Crime Interrupted

True Crime Podcast - Crime interrupted

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has partnered with Casefile to bring you the Crime Interrupted podcast series. 

The AFP has provided exclusive access to its case vault and this podcast series provides a detailed insight into how this national policing organisation interrupts the most serious of crimes.

Hosted by Casefile’s narrator and featuring interviews with the AFP officers and personnel from other domestic and international partners who investigated these crimes, the six-episode series covers cases of human trafficking, counter terrorism operations, international kidnappings and more.


Episode 1: Operation Kitrino

In Operation Kitrino, the AFP investigated a well-established human trafficking syndicate operating within the brothel industry in Melbourne. It took months to locate the syndicate head who was targeting mostly Korean women who found themselves quickly trapped in debt bondage and had no escape. Lured by the opportunity to clear their debt… but at what cost?

Release date: Friday 4 February 2022.

View Episode 1 Operation Kitrino transcript

Episode 2: Operation Boone

It all started with a group of school kids talking in the playground about getting cheap Netflix. It ended with the largest forfeiture of cryptocurrency at the Commonwealth level to date. Find out how a young man in the Northern Beaches of Sydney used account generator websites to sell usernames and passwords to popular subscription services… and how a pizza order contributed to his undoing as part of Operation Boone.

Release date: Friday 11 February 2022

View Episode 2 Operation Boone transcript

Episode 3: Operation Streambank

When South Australian farmer Des fell in love with ‘Natacha’ as part of an online romance scam, he travelled more than 8,000 kms to West Africa. From the moment he got off the plane, he was in the hands of dangerous kidnappers. In Operation Streambank we find out how the AFP worked with national and international partners to scam the scammers and get Des away from his kidnappers and back to Australia safely.

Release date: Friday 18 February 2022

View Episode 3 Operation Streambank transcript

Episode 4: Operation Ascalon

When a father reported to the AFP that his 13-year-old son had been the victim of online sexual abuse, investigators quickly discovered hundreds of other boys had been targeted by the same offender, both in Australia and overseas. The investigators uncovered disturbing patterns of behaviour the offender used to garner trust from his victims. Find out how the AFP brought him to justice as part of Operation Ascalon.

Release date: Friday 25 February 2022

View Episode 4 Operation Ascalon transcript

Episode 5: Operation Okesi

In Operation Okesi we find out about an international multi-agency effort that seized cocaine with an estimated street value of $360 million and 15 men charged with serious drug importation offences. A great outcome that took more than two and a half years, a boat intercept and numerous arrests across the country to interrupt this drug trafficking syndicate.

Release date: Friday 4 March 2022

View Episode 5 Operation Okesi transcript

Episode 6: Operation Middleham

An SUV, a boat and a road trip from Melbourne to North Queensland. In Operation Middleham, we learn about the plans of a group of radicalised men preparing to travel overseas to engage in hostile activities to overthrow a government. Find out how quickly the situation escalated and how it all came undone for the offenders.

Release date: Friday 11 March 2022

View Episode 6 Operation Middleham transcript


Read or download episode 1 transcript - Operation Kitrino

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Host – introduction 

The Australian Federal Police – or AFP for short – is Australia’s national policing agency. Its aim? To – outsmart serious crime with intelligent action. Officers from the AFP work with local, national, and international agencies to combat serious criminal threats. Their work includes counter terrorism, serious organised crime, human trafficking, cybercrime, fraud, and child exploitation. The AFP exists to disrupt major criminal operations. In 2020-21, they did that over 400 times. They seized 38 tonnes of illicit drugs and precursors, and assisted overseas police services in seizing 19 tonnes of drugs. The AFP charged 235 people with child exploitation, and charged 25 people following terrorism investigations.

For the first time, the Australian Federal Police is opening its doors to give you a glimpse of how their officers investigate the most serious of crimes and stay one step ahead, to keep Australia safe.


The Human Trafficking Team in the Australian Federal Police deals with cases of sexual servitude, labour violations, and slavery. Sex trafficking is by far the worst. Young women recruited from other countries and brought to Australia, become trapped in an existence that consists of little more than long hours of work in brothels, transport back to their apartment, then transport back to the brothel the next day. Day after day after day. They sustain injuries from the sheer number of clients – up to twenty a day. Their world narrows to work, sleep, work. They don’t connect with anyone outside their sphere. They often don’t speak the language. They are told the police in Australia are corrupt and on the payroll, so if any woman seeks help, the brothel owners will know, and they will punish her. For many, there is the threat that the punishment will continue beyond them, to their families back home. 

Across Australia, each state has its own laws around sex work. In states where sex work in brothels is legal, it is subject to strict regulations. Anyone operating outside the licensing requirements can be prosecuted. To operate a brothel in Victoria of more than two workers, the brothel must have a Sex Work Service Provider’s license. Smaller businesses still require a permit and must be registered. But despite the attempts to regulate the industry, it is still vulnerable to illegal activity like sex trafficking. 

The AFP Human Trafficking Team had investigated smaller-scaled cases where women had been trapped in the brothel industry, but until they heard of an offender who headed up a syndicate managing around a hundred women – mostly from Korea, brought to Australia to pay off debts – they had never seen a case on such a large scale. It was from this intel, Operation Kitrino was born. 

Now, she is an Acting Commander, but back in 2012 when Operation Kitrino began, Danielle Woodward was a Detective Sergeant and Team Leader of the AFP Human Trafficking Team. When it comes to investigative might, when they need it, the AFP can call in the cavalry. 

AFP Acting Commander Danielle Woodward (4.30)

Operation Kitrino was the first time that we really engaged in an investigation to encapsulate the whole syndicate. We had partnerships with, with Victoria police, with Border Force, with Consumer Affairs, and a lot of the regulatory bodies in order to just make sure that we were getting information from every aspect in order to disrupt the syndicate. So it was probably the first time that not only using our team of six or seven people, but by the time we went to what we call the overt action, we had 100 plus staff and police working just to try and bring the syndicate down at the time.


Acting Commander Danielle Woodward had been in the Australian Federal Police for over twenty years when Operation Kitrino was launched. She had combined her policing career with a sporting career as a slalom canoeist, which had taken her to three Olympic Games. She won silver in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. For Danielle, there are a lot of cross-over qualities between sport and detective work. 

Danielle Woodward (5.40)

What I found was that being an elite athlete at Olympic level, it really did teach me a lot about that discipline and about resilience, about you know failing and being able to get back up and trying again and trying new ways of actually undertaking the role that I had. I feel that it’s been a real benefit for me being a detective in the police force and specifically around a job like Kitrino that was so large scale.


The origins of Operation Kitrino began when word got around that there was an elusive woman running several licenced brothels in Melbourne where the workers were from North and South Korea. It’s important to note here that many licenced brothels operate within the law, but sometimes, even when brothels are licenced, that doesn’t mean that what goes on behind closed doors is legal, nor does it mean the people running them are licenced. It is in these gray shadowy areas that crime happens. When Danielle arrived at Human Trafficking, she could see the footprint of the woman called Mae Ja Kim who always seemed to evade the police. 

Danielle Woodward (6.56)

When I first came into the Human Trafficking team, it was around 2010, and as you do when you take over a role, you research, and you review all the material that you’re doing. So not only did we have response work in dealing with the currency of the jobs that we had, but there’d been a lot of whispers through a lot of our other jobs right back to 2003, of this female called Mae Ja Kim. And she’d sort of popped up as potentially someone that was in a brothel, that was just there with the girls, but she had $20,000 in her handbag, which was just a little bit different, or she would pop up on telephone lines talking about young adults and ways to get them into brothels, and no one really could tie her into anything in particular, but she just popped up in all of these previous operations, and that’s where it really peaked my interest as to how is this particular person manage to get away with not being caught up in all of the other very successful jobs that had come before my time. So that’s where the genesis of looking at Mae Ja was around her just being elusive and not being able to quite put our finger on what she was doing and who she was.


So with the scant amount of detail on Mae Ja Kim, all the AFP knew in the early stages of Operation Kitrino was that she was connected to a number of brothels. Her success in keeping under the radar and avoiding detection was that she was adaptable, and tried to keep a step ahead of the police. That had worked for her for a long while, until she came onto the radar of the officers at the AFP.

Danielle Woodward (8.35)

I think that Mae Ja Kim was probably underestimated by police, including myself, initially. Mae Ja Kim was probably the first person that we came across that was well and truly up there in, in the level of criminality and the level of cleverness that she had. She knew that as time evolved, that hanging onto passports of young women was something that police would look for, so then she didn’t do that anymore. She would make sure they actually had them, but use different ways of coercing them into not going anywhere. So that’s where her level of criminality, just the level of smartness I suppose that people didn’t actually attribute it to her. And she was female, which was unfortunately a big piece that people don’t think of females as criminal masterminds.


Here’s what Mae Ja Kim was doing. She would traffic women – mostly from South Korea, but some were refugees from North Korea. The women usually worked in the karaoke industry and accrued debts in a combination of easy credit and the pressure to spend money on cosmetic procedures so common in the industry. Traffickers would swoop in and offer them a chance to pay back their debt by working in the sex industry in Australia. The karaoke industry in Korea had a footprint in sex work, but the difference was fundamental. The distinction lies in agency and choice for the workers. Danielle Woodward’s colleague in the Human Trafficking Team, James Cheshire now Detective Inspector, but back in the time of Kitrino was a Detective Leading Senior Constable, says that in Korea, the women choose, and in Australia, the women have no choice. Rather, they are chosen.

Detective Inspector James Cheshire (10.28)

The karaoke bar industry in Korea is something that’s a bit different to what most Australians are used to when they think about doing karaoke in a pub in Australia. So a great deal of them are where the sex industry operates. The difference between the sex industry within karaoke bars in Korea, and the sex industry in Australia, is really about where the power lies and the decision making lies in who goes with who, to provide a sex service. So within the karaoke bars in Korea, it’s up to the girl to offer that service to a particular client and then the negotiation will go on and generally, the sex service will be provided off site. And a license brothel within Australia, what would generally happen is that the client will attend the brothel, and there’ll be an introduction where the client is introduced to all the girls that are on duty, working that evening then the client will choose who it is that they wish to go off and engage in the sexual acts that they’re paying for during that session.  


So how do the women accrue the debt that makes them vulnerable to traffickers? In the karaoke industry, there is pressure on the performers to cosmetically enhance their looks, which costs money. Credit cards are easy to get, and some of the more unscrupulous lenders don’t require proof that the borrower can service the loan. Debt can quickly accumulate. 

James Cheshire (12.02)

Within the karaoke industry, looks are very important, obviously, because that’s the nature of the work that’s involved so there’s a big push for cosmetic procedures, be that fillers or Botox or even to have surgery conducted. So that means that these people have got credit cards or other loans from people, be it loan sharks or other non-bank type people who stand over them, that then leave them vulnerable to offers from other people who then provide them with the potential way of paying off their debts. 


In that world of easy credit and karaoke bars full of young women unable to pay back their loans, that’s where human trafficking predators step in. They offer the girls a trip to Australia where they can work to pay off the debt, away from the prying eyes of people they know, or the shame such work would bring onto their families. The travel is arranged through legitimate visas.

When the predators have contacts within the karaoke industry, James Cheshire says the women are easy targets. 

James Cheshire (13.18)

They know the girls that are working already. They know who’s in debt, who’s in trouble, because it’s just common knowledge within those venues of who’s vulnerable and perhaps more willing to accept an offer when it’s made.


Syndicates like the one run by Mae Ja Kim use Australia’s visa system to legally bring the women in from Korea. 

James Cheshire (13.44)

The principal visas that they would come out on would be working holiday visas or on student visas. Both of those types of visas have ah, the ability to work whilst they are in Australia, particularly the working holiday visa had at the time an option where if you were working in a rural setting, you were able to get a longer duration visa for that time. So they would pay an intermediary to make the application for them for the visa. They would have various people in Australia that would be able to provide references that they would be employed in various industries or would be undertaking studies whilst they’re here to meet the requirements of the visa itself.   


The whole recruitment process is designed to deceive the women. They are told that Australian officials are corrupt and, having seen corruption at work in their own countries, they believe it. There is a language barrier, and they can’t understand government advice. So, when the trap is set, there is no way out for these women. 

When stories about the elusive Mae Ja Kim and her syndicate began circulating, the Human Trafficking Team decided to team up with officers from the Victoria Police Sex Industry Coordination Unit – or SICU for short – and visit all licenced brothels. The best way to gather intel was to ask the workers. To investigate what was outside the normal practices, police had to know what was ‘normal’. James Cheshire describes the operation. 

James Cheshire (15.27) 

We established the idea that we would go out and target every single brothel in the Melbourne metropolitan area over a very short period of time and doing it at a time where they are at their busiest. So we did that over the course of the weekend where we went out and visited effectively every operating licensed brothel in the Melbourne metropolitan area and spoke to 500 people that were working in the industry at the time. Speaking to them and creating contacts with them, that would then be the start of how it was that we were able to draw in more specific information about what it was that Mae Ja was doing, the nature of her syndicate and how it was that it was operating. 


Over those three days, the AFP and Victoria Police officers visited 91 brothels, they found everything from top end establishments right down to places that were not clean or well managed. From the well-run to the grimy, there was everything in between. Danielle Woodward was one of the officers taking part in the brothel visits. She remembers some aspects as being particularly distressing. 

Danielle Woodward (16.45)

When I started in Human Trafficking, part of our role was to engage with Victoria Police and go out and visit the 90 plus brothels that were registered in the Melbourne area and get to know the managers, the owners, and particularly the women because we knew that there was exploitation occurring, and it was really trying to build up a trust factor with police, and with the foreign nationals in particular because they came from a world where police were corrupt or they were not trustworthy, so we were trying to build a bond with them, and it was really interesting. I didn’t go out on all of the visits but in the few that I did go out on, I was actually quite shocked; to go into these places the ones that I visited were pretty bare and stark in their surroundings and the type of the furnishings that they had. It was a bit cheap and, I think it’s romanticised a lot through television, and it’s really not. Probably what I found the most distressing is walking out to the back with all the girls sit, is sort of their work room or restroom, and along the shelving there’s bottles and bottles of Listerine mouthwash to clean their mouths all the time. And there’s lubricant everywhere and there’s antibiotics that are sitting there. And even things like Botox, there’s small vials of Botox and things so it’s a production line and it’s a line where using mouthwash and antibiotics and lubricant, I found it really distressing that this is people’s bodies that they’re pushing this through and it was just a pretty distressing scene for me.


And it was really over the course of the weekend of brothel visits that Mae Ja Kim solidified as a major player in the type of sex work that is illegal. She was bringing women over from Korea and using debt bondage to keep them working. The women did not have freedom of movement and there were certainly elements of human trafficking in what the AFP suspected was going on. The first thing they had to do was find her. And as Danielle points out, that wasn’t easy. 

Danielle Woodward (18.55)

We started off with just our team and Mae Ja was on our radar and it was a proactive exercise for us to see whether we could find her. And that took us probably about three months of just, good old police work, and good old detective work, just following little leads down all over the place, putting trackers on different people’s phones that had potential access to her, to be able to try and locate and shore up the information that we did have. And then we just slowly built from there until one day our physical surveillance teams actually managed to find her in the city. It was the first photograph we had of her and confirmed probably in 10 years, and so that was a real milestone, and once we got that piece, we were able to construct a strategy in how we were gonna go about it. 


Detective James Cheshire explains that the police officers got the distinct impression that Mae Ja and her syndicate members were teaching the women how to respond when questioned by the police. 

James Cheshire (19.57)

The girls, had limited English capacity and would tend to be skilled or trained in providing rote learnt answers to questions that police might ask them about what’s going on, how long have you been here, you know, how many clients do you see, how much money do you get from each client that you see, how are the conditions here. The answers would be strikingly similar between each of the girls that you spoke to. The girls would tell us that they were coached.


The women in Operation Kitrino were trapped in debt bondage. Just say, their original debt in Korea was $5,000. James explains just how quickly that number exploded once they signed up to come to Australia.

James Cheshire (20.49)

One of the girls that sought our support and was able to exit out of the syndicate, provided us with some detail. So before she left Korea, the flights and visa to Australia, she was charged 2½ thousand dollars for. She was provided an advance of $5000 to clear the debts that she had at the time. She was required to provide an accommodation bond of $1000, before she came to Australia, then she was charged rent of $1500 per month. The accommodation in which she was in was shared room accommodation so most of the time with one other girl, sometimes with two other girls in the same room. Then there was initial costs she went into debt for, of hair, make up, clothes of about $10,000. These are all costs that have happened before she’s even started working in the brothels in Melbourne. During the course of working, she would be charged $10 for the transport from home to the brothel and then charged $10 to be brought home again. There would be the monthly medical check-ups where she would be charged somewhere between $200 and $300 each month for that medical examination and the provision of that medical certificate. There was also a range of fines. And during the time she was working, if she didn’t turn up to shift, she would be fined $500 for not attending that shift. There was a period of time where she felt that she needed to curry favour with the member of the syndicate who was her immediate supervisor or overseer, so she paid $3000 as a one-off payment to be looked after. After she’s been here 12 months, the particular visa that she was on was falling due and she was needing to apply for a second visa. She was charged $2,500 for that visa application to be made for her. She would need to make a payment at the end of each day in relation to trying to pay off these debts which would increase over time. The amount that she would pay would be directly related to how much work that she had done during that shift, and it would be not less than between $300 and $500 each day that she would need to pay to the syndicate in order to try and reduce the debt. 


With these kinds of charges, the Korean sex worker with the original $5,000 debt, then had another $20,000 added on top of that to get her tickets, visas, and accommodation bond. She paid back an estimated $60-$70,000 for that original amount. On top of that were the ongoing costs of hair and make-up, clothing, and sometimes, more cosmetic procedures.  Danielle Woodward explains the pressure on the women to service the ever-increasing debt. 

Danielle Woodward (23.56)

I think that the horror comes from they are quite often in debt before they leave the country and when you leave something like South Korea, and they’ll actually have a friend of theirs go guarantor, so they put their friends in debt. Then they come out to Australia thinking that they might be working in karaoke bars. And then they find out that they owe all this money once they’re here so it’s quite a bit of a shock, so you know it jumps to 20,000 straight away. It could take up to a year depending on what was going on and they would be fined as well so the whole concept was to keep them in this debt bondage situation for as long as possible. 


Fortunately, some of the women reached out to the AFP for help. 

James Cheshire (24.36)

We had a number of girls over time that would seek our assistance, and would be exited from the environment in which they were. Within the Human Trafficking Team, we’ve got access to an Australian government funded program called the Support for Trafficked Peoples Program which is run by contract by the Red Cross, where they’re able to provide support and guidance and referrals to everything from medical to psychological, and other assistance.


Operation Kitrino confirmed that not only did Mae Ja Kim have over a hundred women working for her, she also supplied workers to other brothels. From the time Operation Kitrino was set up, Danielle Woodward and her team had to figure out ways to gather evidence to prove human trafficking had occurred. Fortunately for the team, a legal precedent occurred in 2009 in the Wei Tang case that changed the way the courts looked at human trafficking. It didn’t necessarily have chains and locked doors. Coercive control was much more subtle than that.

Danielle Woodward (25.48)

I think the Wei Tang trial and the High Court decision really changed the way that the courts looked at imprisonment or slavery and specifically around the lack of physical constraint. And they really concentrated on the idea of ownership, without physical constraints, so the psychological constraints or the isolation was part of what was so important about Wei Tang. And whilst it wasn’t particularly well known in the public sphere, it became very well known in the policing sphere and particularly for us being able to pursue prosecution such as Operation Kitrino, where there was no visible levels of constraint whatsoever, and being able to prove psychological constraint is quite difficult, but when the courts have a precedent like Wei Tang, it makes it a lot easier for us.


Indeed, the Wei Tang precedent changed the game for investigators. 

James Cheshire (26.42)

So what the High Court found was that all the circumstances that are present within a person’s environment can be taken to look at whether or not slavery or slavery like conditions exist. So whether someone has restricted movement or is made to do various activities, or has restricted contact with people, all these types of features can be taken into consideration in assessing whether or not it is slavery or a slavery-like condition that the person is experiencing.


And this is exactly what it looked like for the women brought to Australia by Mae Ja Kim and her syndicate. Once they arrived, a level of imprisonment occurred that well and truly trapped them. As James Cheshire said, there were no visible chains, but they were completely controlled by Mae Ja’s syndicate. With their ever-increasing debts coupled with high living expenses, there was no way out for the women.  

Once the AFP investigators understood how Mae Ja Kim operated, they could see just how trapped the women were. 

James Cheshire (27.59)

The environment in which they’re living and working is a very insular one, so their contact is principally with the other girls that are working within the industry. They’ll have the contact with the client when they’re at work, but as far as having an understanding of what the Australian environment is, and the culture, and the community, they are not exposed to it, so they don’t understand. Most have very limited English ability, and most of that English is around the English that they need to be at work. So when members of the syndicate say to them that the syndicate are paying off officials, be it police or immigration, the girls believe that, because they don’t have any other information to be able to draw upon to provide them what’s actually going on. 


