AFP arrests five men over alleged $15 million drug importation scheme
Five New South Wales men have been arrested after they allegedly orchestrated a “black flight” from Papua New Guinea to Australia with 52kg of methamphetamine on board when the plane stopped to refuel in rural Queensland fill.
The men – including a pilot and co-pilot – allegedly imported $15 million worth of methamphetamine during the international flight while flying at low altitude to avoid detection.
The Australian Federal Police claim once the flight landed in Queensland, the plane would be refueled and flown to NSW.
NED-8529-Alleged drug flight to Monto
It was at this small airstrip in Monto, west of Bundaberg, that three of the men are said to have provided ground support for the flight.
Police claim the group included a Wilton man (40), Newcastle man (54) and a man of no fixed address (40).
The three men were said to have been in the region since February to prepare for the flight.
Police allege that the pilot, a 51-year-old Fairy Meadow man, and co-pilot, a 52-year-old Tahmoor man, flew a twin-engine Beechcraft light aircraft from Wilton, a rural area, between March 20 and 21. southwest of Sydney, to the town of Bulolo in PNG, which is more than 250 km northwest of Port Moresby.
The pilots refueled in Monto before continuing to PNG.
Their movements were monitored by members of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary from Lae in PNG.
The pilots are alleged to have collected 52kg of methamphetamine in PNG and then returned to the airstrip at Monto.
The men then allegedly flew back to Monto at an unauthorized low altitude with the plane’s transponder switched off during the return journey in an attempt to avoid radar detection.
When the police made the arrests on Tuesday, they allegedly found five carry-on bags in the plane containing about 52 kg of methamphetamine.
Following the arrests, AFP and NSW police officers executed search warrants at four homes and businesses in Wilton and Tahmoor, the Wollongong suburb of Fairy Meadow and the Newcastle suburb of Wallsend.
During the warrants, police seized electronic devices, firearms parts, drug paraphernalia and documentation referring to aircraft parts and travel to PNG.
Police allege the crime syndicate also allegedly used encrypted phones and messaging systems to communicate with other members of the supply chain abroad.
All five men have been charged with importing a commercial quantity of methamphetamine and face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
The Wilton man is said to have been the main facilitator of the importation, working on behalf of other people financing the importation and accessing the supply of drugs overseas.
It will be alleged that he was the conduit to the people who stored the drugs in PNG.
The Newcastle man is said to have helped transport a tank of air gas to central Queensland to refuel the plane at the remote airstrip and also bought and hired equipment for the import.
The AFP will allege the third man, 40, had 17 mobile phone accounts in his name, which enabled the syndicate to operate a system of burner phones to communicate with each other.
Four of the five men appeared in the Bundaberg Magistrates Court on Wednesday on charges relating to their alleged involvement in the black flight.
The man from Newcastle is due to appear in court on Thursday.
AFP Eastern Command Assistant Commissioner Stephen Dametto said the charges highlighted the lengths alleged criminal syndicates will go to in their bid to get illegal drugs into Australia.
“The manner in which these criminal syndicates allegedly imported this methamphetamine into Australia was dangerous,” Assistant Commissioner Dametto said.
“These charges are extremely serious, but so is flying an unregistered, low-level flight over thousands of kilometers dangerous.
“Not only did these men allegedly import a dangerous drug, but flying at low altitude without proper monitoring systems poses a major safety risk to other aircraft and to emergency responders in the event of an incident.
“Methamphetamine is a dangerous, illegal drug that causes so much harm to the community and first-line responders, such as paramedics, nurses and police.”
NSW Police Force State Crime Command Assistant Commissioner Michael Fitzgerald said the level of planning undertaken by this syndicate had been under scrutiny for months.
“Our detectives have been working closely with our partner agencies since last year to ensure this supply chain was stopped before they landed back in NSW,” Assistant Commissioner Fitzgerald said.
“The dangers of methylamphetamine on our state’s streets are extremely alarming – it destroys families and livelihoods.
“Through Strike Force Redground, we have stopped a potential new route from establishing its roots in NSW, with all five accused to appear before the courts.”
Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary Commissioner David Manning said transnational drug trafficking had no place in PNG.
“I look forward to continued support from our Pacific law enforcement partners so that we can disrupt and dismantle these criminal syndicates that continue to exploit our Pacific region,” he said.
“Investigations such as this matter highlight the RPNGC commitment to keeping PNG and our Pacific families free from the scourge of drugs.”