Ghosts of Griffith:
reproduced for the public interest

The Australian - Weekend Review July 12-13 1997

Most of Trimbol's Mafia cohorts are still lording it over Griffith

With the National Crime Authority under siege and the Wood Royal Commission exposing corruption in the New South Wales (NSW) police force, it seems we have not come a long way since the murder of anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay. Crime writer Bob Bottom revisits Griffith, 1977, and invokes the spirit of Mackay.

Mackay was no Eliot Ness - just a public-spirited citizen who new right from wrong.

Twenty years after the event, the murder of Griffith anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay casts a lingering shadow of shame. Shot in the car park of the Griffith Hotel on the evening of July 12, 1977, Mackay was no Eliot Ness - just a public-spirited citizen who new right from wrong.

Throughout the period that followed his murder, some people, even at senior levels of politics, connived to cover up for the Mafia, responsible for his murder. A popular catchcry was that the presence of the Mafia in Australia was a myth and that Mackay had not been murdered but simply disappeared.

Born in Griffith on September 13, 1933, Mackay lived there all his life and was 43 years old when he died, having lived by the credo that when good men remain silent, evil triumphs.

As a reasonably well-off businessman, running a furniture store that he had taken over from his father, Mackay and his wife Barbara devoted a great deal of their time to community work. Working with others, Mackay founded a school for the aged. He was a district governor of Apex and later graduated to Rotary.

During that campaign, Mackay heard more about local marijuana propagation.

In 1973 he and his wife became concerned about the illicit drug trade. With young children of their own, they were disturbed, along with other parents, when drugs became widely available in Griffith.

That year, when Mackay was approached to stand as a Liberal party candidate for the State seat of Murrumbidgee, he accepted and, went out knocking doors and campaigning, heard the first rumours about Griffith being a centre for the cultivation of drugs.

Having lost the State seat by only 34 votes, Mackay was encouraged the following year to run again, this time for the federal seat of Riverina, then held by the flamboyant Al Grassby. During that campaign, Mackay heard more about local marijuana propagation.

Grassby lost, with Mackay’s preferences electing a national Party candidate, John Sullivan. As recorded later by the NSW royal commission into drug trafficking presided over by Justice Philip Woodward, Barbara Mackay mentioned the fuss when first questioned by police after her husband’s murder.

Q: Are you aware of any threats received by your husband as a result of his [anti drug] campaign?

A: After Grassby was defeated in 1974, he received phone threats from an anonymous foreign male to the effect that the shop would be bombed and in the second week of June 1974 a letter from a person signed “Furore”, an illiterate Italian, threatening to get back at Don, was published by the [Griffith] Area News. I was told that it was typed on Al Grassby’s typewriter.

He particularly singled out Bob Trimbole,
who was surprised to have been bankrupt but flaunted new-found wealth.

As unexplained wealth began to show among certain Calabrian families in Griffith, with the mushrooming of elaborate houses, Mackay stepped up his anti-drug campaign. He particularly singled out Bob Trimbole, who was surprised to have been bankrupt but flaunted new-found wealth. In December 1974, Trimbole went to Griffith police station and confronted the detective in charge, James Binden. What happened was not publicly revealed until years later when Belinda told of Trimbole being upset because Mackay was making public statements that the Trimbole and his family were spending money like water and that it came from illegal activities”. Trimbol had said : “I don’t care what the hell he says about me but I will kill the bastard if he keeps making smart remarks about my kids.” Blinden said Trimbole told him to warn Mackay to stop his allegations or he would kill him.

Trimbol, Robert.

Born Australia March 19, 1931. Drug supplier from 1971 and Tizzoni told Moor, "had all sorts of people on side and working for  for LaFamigila, including Stae and Federal politicians, State and Federal police, lawyers, members of the judiciary, and public servants in most governmentdepartments", Got heroin from Mr Asia syndicate from 1978. Fled Australia ahead of Mr Asia inquiry, May 7, 1981. Arrested Dublin, October 1984. Freed by Irish judges, February 1985. Died in Spain and had suit stolen from his body in morgue), May 13, 1987. Buried Sydney May 27, 1987.

In July 1975, Mackay prepared a confidential dossier which he sent to Sydney to the then minister of police, John Madderson. in it he first coined the term “grass castles” to describe the premises being built with drug money; he fingered Trimbole, along with others, and wrote: “We have been warned not to attempted to report this to the local constabulary.”

