Lawyer X and the Tomato Tins bust.
Lawyer X and the Tomato Tins bust.

Lawyer X: The Tomato Tins twist

IT is 2007. Australia's biggest ever drug importers have been running scared for 12 months. They have shipped 4.4 tonnes of ecstasy, in tomato tins, to the Port of Melbourne.

The 16,000km voyage from Naples was smooth enough.

Then they faced the hard part - the last few hundred metres, from the docks to the streets, where the drugs are expected to reap $440 million.

They have employed diabolical and sometimes farcical schemes to find, then remove the consignment. They have blended buffoonery and bastardry, naivety and arrogance. They have threatened and charmed and pleaded. And they have failed.

The syndicate chiefs misread text messages. They botch alleged hits on suspected thieves within the ranks, in one case because a car does not start. They indulge in incriminating conversations, despite suspecting that they are being recorded.

.
.

There are life-and-death scenarios, an occupational hazard for every drug importer. Doom whispers from the Calabrian hills, which have supplied the ecstasy and want to know the whereabouts of the missing drugs.

There, amid olive groves and ancient ruins, generations of Ndrangheta evade tax and refine the art of bloody payback.

The importers are besieged and bereft.

Until, on August 8, 2008, a mercy of sorts.

The drug smugglers hit hurdle after hurdle in retrieving their product, hidden inside tomato tins.
The drug smugglers hit hurdle after hurdle in retrieving their product, hidden inside tomato tins.

They are arrested.

A who's who of Australian mafia figures are picked off in dawn raids and taken to the Australian Federal Police headquarters in La Trobe St in Melbourne.

Pat Barbaro is among them. He boasts the surname of one of the most powerful Calabrian clans, from the orchards of Griffith, NSW. His father, Francesco "Little Trees" Barbaro, who died last month, is thought to have known something about the death of anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay in 1977.

Prior to his arrest, Pat Barbaro goes alone to Calabria to explain the situation in scenes that bring to mind John F. Kennedy's famous quote: "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan."

He has guns pointed at him and he promises more drug deals and big profits to compensate for what sounds like a massive stuff-up.

"These people are starving …" he reports back, which is another way of saying they are deeply displeased.

Arrested, too, are Pat's cousin Saverio Zirilli and John Higgs, the bikie king who has an impressive resume in the importing of cocaine, ecstasy and hashish from across the world.

And there's Frank Madafferi, a Melbourne mafia boss. Madafferi contacts his lawyer, Joe "Pino" Acquaro, who races to the AFP offices, a barrister in tow - Lawyer X.

Madafferi, a relatively minor player in an elaborate scheme, has options, Acquaro explains. Acquaro is the Mafia lawyer who learned the power of Calabrian contacts and community from his father, an accountant. He's of the mafia but not in it, or so he says.

Acquaro's fight for Madafferi to overturn a deportation order has given him a haloed status within the "Honoured Society''. The granting of Madafferi's spousal visa would also come to be known as Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone's greatest mistake.

Acquaro straddles an unusual line between the respectable and the criminal, charm and standover. He's a chameleon, vain and proud. He will be shot dead eight years later outside his Brunswick East restaurant.

Madafferi accepts Lawyer X's help - and gets bail that night.

Pat Barbaro had gone to Calabria to try and explain the blunder before his arrest.
Pat Barbaro had gone to Calabria to try and explain the blunder before his arrest.

 

Frank Madafferi and his brother Tony suspected Acquaro’s motives.
Frank Madafferi and his brother Tony suspected Acquaro’s motives.

Barbaro, as the syndicate head, is remanded on more serious charges.

He retains Lawyer X's services into the following year. Lawyer X at the time represented many mafia and gangland figures.

Afterwards, Acquaro tells Madafferi that he should hire Lawyer X as his barrister because "she is close to police". Madafferi is dubious, but Acquaro insists.

It would be advantageous, he says, because Madafferi could pass on misinformation - through Lawyer X - to the police.

She does not appear again for Madafferi but she does appear in court for Barbaro.

Her true involvement in this case remains uncharted to this day.

But it is expected to be tested now that one of those jailed over the smuggling is contesting his convictions, with others watching closely.

It is said that Acquaro told Madafferi at the time that Lawyer X was an informer.

Madafferi, and his older brother Tony, would later suspect that Acquaro was also too close to police.

Yet authorities may have had others who helped from the inside of the operation. A complicated crime demanded a sophisticated sting. Layers upon layers shrouded both.

