Bail bid rejected for alleged members of Melbourne cocaine syndicate

Two men suspected of being members of a Melbourne-based criminal syndicate with alleged links to organised crime have lost their bid to stay in Victoria after being charged with attempting to import half a tonne of cocaine through north Queensland.

Pierino "Peter" Forni, 61, and Salvatore "Sal" Formica, 33, appeared via video link at Melbourne Magistrates Court on Thursday and are set to be sent to Queensland after a successful application from Australian Federal Police to extradite themfrom Victoria.

The Cessna light plane, before it crashed in PNG. Credit:AFP

In late July, a Cessna overloaded with cocaine and bound for northern Queensland crashed on a Papua New Guinean airstrip soon after taking off.

Federal investigators later charged five men, who investigators suspect have links to Italian organised crime, with conspiring to import more than 500 kilograms of cocaine with an estimated value of $80 million from PNG into Australia.

Investigators allege the syndicate arranged for a Cessna light plane to fly from Mareeba, near Cairns, to PNG to collect the drugs at the end of July.

Lawyers for Mr Forni and Mr Formica asked that they be bailed in Melbourne while the case is in its initial stages and police are still gathering evidence. Prosecutors said a summary of the allegations was still about six months from being served.

Police found what they believe was cocaine after a plane crash in PNG. Credit:AFP

Magistrate Trieu Huynh said via video link that the men had failed to demonstrate the exceptional circumstances required for them to be bailed in Melbourne.

"Despite a number of matters weighing in their favour, even in combination, I’m not satisfied that exceptional circumstances have been demonstrated," Mr Huynh said.

"Especially in light of the seriousness of the alleged offending against Mr Formica and Mr Forni.”

Mr Forni faces a separate charge for dealing in proceeds of crime of more than a million dollars, which police allege he laundered .

The prosecution submit that the accused are part of an organised, coordinated operation involving a number of criminal associates in Australia and offshore.

Prosecutors opposed bail for both men.

They allege Mr Formica holds a senior position in the crime syndicate and holds a "degree of authority", while Mr Forni has access to large sums of cash, connections in the aviation industry, owns a light aircraft and is licensed to fly.

In his decision, Mr Huynh told the court the charges stemmed from Operation Weathers, a Queensland joint organised taskforce investigation into the activities of a transnational crime syndicate primarily based in Melbourne.

"The prosecution submit that the accused are part of an organised, coordinated operation involving a number of criminal associates in Australia and offshore,” Mr Huynh said.

Bags allegedly containing cocaine were seized.Credit:AFP

He said they "have access to vehicles, are well-funded, have access to large sums of money, high-quality false identity documents [and have] falsely subscribed mobile phones".

Prosecutors allege their offending was sophisticated and planned and that the men took steps to avoid detection byusing aliases, including bank accounts in other names and encrypted devices.

The court earlier this week was told that, faced with COVID-19-related travel restrictions and fewer ways to enter Queensland, Mr Forni and an accomplice had duped a pilot into flying the accomplice north to carry out the plan.

Police said the pilot did not lodge a flight plan or carry a transponder in order to avoid detection while crossing state borders.

Their co-accused, Osman El-Houli, is currently on bail in Melbourne. Neither Mr Formica nor Mr Forni have a criminal history.

Federal police have also charged Mr Formica in connection withthe importation of 300 kilograms of cocaine in August 2018. No cocaine was ever seized.

Both men have been remanded in custody ahead of their transfer, pending any appeal to the Supreme Court of Victoria.

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