Australia: Cannabis Crop Plot Almost Undone After Farmhand’s Find, Court Told

Photo Credit: Christopher Chung

A plan to grow an elaborate cannabis crop on a remote NSW property was almost derailed when the 2750 plants were discovered by a farmhand who had been following tracks, a court has heard.

Police raided Karoopa farm at Crowther in south-west NSW in February 2014 and seized the plants, which were growing in a valley three kilometres from the homestead of the 9000-hectare farm without the owner’s knowledge.

A District Court trial heard this week that Luigi Fato, who had been growing hydroponic cannabis at his own farm in Batemans Bay, was looking to expand his operation and befriended Karoopa farm’s manager Malcolm Howarth and his son Barry so they would allow him access to the property.

In mid-December 2013, the court heard, cannabis cuttings were delivered to the farm in 20 cardboard boxes, each with about 100 plants inside, and the cuttings were set up with an irrigation system that drew water from an adjacent creek.

Around that time, Mr Howarth called his son.

“Christ almighty,” he said. “They’ve gone to some trouble, these blokes, down the back there.”

The crop was surrounded by a three-metre-high chicken wire fence, which had been burned to make it harder to see from the air. A tent was nearby, to allow those tending the crop to stay overnight, and black irrigation lines criss-crossed the ground to deliver water to individual plants.

Griffith businessman Marcello Nello Casella, his employee Andre Turner and Francesco Polimeni are accused of being in a joint criminal enterprise to grow a commercial quantity of cannabis at the property from March 2013 to February 2014.

When their trial opened on Wednesday, all pleaded not guilty.

Crown prosecutor Tarik Abdulhak said Mr Casella provided the backing, finance and advice on cultivating plants, Mr Turner – an “irrigation expert” – delivered equipment and helped set up the irrigation system, and Mr Turner and Mr Polimeni delivered the 2000 cuttings in cardboard boxes in late 2013.

Mr Abdulhak said some of the cuttings did not take, which led to 1000 more being delivered to the property later.

On Thursday, the jury heard a farmhand who lived on the property stumbled upon the crop some time in December 2013 when he followed tracks north from the homestead.

Mr Abdulhak said the man was “spoken to” by Mr Fato and his right-hand man Hank Pickett in order to “keep quiet about the activities” at the farm.

Mr Howarth and his son are both expected to give evidence at the trial.

The court heard Mr Polimeni pleaded guilty in 2015 to cultivating 800 cannabis plants at another property, but his defence barrister Julia-Ann Hickleton said this does not mean he was involved in “Mr Fato’s extracurricular activities”.

She said a witness who pointed out Mr Polimeni’s photo in a police identification parade was “wholly unreliable”, because the identification was made up to 18 months after the witness claimed to have seen him.

Mr Casella’s barrister Graham Turnbull SC said there was no question his client had known Luigi Fato for a long time, a man he described as having “big plans for himself” to “turn the marijuana he was growing into big bucks”.

But he said his client was entitled to the presumption of innocence.

“This is not a situation where you’re here to vindicate some police theory,” he told the jury.

Mr Turner’s barrister George Thomas also cast doubt on witnesses who claimed to have seen his client at the scene, including one who described seeing an “Andre” who was about 20 years old.

“Look at him,” Mr Thomas said, gesturing to his client. “A man in his 20s?”

The trial continues before Judge Peter Zahra.