inspector Shona Low said it was one of the most significant operations in the area for some time.
‘‘We have targeted a commercial crime group that’s been causing harm by pumping drugs into Central Otago and the West Coast — solely to make money for the people behind it.’’
Those arrested had close ties to the Central Otago area, she said. Further arrests and charges are likely.
Work on the campaign, dubbed Operation Vintage, began in March last year following concerns about an influx of drugs and associated harm in Cromwell.
Investigations led police to properties in Cromwell, Tarras and Haast as well as remote areas of Crown Lease and Department of Conservation land in South Westland where on Tuesday they found two large cannabis plots and a number of smaller ones. One plot had cannabis plants dotted over an 8km area.
By Tuesday afternoon a significant amount of cannabis, 21 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were recovered.
Detective Inspector Low said it had taken considerable effort to get to where the cannabis was growing.
‘‘There has been a real effort to hide growing sites. They have been found deep in the wilderness, in areas where hunters would be unlikely to stumble across them.’’
Specialist Search Group drones were used to find the areas of interest in the isolated bush while police officers, in helicopters and on foot, retraced the challenging routes taken by the accused.
‘‘Small communities aren’t exempt from organised crime, and this shows the lengths we are willing to go to disrupt that. This commercial operation was designed to make money for those running it, with no regard for the harm it caused to people at the other end,’’ Detective Inspector Low said.
‘‘This is not about personal use or low-level offending, this is about large-scale operations who profit from the considerable harm.’’