‘Vulnerable’ drug mule spent more on plane tickets than he earned transporting meth from Auckland to Nelson

A man caught at Nelson Airport transporting methamphetamine from Auckland spent more on the plane tickets than what he earned from carrying out the task. Photo /Brett Phibbs

It cost a rookie drug courier more in plane tickets to transport methamphetamine between Auckland and Nelson than what he earned from his job.

Natia Tupai cried as the events leading to his offending were shared in court, including that he had tried to raise money to pay for a headstone for his mother who died last year and whom he was still deeply grieving for.

Tupai appeared via video link for sentencing in the Nelson District Court on Tuesday, where he was remanded in custody.

“It would be difficult to imagine a more vulnerable drug mule,” said his lawyer Michael Vesty.

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Tupai, 39, was sentenced to 20 months in prison on a charge of possession of methamphetamine for supply after he was stopped and searched by police upon arrival at Nelson Airport last year.

Tupai twice boarded a flight from Auckland to Nelson in August and October, but on the overnight journey on October 26 he was found with a kilo of meth in his luggage.

He was arrested as part of a wider police investigation into the supply of methamphetamine into the South Island.

The methamphetamine was hidden in clothing in a small bag, in a sports bag. It was still damp, indicating that it had been recently manufactured.

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The only reason police knew about the earlier flight was because Tupai told them what he had done, but there was no evidence to prove the alleged amount of meth he was carrying.

Crown prosecutor Jackson Webber described Tupai’s offending as a “significant risk with little reward”.

However, it remained a “significant offence” that warranted a prison sentence.

Defense attorney Michael Vesty said Tupai found himself in the “absurd” situation of not getting paid the first time he transported meth, and only $500 the second time.

He said the cost of the plane tickets was more than what he was paid.

“It was an extraordinary risk without any reward.”

Vesty said Tupai’s situation and the circumstances leading to the offense were nothing short of tragic.

He said Tupai had tried to raise money to pay for the gravestone of the woman he had long considered his mother, after discovering shortly before her death last year that she was not his biological mother.

Tupai had been close to her for a long time and had sacrificed his youth to become her primary caregiver at a time when her health needs were significant.

He was said to be sad when she died last year.

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Vesty said Tupai had struggled with many conflicts in his life, including his sense of identity, which had led to him falling into methamphetamine use, causing him to make poor life choices and bad relationships.

“It seemed that he very quickly went down the wrong path with his own (drug) use and risky behavior,” Vesty said.

Police seized 1kg of methamphetamine from a courier as he landed at Nelson Airport from Auckland.  Photo / Police.
Police seized 1kg of methamphetamine from a courier as he landed at Nelson Airport from Auckland. Photo / Police.

He said Tupai had also had difficulty learning and reading and writing, and made 20 attempts to get his driver’s license before finally succeeding. Vesty said this showed clear determination in Tupai’s willingness to move forward.

Tupai, who grew up in urban South Auckland, worried about the impact of his offending on his wider family in Samoa, and how he would now be viewed, Vesty said.

“He has no children, no husband, no partner and no money. He has nothing to return to. It is a very sad situation for him.”

Sentencing Tupai, Judge Jo Rielly said he suffered not only from grief but also from “persistent social disadvantage” which had led to reduced life choices.

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“I am convinced that this was a situation where you were naively unaware of the risks,” she said.

Tupai was given credit for his early guilty pleas, his remorse and his personal circumstances, leading to his final sentence of one year and eight months in prison.

If a suitable address was found, he was given leave to apply for house arrest.

Tracy Neal is a Nelson-based Open Justice reporter at NZME. She was previously RNZ’s Nelson-Marlborough regional reporter and has covered general news including court and local government for the Nelson Mail.

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