Dope Plot: The inside story of New Zealand's largest cannabis bust
Dope Plot: The inside story of New Zealand's largest cannabis bust

An elite police officer stands guard beside one of the men arrested as part of Operation Ragwort.

An elite police officer stands guard beside one of the men arrested as part of Operation Ragwort.

In 1997 a secret police investigation uncovered a multimillion-dollar Narcos-style cannabis growing operation patrolled by armed guards deep in the Whanganui National Park. 

The growers were ferrying the finished drugs out of the bush in wool sacks with the help of a local helicopter pilot.

Using spotter planes, police spied their camouflaged dope plots, some of which were the size of football fields.

During a dawn raid, officers seized 600 kilograms of dried cannabis and 4800 plants in what remains arguably New Zealand's largest cannabis bust.

The investigation, codenamed Operation Ragwort, is an extraordinary saga, including what is believed to be the country's first and only helicopter chase.

At the time, police involved in the operation said they believed funding cuts to aerial surveillance allowed for the cultivation of the massive plots they’d uncovered. 

Money was soon made available and normal service resumed.

Now, more than two decades on, the skies are again largely free of police looking for cannabis, after a controversial decision to axe the annual national recovery operation, and there are fears gangs and organised crime groups will head for the hills in droves.

Deep in the Whanganui National Park, four days walk from the nearest road, a group of men were quietly looking forward to payday.

The men, mostly members of Kerikeri-based gang F... the World, had for two years used a helicopter to ferry wool sacks filled with cannabis from their hidden plantation, confident police were no longer carrying out aerial surveillance in the area.

The group, which had only about a dozen members, had spent about $60,000 on equipment for their camouflaged bush camp, including refrigeration and home comforts like a shower.

Over two years they planted seven cannabis plots near the camp. One earned the name ‘New Zealand’ because of its shape.

The growers cultivated thousands of plants, many of which were about 2 metres tall.

The growers cultivated thousands of plants, many of which were about 2 metres tall.

To keep possums and other wild animals out, each plot was surrounded by an electric fence powered by a sophisticated generator system that used solar panels and banks of batteries. The plants, most about 2 metres tall, were irrigated by pipes running from a reservoir. Two large canvas tents served as drying rooms. 

The growers were well prepared for trouble. They had a cache of firearms, including loaded automatic rifles and pistols, and scanners to listen to police radios. To avoid detection from the sky, the group had painted the stumps of felled trees green and covered bare ground with branches, leaves, dried grass and netting.

The group brought many home comforts to their bush camp.

The group brought many home comforts to their bush camp.

The group had already had one successful season with a harvest of 5000 plants, and the current crop was expected to produce 7000 plants. There had been some police scares in the past, but they were keen to give the high stakes, high risk game another go. 

On March 22, 1997 the crew were at least a week into harvesting and already thinking about how they would spend the spoils. They were not to know police had been investigating the group for nine months, compiling a dossier on each member. 

The next morning, members of the police’s elite Special Tactics Group, who had camped nearby after a three-day tramp through rugged terrain, were poised, waiting for the signal to spring into action.

THE GENESIS OF OPERATION RAGWORT

On April Fool’s Day 1996 Constable David Kirby led a police raid on the property of farmer David Churton, also known as Tuffy, on the outskirts of Whanganui. 

Just as police discovered what they thought was a shed full of drying cannabis, the shed mysteriously caught fire. Charges against Churton would eventually be dismissed, but that wasn’t the end of the matter.  He was now on the police’s radar and Kirby later received information the cannabis in Churton’s shed could have been the product of a much larger scheme, possibly in the national park.

Police seized 600 kilograms of dried cannabis and 4800 plants.

Police seized 600 kilograms of dried cannabis and 4800 plants.

Since the 1980s the police had run annual flying missions to detect cannabis plots in remote areas. But Kirby could no longer rely on the scheme to pick up the suspected growing operation because police had stopped the programme in the district due to budget constraints.

