Past catches up with drug kingpin

Rokas Karpavicius. Photo: NZ Herald/Chris Gorman
Rokas Karpavicius. Photo: NZ Herald/Chris Gorman
An international drug kingpin who fled New Zealand while on bail more than a decade ago has been convicted of smuggling huge shipments of Ecstasy to an Auckland godfather of crime.

The Herald can also reveal that Rokas Karpavicius was locked up in Spain on drug trafficking charges while on the run from New Zealand authorities, but freed for lack of evidence before he was eventually caught and extradited back to the other side of world.

Karpavicius is expected to receive another prison sentence after being found guilty this week of two charges of importing Ecstasy, a class B drug, inside granite statues from Europe in 2007.

The twin convictions come after a previous trial last year where the jury could not make a decision on the smuggling charges, despite finding the 33-year-old guilty of importing an LSD-laden Harry Potter book into New Zealand and money laundering more than $1 million.

As the "mastermind" of a global drug syndicate, Karpavicius was sentenced to 6 years in prison even though he was acquitted on conspiracy and other drugs charges.

But neither jury were told it was the second time the Lithuanian national was at the centre of a New Zealand drug investigation.

Suppression orders have been lifted to reveal Karpavicius was charged with conspiracy to import cocaine in 1999 but escaped overseas two years later while on bail.

Just 21 at the time, he disappeared on a false passport while on a $100,000 bond and evaded authorities until his name resurfaced in Operation Keyboard.

His fingerprints were found on a Harry Potter book couriered from Spain to Auckland with LSD, a class A drug, hidden in the spine and drug squad detectives also tapped phone calls between Karpavicius and Ronald Terrence Brown, a career criminal who headed the New Zealand arm of the syndicate.

A godfather figure in the underworld, Brown owned an Auckland nightclub, the K Rd Ball Room, and paid cash for six luxury cars, including a late model Porsche 911. But he was imprisoned for 11 years in 2010 after admitting smuggling Ecstasy, methamphetamine and LSD, and also charges of using a false passport and laundering more than $4 million.

Brown - who has a long string of convictions - used the false passport to visit Karpavicius in Spain.

But Karpavicius, who sent the drugs to New Zealand inside granite sculptures, had yet to be caught. Photos showed him living in luxury; lounging on a yacht launch in Europe surrounded by attractive women.

A year later, he was taken into police custody in Latvia as he travelled to Turkey. A "red notice" posted by Interpol had alerted border authorities to the serious drugs charges the fugitive faced in New Zealand. Then late last year, two detectives from the Organised and Financial Crime Agency New Zealand flew to Riga, the capital of Latvia, to extradite him back to Auckland. He refused to talk to them on the 30-hour flight; apparently concerned that they would match his voice to the one heard on the bugged conversations.

Wealthy and well-connected, Karpavicius was considered an extreme flight risk and the trip was planned so the time spent in transit at each airport was as little as possible to limit his chances of escape. Authorities in those airports including Latvia, Germany, London and Hong Kong also declined to allow the police to place him into holding cells at each airport. That meant he could not be let out of their sight for one moment.

Once safely back in New Zealand, Karpavicius retained the services of experienced barrister Graeme Newell and attempted to have the case thrown out before trial. The application failed and Karpavicius elected to not give evidence before the jury.

The court heard that Operation Keyboard, led by Detective Sergeant John Sowter, began in Australia in January 2008 when Sydney police discovered that a shipment of granite sculptures sent from Lithuania concealed 28kg of amphetamine. Further inquiries found a nearly identical shipment to Sydney in February 2007 and two to New Zealand that same year. All the containers were sent by the same person, with the same contact phone number and the same bank account. Money "mules" sent millions of dollars from Brown to Karpavicius, either using false names at foreign exchanges or carrying the cash in their suitcases.

One of the money launderers, Donatas Jukna, was later arrested at the German border on a "red notice" posted with Interpol and was extradited back to New Zealand.

The Herald can now reveal that Karpavicius was also the subject of a separate criminal investigation in Spain at the same time as Operation Keyboard.

The Spanish inquiry related to the seizure of 360,000 ($561,800) from an Irish national, which was believed to be destined for Karpavicius. He was charged with drug trafficking, money laundering, criminal association and document forgery.

The case was later dropped for lack of evidence.

Karpavicius will be sentenced again in August.

 

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