Rotorua money laundering trial: Paula Toleafoa denies cash living was suspicious

They were driving a Hummer and a Chrysler 300c, were going on overseas holidays, regularly staying in hotels and were making large purchases.

But Paula Toleafoa didn’t think there was anything suspicious about the amount of cash around her and her now-convicted drug-dealing husband.

The 47-year-old was under cross-examination today by Crown prosecutor Anna McConachy in her Rotorua District Court trial after denying 69 charges of money laundering between 2015 and 2018.

The Crown says she banked and spent large amounts of cash knowing it was drug money. However, it’s her defence she was a victim of domestic violence and didn’t know what her husband was up to.

Nine other charges have been dismissed since the trial began.

Luther Toleafoa is in custody awaiting sentencing after being convicted of large scale drug dealing centred in Rotorua and money laundering.

Paula Toleafoa has told the jury if she knew the money had come from methamphetamine dealing, she would have left her husband but the Crown has produced evidence of Facebook posts that showed the couple were still together, even after Luther Toleafoa’s arrest and subsequent conviction.

Paula Toleafoa explained the posts as being “a business brand” for her Ruff Diamonds NZ online jewellery business.

McConachy took Paula Toleafoa through bank statements between 2016 and 2018 where she suggested she was staying in Rydges Hotel and Regal Palms, both in Rotorua, on various occasions.

She said on the same dates as the hotel stays, she was depositing large amounts of cash into some of the 31 different bank accounts belonging to the couple and their businesses.

McConachy said it was fact following Luther Toleafoa’s conviction that he was dealing drugs from those hotels and she suggested to Paula Toleafoa that she knew what was going on and was subsequently banking the cash from those drug deals while staying at the hotels.

At times she would deposit large amounts immediately after each other and on one occasion she made four deposits within minutes of each other, $600 to her personal account and three different transactions to her husband’s house washing business account of $920, $485 and $600.

Paula accepted it was likely her making the deposits but she said she understood the money came from her husband’s house washing business.

McConachy spent time taking Paula Toleafoa through banking records that showed a contract her husband held for washing houses in Auckland that was paying him amounts of no more than $600 at a time.

McConachy pointed out there were no other online transactions after that contract ended in May 2016.

Paula Toleafoa said her husband was definitely working as he would come home with amounts of more than $1000 in cash from washing houses.

She said she didn’t think it was unusual to have so much cash despite signing a document for insurance for his business that recorded his yearly income was only $48,000.

Paula Toleafoa said the trips overseas were usually Luther Toleafoa’s way of “love bombing” her after he had been abusive and she went along with it. She said she would have preferred to have spent the money on buying a house in Auckland.

She said her husband would pay for the trips himself using cash he earned from his house washing business.

But McConachy took Paula Toleafoa through a series of receipts police seized that showed they were paid for in cash “received from Paula Toleafoa”, “Paula Te Kiri” (her maiden name) or “P Trainor” (her previous married name).

Paula Toleafoa said she had no idea why her name was on the receipts as it was her husband who paid for the trips with his cash.

McConachy asked whether it was a coincidence that at least three staff members from the Flight Centre could have got those receipts wrong.

She also suggested to Paula Toleafoa that she used cash for most of her spending, pointing to bank statements that showed no living purchases, such as coffees, food and groceries, for the five months between May 2016 and October 2016.

“It must have occurred to you there was a lot of cash going around,” McConachy said.

In response, Paula Toleafoa said: “It wasn’t foreign to me.”

McConachy also asked Paula Toleafoa if she accepted that by 2018 her and her husband were “living it up” and asked her what cars they drove at the time of her husband’s arrest in December 2018.

Paula Toleafoa said she drove a “tough-looking” Chrysler 300c and her husband drove a Hummer. After questioning she said there were a couple of Harley Davidson motorcycles, “definitely a number of Range Rovers” but when McConachy suggested they also had a Dodge vehicle, she couldn’t recall that.

McConachy reiterated to Paula Toleafoa it was a situation where her husband had recorded income of $48,000 yet the spending didn’t add up.

“Is it your evidence that you considered that all the fancy cars, all the nice holidays and the cash you were depositing was from totally legitimate sources from washing and painting houses?”

Her response was: “I absolutely thought the money was coming from legitimate sources.”

The trial, which is before Judge Phillip Cooper, continues.

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