The Whanganui district was made up of two areas, Whanganui and Ruapehu. As the plot was technically in Ruapehu’s patch Kirby took the information to the area controller, Inspector Jeff Holloway, and Detective Mike Hill.

Retired police officer Jeff Holloway was in charge of Operation Ragwort.

Retired police officer Jeff Holloway was in charge of Operation Ragwort.

The three men set up a covert inquiry, codenamed Operation Ragwort, named after the noxious weed.

They based themselves in a small office off a hallway at the Taumarunui Police Station and, along with an administrator, worked in secret for several months, collecting evidence and plotting how they’d prove their case.

Holloway, also a pilot, owned a plane with a camera hatch. Conscious of expenses, they used local pilot Keith McKenzie, who owned a scenic flight company, to fly the plane over suspected sites. 

Their first foray over the national park did not hit the jackpot. At one site deep in the park they saw and photographed enough to raise questions but nothing immediately stood out. 

The cannabis growing operation was several days' walk from the nearest road.

The cannabis growing operation was several days' walk from the nearest road.

Holloway, aware his investigation needed more resources, went to the regional commander, Assistant Commissioner Colin Wilson, asking for more backing. 

Resources available at the time were “discretionary”, but luckily they found an ally in Wilson.

“He knew what was going on and everything we needed, Air Force, whatever - done. And if you can get that sort of support ... you can fight all sorts of bad buggers."

The extra resources included the Royal New Zealand Air Force. One of its flights revealed a number of plots near a high point in the middle of the 74,000 hectare park known as Pukeraupiu.

F... THE WORLD

The three-man team soon compiled a thick dossier on their suspects. The principal offenders were believed to be brothers Arthur and Jason Cornelius and a third man, Tama Campbell. Several other members of the Cornelius family, including their cousins Jed and William Cornelius, were also connected.

Arthur Cornelius pictured after he was arrested. He was killed in a p-lab explosion in 2014.

Arthur Cornelius pictured after he was arrested. He was killed in a p-lab explosion in 2014.

Campbell and the Cornelius brothers had been best mates since childhood. Campbell told Stuff the idea for the cannabis growing operation grew from a conversation Arthur Cornelius had with a farmworker employed by Churton. The farm worker reported his boss was trying to grow pot but did not know what he was doing.

The Cornelius brothers and Campbell visited Churton and came up with the idea of growing cannabis in the Whanganui National Park with the invaluable assistance of Churton’s friend and helicopter pilot Phillip Janssen. They were still toying with the idea when they heard police had suspended aerial surveillance of the area.

Jason Cornelius, Arthur's brother, was one of the key men behind the operation.

Jason Cornelius, Arthur's brother, was one of the key men behind the operation.

“That was just a bit of extra to say, ‘Yup, we’re definitely doing it’,” Campbell says.

Janssen flew the men and several others to the park where they spent about two weeks chopping down trees, digging holes and planting seeds under plastic covers.

“It was a bloody big job,” Campbell says.

Tama Campbell says the group grew cannabis in the national park after police stopped aerial surveillance of the area.

Tama Campbell says the group grew cannabis in the national park after police stopped aerial surveillance of the area.

The group’s goal, in his eyes, was a simple one.

“Grow a s...load of pot. We were all potheads. We were growing for money, but we all loved smoking pot as well.”

With the crop planted, most of the group went home, leaving two men behind to tend the plots for about six months. 

Those leaving decided not to wait for Janssen to pick them up and started tramping back to Churton’s farm, but got lost.

“When you’re in there it’s like being in the Amazon forest. You climb to a high ridge and you won’t see any farm. It’s just bush 360 degrees,” Campbell says.

A helicopter was used to ferry the cannabis out of the bush.

A helicopter was used to ferry the cannabis out of the bush.

Campbell and Jason Cornelius visited the pair tending to the plots each month to check on progress and bring in supplies.

