Five charged over PNG meth flight

Photo: Queensland Police Service

Five alleged criminal syndicate members accused of orchestrating a black flight from Papua New Guinea to Australia with 52kg of methamphetamine on board have been charged under an AFP-led investigation.

Four of the five men, all from NSW, appeared before Bundaberg Magistrates Court yesterday (22 March, 2023) on charges relating to their alleged involvement in the black flight. One man, 54, is scheduled to appear Thursday.

A black flight is commonly a light aircraft that logs false flight plans (or no log at all), flies at a very low altitude or turns off flight monitoring systems to avoid law enforcement or aviation monitoring systems.

It will be alleged the men charged were transnational serious organised crime (TSOC) members who handled the practical arrangements for the methamphetamine to be imported on board a black flight from PNG to rural Queensland. It will be alleged that once the flight landed in Queensland, the aircraft would be re-fuelled and flown to NSW.

Three of the arrested men allegedly provided ground support for the flight and had staged themselves in Queensland since February in preparation for the flight. The two pilots who allegedly flew the black flight were also charged.

The methamphetamine had an estimated street value of more than $15 million (US$10 million).

The investigation was part of Operation Gepard, which is a joint investigation with the AFP, the NSW Police Force’s State Crime Command (Strike Force Redground) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (Operation Nashton).

Police will allege that over two days (20 to 21 March, 2023), 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 south west of Sydney, to the town of Bulolo in PNG, which is more than 250km north-west of Port Moresby.

Their actions were monitored by members of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) Transnational Crime Unit from Lae in PNG. Before landing in PNG, the pilots refuelled at an airstrip in the central Queensland town of Monto.

It will be alleged the pilots collected 52kg of methamphetamine in PNG and then returned to the airstrip at Monto. The men allegedly flew at an unauthorised low altitude with the aircraft’s transponder switched off during the return journey in an effort to avoid radar detection.

All five men were arrested by specialist AFP and Queensland Police Service members shortly after the plane arrived at the Monto airstrip on Tuesday. Police located and seized five duffle bags concealed in the plane, containing about 52kg methamphetamine.

Following the arrests in Central Queensland, the 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, firearm parts, drug paraphernalia and documentation referencing aircraft parts and travel to PNG. All items will be subject to further forensic examination.

All five men were charged with importing a commercial quantity of methamphetamine contrary to section 307.1 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth), and face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted.

The alleged ground support crew who had been staging in Queensland included a Wilton man, 40, Newcastle man, 54, and a man of no fixed address, 40.

The Wilton man was allegedly the principal facilitator of the importation, working on behalf of other people funding the importation and with access to the supply of drugs from TSOC members overseas. It will be alleged he was the conduit to the people storing the drugs in PNG.

The Newcastle man allegedly helped transport a tank of aviation gas to central Queensland to re-fill the aircraft at the remote airstrip and also purchased and rented equipment for the importation.

The AFP will allege the third man, 40, had 17 mobile phone accounts in his name, enabling the syndicate to operate a system of burner phones to communicate with each other.

The syndicate also allegedly used encrypted phones and messaging systems to communicate with other members of the supply chain based offshore.

Further inquiries are continuing into how this TSOC syndicate sourced the drugs, and to identify others responsible for planning this importation. This includes the close and continual cooperation between the AFP, the RPNGC and authorities in south-east Asia through its International Command.

The AFP, NSW Police Force and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission have monitored the alleged NSW-based criminal syndicate, which has significant international links, for an extended period of time. It will be alleged the TSOC syndicate were attempting to create a supply chain for delivering illicit drugs to Australia using black flights.

The AFP worked with RPNGC Commissioner David Manning, who on request from the AFP, provided support for the investigation. 

The RPNGC monitored the alleged black flight through PNG air space to Bulolo, PNG, and its return to Australia. Investigations into how the drugs originally entered PNG are ongoing.

Australia and PNG remain committed to improving investigative capabilities to disrupt illicit supply chains to PNG and prosecute those who use PNG as a gateway to send illicit drugs to Australia.

This black flight is not the first attempt by alleged TSOC members to transport illegal substances from PNG into Australia. In 2020, an alleged black flight carrying 550kg of cocaine attempted to leave PNG but crashed when trying to take off. 

The pilot of that venture is serving an 18-year-prison sentence term in PNG for the attempted import.  Other prosecutions, both in PNG and in Australia, relating to that matter are ongoing.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Eastern Command Stephen Dametto said the charges highlighted the lengths alleged criminal syndicates would go to in their bid to get illicit drugs to Australia.

“The way these criminal syndicates allegedly imported this methamphetamine to Australia was dangerous,” Assistant Commissioner Dametto said.

“These charges are extremely serious, but equally, allegedly flying an unregistered, low-level flight, across thousands of kilometres is dangerous.

“These men have not only allegedly imported a dangerous drug, but flying at a low altitude without proper monitoring systems poses a huge safety risk to other aircraft and to emergency services members 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.

“The AFP is proud of the efforts of our investigators and partner agencies in diligently investigating this group since November 2022, and preventing them from profiting from the likely distribution of this dangerous, addictive drug through illegal networks across NSW.”

NSW Police Force’s State Crime Command Assistant Commissioner Michael Fitzgerald said the level of planning which this syndicate has undertaken has been under the microscope for months.

“Our detectives have working closely with our partner agencies since last year to ensure this supply chain was stopped before landing back in NSW,” Assistant Commissioner Fitzgerald said.

“The dangers methylamphetamine is presenting on our state’s streets is extremely concerning – it is destroying families and livelihoods.

“Through Strike Force Redground, we have thwarted a potential new route from establishing its roots in NSW, with all five accused men to appear before the courts.”

“NSW Police will continue to target organised criminal networks across the state to dismantle them and their transnational links, all to protect the people of NSW.”

Queensland Police Service Assistant Commissioner Katherine Innes, Crime and Intelligence Command said this impressive result demonstrates how closely the QPS works with the AFP and law enforcement partners in relentlessly pursuing criminal groups involved in serious and organised crime.

“In partnership with AFP and NSW Police, the QPS was involved in critical components in this high level investigation and coordinated tactical action to disrupt and investigate activities impacting on our communities.

“QPS will continue to partner with the relevant agencies in the ongoing investigation of this criminal network and to support current and future investigations.

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) Executive Director Intelligence Operations Jennifer Hurst believes Operation Gepard exemplifies what can be achieved through multi-agency collaboration and cooperation. The ACIC applied a number of its capabilities to support its partner agencies in this complex operation.

“The ACIC’s most recent report of the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Programme, and associated analysis, clearly indicates that large law enforcement disruptions such as this one, have a significant impact on the consumption of illicit drugs,” she said.

RPNGC Commissioner Manning said transnational and serious organised crime and narcotics trade have no place in PNG or in our Pacific region.  

“I look forward to continued support from our Pacific law enforcement partners so we can disrupt and dismantle these criminal syndicates that continue to exploit our Pacific region,” RPNGC Commissioner Manning said. “Investigations such as this matter highlight the RPNGC commitment to keep PNG and our Pacific families free from the scourge of narcotics,” he said.

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