Christchurch builder loses appeal over South Island's biggest P bust

Jonathan Seal, left, Michael Harrison Cooper, and Simote Vea were jailed for the South Island's...
Jonathan Seal, left, Michael Harrison Cooper, and Simote Vea were jailed for the South Island's biggest meth bust. Photo: Pool
A drug smuggler snared in the South Island's biggest-ever P bust has lost a legal bid to slash his jail time.

Michael Harrison Cooper, 33, was jailed for 12 years and four months for his role in importing nearly 40kg of methamphetamine worth $24 million from Mexico.

Cooper, along with Jonathan Seal, 27, and freight worker Simote Vea, 38, were caught during a joint police and customs operation which saw details leaked by a corrupt Auckland cop, Vili Taukolo.

But after he was sentenced at the High Court in Christchurch, Cooper contested his sentence at the Court of Appeal.

His lawyer, Pip Hall QC, pointed to a pre-sentence report which recorded Cooper's "unstable, neglectful and abusive childhood".

Hall claimed the sentencing judge should have given Cooper credit – and reduced his overall jail time – for those childhood occurrences which had contributed to poor emotional development that had "informed the quality of Mr Cooper's decision-making and perception of the world".

The lawyer argued that an allowance to reflect Cooper's poor family background and rehabilitative potential should have been given.

However, after a Court of Appeal hearing in July, the judges threw out the appeal.

"We have not been persuaded that there should be a discount for the considerations raised in the [pre-sentence] report," they concluded.

While they noted Cooper's "unfortunate early childhood experiences", he was subsequently able to function as a contributing member of society. He completed his high school education achieving NCEA level 2, went on to study computing at a polytechnic in Christchurch, and although he suffered addiction to drugs and alcohol for a period, he overcame that.

The appeal judges also said that while Cooper was convicted of assault in 2005 and 2008, his only other offending concerns a single charge of driving with excess breath alcohol.

"This is not the criminal history of someone whose childhood experiences have apparently resulted in a propensity to offend," they said in a new judgement released today.

And in relation to his rehabilitative potential, they concluded: "We think the Judge was right to say that Mr Cooper has the potential to make something of his life, as his past achievements indicate. Mr Cooper should take what opportunities there are in the prison environment to improve his ability to succeed on release. The absence of a minimum term should encourage him to do what is necessary to secure release on parole."

The High Court in Christchurch earlier heard that drugs hidden in a shipment of safety lights landed at Christchurch International Airport from Mexico on November 1, 2017.

Officers found 20 separate boxes, each with 1.1-1.2kg of 80 per cent pure methamphetamine, totalling 39.7kg.

Drugs hidden in a shipment of safety lights landed at Christchurch International Airport from...
Drugs hidden in a shipment of safety lights landed at Christchurch International Airport from Mexico on November 1, 2017. Photo: Supplied
Search warrants were executed at a number of addresses in Christchurch and in Auckland after a two-week joint Police and Customs operation.

In December last year, Cooper, Seal and Vea received hefty jail sentences for their roles in the drug smuggling – with father-of-four Vea sentenced to 15 years and seven months imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of seven-and-a-half years, and Seal and Cooper each jailed for 12 years and four months, with no minimum non-parole periods.

Seal and Cooper gave vague and unverifiable stories over how they got wrapped-up in the drugs bust.

The Christchurch pair both earlier admitted one charge of importing the Class A controlled drug methamphetamine.

Their lawyers said they had been naïve young men who had supposedly met a man in a bar who proposed a business venture – something about building a new carpark.

But Justice Gerald Nation doubted the validity of their claims.

They communicated with burner phones. Importation documents were signed, duty and GST payments were made. Seal chased up the freight company.

After Police and Customs officers secretly swooped on the package, they took out most of the meth around the safety lights and replaced it with a substitute substance. The consignment was then duly delivered.

Seal went to the delivery address and took a box home.

Soon after, Cooper and an associate showed up at his house and took away the lights with the meth substitute.

That's when Police and Customs swooped.

During a raid at Cooper's house, he tried to flush the product in his bathroom, the court heard. They were both arrested.

Vea was found guilty by a jury earlier this year of importing meth on three occasions in November 2017, including two shipments from Canada where the drugs were tucked away in LED panels and karaoke electronics.

The Auckland customs brokerage manager for a freight firm abused his position of trust, Justice Nation said, as a trusted and valued employee who'd been earning $145,000 a year.

The judge found that the men had been more than "catchers" and had likely got involved for financial reasons.

None of the trio identified anyone "further up the food chain", the court heard.

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