Monday, April 17, 2006

From Tony Soprano to Tony Mokbel

James Gandofini acting as crime boss "Tony Soprano" in "The Sopranos" TV series and his real life look alike, crime boss Tony Mokbel

Australian newspapers reported yesterday that Tony Mokbel, the “godfather” from down under, has escaped his country’s justice system and found refuge in his country of origin, Lebanon.
He faces a nine-year jail term for cocaine trafficking and is under investigation for gangland murders in Melbourne.
A source told The Herald Sun that Mokbel had many investments in Beirut, including an interest in the multi-million dollar St Georges Marina, part of the massive post-war reconstruction of the city heart.

Following is The Australian Age’s story on how Tony Mokbel became a millionaire drug and crime lord:

“Underworld godfather Tony Mokbel would have lost his liberty this week - but he is not around to serve his jail term. John Silvester profiles the small man who wanted big things.

It was just a little stumble that spilt the tin that caused the fire that led to the explosion that brought the firemen who called the police who found the amphetamine laboratory that Tony built.

The lab, in a quiet residential street in Brunswick, had proved to be a virtual goldmine, pumping out speed until the day Paul Edward Howden kicked over a bucket of solvents that ignited and burnt the house down in February 1997. Police didn't have far to look for the main suspect. They found Howden at The Alfred hospital being treated for severe burns to 30 per cent of his body.

Police also discovered the lab had produced 41.25 kilograms of pure methylamphetamine with a potential street value of $78 million. Prosecutors claimed the clandestine operation had produced enough speed for 1.3 million users. "It is the largest seizure of methylamphetamine in Victoria and it's the largest detected manufacture of methylamphetamine in the state," the County Court was told. Even the trial judge, Graeme Crossley, seemed impressed. "I can't believe how big it is," he said.

Howden's barrister, the energetic Con Heliotis, QC, told the court his client was just a minor player who agreed to the plan out of loyalty to a friend — the godfather to one of his three children — identified only as "Tony". For his work in the massively profitable enterprise, Heliotis claimed Howden was paid just $10,000 in home renovations.

Police agreed that Howden, a plumber by trade, was the stooge of the operation and Heliotis helpfully added that his client was "just short of stupid". When he jailed Howden for four years, Judge Crossley took into account his minnow status: "You were a factory roustabout rather than the managing director."

The managing director was Godfather Tony — who was never formally identified in court — but police needed only to look over the badly charred side fence to solve the mystery. The house next door was one of many owned by the Mokbel family.

Tony Mokbel was said to have lost millions when the lab was discovered but he was a master at finding advantage in adversity. While the court was told Howden was the official owner of the speed lab house the property was soon absorbed into the growing Mokbel Empire. The extended Mokbel family knocked down the burnt shell to extend their garden, planting a mature palm worth $15,000 to go with the new swimming pool. Long before Tony Mokbel became the public face of drug dealing in Victoria, children in the street referred to the million-dollar property as "the drug house".

Meanwhile, Howden, the burnt patsy, would never tell detectives who funded the venture — and "Tony" would not forget his loyalty. During Howden's sentence Mokbel would regularly drive to the jail to visit, even persuading prison officers to let him take his friend for an unauthorised trip to a local McDonald's for a break from prison food.

When Howden, 36, died of heart disease in December 2001 Mokbel placed a death notice in the Herald Sun that read in part: "You will always be in my prayers and I will never ever forget you. I promise to you my friend to be there for your family till the day I die." It was a Mokbel trademark. You never forget a friend — or an enemy.

While police had known for years that Mokbel was involved in drug manufacturing it was the Brunswick lab fire that showed that the businessman on the make had become a major player in the underworld. Yesterday Tony Mokbel was finally sentenced to a minimum of nine years in prison after he was found guilty of cocaine trafficking, but he was not in court to hear his fate. Mokbel jumped bail days before his trial was completed. He is now Australia's most wanted man.

ANTONIOS SAJIH MOKBEL WAS ONE OF the sharper students at Coburg's racially diverse Moreland High School in the late 1970s but he was never going to push on to tertiary study. The boy with the rich Lebanese heritage and traditional Australian tastes was always in a hurry to make money. His first full-time job was as a dishwasher at a suburban nightclub before he became a waiter, later working security, a surprising choice for a man no bigger that a football rover. But Mokbel was smooth. He found he could often persuade people to his point of view without overt violence.

Like many ambitious young men on the make, Mokbel soon realised that if he were to acquire the sort of money he wanted, he would have to make his own running. It was in those early years, too, that Mokbel noticed that people partying often lost their inhibitions, and were prepared to pay well for a good time.

In 1984, aged just 19, he bought his first business — a struggling Rosanna milk bar. For two years he and his young partner, Carmel — whom he would marry in 1989 and with whom he would have two children — worked long hours seven days a week battling to make a living before finally selling out for their original investment price.

It would be the one and only time Mokbel didn't seem to make massive profits in his business ventures, despite an early police report saying he "lacked financial acumen".