The plan was to fly the cannabis to Churton’s property and then distribute it to wholesalers. That changed after the fire, with the group setting up base at a farm on Murumuru Rd off the Ruatiti Valley in Raetihi, near the home of Bill Cornelius, uncle of the Cornelius brothers. 

Bill Cornelius, the uncle of Arthur and Jason, was later revealed as a "monstrous" rapist.

Bill Cornelius, the uncle of Arthur and Jason, was later revealed as a "monstrous" rapist.

The property was also used as a base from which materials were ferried to and from the growsite.

Cellphone analysis, still in its infancy, showed constant calls between the main offenders, the Cornelius property and Churton, with spurts of activity during crucial phases of cultivation.

Despite the steps to keep Operation Ragwort secret, an unlucky event nearly alerted the growers.

Police found loaded automatic rifles and pistols at the bush camp.

Police found loaded automatic rifles and pistols at the bush camp.

About two months into the investigation, the police team sent four special tactics group (STG) members into the bush to get “visuals” of the cannabis growth. The plan derailed when a pig the group had adopted as a pet, and a dog, detected them and alerted the armed men guarding the plots.

The cops, wearing camouflage gear, pretended to be members of the army and the growers appeared to buy their story. Churton, who knew some people at the Waiouru Army Base, told Stuff he contacted the army to check the story. 

The main living area in a tent at the growers' bush camp.

The main living area in a tent at the growers' bush camp.

“They told me they were over there doing an exercise. I didn't have any reason not to believe them."

Unbeknown to him, police had already called the army to ask them to cover for the STG.

Despite appearing to believe the story, the growing crew were spooked and left.

A sketch made by police in the wake of the raid reveals the elaborate extent of the operation which stretched to seven plots where the gang grew cannabis.

A sketch made by police in the wake of the raid reveals the elaborate extent of the operation which stretched to seven plots where the gang grew cannabis.

The police waited.

McKenzie and Holloway spent several mornings flying up to the mountain to see if they could catch the helicopter servicing the plot. One morning in early February, as they arrived back in Taumarunui after three hours scouring the area, McKenzie received a call from one of his pilots to say someone wanted to hire a plane. It was Janssen.

McKenzie and Holloway got ready to see where Janssen went. When Janssen took off, they followed at a distance and saw him fly over the camp. 

Police believe Janssen was checking whether the plots, which were ready to harvest, were intact. Apparently he saw enough to encourage the gang to move back in and ensure the tantalising payday would actually arrive.

THE HELICOPTER CHASE

The investigation team began marshalling its manpower for arrest day. About 250 personnel were involved in the operation, including police officers, the STG, army and Air Force staff.

The raid and arrests were planned for Sunday, March 23, 1997. Police would simultaneously search properties in Whangārei, Kerikeri, Raetihi, Palmerston North, Taupō and Whanganui. 

Elite police tramped for three days to reach the growing operation.

Elite police tramped for three days to reach the growing operation.

The STG team of about 20 were given three days to get to the site and set up surveillance. The day before the raid, they spotted a helicopter carrying wool sacks packed with cannabis being ferried from the site and quickly alerted the team based at Waiouru.

McKenzie flew a helicopter from Taumarunui and picked up Holloway and Detective Sergeant Derek Webb, before heading to the national park.

They watched as Janssen twice moved cannabis from the plantation to another site the group was using to transfer the drugs. On the third trip, Janssen appeared to see McKenzie’s helicopter and took evasive action - dumping several wool sacks, presumably full of cannabis, into the bush before fleeing.

The cannabis was ferried from the site in woolsacks.

The cannabis was ferried from the site in woolsacks.

“[The helicopter] just took off at high speed … then he climbed up and got lost among the clouds,” McKenzie remembers.

Holloway says he and Webb were “bloody mad keen” to catch Janssen. At one stage they got their helicopter close enough to identify him.

“We were just a little bit more reticent because we wanted to actually survive.”

