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Lahaina men arrested in alleged drug trafficking, gambling operation

Authorities seize meth, illegal gambling devices, prohibited firearms

During a news conference on Monday morning, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier (at podium) and Ken Sorenson, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Hawaii Criminal Division, announce the arrests of two men on Maui and one on Oahu for allegedly operating an illegal gambling and drug trafficking organization. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

WAILUKU — Two Lahaina men were arrested Friday morning in connection with a multiagency investigation into a “criminal enterprise” involving drug trafficking, illegal gambling and firearms on 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 news conference Monday morning at the Wailuku Police Station. A fourth man, 37-year-old Maliu Tauheluhelu of Oahu, was also arrested on Friday on Oahu.

A May 19 indictment for the four men includes charges of drug trafficking, firearms, illegal gambling business and money laundering offenses.

Pani’s and Niu’s arraignment and plea to the indictment is set for today before U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Kenneth J. Mansfield, according to court documents.

Tauheluhelu pleaded not guilty to charges in the indictment on Monday. A trial has been set for Aug. 1, according to court documents.

The FBI, Maui Police Department and Assistant U.S. Attorney Micah Smith all took part in the investigation into an operation that allegedly brought in crystal methamphetamine from the Mainland to Oahu and Maui, said Kenneth Sorenson, chief of the Criminal Division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office Hawaii District.

There was also illegal gambling allegedly occurring under the guise of businesses in Wailuku and Lahaina on Maui along with Kakaako and Waianae on Oahu, which involved gambling machines and gambling apps, he added during the news conference.

The defendants used burner phones and also traveled on a commuter airline to avoid the regular TSA screening on larger airlines, Sorenson said.

Officials’ seizure included at least 15 pounds of methamphetamine, $68,000 in U.S. currency, seven firearms including two untraceable ghost guns, an excess of 20 gambling machines, gambling ledgers and tablets used with electronic gambling which was described as “somewhat novel” by Sorenson.

Steven Merrill, the special agent in charge of Honolulu’s FBI field office, said that the investigation took place over more than two years and came together on Friday as more than 50 special agents for the FBI and MPD arrested the three individuals for their roles “in an elaborate drug trafficking and illegal gambling operation.”

“This organization allegedly transported proceeds from unlawful activities and avoided law enforcement’s detection by TSA by abating screening,” Merrill said. “In addition to the sale and distribution of illegal drugs, they used violent acts and intimidation with stolen firearms. This criminal enterprise did not care about public safety or the danger they posed to the public.”

According to documents filed in federal court, Pani was running an illegal gambling business within his “Snaxx” shops in Wailuku and Lahaina. Tauheluhelu was operating a “VIP” lounge 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 snack shop he oversaw at 977 Queen St. in Honolulu.

During the news conference, Sorenson said that the gambling app was being used at one of the Maui locations. People could come in and cash in, buy credits on the app, play at the location or take the app and play it somewhere else. He called it “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, the indictment said.

Niu assisted the criminal organization with the transportation of controlled substances from Oahu to Maui and the transportation of unlawful proceeds from Maui back to Oahu on flights for which there is no TSA screening.

Morris is accused of distributing and possessing with intent to distribute controlled substances on Maui, the indictment said.

Authorities said the airlines the men used was Mokulele.

Keith Sisson, chief of staff for Southern Airways Express, which owns Mokulele Airlines, said in an email Monday: “Mokulele Airlines attempts to work closely with law enforcement to thwart any illegal activities that we may suspect on our aircraft or at our stations. We never knowingly transport any illegal cargo, and we hand-inspect any bag that we have reason to believe may contain contraband. If discovered, it is our policy to immediately notify the authorities. If the authorities do not take action as a result of our call, 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 commended the work between the investigating agencies and Maui police officers, including the Vice Division’s ongoing work.

“We’re talking about cases here 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 Hawaii,” Pelletier said.

He added that with the partnerships between agencies, “you got the ability to disrupt a criminal enterprise that is plaguing this county. Well, it plagues it no more. We will be relentless each and every day, collectively all of us, to make sure this is the safest community.”

Merrill added that “the FBI is focused on keeping our neighbors in Hawaii safe. 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 in dismantling trafficking and gambling organizations which poison our society and the people of Hawaii.”

Task force officers from MPD, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration also assisted with the investigation, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Hawaii.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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