Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tony Mokbel offers deal to police to beat murder rap

Melbourne drug baron Tony Mokbel has offered to cut a deal with Australian police in order to cut short his extradition proceedings from Greece. Speaking to journalists in Athens last night during a court adjournment he offered to return to Australia in exchange for police dropping murder charges in favour of drug charges. With five levels of courts in Greece, Mokbel is capable of dragging out extradition for an indefinite period.

The 41 year old Mokbel appeared in a Greek court charged with possessing false documents. Prosecutors alleged Mokbel held a false passport and driving licence and Mokbel has denied the charges. The case has been adjourned to 22 June pending a police report. The charge has a maximum penalty of one year jail but is unlikely to affect the Australian extradition bid.

Mokbel was arrested on Tuesday in Athens after 15 months on the run posing as international trader “Stephen Papas”. Immediately, the Australian Federal Police issued a formal extradition request on one count of murder and five of drug trafficking. His Greek lawyer Yiannis Vlachos has moved to fight the extradition order claiming his client will not receive a fair trial in Australia.

Mokbel was on trial in March 2006 in the Victorian Supreme Court charged with importing 2.9 kg of cocaine when he absconded. Mokbel was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to 12 years. He was later charged with the 2004 murder of fellow druglord Lewis Moran. Earlier this year a hitman named Noel Faure pleaded guilty to his murder. Faure told the court that Mokbel and another man, Carl Williams, paid Faure $140,000 to execute Moran.

Antonios Sajih Mokbel was born in 1965. His family were from the small town of Achache in north Lebanon. His father worked in Kuwait for 15 years before moving to Australia. Mokbel was born in Kuwait and moved to Melbourne with the family. He went to Moreland High School in the 1970s but his desire to make money meant he was never destined for tertiary education.

He got his first job as a dishwasher at a suburban nightclub before he became a waiter. He then started working security. Mokbel was not a large man but he was a smooth talker able to persuade people to his point of view without using overt violence. In 1984, aged 19 he bought his first business, a milk bar in the Melbourne suburb of Rosanna. Aged 24 he married Carmel and they had two children. They worked long and hard but had to sell up without making any money.

In 1987 he bought an Italian restaurant in Boronia. This business was more successful and by 1997 he was able to expand by opening T Jays restaurant in Brunswick and becoming a property developer. By now Mokbel had become involved in drug trafficking. In 1998 he was convicted over amphetamine manufacturing but beat the charge on appeal. Mokbel was also a successful gambler who won big money on Melbourne racing. He had interests in shops, cafes, fashions, fragrances, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and land in regional Victoria. At the turn of the century he was able to tell friends he controlled 38 different companies and he was worth $20 million.

Mokbel was one of the first of the major drug dealers to move into the designer pill industry, making amphetamine and speed for the nightclub set. As his business expanded he became involved with some of Melbourne’s shadier characters. The city has long had gangland murders. But the violence escalated in 2002 after ten of the city's most senior mobsters had met in a council of war in Carlton. Matters took a nasty turn at that meeting and Mokbel was almost beaten to death by bodyguards belonging to drug tsar Nick 'the Russian' Radev. Mokbel was taken to a private doctor by a hitman called Andrew “Benji” Veniamin, who was an associate of Carlton crime boss Mick Gatto. Afterwards Veniamin and Mokbel became friends and their mutual enemies began to die.

Radev was first to die, shot seven times outside his home. Lewis Moran's son Jason and his bodyguard were killed by a lone gunman as they watched a junior football clinic. They were followed in short order by two more associates of Moran who made speed. Then in December 2003 Moran’s friend and one of the city’s most influential gangsters, Graham 'the Munster' Kinniburgh, was shot dead outside his home in the leafy suburb of Kew. His death was the 24th gangland death in six years.

Responsibility for investigating these deaths rested with a Victorian police task force known as Purana. They were aware of Mokbel since 2001 when he was arrested over importing barrels of the chemical ephedrine. Although the charges couldn’t be proven, his assets were frozen by the National Australia Bank. Mokbel was charged for importing cocaine and defied his own lawyers’ advice to plead guilty. Mokbel hoped that delaying the trial, some of the drug squad detectives own charges of corruption would stick, thus discrediting their charges against him. Mokbel was released on bail after a year and tried to do a deal with police.

But by 2005 it was clear the deal wasn’t going to happen. Two of the cocaine traffickers were sentenced to 11 and five years respectively. Mokbel knew he was going down. He disappeared on 20 March shortly before the end of his trial, leaving his girlfriend and his frozen assets behind. But Mokbel couldn’t change old habits. He continued to run his drug empire from Greece. But his downfall came when one of his associates wired $400,000 to him in Athens by electronic transfer. Police picked up the trail. By early May officers from Purana knew where he lived. On Tuesday, Greek police caught up with him in a coffee shop. Mokbal had lost 20 kgs and was wearing a poor quality wig which matched the passport shots. But he was compliant with police when they arrested him. Perhaps he should have checked his horoscope that morning. It read "Leos tend to feel they're entitled to more freedom and independence … others might not agree today."

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