In 1987 he bought an Italian restaurant in Boronia. In those days he was content to roll the dough — years later he was rolling in it. He steadily built the business, expanding when he bought the shop next door. He sold the restaurant as a going concern in 1994 but kept ownership of the building.

In 1997 he opened T Jays Restaurant in Sydney Road, Brunswick, after buying several adjoining properties and he started to be noticed as an ambitious developer with an appetite for consuming businesses. By 2000 the former struggling milk bar proprietor bragged to friends he owned or controlled 38 different companies.

In the same year he began his most ambitious development. An $18 million 10-storey "winged keel" apartment tower over Sydney Road. The plan was to build 120 apartments and townhouses, offices, restaurants, gym with pool and a four-storey car park on the old Whelan the Wrecker site. No one seemed to wonder how he could generate that sort of money.

At the same time he was also developing 10 units in Templestowe that he planned to sell for $300,000 each. In 2000 he owned the Brunswick market site and claimed to make $500,000 a year in rent money.

His business portfolio was as wide as it was impressive with interests in shops, cafes, fashions, fragrances, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and land in regional Victoria. He and his companies owned two white vans, two Commodores, a red Audi, a 2000 silver Mercedes, a Nissan Skyline and a red Ferrari Roadster that he bought in September 1999. He even managed to give his wife a Kilmore pub as part of the family businesses. One of his fashion houses was appropriately named LSD — apparently an abbreviation for Love of Style and Design. It was apparently the drug dealer's idea of a private joke.

BUT IT WAS NOT THROUGH DRUG DEALING or shady business dealings that Mokbel first started to develop a questionable public profile but through one of his other great passions — gambling. In later years, with nearly $20 million of his assets frozen he took to describing himself as a professional punter — even though he was banned from racetracks and casinos as an undesirable.

For years Mokbel was known as the type of punter who used inside information to keep the odds on his side. He was the leader of the notorious tracksuit gang — a group responsible for a series of highly suspicious late cash plunges on racetracks in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

His team once won $500,000 and demanded to be paid in green $100 bills after lodging the bets with the older grey notes in what was a clear money laundering exercise.

Some bookies refused to lay credit bets for Mokbel because he was often forgetful on collection day. One claimed he lost more than $1 million from the non-payer.

In 1998, racing officials launched an investigation into the ownership of nine horses linked to Tony and Carmel Mokbel. The following year the Victoria Racing Club banned them from racing horses.

But racing experts say Mokbel continued to own horses although they were officially under the names of friends and associates. He used the same strategy in "legitimate" business, hiding his interests under the names of friends and family.

During the 2001 police investigation into Mokbel, police found the prolific drug dealer had strong links to seven jockeys and trainers. Phone taps picked up his regular conversations with three leading jockeys, but racing authorities were powerless to act, as the phone taps could not be released for a non-criminal investigation.

Mokbel was finally arrested in 2001 on drugs charges. In 2004 — while on $1 million bail and despite having his assets frozen — he told friends that he had won nearly $400,000 on the Melbourne Cup. He was also seen punting heavily at the Oaks two days later, backing three winners in a row, including the appropriately named Hollow Bullet.

The public display so angered senior police they moved with racing clubs to ban him from the Melbourne casino and Victorian racetracks. Several years earlier, in late 2000, Mokbel had begun an affair with Danielle Maguire. She was not the only woman in his life, but he was living with her when he disappeared on March 20 this year — days before his cocaine trial was due to finish. Maguire — who has been unable to help police in their inquiries as to his whereabouts — is the ex-girlfriend of Mark Moran, a drug-dealing standover man who was murdered on June 15, 2000. When Mokbel was arrested in 2001 he and Maguire were living in a Port Melbourne bayside penthouse that he rented for $1250 a week. He told friends he enjoyed the relaxed seaside lifestyle and planned to buy the property.

SO HOW DID TONY MOKBEL GRADUATE from dishwasher to unknown amphetamine dealer and then to the Hollywood crime cliche of the millionaire, Ferrari-driving drug baron with the beautiful girlfriend and the celebrity lifestyle?

It began modestly and in the early days he was more bumbling crook than master criminal. In 1992 Mokbel was convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice after a clumsy bid two years earlier to bribe a County Court judge was undone in a police sting. He was trying to shop for a "bent judge" who would give an associate a suspended sentence for drug trafficking.

Mokbel and two others were arrested as he handed over $2000 as the first of $53,000 that was supposed to have gone to the judge. Part of the "agreed" payment was to be made in cocaine.

In 1998 he was convicted over amphetamine manufacturing but beat the charge on appeal. His lawyers successfully argued he should not have been charged with amphetamine trafficking when the drug he was handling was pseudo-ephedrine — a drug that could be used to make amphetamines.

Inmates in prison remember Mokbel as "cunning and a fast learner". His main lesson was the need to insulate himself from hands-on drug dealing and only use middlemen he could trust.

According to police he was one of the first of the major drug dealers to move into the designer pill industry, pressing tablets for the nightclub crowd.

According to the UN, Australia has the highest use of ecstasy per capita in the world and the second for amphetamines. Mokbel could cater for both markets, manufacturing speed in Australia and importing ecstasy from Europe. And for his top-shelf clients he smuggled cocaine via Mexico.

