Romney Fukofuka, also known as the musician Konecs, was caught with 20kg of methamphetamine inside Auckland airport during the 2020 Covid lockdown. Photo / Jared Savage
When the rest of New Zealand was stuck at home in the Covid lockdown, Romney Fukofuka was busted on the way home with 20kg of meth in his suitcase. Now facing a long stint in prison, the musician called Konecs believes the mistake has saved his life.
Romney Fukofuka couldn’t help but feel shocked, even a little disgusted.
He had parked outside the Countdown supermarket at the Māngere mall to buy groceries and in the front of the car next to him,
a couple were smoking meth. Their children were in the backseat.
Disgust turned to shame. “When I saw that, I went ‘Oh man’. That’s what I was doing. Like, that’s what I was really doing,” says Fukofuka. “That’s when I decided to go to rehab.”
The hypocrisy of telling this story isn’t lost on the 27-year-old. He’s an addict himself, but also responsible for feeding the addiction of others.
Fukofuka has pleaded guilty to charges of importing nearly 20kg of methamphetamine from the US, attempting to import another 15kg, as well as offering to supply the Class A drug.
The offences carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, though Fukofuka is on bail so he can complete a drug rehabilitation programme before the sentence hearing next year.
He had been caught red-handed in Auckland International Airport with drugs inside a suitcase in May 2020, after a five-day visit to the US, during a time of tight travel restrictions during New Zealand’s first Covid lockdown.
Such a quick trip during a global pandemic was always going to raise a red flag for suspicious border control officials, although Fukofuka’s bungled attempt at smuggling was not as reckless as it seems.
He had inside help.
The investigation led by Customs, codenamed Operation Santana, also uncovered for the first time a ring of corrupt Air New Zealand baggage handlers working at the airport.
They were the ones who were supposed to remove Fukofuka’s suitcase from the airport before it could be screened, and might have remained undetected except for the fact that Fukofuka – high on meth and in a state of heightened paranoia – didn’t stick to the plan.
“I panicked. I made a mistake,” says Fukofuka, who is better known as the singer Konecs. “But I’m glad I was caught because the way I was going I would have probably ended up killing someone.”
Born in American Samoa in November 1994, Romney Fuki Fukofuka was raised in Māngere, between the Manukau Harbour and Auckland airport.
He was the middle of seven children born to Tongan migrants and went to Mangere College, where he says he was bullied and kicked out at 16 for fighting.
His parents were strict, he recalls. “Mum and Dad came from the islands, so they treated us just how they were treated growing up,” says Fukofuka.
“So like, instead of wanting to go home and get a hiding, we’d rather go out and do gangster stuff.”
He found a sense of belonging in the Windrush Close Boys, or WCB, a group of teenagers from the same street who banded together.”
The WBC was one of many so-called “ABC gangs” (because they had names that could be abbreviated to three letters) which emerged in south Auckland in the mid-2000s,
Young men of mainly Polynesian heritage, disenchanted by school and
family life, were drawn to one another, often simply because they lived in the same neighbourhood.
Searching for a common bond, many felt connected with the US hiphop culture, where their heroes rapped lyrics about growing up poor, wore heavy “bling” jewellery, glamorised street feuds and violent retribution, and sexualised women as property.
Loosely inspired by the warring Crips and Bloods gangs in Los Angeles, dozens of these street gangs popped up overnight like mushrooms, with names like Juvenile Crip Boys (JCB), Dope Money Sex (DMS) and the Ruthless Young Thugs (RYT).
They were a disorganised rabble often fuelled by booze, roaming the streets to get into fights or commit petty crime.
The Windrush Close Boys were no different.
“We went out and looked for trouble eh,” says Fukofuka, “Drinking to go and fight, assault people just for fun. Stupid eh.”
But as Fukofuka got older he tried to move on from his thuggish behaviour, possibly growing up too fast.
In 2012, aged 18, he married and had the first of three children.
He started working at a chicken farm in Karaka alongside an older brother. Kovinantie Fukofuka had graduated from the Windrush Close Boys to a bigger street gang, Crip Family, or Three Six as they’re otherwise known (C and F being the third and sixth letters of the alphabet).
His brother was sent to prison for an unprovoked assault but when the convictions were later overturned, Romney Fukofuka managed to get his older sibling a job at the farm. The second chance didn’t last long.
“He got fired because of me,” says Romney, ruefully. “There was a dude picking on me and I told my brother. My brother gave him a hiding and we both got kicked out.”
Losing their jobs was a turning point in the lives of both brothers. Kovinantie Fukofuka went back to doing his “gangster stuff” with Crip Family, as Romney puts it, and was ambushed by rivals who beat him up on their home turf of Māngere.
“When he got rushed like that, from that day, I told him that I’d have his back,” says Romney. “I left my family and just hung around to watch out for him … I ended up drinking again and yeah, it went real bad from there.”
On May 14, 2017, Kovinantie Fukofuka was drinking at a Manukau nightclub when one of his friends was asked to leave because of his behaviour. Fukofuka left with him, and once outside the nightclub, became embroiled in several skirmishes.
