Loose lips sink Aussie drug kingpin’s smuggling operation
A suspected crook with loose lips and a conscientious off-duty cop helped take down a multimillion-dollar international drug smuggling operation on the east coast.
The unlikely encounter which sparked a 12-month convert operation involving some of the county's leading law enforcement agencies and 10 raids on businesses and properties can be revealed for the first time after a report into Operation Maven was published by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.
The would-be drug smuggler and the Australian Federal Police officer's paths crossed when they happened to both check into the same motel.
Unfortunately for the aspiring criminal, his loud and boastful phone conversations convincing cohorts he could sneak in shipments from Thailand pricked the officer's ears.
"I have people in customs and I know how to get around inspections as product comes into the country …," the man was overheard saying.
"I can fly to Thailand with…..(an unnamed person) and meet you - you can buy the product and see if it is to your standard."
Thinking it was a case of official corruption in Customs, the AFP officer ran to the carpark where there were only two cars parked.
Checks revealed one of the cars was registered to a person already known to police for prohibited imports and supply of dangerous drugs.
The officer reported the incident to his superiors, sparking a full-blown police and intelligence operation known as Operation Maven involving the nation's most powerful law enforcement agencies.
Because it was suspected a Customs official might be involved, the AFP brought in the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) which is the federal law enforcement corruption watchdog.
The Australian Crime and Intelligence Commission and Queensland Police were also drafted to help and a joint task force was set up.
Investigators sifted through records looking for connections between the suspected crook and the person on the other end of the phone dubbed (Person B) and anyone at Customs.
Using physical and electronic surveillance, trawling through bank accounts and putting out movement alerts for the suspects, the task force slowly built up a picture of the operation.
Police discovered how substances were being imported to manufacture synthetic cannabis and identified methodologies used to avoid detection.
Officers were ready when the suspected crook undertook the talked-about trip to Thailand with the accomplice and they were grabbed on their return to Australia, where the suspected crook was searched and the accomplice's phone was downloaded.
The data and information on the phone ruled out involvement by a Customs official. But police did uncover a trafficking network importing substances to manufacture and supply synthetic cannabis.
The operation was only revealed when the ACLEI published a report on the investigation code named Operation Maven, which involved more than 12 months of covert operations, and 10 search warrants executed on businesses and residential addresses in Capalaba in Queensland, Rockhampton and the Gold Coast.
While details of Operation Maven were never made public, in 2016 Queensland Detective Inspector Jon Wacker revealed cement mixers had been used to create the drugs which were being sold covertly as "legal highs".
The synthetic marijuana powder - which was dissolved in acetone, sprayed onto leafy material, and mixed in a concrete mixer - were later linked to a string of deaths and the hospitalisation of dozens of people.
The suspected crook was never charged and police have declined to talk about the case. But the operation did uncover new ways of concealing illicit synthetic drugs from South-East Asia and China.
Among the people charged as part of Operation Maven was a then 52-year-old Queensland man who was convicted with one count of possession of a dangerous drug and three counts of possession of a regulated poison. He was fined $1000.
Another three Queenslanders were charged with trafficking and drug related offences but those charges were later withdrawn.
A month earlier, sex shop owner David Piccinato, from Melbourne, the owner of a string of Love Heart adult shops and his operations manager Ross McGlone, from Toowoomba were charged with trafficking $350,000 worth of synthetic cannabis to Piccinato's shops across regional Queensland.
It is understood the synthetic cannabis came from the same network on the Gold Coast that was raided.
The drugs were packaged at McGlone's home by machine and the same machine was used to help another dealer package the drugs for sale in New South Wales.
Piccinato was jailed for six years and McGlone for five years.
The suspected drug smuggling kingpin has never been identified. Neither has the alert AFP officer.