'He is disgraced': Manu Vatuvei given jail term for importing drugs

Manu Vatuvei. Photo: RNZ
Manu Vatuvei. Photo: RNZ
Former rugby league star Manu Vatuvei has been sentenced to three years and seven months in prison for importing at least $200,000 of methamphetamine from India.

The 35-year-old admitted his role in importing around 500 grams of methamphetamine from India, after denying it for nearly two years after being charged. He appeared for sentencing in the Manukau District Court today before Judge Jonathan Moses.

"Your fall from grace is a punishment in itself," Judge Moses said during sentencing.

His brother, Lopini Mafi, was also sentenced to jail after pleading guilty to importing commercial quantities of methamphetamine. He admitted to importing around two kilograms, however it was accepted that other, non-intercepted packages where the weight was not known would have increased that amount.

Mafi was jailed for seven years and two months.

Manu Mafi-Vatuvei, as his name was registered in court, admitted a representative charge of importing the class A drug last October just before he was due to stand trial. He was known through his league career as Manu Vatuvei.

Today in the Manukau District Court, Vatuvei's lawyer Vivienne Feyen said he accepted responsibility for his offending.

"My client is genuinely and deeply regretful and remorseful for his actions … he is disgraced," Feyen said.

"He has fallen from grace, not a little, but a long way," Feyen said.

Vatuvei, she said, was not in charge of the operation, but was "under direction" of his older brother, Lopini Mafi, who was linked to a number of importations from around the world.

The Crown submitted that Mafi was the New Zealand head of a small importation ring bringing in commercial amounts of methamphetamine.

Feyen said Vatuvei was roped in when Mafi was hospitalised and temporarily unable to undertake his role.

Vatuvei acted not with the intention of financial gain but out of familial obligation, Feyen told the judge.

Judge Moses rejected that there would have been no intention of financial gain. He said Vatuvei has an opportunity to turn his life around following this.

"Your final legacy in the community does not have to be defined by what has happened today. It can be defined by what you choose to do from today onwards. When you are released you will still have a lot of your life to live, and it's clear you will have the ongoing love and support of your wider family and friends," Judge Moses said.

"I'm sure it would make them even more proud if you are able to make different choices in the future. I hope that you do so," Judge Moses said.

Manu Vatuvei runs the ball for the Warriors this year. Photo: Getty Images
Manu Vatuvei in action for the Warriors. Photo: Getty Images
Vatuvei was remanded on bail ahead of his sentencing. The Crown withdrew the other charges he was facing when he pleaded guilty to a representative charge, meaning multiple similar offences were committed.

Vatuvei was arrested in November 2019 at his family home, where the "methamphetamine" - actually a placebo - was delivered in a "controlled delivery" by an undercover Customs officer acting as a courier driver. Twelve minutes later police raided the house and arrested Vatuvei and Mafi.

Vatuvei initially fought to keep his name secret, but name suppression was declined by both the District Court and High Court.

Days before suppression was due to lapse, he outed himself on Instagram At the time, he told his followers he wanted them to hear directly from him that he was accused of possessing and importing methamphetamine in 2019.

"I'll be fighting my innocence for these charges," he said.

"I know there'll be a lot of questions that will be wanting answers but I've been advised by my legal team that's all I can talk about. So hopefully you can all respect that, and also can you please respect the privacy of my family while I go through this battle."

Between 2004 and 2017, Vatuvei played 14 seasons for the Warriors and scored 152 tries over 226 games.

He was nicknamed "the Beast" and became the first player in NRL history to complete the feat of scoring 10 tries or more in 10 consecutive seasons in 2015.

In 2019 he had success in Dancing with the Stars, winning the series with dance partner Loryn Reynolds.

Operation Clydesdale

Court documents show police began investigating Vatuvei in October 2019.

He was charged in November that year, alongside three other men - one of them his brother, Lopini Mafi, who has also pleaded guilty.

Mafi was in charge of importing of the drugs, through a contact in Africa code named 'Big Boss'.

Vatuvei helped with the logistics, checking when packages were arriving and asking others to make calls to courier companies.

All up, between July 2019 and November 2019, the defendants were caught importing just over two kilograms of meth across four different packages.

Vatuvei had a hand in two of the imports - one package that contained 487.5 grams of the drug - about the weight of a block of butter - hidden in skipping rope handles. The other package was not intercepted by authorities. At about $500 per gram, that amount could sell for around $200,000.

Data from Mafi's phone showed he sent photos and video of some of the packages once they had arrived back to 'Big Boss'.

In one of the videos, Mafi and Vatuvei can be seen sorting through the package, removing the packets of meth.

In relation to one of the package's Vatuvei was charged over, text messages show him and another one of the defendants confirming the arrival of the drugs.

"Lessgooooo once I'm done here I'll come down and then we can open it up sweet," Vatuvei said.

"Nothing moves without you," the other defendant replied.

Vatuvei then texted another person, saying: "We on. Call you soon."

Customs officers intercepted the second package and replaced most of the methamphetamine with a placebo, leaving just five grams of actual methamphetamine.

A chemical marking powder was placed on the package, which would be transferred on to the clothing or skin of the person opening it.

The package was delivered by an undercover Customs officer, posing as a courier driver.

It was opened by Mafi and Vatuvei and minutes later, police arrived to search the house.

Both men were arrested and various items were found in the house. The chemical marking powder was also detected on their clothes and skin.

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