It is a sad reality, but for some of the women, the situation they found themselves in when they arrived in Australia was preferable to the one they left. And this was confronting for Danielle Woodward. 

Danielle Woodward (29.04)

Earlier on, with an operation that was linked through to Mae Ja Kim loosely, and that was when we had two North Korean girls that managed to come to escape North Korea. They got trafficked by an associate of Mae Ja Kim’s in China. Then they made it to South Korea, and then they got trafficked out to Australia. And by the time we actually were able to talk to them, they looked at us and basically said, ‘Well I live in a nice apartment. I earn a lot of money. This is better than the life I’ve ever had.’ And it’s really distressing to hear that throughout the world, people actually thought that this was better. And their main drive was to get home, to be able to ring home to North Korea, the few times they can from South Korea. And send money home to help their families have a better life.  


Mae Ja Kim was a different kind of operator to what the AFP had seen in the past. Danielle explains why. 

Danielle Woodward (30.00)

Mae Ja did stand out because of the length of time that she’d been in the industry. Everyone knew of Mae Ja Kim, whether it was the sex workers, whether it was a brothel managers, even the general Korean community knew about Mae Ja Kim. And that’s partly how we managed to find her, was actually through community information and snippets of information about where she would be, what she was doing. She had an incredible taste for high-end fashion, for shoes, for handbags, for cosmetic surgery, and for hairstyles. So her level of influence around the Korean community was enormous. And we never really realised how big that was.  


When Mae Ja Kim came on the AFP radar, she was a shadowy figure with no social media presence except when she appeared in the background of photos others posted. But as Operation Kitrino progressed, the intel gathered began to tell her story. 

James Cheshire (31.03)

During the course of our just normal operations even before the investigation targeting her kicked off, we knew of the way that the syndicate worked in a general sense. We knew she existed, but she had no everyday sort of footprint that someone living in the community would have. Apart from having a learner’s permit and a passport, there was no other normal documents that you would have. There was no phones in her name, there was no premises rented in her name, there was no property owned by her in her name, there’s no car in her name. None of that usual footprint that people have within the community didn’t exist. She would regularly turnover phones so that she wouldn’t have the same phone number for too long. She would move between apartments frequently so she wasn’t in the same spot for too long. So it was difficult for us without targeting her, to have a good understanding of who she was and how it was that she was directing the operation of this syndicate.  


What did emerge was that Mae Ja Kim had turned her fortunes around when she moved from sex worker to syndicate boss.  

Danielle Woodward (32.19)

She came into Australia and was in the sex industry working and then she worked her way up into a managerial role, and then I believe came up with these ideas about how to make money and how to exploit the brothel system by controlling all the Koreans that were moving into the system so she could hold the brothels hostage as to which girls that she would provide to them and when. So she became a very powerful, almost matriarch of this particular syndicate. And sadly her journey up from sex worker to manager to being the syndicate head was a journey that a lot of the women end up doing as well not so much to syndicate head, but certainly to manager because once they’re in sex work and they’ve had the amount of money that they can earn in sex work, they get encouraged to then move in, and basically almost like a pyramid scheme, if they can go and get girls to come out from Korea, then they can make more money and do less in the way of being a sex worker. So they get entrenched into the system and then they know no other way of working, particularly in a foreign country and so they become the managers themselves.  


At the heart of any operation like Kitrino, the women are being exploited. The AFP knows that disrupting the syndicate might free the women from the life of debt bondage and sexual servitude, but that doesn’t mean the women are willing to give evidence against the syndicate.  

James Cheshire (33.46)

One of the hurdles that was experienced by my colleagues in previous years in looking at the activities of the syndicate, was being able to have one of the victims be willing to give evidence against the syndicate. The nature of the human trafficking offences are obviously that there has to be a victim, someone who’s been entered into debt bondage, they are engaged in sexual servitude, or other offences like that. So there is a victim, a person who is being exploited as part of that offence. They need to give evidence in court against the syndicate, which has controlled their life over many years, who have made threats against them and have made threats to them about family members. It’s understandable that they are happy to talk to us about what’s gone on, but not take that next step and give evidence in a court against the people who have exploited them. They are scared. They’re scared about what the syndicate might do to them. Some people are embarrassed about the information getting out about them having worked in the sex industry. So there was a range of reasons why it was that they didn’t feel comfortable in providing a statement and giving evidence against Mae Ja and the other members of her syndicate. 


Once the AFP began concentrating on the human trafficking and debt bondage within the brothel system, they saw an opportunity for a broader community benefit. Danielle Woodward teamed up with VicPol’s Senior Sergeant Marilyn Ross to design a program called Look a Little Deeper which aimed to educate people to identify the signs of trafficking. 

Danielle Woodward (35.32)

Marilyn and I worked very closely as heads of our respective units across VicPol and AFP. Kitrino was probably the culmination of that work that really showed what you can do when you’ve got really good relationships and collaboration, using the expertise of both the forces and their specialist capabilities to really try and help out our first responders, being state police, border force, even as far as hoteliers or anyone who is on the front line, to help them understand what human trafficking actually is, because it doesn’t necessarily appear like the females are actually in any level of distress. And that was probably the biggest piece that really drove us to it.  


Senior Sergeant Marilyn Ross headed up the Victoria Police Sex Industry Coordination Unit. The unit’s role was to identify illegal activity in both the licenced and unlicenced sectors of the sex industry, and most importantly, to protect vulnerable people from exploitation. Teaming up with the AFP gave Marilyn more opportunity to highlight and educate the public about human trafficking. She remembers back to things she saw early in her career. There were probably signs of human trafficking, but she just didn’t realise. 

Senior Sergeant Marilyn Ross – VicPol (36.55)

I remember going into a licensed brothel, and I was only a young constable, from the country no less and I found all these passports and I go, ‘What’s going on here?’ And I knew something wasn't quite right. But of course, back then, I had no idea what human trafficking was. I just knew that it wasn't something right with the situation. And so for me, it's been great in coming full circle to be able to go, ‘Well, I know what it is. I can identify it, and I know what needs to be done.’ And to now be able to pass that on to well, everyone, that everyone understands because personally I think stopping human trafficking and slavery is everyone's responsibility. 


The investigators working Operation Kitrino had to match their wits against Mae Ja Kim. While she always tried to stay one step ahead of the law, the AFP used every resource available to them to turn the tables. As head of the team, Danielle Woodward explains the resources the AFP were able to utilise. 

Danielle Woodward (38.00)

So at resolution, we had about 100 staff with about 60 to 70 police in that space. In the lead up to that, we actually had a number of phone intercepts on Mae Ja Kim, and she would change her phone over almost weekly, so she was extremely disciplined. So we had a person that had no ID apart from a learner’s permit, we had a cash industry only, no bank accounts. She didn’t drive anywhere, and we had her changing her phone with burner phones every week, so it took an enormous amount of effort and time just to keep up with the interceptions that we had, and I think in the end we had some 60,000 phone calls that we had to then get translated. About, I think 90% of those were in foreign language, and we had to get those summarised and then we had to categorise them and then get them translated later for the brief of evidence so it was an enormous amount of work.  


Pitted against the resources of the AFP, Mae Ja Kim’s syndicate’s days were numbered. Operation Kitrino identified which brothels she was operating, and saw the impact on the workers when five women reached out for help.  

James Cheshire (39.13)

What we’re able to do in concentrating our resources in relation to her syndicate, is able to pull all those little individual pieces together to put together the bigger picture of what it is that’s going on. It’s not that it’s not just that brothel, it’s one two doors down, and it’s also the one in Richmond and it’s also the one in West Melbourne. So we were able to then pull all of that information together and build the picture as it goes. During the course of Kitrino, we had five girls that reached out to us to be rescued from the environment in which they were working. Each of those girls to different degrees was able to give us different pieces of information. The way it works, who is using you know, what phone, how they communicate, where people are living, the names of people that are involved. All that sort of information is able to be collected so we were able to pull this picture together.  


The Human Trafficking Team worked with the Victoria Police and immigration. They would re-visit the brothels and try to gather supporting evidence, but the record keeping in the brothels provided a further challenge. 

James Cheshire (40.23)

So one of the difficulties with the record keeping within the brothels is that it’s very limited, and most of the record keeping is within the girls’ working names rather than their legal names. So, for example the medical certificates which are mandated under the legislation, for them to provide monthly, don’t have to be in their legal names, they can be in their working names. This means that if you went and inspected the medical certificates at any particular brothel, you would go through the names, and there might be two or three Roses or there might be a couple of Cocos, and you don’t know whose medical certificate that actually is. The other issue that we had was actually being able to identify what girls were working in which brothel. Because of the nature of the syndicate, and the punitive action that Mae Ja would take against girls who weren’t getting enough work as she saw it, she would move them from higher traffic brothels or brothels with greater work, to brothels with less work. So for us to have an understanding of who was who, who was working, that made it difficult for us. The way we were able to get an idea was those visits about going out and being able to see who was there and chat who was there. So that’s how we were able to chip away at finding out who was working where, who was moving between brothels, and how that control was going on. 


Even though, their aim was to disrupt the syndicate, when the AFP are dealing with human trafficking, the team never forgets that it is all about the victims and their safety.  

James Cheshire (42.08)

Within human trafficking, it’s a tightrope to walk between prosecuting someone for a human trafficking offence and looking after the victim. And whenever we had that decision to make, obviously we would lean towards looking after the victim. It’s far more important for us that we are able to rescue someone from a horrendous situation and take them and provide support for them through the Support for Trafficked People’s Program, to empower them to be able to make decisions about what it was that they wanted to do next. And that was always the way that we would go forward. It’s always about what that person wants and the effect of that sometimes is that it means that we are not able to at that time charge someone with the offending that’s going on. It doesn’t mean that we walk away from it and do nothing about it.  


When Operation Kitrino was underway, the team got an unexpected bonus when they secured the help of a Victoria Police officer who was a native Korean speaker.  

James Cheshire (43.10)

Early on within Operation Kitrino, we were very fortunate to be able to secure a secondment from Victoria Police of a Senior Constable who was a native Korean speaker, and who not only was able to communicate as a native speaker with a lot of the girls, but he also culturally had a much better understanding about things than a bloke who grew up in Melbourne like me. 


When Victoria Police officer, Senior Constable Lee pulled over a vehicle in a routine traffic stop, he saw a couple of young Korean women inside. He asked a couple of routine questions of the women and the driver, and their answers seemed rehearsed. Lee became suspicious. He took down their details and completed an information report for the AFP.  

Senior Constable Lee – VicPol(44.08)

It was a routine vehicle interception while I was on patrol and I saw van, a sort of people remover with a male driver and the two females sitting in the back. But as soon as I saw the vehicle with those people, like, and I felt, they didn't look like tourists. Well, not sort of father daughters, so I decided to pull the vehicle over. And so then I spoke to the driver and the driver was forthcoming with all these details. He was pretty good. And when I start talking to two females and they are very, very cautious and reluctant, and then I found that the driver was talking on behalf of them. So that could mean something. So I told the driver to be quiet and I start talking to the females and then, because I'm an Asian background, I could have figured out, you know, where those two ladies were from even looking without looking at their passport. In the beginning I was talking to them in English because I didn't, I wasn't sure exactly what country they're from. And then when I confirm the origin of those two ladies, I start speaking my own language. And, but then even when I asked for passports or any ID from those ladies, they were following the driver's instruction. So at that stage, like in terms of the traffic offence, they didn't commit any traffic offence. So I took quite detailed notes of vehicles and ladies and their names and passport details. And I let them go.  


For Senior Constable Lee, there was something not quite right about the women in the van. They weren’t able to speak freely and they deferred to the man. On a hunch, he wrote up a report and forwarded it to the AFP who were able to confirm that the people in the van were part of the syndicate. They were quick to realise what an asset Lee could be to Operation Kitrino. The women didn’t trust police in general, but over time, they came to trust Lee. And trust was vital. Both Victoria Police and the AFP have a dual purpose when it comes to policing the sex industry. They need to investigate its illegal aspects, but they also need to protect the women. 

Senior Constable Lee has never forgotten a story one of the sex workers shared with him.

Senior Constable Lee – VicPol (46.43)

She told me one occasion, she was in a room and then she heard yelling and shouting in the other room, but she and other ladies weren’t in a position to run out to help the girl. But then she found what happened was that there was one girl who refused unusual sex requested by the client and she refused it. But then the client contacted pimp and the pimp sent a few people and then she was bashed up and her nose was bleeding profusely, but they couldn't call ambulance or police because they knew what's going to happen.

Then the next day, the same syndicate people came over and they raped her in the room and none of the girls couldn't do anything.  


That was the harsh reality for the women caught in the syndicate’s trap. No freedom, long hours, sometimes dirty conditions, and the chance that – if they didn’t comply – the threat of violence. Over telephone intercepts, AFP operatives heard Mae Ja and her syndicate members talking about how the women were paid by ‘units’ which were 30-minute sessions with clients.  

James Cheshire (48.12)

We had telephone intercepts on key players and in those telephone intercepts, we were getting their weekly stats. They would refer to a 30-minute session as a unit and they would talk in the number of units that a particular brothel had transacted on a particular shift. They would talk about various girls and the number of units that they had worked in a particular shift, so we had a good understanding, knowing how much clients were paying for a unit, about how much money was actually going through those brothels at that time, just from the telephone intercepts.  


The amounts were vast. Remember James said the women would each pay up to $500 per day to pay off their debts. Mae Ja had over a hundred women working for her. With the huge sums of money coming in every week, Mae Ja Kim received a good percentage of it. Having her under AFP surveillance, the covert operatives watched her spend a small fortune. 

James Cheshire (49.20)

We had a range of tools that we were using to keep tabs on what Mae Ja was doing and how she was spending her day and how she was spending her money. So what was pretty clear from our physical surveillance of her, was her shopping trips to high-end boutiques in the top end of Collins Street or out to Chadstone where she would buy a range of designer brand shoes, handbags, clothing, perfumes, and she would spend tens of thousands of dollars on these items, very frequently, almost weekly where she was spent this sort of money on a new gift to herself. She’s paying in cash.  


And it wasn’t just the obsessive shopping, buying more things than she could ever use. Danielle Woodward’s team saw her spend a fortune on entertainment. 

Danielle Woodward (50.15)

She would go to karaoke bars and spend $15,000 in a night time just on scotch and karaoke. She had a habit of $4000 a week in hairstyles with hair extensions. Her nails are always done. She had Botox every other week, She had dresses in her apartment that still had all the labels on them. She’d never even worn them.  


Operation Kitrino investigators documented the hierarchy in Mae Ja Kim’s brothels. The workers could move up the rungs of the syndicate to become overseers. 

Danielle Woodward (50.49)

The syndicate’s basic plan was that Mae Ja sat at the top and then her sister and her sister’s son and Mae Ja’s husband took care of the syndicate itself, and then she had a whole lot of managers under her which were quite often sex workers that had actually progressed up through, so being trafficked potentially, and then progressed up to being managers, overseeing their own sex workers. And they used to get a cut of the money as well. But if you were a sex worker or you were a manager, and you recruited eight girls and those girls weren’t performing or they had less units per shift, then Mae Ja would punish them by moving those girls out to the brothels that were more in the industrial areas, in the outskirts, that had less customers so they had less income, so you would basically fall back down the food chain and you would fall out of favour with Mae Ja as well which was something that none of the girls wanted to do.  


During the AFP’s physical and electronic surveillance on Mae Ja, they discovered that she met with her overseers on a Thursday for business meetings at restaurants, sometimes at someone’s house, or even at a hairdressing salon. At these meetings, cash in envelopes was handed out to each of the supervisors to pass on to the sex workers. Slowly but surely the AFP collected evidence to build their case. But how much would be enough? As the Human Trafficking Team leader, it was a decision Danielle Woodward had to make.  

Danielle Woodward (52.30)

How much is enough? I think that comes down to when we do charge, we look at the elements of the offence and we’ve really got to get enough information there where we think there’s enough to satisfy a jury that they believe what we’re talking about, so it’s about the reasonable belief. So, we normally matrix it out to actually try and work out what is good enough, so an example is that we collect a lot of information. So we had 60,000 phone calls but we really only presented 500 to the court because that was enough to be able to demonstrate the behaviours against the elements of the offence. So we actually gather a lot more information and evidence potentially than what we need and then we cull it down so the work’s in actually deciding how much to present, so that’s enough that you understand but not so much that it becomes onerous to the juries.  


The challenging part of all of this for the AFP is that while many of the components of human trafficking were present, the investigators needed a victim or victims to come forward; to give a statement; to be interviewed; to turn up in court for the committal; to stay around a year or two for the trial; to be named in open court, and to have the people they’re testifying against sitting opposite. This is a difficult enough process for anyone, let alone a trafficked person, who doesn’t speak English, is far from home, and has no other supports. 

Like catching Al Capone for tax evasion, the Human Trafficking Team came up with something that would be equally effective in shutting down Mae Ja Kim’s syndicate and freeing the women working in her brothels. It’s illegal to deal in the proceeds of crime. So, because Mae Ja was not actually licenced to run brothels, then the money she was spending at the high-end stores in Melbourne was the proceeds of crime. 

James Cheshire (54.30) 

So, part of our assessment of what’s going on, our continual assessment of the evidence that we were able to collect is: have we got enough? Have we got enough evidence here to go and arrest and charge this person? We’re wanting to charge with human trafficking offences, but we have no victim. We’ve identified that we can use these deal proceeds of crime offences in relation to the activities that have gone on. So we’ve assessed this. We believe that we’ve got enough that we can go and arrest and charge Mae Ja. We’ve got overwhelming evidence on the TIs. We’ve got excellent evidence from our own visits and our own physical surveillance.  


A lot of intel was being gathered through the TIs – or telephone intercepts – and then came the infamous ‘ten-year phone call’ where Mae Ja Kim admits in a conversation with her sister, just how long she had been running the operation. This was exactly what the AFP were trying to catch her on – operating the brothels without being a licenced operator. The phone call that was the proof they were looking for, to charge her on the deals proceeds charge. In a lot of ways, it was the ‘gotcha’ call.  

James Cheshire (55.45)

So one of the phone calls that we were particularly taken with, was an argument, a very heated argument between Mae Ja and her sister about the reduction in profit that was going on. So during the course of that phone call and the abuse that she was giving her sister, she said that it was the worst week that they had in 10 years. And so what that meant for us was not only confirming everything that we knew that she’d been involved in the industry for an extended period of time, and exploiting girls for an extended period of time, but it also was very close to us.. We were making our plans to go to an overt action phase, to execute warrants and to arrest Mae Ja and her syndicate members. And that call, at that time, was extremely significant because it’s her obviously admitting that this is a business for her. It’s a long-term business, and she knows exactly what’s going on.  


And how much money did Mae Ja Kim make in her worst week in ten years? 

James Cheshire (56.51)

The money that she had made during that week was $82,500 and that was her worst week in ten years.   


And remember, that weekly amount of $82,500 was just Mae Ja’s share of the profits which was a fraction of the income her four brothels generated. So, the ‘ten-year phone call’ was a game changer and the AFP planned to bring Operation Kitrino to a conclusion. For Danielle Woodward, it was the beginning of the end of the investigation. 

Danielle Woodward (57.31)

It was a wonderful moment that we could say hand on heart that she’s been doing this for 10 years and importantly, she actually said that this was the worst week she had in 10 years. It was a real watershed moment for us to actually say yes, everything that we’ve believed for such a long time is actually true.  


Once the AFP had the proof from Mae Ja herself, they planned to move to the resolution phase of Operation Kitrino.  

James Cheshire (58.01)

So we decide, we plan for a particular date to go to resolution, in July. So we plan with our partners at VicPol, with our partners within immigration, that we’re going to go out and execute these warrants and arrest five people in relation to what’s gone on. The importance of the individuals that are being preyed upon by the syndicate, the messaging was very important to us. So not only did we plan to go to the traditional overt police action of executing raids, arresting people, and putting them before the court, we also had a Phase 2 and 3 of that overt action plan which was to go out to the brothels in a couple of days afterwards and let all the people working in the brothels know what it was that we’d done, that we’ve gone out and we’d arrested people in relation to what had gone on.  


Even though AFP surveillance had recorded Mae Ja’s shopping expeditions, when the officers raided her apartment, they found more handbags, shoes and bottles of perfume than any one person could use in a lifetime.  

