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Tony Mokbel's sentencing on major drugs charges will skirt his links to several underworld murders, writes John Silvester.

Tony Mokbel's sentencing on major drugs charges will skirt his links to several underworld murders, writes John Silvester.

THE noise from the white Gulfstream's twin jet engines was hardly noticeable as the chartered plane flew above the Mediterranean with four crew, eight police and one passenger Tony Mokbel, Australia's most wanted man.

The $450,000 flight was a record outlay by the Victorian government but to Mokbel it was small change. He spent three times that amount escaping to Greece on his private yacht.

After more than a year on the run and a further 11 months fighting his extradition the prisoner was surprisingly upbeat during the 21-hour flight in May 2008. He faced eight life sentences, including two for underworld murders, but he remained convinced he would one day be freed.

From the moment he was arrested in a seaside Athens cafe in June 2007, Mokbel developed a three-tiered defence strategy.

First was bribery. At the local police station he immediately offered Greek officers ?1 million ($1.23 million) to release him. But when Purana Taskforce Detective Sergeant Jim Coghlan walked in Mokbel knew all roads led to the Victorian Supreme Court.

The second was to argue to any court that his extradition was unlawful. And while that was always going to fail it flagged his mindset. He would delay prosecution until he could crunch a deal that gave him a release date. He was in no hurry, as he had to serve a nine-year minimum for cocaine trafficking imposed in 2006.

Mokbel loved a punt and, as a prisoner, he was no different. He knew if he fought every charge his cases would last a decade and cost millions. He reasoned the prosecutors would eventually agree to drop many of the charges just to reach a result. But if he went to trial, life with no minimum was a real possibility. He was prepared to gamble the rest of his life against the hope that he could cut a deal.

In April last year, he agreed to admit to trafficking methylamphetamine and ecstasy if prosecutors dropped a further eight drugs cases.

After a change of heart and an attempt to wriggle out under a legal technicality, Mokbel accepted the inevitable. When Justice Simon Whelan finally sentences him, possibly as early as today, while he may be given a maximum of life, he will get the minimum he craved and the betting is around 23 years, backdated to the time of his arrest in Greece.

Now 46, he can expect to be released around retirement age, although the Purana Taskforce has already grabbed much of his superannuation nest egg.

Mokbel stands as the biggest drug dealer successfully prosecuted in Australia, but one question remains: Did he get away with murder?

He has been linked to four gangland hits. He was charged and acquitted over the shooting death of Lewis Moran in March 2004 a charge against him over the shooting of Michael Marshall in October 2003 was dropped, and he was suspected of involvement in the deaths of Nik Radev in April 2003 and of Mario Condello in February 2006.

In Greece he maintained to police in off-the-record chats that while he was a drug dealer, he was no killer. But many disagree. "I have no doubt he was involved in several underworld murders," says then Purana chief, former Detective Inspector Jim O'Brien.

Mokbel was no innocent bystander in Melbourne's underworld feud, siding with Carl Williams when he went to war with the Moran clan and the affiliated Carlton Crew. He became friendly with Williams in prison and that alliance was strengthened when the career drug dealer fell out with Mick Gatto. Mokbel blamed the Carlton identity for a savage, November 2002 beating he received at the hands (and feet) of Perth bikies in Lygon Street. Intriguingly, Condello was present.

Days after the bashing when Mokbel reported according to his bail conditions he arrived at South Melbourne police station wearing dark glasses and with "a head like a pumpkin", according to police. He remained grotesquely swollen for two weeks.

Certainly Gatto believes the beating turned Mokbel against him. In his book, I, Mick Gatto, he wrote: "From that day onwards The Mediterranean [Mokbel] had this insane belief that I had set him up. The Mediterranean subsequently put out a contract to have me killed . . . I know that Nik Radev was offered $400,000 to kill me."

Police say Mokbel turned from an interested observer to an active player. But the two murder cases against him failed because the prosecution relied too heavily on the testimony of underworld informers.

Purana spent years trying to break the underworld code of silence with limited success catching minnows when it needed a shark. So when the big bite came it was shocked at the source a career armed robber turned by Carl Williams into an enthusiastic hitman.

The man, code named The Runner, refused for decades to co-operate with police, but by early 2006 he'd had enough. Facing a life sentence and short-changed over a contract killing, he made a series of statements implicating Williams. Along the way he also swore that Mokbel was the moneyman behind some of the hits.

The Runner and Mokbel became friends when they were in Port Phillip Prison's high-security Swallow Division in 2001. By late 2002 Williams, Mokbel and The Runner were out of jail and meeting regularly. Williams recruited The Runner to kill Jason Moran for an agreed payment of $100,000, although Williams paid him only $2500.

At first, according to the informer's statements, Mokbel was an urger - "Tony would also provide Carl with information on the movements of Jason Moran" but within months, police believe, he was immersed in the killing business.

