Manu Vatuvei pleads guilty to importing methamphetamine and faces life imprisonment (NRL)



Retired rugby league star Manu Vatuvei has pleaded guilty to importing methamphetamine.

The former Warriors player, 35, admitted to the crime as he appeared on Wednesday in a near-empty courtroom in Manukau, an Auckland region on New Zealand’s North Island, alongside of his lawyer.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Vatuvei is expected to be sentenced in December.

Judge Jonathan Moses has allowed Vatuvei to remain on bail, with strict curfew restrictions, until then.

The plea nearly ends a nearly two-year legal saga, including 18 months in which Vatuvei was only identified as “one of the biggest names in New Zealand sport” due to his ultimately failed fight for name deletion.

Vatuvei – listed in court documents by his full name, Manu Mapuhola Mafi-Vatuvei – was one of four people arrested in 2019 following a joint investigation with Manukau County police and customs into the supply in methamphetamine.

He was charged with importing, possessing and supplying methamphetamine in September, October and November of the same year. Prosecutors intend to drop the additional allegations at sentencing instead of Wednesday’s plea to the representative prosecution.

Vatuvei kept his name deleted from November 2019 until May 2021, when he was revealed to be the accused in a video post on Instagram.

Vatuvei has been a mainstay of the NRL for over a decade. (AAP Image / David Rowland)Source: AAP

The name removal was originally ordered to protect an ongoing police investigation, but in November 2020 – a year after the case began – prosecutors no longer requested it. Vatuvei, however, attempted to maintain the suppression order anyway.

His lawyer argued in the district court and later in the High Court that the rugby star would face extreme hardship if appointed and that his fair trial rights would be compromised.

But his request was turned down after Crown Attorney Jessica Pridgeon argued that being well known per se did not mean the accused would endure extreme hardship.

“In 2019, I was charged with importing, possessing and providing methamphetamine,” Vatuvei said in his social media post the day before its removal expired.

“All of these accusations are accusations and I will fight my innocence for these accusations. I know there will be a lot of questions that require answers, but my legal team informed me that was all I could talk about.

Vatuvei was one of the four co-accused in this case, including his brother.

On September 14, Lopini Lautau Mafi, 48, also pleaded guilty to a representative charge of importing methamphetamine. Following the plea, he was released into custody by Judge Moses. The siblings are set to be sentenced at the same hearing in December.

Vatuvei and his co-defendant Jayden Zohab Ashik, 28, whose case is still pending, were due for trial this month.

Vatuvei made a brief foray into boxing after his football career ended. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer / Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The winger was affectionately known as “The Beast”. (AAP / SNPA Image, Ross Setford)Source: AAP

Affectionately nicknamed “The Beast” by fans, Vatuvei played over 200 NRL games for the Warriors from 2004 to 2017 – and was the team’s top try scorer for several of those seasons – before moving on. his last year in professional rugby league in Europe. with the Red Devils of Salford.

During that same period, he represented New Zealand in 29 test matches, including the triumphant 2008 World Cup, in which he set a tournament record for most tries in a single match. by a New Zealand player. As a result, he was named International Winger of the Year. He also represented Tonga twice in 2017.

In 2018, Vatuvei fought in his first and only professional boxing match as an undercard for Joseph Parker, but he hung up the gloves after discovering a brain cyst.

He then moved on to dance, winning the New Zealand edition of the reality TV series Dancing with the stars in June 2019, just a few months before his arrest.

Vatuvei and defense lawyer Vivienne Feyen both wore masks as they addressed the Manukau District Court judge on Wednesday. The Crown prosecutor and several media attended via an audio-video link, as part of the court’s ongoing Covid-19 security protocol.

This story first appeared on the NZ Herald and has been reprinted with permission


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