HONOLULU, Hawaii (Pacific Islands Report, Feb. 7) - A former Tongan police officer with the Maui Police Department has reportedly pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for his involvement in an international drug ring.

According to The Honolulu Advertiser, James J. Mateaki is believed responsible for at least half the crystal methamphetamine sold on Maui. He faces a 10-year sentence and $4 million fine when he appears before U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor on July 14.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Muehleck says while James Mateaki didn’t sell drugs, the 29-year-old Wailuku resident provided information about police investigations to his childhood friend Polotani "Paul" Latu.

The Advertiser reports that Mateaki was the subscriber of a cellular telephone used by Latu, a 29-year-old Wailuku resident who was identified as a leader in the drug organization with ties to the Mainland and Pacific.

Muehleck said during a 16-month investigation, which began in December 2000, investigators used wiretaps to monitor conversations on the telephone because the drug deals were done over that phone and other phones.

At the time of the investigation, Mateaki was a Wailuku patrol officer who had been trained as a member of MPD’s Special Response Team, which handles hostage and barricade situations and assists in some drug raids.

Placed on leave without pay after his arrest last April, Mateaki was fired in August following an internal police investigation. He had worked 8 years as a police officer.

During a court appearance Monday in Honolulu before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang, Mateaki pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine, according to the Advertiser.

The charge was the most serious against Mateaki, who had three other charges dismissed. Those charges involved using a telephone to facilitate drug distribution.

He entered the guilty plea as trial for him and nine co-defendants was scheduled to begin later this week in U.S. District Court.

Including Mateaki and Latu, nine of the 10 defendants in one indictment either entered or are scheduled to enter guilty pleas rather than go to trial, Muehleck said.

The defendants reportedly were among at least 55 people apprehended on the Mainland and in Hawaii as part of "Operation Awaroot."

Officials also seized three pounds of cocaine, eight pounds of crystal methamphetamine and US$600,000 from the criminal enterprise tracked from Maui to Oahu, California, Utah, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

Officials estimated that the predominantly Tongan drug ring was responsible for 50 percent to 70 percent of the crystal methamphetamine being sold on Maui.

Latu, who pleaded guilty to being involved in a continuing criminal enterprise, is facing a mandatory minimum 20-year prison term when he is sentenced July 7. He remains in federal custody, the Advertiser reports.

Mateaki, who has been free after posting $50,000 bail, is facing a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term at his sentencing, scheduled for July 14.

Muehleck said the crystal methamphetamine was seized in October 2001 when Maui police intercepted a Federal Express shipment containing the drugs, which were hidden in basketballs to be delivered to Big Kmart. Children’s toys were also part of the shipment.

He added that Mateaki divulged information about the police investigation to Latu, saying police seized the drugs after receiving a tip and revealing which officer was investigating the case.

February 7, 2003

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