They lost sight of Janssen’s helicopter in an area filled with thick clouds and fog. It was the next day before police caught up with Janssen at his home and arrested him. He’d been unable to get in touch with those at the bush camp to raise the alarm.

Campbell, Jason Cornelius and Arthur Cornelius had been helping unload Janssen’s helicopter at the second site. When Janssen didn’t return, they grew increasingly nervous. 

Campbell says they had already decided they would not return for another season in the national park, given the raid at Churton’s property the year before.

Tama Campbell, pictured 24 years on from the operation, says there were warning signs police were onto them.

Tama Campbell, pictured 24 years on from the operation, says there were warning signs police were onto them.

The incident where the STG were sprung in the bush near the camp had sparked further worries.

“It did raise alarm bells. Right up until the day we left to go down to harvest, we knew something was up. Looking back now I think we were just too out of it to bloody think straight.”

Back at Waiouru, the investigation team considered raiding the cannabis plantation immediately after the helicopter chase, but it was getting late in the day so they decided to wait until the next morning.

THE RAID

Neither Holloway nor Hill slept much that night. Both were up early to check their plan.

The pair needed to ensure no-one could ring around and warn those involved of the police investigation. Searches and arrests needed to be simultaneous.

About 7am, STG members, supported by police snipers, raided the bush camp and arrested four men.

Dozens of police officers were involved in the raid on the cannabis growing operation.

Dozens of police officers were involved in the raid on the cannabis growing operation.

"They were pretty shattered and demoralised," Hill says.

Still worried about Janssen’s absence, Campbell and the Cornelius brothers were in the process of abandoning the second site on a quad bike when police arrived.

“Oh s...,” Campbell recalls thinking.

“We’d left too late. If we’d left that morning as soon as we woke up we wouldn’t have run into them.”

Campbell got past the first couple of patrol cars, before heading bush.

Jason Cornelius fell off the bike and was arrested. 

Mike Hill was second in charge of the operation.

Mike Hill was second in charge of the operation.

With the help of an Air Force helicopter and a police dog, Campbell and Arthur Cornelius were also soon in handcuffs.

About a dozen people connected to the growing operation were in custody by the end of the day.

Holloway and Hill flew into the cannabis camp the next day to see the scale of the operation firsthand.

"It was a bit surreal … being there, having chased them for so long and seeing the tents and the drying sheds. The scale [of the operation] was beyond what we really thought we were chasing," Hill says.

LARGEST EVER BUST

In the final tally, police seized about 600kg of dried cannabis and 4800 plants. The approximate value of the dried cannabis was then about $6.5m, while the plants had a potential street value of about $5m.

Botanists who inspected the site estimated cannabis had been grown at the site since 1994. A police calculation estimated the 'non-taxable' value of the operation over the period was $48m.

Hill believes the group was selling the cannabis in bulk to people in the Far North who were then breaking it down and distributing it for sale. 

Police estimated the dried cannabis they seized was worth about $6.5 million.

Police estimated the dried cannabis they seized was worth about $6.5 million.

None of the crew connected to the plantation had much to show for their efforts. 

Campbell could not recall where all the money went.

“We were basically drug addicts with money, that’s the way I see it,” he says.

If the bust made a major dent in the cannabis supply chain, the price on the street did not reflect it. It didn’t change. 

“It’s a lot, but it was a drop in the ocean compared to what else was out there,” Hill says.

‘I GREW UP IN JAIL’

Campbell, who was in his mid 30s when he was arrested, says he’s lived a clean life since he finished his three and a half years behind bars.

“I grew up in jail, that’s the way I look at it. It gave me time to think. When I got out my kids were older, they weren’t little kids any more - that also made me get a job and give up that life.”

He did not regret his part, and has always believed cannabis should be legal.

Stuff attempted to track down the other nine people convicted as part of Operation Ragwort.

