How alleged $225m mafia cocaine plot was foiled
IT HAD all the hallmarks of a Hollywood action movie: $255m worth of cocaine, black flights, encrypted phones, mafia, death threats, a mysterious killing and secret meetings over pizza in suburban restaurants.
Details of one of the nation's largest alleged cocaine plots have been revealed in the Supreme Court in Cairns where the alleged "boss" of the drug plot Salvatore "Sam" Formica, 34, from Niddrie in Melbourne's northwest, was successful in seeking bail last month on cocaine importation and attempted importation charges.
Formica, who allegedly went by the codename "Captain Morgan" in chats on his encrypted Ciphr phone with other ring members, is alleged to have taken a hands-on role in an earlier successful mission to smuggle 300kg of cocaine, worth about $90m, to Queensland in August 2018.
The father-of-one and former part-owner of upmarket South Melbourne restaurant Rokkbank and Co is alleged to have helped haul heavy bags of cocaine off a yacht anchored off PNG in 2018, after it sailed from Peru, skippered by an Italian national.
According to police, the drugs were then flown to Mareeba in Queensland in a small plane with its transponder turned off and piloted by an unlicensed pilot, then smuggled to Melbourne hidden in the false floor of a box trailer towed by a ute.
It was this August 2018 flight - in a model of plane popular with skydivers because it can can carry a heavy load - that caught the attention of authorities, according to a police afffidavit tendered in opposition to bail.
An elite taskforce of police then began following the money trail, watching as the drug ring sent funds for the servicing of the plane ready for the next illegal flight.
Police allege in court documents that Formica "has been an active member of a transnational organised criminal syndicate alleged to be the Ndrangheta" which "has majority control of international cocaine trafficking" as well as involvement in co-ordinated extortion, murder and money laundering.
Police allege Formica's Calabrian mafia members were in business with a Colombian drug cartel and PNG criminals with a plan to exploit weaknesses in Australia's porous border with PNG and the sparsely populated far north of Queensland.
Formica, who is married to Antonina Arico, with whom he shares a $1.3m house, was allegedly working for the "main man", his father-in-law and co-accused Aiden Anis Khodher, 31, he was recorded saying in a conversation.
Formica's importation plans were allegedly so ambitious that had the second $164m import succeeded last year, the ring would have imported 20 per cent of the total annual cocaine consumption nationally of 400 tonnes a year.
Formica claims he played only a minor role in the plot.
the flop gun
Their plan failed when the plane, flown by unlicensed pilot David John Cutmore, 53, crashed on the remote dirt airstrip in vicinity of Kairuku-Hiri in PNG because it was overloaded with cocaine.
Cutmore and PNG syndicate members allegedly hastily unloaded the drugs before authorities arrived and hid them in mangroves near Lea Lea village until they were later recovered by PNG police.
Cutmore has been charged in a PNG court over the smuggling, plus failing to comply with international travel measures under the National Pandemic Act.
He has admitted failing to have proper aviation documents and operating a plane carelessly.
Cutmore, who went by the codename "Top Gun" on his Ciphr phone, was willing to fly without his transponder on at low altitude in return for promises of riches.
He allegedly told police he was promised $2m for three "black flights" from PNG, having previously received $500,000 for the successful 2018 import.
He planned to buy a house and retire with the proceeds, an AFP statement of facts says.
Cutmore was caught on hidden audio surveillance devices allegedly boasting to his colleagues at his workplace, Amber Aviation, about his plans to strike it rich "in the drug business" and saying he was doing a drug run from PNG to Australia, the statement of facts says.
Cutmore also fancied himself as actor Tom Cruise in the film American Made, about the life of a commercial pilot turned cocaine importer for the Colombian Medellin cartel in 1980, the facts say.
Hidden audio surveillance devices allegedly captured Cutmore joking that he would "do a Tom Cruise covered in powder, land in the street" once back from PNG.
The drug ring was also allegedly abusing the lax security around small airfields in far north Queensland.
Airfields at Cooktown and Helenvale were allegedly inspected in February last year by Formica's alleged lieutenant, Melbourne bar owner Aiden Anis Khodher, described in court by Justice Jim Henry as "an underworld figure", and Sydney glazier George Machem, court documents state.
Machem has been charged with conspiracy to import cocaine and supporting a criminal organisation.
Iraqi-born Khodher, who went by the handle "Glenfiddich" on his Ciphr phone and who is alleged to have discussed a two-tonne shipment worth $600m, is also alleged to have agreed to purchase a house next to Cooktown Airport with easy access to the Cooktown boat ramp for $480,000.
