Michael Cooper and Johnathan Seal liked living the high life.
The friends travelled to several European countries together and were known in the Christchurch party and bar scene.
Cooper was a builder and a competitive body builder, and once held a Canterbury title. Seal worked in his family’s business.
But they are now behind bars, facing possible life sentences for their role in the importation of nearly 40kg of methamphetamine from Mexico.
Police believe gangs were the masterminds of the operation and Cooper, 33, and Seal, 26, were involved because of their relatively low profiles.
The plan almost worked. But a Customs check of a Singapore Airlines arrival at Christchurch Airport in November 2017 brought it all down.
The 39.7kg of meth was concealed in 20 boxes of outdoor lights. Police were alerted. The meth was switched for a similar looking powder and allowed to be transported to its planned destination – a city warehouse.
Police kept the warehouse under surveillance for two weeks. Then Seal was spotted taking one of the ‘meth’ packages away.
He took it to his home in Shirley. Cooper arrived and took the package to his home in Northwood.
Police then pounced, launching simultaneous raids on the properties, and arresting both men.
It was New Zealand Trotting Cup day and Seal was partying in his pool with friends.
When police came through Cooper’s door, he desperately tried to flush what he thought was the meth down the toilet.
Police believe the street value of the imported meth could have been worth up to
Detective Sergeant Chris Power told The Star it wasn’t known what sort of payment Cooper and Seal would have received for their role in the importation. But it would have been substantial, he said.
A kilogram of meth could return the seller between $160,000 and up to $1 million, depending on how it is sold, Detective Sergeant Power
“The why is always about money – pure and simple. Getting rich quick,” he said.
On Monday, the pair pleaded guilty in the High Court at Christchurch to importing class A drugs. They were remanded in custody. A sentence date has been tentatively set down for later this month.
In 2009, Cooper was jailed for two years and three months for his involvement in an unprovoked assault on a group of Danish and English tourists in the central city.
Vikash Singh, who owns a gym supplements company, met Cooper through friends about five years ago.
Mr Singh was surprised at Cooper’s involvement with the drug importation.
Cooper was “a really genuine and caring person who made a big mistake.”
“He’s only ever been very helpful and caring to everyone around us, including myself. I never have had a bad word to say about him.”
“(The body building community) was massively shocked when the news came out about the charges. No one really believed it. It was very unexpected,” he said.
Seal’s only previous brush with the law was for an assault on a former girlfriend, for
which he received home detention.
Both men were involved in the “gym, party and bar scene,” said Detective Sergeant Power.
They travelled to Europe together, visiting London, Amsterdam and the Tomorrowland festival in Belgium.
Cooper has refused to be formerly interviewed by police, but Seal told police after his arrest he was innocent.
Detective Sergeant Power said Seal had told police an “elaborate cover story,” saying he and Cooper had been set up by an individual who police have not been able to find and believe is fictitious.
But Detective Sergeant Power said inquiries after the men were arrested clearly show gangs had masterminded the operation.
“Cooper is linked to a number of organised crime groups through his social media apps,” he said.
A third person was arrested in Auckland in connection with the importation last year and is awaiting trial in Christchurch in August. His name remains suppressed.
Detective Sergeant Power said the third man was involved with “a cargo handling service, in a position of trust and responsibility.”
Police inquiries have revealed the gangs organised the meth from Mexico.
They then stepped back and Cooper and Seal dealt with the planning and documentation to get it into Christchurch and its storage in the warehouse.
Cooper completed the importation documents but used a different address and phone number on the form.
Seal contacted the freight forwarding company, asking about the consignment and provided details about the delivery address, a business with a suppressed name.
He organised the payment of duty and GST.
The third man’s alleged role was to move it from the warehouse to another location.
•October 19: The drug shipment left Mexico,
via the United States, on a Singapore Airlines flight.
•November 1: The drug shipment, weighing 39.7kg, arrives in Christchurch and is intercepted by Customs. It is concealed inside 20 boxes of outdoor lights. Most of the shipment was substituted with a similar looking substance. Police Operation Grandeur begins.
•November 9: Police and customs carried out a controlled delivery of the shipment.
•November 14: Police raided two properties, one in Shirley and one in Northwood, arresting both Cooper and Seal. Cooper was witnessed by police attempting to flush a substance down the drain.
A party was taking place at the property in Shirley after NZ Trotting Cup Day at Addington Raceway. Party-goers were caught up in the raid.
•December: Seal and Cooper pleaded not guilty and remained in custody.
•February: Both men are bailed.
•June: A third man was arrested in Auckland. His name remains suppressed.
•April: Cooper and Seal pleaded guilty, a week before their 10-day trial was due to begin. Both were denied bail.
•May 29: Cooper and Seal may be sentenced. This date could be delayed because the Court of Appeal is considering a new guideline judgement which will set sentencing ‘bands’ for drugs cases, depending on their seriousness.