As the leading figures in Melbourne's gangland war were picked off one by one – either by police or a carefully aimed bullet – one person was determined to cheat fate. In 2006, Australia's biggest drug baron, "Fat Tony" Mokbel, jumped bail and fled to Greece on a luxury yacht, becoming the country's most wanted man, with a $1m (£650,600) bounty on his head.
Arrested in an Athens coffee shop in 2007 wearing a wig, and extradited to Australia the following year, Mokbel seemed remarkably cheerful when he appeared in court last week to plead guilty to three drug trafficking charges. The 45-year-old greeted friends in the public gallery, asking after their families, and nodded affably at reporters and detectives.
The reason for his relaxed demeanour was that – in exchange for the guilty pleas – police had agreed to drop four other trafficking charges and also a murder charge. That meant that rather than facing a possible life sentence, he might be free in less than 10 years – not bad for someone who masterminded a multi-million-dollar drugs empire, ploughing the profits into racehorses, flash cars and fancy apartments.
Better, for sure, than the end met by his one-time friend, Carl Williams, who was bashed to death in a maximum-security prison last year, allegedly by a fellow inmate, after being convicted of four underworld killings – one of 29 that shattered Melbourne's civilised veneer between 1998 and 2006, making the city seem like the backdrop for a real-life episode of The Sopranos.
Better, too, than the fate of Lewis Moran, one of Williams' victims, who was gunned down in his favourite city bar. Or Williams' best mate, Andrew Veniamin, shot dead in a crowded pizza restaurant. Or Moran's widow, Judy, who is in jail after being found guilty last month of murdering her brother-in-law, Des "Tuppence" Moran.
Such is the violent and tortuously interconnected milieu inhabited by Melbourne's criminal families, between whom – notwithstanding shifting alliances born of opportunism – there is little love lost. To Judy Moran, for instance, Mokbel is a "cockroach" – but then she is convinced he was involved in Lewis's murder too. Mokbel was acquitted of that crime in 2009, after a court case conducted in secret for fear of prejudicing juries at his future drugs trials.
So anxious were law enforcement authorities to nail the Lebanese-Australian – and other pivotal figures – that they obtained a court order preventing Underbelly, a television mini-series about the Melbourne underworld, from being screened in Victoria. The first five episodes of the top-rating series were eventually broadcast, but with entire scenes cut out and Mokbel's face pixellated.
Now that order has been lifted, and – thanks to a deal which some believe included a promise to testify against corrupt police officers – the drugs kingpin is likely to be sentenced to about 20 years.
Taking into account parole and time already served, "he's looking at a maximum of eight or nine years, which is extraordinary", says Adam Shand, the author of Big Shots, about the gangland wars, recently published in the UK. "He's done very, very well."
Mokbel, described by Shand as "a smooth guy, avuncular and charming", started out washing dishes at a suburban nightclub. But he had a good head for business, and by the age of 19 owned a corner shop. Not long afterwards, he bought a pizza parlour, and then more restaurants. He also acquired a growing number of convictions: for assault, possession of a pistol and trying to bribe a judge.
Along the way, he became involved in drug dealing: first cannabis, then ecstasy, then speed. By the mid-1990s he was in charge of The Company, a sprawling syndicate that manufactured amphetamines and imported cocaine and MDMA (the main ingredient in ecstasy), turning over hundreds of millions of dollars. His associates called Mokbel "The General".
The vast profits were channelled into dozens of front businesses: cafes, clothes shops, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, property developments. Mokbel, who loved the races, also bought horses – and, reputedly, jockeys and trainers. In the late 1990s, he ran the "Tracksuit Gang", whose members staked large sums of cash in late bets aimed at rigging the market.
He and Carl Williams were allies, but while the latter was known as a murderous thug, Mokbel was more fastidious. According to Shand: "Tony was the chief executive and Carl was the enforcer. Tony was never into the killing side of things; he thought it was bad for business."
Nevertheless, says Andrew Rule, a co-author of Underbelly, on which the mini-series was based, "his reputation was that of a dangerous man" prepared to hire others to carry out his dirty work. Moreover, he had well-placed friends; as Rule says: "He clearly couldn't have gone as far or as long without the connivance of corrupt police."
Mokbel had a sense of humour of sorts – he named a racehorse Frosty The Snowman (a slang term for drugs), and called one of his boutiques Love of Style and Design (LSD for short). He was generous, too; according to anecdote, when visiting friends in prison he would order in 100 pizzas to treat all the men. A social climber, he haunted fashionable nightclubs, rubbing shoulders with lawyers and investment bankers. He indulged his passion for fast cars, driving at one time a red Audi, silver Mercedes and red Ferrari Roadster.
Splitting with his wife, Carmel, with whom he had two children, Mokbel also boasted an assortment of girlfriends, including, allegedly, a glamorous solicitor, Zara Garde-Wilson, who specialised in underworld clients. And it was Garde-Wilson, allegedly, who warned him that police were poised to charge him with murdering Lewis Moran and another man, Michael Marshall, a drug dealer and hotdog vendor.
Garde-Wilson denies both claims. In any event, while on trial for importing cocaine from Mexico, Mokbel made his celebrated escape, hiding out in a secluded farmhouse in rural Victoria, then crossing the country in a hired Nissan Patrol. Off the coast of Western Australia, near Fremantle, he boarded the 57-foot yacht Edwena for the voyage to Greece via the Maldives and Suez Canal.
In Athens, where he was joined by his pregnant girlflriend, Danielle McGuire, Mokbel lived in a seaside apartment and frequented expensive restaurants, under the bewigged alias of Stephen Papas. Cash sent from Melbourne bankrolled his lifestyle, and he continued to direct his drug operation from afar. But tip-offs by informants and police surveillance led to his arrest and, following an extradition fight, his return to Australia aboard an executive jet.
Despite Mokbel's fall, and that of other gangland movers and shakers, Andrew Rule doubts Melbourne's underworld wars have ended. "That chapter is over, because all the main characters are dead or locked up," he says. "But the business of making and selling drugs in nightclubs goes on undiminished. Another layer of crooks is bubbling along, even if they are relatively unknown at the moment – as these people were, until they started killing each other and became a political problem."