Mackay did not live to see this, but three detectives who served at Griffith during the height of the marijuana racket, John Kenneth Ellis, Brian James Borthwick and John Francis Robins, were later convicted and jailed for conspiring over a four year period to pervert the course of justice.

Around that time, Mackay received confidential information about a large-scale marijuana plantation on a property at Coleambally, west of Griffith. Not prepared to trust the Griffith police he went to Sydney and help organise a raid with selected members of the NSW Drug Squad. the plantation was valued at $80 million, the biggest yet detected in Australia. Four of five men arrested, Luigi Pochi, Leonardo Gambacoria and Giuseppe and Pasquale Agresta, were convicted in March 1977, with judge Russell Newton pronouncing how very sad it was to see “respectable men” growing marijuana for money, giving them short sentences and recommending they serve their times on prison farms.

The jury failed to agree on the fifth man, Francesco Sergi. The jury included a person related to Sergi. At the time of that trial, detectives from Sydney were responsible for another raid, this time on a plantation in Euston, where four men were arrested. Police found a packing case branded F and S.Sergi and a pair of men’s trousers with the name Sergi written on a dry-cleaning mark.

Although Mackay had nothing to do with that raid, he may have been suspected as a police source since, that same week, during the Coleambally trial, Newton had directed the production of an official police notebook in which Mackay was named as an informant.

Mackay by then had assumed a high profile. In May 1977, a petition signed by 2000 people was presented to then premier Neville Wran seeking action against drugs.

Faced with the possibility of a retrial, Francesco Sergi was able to lobby to have charges against him dropped. On July 5, 1977, 10 days before Mackay’s murder, the then NSW attorney-general, Frank Walker, accepted representations from Sergi’s solicitor, Simon Mackenzie. Ultimately, Sergi was retried and sent to jail.

Mackenzie, (Adrian) Simon.

Born 1937, Solicitor for Trimbole, and for Francesco Sergi in Coleambally trial, March 1977. Seen by Donald and Barbara Mackay lunching with Borthwick, Friday, July 15, 1977.

Found guilty of prejury in 1991 drug case of his client Pasquale Barbaro and sentenced to minimum of nine months, June 1995. Conviction set aside by Hight Court 1996. having already served the nine months, unlikely to be re-tried.

Although official notification of a “no bill” was not sent out until July 11, the Area News at Griffith was able to report the decision on July 8. that day Mackay pointed out the story to an employee and remarked; “Now I am worried.”

Two days later, on July 10, a front-page story in NSW’s biggest selling daily, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, carried the headline; "Riverina Town Terror of Drug Syndicate". Mackay was quoted in many media reports.

On July 12, as related in subsequent court proceedings, an attempt was made to lure Mackay to Jerilderie for a hit outside Griffith. Instead of going himself in response to a spurious customer request, Makay had sent an employee.

That night, Mackay was murdered.

On July 14, Mackay had accepted a Liberal Party nomination to stand again for the State seat of Murrumbidgee. On July 15, he had spoken out on radio about the furore in Griffith over the decision not to retry Sergi.

That night, Mackay was murdered. Twenty years after the event, the official response of the NSW authorities leaves a shadow of shame that time cannot erase.

The police and political response was an unmitigated scandal, with officialdom seeking to shrug it off as a mystery disappearance rather than cold-blooded murder. Unfortunately, it was not only the policemen Ellis, Borthwick and Robins who came under scrutiny but other, more senior, police who regularly associated with the marijuana growers of Griffith.

From the outset of the Griffith marijuana racket, the then police commissioner Fred Hanson frequently visited Griffith, socialising with marijuana growers and going duck-shooting with Trimbole, who gave him an expensive shotgun. Hanson also maintained his own cool room at Flemington Markets in Sydney, where he stored donated Riverina wines and produce.

Extraordinarily, when the NSW government was pressured into offering a $25,000 reward the poster was headed: MISSING. There wasn’t so much as a hint that Mackay might have been murdered. It was a demeaning political sop to national outrage. When a belated inquest was held, Barbara Mackay was refused legal aid.

Leon Punch, ex-deputy premier of NSW and then the National Party leader, entertained no doubts. Within days of Mackay’s murder, he pushed for a Royal Commission, declaring: “I believe it is the first time in this country that a recognised political candidate has been killed for taking public stand on a matter of grave public importance.”

“For all I know, Donald Mackay could have run off with another woman.”