James Cheshire (59.09)

So, one of the interesting things for me in going to her apartment and arresting her on the day, we knew how much she was spending on designer label kit, so be that, the shoes or the handbags, or the perfume. We were expecting to see what we saw in her second bedroom of an entire wall of designer handbags, an entire wall of designer shoes, and a dresser of designer label perfumes, a top end apartment in Melbourne’s Southbank with magnificent views across the city and the bay. That was not unexpected at all. What is bizarre to contemplate is that with all this money, and all this money going through her hands, that none of it was put into any sort of asset. Other members of the syndicate had invested in property, but Mae Ja had no assets. The apartment was rented in someone else’s name. She had no car. She had various people driving for her, but no assets, that she had stockpiled cash for a rainy day. There was no forward planning by her to provide into the future or to make money legitimately from all this cash that she had got in. 


After the raids and arrests, Mae Ja Kim and her syndicate were taken into custody. When it came time to interview her, Mae Ja claimed she could not speak English. The investigators knew she could because they had heard her on the telephone intercepts. With an interpreter, she sat down and faced the investigators who’d been on her trail for months.  

James Cheshire (1.00.58)

During the course of the record of interview, my plan was to play her a number of the phone calls which she’s been involved in. So I decided that I would play one call, the 10-year call to her. I played the call. Mae Ja was presenting as having absolutely no English at all. I played the ten-year phone call to her, and as it starts, there’s probably less than 30 seconds in, she turns to me and says, ‘Stop! Turn it off.’ And that moment was a key moment for me in the course of the investigation. It’s the moment in this investigation that moment in that interview room at that time was the point where there is clearly an understanding between me and her that we’ve got her. 


And the moment Mae Ja Kim asked the detectives to turn off the tape, she knew they had her too. For Danielle Woodward, watching the interview from the major incident room, it was a watershed moment.  

Danielle Woodward (1.02.12)

When that question for that particular phone call was played to her, she asked for the interview to be shut down. Yeah, so that was really the watershed moment, a really big moment because she was very, very confident, and I would say cocky about her level of involvement and her knowledge of the industry and thought she get off scot-free, and you know, she nearly did, well, she did for a long, long time but it was incredibly satisfying to bring a person of her calibre to justice.  


Eventually, the case would go to trial, but it was the first appearance before the court that perhaps meant the most to James.  

James Cheshire (1.02.52)

Putting Mae Ja before a bail justice on the night that we arrested her and having her remanded in custody till the next day was significant for me. And it happened just after concluding the interview.  


For Danielle Woodward, seeing Mae Ja and her syndicate locked up was a good moment.  

Danielle Woodward (1.03.11)

To get her off the streets, and actually get her put behind bars was a significant success for us but I think my worry was always about the sheer size of the syndicate and her reach was: would this actually bring the syndicate down ultimately. And with her spending the time she did in jail, it certainly changed the way that the syndicate ran. I think it disrupted it almost completely and got a lot of girls out of the position that they were in, so I think it was really good. But I was probably still you know, thinking that we had the trial to get to, so I was thinking a little bit more about we’ve still got a long way to go. 


After the raid and the arrests, naturally, the officers from the AFP Human Trafficking Team did hope to bring a human trafficking charge against Mae Ja and her syndicate. They did everything they could to help women come forward.  

Danielle Woodward (1.04.06)

We had always hoped that even at the time of the arrest when we went to all the brothels, that we could still potentially find someone that was willing to actually speak out against Mae Ja, so we never lost hope about the human trafficking offences. We just realised that you know, it’s such a difficult crime to prove and it’s such a difficult space to be in with the type of victims that we have, in encouraging them to come forward. We have trouble with that in the best of times with you know young women coming forward to our court system, so we realise that it would always be problematic for us. So we never, never gave up hope, but I think that once we’d settled, after the you know, the few days after the warrants an the work that we did a couple of days after, we then settled for the fact that without a victim, we’re not going to get her for this, but we will get her in respect to her money and actually get her for serious crimes. So that’s what made us quite happy.  


At times during Operation Kitrino, there were over a hundred people working the case. Once the arrests were made, the core team of six and a sergeant continued the major task of putting the brief together for court.  

Danielle Woodward (1.05.24)

In Victoria when we arrest someone, the normal course of events is that the police have six weeks to put the brief together. We did actually ask for an extension straight away just from the sheer volume of material but we still got the brief up in I think it was around 12 weeks, which was an incredible effort. 


Given the strength of the case against Mae Ja and her syndicate members, they all pleaded guilty to money laundering and dealing in the proceeds of crime. A guilty plea is taken into account during sentencing. The judge sentenced Mae Ja Kim to four years with 2 years and six months to serve. Mae Ja’s sister was sentenced to three years and two months with two years to serve. Other members of the syndicate got similar sentences.  

Like all law enforcement personnel, the investigators of Operation Kitrino have to step back from sentencing. Their job is to deliver the offender to the courts and from there, it’s up to the judicial system. Even though, in the end, the AFP couldn’t charge Mae Ja Kim with human trafficking, the judge’s sentencing summary, showed that he understood the seriousness behind the charges the AFP had been able to lay.  

James Cheshire (1.06.48)

It was quite difficult from the sentencing range perspective to have a good understanding about what we were looking at as a possibility. The reason for that is that the deal proceeds offences are usually coupled with other criminal charges, so for example if someone has imported drugs into Australia, they will be charged with that and also dealing in the proceeds of crime. So to try and de-couple the sentence for the deal proceeds from the other offending in, the library of cases that the DPP had was quite difficult. What’s pretty clear to us was that this was a significant jail term for a deal proceeds of crime matter. And it is pretty clear that there was an understanding there from the courts that what was going on was human trafficking. It was treating people extremely badly. It was preying on them and preying on the vulnerability, and that was reflected by the sentence.  

Danielle Woodward (1.07.53)

But still it was very satisfying that we’d actually manage to put them all behind bars for a significant period of time and I think even more so, in the judge’s comments, it was quite clear that he’d taken into account what they were doing in respect to the exploitation of people. It wasn’t just the fact that it was a money laundering offence, and so I think I took great satisfaction out of the judge’s comments in understanding the type of criminal that Mae Ja Kim and her syndicate were. 


Every time the AFP runs an operation like Kitrino, they learn more about human trafficking in all its guises, and they improve and refine investigative techniques. Danielle Woodward and VicPol’s Marilyn Ross developed a program called Look a Little Deeper. For Marilyn, it was the chance to educate frontline workers on what to look out for.  

Marilyn Ross – VicPol (1.08.50)

So the origins of the program, I suppose, Look a Little Deeper was that I didn't know anything about human trafficking and it wasn't until I did the AFP human trafficking course that I learned about what it was. And as a result, I thought: if I don’t know what this is, I'm pretty sure there'll be other people who don't know as well.  


The joint AFP and VicPol program, Look a Little Deeper, was shared to other agencies and at law enforcement conferences overseas. It relied on the simple premise of asking four questions.  

Marilyn Ross – VicPol (1.09.25)

The four questions of: What is it? Where may I see it? What are the indicators? What do I do? can be more broadly worked where people are having that conversation, so that they can pick up if there's any little indicators and most importantly, identify these victims right at the start, in that first instance. Why we actually ended up calling this Look a Little Deeper was that human trafficking and slavery-like practices they’re such a subtle crime type. So what we would say to our members is: if something's not quite right, ask more questions and look a little deeper. 


Operation Kitrino reinforced the power of collaboration between agencies, especially VicPol and the AFP.  

Danielle Woodward (1.10.10)

I think that the lessons from Kitrino taught us about collaboration between all of the different agencies, and how well that can work together. But I think even more importantly, what we learnt from Mae Ja was that this is serious, organised crime. It’s systemic, it’s long standing. Unfortunately the human commodity is probably the best commodity in the world, because you can keep re-using it. It’s not like drugs or anything else where you actually have to transport it, you have to be hands on, and once you’ve concluded your transaction, that’s the end, and then they have to start another enterprise. Whereas the human exploitation is an ongoing, you can reap reward as a trafficker over and over and over again. So, some of the things that Mae Ja really taught us was about their ability to adapt. She knew about Wei Tang and the issues about passports, and so she was clever not to do any of those pieces so that was more difficult for us. We also understood that on one of the phone calls I believe if I recall, she  spoke about it’s okay it’s not slavery, it’s only a small offence. And she was actually referring to the offence of debt bondage which, in that time, was only a summary offence that only attracted a 12-months’ jail term. Marilyn and myself, and James, went to promote legislative reform to bring debt bondage into serious offences so that it went from a 12 month offence to a four-year offence. That was probably one of our proudest moments about actually getting the law changed to increase those sorts of penalties to allow us to adapt with the criminals so they’re not getting away with this, particularly when it’s human exploitation. 

James Cheshire (1.11.51)

It is possible to target a complex and secretive organised crime group that’s operating within the community and be able to break it. You might not be able to achieve it by charging with human trafficking but you can achieve it by targeting the criminality, that is involved in the activity. I think that’s one piece that comes out of it for me. What you’re able to achieve in partnership with people and how willing people are to go on a journey to help others. Dealing with a human trafficking crime type, it’s about people being at risk and exploited and being in terrible circumstances and we were able to put an end to that.   


Serious crime is getting seriously complex. To stay a step ahead, the AFP is recruiting those with diverse skillsets and backgrounds. Just like AFP personnel Danielle and James and the roles they played in interrupting the sex trafficking syndicate as part of Operation Kitrino. After all, it takes all kinds to solve crime. With more than 200 roles across the organisation, in Australia and across the globe, you could help the AFP stay a step ahead too. Consider a career with the AFP.

The end  

Read or download episode 2 transcript - Operation Boone

Download the transcript

Read the transcript

Host – introduction 

The Australian Federal Police – or AFP for short – is Australia’s national policing agency. Its aim? To – outsmart serious crime with intelligent action. Officers from the AFP work with local, national, and international agencies to combat serious criminal threats. Their work includes counter terrorism, serious organised crime, human trafficking, cybercrime, fraud, and child exploitation. The AFP exists to disrupt major criminal operations. In 2020-21, they did that over 400 times. They seized 38 tonnes of illicit drugs and precursors, and assisted overseas police services in seizing 19 tonnes of drugs. The AFP charged 235 people with child exploitation, and charged 25 people following terrorism investigations.

We’ve got exclusive access to the AFP case vault and personnel to provide you with in-depth insight into how they investigated and interrupted the most serious of crimes to stay a step ahead. 


Operation Boone had an unusual beginning. One of the AFP’s Cybercrime officers travelled to Pittsburgh in 2018, to attend a worldwide conference about cybercrime. The conference ran for six weeks, and for the experts from around the world, much of their discussions were about trends in cybercrime. When an FBI agent heard an AFP officer was in attendance, he approached her and passed on intelligence the FBI had picked up about a website called The site was used to sell stolen usernames and passwords for services like Netflix, Spotify and Hulu for a fraction of the subscriber cost, so people could access these sites illegally. FBI intel concluded that the person operating the site lived in Australia. When she returned home from the conference, the AFP officer relayed the FBI information to her team, and they decided to take a closer look.  

AFP criminal intelligence analyst, Dale Redfern, says the case began when a high school teacher in the United States overheard some kids talking about how to get cheap subscriptions online.  

Dale Redfern (3.12)

I have to say, this is probably one of the most unusual ways to start an AFP investigation. The information that was related to us by the FBI was that there was a group of school kids, in Iowa, in a high school, talking in the playground about getting cheap Netflix. A teacher overheard them, thought it was a little bit unusual. Reported it up the school chain. They then told the State Police. They then told the FBI, and then all of a sudden, it became this national and international investigation. Very unique start to a very interesting matter. 


In essence, an offender in the United States was hacking into businesses and stealing usernames and passwords. Because so many people use the same username and password for everything, it means this data can be sold, and chances are, the username and password you used to log into your coffee loyalty card will allow a thief to log into your Netflix account.  

In this case, an Australian offender had purchased sets of stolen usernames and passwords from the US hacker. The hacker had sold the stolen credentials in bulk, not knowing if the passwords worked. The Australian buyer then had to figure out which sites he could match to the stolen username-and-password pairs. He would run the pairs across various sites like Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu to find matches. The Australian offender then sold those username-and-password pairs on a website called WickedGen on a large scale. So, a customer could buy the login details to Netflix for a fraction of the cost they would normally pay for a legitimate subscription. The money earned was being filtered into a complex system of PayPal accounts. Once the AFP Cybercrime team started investigating the Australian offender doing this, Operation Boone was born. 

Dale Redfern (5.14)

In this case, the information was provided by the FBI. And it did identify an account generator site called WickedGen. From that preliminary investigation, the FBI gave us a handful of PayPal accounts that they had identified were receiving payments as part of the WickedGen payment platform.  


We asked Dale about the role of a criminal intelligence analyst when information like this comes forward? 

Dale Redfern (5.41)

The role of a criminal intelligence analyst within the AFP is to interpret the criminal environment, and provide timely, relevant, and actionable intelligence. It can be tactical. You might have a phone number. You might have an email address. You might have a person. And it’s trying to work up a profile and understanding of that person and their role as a criminal essentially. You also have a more strategic aspect of things, how do they move the money from A to B? Are they using technology? Are they using encryption?  


In many cases, the role of an analyst starts before a criminal investigation is launched. With the complex web emanating out from the WickedGen site, Dale Redfern would be kept very busy, trying to uncover the extent of the offending.  

Once Operation Boone began, AFP investigator, Senior Constable Joanna Kondos came on board as the case officer. Joanna had joined the AFP after doing a degree in Maths at university. She was drawn to law and order, loved structure, and saw the AFP as having an analytical investigative focus. After joining up and doing a stint at the airport, Cybercrime seemed a natural path for her.  

Joanna Kondos (7.03)

So, in January of 2019, I had joined Cybercrime after spending some time in uniform at Sydney Airport. I had been in the AFP for probably about just short of four years at this stage, and chose to come to Cybercrime because it was something that was growing. This industry was not something that was ever going to slow down. And it was exciting that it was an area of the AFP that was really gaining some traction. So, I’d just joined Cybercrime. I was new. There was definitely no prior skillset or knowledge from me in the tech world, but it was a challenge. 


For an officer who loved problem solving, Operation Boone was going to provide her the perfect opportunity to help unravel a hugely complex and carefully concealed cybercrime.  

Joanna Kondos (7.59)

After completing an internal cybercrime course, just to get me over the line of knowing some of the terms of references, I joined this team, and on their books, they actually had Operation Boone. So I became aware of the job through a briefing from the case officer at that time, who ended up handing over the job to me a short time later, and on the forefront learnt that there was an individual located in Australia who was the author and administrator of something called an account generator website. I’d never heard of account generator websites. I had to do a little bit of my own research and found that these websites actually sell other people’s usernames and passwords to services. So, it’s a way that an individual can pay a little less to get a service. 


The AFP discovered that this illegal trade in stolen usernames and passwords was big business. 

Joanna Kondos (8.59)

The website that was the main focus at this point of the referral was called WickedGen. So WickedGen was selling other people’s subscriptions to services such as Netflix, Hulu, Spotify. In fact, there were over 50 different types of services that it was offering. And the site itself prior to its shutdown claimed to have over 120,000 users. So it was fairly popular. And I thought it was interesting that I’d never really heard of these kinds of websites, but clearly other people had. They offered a cheaper price to these subscriptions. So whilst you and I might pay $11.99 a month for a Netflix subscription, it was being offered on these sites that you could pay $2.99 a year or $4.99 for life. But what were you actually buying was someone else’s username and password, not a subscription through the legitimate site itself. 


So, because most people use the same username and password over and over, there are easy and automated ways of testing it against other sites. The process is called ‘credential stuffing’, where large numbers of username-password credentials are automatically entered into a target website. The ones that match existing accounts can then be sold by sites like WickedGen.  

Joanna Kondos (10.22)

Because it’s automated, it means you can throw hundreds of thousands of pairs through a script in no time. And what you’re left with is a list of successful credentials at that stage that will gain you access on behalf of someone else that hasn’t given you access. You can, even though it’s unauthorised, actually gain access into their account. So, I guess what this does is it preys upon that vulnerability of human nature, that sense of keeping a single easy to remember password across multiple domains, across multiple platforms and services, it’s something that we all do. These days, you need a password to access almost everything, so traditionally the easiest way to do that was to have something that you remembered and then add your capitals or numbers or special characters. What this kind of process does in credential stuffing is it works around that. 


Operation Boone began with some good old-fashioned web searching. The AFP team was in luck when they found that someone on YouTube had done a review of the WickedGen website and jumped through the hoops as a customer. The way it worked was all there, laid out for the investigators.  

Joanna Kondos (11.47)

Sometimes it’s actually nice that the public can do a little bit of our job for us, in this sense, present us a YouTube review of the final iteration of account generator websites that our offender was responsible for. And what this really gave us as investigators and intelligence analysts was that customer perspective, the walkthrough of the site from the purpose of the customer in making a purchase. So whilst it was nice to see what it visually was able to look like, it was also good to see the service options. So, the Netflix, the Spotify, the Hulu, the NBA, UFC. But then even more so as this individual on YouTube stepped through the purchase, it also showed us the payment page. And then from that, we were able to see the payment options. So very quickly, we became aware that there wasn’t only PayPal as a payment option, but there was cryptocurrency too. And that adds a whole another element to this case, because it’s not just cash anymore. It’s not just bank accounts. It’s not even now just PayPal. We have that added element of cryptocurrency. So, it kind of better armed us in knowing what we were dealing with when we did come to the point of identifying the offender, was that we were aware that there was a high likely opportunity here, that there was cryptocurrency involved and that takes a little bit more work. 


A bonus for investigators was that the YouTube review video showed the reviewer clicking through to the PayPal payment option and the sale page showed the account the payment was going into.  

Joanna Kondos (13.32)

The YouTube review showed this individual generating the account. So they’ve made the purchase, so now they literally press on a button that says ‘generate account’ and up pops a username and a password. And they even showed going to the Netflix site and putting in that username and password, and it gained them access to someone else’s Netflix account. It had that typical page that we all see with the four or five names of the users of the single Netflix account, none of which were the person that was actually using it. And they click in and they have full access to that person’s Netflix account. 


What was interesting was that when the AFP did their own investigation, the PayPal payment account shown on the YouTube review had changed.  

Joanna Kondos (14.20)

I guess, something that was interesting for us in comparing this review to our analysis of that website, was we were able to see that there’s something set up in the background of this website that means that for some reason, at the time of this review, it went to a certain account, and then when we did our own, it went to another account. So it stepped up that understanding that there was a level of sophistication to the backend of this website, which allowed for it to service people, the way that it did. 


And this switching payments between accounts became another avenue of enquiry that would turn out to be bigger and more sophisticated than anyone imagined.  

Once the AFP confirmed that WickedGen was selling stolen usernames and passwords on its site, they used all of the usual ways to try and track down the person running it. We’ve all seen it on films – the police try and trace an IP address, but the hacker has routed it through other addresses. This was exactly what the AFP found when they tried to trace the location of the WickedGen website. Tracking the account was made more difficult because some of the services the site was using were from overseas. 

Joanna Kondos (15.40)

A big task of ours as investigators is to identify what’s in the backend. So what services are being used to allow for this website to actually operate, whether it be proxy servers, whether it be the domain hosts, whether it be any other technical service that allows for the use of a website. When we were doing this, we found that there were a multitude of email accounts that even though they related to the one website, all the services were registered in different accounts. Something that was common amongst them is that they were registered in GMX and Gmail accounts. So GMX is a service running out of Germany. And Gmail is of course, Google running out of the US. By going to these entities and requesting information, based on these accounts that we’d identified, we were finding that a lot of the IP addresses linked to these accounts led us to VPN servers. And it was leading us down a path that required a fair bit of resources to try and crack through. What we relied upon here was these offshore entities working with us to link these accounts. 


We hear about people using VPNs. But what actually are they? 

Joanna Kondos (17.05)

VPN is a virtual private network, which is a way that an individual can essentially obscure their location. A VPN service is used to make sure that the site in which you’re sitting on does not know where you are located. So, it’s a bit of a barrier in between, for your anonymity.  


The AFP always works with, and relies on the cooperation from, organisations all around the world. In Operation Boone, Google proved really helpful.  

Joanna Kondos (17.42)

Rather than requesting information on individual email accounts, we could go to them with a group of them and say, where are these linked and how are these linked? And in the case of Google, they provided some incredible analysis of the cookies linked between the different accounts. Every time you jump on the internet, and you perform some searches, you leave a trace, and this is in the form of a cookie. So, these cookies in relation to all of these accounts, ended up having some links. And that was a really good way for us to be able to link all these different registrations to a single entity. 


Because it was the FBI who first brought the Australian Federal Police into the case, AFP Cybercrime in Australia teamed up with the FBI in a parallel investigation which gave them opportunities to share information. The weight and might of the FBI also opened doors for the AFP.  

Joanna Kondos (18.44)

Having the FBI work on this and having their expertise as well as ours just meant that all of a sudden I had available to me as the case officer, the full realm of technical ability from investigations to intel analysts to technical specialists and beyond, and anything that we received throughout the course of the investigation, all the way through to resolution, we were able to work on together, and bounce off each other in terms of ways, in which to really open up this investigation and identify the realm of criminal activity. 