In July 2003, Willie Thompson, part-time actor, black belt, bouncer, lollipop salesman and drug dealer, was shot dead in his luxury sports car in Chadstone. The Runner told police he met Williams, Mokbel and others at a Brunswick Red Rooster store: "Tony was upset and angry about Thompson's death, he mentioned that he went to school with him and was a very close friend."

Mokbel nominated Michael Marshall, a hot-dog seller and drug dealer as the killer and Williams quickly agreed to take the contract for $300,000. "I was surprised," said The Runner "because I knew that Carl was behind Thompson's murder, but it appeared that Tony had no idea of that."

So did The Runner just make up the story to tell detectives what they wanted to hear?

Surveillance police tailed Carl and The Runner to the chicken shop meeting on Tuesday, September 30, around 1 pm. They observed a general conversation until Mokbel took The Runner away for a private chat, noting how the drug dealer waved his arms to make a point.

According to the hitman's statement, there "was only a short conversation and when I shook hands with Tony he passed a piece of paper to me which had the details of Marshall's address". This time The Runner wanted a substantial advance for the job.

"Carl rang me and we organised to meet at a cafe in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne . . . He handed me a package which was a manila envelope folded over which contained ($50,000 in) $100 and $50 notes. He said something like, 'Here, this is from Tony'."

On October 25, The Runner ambushed Marshall outside his Williams Road, South Yarra, home. He was arrested that night. Eventually Williams was charged and convicted of the murder, largely on The Runner's testimony. Key elements of The Runner's evidence could be corroborated, including a bugged phone call to Williams after the murder in which he claimed a horse had been "scratched".

So did Mokbel organise the Marshall murder? Almost certainly yes, but prosecutors believed a case based on the hitman's uncorroborated evidence would likely fail. So the case was dropped.

Bulgarian refugee Nik Radev was an ambitious drug dealer and forged professional links with Mokbel and Williams by the early 2000s. Mokbel didn't like or trust him and would have cut him free except that Radev had a constant supply of top-quality chemicals that could be turned into illicit pills and powders by Mokbel's star drug cook.

Mokbel taxed Radev over every cook by cutting the drugs and keeping a large share. The Mokbel deal made Radev rich but he wanted more and demanded a meeting with the cook. He bragged that if he found the technician he would make him "cook 24 hours a day".

Williams and Mokbel knew that if Radev found their man he would be forced to change camps. Police claim they agreed there was only one way to eliminate the risk and that was to eliminate Radev.

The target was invited to meet a group, said to include Mokbel, Williams, The Runner and hitman Andrew Veniamin at the Brighton Baths cafe on April 15, 2003. Police say he was told he could meet the drug cook on the other side of town and they headed off in three cars.

The Runner later told police: "I drove Veniamin to murder Nik Radev."

Radev left his car in Queen Street, Coburg, to talk to two men and as he walked back to his $100,000 Mercedes he was shot seven times. He always wanted to die rich, but not in a volley of bullets and aged just 48.

When Veniamin was shot dead by Mick Gatto on March 23, 2004, Williams' response was violent. "Here we go again, fasten your seatbelts," he told this reporter.

Gatto was arrested and sent to jail (he was cleared in 2005 on the grounds of self- defence) so Williams concentrated his revenge on Lewis Moran, using a career criminal notorious for his duplicity and instincts for self-preservation.

On March 31, Moran was shot dead in the Brunswick Club and eventually the career crook ("Jack Price") became an energetic police witness. As a result of his version of events, Williams pleaded guilty to the murder and Evangelos Goussis was convicted of being the gunman.

According to Price, Mokbel promised him $150,000 for the hit. He claimed that three days after the murder Mokbel gave him $140,000 cash. The only corroboration was a phone call to Price made on the day from a phone box near the home of Mokbel's mother. It wasn't enough. In 2009, a Supreme Court jury acquitted Mokbel of Moran's murder.

In June 2004, Carl Williams' first bid to kill Condello, failed when his hit team was arrested waiting to ambush the disbarred lawyer outside Brighton cemetery. Less than two years later a second bid succeeded.

By that time Williams was in jail and his network destroyed. However, Mokbel was still on bail. He knew Condello had offered big money to have enemies of the Carlton Crew killed, and he still hadn't forgiven him for being present when he was beaten by the Perth bikies.

In March 2007, police failed to win a court order to take Tony Mokbel's brother Mlad from jail to interview him over Condello's murder. They claimed that on the night of the murder he told a friend to "make himself scarce" as Condello was about to be killed. Just 45 minutes later Condello was ambushed.

Six weeks after Condello's murder Mokbel jumped bail and went on the run. Today, Antonios Sajih Mokbel may learn how many years he will be in prison. Much of his fortune has been seized, he has had a heart attack in prison and his girlfriend has left him.

But it could have been worse.

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