He fell to the ground after being punched in the head, then got to his feet and disappeared. Twenty-six seconds later, according to the security camera footage, Fukofuka returned with a .22 rifle.
He fired at least five shots, hitting one of his attackers in the knee and another in the thigh.
The 26-year-old was convicted of two counts of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.
The incarceration of his brother put Romney Fukofuka into a tailspin.
“He got locked up and I was depressed because he was gone. I was drinking a lot, got so wasted. One night, I walked down into Māngere with a shotgun,” Fukofuka says.
“I was going to shoot someone so I could be in jail too, that’s where my mind was at.”
Fortunately, another older brother stopped Fukofuka and took away the firearm before he did any damage. But they couldn’t convince him to come home. Still drunk, Fukofuka stumbled across one of Kovinantie’s friends who took him to a party.
“And that’s the first time I tried meth,” says Romney. “And from that moment, I started doing it all the time.”
He admits to ignoring his young family to pursue the only things that mattered to him: meth and music.
Performing under the stage name Konecs, the RnB musician started to make a name for himself singing in clubs around Auckland, which led to gigs in Australia and the US.
He was smoking meth every single day; to stay high and avoid the “comedown”, as well as maintain the energy Fukofuka thought he needed to succeed in the music industry.
“I love music. And I kept doing [meth] because it made me more active in the studio. I loved how it made me faster.”
At the end of 2018, Fukofuka was signed by an Australian music label and moved to Sydney to pursue a professional career.
He decided to get clean, go cold turkey, then come clean to his producers who supported him.
“I was just sick of drugs, being underground and hiding it. Everything was all good for a while, then I started to feel like I wasn’t creative anymore,” says Fukofuka.
“I was like ‘what the f*** is wrong with me?’. Like my powers were gone. I didn’t want to jump back on [meth] but how was I going to start making songs again?”
Despite getting clean from drugs, his past caught up with him and ended his musical dream in Australia.
While travelling to Australia from Vietnam, where Fukofuka had been a guest at a family wedding, the flight stopped in Auckland International Airport.
A flabbergasted Fukofuka was arrested – not for drugs – but for thousands of dollars in unpaid traffic fines.
He received a sentence of community work to pay off his debt, then found paid work as a forklift driver. Sober for the first time as an adult in New Zealand, Fukofuka enjoyed living an honest life with his partner, although he was still harboured thoughts of resurrecting his music career.
The temptation to start using drugs again to kickstart his creativity became overwhelming, especially as everyone in his social circles were looking to get high, too.
“I was feeling good but everyone around me was always asking me ‘do you know someone?’ One night, I took them to see my old mates and they gave us heaps of stuff,” says Fukofuka.
“I told myself ‘I’ll just sell it’. I won’t use it, I’ll just sell it. So I was making money but I just kept thinking about [using].”
After meeting local music producers in Auckland who wanted to work with him, Fukofuka caved.
“I came home and did it. Man, I felt like s***. But it also made me so happy. And that got me into doing more stuff,” says Fukofuka.
“I was going for gold eh. I didn’t care who was affected, I was just putting myself first.”
At 25, Fukofuka was smoking thousands of dollars worth of meth every day and selling more and more to support his expensive habit.
That’s when he realised he could tap into his own contacts overseas, rather than relying on local suppliers, to establish his own meth pipeline into New Zealand.
In January 2020, Fukofuka flew to Los Angeles to meet someone he knew in the music scene from previously performing at nightclubs.
He is careful to not identify anyone – the criminal code of silence means “marking” is frowned upon – but explains how he convinced organised criminals in the US to work with him.
“I just knew this one person. He was a nobody but he knew all the right people. They were looking for a connection in New Zealand and I was high, and when I’m high I act like I know what I’m doing.”
He said New Zealand’s reputation as a small but profitable drug market was well known.
A kilogram of methamphetamine costs around $2000 in the US, but is worth between $80,000 to $160,000 in New Zealand depending on market fluctuations.
Fukofuka gave his US-based suppliers several residential addresses in Māngere – including his old home in Windrush Close – to send parcels. The drugs never arrived.
In March 2020, Customs and Border Protection officers based at the San Francisco international mail centre intercepted five packages bound to those addresses which contained a total of 15.8kg of methamphetamine.
Subsequent forensic analysis of Fukofuka’s cell phone showed he visited the US postal service and New Zealand Post websites and searched the tracking numbers for the parcels.
A few weeks later, New Zealand was plunged into the first Covid lockdown. Because of the travel and border restrictions, methamphetamine became very scarce.
That’s when Fukofuka had a bright idea. As he was born in American Samoa, he could fly to Los Angeles on his US passport to procure the drugs directly from one of his suppliers.
Then he could bring it back to New Zealand without fear of being caught at the border, despite the extra scrutiny at the time, with the help of the “inside man” Fukofuka had been introduced to at Air New Zealand.
What Fukofuka didn’t know was that he was under surveillance by Customs and police.
A few hours before he left for Los Angeles on the evening of May 2, 2020, Fukofuka phoned several unknown associates to boast of his plans.
“Yeah but I’m just gonna go and do that and suss it out then come back … come, come back with it myself … I’ll make it count aye,” Fukofuka was recorded as saying in the bugged conversation.