When you watch cybercrime investigators in movies, there’s always an expert who works magic on the computer, doing things that regular people can’t. But for Joanna and her team, utilising readily available open-source materials to investigate, worked just as well – especially when one email kept coming up over and over again.  

Joanna Kondos (19.47)

A common email address came up throughout the course of the investigation and what we were able to do through open-source intelligence is have a look at the clear net and the dark net in seeing where else this comes up. So sometimes it’s a matter of piecing the puzzles available together to create the picture of crime. And in this case, it also assist us in being able to put a face or a name or username to the individual that’s actually behind the computer screen. 


When Joanna talks about open-source intelligence, it means it’s freely available online. One site that is worth a visit is the Have I Been Pwned website which tells you if your email address has been compromised in a data breach. The AFP combined their technical capabilities with these online open-source intelligence sites and found something important – the offender’s first name.  

Joanna Kondos (20.51)

When we had a look at the open source materials that were available to us, we found that this email address of interest was coming up in forums, where anyone’s available to comment on whatever they like. And in one case, we actually had an angry message to this user,’ [beep] you.’ And then the name of our offender. So, it was interesting that if we were working towards the identity of the offender, we now have a name that potentially we can match to other identifying features of this investigation. 


Piece by piece, the mystery of the unknown Australian offender started to unravel. A chance mention of his name was just the beginning.  

The complexities involved in Operation Boone were vast. The man behind the selling of data had done a good job of hiding. But it’s almost impossible to leave no footprint in cyberspace. The offender himself had used the same username over a number of sites when commenting on forums. And that was what the AFP Cybercrime team was counting on. For intelligence analyst, Dale Redfern, it meant tracking thousands of posts.  

Dale Redfern (22.13)

The offender had so many posts online. Literally thousands upon thousands. On one of these forums, the offender was a prolific user. He had posted over 2000 times over six years spending the equivalent of 10 weeks logged into the site. There was literally a plethora of insight into him, his actions, and his associates. But there were many other forums: Black Hat World, Bitcoin Talk, Knolled, The Bot, Whirlpool, Twitter; it goes on and on and on. That’s not even to mention the endless gaming sites. Each of these sites provided an understanding of his conduct, his location, his behaviour, and his interests. But the difficult part – you have to review every single post. You don’t know whereabouts in these thousands of posts, you are going to find that gold nugget. You don’t know what is going to be relevant at the time. You don’t know what might come 500 posts in the future. You don’t know how it might link to add another digital bread crumb in another site. It’s a matter of collecting, collating, and analysing that data, stitching it all together to fill intelligence gaps from which we can pivot. 


It was in one of these forums, the offender revealed his age and location. And it would turn out, he was very young.  

Joanna Kondos (23.36)

In another forum, we had identified that the offender had actually posted and said, ‘I live in New South Wales.’ And then after a few more comments said, ‘I live on the Northern Beaches.’ And at that time, was 15 years old. So we’re now starting to put a picture of this real human being, to the activities of someone behind a computer. 


That post was from several years earlier, so it meant the offender was 21 at the time of being investigated. Joanna herself wasn’t that much older than her quarry. 

Joanna Kondos (24.10)

At this time, I was not that much older than the offender at 25. And I think there was a bit of a personal reflection piece here that how interesting that we both had an interest in that mathematical problem-solving space of the world. Yet I chose a path down the line of law enforcement and he’s chosen a path down the line of criminal activity. And that it didn’t really matter what our upbringing was, what school we went to, whether we have the same socioeconomic status, at the end of the day, you either choose to do good or you choose to do something that’s not so good. And in this case, at that fork in the road, he’s chosen the wrong path, and that’s led him to being investigated by the AFP.  


The offender in Operation Boone – who we will refer to as ‘Jim’ – left crumbs behind that the Cybercrime team followed. Criminal intelligence analyst Dale Redfern kept digging. He soon discovered the extent of the PayPal accounts the offender was using.  

Dale Redfern (25.23)

What quickly became apparent was that the names and details on those PayPal accounts were fake. They all had Sydney addresses. They all had very similar email addresses, but not a single person could be identified as being real. They had mobile phone numbers attached to the email accounts and to the PayPal accounts that were fake, or if they weren’t fake, they were assigned to persons who had absolutely no role whatsoever in PayPal or with the WickedGen account. Whoever had set up these accounts was disciplined, coordinated, and had covered their tracks. Well, almost. So, the first port of call was to take a deeper dive into the PayPal accounts. I did not appreciate at the time just how much work was going to be involved. 


Worldwide, there’s a lot of debate about whether pineapple goes on pizza. Who would have thought that ordering pineapple on pizza on a PayPal account could bring the AFP closer to the offender? 

Dale Redfern (26.26)

So there’s really very few leads for which we could actually pursue. But there was something odd on just one transaction. On one of those accounts, out of the 150 odd accounts, there was a single line, a PayPal transaction to a Domino’s Pizza. We thought that’s a little unusual. We didn’t know where it was. Obviously, Domino’s is a bit of a global brand, but we dug a bit deeper. About two and a half years earlier in 2015, there was a PayPal order that purchased a Hawaiian, a Supreme, and a vegetarian pizza, all to be collected from a Domino’s store on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I remember sitting there wondering: who puts pineapple on a pizza? But seriously for us, there was something in the Northern Beaches. 


The irony wasn’t lost on the investigators that Jim was leading them right to him because he too used the same username across multiple platforms. 

Joanna Kondos (27.24)

I guess, a common mistake that he made, that he was preying upon when it came to the human nature of using the same passwords and same usernames across multiple platforms, he’d actually done the same thing. The same names did keep popping up. Every new inquiry led to a new email address or a new username. But at the end of the day, they were then linked to another username or email address that we already knew about. Everything linked to something else. And really that’s where we could put together this web of information for which our offender was smack bang in the middle of it. 


While WickedGen was the original referral from the FBI, there had been a few iterations. The first one was HyperGen but it had been shut down a couple of years earlier. Investigators in Operation Boone found out that HyperGen had been hacked in May 2016, and the entire customer base, ironically, had been dumped online. AFP investigators discovered an online dump – or full copy and paste – of the HyperGen database. 

Joanna Kondos (28.36)

The AFP actually located a copy of that HyperGen database online, and something that is of interest to us in the case of HyperGen, is that usually the first registered user of a website, which is subscription-based, is that the first user is usually the administrator themselves. You can’t set up an account without checking it yourself. So when we were able to locate this, and we call it an online dump or it’s a paste of that database, that admin user, as the first registered user, came back to an IP address, which subsequently ended up being the home address of the offender, subscribed in his father’s name. 


Once they got that close, the Cybercrime team were able to find Jim on social media platforms. On Instagram, they finally got a visual of the man they sought. He had posted a photo of himself doing a muscle flex in a mirror. According to his profile, he was a young man still living at home. He did not have a lot of followers.  

Joanna Kondos (29.51)

You check their socials because someone’s socials be it Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, it’s a real window into someone else’s personal life. You see what they like, you see what they post, you see what their interests are. And in this case, it actually led us to our offender’s Instagram. And there it was, a post of our offender standing in a mirror with his phone, having a flex. And it really was the first time I laid eyes on the person that I thought, wow, okay. This is the guy that we’ve been investigating for so long. And this is the person behind all of this criminal activity online and sophistication. And he was standing in front of a mirror with his tank top, with his headphones on, and kind of trying to portray to be the cool dude. And, at the end of the day, we were aware that he actually spent a lot of his time at home on his computer. So, it kind of did that stereotypical contradiction of what we portray to society versus who we are behind closed doors. He didn’t look very old. He didn’t have much facial hair, and he really did look like a kid, and this really hit home that this person has incredible ability yet they’re choosing it to cause harm rather than using it for good. 


The investigators from Operation Boone built the case around the young offender. One thing that is hard to do in cybercrime is to hide the money trail. Subscribers around the world were paying him electronically. Jim had come up with an ingenious and complex way of juggling and hiding payments. He had used a number of unverified PayPal accounts, and it was through them that he was collecting the money. 

Dale Redfern (31.52)

At the time that the offender was using PayPal, PayPal had an exemption from the Australian financial regulator. As long as the balance kept under that thousand dollars, you were fine. If however, you went over that a thousand dollars PayPal would ask the customer to provide their full ID – a driver’s license, a passport, a bank statement, some form of identification that would confirm your true identity. If you didn’t, PayPal would freeze the accounts and you would not get your money. It made life very hard for the offender. Because, what that offender had to do was to ensure that his balance each time was less than $1,000. It required almost a full-time attention to ensure that his account balance across his multiple accounts did not reach that thousand-dollar mark. He would have spent hours a day trying to rearrange, transfer funds, move funds around from A to B, from B to C to ensure that he did not reach that limit. 


And this wasn’t just a couple of accounts. The Cybercrime unit would eventually identify over a hundred accounts that the offender was juggling to keep them all under the $1,000 limit.  

Dale Redfern (33.04)

As we went through the PayPal accounts, over the months ahead in fact, we trawled through all the PayPal records; we trawled through the money flows. The five accounts quickly became 10, 20, 50, a hundred. Hundreds and thousands of lines of PayPal data were collected and analysed. Purchases, log-in details, IP addresses, transfers to and from, a whole range of other PayPal accounts, also in fake names, also at fake addresses. It quickly became one entangled mess. Almost all the accounts were unverified. All-in-all, a customer base somewhere in excess of 150,000 users, and had subscriptions ranging from $3 to $30. And of those about 85,000 of his customers were paid customers. Doing some very simple maths, there is a fair amount of money being made. The size and scale was simply unprecedented. 


Jim had developed a new site called AutoFlix which only sold Netflix. It showed he was reading what the market wanted.  

Joanna Kondos (34.15)

Our offender had identified that the most popular service was Netflix. And so, because this was the most popular, he actually ventured into a specific account generator website called AutoFlix that purely sold Netflix accounts and whilst it bubbled away and didn’t earn as much money as the other account generator websites, it definitely was a constant form of income. What it meant is he just preyed upon the popularity. So he was able to see a market, reach the market, and build something for that market. 


Eventually, Jim found he had a problem that legitimate businesses would love to face. Suddenly, the demand for his services was too high and he shut down WickedGen in 2018. Not only that, he couldn’t handle the support tickets lodged on the site when customers suddenly found they couldn’t log onto the service they’d paid him for. This would happen if the legitimate user cancelled their subscription or changed their password.  

Joanna Kondos (35.25)

WickedGen, which was going at the same time as AutoFlix actually was no longer active as of January 2018. And something that we were able to piece together was that there was a number of unsolicited advertisements for this website that had been published online. So people had seen the site, seen that it works, how cheap it was, and how successful it was, and decided to do some advertising on his behalf. It’s interesting that advertising can actually be a downfall. And in the case of WickedGen, it was. The site became so popular that there was an incredible surge in popularity that actually led to he didn’t have enough accounts to service the amount of customers. 


It’s easy to think of the crimes Jim was committing as victimless, but the truth is, the victims were regular people innocently subscribing to services, whose credentials were being sold. If someone can get access to your Netflix account, they can see what you’ve been watching, know what you’re interested in. And they have your username and password. What would stop them trying to use it to access your email or for other invasions of privacy? 

Joanna Kondos (36.49)

What were you getting out of the service at that level of then not being able to show your hand to the victim, that you were inside, in their service. So like the example of Netflix, of watching a movie or watching a series, the person then who legitimately owns the account, the unknowing victim, do they log on and see that someone started watching a show that you have no interest in whatsoever? Or, did they see that whilst they pay for three accounts, they keep getting a notification that they’re on too many accounts at once. It’s almost an invasion of your privacy, right? That someone is able to jump onto your account and see what you’re interested in, see what you’re watching. And was there a way that our offender could ensure that the people buying the credentials were not using it for other purposes? No way. He’s definitely not going to stop someone with a criminal intent in using a victim’s credentials for purposes beyond what he was offering as a service. The email and password, whilst it’s being sold as my Netflix credentials, it could also be the credentials to my bank account, to my superannuation, to my government Centrelink account. And then all of a sudden, this victim is now being exposed on a level way greater than a service that can help you stream movies or music. 


Over the course of the investigation, Jim was also developing his skills in industry. His fourth and final account generator website showed his level of sophistication and skill development was growing. 

Joanna Kondos (38.35)

AccountBot was the final iteration of account generator websites. It was the last of the four. And by this stage, our offender had really become quite sophisticated in the way in which they have developed their website. So no longer was it required that anyone manually check all of these accounts. What was set up was this automation with AccountBot that at the backend of this website, at the single point that a customer wanted to generate an account, it was set up that this website would check that account there and then against the target website, and only provide it to you in the event that it was a successful login. In the event it wasn’t a successful login, the website was programmed to get the next account and check that. So there was this real upgrade in the work behind the websites and the customer experience that this was now going to allow for less manual labour, for less support tickets, because it was checked that these accounts were actually useful before being given to your customers. I guess the other thing that it also did was it meant that people weren’t generating more accounts than they’d paid for. So, in the event that someone had changed a password and the account was no longer accessible as a customer, I would come back onto the website, onto AccountBot, and I would request the website to get me a new set of credentials. The site was set up so that it didn’t just get me a new set of credentials. It actually checked the ones I’d already been given, just to make sure that they actually were no longer successful in the access, before giving me a new one. And again, checking that new one before I received it. I guess, from a business sense, what that allowed him was the sense that no one could just keep generating accounts and saying that they weren’t working. His system checked up on that. 


Despite his caution and his complex management system, what brought Jim unstuck was that there were PayPal accounts that linked to his bank accounts. The AFP worked closely with PayPal to uncover this. It became a spider’s web of accounts that came back to him. PayPal gave the AFP access logs to the 186 PayPal accounts that Jim was running. Just how long did it take criminal intelligence analyst Dale Redfern to sort it out?

Dale Redfern (41.25)

To unravel the whole web of the PayPal accounts took months. It took many, many meetings with PayPal. It took many, many meetings with banks and other financial institutions to trace money, and to trace funds and to find linked accounts. Some of these accounts used by the offender do not go to a bank or a financial institution. It went onto prepaid, preloaded, Visa and MasterCards. Tracking down all the money, where it went, how it went offshore, was complicated, and required the assistance of many agencies. 


Once the AFP identified the accounts that the money was being funnelled into, they discovered that four Australian IP addresses were accessing these accounts. Finally, they had a common user. It was a pocket modem – or dongle – that belonged to Jim. Originally, it had been used with multiple SIM cards subscribed using false details, making tracking by law enforcement difficult. But over time, he became careless. Later he subscribed to SIM cards using his full name, address, and date of birth. It was a stroke of luck that there was a lag – or drop out – in the connection between VPN accounts. In this lag, the connection defaulted to Jim’s pocket modem. And for nine seconds, he was not under the protection and anonymity of VPNs. He was logged on as himself.  

Joanna Kondos (43.04)

When 99.9% of our IPs came back to that, our intelligence analysts found that there was a nine-second lag in a VPN connection, which came back to a Vodafone network, which at that stage also aligned with the alleged offender that we believed was behind these sites. And that nine seconds came back to the Vodafone Wi-Fi dongle that was being used in accordance with the offending, came back to the individual with his name, his address, and his date of birth. So that was a big win for us and an important when, in so much data, it can be this tiny lag in service that can actually be a little bit of an unravelling in a criminal activity. 


Once Operation Boone identified Jim and tracked the extent of his cybercrimes, the operation moved to the arrest stage. And it was not going to be an ordinary arrest. The FBI agents who had worked with the AFP, came over to take part. 

Joanna Kondos (44.12)

So, it was really special for us to be able to actually invite the FBI special agents to attend the warrant with us. Not only because they had worked so hard on this investigation with us for such a period of time, not only because they were the referring agency, but also because they had this knowledge and skillset, which matched ours in terms of this particular investigation. Many hands make light work. So having everyone there meant that there was, there was more scope and knowledge of this investigation as a whole. And in what world would you ever say no to leveraging off that? So to have them here in Australia, it was something that we were able to share with them, and that was really special. 


Even though it was a cybercrime, Joanna Kondos and her team made the decision to call in the tactical team to make the arrest. They’re the scary-looking ones dressed in black. 

Joanna Kondos (45.14)

In this case, it was decided that our specialist support team, or a tactical unit, were to make the entry when it came to this search warrant, and a fair bit of consideration was given to this. It’s probably not very common that you would think that a cybercrime search warrant is met with a tactical team. But it is extremely important for us that we were able to make a rapid containment. And that just means get everyone in the right place, all the devices untouched, as quickly as possible, because at the end of the day, whilst we had, all of our information and our evidence available to us prior to that day, that laptop, his phone, they were really key in this investigation. And so to have them unharmed, untouched, untampered with, was really important to the success of the brief of evidence before the court. I’m sure it was the biggest shock of his life, a young guy sitting on his computer, on his lounge, to get the shock of the tactical unit. But it was really important for us as an investigations team to ensure that that went without a hitch. 


Jim’s dad got the shock of his life at the sight of the AFP tactical unit smashing in his door.  

Joanna Kondos (46.36)

So his dad was at the location as well. And this was probably the first time his father had ever realised that his son, who’s capable of so much, was actually using it to aid criminal activity. And I think that when you’re talking about a 21-year-old offender who still lives at home, who we’re alleging has earnt hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s a fair shock to your dad when the police aren’t only knocking at your door, they’re breaking it down. 


Jim was taken into custody and gave a no-comment interview. He was refused bail and spent three days in a New South Wales correction facility. It was all very well to sit online and develop websites that earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, but to be arrested by the tactical response team, then end up in a cell, was a harsh reality that the young man might never have imagined. After meeting him, Joanna felt he would not do well in jail. 

Joanna Kondos (47.43)

I can’t imagine being a 21-year-old, who’s interested in cyber and that tech world, what it could have been like to be at the corrections facility for three days. To be surrounded by people that you would never have associated with, people under the influence of drugs and alcohol, people with a level of violence. For essentially a clean cut 21-year-old, this would have been a massive shock and probably the scariest time of his life. 


Luckily in the forced entry, the AFP got to Jim’s computer before he could do anything to compromise the data. It turned out that the laptop was the Pandora’s box of information. The 21-year-old was charged with five offences.  

Joanna Kondos (48.41)

The very obvious offence here is to cause an unauthorised access to restricted data. Restricted data, being something that is protected by passwords in this case. So by accessing these accounts, he was actually committing an offence. The next one was to do with the money, and that is dealing with proceeds of crime, which we alleged at this point was greater than a hundred thousand dollars. That’s actually a 20-year offence, which is quite heavy and quite daunting for a 21-year-old to be facing. So, another offence that we were able to charge him with, which is something that was a little bit less common and something we hadn’t actually seen used in a criminal space before, was a copyright offence. So, by providing this service to services that were legitimately being provided by Netflix and Hulu and Spotify and NBA and so on, he was actually committing a copyright offence, so that had a maximum penalty of five years.  And then of course, to get around all of the PayPal and money restrictions, when it came to the money laundering offences, we have that he gave false and misleading information to a reporting entity because PayPal in itself is a reporting entity according to the AMLCTF Act, the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Financing Act. So all up, he was really seeing a fair bit of pressure in terms of the amount of offences he was committing. And also the level of these offences and how strong we believed the brief of evidence was for all five of these counts. 


When Jim was arrested in March 2019, the police confiscated cryptocurrency worth $460,000. On October 19, 2021, the Supreme Court of NSW ordered the forfeiture of all items of property to the Commonwealth, including cryptocurrency, and funds held in various bank accounts and PayPal accounts. As a result of the orders, approximately $1.6 million worth of property was forfeited to the Commonwealth. It was the largest forfeiture of cryptocurrency achieved at the Commonwealth level to date. Jim pleaded guilty to all charges. Given that he was so young at the time of his arrest, his lawyer argued for a non-custodial prison sentence. 

On the 23rd  of April 2021, he received a custodial sentence of 2 years and 2 months to be served by way of Intensive Correction Order, as well as 200 hours of community service. In sentencing, the judge said that the offender was not motivated by money, but rather the tech challenge of seeing how far he could take things. The judge offered the following advice: ‘You can still do so much in your life that can be so beneficial for society.’  

Joanna Kondos (51.58)

Our offender being served an intensive correction order, it is technically a custodial sentence, so it is as in the eyes of the law, it is as serious as serving the time in a jail. However, you serve at home or at a location specified with your justice representative, and you live in the community, but with some very strict boundaries, some very strict rules, and in the case that you breached that, you are then deemed to not be suitable to serve it by that way, and instead, you would have to go into a jail. You’re not free. You’re definitely not free. You are serving a custodial sentence; you’re just serving it at home, with some pretty strict guidelines. It’s something that was touched upon in the sentencing procedure by Judge Pickering was that this should really serve as a turning point in the life of the offender. And that whilst they have this ability and this skillset, use it for good. Use it to assist a business or a company or your own company, not for a criminal adventure, and not just because you can, it’s not a good enough excuse in our world is: I did it because I could. And just because you have the ability doesn’t mean you should. So, in this case, we had a young individual with an incredible skillset, preying upon human nature and making money out of selling other people’s information, yet he should be using that skill elsewhere. And maybe for the better of the world, rather than for the better of himself. 


