Tapped text and phone calls will reveal the failed efforts of the alleged culprits behind a $1.5 billion dollar drug bust which culminated in a dramatic arrest in a luxury Serbian Hotel, a court has heard.
Tristan Waters, 39, and David Campbell, 53, have maintained their innocence in the NSW District Court over accusations they conspired to import 1,280kg of cocaine.
Campbell is also on trial for conspiring to possess a commercial quantity of cocaine, a charge Waters has pleaded guilty to.
In his opening arguments, crown prosecutor Sean Flood told the jury that Campbell, through his role as a director of a steel company, organised the hiding of cocaine inside a shipping container of prefabricated steel and sought to import it from a Chinese city into Sydney in 2017.
David Campbell is a 55-year-old businessman. Picture: LinkedIn
The court heard that on April 3, Campbell was told one shipping container he had ordered – which did not contain drugs – arrived in Australia but the cocaine-filled one had been lost.
Unbeknownst to him, AFP officers had seized the container, which allegedly hid cocaine worth a street value of $1.5b, and were plotting a plan to expose him.
The jury was told they will hear evidence that Campbell called the logistics company and asked what was “going on with this container”.
“The one that’s gone missing is the one that I need … I don’t even need this one,” he allegedly said.
“F***ing hell man, I f***ing need it urgent(ly). My price, look it’s going to f***en cost me a bomb with this client because I told him it was here”.
Tristan Waters has pleaded guilty to one charge and not guilty to another. Picture: Facebook
In another police-intercepted phone call, Campbell allegedly told his friend what happened to the container is a f***ing mystery”.
For the next several months, Campbell and his alleged co-conspirators had a series of allegedly incriminating conversations with undercover police from Australian Federal Police (AFP) and New Zealand, travelling to several countries as they desperately tried to find their “missing” container.
The prosecution alleges police called the logistics company to say they found the container. To Campbell, they pretended to be members of a group which had found the “missing” container in New Zealand and wanted money for it.
One undercover cop, who called himself Henry, called Campbell to say he “knows what’s in the container” and “the boys have started cutting up steel”, Mr Flood told the court.
The court heard he said he was keen to talk to Campbell, but not on the phone.
Tristan Waters David Campbell cocaine bust
On October 25, Campbell allegedly told “Henry” he has a guy who can bring an encrypted phone over to him and travelled to Auckland himself the next day, where he met with “Henry” and another undercover cop who referred to himself as Ivan.
In an intercepted phone call in a hotel room, Campbell allegedly said to “Henry”: “when we’re talking, just call it steel”.
Mr Flood further told the court “Henry” showed photos of the containers to Campbell and “it is the crown’s case they clearly aren’t of steel”.
“Campbell says ‘that is special steel’ and Henry says he wants three million (New Zealand dollars) in cash,” Mr Flood said.
“At the end of the meeting, Campbell says ‘you guys give me a hand to facilitate getting that f***ing shit out of here and you’ll get paid – simple as that”.
A mock-up of a text conversation mentioned in court.
On November 17, Campbell allegedly texted “Ivan” saying: “Henry has confirmed his guy has it – please delete all messages from the phone”.
In a group chat called “NZ Project,” Campbell and his co-offenders – excluding Waters – discussed the exchange of the container and cash at length, the court was told.
Mr Flood told the court that there was a failed exchange in Perth in which one undercover cop got “spooked” by a tatted-up South American man and backed out of the attempt.
But the alleged criminal’s fates were sealed on 16 Jan 2017, after “Ivan” had suggested the group meet in Serbia “for safety” and get the deal done, the court heard.
The court heard Waters was a friend of Campbell’s who allegedly became involved in the operation just nine days before they were sensationally arrested in a Belgrade hotel.
Another person in the syndicate allegedly gathered €635,000 ($1,033,379) in a suitcase and a remaining $2 million was being organised in Perth.
The pair were arrested at the Metropol Palace in Belgrade.
Moments before the arrest, Waters allegedly said to the undercover cops that he wanted them to have the money.
“We want our stock back, you could’ve f***ed off. We could all be dead be now … Trust me, you guys get paid, we get our stock back and everyone is going to be very happy – there’s no more dramas,“ he allegedly said.
Both men were later extradited to Australia.
Mr Campbell’s defence counsel, Ronald Driels, told the court most of the evidence was circumstantial and his client was innocent, adding that all the evidence obtained simply confirmed police’s “confirmational bias”.
For the first charge – conspiracy to import cocaine — Mr Driels argued he had no idea there was cocaine in the shipping container.
“He doesn’t know what’s in the steel. Gold. Antiques, laundering money. He never says it’s his, quite the reverse,” defence said.
“There’s no evidence I expect that Mr Campbell paid any money, anywhere, out to anybody, or received some large amounts for supposedly being involved.”
The fact Mr Campbell was threatening to involve the AFP in helping to find his shipping container was also given some weight in the defence’s opening statement.
“Draw an inference from that…,” Mr Driels told the jury.
“He’s making noises about involving the AFP on his missing container. Not running away from it as fast as he could.”
As to the conspiracy to possess cocaine charge, Mr Campbell’s legal team also argued the 55-year-old was innocent.
Tristan Waters is arrested and brought back to Australia. Picture: AFP
“A defence of duress is what we say to that second charge,” Mr Driels said.
“We say his life was at risk. Not only his life, but his wife’s life, his children’s life, his family.
“A real existential risk and fear on his part to get these people who owned a billion and a half dollars’ worth of cocaine, and his family, out of the position they were in.”
Mr Waters, meanwhile, has maintained his innocence for the first charge of conspiracy to import cocaine but pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess cocaine.
“He had nothing to do with the importation,” his defence counsel, David Dalton, told the court.
He said his client only became involved in the saga right at the very end, from January 7 2018 until January 16, which was the day of the arrests in Serbia.
Mr Dalton asked the jury that they not “hold against” his client the fact he had pleaded guilty to the conspire to possess charge.
“He’s accepted responsibility for what he’s done,” he said.
The trial continues.