Cocaine, cartels, crooked cops, “Mr Smith” and the ghost plane which crashed an $80 million importation

By Max Uechtritz

It reads like a wild storyline for a Hollywood movie on transnational cartels, cocaine, crooked cops, The Mob and The Feds, set in South America.

Pilot with a dicky heart flying a dodgy ‘ghost’ plane registered to a dead man. Transponder turned off, slips under radar, lands at dirt airstrip illegally carved into the bush. Bags of cash unloaded; bags of coke loaded. Overloaded in fact: the plane crashes on take-off. The culprits and drugs disappear. A multi-agency two-year policing operation to seize the drug shipment on return to base is blown. Coordinated raids net alleged conspirators anyway.

A shadowy figure using the alias of “Smith” is the conduit for a politically connected mastermind in this plot.

But it’s not a movie script or South America. It’s real and it unfolded this week in Papua New Guinea and Australia. The Feds in this case are the Australian Federal Police in concert with various other associated agencies. The Mob is a Melbourne-based crime syndicate with alleged links to the Calabrian mafia Ndrangheta, based in Italy.

PNG has been awash with speculation that local PNG-based Chinese mafia are involved in that country but police in both countries have avoided making that claim. 

On Friday in the PNG capital Port Moresby, local police displayed 500kg of cocaine they’d finally seized after a week of intrigue. A photo purporting to be the pilot was circulating on facebook from Monday. The fact that it turned out to be accurate suggests police may have slipped it into circulation to put pressure on the fugitive. It was only revealed on Friday that the man had handed himself in to the Australian consulate on Tuesday.

In a Port Moresby court on Friday, David John Cutmore, 52, of Melbourne faced charges of illegally entering PNG. He pleaded guilty, was fined 3000 PNG Kina and his deportation was ordered. That suggests the AFP will extradite him to help with their prosecutions in Australia. However, it’s unclear at the time of writing whether the seizure of the cocaine a few hours later means Cutmore now will be charged in PNG with drug smuggling.

Last Sunday, a large contingent of police from several agencies had waited in vain at Mareeba for Cutmore to arrive back with cocaine worth $80 million on the street.  As news flashed from PNG that the drug plane had crashed, raids were conducted in Queensland, Victoria, NSW and PNG. Five people were charged with offences which carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment. The investigation is ongoing.

The episode has placed a rare spotlight on drug, gold and gun running operations worth billions of dollars using PNG and remote Torres Strait locations to island hop illicit cargo using light planes and/or small boats. The origin of this cache is yet to be revealed but previously known cocaine routes are through PNG from Peru, Singapore and Indonesia.

Drug plane purchased in August, 2018

I can reveal that this importation – and AFP tracking of it – was initiated as far back as August 24, 2018. That’s when a highly-connected PNG identity – president of a political party which spawned two PNG prime ministers – purchased a Cessna 402C (VH-TSI) from a company on Australia’s Western Australian goldfields. 

The payment method was highly unusual – multiple, irregular small amounts under $10,000 transferred into the account of Goldfields Air Services.

The AFP noticed the suspicious transactions and arrived swiftly on the doorstep of GAS to ask questions. The company was told that the buyer was a “person of interest”. 

That person was Geoffrey Paul Bull, president of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) party, founded by former PNG prime minister Paias Wingti. It also produced another national leader in Sir Mekere Morauta.

Neither Wingti or Morauta are under any suspicion. Bull’s facebook profile picture shows him with most recent former PNG PM Peter O’Neil but, again, there is no suggestion  O’Neil is implicated in the drugs trade. Bull ran a successful construction business, which won significant contracts including the building of police housing in Mt Hagen.

A source has confirmed that the payment transfers to GAS were in the name of “Geoffrey Paul”, not using the drug financier’s full name. But Bull would never see his drug masterplan implemented. He was slain in August last year in a frenzied stabbing attack. The ABC reports that Bull’s death certificate lists “multiple stab wounds to the chest.” No-one has ever been charged but PNG intelligence sources suspect local Chinese “triads” and the killer or killers now run Bulls’ company Ravenspol No 69, listed as the owner of the crashed Cessna VH-TSI.

There is no evidence on public record to support this.

The Cessna sale was conducted via emails and the only front person for the deal in August 2018 was David John Cutmore the pilot. He described himself to GAS as a part-time flying instructor from Melbourne. The role of GAS is innocent and there is no suspicion anyone in the company was aware of the nefarious end game. In fact, GAS refused to allow Cutmore to pilot the delivery flight from Kalgoorlie to Mareeba because he couldn’t produce a current medical certificate. The company provided its own pilot from Melbourne and Cutmore sat next to her in the delivery flight.

GAS’s concern about Cutmore’s health was borne out when the then 50-year-old had a heart attack shortly after VH-TSI landed at Mareeba and was rushed to hospital. Sources familiar with the AFP investigation say that the AFP started surveillance on the Cessna in Mareeba in August 2018 but that only lasted a short time as the plane was just sitting on the airfield with no associated activity. Mareeba council regularly rang to ask about it.

However, when things began to move again recently, the AFP renewed surveillance and bugged the phones of the Mareeba company doing the maintenance on the plane. There had been surveillance, too, in Melbourne on the company listed on CASA records as the registered operator of the aircraft, AVLEASE Pty Ltd. Again, there is no suggestion or suspicion of wrongdoing by these two companies. It was simple intelligence gathering. AVLEASE never actually operated the Cessna. Its name on the records is technical entry only because it had been hired to do the maintenance from April last year.

Alias “Lewis Smith” the syndicate organiser

There was an Australian agent for Geoffrey Bull and Ravenspol 69 and I can reveal he went by the alias of “Lewis Smith” in emails. 