In the two-year cat-and-mouse investigation, Joanna Kondos wonders if people really understand the crime. For her, the bottom line is: theft is theft, regardless of whether of you do it in person, or from your computer. You can’t sell what’s not yours to sell. For her, the true victims were the everyday subscribers.  

Joanna Kondos (54.10)

Something that really hit home to me was I got asked once who was my victim. And I think the way that this job was grasped by media was, someone’s selling Netflix and Spotify and Hulu and these big streaming services are being ripped off because someone’s selling someone else’s subscriptions for a cheaper price. And yeah, maybe the offender did cut Netflix from the ability of having all of these subscribers. But for me, what it came down to was that these accounts belonged to our everyday mums and dads on the street, unknowing victims around the world that had no idea that someone else was sitting on their account. And for me, it was those mums and dads, it was the young kids who spend that money that they have on their services; they were my victims. Absolutely. We were working on behalf of everyone, but it came down to these hundreds of thousands of subscribers that had no idea that that were being leveraged to make some money. 


Agencies like the AFP and the FBI are tasked with keeping cyberspace safe. Not only do they catch offenders like Jim, they also inform industries of areas they can improve on. Joanna Kondos takes pride in the fact that PayPal removed the process that allowed Jim to exploit and trade in unverified accounts. It was never meant to be a point of vulnerability, and as soon as the AFP alerted PayPal, their cooperation was swift.  

Jim was very good at what he did. But the AFP was better. Catching an offender like him is at the heart of what the AFP Cybercrime unit is all about. 

Joanna Kondos (56.03)

It all comes back to that sense of wanting to sit behind your computer and do something that you think no one knows about. And what our job is in Cybercrime is to make it known that we do know about it. And we can actually attribute you to the actions that you take sitting behind your screen. 


And for Joanna, unravelling the labyrinth of Operation Boone was a perfect example of the kind of job that drew her to the Australian Federal Police in the first place.  

Joanna Kondos (56.35)

What was so exciting about this world of cybercrime was this ability to kind of break down the barriers of anonymity, was this idea that through all the resources available to us as an organisation, that we were able to almost break down that idea that people in this world can’t be caught. That they live behind their computers and behind these identifiers that aren’t themselves. And we can actually put a real human being behind the actions of online offenders. That was probably the most exciting part of cybercrime. It wasn’t something I knew, it wasn’t something I had a skill set in, but it was something that really aligned with the whole problem-solving notion that I really got excited about when joining AFP in the first place. 


Serious crime is getting seriously complex. To stay a step ahead, the AFP is recruiting those with diverse skillsets and backgrounds – just like AFP personnel Dale and Joanna and the roles they played in interrupting the illegal subscription service rorting consumers as part of Operation Boone. 

After all, it takes all kinds to solve crime. With more than 200 roles across the organisation, in Australia and across the globe, you could help the AFP stay a step ahead too. Consider a career with the AFP.

Read or download episode 3 transcript - Operation Steambank

Download the transcript

Read the transcript

Host – introduction 

The Australian Federal Police – or AFP for short – is Australia’s national policing agency. Its aim? To – outsmart serious crime with intelligent action. Officers from the AFP work with local, national, and international agencies to combat serious criminal threats. Their work includes counter terrorism, serious organised crime, human trafficking, cybercrime, fraud, and child exploitation. The AFP exists to disrupt major criminal operations. In 2020-21, they did that over 400 times. They seized 38 tonnes of illicit drugs and precursors, and assisted overseas police services in seizing 19 tonnes of drugs. The AFP charged 235 people with child exploitation, and charged 25 people following terrorism investigations. 

We’ve got exclusive access to the AFP case vault and personnel to provide you with in-depth insight into how they investigated and interrupted the most serious of crimes to stay a step ahead. 

[theme music] 


Around the world, many thousands of people are caught up in romance scams each year and the cost runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. People online might spend months connecting with their ‘soul mate’ – someone who seems to be everything they’ve ever wanted. Then, there is a request for money. For travel, a sick relative, for tickets to finally meet. And then something gets in the way of meeting. More money is sent. And then more. When family and friends tell the victim they’re being scammed, the victim can withdraw from them, leaving only the soothing words of the scammer. And the scammers are good at what they do, trading on love and connection.  

When a middle-aged South Australian farmer called Des Gregor began talking to a woman online called Natacha in December 2006, he had no idea she didn’t exist. Her picture – the one she shared with him – had been lifted from a website called Hawaiian Babes. But Des wanted to believe that she was what she purported to be: a sympathetic Christian woman who had been caught up in a refugee camp in Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa.  

Des Gregor  

I was looking through a number of sites on the internet. I clicked on to her and she seemed to be everything that I was looking for. And so things just developed from there. It was all via email. No phone calls. 


Of course, Des had been wary at first. When Natacha gave him information, he didn’t just take it on face value. He tried to verify as much of it as he could, but some information was impossible to check.  

Des Gregor

She sent a passport to verify that she was genuine. I did send that to Immigration, and they told me that they weren’t allowed to give out information, whether it was a true passport or false, which I thought afterwards was a stupid idea because it could have saved a lot of problems had it been notified that it was a false passport. 


Not only did Des do the best he could to verify that Natacha was who she said she was, over the months they corresponded, he heard her story through the messages and emails they shared.  

Des Gregor

Her father was supposed to have been in jail, and I wanted an explanation as to why that was. She explained as to why she was in the refugee camp. And that was supposedly for her security. Supposedly, her father had worked hard and was awarded gold as a bonus, and that was put into a security company. 


Sometimes, the story seemed too far-fetched for Des, especially when Natacha asked for money. The gold, she wrote, was in a security company and money had to be paid for it to be released.  

Des Gregor

At one stage I kind of wasn’t feeling right, and I said, ‘Look, you’re pushing too much for money. Why don’t you get your minister to pay the money to the security company? And then he can have the money, like the church can use the money and help the refugee camp.’ Oh no, but he can’t do that. And I think one of the excuses was it was left in trust in the company for Natacha for when she got married. She had to be married to get it and that couldn’t be broken. 


As with all scammers, it didn’t take long for the appeals for money to escalate. For a kind man like Des, it was only natural that he would want to help out this woman he was growing fond of. She was in a refugee camp. Her son was sick and needed to go to hospital. 

Des Gregor

Basically, she wanted the money for hospital, for food, and she wasn’t getting well cared for in the camp, not the necessities of life, and so she needed money to buy that. I think the largest amount of money I’d sent her in one hit was when she wanted hospital money. And that was $800. 


Despite wanting to help her, Des knew some of the things that Natacha said to him didn’t sound quite right, and one email, he even took over to his brother’s house to run it by him.  

Des Gregor

One of the emails came back, and I thought: well, this sounds too good to be true. And my brother just had a visitor at that time. So I thought, I’ll take the email over to them and get them to read it. And they said the same as me, that there was something fishy in that email. But then with what they’d suggested was fishy, and what I thought was fishy, I sent questions to her, but the unfortunate thing was, she always had a good answer for what I was sending. You couldn’t kind of break her and say, okay, there’s a lie here. So, you just had no alternative, but to believe what she was writing. But at the time, I just assumed that she was being honest, but found out later she wasn’t. 


Natacha was everything Des wanted. When he told her he was a Christian, she said she was a Christian too. Des even exchanged emails with her minister. When her young son got sick, Des sent her money for the boy’s treatment. All up, Des sent Natacha over $10,000. After a six-month courtship of e-mails, Des agreed to travel to Mali to marry Natacha and bring her back to Australia. 

Des Gregor

They are surely experts. There’s no doubt about that, and the way they manipulate you and work things, it sounds all 100% legit. 


Des moved from exchanging emails with Natacha online to buying a ticket to Mali. What made him take that next step? 

Des Gregor

Well, I had to find out whether she was genuine or not, and basically I was believing her, but I probably did have a little doubt in my mind because in the end, something happened to her that she couldn’t meet me at the aircraft. And that’s where I should have smelled a rat. 


Right from the start, the scammers preying on Des brought religion into many of the conversations. When Natacha said she couldn’t meet Des at the airport, she promised her minister’s son would meet him instead.  

Des Gregor

It was the pastor’s son that was going to meet me. And I thought, well, if you’re a minister of religion or a pastor, you shouldn’t tell lies. Well, actually at the time, I thought you won’t be a liar if you’re a minister or a man of religion. 


Of course, Des assumed that the minister was real too.  

On the 26th of July 2007, Des flew out of Adelaide, bound for Mali. When he arrived at the Mali Airport the following day, Des was approached by an airport worker who helped him through the Mali Customs area. When he was asked for several cash payments, he just thought, that must be how they do things in Mali.  

Des Gregor

I went straight through that airport with no questions, no filling out paperwork. All I had to do is pay a doctor so as he’d pass that I’d had vaccines before coming. And somebody also I had to pay, and then I was just rushed off. And they said, ‘Well, your taxi’s waiting there for you.’ 


The airport worker delivered Des to a waiting vehicle and the unsuspecting South Australian farmer was driven to an undisclosed location.  

Des Gregor

I was pretty well hurried up into the car and moved on. Then I was taken to the taxi and taken to then the house where I was kidnapped. 


Natacha was not waiting for Des at the house. As soon as the door opened, Des knew he was in trouble. 

Des Gregor

I was led into the house by what appeared to be two normal guys. They were carrying my bags. They opened the door, and I was met with another two guys, one with a handmade pistol, another one with a machete.  


Des was strip-searched by the group of men, who demanded money. The hostage takers took all the cash Des had on him. They also took his credit cards and tried to withdraw cash from them. The problem for the kidnappers was that Des didn’t have PIN numbers. His transactions required a signature.  

Des Gregor  

Next morning, they were pushing me for pin numbers for the credit cards and all that. And the threat was on. If you don’t give it, we’ll kill Natasha. 


By then, Des was less worried for the safety of Natacha, because he realised that even if she was real, she had caused this to happen to him. Once the kidnappers realised he didn’t have more money on him, they forced Des to contact friends and relatives in Adelaide and request that funds be electronically transferred to a Western Union outlet in Mali. 

Des Gregor  

I didn’t carry a lot of money with me, only a bit over a thousand dollars. Then they said, ‘Well, if we can’t get the money from you, have you got any friends with money? You’ll have to start ringing them.’ So then I had to start ringing them. And thankfully, I’d also previously told them that the year before was a bad year for the farmers and that a lot of them were struggling and needed all the money they had, so you wouldn’t be getting money out of the farmers. And so the first two or three I rang, they all said, ‘No, we can’t help you as much as we’d like to.’ And then the next thing I think I had to ring my brother, because they knew I had money. And so they said, ‘Well, he’d be your next of kin. He can draw the money out and send it.’ 


And once Des called his brother Phil back in South Australia, Phil knew something was wrong. The origins of Operation Streambank began when Phil contacted the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – or DFAT – and told them that Des had been in touch, asking for money. Phil read between the lines and feared his brother was being held for a ransom in Mali.  

Des Gregor  

My brother was pretty smart. The moment I’d rang him, which would have been the next morning, he thought something’s not right. And so he contacted, I think it was the embassy, from the embassy to the federal police and then the local police. 


Des lived on a farm in rural South Australia, and his brother Phil lived on a farm nearby. Once the case was raised, AFP agents drove out to meet Phil so they could make an assessment about the case. It was clear from the beginning that Des had been scammed in the most dangerous way.  

Once Des’s predicament was reported, it fell under the jurisdiction of the AFP whose job it is to protect Australian citizens all around the world. The first contact was through the South Australian Police – or SAPol for short.  

Steve Mullins retired in 2016 as a Detective Superintendent with the AFP. His career with the Federal Police has taken him to jobs all around the world, but even so, a kidnapping of an Australian citizen in Mali in a romance scam was like no case he’d ever investigated before. 

Steve Mullins  

Phil and his wife went to the police to say that they thought Des was in trouble in Africa and SAPol referred them to the AFP. And I got a phone call saying there’s some people here that are concerned about an Australian citizen overseas. So I came in and had a conversation with Phil and his wife, and sent some officers to the farm with Phil, so that we could have a look at his computer, and also try and find some clues or evidence as to where he was, how he got to be there, who he’d been in contact with on the computer, and then as a result of that, when the officers returned, they said, yeah, they share the concerns of the family, but it still could be that Des has gone of his own free will, but he’s just asking for money because he’s run into some bad luck in, in Africa. 


With a high likelihood of a kidnapping on their hands, Steve Mullins and his team had to act quickly. There were protocols about how to deal with kidnappings, and Steve himself had trained and worked as a police negotiator, so he knew how these cases worked. But given the precarious nature of what the AFP was facing with this particular case, they needed to think outside the box. The first thing they did was move Phil and his wife down to the Adelaide CBD and set them up in an apartment where they could be coached when Des called again.  

Steve Mullins  

We were able to fairly quickly establish an investigation room in an apartment hotel in Adelaide, away from the AFP office, to wait and patch the phones through from the farm and from Phillip’s farm into this room so that we could have a listened in to the phone calls, if any more phone calls were going to come in, which we did. And in the meantime, I reached out to the South Australian Police to have access to their police negotiators team. The AFP has a police negotiators team, but that’s in Canberra, but we do train and work together, the federal police and the state police, and we have done for many years in police negotiation, training and tactics. So we got the police negotiators into our operations room. We introduced them to the family. We had the first phone call come through. And after that call, we all got together and made an assessment that this looked real, that Des was in trouble. 


As soon as South Australian police negotiator, Lindy Baker, got the call from Steve, she agreed to help.  

Lindy Baker  

And I got a phone call from Steve Mullins, AFP negotiator and a Commander. And we all know each other around the state. So he rang me and said, ‘Oh, we’ve got a bit of an incident going in the country. We’ll need negotiators. Can you help?’ And I said, ‘Sure. Of course we can. We’ll do whatever we can to help you.’ So I had brief details that involved, a possible kidnapping of a gentleman that had gone overseas. 


Lindy cleared it through her chain of command and was designated a senior officer as her liaison. Once an operation like this starts, information is released strictly on a need-to-know basis.  

Lindy Baker  

Because once we start doing this type of job, you have to keep it secret or as secret as possible. And work away from the mainstream police. So it’s a needs to know basis. So that was my first thing was getting a team together of at least four is our basic team to do minor type jobs. And then as they’re bigger jobs, you can grow out to six or 10 or more, depending on the types of things you have to do.  


The number of negotiators required for Operation Streambank was 12. The job needed teams of negotiators around the clock. And it wasn’t just negotiators that were needed. The team also required a huge amount of technical support.  

Lindy Baker  

Another thing is when we have the equipment and set up, people who are invaluable, are the radio technicians, because the minute anything breaks, none of us are technicians or clever in that way. You absolutely need them near to take all that away from you so that you can do your job. So I rang there and said, ‘Right, we’ve got a job. It may take a few hours. It may take a couple of days. I don’t know.’ 


Once they were set up and ready to go, Operation Streambank began in earnest. Lindy appreciated Steve’s background as a negotiator. It made their communication so much easier. 

Lindy Baker  

When you’ve got a commander running it in the AFP who was at the time a negotiator, absolutely different. They know exactly, and it saves so much time and we were on the same page. I mean, we had plenty of discussions over different things along the way as you always would, but it wasn’t all that extra time of having to say, ‘Well no, negotiators do this this way for this reason. And if you do that, it’ll...’ All that went. We all knew, or that being on the same page.  


With Steve’s experience as a police negotiator, what did he notice about that first phone call that rang alarm bells? 

Steve Mullins  

There was duress in the tone of his voice that we picked up. But essentially it was the feedback from Phil and his wife that Des sounds as though he’s really in trouble. He doesn’t sound like himself. And it’s very unusual for Des to be asking for money in that way and in those terms. 


Because Des was guarded in what he was saying, in those early days, the negotiators were looking for concrete signs of what was going on in Mali. For SAPol negotiator Lindy, there was one phone call that convinced her that Des was in real trouble.  

Lindy Baker  

You treat it as real until proven otherwise. That’s how we work in all jobs. And you have to do that. We had some phone calls, we had strange people on there, like the pastor in the refugee camp. And that was the point for me that I went, ‘Nup, this is real.’ He was a beautifully spoken man and a West Indian accent. And one of those very ah, you know, molasses voices, and he just chatted about him and he said, ‘He’s okay.’ And then he said, ‘And don’t ever call him again,’ and I went, ‘Ooh, don’t like this.’ 


Once Operation Streambank was set up, Steve reached out to an AFP colleague in Pretoria for help.  

Steve Mullins  

What we did is we reached out to AFP international in Canberra and asked for our liaison officer in Pretoria, South Africa, if he could travel to Mali and make contact with the local police and await further instructions till we found out more, which we did. That was federal agent Gary Wynch, so we sent him to Mali and then he was giving us feedback in terms of what capability we were able to access on the ground, and some of the challenges that we were going to be faced if we were going to try and find Des. 


Steve and the SAPol negotiating team made a decision from the start about how to communicate with Des. Putting family members or civilians on the phone is a tactic known as a third person intervention. But there is always a risk.  

Steve Mullins  

Golden rules of police negotiation is that you don’t put relatives on the phone with what we call the stronghold, the stronghold being the place where the person is being held hostage. And we don’t do that because there is always a possibility that whoever’s taking the person hostage, will get some satisfaction out of doing something to that person whilst a relative is on the phone. But in the circumstances that we have, we just thought at that time, and we all agreed as a team because we all knew the golden rule is we don’t have third party intervention as we call it. What we usually do is we put a trained police officer on the phone, who does the talking with the stronghold, with the people who are making demands. We have a lot of training and strategy around how we deal with that. And it’s been very successful for us in the past. So we all agreed that we continue on until something changes, because at that stage, the stronghold had no idea that the police were involved and neither did Des. So that worked in our favour. It bought us more time. We thought that keeping Phillip talking to Des on the phone was the best way as not to alert the kidnappers at the other end, that the police were listening in and involved. 


Right from the start, the AFP team and the SAPol negotiators were impressed with the way Phil and his wife handled the calls from Des.  

Steve Mullins  

Phil was remarkable in terms of his calmness and his willingness to interact with the police negotiation team who were coaching him literally through every phone call. So before every phone call, we would have a strategy meeting with Phil, and we’d discuss our strategy and what we wanted him to talk about, but more importantly, what we didn’t want him to talk about. And then whilst the calls were taking place, we would be sitting in a room surrounded by white boards, and trained negotiators would be writing things down, prompting Phil to talk about certain issues. And then also prompting him to say, ‘Don’t speak about this. No, don’t continue that conversation.’ And he was very good at playing that role. Des really does owe his life to how Phil managed that whole role of communicating with him during the time that he was with us, and also owes his life to Phil for alerting the police that Des was in trouble. 


When the AFP searched Des’s farmhouse, they took his computer and found travel documents that might prove helpful. They quickly pieced together the story of how Des had come to be kidnapped in Mali.  

Steve Mullins  

There was a treasure trove of information on Des’s computer. We established fairly quickly once we got it back to examine it that he’d been communicating by email, with someone claiming to be a lady called Natacha, and Natacha claimed to be a single mum, who had access to, I think about a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of US gold bullion, was looking for a husband to come over to Africa and rescue her from Africa with her gold bullion, and bring her to Australia. A photograph on one of the emails was found from this so-called person called Natacha. And it turned out to be a cut and paste from a website called the Hawaiian Babe’s website. It was of a woman with olive complexion in a swimsuit, very glamorous looking woman. And this is what Des sort of, I suppose fell in love with when he was communicating with this person by email. 


A couple of days into the negotiation, an email came through from Des’s account. It was obvious to everyone that Des had not written it.  

Steve Mullins  

We showed that email to Phil and once we’d read the email, realised it wasn’t written by anyone with a true grasp of the English language. Phil said straight away, ‘That’s not written by Des.’ It was just another piece in the puzzle to confirm to us that Des was in trouble and under duress. 


The more days dragged on that Des was being held by the unknown kidnappers, the more dangerous it became. The SAPol negotiators were very careful to draw out the process while the AFP tried to figure out a way of finding Des. But every day, Des sounded more and more desperate during the calls. But what was worse, was when Des stopped calling. 

Steve Mullins  

The conversation with Des was always about money on every call. Please send money. If you don’t send money, things could get quite bad for me because you know, I can’t get Natasha back to Australia. He was starting to get quite emotional, asking for money as the calls went on. And of course, we were always trying to push the conversation with Des towards another day, like we’ll get back to you tomorrow with some more information about the money. And then we got to a point where there was a blackout. The phone didn’t ring. 


The blackout lasted three days where there was no communication with Des – no proof of life – and the entire crew of police negotiators and the AFP team working Operation Streambank grew more worried each day. The AFP went through Des’s computer and emails. There were numerous emails from Natacha and people purporting to be her friends. Some emails included phone numbers. The team rang all the numbers they could find.  

