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Crown cites quad bike tracks in alleged East Coast cannabis growing case

Two houses on a remote East Coast road must have been the operational epicentre for a huge cannabis growing venture on bushland around them, a jury in Gisborne District Court was told yesterday.

Three of the people at those houses when police swooped on January 14, 2017, must have been the team responsible for it, prosecutor Cameron Stuart contended as he closed the Crown’s case yesterday.

The crop, worth up to a $1 million, was too much work for one person alone. There must have been a dedicated team looking after it daily. Those people would need to trust each other like family, which they were, Mr Stuart said.

Charles Chas Bennet Waara, 47, and his brother Pine Patrick Waara, 44, lived on adjacent rural properties, central to the venture, on Kopuapounamu Road, Te Araroa. Pauline Amy Poi, 33, regarded Chas Waara like a father and was a regular visitor to his property.

They were jointly charged with cultivating cannabis in relation to two large plots of mature cloned female plants growing in 20-metre-long tunnel houses, and possession of cannabis for sale, in relation to the contents of a third plot, which was harvested and being processed for drying nearby.

Patrick Waara pleaded guilty.

Chas Waara, represented by counsel Vicky Thorpe, and Poi, represented by Manaaki Terekia, insist they had nothing to do with the venture.

The Crown alleges they are guilty either as principals or parties (it does not matter which). They were there at those central properties, along with Patrick Waara, the day police arrived, when the cannabis growing venture was at its height. They each had the all-important means to participate — a quad bike.

Crucially, the houses and plots were linked by quad bike tracks and the cultivators must have relied on quad bikes to transport their equipment.

Chas Waara, who chose to give evidence, said he freely let family, including Patrick, use his bike. He suspected Patrick might be growing cannabis — he had done it before — but he himself was not involved. He did not want to know and was not his brother’s keeper.

Mr Stuart told the jury it was implausible Chas did not know what was going on. At the very least he assisted his brother by knowingly allowing him to use the quad bike.

While there was no direct evidence linking Chas Waara and Poi to the plots, circumstantial evidence was strong and compelling, Mr Stuart said. It included an inventory of items found at Chas Waara’s house matching those used in the operation. It included two sketches of the tunnel house design, found in two separate parts of the house. Waara’s suggestion someone else left them there was implausible, Mr Stuart said.

Seven cigarette butts with Poi’s DNA, found in the empty and drying plots also put her in the thick of the operation, Mr Stuart said. Those butts could only have got there if she was there. Her denial was a lie. Surely she would not suggest the butts were planted, Mr Stuart said.

It could be inferred from her presence at those areas that she was either actively involved in processing the crop or was somehow assisting. Given the high trust involved, it followed she must also have been a member of the team, Mr Stuart said.

In her closing address for Waara, Ms Thorpe said the Crown’s circumstantial evidence was not as strong as Mr Stuart claimed.

If Chas Waara was as involved in the operation as police said, then it was incredible they could not find any forensic evidence from the plots to link him to the construction of the tunnel houses on them, to the items found in them, or to incriminating items found at Patrick’s house.

There were reasonable explanations for items police pointed to at his house.

Police initially leapt to conclusions about who was involved. They thought they already had the answer and the investigation suffered because of it.

Knowing or suspecting something did not mean people wanted to be involved and did not prove guilt on these charges, Ms Thorpe said. Chas Waara was a possum hunter, often away, and content to leave his quad bike at home for others to use.

For Poi, Mr Terekia also criticised the police investigation, noting his client’s home was not searched. No further effort was made to extract data from her phones that were seized, after a machine at the Gisborne station failed to work.

She was comfortable being interviewed by a police officer and concessions she made showed her honesty.

The officer noticed Poi smoked four cigarettes in short order. That observation was useful — if she had significant time at the plots, police would have found more than seven cigarette butts with her DNA.

The Crown wanted the jury to infer she must have smoked them there and if so, she must have been either an active participant in the venture or a party to it. But those inferences were far too removed from the actual evidence to be anything but speculation. Mere presence was not enough to be guilty, Mr Terekia said.

Gisborne courthouse. File picture by Rebecca Grunwell