He had pill presses hidden in Coburg and Brooklyn and the consummate networker developed his own team that included an industrial chemist, rogue police, a locksmith, dock-workers, jockeys, trainers, a pill press repairer, distributors and cargo bonds officials. He had used two brothers as local speed lab cooks but also sourced drugs from Sydney.

His profits jumped from large to massive. Convinced he was born lucky, Mokbel started to spend $20,000 a week on Tattslotto. It was more than a Saturday night interest. First division wins and big plunges on the track helped launder drug money into punter's dividends. (Some of his laundering efforts were less successful. It was rumoured he left millions hidden in a large washing machine but that the cash mysteriously disappeared after an unwelcome late-night visit.)

No drug trafficker, no matter how powerful, can work alone and Mokbel was to develop an extensive underworld network, although his contact list has somewhat shrunk due to Melbourne's gangland war. Among his associates have been Nik Radev (killed in April 2003), Willie Thompson (July 2003), Michael Marshall (October 2003), Andrew Veniamin (March 2004), Lewis Moran (March 2004), and Mario Condello (February 2006).

As Mokbel's wealth and profile grew so did the interests of drug squad detectives. Two police investigations into him failed but a third, set up in 2000 called Operation Kayak began to track the activities of the massive drug dealer.

It would be a trusted insider who worked as a police informer who would destroy him. The informer, who has since fled the country, eventually became an ethical standards department source and helped expose corruption within the drug squad.

Only after the informer took them inside the secret world of Tony Mokbel were police able to establish the unprecedented size of the empire. First there was his fake, or pseudo-ecstasy, business. Using locally produced amphetamines mixed with other available drugs he pressed millions of tablets. He told his friends he made them for $3 a pill and sold them for $12 to $14.

He also imported hundreds of thousands of MDMA ecstasy from Europe paying $4 and selling for $17 in minimum 1000 lots. Still not satisfied at quadrupling his money he would sometimes crush the pills and re-press them at half strength to double his profits.

In late 2000 he told the informer he was part of a team importing 500,000 ecstasy tablets although he said his normal shipments were about 75,000 tablets. The load arrived in a container ship and cleared Melbourne docks just before Christmas.

He had also planned a 3-million-pill importation worth more than $50 million in March or April 2001. It is not known if it landed. But always keen to explore new drug markets he bought 80,000 LSD tablets for $5 a tablet, later being told by a colleague he was ripped off.

In August 2001 Mokbel was finally arrested over importing barrels of the chemical ephedrine to make an estimated 40 million amphetamine based pseudo ecstasy tablets. Police estimated the 550 kilograms of the chemical turned into pills would have had a street value of $2 billion.

The charges didn't stick, but it was the beginning of the end for Mokbel. His business assets were frozen after his arrest and were managed by the National Australia Bank, which had loaned him millions for his property developments. But without regular cash injections from his drug operations the loans could not be serviced and his empire collapsed.

Mokbel was also charged by federal police over importing three kilograms of cocaine from Mexico, an enterprise that Mokbel dismissed as "just rent money". Rent money or not it was a compelling case. Even his lawyers advised him to plead guilty for a reduced sentence.

But the punter was keen to back the long shot. Mokbel knew that many major drug cases had been delayed because some drug squad detectives had been charged with corruption. He pleaded not guilty and in 2002 was bailed after 12 months in jail. He was to report twice daily at a local police station but at one stage had the conditions altered so that he could take his children to Gold Coast theme parks. He naturally stayed at his own idea of an adventure playground, Jupiter's Casino.

During the long court delays, Mokbel informally approached detectives offering a deal. He would plead guilty and guarantee two other drug dealers would also plead if they received only two years each. Then, he explained, all those nasty corruption allegations would disappear. It would be business as usual.

But there were no deals and one of the traffickers was sentenced to five years and the second to 11.

During the trial Mokbel remained relaxed — even to the point of appearing cocky — a puzzling performance considering his defence veered from ludicrous to laughable.

But with the trial close to complete Mokbel looked a beaten man. It was either that he knew his dream run was over or that he had learned even more disturbing news. Tony Mokbel, the hands-off drug dealer, was under investigation for murder by the Purana gangland taskforce. Mokbel was told that he was being investigated by the Purana gangland taskforce over at least one — and possibly more — underworld murders, including that of Mario Condello, who was shot dead at his Brighton East home on February 6.

The puppet-master who pulled the strings was no longer looking at a long, but manageable jail term for drug trafficking. If charged and convicted of a gangland murder he was facing life with no minimum.

The man who always reported for bail at the South Melbourne police station just disappeared on March 20. He left his three mobile phones, his girlfriend, his frozen assets, his city apartment and his public image profile and walked away.

Without a client, his legal team, led by Con Heliotis, withdrew but as all evidence had been led Justice Gillard allowed the case to continue. He was found guilty of drug trafficking on Tuesday and yesterday sentenced in absentia.

"I think he has had an exit strategy in place for some time," one policeman who has worked on him for years says. "Tony never liked to back losers."”