Steve Mullins  

Going back through the computer to try and find phone numbers or emails or contacts that we could initiate contact through Phil to try and see whether we could re-establish contact with Des and the stronghold. And there was this character called Father someone, in the emails who was making contact with Des as well, on behalf of this Natasha person saying, ‘Oh yeah, she’s a great lady. I really trust her, you know, you two are going to be great together,’ all that kind of stuff. This guy actually picked up the phone, one day, and it was one of our police officers that was on the phone, and one of our negotiators, and we just told this person that we were from the Department of Foreign Affairs, and we’d been speaking to Phil and we just trying to find out if Des is okay, because we hadn’t heard from him for a few days and they were concerned. This guy got quite defensive on the phone, but later that day, the phone rang and Des was back on the phone. So thank goodness, Des was alive. So as negotiators, we always try and look for proof of life every day. 


There was much relief in the negotiation room when Des called again. But even so, everyone knew that time was running out for Des if the Operation Streambank team didn’t think of a way to locate and rescue him. In the meantime, Gary Wynch, the AFP agent from Pretoria, travelled to Mali to get the lay of the land. 

Steve Mullins  

We did a lot of research very quickly on what’s the political situation, and then the security situation in Mali. What’s the capability of the military and the police to effectively manage the rule of law in the country where we could potentially task the local police to go looking for Des. And so our information coming back from Gary Wynch in Africa was without some sort of better intelligence about where Des was located, we were going to really struggle to find out where Des was. So as time went on, we ran out of excuses as to why we weren’t sending money. 


Aside from trying to rescue Des, the Operation Streambank team needed to keep news of his kidnapping out of the media. Their fear was that if it hit the newspapers, the kidnappers would cut their losses and kill Des. Since he had reached out to the farming community for money, there were a lot of people who knew or suspected that something had happened to Des.  

Steve Mullins  

And the community out where Des lived was great in that we went and saw those people that Des rang on the telephone, and we told them, please not to engage with any phone calls from Des or from anyone else that you didn’t know, because we thought Des might be in trouble. And we also asked them, please don’t tell the media that we’ve been there to visit them. We didn’t want the media publishing information about Des potentially being kidnapped overseas. And they were fantastic. All those people kept their word and if he did call one of the other neighbours looking for more money, when Phil was saying, look, there’s not enough money, then we could be sure that we were the only ones dealing with Des and the stronghold.  


Because of the time difference between South Australia and Mali, negotiators worked through the night in rotating shifts. For SAPol negotiators, even in the downtime, their minds were racing with possibilities. Lindy knew this because she would often get calls in the middle of the night from her crew members who had finished their shifts hours ago.  

Lindy Baker  

I don’t think any of us had any good night’s sleep. You… takes a long time to wind down and you think about everything. You know, we even had times when a team’d knock off and go home and you get a call from one of them in the middle of the night and they’d say. ‘I thought of this. Have we tried this? Have we done this so?’ Well funny you should say that. We all just discussed that. And yet just did that, thanks.’ Yeah, it’s very hard to wind down.  


While the whole team of Operation Streambank were working night and day in Adelaide trying to find Des, he was being kept in a single room under constant guard. On the first day, Des had been badly beaten with a machete.  

Des Gregor  

They weren’t probably doing physically much to me other than on the first day they gave me a bloody great belting with a machete. And after I was captured, they got a doctor in to dress it. Other than that, I wasn’t treated too badly. Like I say, I’m probably one of the better ones that was treated. Only thing was when I had to make a phone call, it was always on loudspeaker, and I had somebody right alongside of me that was ready to grab that phone if I said the wrong thing. 


An irony of Operation Streambank was that while Des was sitting surrounded by members of the kidnapping gang being coached on exactly what to say on the phone, his brother Phil, half a world away in Adelaide, was surrounded by police negotiators telling him exactly what to say. For AFP operative, Steve, it was a game of cat and mouse.  

Steve Mullins  

I know that they were beating him before they put him on the phone to make sure that he said what he was meant to say. We were in a bit of a mental game with the kidnappers where we were effectively were coaching Phil what to say on the phone. And they were doing exactly the same thing, but more violently with Des, getting him to say what they wanted on the phone from the other end. 


While the AFP team could hear the duress in Des’s voice when he made the calls, Des himself wondered if he would survive the ordeal. 

Des Gregor  

Probably after the second to third day, um, I had the suspicion and the thought that I may never get out of here. And I did say to them at one stage, ‘If you’re going to kill me, do it now don’t wait another fortnight.’ Or whatever. And, I can’t understand these blokes; they claim to be Christians, but they said, ‘Do you realise that the good Lord, won’t put more on to you than you can bear?’ And I thought: you mongrel


Part of the AFP negotiation process was to get as much information as they could. This strategy provided perhaps the only light moment in the whole affair. 

Steve Mullins  

As a team, we sat around and we thought okay, how do we get the stronghold to establish whether Natacha is real or not. So, we pushed Des through Phil to say, ‘Des, you keep telling me you’re in love with Natacha and that you’re there with her, and she has a child, but we’ve never heard from the Natacha. You’ve never put Natacha on the phone. And then we told Phil to say something like, ‘Des, it would make me feel a lot more comfortable about sending more money if I could speak to Natacha on the phone and that we could be introduced.’ To our amazement, this voice came on the phone and it was immediately apparent to all of us sitting in this room with our headphones on that we were listening to a man pretending to be a woman. And of course, it took all of our energy, not to burst out laughing, and even Phil recognised straight away that it was a man pretending to be a woman in that high pitched voice that men try and do, when they try and speak like a woman. So that was uh, certainly one highlight for us in the entire two weeks that just reinforced to us the people we were dealing with. 


While the phone call negotiations continued in Australia, Steve was in constant communication with Gary Wynch in Mali.  

Steve Mullins  

Every day, I would speak to Gary and tell him what happened on the phone, what was said. And then he and I were also exploring other opportunities where potentially we could use other assets to find telecommunication signals coming out of Africa, where we could potentially find where Des was located. We explored all those challenges and opportunities again, without success. Gary was tasking the local police to reach out to their human source network to see whether there’s chatter in the street or the markets about a foreigner being kept in a house somewhere. So we could potentially narrow down a search area to go and send the police to go and look for Des. But essentially all that came to zero. 


When a week had passed after Des’s kidnapping, the Streambank team was running out of ways to delay paying the money for his release. The Australian government never pays ransom money. If they did, they would put every Australian tourist in potential jeopardy. But the situation was tense in that rented apartment in Adelaide. In the phone calls, Des was sounding increasingly desperate. Des’s brother Phil agreed to send a small sum of money to show the kidnappers Des had value.   

Steve Mullins  

Because once we reach a point where Des is of no value to the kidnappers, then there’s a really good chance they would get rid of him, that he would come to some harm or be killed. So we sat Phil and his wife down and we told them that we were running out of options here. And they, uh, they decided that they would send a small amount of money through Western Union. And I think it was about uh, two and a half thousand dollars. The cash was sent via Western Union, uh, to a designated recipient being Des at the other end. And before we sent the money, we engaged with Western Union to see whether we could actually have the money sent to one location and tell Des that there was only that one location so that we could do a potential stake out and catch the kidnappers, or at least follow the kidnappers back to the stronghold to find Des. But unfortunately, Western Union weren’t able to, to help us in that regard. And they said that their systems is such that anyone could walk into an over 400 outlets of Western Union in Mali, present identification, and pick up the money. So the money went through and then of course there was a renewed vigour or renewed confidence in Des’s voice when they received the money and he was on the call, the next call after that. 


Any kidnapping is a delicate operation. Investigating and negotiating over two continents had its challenges. While Australia didn’t have an embassy in Mali, Canada did, and the Operation Streambank team wondered if they could use this.  

Steve Mullins  

By day nine or day ten, you really are struggling to come up with another excuse as to why you can’t send money the next day. I sat around with the team and came up with an idea that let’s try a strategy whereby we tell Des that there’s money waiting for him at the Canadian embassy. 


With the renewed optimism felt by Des and the team back home after the money came through, the AFP team capitalised on that.  

Steve Mullins  

So we thought, okay, this is good. This is good. So we then put the strategy to the family that we’re going to play this scenario out where we’re going to tell Des is that all he has to do is go to the Canadian embassy and there’s 30,000 US waiting for him inside, all he has to do is go inside and pick it up. So for the next two to three days after that, when Des was asking for more money to be sent by Western Union, Western Union, we would always be moving Phil away from that conversation during the call, and becoming firmer with Des during the calls about he wasn’t going to send any more money by Western Union. Phil told Des, as part of the strategy that, ‘Happy to send that first batch, but just to make sure that you’re all right, Des. There’s two reasons why we want you to pick up that money from the embassy. One is we want the embassy people to say you’re fine. And secondly, it’s a secure place to pick up that amount of money.’ For the next two or three days, that was the strategy. We kept pushing and pushing for Des to agree to it. And then he agreed. He said, ‘Yeah. Okay, I’ll go tomorrow. So we all waited, obviously alerted our Gary Wynch inside the Canadian embassy to hopefully await the arrival of Des to come in and pick up his money. 


Des had landed in Mali on the 27th of July. It was now the 8th of August, and 12 days since he’d been kidnapped. There were so many things that could go wrong at this stage of the plan. The team of Operation Streambank waited anxiously in the rented apartment with Phil and his wife. At this stage, there were really only two ways it could go. Either Des would arrive at the embassy to collect his money. Or he wouldn’t.  

Steve Mullins

And to our absolute astonishment, a car pulled up at the front of the Canadian embassy and Des got out, walked into the Canadian embassy and was met straight away by Gary Wynch and told straight away that he’d been scammed, and that Natacha wasn’t real and that he can’t leave the embassy until it’s safe. 


As soon as Gary Wynch had Des safely in his custody, he wasted no time ringing the team in Adelaide to tell them the good news.  

Steve Mullins  

We were all overjoyed when we finally got the phone call from Gary telling us that he had Des and that Des was safe. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. We were so grateful that Des was safe, but also for Phil and his wife, because they were so grateful that Des was safe, but we actually couldn’t believe that the scammers took the bait and let him go out of the car. So, there was a great deal of pride in all of us that our strategy worked, because we ran out of options, and we thought this was our last throw of the dice to get Des out.  


When they heard of Des’s rescue, Lindy and her team of negotiators cheered. It had been such a tense couple of weeks.  

Lindy Baker  

Steve said to me, ‘He’s going in. He’s doing that.’ Um. Everybody was so relieved because of course the doors are slammed shut behind him. And, you know, ‘You’re safe now. This is the story and we’ve got you, but the relief. Everybody screams with, with joy and there was jumping up and down, like I suppose, watching a football team win, that sort of thing.  


When Des walked into the embassy, Gary Wynch saw his desperation to collect the money to save Natacha’s life.  

Steve Mullins  

And Gary was telling us on the phone that Des was just distraught because he demanded that he leave the embassy because if he didn’t, they would kill Natacha and her child. And he honestly believed that at that time. 


Des’s instructions from the kidnappers were to go to the embassy, collect the money and drop it off at a Catholic cathedral. 

Des Gregor  

I had to go to the Canadian embassy and then I had to take the money to a Catholic cathedral and meet somebody there. That’s how on the last day or so, that I finished up at the embassy.  


While Des claims to not have been treated badly by the kidnappers, after the initial machete attack, they worked on him in more subtle ways during his 12-day incarceration.  

Des Gregor  

They’d say, ‘If you don’t return, your brothers aren’t going to care because they’ll get your farm, and that’s all they’re waiting for. They don’t want you to return.’ And I wouldn’t argue with them because I knew that arguing would create more problems. Although I did at one stage say, ‘Well nah, I know my brothers better than that. They wouldn’t do that.’ Then they’d say, ‘If they loved you, they would voluntarily give this money just to see you come back home. The problem was if they gave the money, were you going to return home? You’re between the devil and the deep blue sea, because if you give them money, they could kill you. Or, if you don’t give them money, they can still kill you. I didn’t have any faith in being let go. I was pretty confident that I wasn’t gonna make it. I would be dead. 


After Des’s rescue, the AFP flew him back to Australia for a debrief. He was able to tell them about his 12 days, held captive by the unknown kidnappers.  

Des Gregor  

There was a mattress on the floor. In another little cell, there was a toilet and a shower, and there was always one person there to keep guard on you. So there was no way that you could even consider making an attempt to move. There was one window to the west. And I’d look out that window. And I got told the first time, ‘Keep away from the window.’ And it was basically if somebody saw a white man in there, they’d know something wasn’t right. So I’d actually stand way back from the window and look out, and they seemed to accept that. I was allowed to have a wash once a day. Go to the toilet when you like, because there was no way you could escape from there. I’m not sure how many meals a day we got, but I reckon it was two at the most, some days it might’ve only been one, depending on what you got. Most times it was McDonald’s, or something of that kind, kind of a hamburger. Nothing better than that or nothing worse than that. So, it was reasonable tucker, but small amount. 


When Des walked into the Canadian embassy, did he expect to be rescued? 

Des Gregor  

I probably was in two minds as to whether I would get out, but I was hoping that once I got inside the embassy, I should have been safe, and that they could have held me and watched over me. When I got into the embassy, they said, ‘Well, you’re safe here now.’ And I thought, well, I guess they can’t get in here because it was pretty secure.  


When Des didn’t arrive at the cathedral with the cash, one of the ringleaders of the kidnapping gang telephoned the embassy. The call gave the AFP one last opportunity to scam the scammers.  

Des Gregor  

Probably a good half an hour afterwards, the bloke that was the big leader in it, he rang the embassy and he asked where I was. They told him, ‘Well, we don’t know where he is because we put him in a taxi and sent him to the cathedral. So if he’s not there, he’s got the money and found a hotel or found somewhere to stay and he’ll be out the country with the money.’ 


It was a stroke of genius; the kidnappers thought Des had left the embassy. For Steve Mullins and Operation Streambank, it was a great result.  

Steve Mullins  

It was a great satisfaction for us at that point to know that we’d scammed the scammers. It was just a remarkable feeling, remarkable for all of us involved. And, all of us have been working such long hours over that two-week period, we were exhausted. All of us were exhausted and, just an amazing feeling, an amazing sense of comradery between all of us. 

And also for Gary in South Africa. Was amazing to get on the phone and speak to him and thank him for all the work that he’d done, and how he managed to make all that work. You know, he’d got on a plane from Pretoria, with instructions to go to Mali. We think there’s been a kidnapping of an Australian citizen. We don’t know any more. 


Even though Des knew he was safe, the kidnappers had threatened him and after suffering the 12 days of kidnapping, it took him a long time to realise they weren’t coming after him.  

Des Gregor  

Even the flight home had us all a bit worried because we didn’t know if one of their mob would get on the plane. So, I had security all the way, but for a long time, I wasn’t allowed to stay on my own because they threatened that if I managed to get away, they would get into this country, and they would somehow get me. And so for six months or more, I was pretty well contacted to make sure that I was all right, and I had my nephew. He… I think he stayed with me for six months. 


Right from the start, Des was willing to talk publicly about his kidnapping – to stop it from happening to others. The AFP had used all its resources to disrupt the gang who took him, but others might not be so lucky. Given the years that have passed since his ordeal, Des has tried to use his Christian beliefs to help him. Has he come to a place of peace and forgiveness? 

Des Gregor  

I have, but those four, I still think if I come across those, I’d unleash anything I could on them for what they did to me. I know it’s wrong. And I know I’ve got to get that thought out of my head. They say you can forgive, but you don’t forget so. 


The four men who scammed Des and kidnapped him were never brought to justice. During negotiations with the Mali police, they suggested allowing Des to leave the Canadian embassy so they could follow him, but that was never going to happen. There was no way the AFP would secure an Australian hostage, and then send him back to his kidnappers. Anything could go wrong in that scenario. Des had no idea where he’d been held, and the taxi that deposited him at the embassy drove off before police could follow it. But even if the police had been able to stop the taxi, it hadn’t picked Des up from the stronghold. The kidnappers had made him walk several kilometres before hailing the taxi.  

It is evident that the criminal syndicate were highly organised in Mali. From the time of touchdown, Des was affectively in the custody of the kidnappers. They facilitated his passage through Customs, the collection of his baggage, and his delivery to a waiting vehicle. Des never had a chance. Steve Mullins knows that these scams will continue.  

Steve Mullins  

The Internet’s made it so easy for them to reach into people, lonely people, and convince them that these people are real and that relationships are real. They’ve come up with so many ways in which to manipulate people’s emotions and emotional response to situations to get them to physically send money, in support of their scams. It’s a huge industry. 


Bringing Des home from Mali was a win for the AFP. Operation Streambank was a huge learning experience. For Steve Mullins, it reinforced the international capabilities of the AFP. 

Steve Mullins  

The takeaway from, for me from Operation Streambank was the capability that the AFP has in terms of being able to reach out across the world, in support of Australia and its citizens. The thought that’s gone into how the AFP is set up and where we strategically locate our assets and our people really came to the fore in this case. It was only a few years prior to Streambank that we establish an office in Pretoria, so the strategic thinking behind establishing an office there was on the money because Streambank was the perfect case where on a phone call, I could speak to an Australian federal agent in Pretoria, in South Africa have a conversation with them about what I’m doing in Adelaide and how can they help me and then pushing that person forward into Mali, to make whatever engagement in support of what I’m doing. Just fascinating to be able to see that in real life, and with such a great ending, a great result to see those resources being used in such a positive, and an effective way. 


Given the organised approach of the kidnappers, it was highly likely they would repeat what they did to Des. Accordingly, Des has some advice to offer.  

Des Gregor  

My suggestion would be, pay their airline ticket, get them out here. If they’re prepared to do that, then they’re genuine or hopefully they’re genuine. 


For Steve Mullins, Operation Streambank showed the effectiveness of international cooperation.  

Steve Mullins  

We’ve become extremely professional in the way that we engage with other policing agencies around the world. And it’s a credit to those that have worked in the international network over the last 40, 50 years, that they’ve built these significant relationships of trust with police forces on every continent, around the world. And how we’re able to, through that established relationship and partnership of trust, have those police forces help us in support of what we need to do to protect Australia and Australian citizens. 


And as well as protecting Australian citizens, the AFP will always try and disrupt these romance scam networks.  

Steve Mullins  

One thing that came out of Operation Streambank was that we realised that there is a significant organised crime business sitting behind these scams, and that we need to work not only internally in Australia, but we also need to work with our partners in law enforcement overseas to do what we can to disrupt what’s going on. We’ll never stop it entirely, but if we can continue to disrupt what’s happening, then it makes it a lot harder for these scammers to, to do their work. 


For Steve Mullins, Operation Streambank was one in a long line of career adventures with the AFP that has taken him and his family around the world. While he retired in 2016, he has continued to serve as an AFP Reservist. The AFP Reserve has been set up so that former members like Steve who have incredible experience can step in and do short term roles even after they’ve left the AFP. The AFP knows that it’s hard for police officers to step away from law enforcement entirely, so the Reserve gives ex-members the opportunity to re-engage with policing and continue to serve their community. And of course, the added bonus is, that at any given time, the AFP has access to an incredible bank of skills and qualifications that they can call on at short notice to interrupt crime. 

Steve Mullins  

Absolutely fascinating career in the AFP over 30 years. I joined in 1983 and finished in 2016 and the opportunities that were presented to me, almost from the day I joined were fantastic. I joined the protective security side of the AFP first and then was able to undertake general duties training. And then from there I was able to train as a detective. And from there, I was able to take postings anywhere in Australia. From that point on that was remarkable for me, but also remarkable for my family, that they enjoyed the travel. I got a phone call at home from the commissioner on a Saturday morning, Mick Keelty. He said, ‘Would you like to go to Ho Chi Minh City and open an office for the AFP?’ People just don’t get those kind of phone calls. And of course, you immediately say yes. Which was then a whole different and amazing opportunity to represent the AFP and Australian law enforcement overseas. And then taking a team of police to Afghanistan to disrupt the Taliban drug trade, and support Australian forces on the ground in their country, and then later, being posted to New Guinea as a police liaison officer for three years, which was a fantastic adventure. I’m amazed when I talk about some of the things that I’ve been able to do, and some of the places, some of the experiences I’ve had, that I would never have been afforded that opportunity if it wasn’t for the AFP. Just a fantastic organisation. 


For the AFP, Operation Streambank showed that international law enforcement partnerships are the cornerstone to cripple transnational crime. This case is just one example of how the AFP works in the international law enforcement space. Increasingly, crimes like this are borderless. The rising incidence of multi-jurisdictional crime, gender violence, murder of Australians overseas, kidnap for ransom, piracy – just to name a few – means the AFP has to continually re-evaluate its approach. What worked in Operation Streambank, might not be successful again in the future. 