Arthur Cornelius, who is believed to have been the ringleader, died in 2014 after a methamphetamine (P) lab explosion at a house in Whangarei.

Cornelius suffered burns across 99 per cent of his body and died in hospital.

His brother, Jason Cornelius, declined to comment. 

Another member of the FTW’s, Shem Cook-Toko, says he was the “main man” who took care of the plots. He was sentenced to five and a half years’ imprisonment.

“I’ve got no hatred towards what happened. I’ve never been bitter towards the police or the law. I done wrong. I committed the crime as it was … we were punished.”

Police controversially axed the annual cannabis eradication operation in November.

Police controversially axed the annual cannabis eradication operation in November.

He agreed to speak in-depth at a later date, but then messaged to say he had spoken to his legal team and declined to talk further, saying there were others involved he needed to consider.

Janssen is now the chief executive officer and chief pilot at Central Helicopters in Ōpōtiki. He served 10 months of his two and a half year sentence.

He declined to comment, other than to say there was no proof of a helicopter chase, and he was never charged with dangerous flying. “It’s only alleged that chase,” he says.

“I’d rather not comment on any of those events of those days at all, I’ve put it well behind me.”

Churton, who was jailed for 18 months for being party to the operation, still farms at his property. The cannabis was grown due to “huge demand” in Auckland and then distributed by a gang through tinny houses, he says.

“The whole issue with cannabis really is about bad law. I don't do drugs myself, but we seem to live in a world where people are under a lot of stress and a lot of pressure and that's what they turn to - they turn to drinking, they turn to drugs. It's life."

Churton believes the growers were doing a service to society, and wouldn’t even call them criminals. He has always denied being a key component of the operation. His only role, he claims, was having knowledge of the operation and letting the helicopter land on his property. The cannabis that caught fire in his shed did not come from the national park, he says.

In a further twist, Arthur and Jason Cornelius’ uncle, Bill Cornelius, died in 2012, four months after he was unmasked as a "monstrous" serial rapist by one of his victims.

Jeff Holloway retired from the police more than two decades ago.

Jeff Holloway retired from the police more than two decades ago.

Holloway retired from the police in 1999. He got into the hospitality industry and owns the Harbour View Hotel in Raglan.

Hill had a successful career in the police, rising to inspector in charge of Hutt Valley before leaving the force six years ago. He continues to work in the public sector.

A CHANGING DRUG SCENE

A year after the raid, police returned to aerial surveillance operations identifying cannabis plots in the Whanganui region. 

The national eradication operation netted nearly one million cannabis plants in the past decade. During the 2019-20 season police seized more stolen property, firearms and dried cannabis than the two years prior combined.

The cannabis eradication operation netted tens of thousands of plants annually.

The cannabis eradication operation netted tens of thousands of plants annually.

However, the operation, which cost about $850,000 each year, mostly dedicated to contracting helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, was controversially axed in November after a referendum showed the country was fairly evenly split on cannabis legalisation.

Police had already lost most of their enthusiasm for the aerial programme. Other drugs like methamphetamine were causing more harm than cannabis and changing attitudes had already led to police rarely arresting users, instead referring them to drug and alcohol support programmes. 

But aerial surveillance won’t stop altogether. Funding is available for police districts to use aircraft to look for cannabis, but there have been no requests for the money. 

Holloway was surprised by the decision to scrap the eradication operation and believes organised crime groups will continue to profit from outdoor growing.

“This is money for jam, and it's now so low-risk. The sentences these guys got would probably be suspended sentences these days.

“If I was in this situation now I would take the exact same action. Regardless of the type of drug or the purpose of what they’re doing, it’s the fact they’re deriving significant funding and income and also kudos.

"For me it's a pretty simple equation, if criminals are involved in something on an organised scale they're there to make money, and they're making misery out of it."

Words: SAM SHERWOOD

Visuals: CHRIS McKEEN

Design & layout: AARON WOOD

Editor: BLAIR ENSOR

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