Millionaire racehorse owner killed in Mafia-style hit

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Melbourne's reputation as a city with a dark underbelly has been reinforced by the gangland-style execution of a millionaire racehorse owner rumoured to have links with organised crime.

Les Samba, 60, was shot up to five times in the head and back in a suburban street after an argument with a man he had gone to meet and apparently knew. Police are investigating several leads but say there is no evidence to confirm reports a contract was taken out on Mr Samba's life several weeks ago.

The murder, which took place last Sunday night, shocked Melbournites. For years such killings were almost routine in the city, as rival crime families fought a bitter turf war. That war is now over, with most of the protagonists dead or in jail – but it seems Mafia-style hits are back in fashion.

Mr Samba, a former trainer who once claimed to keep a secret store of A$850,000 (£530,000) in cash because he did not trust banks, was linked with a number of colourful characters. They included Ron Medich, a Sydney property developer with whom he co-owned horses. Mr Medich was recently released on bail after being charged with murdering his former business associate, Michael McGurk.

This week, police questioned Mr Medich, and also Mr Samba's son-in-law, Danny Nikolic, a champion jockey. They said that while neither were suspects, they planned to interview as many of Mr Samba's associates as possible, to establish a motive. Mr Nikolic is separated from Mr Samba's daughter, Victoria, with whom he has a three-year-old child.

The killer is believed to be a man witnesses heard Mr Samba arguing with before the shooting, who fled on foot. Several men in a dark-coloured Mercedes parked nearby, which left after the incident, are also being sought by homicide squad detectives.

Mr Samba, who lived in Sydney and was known as a big spender at thoroughbred sales, had flown to Melbourne on Saturday to inspect horses being auctioned this week. On Sunday he drove a hire car to the meeting with his killer.

"By all appearances, he has gone there willingly," said Detective Inspector John Potter.

The men argued, Mr Samba tried to run away, and ended up face-down in a pool of blood.

Mr Samba was a professional gambler and declared himself bankrupt ten years ago after he and his wife, Deirdre, were investigated for evading tax on $1.2m. He was regarded as "a murky, shadowy customer", according to local media.

"It's not a shock, he mixed around with all the crooks," one racing industry source told the Adelaide Advertiser. Another said: "He was always knocking around with bad people."

Among those he reportedly mixed with in the past was a notorious Sydney underworld figure, the late Abe Saffron. Mr Samba was also linked with a Perth trainer, George Way, who was disqualified for life in the mid-Eighties for doping two horses. Mr Samba himself was disqualified in several states.

Police are hoping his mobile phone records may reveal details of his final hours and shed light on his killer's identity.

Mr Nikolic said: "I'm very surprised and very shocked that Les has been killed. I didn't have much to do with the bloke, so I wouldn't know anything about why this could happen."

Mr Medich said he was "saddened" to learn of Mr Samba's death.