Serious crime is getting seriously complex. To stay a step ahead, the AFP is recruiting those with diverse skillsets and backgrounds – just like AFP personnel Steve and Gary and the role they played in rescuing Des from the Mali kidnappers as part of Operation Streambank. 

After all, it takes all kinds to solve crime. With more than 200 roles across the organisation, in Australia and across the globe, you could help the AFP stay a step ahead too. Consider a career with the AFP.

Read or download episode 4 transcript - Operation Ascalon

Download the transcript

Read the transcript

Host – introduction 

The Australian Federal Police – or AFP for short – is Australia’s national policing agency. Its aim? To outsmart serious crime with intelligent action. Officers from the AFP work with local, national, and international agencies to combat serious criminal threats. Their work includes counter terrorism, serious organised crime, human trafficking, cybercrime, fraud, and child exploitation. The AFP exists to disrupt major criminal operations. In 2020-21, they did that over 400 times. They seized 38 tonnes of illicit drugs and precursors, and assisted overseas police services in seizing 19 tonnes of drugs. The AFP charged 235 people with child exploitation, and charged 25 people following terrorism investigations.

We’ve got exclusive access to the AFP case vault and personnel to provide you with in-depth insight into how they investigated and interrupted the most serious of crimes to stay a step ahead.

[theme music]

Host (1.48)

Some crimes are so disturbing, our natural instinct is to look away – especially crimes against children. But the truth is, these are the very crimes we need to know about, because if we know how offenders target children, then we can use that knowledge to protect them. We need to know the signs to look out for. Having said that, this is an AFP operation where an offender targets children online, so we wanted to include a trigger warning. 

The AFP’s Operation Ascalon investigated a 23-year-old offender who was able to manipulate teenage boys online, and once they were caught in his snare, he used blackmail and threats to keep them there. At least he did, until his activities were reported to the AFP. From that moment on, his days as an online offender were numbered. 

We are going to call the offender Michael. This is not to protect his identity, but rather to protect the identify of his young victims. 

Michael’s methodology was consistent and simple. Going online, pretending to be a 16-year-old girl, he connected with pubescent boys, at first, requesting pictures of them, but soon specifically asking for naked photos. In return, Michael would send various clothed and naked images of a teenage girl to groom his victims into sending more graphic pictures of themselves. Increasingly, he would ask the boys for more images and then sexualised videos. When the boys declined to send further videos, because they grew suspicious, or the requests became too invasive, the offender would threaten to distribute the material he’d already received from the boys and send it to their friends and families. Sometimes, he followed through on the threats. 

You can only imagine the terror the young victims went through. Their exciting online chats with a girl, suddenly became filled with coercion and threats, and no way out unless they told an adult what they had done, which for most young people would be far too embarrassing and humiliating to contemplate.

It all began a couple of years ago, when a father reported that his 13-year-old son had been the victim of online sexual abuse. 

Detective Acting Inspector Jarryd Dunbar was the Team Leader of Child Protection Operations in the AFP when the case came through. 

Jarryd Dunbar (4.36)

These children thought that they were talking to someone who was their own age, that they could share these intimate moments with, only to find out that it was an adult male that they were talking to. The father of the child victim contacted our assessment centre, which they’re essentially responsible for receiving all incoming referrals into the AFP. So the father advised them of what had occurred in relation to his son, and provided additional information regarding the account that was used by the offender to contact his son. From that information, they were able to put in checks to the social media company, which in this particular instance was Instagram, and that identified an IP address that they were then able to link to the family’s internet connection, and his premises here in New South Wales.


When Jarryd’s team first heard of the complaint by the father of the young victim, it was easy enough to trace the offender – a 23-year-old man called Michael. The investigation was named Operation Ascalon. Jarryd’s team tracked Michael down. It turned out, he wasn’t in the country, but he was due back soon.  

Jarryd Dunbar (5.45)

When we received the referral from our assessment centre, we actually found out that he was offshore. He was actually enjoying a ski trip overseas at the time that the referral initially landed with our team. So it gave us a little bit of lead in time to identify exactly where he was and where the evidence was likely to be stored, whether it be at his house or on his person as well. What it also allowed us to do was essentially stop him once he returned to the country. So, it would have been about a week after we received the referral, he returned into the country. We were able to stop him at the border, with the assistance of the Australian Border Force, and at that point in time, he was arrested.


Michael arrived back from his overseas ski trip with no idea that he was about to be taken into police custody. All electronic devices he had with him as he entered the country were seized.  

Jarryd Dunbar (6.33)

Anything that he bought back with him, so there’s a couple of mobile phones he had with him, a laptop, computer, and a tablet computer. And at the same time, we executed a search warrant at his house as well in New South Wales where a number of other electronic devices; so there was some hard drives, some more computer equipment as well that were seized. Once we gather up all those items, we look at a lot of those electronic items in the field. And the reason that we do that is because it allows us to identify offences that have occurred that we can then charge with at the time. The last thing we want is for someone like this, to be able to be released without a charge, which is the worst-case scenario, or potentially released on bail. So the more charges we can identify at that time when we arrest them, the greater prospects we have of having them remanded in custody. 


The on-the-spot check of Michael’s electronic devices at the airport, showed enough evidence of child abuse materials, for charges to be laid. 

Jarryd Dunbar (7.26)

So what we’re able to do was locate the evidence that was important in this particular matter, primarily in relation to the first victim, whose father had contacted the AFP only about a week earlier, and we were able to recover that evidence from those devices in the field, which then resulted in him being charged with those offences at that time.


When the AFP investigators interviewed Michael, he seemed to have no understanding of what he put his young victims through. 

Jarryd Dunbar (7.52)

When he was arrested upon his return to Australia, he made no admissions in relation to any of what had been uncovered on his devices. He denied any involvement in any of the offending, and it didn’t really seem that he really cared too much about the impact that it was having on those people that he targeted. 


When Michael was identified, the AFP had no idea that their investigation would uncover so many victims. The recorded interactions they found on his devices dated from as far back as when Michael was 18, and continued more or less uninterrupted over the five years until his arrest at 23. 

Jarryd Dunbar (8.39)

The number of victims that he targeted, it wasn’t just one child or two children, it was hundreds of children across the world. We were able to identify 54 of those children, we identified about 110 social media accounts that he’d had contact with. Around 330 instances of anonymous chat on different platforms with different children over the space of a number of years.


The images and videos Michael coerced children into producing and sending him were mostly boys aged 10 to 14, but some of the victims were younger than that. Federal Agent Brendan Hayler had just joined the Child Protection Operations team and Operation Ascalon would be the first investigation he ran. 

Brendan Hayler (9.27)

After coming to Child Protection Operations in the AFP, I was allocated this operation, this job. So I took it on, and it was the first one they’d given me to run myself. And it turned out to be quite a big one in the end. So it was a really good case to learn a lot, a lot on, and yeah, really get a good grounding in child protection.


When the team examined the contents of his electronic devices, it became clear how Michael had targeted the boys. 

Brendan Hayler (9.55)

When the job came to us, it was a referral from a young person and um, he’d gone to his father and told him what had happened. And his father was pretty cluey and they captured the whole conversation from the first introduction straight through to when they reported it to police. 


When Brendan’s team examined the script, they could see how it had been refined and used over many victims. 

Brendan Hayler (10.17)

Once we’d gone through some of his devices and found all these other conversations that had carried on previously using that first script as a bit of a roadmap or a guide, I guess, sections of conversation that we were able to find that he’d saved or captured inadvertently, you could match them up pretty closely almost to this script that we had. It was a really good roadmap to show where they were up to in the conversation with these other victims. And it was consistent across so many different conversations that he’d had, that we started to realise that he’d really developed quite a sophisticated method. He had his procedure for how he went about collecting this kind of material.


The members of Operation Ascalon began examining all the material that Michael had saved onto his computer. There were 110 different boys and aside from the first victim who had come forward, the AFP didn’t know who the others were. They began the huge task to try and identify all the victims. As the Team Leader of Child Protection Operations, Jarryd Dunbar had other AFP experts he could call on.

Jarryd Dunbar (11.28)

From that point on, we then need to look at those devices more holistically, which can take weeks, months, or potentially years, depending on how much material there is. In this circumstance, after the examination was completed, which the initial examination is conducted by our digital forensics experts to look through electronic evidence and draw out electronic evidence for us to review. And then it then falls to the case officer and the investigators to look through all the files that are located on these devices to identify any child abuse material, and then to look at that child abuse material to determine what its relevance is to this particular investigation, but then also whether or not there’s any other victims that need to be identified.


One of the experts called in by Operation Ascalon was Jimmy Aitken. Jimmy is a Criminal Intelligence Analyst in Child Protection Operations. His team was tasked with examining Michael’s electronic devices and analysing the crime type. 

Jimmy Aitken (12.22)

Following the arrest of the offender, the team reviewed the offender’s electronic devices, and it was only then that the true extent of these crimes became apparent. 


In the analysis of the child abuse materials, Jimmy sensed an element of ‘gamification’ about the way Michael approached his victims.

Jimmy Aitken (12.41)

The criminology of it all is extremely fascinating, but we can’t get inside the head of an offender, so all we have to go on is what the offender tells us after they’re arrested, or by the actions that they’ve taken, their modus operandi. So, it’s possible that what started as the offender’s pursuit of sexual gratification, gradually morphed into somewhat of a game for the offender. His ability to pursue and influence victims, gain leverage over them, and then exert his power and control; all these elements seem to be gamified, achievements to be unlocked. It’s not clear whether the offender perceived his actions for what they actually were, which was child abuse, or whether in his mind he perceived the victims to be a commodity, something to be won and collected like a sick game of Pokémon Go. In real life, the offender was someone you would pass on the street without even noticing, but on the internet, he felt powerful and important, and in control, despite the fact that he was exerting power over the powerless, taking full advantage of sexuality, shame, and the vulnerability of children.


It became clear to the investigators as they unravelled the extent of Michael’s offending, that he was much more than just a sex offender, preying on young teenage boys. He was also sadistic in the way he treated his victims. Jarryd explains how Michael wielded that power.

Jarryd Dunbar (14.17)

In child sexual abuse matters, there has to be some kind of sexual attraction to children. There’s other elements that go into it as well, and there was a certain attraction to the power that he was able to exert over these children. Essentially at any point in time, he could contact a child and say, you need to go and do this. And if they didn’t do it, there was going to be a consequence for it. So that ability to be able to control a child’s life remotely from somewhere else, anywhere in the world, the power of having that control over the child, I think was a significant motivating factor for him. It elevates him into a different type of offender, in the sense that it makes them more dangerous. It essentially allows him to control their lives and he’s almost a puppet master. He has full control over what they do, when they do it, and how they do it, and if they don’t do it, then there’s consequences.


It was also part of Jimmy’s brief to use his tradecraft in the identification of the child victims. 

Jimmy Aitken (15.17)

Brendan and the team reviewed hundreds of dreadful images and messages, noting down information that could be used to identify or locate these child victims. But for the majority, the information was pretty sparse and all we had to go on was a social media username. So as the criminal intelligence analyst assigned to this case, it was my job to leverage my intelligence tradecraft, pretty much exhaust every opportunity in an effort to identify and locate these victims.


Part of the analysis that Jimmy did was look at ways to identify the boys featured in the 1600 images and videos that Michael had on his computer. 

Jimmy Aitken (15.58)

For most victims, we only had a single piece of information to go on to identify or locate them, which is a social media handle. Some were much easier to find than others using parts of their real name or their initials or year of birth or their town in their username, making it quite easy to find them, relatively. Others were much more difficult to find so, many had locked down profiles, closed friends lists, or use nicknames or pseudonyms when they were online. So locating these children was really essential to figuring out a real world identity for these kids.


Also working on the task of identifying the victims was the AFP’s Victim Identification Team. It is their job to closely examine images and videos to identify clues to try and find each victim. AFP member, Kirsty Clarke is a Victim Identification Case Officer.

Kirsty Clarke (16.58)

The Victim Identification Team focuses on identifying victims depicted in child abuse material. So that includes videos or images. It includes the physical and sexual abuse by hands-on offenders or material where the victim has been groomed into producing the sexually explicit material. 


And this is what Michael did. He was very good at getting his victims to produce sexually explicit material and send it to him. The Victim Identification Team set about looking for clues in the images. Kirsty explains how the team goes about the identification process. 

Kirsty Clarke (17.41)

We use a specialised software designed for victim identification specialists to start viewing the images and the videos to start looking for clues. At this point in time, it’s really about putting all of the pieces of the puzzle back together. To find these kids, we would start viewing the videos, looking for languages or accents, names, or background noises like radio programs, to try and find what country that child is in; looking for things like clocks or power points to try and indicate a country. And we also start mapping the children in the rooms as well, say, looking for objects, such as bedspreads toys, pyjamas, clothing, and these start giving us an opportunity to try and find out where those objects are sold. In this particular case, the Victim Identification Team looked at a t-shirt a victim was seen in. We did some research on that particular shirt and saw it was sold at Target, but it was only sold at Target in the US so we were able to refer that victim over to the United States, to their Victim Identification Team, to find that victim within their country. 


Part of the challenge was linking images over a number of Michael’s devices. 

Kirsty Clarke (18.58)

Before we start connecting the social media accounts, it’s about building that intelligence around the victims, to see where they’re located, and we did start seeing those connections between the social media accounts. So, whilst all of this analysis is happening, we start to group the victims together to make sure we have all the abuse imagery of the child. So, for example, we might find the abuse imagery on the offender’s USB, but then we might find the image of the child in the school uniform on his phone. And it’s actually up to the team to try and find these linkages to be able to match this material together. Whilst we have this software to try and help us look at the multiple devices, it really does come down to the manual work of the team that makes the difference as to whether that child is found. So, we can spend hours comparing moles or freckles or bodily features and other objects, seen in the background. And it’s about the actual experience of that victim identification specialist to make the links between the child and the surroundings. And that will ultimately determine whether that child is actually found or not.


What was unusual about what the AFP investigators found on Michael’s computer was he had categorised his victims, storing images of each victim in a separate folder. 

Jarryd Dunbar (20.26)

The way he organised his material suggested to us that there was more of a interest in the power that it gave him over the victims, that he was able to store that material in such a way that he could use it if he needed to later on down the path.


As the evidence was examined, it was the job of investigators to find out how Michael had targeted his victims. 

Jarryd Dunbar (20.47)

He took on the persona of a 16-year-old female that was based in the UK, and he had images of a person who was roughly around 16 years of age to try and legitimise his online presence. And what he would do is he would contact the child through Facebook or Instagram, and would send them a friend request. So like most people do, send through a friend request to people that you know, in this particular circumstance, a lot of those children obviously never met this 16 year old girl before, but the curiosity factor was enough for a lot of these boys to accept those friend requests and immediately he would engage the child in just general conversation before sending images of himself being the 16-year-old girl, that he had a bank of images of this 16-year-old girl that he would then send. So they would start with a facial picture and then it might be a picture in the mirror of wearing just underwear, but enough for the child to believe that he was who he said he was. And that he was willing to produce and provide images to that child that were sexualised, that would encourage the child to then produce those images themselves and send them back thinking that they were sending the images of themselves back to a 16-year-old girl, not a 23-year-old man. 


To connect with his victims, Michael would research them through their social media profiles. The unsuspecting teenaged boys were quick to engage with the personable teenaged girl who seemed to be connected to other people they knew. 

Jarryd Dunbar (22.18)

He’d also do a fair bit of research into the victims that he was targeting. So, through social media, as we know, once you’re accepted as a friend on Facebook or you’re accepted as a follower on Instagram, you’re able to see that person’s profile. You’re able to see who they’re communicating with, potentially where they went to school, and their family circles and their friendship circles and things like that. So he was able to legitimise his connections with these children, which I guess broke down that initial suspicion that a child may have regarding this individual that had contacted them on Instagram, and allowed them to feel more comfortable in talking to him and providing him the material that he was asking for. I think there’s a perception out there that grooming occurs over days and weeks and months, and yes, that does in some circumstances, but in this particular circumstance, because of the persona that he had built, and the manner in which he engaged with these children, he was able to build that confidence in the child within a matter of minutes and hours, to the point where that child felt comfortable to send naked images of themselves, or later on images of themselves involved in sex acts to him.


The mutual exchange of images happened, and then in his guise as a teenaged girl, Michael would quickly become more demanding. He wanted more pictures, then videos of the boys. If they refused or grew suspicious of what they were being asked to do, Michael threw aside any gentle coercion and instead, threatened the young victims. And if in the beginning, the boys felt comfortable sending images on platforms where the image could be viewed once and then disappear, they soon found out that Michael was saving and storing those images. 

Jarryd Dunbar (24.05)

What he was doing was using screen capture software as well, to then capture those images as they were being displayed on the screen. He’d then save those images and then use those images to blackmail the child later on, to produce more images. So it wasn’t that he pretended to be this 16-year-old girl the entire time, to get to a point where either the child became suspicious they weren’t talking to a 16-year-old, or became suspicious they were actually talking to a male as opposed to a female and would try to cut off the conversation or try and back out of the private conversation they were having. It was at that point, that he would reveal himself as a male, and then threaten the child to produce more material. And the threats involve things such as disseminating those images and videos the child had already produced to friends and family and other social media contacts, which essentially motivated the child to produce more material.


In going through the child abuse materials on Michael’s devices, Criminal Intelligence Analyst Jimmy Aitken could see the threat the victims faced, every time they went to their computer. 

Jimmy Aitken (25.13)

For these child victims, the threat of their intimate images being released and the demand from the offender for more compromising images, it didn’t go away. The threat was always there, always present like a dark cloud hanging over their heads, a cloud that only they could see. So herein lies the problem. Social media is everywhere and it’s nowhere at the same time. It’s not a physical place, but it exists everywhere that you go, wherever you go. So it transcends not only geography, but also time. Even when you’re fast asleep, networks are always buzzing with millions of people interacting at full volume. There’s no pause button for the internet. It simply does not sleep. So for these victims, no matter where they were or what time of day it was, they had those threats, that dark cloud hanging over them. Nowhere felt safe, not even their own homes or their school. So when your worst fears could be realised on the internet at any time, where on earth could you hide?


In the beginning, Michael put more effort into building fake profiles. After a while, he realised he didn’t need to do that. Case officer Brendan Hayler could see the refinement in his grooming techniques.

Brendan Hayler (26.29)

In the beginning, his Facebook profiles would have a profile picture and then like a real name. And then there’d be some posts and some, some images in the gallery to make it look like this person was legitimate. And maybe even friend a few different people, that kind of thing. By the time it got to us, the username of the account he’d used to speak to this young boy was basically just a few letters jumbled together. No profile picture and no posts or anything like that. It was really just a blank set up Instagram post and a couple of ones he must’ve used before that work was similar. So he went from trying to set up these really convincing, fake profiles to lure these young boys into talking to him, to the point where he realised that as long as he had a functioning account, he could reach out to whoever he wanted and then try and entrap them.


In the first instance, Michael would ask for a picture of the boy’s face which seemed like an innocent enough request to the boys. But there was a sinister reason behind this. 

Brendan Hayler (27.30)

He had his method; he had his little script that he’d use, and he’d give the boys compliments to make them feel, I guess, safe or to encourage them, and he’d get a picture of their face if he could, cause that’s something that, again, in the cyber safety it’s, don’t show your body that kind of thing, but a picture of your face, it seems quite normal and quite innocuous. But then once he had a picture of their face, he could identify them to their friends. 


Brendan and his team pieced together the web Michael would weave as he friended people connected to the victims on social media. 

Brendan Hayler (28.06)

We understood pretty clearly how he would interact with individual victims. I would often see when there was one victim, he’d either be chatting to friends of that victim or there would be other victims, being chatted to at the same time. So, there were kind of in loose friendship groups, but at the same time, he carried on chats with people around Australia and also overseas in like New Zealand and the US and Europe. He’d friend one kid who might accept him and then use that to try and hit up other kids and he’d build a bit of a network and then he’d go through their profile and see who they’re friends with and then maybe start matching with them. And then just slowly like work his way through people’s friend groups and social networks to move from essentially school to school, from family to family and around the state. When I spoke to a couple of victims, they would commonly say that, ‘I saw that my friends were friends with him already, or my cousin or whatever, so I thought it was okay to accept that person’s request.’


With the propensity for online offenders to arrange to meet their victims in person, Brendan and the Operation Ascalon team searched for evidence to see if Michael had done this. 

Brendan Hayler (29.11)

One of our concerns was whether these conversations had occurred online only, or whether he’d moved into the realm of meeting up with kids and trying to offend against them in person. From looking through all the evidence and reviewing everything and speaking to the children themselves, it didn’t ever seem like that was something he was planning to do at least through this method that we detected. His persona would be this 16-year-old girl, and he would say he either lived in Perth or that he lived in the UK. It was a way of saying, ‘Oh, we can’t meet up.’ Nothing that I saw ever looked like he was trying to pivot it into a real-world interaction.


