Members of an alleged cocaine importation syndicate duped legitimate light aircraft pilots into flying them to northern Queensland to avoid coronavirus travel restrictions, investigators say.
Two men, Pierino "Peter" Forni and Salvatore "Sal" Formica, charged in connection with the alleged syndicate faced Melbourne Magistrates Court on Monday to contest an application from federal police to have them sent to Queensland.
The Cessna light plane, before it crashed in PNG. Credit:AFP
In late July, a Cessna overloaded with 500 kilograms of cocaine and bound for Australia crashed on a Papua New Guinean airstrip soon after taking off.
The Australian Federal Police later charged a total of five men, who are suspected of having links to Italian organised crime, with conspiring to import more than 500 kilograms of cocaine with an estimated value of $80 million from Papua New Guinea into Australia.
Investigators allege the men arranged for a Cessna light plane to fly from Mareeba, near Cairns, to PNG to collect the drugs at the end of July.
But faced with COVID-19-related travel restrictions and fewer ways to enter Queensland, the court heard that Mr Forni and an accomplice enlisted a third-party pilot to fly the accomplice north to carry out the plan.
The pilot did not lodge a flight plan or carry a transponder in order to avoid detection while crossing state borders, police said.
Police also alleged the accused men asked the pilot if the plane could carry a separate load of up to 500 kilograms, the same amount they are accused of attempting to import.
The specifics of the alleged offending is not yet known, as well as the identity of their accomplices, with charge sheets yet to be filed against the syndicate.
Mr Forni, who is also charged with money laundering offences, appeared via video link from the Melbourne Assessment Prison before magistrate Trieu Huynh. Mr Formica called in from the same prison for part of the hearing.
Police found what they believe was cocaine after a plane crash in PNG. Credit:AFP
Lawyers for Mr Forni and Mr Formica did not oppose extradition of the charges to be heard in the Cairns Magistrates Court in Queensland, but asked the court to order that they could face their filing hearing via video link while in Melbourne.
Federal agent Eli Neale told the court that investigators were concerned that Mr Forni was a flight risk because he has a small aircraft licence, had multiple passports and access to planes.
Mr Forni and Mr Formica, who are both from Melbourne, suggested they could be equipped with an ankle bracelet to monitor their movements and have offered a surety to the court.
Police were monitoring Mr Forni for some time prior to his arrest, saying he met associates on multiple occasions at Highpoint Shopping Centre and was intimately involved with preparatory activities.
Bags allegedly containing cocaine were seized.Credit:AFP
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh said the arrests would "notably" reduce the amount of drugs distributed across Australia's eastern states.
AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney said the arrests were the result of an almost two-year operation. Investigators are still collecting evidence and it will be at least six months before their full brief of evidence is available.
One of the co-accused, Osman El Houli, has been bailed and is currently awaiting trial in Melbourne.
Mr Forni and Mr Formica will face court again on August 13.
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