WAILUKU – Two Lahaina men were arrested Friday morning in connection with a multi-agency investigation into a “criminal enterprise” involving drug trafficking, illegal gambling and firearms in Maui and Oahu.
Maafu Pani, 37, and Touanga Niu, 21, both of Lahaina, were arrested while a third Maui defendant, Desmond Morris, 38, remains at large, authorities said at a conference release Monday morning at the Wailuku police station. A fourth man, Maliu Tauheluhelu, 37, of Oahu, was also arrested Friday in Oahu.
A May 19 indictment for the four men includes charges of drug trafficking, firearms, illegal gambling business and money laundering offences.
Pani and Niu’s arraignment and plea to the indictment is set for today before U.S. Chief Justice Kenneth J. Mansfield, according to court documents.
Tauheluhelu pleaded not guilty to the charges in the indictment on Monday. A trial has been set for August 1, according to court documents.
The FBI, the Maui Police Department and Assistant U.S. Attorney Micah Smith have all been involved in the investigation of an operation that allegedly brought crystal meth from the mainland to Oahu and Maui, said Kenneth Sorenson, chief of the Hawaii U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division. District.
There was also illegal gambling that allegedly happened under the guise of businesses in Wailuku and Lahaina on Maui as well as Kakaako and Waianae on Oahu, which involved slot machines and gambling apps, he said. added during the press conference.
The defendants used cellphones and also traveled on a commuter airline to avoid regular TSA screening of major airlines, Sorenson said.
The seizure from authorities included at least 15 pounds of methamphetamine, $68,000 in US dollars, seven firearms, including two untraceable ghost guns, an excess of 20 slot machines, gambling records and tablets used with the electronic game which has been described as “a bit new” by Sorenson.
Steven Merrill, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Honolulu, said the investigation spanned more than two years and came together on Friday as more than 50 special agents from the FBI and MPD had arrested the three individuals for their roles. “in an elaborate drug trafficking and illegal gambling operation.”
“This organization is said to have transported the proceeds of illegal activity and avoided law enforcement detection by the TSA by reducing screening,” Merrill said. “In addition to the sale and distribution of illegal drugs, they have used acts of violence and intimidation with stolen firearms. This criminal enterprise did not care about public safety or the danger it posed to the public.
According to documents filed in federal court, Pani ran an illegal gambling business within his “Snaxx” stores in Wailuku and Lahaina. The computer was working “VIP” living room in which there was a game room hidden by the legitimate operations of his “Staxx Sports Bar and Grill” restaurant in Waianae and illegal gambling activity concealed in the back area of a diner he oversaw at 977 Queen St. in Honolulu.
During the press conference, Sorenson said the game app was being used at one of the Maui locations. People could walk in and cash out, buy credits on the app, play there, or pick up the app and play it somewhere else. He called her “unique.”
In the indictment, Tauheluhelu of Oahu is described as leading the organization that distributed methamphetamine and cocaine and operated the illegal gambling businesses.
Pani oversaw the criminal organization’s drug trafficking and illegal gambling activities on Maui where he lives, according to the indictment.
Niu assisted the criminal organization in transporting controlled substances from Oahu to Maui and transporting illegal goods from Maui to Oahu on flights for which there is no TSA screening.
Morris is charged with distribution and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances in Maui, according to the indictment.
Authorities said the airline used by the men was Mokulele.
Keith Sisson, chief of staff of Southern Airways Express, owner of Mokulele Airlines, said in an email Monday: “Mokulele Airlines attempts to work closely with law enforcement to thwart any suspected illegal activity on our aircraft or at our stations. We never knowingly carry illegal goods and we manually inspect any bag that we have reason to believe may contain contraband. In the event of a discovery, our policy is to inform the authorities immediately. If the authorities do not take action following our appeal, Mokulele Airlines cannot act as an enforcement agency. We would welcome a closer partnership between law enforcement and our company.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier praised the work between investigative agencies and Maui police, including the ongoing work of the Vice Division.
“We are talking here about cases that involve large quantities of narcotics, weapons and gambling devices. This is a recipe for disaster in any community, and it will not be tolerated in ours. or anywhere in the State of Hawaii,” said Pelletier.
He added that with agency partnerships, “You have the ability to disrupt a criminal enterprise plaguing this county. Well, it doesn’t bother him anymore. We will be relentless every day, collectively all of us, to make sure this is the safest community. »
Merrill added that “The FBI is focused on the safety of our neighbors in Hawaii. As members of our community, we share the public’s frustration with illegal drugs, violence and gambling in our neighborhoods. The FBI is and remains committed to dismantling the trafficking and gambling organizations that poison our society and the people of Hawaii.
Agents from the MPD Task Force, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration also participated in the investigation, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Hawaii.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.