How ‘Queen of Richmond’ got heroin into Australia
A nail technician dubbed the 'Queen of Richmond' used flight attendants to help smuggle up to $8 million worth of high-grade heroin from Malaysia in their underwear as part of an international drug syndicate.
Michelle Ngoc Tran, 48, faces life in prison after admitting her role as the Melbourne-based head of a major drug enterprise in which she enlisted an army of "soldiers" - including airline cabin crew - to act as mules and carry the illicit drugs to Australia to then traffick into the community on eight occasions between October and December 2018.
Australian Federal Police intercepted just half of these importations during their investigation, totalling 6.6kg of heroin with a street value between $4-8 million.
Details of the sophisticated operation were revealed for the first time after members of the syndicate faced the County Court this week, pleading guilty to a range of offences including importing and trafficking a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug.
During the investigation, it was revealed Tran - who drove a Mini Cooper and called herself 'the Queen' - was the Australian contact of a Malaysian drug supplier known only as "Mr Hanoi".
Tran boasted she had been in the drug trade for more than 30 years, beginning when she was a teenager, and her name was so famous in the Richmond community, she would have her soldiers hold her phone for her whenever she used it.
Tran labelled the use of flight attendants to smuggle drugs as the "flying bird route" and nicknamed Sydney and Melbourne as Sandy and Mandy respectively.
Zailee Zainal, 40, was working as an air hostess on budget airline Malindo Air in 2018 when she was recruited by a colleague to work as a mule as a way to make money for her seriously ill daughter.
Zainal told police it took her three months to learn to walk with the drugs between her legs and she was given a pillow to train with and "to help her walk with confidence".
The Malaysian national was promised $1700 per courier flight - though it is not believed she received this entire amount - and would exchange the heroin "tickets" with Tran's "porters" in hotel bathrooms.
She would then return to Malaysia with payment from Tran for Mr Hanoi.
Each ticket of high grade heroin weighed about 1kg and was split into three packets hidden in the flight attendant's underwear and bra.
Tran would sell the tickets for close to $200,000 to her Australian customers and pocket about $20,000 commission for herself.
In a plea hearing on Wednesday, barrister Luke Barker, for Zainal, said the young mother had an "impeccable background", void of any criminal history, and her offending was purely motivated by a desire to look after her family.
"That is, respectfully, the only rational way of explaining how such an admirable person became embroiled in such a nefarious trade," Mr Barker submitted.
Judge Michael Cahill accepted Zainal's "exceptional" personal circumstances and said it was a case where mercy could be considered.
Tran on Monday pleaded guilty to importing and trafficking a border controlled drug before her plea hearing was adjourned until next month in light for further material.
Zainal, who pleaded guilty to one count of importing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug, will be sentenced on October 5.
Originally published as How 'Queen of Richmond' got heroin into Australia