Seeking to head off calls for an inquiry, two government press secretaries made a ring around of senior journalists in key sections of the media, saying there were no fears that Mackay had been murdered and suggesting that he had taken off with another women. A senior Cabinet minister privy to police files spread the same roumer - a deliberate lie - when brushing off questions from colleagues and others. At a Labor Party reception in his honour on a visit to Perth, a woman approached him asking what was being done about the Mackay matter. The politician replied: “For all I know, Donald Mackay could have run off with another woman.” A police chief approached two NSW opposition MP’s Neil Pickard and Tim Fischer (now Deputy Prime Minister), with the same line suggesting there was no need for a royal commission. The same story was spread at Griffith by a notorious NSW ex-detective, Fred Krabe, who relayed it in turn to the Fairfax press, which had him on retainer.

Continuing public pressure did force premier Wran to agree to a Royal Commission, and it was only when police files were examined by commissioner Justice Woodward that the full reality of forensic evidence emerged on public record.

Wran, Neville Kenneth.

Born October 11, 1926. NSW premier May 1, 1976. Initiated Woodward inquiry August 5, 1977, but refused on grounds of civil liberties, Justice Woodward's request to search Griffith "grass castels", in that sence, Woodward had less power than fruit-fly inspector.

Initiated Nagle inquiry after stormy meeting with Makay family and others when Bottom disclosed that Parrington hid material from the inquest; said it was "about time people in the country stopped yap, yap, yap, yap, and went along and put up, and that applies to the people at Griffith", April 1986. Retired as premier and became merchant banker, July 4, 1986.

There were conspicuous blood spots, smears and stains along the drivers side of the van.

What the police had found at the scene of Mackay’s murder in the Griffith Hotel car park should not have left any doubts about what had happened to him. His furniture store mini-van was found to still be locked. inside was his briefcase, intact and undisturbed. The keys to the van were on the ground directly below the keyhole of the driver’s side door and 30cm under the van.

There were conspicuous blood spots, smears and stains along the drivers side of the van. Bloodstains extended from the front of the driver’s door, above where the keys had fallen. There was a blood smear on the front mudguard as well as bloodstains on the front wheel rim hubcap and tyre. Two drag or scuff marks extended from where the keys lay to a large bloodstain on the ground 72cm out from the front wheel. There were also a number of smaller spots of blood in the same area. A number of blood spots and smears were also found on a wooden paling fence against which the mini-van was parked, nose in. The blood on the fence extended from the ground level up to 1m high and directly behind the bloodstain on the ground. three spent .22 cartridge cases were near the large bloodstain. In all, police were able to gather up blood samples amounting to a couple of cupfuls of blood.

In the blood which matched Mackay’s blood type were tufts of hair which matched hairs taken from a brush used by Mackay cut and stuck together, consistent with being sliced by a bullet.

A year later, when the head of the NSW police investigation Joe Parrington, appeared before the Woodward commission and presented a 16-page summery, the incident was still referred to only as a disappearance, not as suspected murder or murder, with Parrington stating that there was a “lack of direct evidence to clearly indicate the reason for Mackay’s disappearance”. The summary stated: “Continuing inquiries as to his whereabouts have been maintained to date with negative results.”

Parrington, Frederick Joseph.

Born December 27, 1931, Joined NSW police January 1951. Criticised by Mr Asia inquiry (February 1983) for casual failure to follow up NZ allegations about Nr Asia members in April 1977. in charge of Mackay Investigation, Saturday, july 16 1977. nagle inquiry found he failed

The Sydney Morning Herald headlined Parrington’s evidence: “No Mafia link in Mackay mystery - Police evidence to drugs inquiry”. Yet the day before Parrington had appeared before the Woodward commission, the NSW Supreme Court had ended the line over a mystery disappearance, pronouncing Mackay officially dead for probate proposes, concluding that he had been murdered.

Trimbole was described as “in all probability.. the practical leader” of the organisation.

In his final report, tabled in the NSW parliament in November 1979, in which he found that there was Mafia involvement, by a “cell” or “family” of a secret Calabrian criminal society known variously as The Honoured Society, L’Onorata Societa or N’Dranghita, Woodward concluded: “This organisation was responsible for the disappearance and murder of Donald Mackay...Mackay was disposed of by, or on behalf of that organisation...”

Trimbole was described as “in all probability.. the practical leader” of the organisation. that night Trimbole threw a party at his home in Griffith. About 40 cars were parked outside. in an interview the next day with The Sydney Morning Herald, Trimbole bragged that he was immune from prosecution. “Sure I had a good party,” Trimbole said, “and it was a good one... That commission can’t touch me or charge me in any way.” By then, Trimbole had graduated from Griffith’s marijuana racket to an organising role in the notorious Mr Asia heroin syndicate, operating internationally. Eight months earlier, in April 1979, almost next door to where the commission was still in progress, Trimbole had met the head of the syndicate, Terence Clark, and offered to buy him out for $30 million.

