Operation Cincinnati was a months-long investigation into the distribution of illegal drugs by the Comancheros in Auckland and the Rebels gang in Christchurch. Photo / Supplied
As a young athlete, Samuel Halaholo’s prospects seemed bright. Rugby was in his family’s blood and he looked to be on the cusp of his own career in the sport.
But shortly after college, he became a teen father and decided to give up on his professional rugby aspirations so he could help raise his new family.
“It appears that this caused you some resentment,” Justice Neil Campbell said today as he sentenced Halaholo in the High Court at Auckland to 10 months of home detention for four charges involving the possession and supply of methamphetamine and MDMA.
The resentment over his abandoned career aspirations appears to have caused a chain reaction that resulted in the breakdown of his relationship, the loss of custody of his children and, eventually, looking for a family of a different sort with the Comancheros motorcycle gang, the judge noted as Halaholo became the second once-promising rugby player of the morning to front up for their parts in the same drug syndicate.
Just minutes earlier, former Sacred Heart College head boy and Blues development player of the year Lemeki Namoa was ordered by the same judge to serve 12 months’ home detention.
Halaholo was a gang prospect at a time when the Comancheros were unknowingly under extensive, secret surveillance by police regarding their drug ties. The months-long investigation, dubbed Operation Cincinnati, concluded in 2020 and Halaholo was charged with dealing MDMA under the direction of the gang’s acting national commander Seiana Fakaosilea.
He was relatively high up the chain of command in terms of the Ecstasy dealing, with others taking directions from him, said prosecutor Ben Kirkpatrick.
A short time before his trial was set to begin earlier this year alongside Fakaosilea and about a dozen others, the Crown charged him with methamphetamine offences as well. He had flown from Hamilton to Christchurch during one drug run in which the Comancheros provided fellow motorcycle gang the Rebels with an unknown commercial quantity of methamphetamine.
A small amount of methamphetamine was later found to be in his possession as police executed multiple search warrants at the end of the investigation.
Like most of his co-defendants, Halaholo opted to plead guilty in July, on the day his trial was set to begin. Fakaosilea, meanwhile, opted to go ahead with a jury trial for the most serious charges against him. He was found guilty of conspiring to smuggle a $90 million haul of methamphetamine into New Zealand and is set to be sentenced next week.
Halaholo was joined in the crowded courtroom today by his parents, siblings, partner, his rugby coach and other friends and supporters.
Defence lawyer Claire Robertson noted that her client was between the ages of 21 and 22 when the offending took place. The quick succession of major setbacks he experienced at such a young age, and the immense pressure he had been under to succeed, help explain his downfall into alcohol and MDMA abuse and his eventual association with the Comancheros, she said.
“He’s very much been a leader within his sporting career and at school,” she said of her client’s behaviour prior to the fall from grace.
Since his arrest, she said, Halaholo has shown a “real commitment to turning his life around” including rebuilding his family relationships, taking drug and alcohol counselling and working part-time at a community outreach charity where he also volunteered without pay 20 hours per week.
“It shows Mr Halaholo has a real future in this community,” she added, explaining that his outreach “helps others who might find themselves at a crossroads where he was a few years ago”.
In an interview with the Daily Mail one year ago, the defendant’s Cardiff-based older brother Uilisi “Willis” Halaholo – a former Hurricanes player who has been called up on several occasions to play for the Welsh national team – described the family’s impoverished upbringing.
“We had nothing, man,” he told the reporter before alluding to his own dalliance with drugs and gangs.
“This is not me trying to make my parents look bad, but we went to school with no lunch, then would come home, have a couple of pieces of toast and then wait for dinner. My dad would work 6am to 6pm in the factory – and then we’d eat.
“People might see it as children not being taken care of but it was normal and we were grateful for it.”
At today’s hearing, Justice Campbell noted that Samuel Halaholo insisted as he was being interviewed for a report to be submitted to the court that he had loving parents and a very good upbringing.
“To your credit, you … do not attribute your offending to the way you were raised as a child,” the judge said, noting that many defendants would take that opportunity.
Campbell also credited the defendant for a “detailed and eloquent” letter of remorse that the judge found convincing and for having “taken concrete steps since your arrest to put your life back on the right course”.
Halaholo had found himself in a “very difficult situation” upon losing his career and relationship in the first two years after leaving school, but he has since “become a better father and family member”, the judge said.
He wished Halaholo luck in living up to the new expectations that are now on him from his many supporters – that he stay on the right track and away from any further legal troubles.