For months they went undetected – elaborate cannabis-growing set-ups operating quietly in residential streets in south and south-east Auckland.
Then in the space of 10 days last month, seven commercial grow houses were uncovered by police, with more than 650 cannabis plants found flourishing under the roofs of nondescript suburban homes.
On December 15, six hydroponic grow houses – three in Papakura and three in East Tamaki, and allegedly all part of the same operation, were raided and more than 500 plants were seized and destroyed.
Nine days later, on Christmas Eve, a house in East Tamaki was searched by police and another 150 cannabis plants were found.
This week, police said there was still no evidence to indicate a direct link between the houses involved in the December 15 raids and the one busted on December 24, but said there were similarities between them.
Forty-five Counties Manukau Police officers and staff from the National Organised Crime Group took part in the December 15 raids, executing search warrants at four properties in Papakura and four in the East Tamaki/Golflands area.
The 518 cannabis plants were found at six of the addresses.
The houses, some of which were million-dollar-plus properties, sustained some damage as a result of the activity taking place inside them, police said.
They said each house had an “elaborate growing set-up with, on average, 60-80 plants of various age and size”.
Making a “conservative estimate”, police said that if the cannabis crops were left to grow, $1 million a year could have been be generated.
“Each house was set up with at least several thousand dollars worth of grow equipment,” Detective Hamish Wyllie told the Times this week.
“So a bit of time and investment had gone in,” he said.
Two men, aged 29 and 42, and a woman aged 29 were located in the grow houses during the raids and were arrested and charged with cultivating cannabis. All three were previously unknown to police and have since appeared in Manukau District Court. Their hearing has been adjourned to a date in March.
Five of the six grow houses were rental properties and the sixth was owned by one of the men arrested.
Mr Wyllie, who is in charge of prosecution for the case, said police are alleging that the same three people that were growing the cannabis were also creating the “finished product”, but he said police do not know who was distributing it.
Police are also alleging that the trio would’ve had to have spent a reasonable amount of their time going around and tending to the crops, he said.
“Just by looking at the plants themselves, they were having a rotational cropping situation between the houses. So when one was in one phase, another house would be in another and it was continuous cropping,” Mr Wyllie said.
He said the six grow houses were nice residential properties – three-to-four bedroom homes that from all appearances were just stock-standard houses in quiet suburbs.
“They’re just in the middle of suburbia in a nice-looking house,” Mr Wyllie said, “keeping themselves to themselves.”
He said this would have made it hard for anyone to spot anything unusual because all neighbours would see is a very quiet house with very few comings and goings.
“Very, very hard to spot, hence they can get away with it for a number of months.”
Mr Wyllie said it was a little unusual to find that cannabis was the pure focus of the grow houses.
“...there were no other drugs, no firearms, no indication of gang paraphernalia found throughout the house or anything like that.
“This was their business and it was quite well run and well set-up.”
The grow house busted on December 24 also appeared to be focused solely on cannabis. No other drugs or weapons were found there by police.
A 21-year-old male previously unknown to police was arrested during that raid and was later remanded on bail when he appeared in Manukau District Court on December 26 on charges of cultivating cannabis and obstructing police.
He will appear in court again on January 18.
That grow house, like five of the six busted nine days earlier, was a rental property in a quiet, residential street.
Mr Wyllie said some of the houses had been rented out by agencies and some were rented out by the actual homeowner. He said this comes as a warning to those renting out their properties – checks need to be done.
Following the raids on December 15, Detective Senior Sergeant Kevin Tiernan, who is in charge of that investigation, also highlighted the importance of checking rental properties.
“Clearly the landlords for these properties have never done a house inspection in the time the property has been rented and they had no idea of the illegal use that was going on,” he said.
“If it can be proved that any of the landlords did know what was happening in the houses, then police would look at taking proceeds of crime action against them and seeking the forfeiture of the houses to the Crown.”