“I’m not gonna aye, just bring like a little, f*** I wanna bring, bring the whole shebang. Make it worth it aye”.
In another intercepted conversation, Fukofuka said he was flying to America and was going to come back in “three, four days. I come back with heaps of s***”.
The people Fukofuka was working with in the US had an “inside man” at Los Angeles International Airport, too.
After checking into his flight home on 6 May 2020 and clearing security, Fukofuka was told to take an empty travel suitcase into a particular toilet block – around 10kg of meth was hidden in the rubbish bin.
Then he got another message: go back to the toilet. There was a second 10kg parcel in the rubbish.
Fukofuka was now wheeling nearly 20kg of Class-A drugs around LAX, roughly the same amount of meth consumed across New Zealand every week, and worth around $3.5 million when sold for $5000 an ounce.
Although nowhere near the size of the biggest drug imports into the country, as much as 500kg these days, Fukofuka’s stash would be particularly sought-after given meth was scarce and the supply chain – just as with legitimate goods – was so uncertain.
The plan to smuggle the drugs was simple – and apparently successful many times before.
As Fukofuka was about to board the Air New Zealand flight to Auckland, he was supposed to leave the suitcase at the door to be stored with other large items, like a pram, in the bulk hold underneath the plane.
Once the plane landed in Auckland, the Air New Zealand baggage handlers would find the bag in the bulk hold – identified through a photo sent by an encrypted Ciphr phone – and remove it from the airport without going through security.
But Fukofuka was getting paranoid and “freaked out”.
“I was high and there was a lot going on in my head. I thought people were watching me. There was a cop standing around. I was scared and didn’t want to go to jail in the States. So I panicked and took it on the plane with me.”
Under the username KingofHELL, Fukofuka sent the following encrypted messages to the Air New Zealand baggage handler.
“Toko [Bro] man I made a mistake,” Fukofuka wrote, soon followed by “Toko I carry the kato [bag] with me on board instead of putting at bulk.”
The baggage handler replied: “Toko f*** man”.
A Plan B was hastily made. Once he disembarked the NZ1 flight at Auckland International Airport and cleared the immigration line, Fukofuka was supposed to put the drug-laden suitcase back on to the luggage carousel.
Once the bag went back through to the loading zone, the corrupt Air New Zealand baggage handlers could safely remove it from the airport as in the original plan.
After clearing the immigration queue, Fukofuka went into the toilets and sent messages to his partner.
6.09am: I’m f***ed
6.09am: I’m in toilet
6.09am: Heaps of cops
As he exited the toilets to put the suitcase onto the luggage conveyor belt, an officer from Customs asked Fukofuka to please come with him to the search area.
The suitcase was opened up. There was nothing inside except two plastic bags weighing a total of 19.4kg, which testing later confirmed as methamphetamine with a purity of 80 per cent.
“I tried to say ‘I thought it was shoes’,” Fukofuka told the Weekend Herald, “but I knew I was f***ed.”
Fukofuka was arrested and the subsequent investigation, Operation Santana, led to five Air New Zealand baggage handlers being charged with various drug importing offences.
It was the first time so-called “insider threats” at the airport had been identified in New Zealand which Bruce Berry, the head of Customs investigations at the time, put down to the growing influence of organised crime.
“Whether it’s passengers or cargo, organised crime is incredibly agile and always looking for ways to exploit chinks in the armour,” Berry told the Herald on Sunday.
“Internationally, insider threats have been around as long as trading posts. But as New Zealand is such an attractive market now, we’re starting to see sophisticated criminal techniques being applied here.”
Charges against one of the baggage handlers were dropped, while George Taukolo, Mark Castillo and Daniel Ah Hong have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import a Class A drug. That trio will be sentenced in the Manukau District Court next week.
The fourth baggage handler had pleaded not guilty to all charges and is scheduled to stand trial in November.
As for Romney Fukofuka, in May this year, he pleaded guilty to charges of importing nearly 20kg of methamphetamine from the US, attempting to import another 15kg, as well as offering to supply the Class A drug.
He expects to receive a long prison sentence next year but is grateful to get another second chance.
Had he not been caught at the airport, Fukofuka believes the destructive path he was walking would have led to him killing someone. Or being killed, like his close friend Abraham Tu’uheava.
Another young man from an “ABC gang” in south Auckland who graduated to a gangster life, Tu’uheava was a drug dealer who was shot dead in 2018 by members of the Comancheros motorcycle gang.
“I still think about him. He was killed over drugs and that should have been an eye-opener to me to leave all that stuff behind.”
The irony is that while Fukofuka relapsed into using meth to boost his music career, he now realises the addiction hampered his dream. He was so agitated from the stimulant that he couldn’t concentrate in the studio.
He’s now turned his attention to the future once he’s released from prison, in hope of reconciling with his three children at some point, and making something of his life for others to aspire to.
“I wish there was someone who had been through all this, who could have told me when I was growing up,” says Fukofuka.
“I can be that person. But I want to show them how to do it – not tell them what to do.
“Everything happens for a reason, especially now because that life doesn’t serve me anymore.”