The offer was accepted by the owners and Khodher told them his friend, a Melbourne chef, would be the purchaser. However the purchase was never actually completed, property records show.
Ultimately the syndicate allegedly used a small rural airport in Mareeba, 63km west of Cairns, to land the cocaine plane. The airfield has no air traffic control and self-service refuelling.
Khodher - who is charged with importing cocaine, conspiring to import cocaine, money laundering $1m and directing the activities of a crime gang - and Formica allegedly loaded the trailer with the $90m worth of cocaine at a Stayz rental property in Edge Hill, Cairns.
For the second larger shipment of 549kg, police allege the ring planned to smuggle it to Melbourne hidden in hollowed-out plasterboard with the truck to be loaded 30km from the airport at the Rocky War Memorial Park in Tolga.
While the group paid for accommodation, equipment and fuel with prepaid credit cards in fake names and registered the plane in the name of a PNG national, police were secretly trailing them for nearly two years.
Officers photographed pilot Cutmore and Khodher meeting for dinner at Pacino's Italian Restaurant in Melbourne's Flemington in May 2019 and watched as Khodher allegedly "made plane gestures" to Cutmore.
Officers were also listening in as university science student Khodher, Cutmore and Machem stayed at a Stayz rental property in Atherton, near Mareeba, booked under fake names, while awaiting the second shipment.
'WE GOTTA DO IT'
"The bosses say we gotta do it, bro, they're going to kill us," Khodher allegedly told Machem, according to documents tendered to the court.
PNG syndicate member Geoffrey Paul, the owner of the company that owned the smuggling plane, died aged 56 in 2019 after the first cocaine import but before the second attempt. He was run over by a car and fatally stabbed in Port Moresby in a disagreement as part of an illegal firearms deal, court documents state.
Police were also watching when Khodher bought a 12m fishing boat from a Townsville seller for $210,000. He splashed out a further $30,000 for a skipper to motor it to PNG, where it remains.
Had the second flight been successful, the syndicate had ambitious plans to bring in more shipments and buy more planes and properties in remote far north Queensland, tapped conversations reveal.
Pierino Forni, 62, a financial adviser from Melbourne, has been charged with laundering $1.4m of drug money for Khodher.
Khodher and Formica were captured on CCTV at banks in suburban Melbourne depositing cash allegedly to be used for the plane and its upkeep, and to pay the PNG associates.
THE FIRST MISSION,
AUGUST 2018: 300KG OF COCAINE
1. Yacht sails to PNG from Peru, loaded with cocaine
2. Cocaine unloaded from yacht, loaded into plane,flown to Mareeba
3. Cocaine loaded into the false floor of a ute's box trailer at Tolga
4. Cocaine driven to Melbourne
THE SECOND MISSION,
JULY 2020: 549KG OF COCAINE
1. Yacht sails to PNG from Peru, loaded with cocaine
2. Cocaine unloaded from yacht and loaded into plane
3. Plane crashes on remote dirt airstrip near Kairiku-Hiri, PNG
4. Pilot and and syndicate members allegedly unload the drugs and hide them in mangroves near Lea Lea
5. Pilot arrested and charged
WHO'S IN THE ALLEGED SYNDICATE
Salvatore "Sam" Formica
Code name "Captain Morgan"
Unemployed, married father of one. Alleged cocaine ring principal aka "The Boss".
Aiden Anis Khodher
Code name "Glenfiddich"
Alleged drug ring principal who reports to Formica. "Worth $2m". Runs a bar in Ascot Vale, Victoria
David John Cutmore
Code name "Top Gun"
Unlicenced pilot arrested in PNG when he crashed smuggling plane.
Pierino 'Peter" Forni
A financial adviser and alleged launderer of dirty money.
George Machem aka Merheb
Glazier and alleged scout.
Former chef alleged to have sent more than $50k to PNG syndicate.
Driver of a truck set to drive 549kg of cocaine from Mareeba to Melbourne in 2020, hidden in hollowed out plasterboard.
SY Badu skipper who allegedly sailed cocaine to PNG from Peru.
Owner of the company that owned the smuggling plane. Died in 2019 in a firearms deal gone wrong.
Alleged PNG drug ring member
Kenneth Peter Wiggett
Drove 300kg of cocaine to Melbourne in 2018 in a box trailer.
Originally published as How alleged $225m mafia cocaine plot was foiled