Bull’s name – or that of his eventual successor at Ravenspol 69 – was never mentioned by Smith. The cover story on the owner was that he was a PNG man with mining interests in that country and Australia and that he intended only using the Cessna as a “run-around ” when visiting Australia a couple of times a year. 

Smith was an intermittent communicator during a fraught process of trying to get airworthiness paperwork for the Cessna up to date. The aircraft required a lot of work. It was described to me as “a shitbox” requiring a complete overhaul. It needed a propeller and, strangely, its seats were in Melbourne not with it in Mareeba. There were difficulties with payments. The Mareeba company would turn the engines over every now and then but, apart from that, the plane just sat at Mareeba until the maintenance arrangement petered out. The local council would ring every now and then asking about ownership and intent. No-one had the answers.

“Shitbox” plane and a pilot with a dicky heart

If the “shitbox” was not technically airworthy then the same could probably be said of pilot Cutmore. Nevertheless the unlikely combination of machine and man managed to get to PNG last Sunday. Early news reports that it was undetected now are meaningless, given police were tracking it from take-off. Aviation experts have postured online about how VH-TSI could not have escaped the notice of air traffic controllers at Port Moresby as the approach to the bush runway was virtually in airspace for the international airport. That, too, could be explained by the joint Australian-PNG police operation: the equivalent of waving the Cessna through to allow the drugs to be loaded and return with evidence implicating the conspirators. I have no knowledge of this but, given the sophistication of police operation revealed so far, it makes sense that the airstrip and criminals were also being watched on the ground. It would explain how police were so quickly on the scene and the presence among them of a PNG-based AFP officer in photographs taken by locals.

The AFP now has released video of Cutmore preparing the Cessna and taxiing for take-off at Mareeba. It’s understood that 18 20-litre cannisters of aviation fuel were loaded for the refuelling in PNG along with car batteries seen in AFP photos from the airstrip, suggesting there had been difficulty starting the unserviced plane in Mareeba. The photos show a ladder to assist with fuelling. The cargo also included three television sets and three play station consoles, allegedly as payment to villagers helping with the scheme.

The AFP alleges the aircraft flew at about 3000 feet from Mareeba to PNG, in an effort to avoid radar detection. These flights are dangerous for other aircraft as well as those on board, in addition to being illegal and unauthorised. 

On 26 July 2020, between 1pm and 2.30pm, the aircraft crashed while attempting to take-off from a remote airstrip at Papa Lea Lea, north of Port Moresby, PNG. The AFP alleges greed played a significant part in the syndicate’s activities and cannot rule out that the weight of the cocaine had an impact on the planes ability to take off.

The AFP said the drug importation attempt was the work of a Melbourne-based crime syndicate with links to the Calabrian mafia Ndrangheta, based in Italy. At yesterday’s press conference, the AFP praised the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) for its collaboration in the operation.

There have been as yet unsubstantiated allegations in PNG that some local police, including senior officers, were involved in the drug operation but, so far, no arrests have been made or, at least, been made public. Serious police corruption is not new to PNG but Australian authorities say that the dynamic new combination of Police Minister (Bryan Kramer) and Police Commissioner (David Manning) has been making an impact in rooting it out. That process continues.

**update Police Commissioner Manning has since confirmed that senior PNG police are involved in the importation.

Highly-respected and connected PNG blogger Deni ToKunai wrote: “ Net is tightening around PNG-based individuals involved in flying cocaine to Australia. Arrests have been made. Some carry surnames of men who have contributed immensely to the positive development of this country. It’s opprobrius what their sons have done with privilege.”

ToKunai also revealed that police evidence collected so far points to the cocaine being smuggled into PNG on a fishing boat into the Papuan town of Alotau before being moved to the capital and “harboured by prominent businessmen.”

It was acknowledged during yesterday’s press conference that in such “black flights” – off radar – between PNG and Australia, criminals would use remote airstrips on islands to refuel and ‘hop’ between destinations. Alternatively, as in previous operations, drugs would come in by small boats from Torres Strait islands.

AFP officers at the crash site

It’s estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of drugs come into Australia this way and that’s not counting gun and gold running. 

In recent years the Queensland Joint Organised Crime Task Force (QJOCTF) foiled an alleged conspiracy to import 300 kilograms of cocaine into Australia from Peru via Singapore and Papua New Guinea. The estimated street value was $105m.

Operation Harmanecka began in June 2017, after the Australian Federal Police (AFP) identified an Australian and PNG based syndicate suspected of planning a drug importation into Australia from Peru.

A feature of Australian reaction to this latest episode has been surprise. For many PNG watchers, there is no surprise at that surprise. That’s because the Australian media generally – with excellent specific exemptions – has a curious blind spot when it comes to Papua New Guinea. I have written about this myopia before. 

 https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/plenty-great-stories-still-be-mined-papua-new-guinea

The ABC is the only organisation with a bureau there and SBS punches above its weight and budget to report on it and the Pacific. Radio New Zealand reports more on PNG than most Australian organisations combined. The same can be said for Al Jazeera English.

With a population of eight million, PNG is our nearest neighbour and critical to Australia’s geo-political interests, especially with a thrusting China muscling into the Pacific. Our two countries have ties going back to 1914 and, indeed, PNG was a territory of Australia until its independence in 1975. There are indelible personal, professional and business bonds.

There’s a colloquial reference that at low tide you can actually walk or wade from Australia to PNG, so close are our physical borders in the Torres Strait. Mentally for most Australians and its media, though, the gap is an ocean.

The 500kg of cocaine intercepted this week – and there may be more to be found – is the equivalent of 500,000 separate street deals according to the AFP. Magnify that by umpteen times over many years and relate it to the social misery effect of such drugs.

Another reason why such joint police operations are so important and why this story was, and is, important and worth exploring properly.

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