Jury unable to decide if drug mule acted alone

Last updated 17:42 08/07/2014

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The jury has been unable to reach a verdict in the trial of a man charged with importing cocaine to New Zealand using his mother-in-law as a mule, in the Auckland High Court today.

Peter Leaitua was charged with importing cocaine into New Zealand with his 37-year-old Colombian mother-in-law Sorlinda Aristizabal-Vega, who carried 27 packets of the drug inside her from Argentina in September 2011.

She died the day after she arrived in New Zealand, 45 minutes after Leaitua dropped her at Auckland Hospital, after three of the packages burst in her stomach.

The jury of nine women and three men tried for nearly three days to reach a decision, but was today discharged by the judge after being unable to reach even a majority verdict.

Leaitua admitted he met a group of Colombian drug dealers in Buenos Aires a week before he and his family travelled with Aristizabal-Vega. He said that as soon as he learned of the plan he tried to convince the woman and his contact in the drug ring to call off the deal and believed her when she said she was not carrying cocaine.

The Crown argued that Leaitua was in fact a player in the operation. He had arranged his mother-in-law's New Zealand visa, organised the drugs with his contacts in an Argentine drug syndicate, and had travelled to New Zealand with Aristizabal-Vega to oversee the cocaine's arrival, the prosecution said.

The defence said he could not have been part of the deal because was not known to Argentinian police, who were monitoring the other men as part of a high-scale drug operation that busted an international drug syndicate operating in South America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

Leaitua was jailed for 18 months in 2003 for importing cocaine into France. This made him a prime recruit for the Colombian drug syndicate working out of Argentina, according to the Crown.

The defence argued that experience had taught Leaitua that the risk was not worth the reward.

The jury heard from Argentinian police, who recorded conversations of the known Colombian drug dealers discussing the death of a woman in New Zealand about three hours before the police released the details to the media.

The Crown argued the information could have only come from Leaitua.

The defence said the drug syndicate had successfully recruited Aristizabal-Vega, who then joined the family's trip to New Zealand at the last minute but acted alone in smuggling the drugs.

She was an independent woman capable of acting alone, from an area of Colombia particularly well known for cocaine.

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However, the deal only went ahead because Leaitua was an active and willing participant, the Crown said.

After the arrest of the drug syndicate in Argentina, attempts by New Zealand police to gather more evidence on Leaitua by tapping his phone produced nothing.

A date for a new trial will be set in two weeks.

- Stuff

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