Eight men convicted over 1.2tonne meth import – then Australia’s biggest drug bust

Australian Federal Police, Western Australia Police Force, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australian Border Force and AUSTRAC

An eighth man has now been found guilty over the 2017 importation of 1.2 tonnes of methamphetamine into Western Australia – at the time the biggest meth seizure in Australian history.

The jury verdict in the WA Supreme Court today (Monday, 3 April, 2023) against the man, 53, who co-ordinated the collection of illicit drugs from a ‘mothership’ in international waters, enables the AFP to report on the court outcomes of all members involved in the trafficking syndicate.

Eight men from two states – including three men regarded as high-level Australian facilitators, two members of the boat crew and three members of the shore party – have now been convicted for their roles in a plot to bring drugs worth more than $1.12 billion into Australia via Geraldton on WA’s Mid-West coast.

A ninth man was acquitted over his alleged involvement in the enterprise, while a 10th man had his charge withdrawn.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Pryce Scanlan said multiple criminal groups in New South Wales and South Australia, with connections to international outlaw motorcycle gangs and triad criminal groups, had combined their resources to organise the large-scale importation.

“This successful joint agency investigation prevented these criminal groups from profiting at the expense of the Australian community,” Assistant Commissioner Scanlan said.

“Methamphetamine continues to ravage our communities and remains the drug of most concern to Australian law enforcement.

“This amount of meth could have been sold as at least 12 million street-level deals (of 0.1g). However, because tests showed this meth was of such high purity – between 79.4 and 80 per cent purity, which is regarded as ‘pure’ meth - it is feasible that distributors would have diluted it with other substances to create at least double that amount of individual hits. We cannot overstate the community harm this would have caused if it had not been intercepted.”

The AFP, WA Police Force (WAPF), Australian Border Force (ABF), Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and AUSTRAC launched Operation Ligar in July 2017 in response to suspicions about a previous successful importation into Geraldton. Authorities watched and listened for the next six months as syndicate members met in Bangkok, Sydney, Adelaide, the Gold Coast and Perth to organise the smuggling venture.

On 18 December 2017, a boat crew took the 16-metre cruiser Valkoista from Geraldton out to sea about 300 nautical miles off the WA coast, where it came alongside an Asian-based fishing trawler.

Crew members from the two vessels each showed half a matching bank note as identifying tokens before 60 bags of drugs were transferred to the Valkoista.

While the drugs were being collected, other members of the syndicate flew into WA from Adelaide and Sydney, organised vehicles and drove the 400km up to Geraldton.

In the pre-dawn darkness on 21 December 2017, police were still watching as the Valkoista pulled into Geraldton jetty and the waiting shore party helped to transfer 59 bags containing methamphetamine from the boat to a white van, with one bag left on the boat.

As they prepared to leave the jetty, police moved in.  Six men were arrested in Geraldton, another two were arrested in Perth and two others were arrested in Sydney as a result of the investigation.

Since those arrests, three men pleaded guilty, and five others were convicted after trials in WA. Seven were convicted of offences of importing commercial quantities of border-controlled drugs, while one man was convicted of possessing a commercial quantity of border-controlled drugs. Both offences carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Assistant Commissioner Scanlan said the men convicted were part of a well-resourced and sophisticated syndicate of criminal groups with transnational connections.

“This outcome showed the damage that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can inflict on these groups by working together across borders,” he said.

“The AFP will not rest in our efforts both domestically and offshore to detect, disrupt and deter organised crime, who harm the Australian community through this vile trade.”

ABF Assistant Commissioner Emma Johnson said although Western Australia had the longest coastline in the nation, recent history showed Australia’s western border was by no means an easy target for criminal syndicates.

“This operation again demonstrates how ABF works closely with our partners in law enforcement to identify and disrupt any attempts to import illicit substances. The Australian border is one of our most critical national assets and criminals should know that we will relentlessly protect it to their utmost detriment,” Assistant Commissioner Johnson said.

AUSTRAC DCEO Intelligence, Dr John Moss, said the case was yet another example of AUSTRAC’s financial intelligence resulting in real world law enforcement outcomes.

“AUSTRAC works with our law enforcement partners every day, using our vast financial intelligence holdings we follow the money, allowing us to build a financial picture of a criminal enterprise,” he said.

“In this case the picture we have built has assisted not only in sending the perpetrators to jail, but also in stopping 1.2 tonnes of methamphetamine from landing on our streets, where it would go on to do immeasurable harm to the community.”

The Valkoista was forfeited under the Customs Act 1901 for being used to smuggle the illicit drugs, and sold in 2018 for $217,000, with the money deposited into the Confiscated Assets Account (CAA). The CAA is a special purpose account managed by the Australian Financial Security Authority on behalf of the Commonwealth and funds are used to benefit the community through crime prevention, intervention or diversion programs, or other law enforcement initiatives.