On August 12, 1980, by which time Trimbole’s connection with the Mr Asia syndicate had become known, he was to appear under subpoena before an inquest in Victoria into the deaths of two Mr Asia syndicate couriers, Isobel and Douglas Wilson, whose bodies had been found at Rye on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, on May 18, 1997. Trimbole did appear but avoided having to undergo questioning on the grounds that anything he might say could incriminate him. In public terms, Trimbole also had something else going for him.

The story recorded that the Sun-Herald had obtained the document from Michael Maher, MLM,
who got it from Grassby, the federal commissioner for community relations.

Two days before his scheduled appearance, Sydney’s Sun-Herald, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country, published a front-page story declaring that Trimbole’s Mafia clan at Griffith had nothing to do with the Mackay murder, with the headline: “Not the Mafia Mackay killing; New Document for Parlt”.

The article reported that a document making surprising new allegations about the disappearance of Mackay was likely to be tabled in the NSW Parliament, casting doubt on the general theory that the murder was organised by the Italian Mafia.

Through the story itself did not spell it out, the document it was based on as disclosed by a subsequent commission of inquiry, presided over by John Nagle, into NSW police investigations into the Macay accused Mackay’s widow Barbara, her son Paul and family solicitor, Jan Salmo, of conspiracy to murder Mackay.

The story recorded that the Sun-Herald had obtained the document from Michael Maher, MLM, who got it from Grassby, the federal commissioner for community relations. A point by point annalists of the document by the Nagle commission afterwards concluded: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Grassby, Albert Jamie.

born july 12, 1926. State and Federal MP 1965 -74, Immigration Minister 1972 - 74. Given keys of Plati Calabria, February 1974. In July 1980 promulgated document alleging Barbara Mackay conspired to murder her husband. Community relations advisor to Wran, February 1986. Forced to resign by premier Barry Unsworth when Nagle reported "no decent man" would have propogated the scurrilous lies" in the document, November 1986. Charged by NCA with criminal defamation of Barbara Mackay and others, 1987. Convicted and fined, August 1991. Acquitted by NSW Court of Criminal Appeal, August 1992

Belatedly on April 13, 1987, in a statement tendered in the NSW Supreme Court, Grassby apologised, agreeing to pay $5000 towards court costs. Grassby acknowledged: “I wish to state that at no time have I had any evidence whatsoever to support my allegations made in the document and I accept that all such allegations are completely without foundation.”

The truth eventually surfaced but not as a result of any NSW action, resulting instead from inquiries by Victorian police Gianfranco Tizzoni, an associate of Trimbole, eager to escape jail over a drug arrest, confessed to complicity in the Mackay murder to detectives of the Victorian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence in 1983.

In subsequent court proceedings, Tizzoni told of having organised that murder at the behest of Trimbole, with thew sanction of Mafia leaders at Griffith. Tizzoni nominated Melbourne gunshop owner George Joseph as a go-between who received $1000 for arranging the hit-man, James Fredrick Beasely, a painter and docker, who had received $10,000.

Since all were tried in Victoria, they were charged only with conspiracy to murder, the murder having been committed across the border of NSW.

Tizzoni received a prison term of eight years, and on release was allowed to sell his assets and retire to Italy where he subsequently died. Joseph received a term of seven years. Over the Mackay Murder, Bazley was given a nine year term for conspiracy. But he remains in jail, having also been convicted and given a mandatory life sentence for murder in connection with the deaths in Victoria of Mr Asia syndicate couriers Douglas and Isobel Wilson. Tizzoni confessed to having organised the Wilson murders, again at the behest of Trimbole.

Bazley, James Frederick.

Born 1926. Veteran soldier of Melbourne dock wars in early 1970s. Alleged to have sought to lure Makay to Jerllderie on Tuesday, July 12, 1977. Found guilty in Melbourne, April 16, 1986 and sentanced to nine years on charge of conspiring to murder Mackay, and to life on charges of murdering the Wilsons

Trimbole however was able to live it up on the international stage.

Trimbole tipped off NSW police that authorities were closing in on him, was able to leave Australia unhindered in 1981, the same year that Barbara Mackay’s daughter Ruth wanted to travel to the united States to attend college. An unsympathetic bureaucracy made it difficult for her to get a passport, requiring her to provide proof that her father was dead, on the grounds that she was not old enough to get one in her own right without signatures from both parents. It cost Barbara Mackay $4000 in legal fees to break through official obstruction.

