A drug kingpin ran his empire from prison using contraband phones

Thomas Cheng used smuggled cell phones to run a methamphetamine ring from Rimutaka and Paremoremo.

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Thomas Cheng used smuggled cell phones to run a methamphetamine ring from Rimutaka and Paremoremo.

From a cell in Wellington prison, Thomas Cheng ran a massive methamphetamine ring between Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand using smuggled cellphones.

Using cell phones, the prison landline and email, and relying on his network of associates, the Singaporean national recruited people from overseas and arranged for them to bring in smuggled hundreds of grams of drugs into the country.

After numerous hearings, Cheng was finally sentenced to two years and nine months in prison.

Cheng, now 39, managed to come to New Zealand in 2015 despite a drug trafficking conviction in Singapore. He had been imprisoned and received three strokes of the cane. But the New Zealand authorities were unaware and he crossed the border.

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He moved to Gisborne in the Masonic Hotel, which was owned by one of his father’s five companies.

In 2016, Cheng was arrested, along with three others, for smuggling methamphetamine into the country. He was imprisoned for 10 years and nine months and ended up in Rimutaka Pirson.

Meanwhile, police have begun investigating six commercial properties in Gisborne and bank accounts linked to Cheng.

Investigations resulted in restraining orders also being issued on nine properties and eight bank accounts containing $10,377,300 in the name of Cheng’s father, William, who lives in Singapore.

The long sentence did not deter Cheng. A few months into his sentence, he was back in business, using mobile phones smuggled into prison to arrange couriers from Malaysia.

Mainly by text message, he ran the operation, telling those outside where to send the drugs and money. Some couriers arrived twice a month.

One of his associates, who lived in Auckland, picked up 43.5 grams of methamphetamine in July 2018 and drove south towards Wellington. He collided with an oncoming car in Pukekohe and died.

Police also found scales and more than $1,000 in cash in the wrecked car.

After the accident, Cheng tried to find out what had happened to the courier and sent several messages including one that said: “I googled and a person died in pukekohe. But no name. I hope it’s not him, Dumb it… died the first day on the job.

Even after his death, the man’s credit card was used to transfer money.

Judge Stephen Harrop jailed methamphetamine trafficker Thomas Cheng for two years and nine months.

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

Judge Stephen Harrop jailed methamphetamine trafficker Thomas Cheng for two years and nine months.

Money transfers were handled by Western Union, with deposits of around $10,000 being common.

Cheng arranged for methamphetamine and other contraband items to be smuggled into Rimutaka. An associate located a jail van at Hutt Valley Hospital and, using a magnet, attached a package to it. Cheng was then informed of the license plate, and another associate collected the merchandise.

He provided other inmates, texting one in May 2018: “I have a present for you guys.”

Money transfers were handled by Western Union, with deposits of around $10,000 being common.

He and his associates also used the encrypted Telegram app to communicate.

Police and customs set up Operation Dory, and in December 2018, Cheng’s cell in Rimutaka was searched and three cellphones and eight SIM cards were seized.

He was then transferred to Paremoremo prison in January but the police summary of the facts show that this did little to undermine his operation. He began to use the prison landline and email services to continue his offence.

He was finally arrested in May 2019.

On Friday, he pleaded guilty to eight representative counts of participating in an organized criminal gang, importing, supplying, offering to supply, possession of methamphetamine, offering to sell cannabis, robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery.

Cheng is expected to be deported at the end of his prison term.