By Wendy Osher
More than 50 special agents from the FBI and Maui Police Department arrested three individuals in Maui and Honolulu counties on Friday, June 3, for their alleged roles in an elaborate drug trafficking and illegal gambling operation.
Among those arrested were: Maliu Tauheluhelu, 37; Maafu Pani, 37, and Touanga Niu, 21. A fourth person, Desmond Morris, 38, remains at large.
An indictment was filed in Hawaiʻi federal court against three men. According to court documents, Tauheluhelu of Oʻahu is identified as the “leader” of the criminal organization that distributed methamphetamine and cocaine and operated illegal gambling businesses in Hawaiʻi. The indictment further alleges that Maafu Pani “oversaw the criminal organization’s drug trafficking and illegal gambling activities on Maui where he resided.”
A court document states that Tonga Niu “assisted the criminal organization with the transportation of controlled substances from Oʻahu to Maui, including through flights on an airline for which there was no Transportation Security Administration screening.”
Morris’s alleged involvement was “distributing and possessing with intent to distribute controlled substances on Maui.”
Law enforcement seized at least $68,000 in US currency, a minimum of 15 pounds of methamphetamine, seven firearms – including two untraceable “ghost guns,” and in excess of 20 gaming machines. Authorities also seized gambling ledgers, tablets that facilitated electronic gambling, and a money counter.
Maui police in conjunction with federal agency partners executed the arrests from
searches that occurred on Maui and Oʻahu on Friday, June 3, 2022, culminating in a two-year investigation.
“The FBI in partnership with the Maui Police Department and US Attorney’s office has uncovered evidence of what we believe to be a nefarious scheme that has been operating between multiple Hawaiian Islands and the US Mainland,” said Steven Merrill, Special Agent in Charge – Federal Bureau of Investigation – Honolulu Division at a press conference on Maui on Monday morning.
SA Merril said law enforcement believes that all those charged had a role in facilitating the sale and distribution of methamphetamine and operating multiple illegal gambling rooms here on Maui and Oʻahu.
“The gambling enterprise had the advantage of operating under the venile of being apparent legitimate businesses,” said Kenneth Sorenson, Chief of the Criminal Division – US Attorney’s Office – District of Hawaiʻi. “In truth and fact, the businesses were fronts for illegal gaming locations that utilized gaming machines and sophisticated gambling apps that facilitated off-premises gambling.”
The indictment describes Tauheluhelu as the lead defendant and charges him with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute “a great deal of methamphetamine,” along with a substantive count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy to operate an illegal gambling enterprise, and conspiracy to launder drug proceeds.
Pani, described by the AG’s office as “Tauheluhelu’s chief lieutenant,” with conspiracy to distribute, and possess with intent to distribute “a great deal of methamphetamine,” along with one count of possession with intent to distribute, and seven counts of distribution of 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a felony drug offense, conspiracy to operate an illegal gambling enterprise, and conspiracy to launder drug proceeds.
Niu was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine and one count of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.
Morris is charged with conspiracy to distribute with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.
The organization allegedly transported proceeds from unlawful activities and avoided law enforcement detection by the TSA by evading screening via Mokulele Airlines.
“In addition to the sale and distribution of illegal drugs, they used violent acts and intimidation with stolen firearms,” according to the AG’s office.
Micah Smith, Assistant U.S. Attorney – U.S. Attorney’s Office – District of Hawaiʻi, who ran the investigation said there’s no information at this time that connects this operation with any prior arrests.
“In terms of the businesses, our memorandum in support of our motion to detain has now been filed. It identifies Staxx Sports Bar & Grill in Waiʻanae. It also identifies two locations on Queens Street as fronts for gambling,” said Asst. U.S. Attorney Smith. He noted that the locations in Honolulu were at 980 and 977 Queens Street. There were also two snack shop locations on Maui–one in Lahaina and the other in Wailuku.
Sorenson said there was a gambling location on Maui that used a gambling app. “You would go in, you would buy credits on the app, and you could both cash in there, you could play there, you could take the app and play elsewhere and go cash in,” said Sorrenson, describing the setup as unique.
According to the indictment, the gambling operations would allegedly, “remain in substantially continuous operation for a period in excess of 30 days and would have a gross revenue of at least $2,000 on any single day.”
John Pelletier, Chief of Police – Maui Police Department thanked the MPD for their work on this case as well as the ongoing efforts of the Vice Division to keep the community safe.
“Day in, day out, they come to work, they risk their lives, and they do everything to make this as safe as it can possibly be. We’re talking about cases where that involve large amounts of narcotics, weapons, and gambling devices. This is a recipe for disaster within any community, and it will not be tolerated in ours or anywhere within the State of Hawaiʻi,” said Chief Pelletier.
Tauheluhelu, Pani, and Niu are expected to be presented in Hawaiʻi federal court as early as Monday, June 6, 2022, before United States Chief Magistrate Judge Kenneth J. Mansfield.
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Task Force Officers from the Maui Police Department, with assistance from the Maui Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
View full press conference here: https://www.facebook.com/mauinow/videos/540429884408151