Trimbole however was able to live it up on the international stage. When he was located in Ireland in 1984, it was found that not only had Australian authorities neglected to sign an extradition treaty with Ireland but there were no warrants for his arrest for any of the murders. a smart Irish lawyer, Patrick MacEntee, was able to secure his release, and Trimbole fled to Spain. When MacEntee later visited Australia, he was feted as a hero at the Australian Legal Convention. Trimbole remained at large laughing at the law in Australia, before dying in Alicante Spain, on May 13 1987.

Most of his Mafia cohorts are still lording it over Griffith, living symbols of how the Mafia got away with murder, their ownership of many of the town’s businesses a haunting testimony to the fact that, in Griffith at least, evil has triumphed.

Barbara Mackay still lives there, with her unfortunate memories. At the instigation of a group known as the Concerned Citizens of Griffith, a perpetual memorial in the form of a Donald Mackay Churchill Fellowship was established, with a charter that provides annual fellowships to finance research into organised crime by detectives and investigative journalists.

Mengler, John Carl.

Born November 16, 1936. Victorian detective., Second to Mr Asia inquiry 1981-82. Headed Operation Trio, which solved Mackay and Wilsons murders, 1982-83. Cheif Homicide Squad 1983-85; NCA Melborne 1985-88, deputy commissioner seconded to NCA Adelaid 1989. Retired 1990. Queensland CJC 1990-93 Commissioner, Queensland commission of Inquiry on drugs in prisons, 1996-97.

When launching the fellowship in March 1987, NSW’s then clean-skin police commissioner John Avery described it as “one of the most dynamically relevant memorials ever conceived to honour an individual. As Avery put it, “The man, as well as his wife and family through their consequent actions have become an ineradicable part of Australian history. His name should never be forgotten, his passing must not be allowed to be in vain.”

As tragic and scandalous as his murder remains, in death Donald Mackay has contributed to a better society for Australians. Aside from the national outcry over the murder providing the catalyst for a plethora of State and Federal royal commissions and other justice inquiries into Mafia rackets and organised crime generally, the legacy of Donald Mackay is now also enshrined unacknowledged, in a number of public institutions.

No longer do attorneys-general have discretion to grant “no bills”, as was done for Francesco Sergi before Mackay’s murder, with that power now resting with State and federal directors of prosecution. in 1981, State and Federal governments combined to establish the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, made up of police seconded from all police forces, which adopted as its first national target the activities of the Mafia clans at Griffith and elsewhere throughout Australia.

Sergi, Antonio (Tony).

Born Plati Calabria, October 29, 1935. On the night of the murder he and Domencico (Mick) Sergi (born Plati March 3 1939) were with former Griffith detective Brian James Borthwick and Griffith detective Graham Lawrence Keech at Area Hotel after 7pm at La Scala restaurant from 8pm, and at Hanwood Catholic Club from 11pm - 12.30am. Keech told 1986 Nagle inquiry he did not recall a red-haired man enter La Scala, whisper something to Tony Sergi, and leave. Sergi remains a wealthy Griffith citizen.

In 1982, the Fraser government passed legislation to establish a National Crime Commission, the result of campaigning by a citizen crime commission advocacy movement prompted by the murder of Mackay. Fraser had failed to promulgate the legislation before the election of 1983 and under the Hawke government, it was revamped into the national Crime Authority in 1984. It was only after public agitation by the Concerned Citizens of Griffith that the NSW government agreed to give the NCA a reference to investigate organised crime emanating from Griffith. Appropriately, its operations have been arrested, Australia-wide.

The exposure of continuing corruption among NSW police by the recent Wood royal commission rates as small-time compared with the widespread, entrenched corruption unravelled and cleaned up in the wake of Mackay’s murder. NSW politics has also changed with all of the identifiable parliamentary bagmen from all sides of politics, no longer on the scene.

Indeed the spirit of Donald Mackay still lives. So much so that moves afoot to destroy the NCA are destined to fail - with the Parliamentary joint Committee currently conducting and inquiry having been told, on the record, that any attempted to abolish the NCA will result in the resurrection of the citizen advocacy movement that led to its creation in the first place.

No politician would dare incur the wrath of the ghost of Donald Mackay. Much of the material for this article has been adapted from Bob Bottom’s best-selling book Shadow of Shame. Bottom this year was awarded the Order of Australia for investigating and reporting upon organised crime.

Making the News
Australian National News of the Day