HONOLULU (The Maui News, Dec. 30) - Described as the leader of a Maui-based drug ring with ties to the Mainland and Pacific, a Wailuku man has been sentenced to nearly 22 years in federal prison.

Polotani "Paul" Latu, 31, was also ordered to pay a $25,000 fine as part of the sentence imposed Dec. 15 by U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor.

Latu's prison term of 21 years and 10 months was the longest handed down so far to defendants indicted in connection with the drug ring, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Muehleck.

"I hope it sends the message that if you are involved in drug dealing and federal investigators are involved, you're going to be dealt with severely," Muehleck said. "If you violate the law, you're liable for federal investigation and prosecution and those sentences are more severe than under the state system."

Latu was among more than 55 people indicted in Hawaii and on the Mainland as part of "Operation Awaroot" in April 2002. At the time, officials estimated the drug ring was responsible for 50 percent to 70 percent of the crystal methamphetamine being sold on Maui.

During a 16-month investigation that began in December 2000, investigators used wiretaps to monitor telephone conversations of Latu and others.

FBI agents, working with police and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, seized 3 pounds of cocaine, 8 pounds of crystal methamphetamine and $600,000 in cash from the criminal enterprise that was tracked from Maui to Oahu, California, Utah, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

One of those indicted along with Latu was his childhood friend James J. Mateaki, who was a Maui police officer at the time. While Mateaki didn't sell drugs, officials said he provided information about police investigations to Latu.

Mateaki, 30, of Wailuku, was fired from the Maui Police Department after his arrest. He pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and was sentenced in August to 46 months in federal prison.

Latu pleaded guilty to conducting a continuing criminal enterprise by organizing, supervising or managing the drug distribution ring.

"He was the ringleader," Muehleck said.

He said Latu was subject to a 20-year mandatory minimum prison term, but was sentenced to an even longer term because of the amount of drugs involved.

After he serves his prison term, Latu will face five years of federal supervision as part of his sentence.

His brothers Isileli "Loa" Latu and Evona Latu, who were also indicted for their involvement in the drug ring, are awaiting sentencing, Muehleck said.

Except for two defendants awaiting trial next month, all of those indicted in the investigation have either been sentenced or are awaiting sentencing, Muehleck said.

He said 15 of the defendants were indicted as part of a smaller Maui-based drug ring headed by Kava Mone Toia, 37, of Wailuku. He is serving a prison term of 10 years and one month after being sentenced earlier this month.

December 31, 2003

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