Convictions totalled almost 300 years for the dozens of players in the importation dubbed The Tomato Tins Case - with 15 million ecstasy pills concealed inside 3034 cans.

Those could be overturned, or sentences reduced, because of Lawyer X's role in the defence of some of the accused, amid claims that she entrapped some suspects to commit crimes, and nagging questions about details of the investigation.

To repeat that JFK quote, victory has a thousand fathers: the authorities who convicted the syndicate members and wrote a history of events that would become a case study in investigative excellence.

The Australian Federal Police say that they were tipped off about a large consignment by overseas agencies.

In targeted patrols, Customs officers discovered the drugs in a shipping container on the dock, delivered by the MV Monica from Naples on June 28, 2007, prompting a standard AFP response.

Evidence photographs from the Tomato Tin trial.
Evidence photographs from the Tomato Tin trial.

 

Things fell apart because of a simple Google search.
Things fell apart because of a simple Google search.

The agency removed the ecstasy and replaced the haul with fakes.

And waited for the importers to pick them up.

This approach is successful - but limited. It tends to snare the lower rungs of the criminal enterprise - drivers and the like - but miss the masterminds. Yet this case was unusual, both for the size of the haul and course of events.

The ringleaders' phones were tapped, apparently in unrelated investigations. They were being observed.

Their plan fell apart, say police, when a freight forwarder ignored the consignment note they had doctored for the purpose.

They had used a legitimate tomato tin importer as cover.

It was assumed the freight forwarder would try to reach that company, on a false phone number provided on the documentation. According to the plan, that call would be answered by the drug smugglers.

Instead, the freight forwarder sourced a number - the legitimate firm's number - from Google.

The drug importers, therefore, never received the phone call they were waiting for.

It's known that much of the investigation intelligence in this case is protected from public view because of public interest immunity provisions.

These protect witnesses who may be imperilled if their identities are exposed, as well as keeping secret sensitive police intelligence.

Rob Karam is serving 37 years over the Tomato Tins case.
Rob Karam is serving 37 years over the Tomato Tins case.

 

But Rob Karam is challenging these protections.

That's because he has learned that his lawyer, Lawyer X, was a registered police informer, which he says was an unreasonable conflict of interest that compromised his defence.

Karam, who is serving 37 years in jail for the Tomato Tins scam and another major drug trafficking offences, claims that Lawyer X arranged meetings between him, Higgs and Barbaro, with no prior notice, and entrapped him in the Tomato Tins crimes.

He claims in an affidavit that back in 2005, either Lawyer X or a dockside logistics worker 'Smoky' (not his real name), or both of them, had been "trying to invite me to commit criminal activity with him".

Just under two years later - not long after the phone number bungle - members of the syndicate had a feverish desire to access the bill of lading (a critical document which details which shipping containers goods are carried in), so they could track down the missing drugs.

Karam claims that he was told the document had been provided to Smoky, but he had been remanded in jail on a separate matter.

So Karam was pressured by syndicate ringleaders to get it off Smoky, or find it another way, he says.

After speaking with Lawyer X on July 4, Karam says he believed that either she or Smoky possessed the document.

"I understand from my later trial that it was provided to the AFP prior to July 2007 by someone," he claims.

Karam and others allege that someone - speculated to be Lawyer X - enabled the authorities to track down the container and plant the fake pills in a bid to catch the importers when they finally came to collect.

That day never came, but phone taps still captured enough desperate chatter for the arrests about a year later.

It is believed that Karam's appeal is being funded by Barbaro.

The syndicate head is watching the appeal intently from the Eucalypt Unit in Barwon Prison, in a cell alongside Madafferi.

He subscribes to the widely-held view that Karam's case could be a legal test case for dozens if not hundreds of convicted criminals who were tangled in Lawyer X's legal work.

 

It was Australia’s biggest ever drug bust, worth an estimated $440 million.
It was Australia’s biggest ever drug bust, worth an estimated $440 million.
Lawyer Joe ‘Pino’ Acquaro was later murdered.
Lawyer Joe ‘Pino’ Acquaro was later murdered.
Agents opening the tins to reveal the huge haul of pills.
Agents opening the tins to reveal the huge haul of pills.
Pat Barbaro outside court in 2011.
Pat Barbaro outside court in 2011.
Three of the accused drug plotters were observed by police in Preston during the sting, in this surveillance image from the Tomato Tins trial.
Three of the accused drug plotters were observed by police in Preston during the sting, in this surveillance image from the Tomato Tins trial.
The enormous consignment of 15 million pills broke records.
The enormous consignment of 15 million pills broke records.