In one way, Operation Ascalon was the reverse of what usually happens in an investigation. Usually, the child victim makes a disclosure, has a conversation with their family, then the police are alerted. With Ascalon, the AFP was approaching parents with the news that their child was a victim.

Brendan Hayler (30.11)

Sometimes it’s more common that there’ll be a disclosure by a child, and then the police will investigate that. So, they’re working, kind of, with a family who is aware of disclosure, or the child’s come forward to somebody about it. So especially with this job is that we are going to people who, where this conversation hasn’t necessarily happened, and we’re telling them what’s happened to their child. And then speaking to the child about something that they haven’t themselves necessarily spoken to somebody before about. 


Because of this, Brendan had an unenviable task.

Brendan Hayler (30.42)

I would go and knock on the door, speak to parents and say, ‘Look, I’m from the AFP. A very delicate situation saying that your child has been essentially abused online. The other tricky part of it is, you want them to speak to their child about it, and ask them if they want to be interviewed or participate with police in trying to you know, do an interview and collect some more evidence. So you can’t say too much to the parents about what you know, because you don’t want the child’s memory to be tainted and you’re kind of thinking of it from that aspect. And I think a lot of parents weren’t really interested in the details either. They were just concerned about, you know, the welfare of the child and the fact that they had been exploited online. It was a difficult conversation to have on people’s front doorstep. It’s the last thing they were expecting.


How did the victims feel when Brendan spoke to them?

Brendan Hayler (31.26)

They felt embarrassed about being tricked. They were also very open, honest with us and we’d ask them how they felt once they were starting to be exploited in the conversations and, you know, they would honestly tell me that they were feeling scared, embarrassed, frightened, all that kind of stuff, so.


Brendan spoke to 21 families around Australia, resulting in 11 children agreeing to provide a formal interview to police. While technically, the law sees self-generated material created by people under the age of 18, as child sexual abuse material or illegal content, the boys coerced and blackmailed by Michael were victims of online child exploitation. In cases such as this, victims may be manipulated into believing they have done something wrong and will be punished by their parents or carers, or even prosecuted by law enforcement.

Brendan Hayler (32.24)

The first thing in their mind was that they were speaking with a police officer. They were speaking about something they’d done online, that they um, were tricked into doing, but they felt shameful and embarrassed about. We were there to charge someone with child abuse material and sending it. And in these talks that they, you hear about sending pictures of yourself over the internet as a child is the wrong thing to do. So when the police come to speak to you about you doing it, I think in the back of their minds, they were always worried that they were in trouble. So that was something that me and the other officers reassured them about that they weren’t in trouble for what they’d done and that it wasn’t their fault.


Getting these interviews right would forever give the boys the message that the police are there to help them, no matter what the circumstances.  

Brendan Hayler (33.08)

In speaking with them, you need to bring a level of humanity and personality to speak with them and make them feel comfortable and supported. We don’t wear uniforms when speaking to young people, but they are always aware that they’re speaking to a police officer. And it’s bringing your own experiences and your, yourself, your personality into the job like this, so you can make an impact on these kids in the short time that you have with them to try and reassure them, make them feel safer, make the police somewhere that they had as a good an experience, I guess, given the circumstances so that in future, when anything happens, that they can feel safer approaching police and speaking about it, knowing that they’ll be valued, treated with respect, and understood.


A lot of online offenders try and establish a connection with their child victims. What made Michael’s offending so unusual was that he dropped all pretence very quickly. 

Brendan Hayler (34.03)

They’re also, I guess, trying to be their friend in some way, to get them onside. It’s part of the grooming. Whereas in this matter, really once the offender got one or two pictures of the child, it just went just straight into the extortion and the threats to get more out of them. It just became about eliciting the material, rather than trying to pretend that they were this person any longer than they really needed to be.


If they didn’t send more images, Michael threatened to share the images they’d already sent with their friends and family. And on occasion, he made good on that threat. 

 Brendan Hayler (34.41)

Yeah, once he got something that he could basically blackmail them with, then he didn’t need to keep up this charade. He didn’t need to keep up this, ‘Oh, you know, I think you’re really attractive.’ He would stop saying things like that. And just go into the, ‘Do this. Send me this video or else I’ll share what you’ve already sent me with your friends and your family.’ And he did. I’ve got statements from family members where images of their son or their brother or whatever was sent to them. He sent one video to a nine-year-old girl who was the sister of one of the boys. And that formed one of the charges. Luckily, she didn’t see it. Her parents monitor her social media, so they saw it before it went to the young person, but the offender sent it to that Instagram profile knowing it was that the nine-year-old sister of one of the boys.


Michael was so confident he would never be caught, he boasted about it to his victims. 

Brendan Hayler (35.33)

In one of the um conversations as well, he kind of mocks one of the boys where he says, ‘You think I’ll be caught? The police don’t know how to catch people like me.’ And said basically that he was untouchable and that the police would never be able to find him.


But all it took was one phone call from a concerned father to bring Michael down. Like all the members working on Operation Ascalon, it wasn’t lost on Kirsty Clarke that when the first victim’s dad came forward to the AFP, the abuse of many children stopped.  

Kirsty Clarke (36.06)

As a result of the original victim speaking up, he’s really directly contributed to saving many more children from further online abuse. The victim’s dad did everything when his son came to him about the abuse that he was enduring. They first preserved the data; so they took screen captures of the blackmailing, and they didn’t alert the offender at this stage. He quickly reported the matter to the AFP. And most importantly, he kept calm and he openly communicated, and this allowed his son to tell him exactly what was taking place. So, there’s the clear and open communication between a parent and a child, allowed the victim to have the courage to come forward. And it not only stopped his extorting, but it also stopped the extortion of so many more other children around the world.


Once that first victim came forward, Michael’s boasting that he couldn’t be caught, was quickly proven false. Even though he had made fake profiles on social media in order to target his victims, the AFP have ways to trace offenders like him, then track them down and arrest them. And when victims are located outside of Australia, the AFP can call on other law enforcement organisations like the FBI for assistance. Case officer Brendan explains how the police rely on the cooperation of social media operators to assist them. 

Brendan Hayler (37.38)

We definitely have ways of identifying people online on these social media platforms. The bigger ones are pretty cooperative with police, and they have the information that we need, the subscriber details, that kind of thing. We were fortunate in this investigation, we had some um liaison with some US law enforcement officers who helped us collect that information in a faster manner, which allowed us to identify a lot more of the victims. The internet community is open or aware of these issues and they are doing things to prevent it. The social media giants have avenues and they have processes for dealing with this material when it becomes known to them. If you’re on the internet, you’re not invisible. We can find you. 


The harsh reality is that child abuse material is shared around the world. Images and videos are swapped and traded online. When an offender’s computer is forensically examined, typically, police find images they’ve seen before. Jarryd explains how the material is stored centrally so international law enforcement can access it in investigations. 

Jarryd Dunbar (38.47)

All the material that’s collected by law enforcement around the world goes onto an international database, which is managed by Interpol. So if the material is first-generation material, it hasn’t appeared on that database before.


Michael was producing that first-generation material. All of the child abuse material he possessed, he had generated himself. As case officer, Brendan needed to classify the images as he prepared the case for court. For the AFP investigators, new material means there are new victims to identify and try and locate. 

Brendan Hayler (39.25)

A lot of the material that we get has been around for a while and is collected and shared and sent. We’re always on the lookout for original material and we have some programs and other ways of detecting what might be new material. And this instance, it looked to me pretty quickly like it was, so then the investigation shifted a little bit, from just classifying the material and producing a brief into kind of investigating what this offender had been up to and the extent of it. 


With the work of the Victim Identification Team, the investigators from Operation Ascalon were able to identify a large number of the victims which meant they could take a really strong case to court. 

Brendan Hayler (40.08)

In a lot of these cases in child abuse material, you’ll often get a plea pretty early on. It’s really important when we do our brief of evidence, when we put something towards the court, that it encompasses all the offending that we’ve identified to give the court a really clear understanding of what this matter is about, so that the court has the best information to deal with them as they should. To come out with 54 charges that he pled guilty to and was sentenced on was a good outcome. That’s all down to the work that our intelligence did, victim identification and everyone who worked on the job. You know, you apply yourself and you can get really good outcomes like this.


For Criminal Intelligence Analyst Jimmy Aitken, Michael exploited the two things teenagers feel especially vulnerable about: sexuality and shame. 

Jimmy Aitken (41.01)

Think back to when you’re a teenager, when we were all teenagers; times were tough, right? It’s a period of life where you’re super awkward. You’re coming to terms with your own identity. You’re unsure of yourself and everyone around you. Sadly, for these kids on top of all of this growing pains of teenage-dom, they were subjected to some abhorrent manipulation. So, for most of us as humans, the most powerful emotion that we can feel is shame. And typically, the most vulnerable part of our personal identities is our sexuality. The offender deliberately exploited these most vulnerable parts of the human psyche, the parts associated with sexuality and the parts associated with shame. Sexuality and shame aren’t topics that adults rarely talk about, let alone young people. So, it’s the shame that led most victims to keep their abuse a secret from their loved ones, meaning that they were processing the trauma of these experiences all alone and trying to figure out a way out of this situation all alone as well.


The online abuse left the victims to try and deal with a sadistic sex offender on their own.

Jimmy Aitken (42.10)

It’s hard to imagine the stress that these kids were under. Without someone to talk to, they were really just talking to themselves in their own heads. I would imagine them bargaining with themselves and weighing up their options. They might ask: how can I stop this? Maybe if I do what they want, they’ll finally leave me alone. Can I tell my parents? How will my parents react? Maybe I’ll get in trouble. Again, it’s very hard to imagine what these kids were going through.


Jimmy had some insight into the distress the boys felt in keeping their secret. 

Jimmy Aitken (42.45)

On a personal level, I can somewhat relate to the distress that comes from keeping secrets from those that you love the most. I’m now a member of, a proud member of the LGBTQI community, but once I was an awkward closeted gay teen coming to terms with my own identity. And it was the feelings of secret shame that made my teen years much harder than they needed to be. When you’re keeping a secret from your family, everything good in life kind of has a bittersweet tone to it. For example, even a warm hug from your mother, a warm embrace from your loving parent, instead of you feeling loved, like you should, there’s a seed of doubt in your mind. And that internal voice saying, they say they love me, but if only they knew. It’s a terribly lonely place to be. We want kids to feel safe, to talk, to have their story heard without judgment, um, because every child really deserves to be loved and to feel safe, especially in their home.


While he was offending, Michael kept up a regular job, and had friends and family. None had any idea of what he was doing in his online life. Offenders like Michael become expert at hiding what they do. 

Jarryd Dunbar (44.02)

He had a job. He had relationships. He had friendships. He had a very loving family. He was very much engaged in his life. He certainly didn’t come from any level of disadvantage. His age and his upbringing and, and his level of social interaction with other people, was quite unusual.


Some children had an ongoing fear of Michael. Not all victims felt comfortable speaking to police or reliving what had happened to them. They were not required to participate in an interview. 

Jarryd Dunbar (44.38)

He had been able to identify enough information about their personal circumstance, about their life, about their family, about their friends, where they went to school, who they hung out with, where they went to on weekends, holidays they’d had, enough personal information that a child felt genuinely scared that he knew where they lived. And that was that fear factor that he instilled in these children that silenced them.


It took months to build the case against Michael. Every chat had to be documented, every interaction had to be transcribed to build the case for court. 

Jarryd Dunbar (45.12)

For a case like this, even though there was not a huge amount of material, there’s only 1600 images and videos, that’s probably the part of the case that takes the longest, going through all the material. So we had to go through each of those chats and transcribe them, identify where images and videos had been produced, how many of them had been produced for each child and what offences he had committed against each child. So in online offending there’s a variety of different offences that can occur. Anything from indecent communications with a child, through to grooming, through to procurement a child for sexual activity, and then your straight child abuse, possession, transmission, access offences. So, we have to go through all that material and identify where those specific offences lie.


Even in the face of their obvious distress, Michael showed no mercy for his victims. This was most obvious as the case came together. 

Jarryd Dunbar (46.11)

There was never anything within any of these communications with these children that suggest that there was any kind of concern for how these children may react. There was children that were begging him to stop, that were crying when they were performing the acts that he was asking them to do and trying to find any way that they could do something else that would mean that they didn’t have to do what he was asking them to do, and it didn’t matter to him. He just wanted what he wanted, and he just wanted them to perform the acts that he wanted them to do. There was never any hint that he really cared what impact that was having on the child.


Once the case got to court, Michael pleaded guilty to all charges. He was sentenced to almost ten years in jail for what the judge described as his ‘cruel and relentless’ manipulation of children and teenage boys. Every case where children are targeted online, teaches AFP investigators something more about the way offenders find their victims. What lessons did the AFP learn from Michael? For Jarryd Dunbar, it was that offenders can be anybody. 

Jarryd Dunbar (47.26)

For me personally, and when this case came about, I’d only been in the area for about six months, and it’s an area where I say anyone that comes into this area, it takes at least a year, if not a year and a half to two years to get a firm understanding of how this environment works and how these offences are committed, and where the vulnerabilities are for children online. So for me, I came in with that naive perception that a lot of these offenders were older offenders, and this is what I expected, and then along came a 23-year-old, who at that point in time, since I’d been in the team, was probably one of our most prolific offenders, that had victimised such a large number of children. But it’s not something that I would expect to have, have experienced, for someone of his age and his upbringing as well. So I think what this case teaches us as is that that the offender can be anybody, and it might be the person you least expect.


There is a perception that crimes that occur online, don’t have the same impact as physical based crimes. But for the boys who were targeted by Michael, they experienced a huge breach of trust. They trusted their interaction with the girl, only to find out that all their online communications had in fact been with a 23-year-old man. They knew images of them were in cyberspace and there was no telling when they could resurface – Michael made sure they knew that. Not only did the boys lose trust in the online community, but they also perhaps came to doubt their ability to protect themselves. 

Jarryd Dunbar (49.12)

They go through the same range of emotions that somebody who has been the subject of physical offence does, so they become withdrawn. It may lead to substance, alcohol issues, mental health issues. It’s all the same reactions that somebody who has been physically contacted offended against.


This means seeking help and counselling is really important for victims. What message does Jarryd want to send to anyone thinking of offending online?

Jarryd Dunbar (49.41)

In this crime type, every law enforcement officer I’ve dealt with has the same level of dedication. So, there are law enforcement officers everywhere in the world right now, looking for you. And one day they will find you.


Parents are at the frontline of child protection. What can they do? What can they look out for? Kate Laidler is one of the most experienced AFP officers from the Victim Identification Team. She has some advice to offer parents to help protect their kids online. 

Kate Laidler (50.17)

My one piece of advice is education is the key to keeping your kids safe. And those lessons and conversations need to start early on. The youngest child we’ve identified who produced material of themselves and uploaded it to the internet was four years old, so we need to be having those conversations about staying safe online, and at that age, preschool, sort of early primary school age, really simple, and only a few amount of rules, but it needs to start that early. So as soon as they’re given access to the internet via a device, they need to be taught about being safe online. You need to develop that family environment where they’re going to come forward and they’re going to trust you so when something big happens, they know that they can count on you to listen, to believe them. And the final piece of advice I would give is don’t threaten or actually take a device away. If you take a phone away from a teenager, that’s their life. This is how they live. They make social connections. They organise plans with their friends. And if they think that by coming forward and admitting to an issue online, that you are going to take the device or the access away, they won’t come forward. We just need to reassure them that no matter what, we’re here, we’ll support and help you, but don’t threaten to take those devices away because that may make them reluctant to come forward.


Jimmy Aitken feels that diversity is integral within the AFP, especially in Operation Ascalon. 

Jimmy Aitken (51.48)

Everyone in the AFP’s travelled their own journey and has their own story. And the strength of the team comes from the diversity of each of our experiences and backgrounds and what we bring to the job. For example, I come from a culturally diverse family; both my parents being migrants, and I never would have thought that one day I’d be using my deep knowledge of Filipino culture to solve crimes and save children a world away. I’m lucky enough to be currently steering the government’s strategic direction in tackling live online child sexual abuse here in Australia and overseas in the Philippines. And my tiny Filipino mother could not be prouder. I am a member of the LGBTI community. Those of us in the community have had to reconcile our identities against the expectations of wider society. We truly know ourselves and have gone through some adversity, so just by existing, we really show how resilient we are as a people. I never thought that I would be in a police force as a, as a LGBTI member, but I am, and I’m not only surviving, but I’m thriving. Through my journey to coming out, I’ve developed a mental fortitude, which has really served me well in the police force.


Victim Identification Case Officer, Kirsty Clarke describes her job as the worst job, but the best job. They know that when they examine images of shocking child abuse, they have a chance to stop it. Kirsty says sometimes, the AFP is the only one looking for the children featured in the images. 

Kirsty Clarke (53.31)

One of the main things that motivates us is that we know that we might be the only opportunity for that child to be found. For some victims, they may not feel like they have a voice. And for us, we may be the only person that witnesses that abuse and we can do something about it. That’s what motivates me to keep looking for clues within the actual imagery that we’re looking at.


In the past, offenders with a sexual interest in children had to move among the community, find jobs that would give them access to children, and groom their victims in person. Cyberspace has changed this completely. 

Jarryd Dunbar (54.12)

The online child sex offender is basically a chameleon. They adapt to the environment; they change their appearance. They try to anonymise themselves in such a way that it becomes easy for them to target as many children as they can. And all it takes is for somebody who has a smartphone, they don’t need a particular type of computer. They’ve got a smartphone, they’ve got a knowledge of how social media works. It can give them access to any child anywhere in the world. It gives them access to a child in their bedroom, which is supposed to be the safest place for a child in their own home, under the supervision of their parents. They are vulnerable in their own home. And that’s what makes the online child sex offender a very dangerous individual.


Thanks to the AFP’s network of teams dedicated to the protection of children and the identification of both victims and those who prey on them, offenders like Michael can be brought to justice. 

Serious crime is getting seriously complex. To stay a step ahead, the AFP is recruiting those with diverse skillsets and backgrounds. Just like AFP personnel Jarryd, Brendan, Jimmy, Kirsty and Kate, and the roles they played in interrupting online sexual child exploitation as part of Operation Ascalon.

After all, it takes all kinds to solve crime. With more than 200 roles across the organisation, in Australia and across the globe, you could help the AFP stay a step ahead too. Consider a career with the AFP.

Read or download episode 5 transcript - Operation Okesi

Download the transcript

Read the transcript

Host – introduction

The Australian Federal Police – or AFP for short – is Australia’s national policing agency. Its aim? To outsmart serious crime with intelligent action. Officers from the AFP work with local, national, and international agencies to combat serious criminal threats. Their work includes counter terrorism, serious organised crime, human trafficking, cybercrime, fraud, and child exploitation. The AFP exists to disrupt major criminal operations. In 2020-21, they did that over 400 times. They seized 38 tonnes of illicit drugs and precursors, and assisted overseas police services in seizing 19 tonnes of drugs. The AFP charged 235 people with child exploitation, and charged 25 people following terrorism investigations.

We’ve got exclusive access to the AFP case vault and personnel to provide you with in-depth insight into how they investigated and interrupted the most serious of crimes to stay a step ahead.

[theme music]


Operation Okesi began in July 2014 and ran for two and a half years. It all began when information was received about a group of men planning a big drug importation.

Detective Sergeant Brett Smith had worked for the AFP for nearly 25 years when he began Operation Okesi. He had the perfect investigative background to run the operation. He had moved between the areas of drug investigation to organised crime to surveillance and back again. Brett was running a team of investigators when Operation Okesi began in July 2014.

Brett Smith (2.30)

When a referral comes in, our management will decide whether they’re going to take it on, and if so, where it’s going to go to. This was accepted by the AFP in July ’14 and referred to the organised crime unit and our team for further investigation.


Job referrals come from all sorts of different places. In this case, someone had contacted the police about information they heard: two men had been discussing bringing large quantities of cocaine into Australia. We are going to refer to them as the Fisherman, who operated a fishing trawler and worked out of the Sydney Fish Markets, and his cousin, the Englishman. When their names were passed on to the AFP, the AFP officers put them under surveillance. Once intel began coming in from covert operations, it became clear that the original suspicion warranted further investigation. They were definitely planning something. Then once the men began meeting with a seasoned crook called the Spaniard, the AFP knew that he was potentially a significant player.

Most crimes are investigated after a crime has occurred. You identify the crime, then you work backwards from there to find out what happened. With an operation like Okesi, and like much of the work the AFP does to stay a step ahead, it’s the opposite because the crime was still in the planning stage.  

Brett Smith (4.05)

If a murder or an armed robbery or whatever the crime’s happened, and police are working back to the event, in a major drug importation like this, it’s obviously in the future, sometimes it could be well into the future. So, you’re basically investigating in a different direction.


At the point of origin, the crime for Operation Okesi was theoretical. In order to determine whether the job was worth putting resources into, there are a series of questions that need to be answered. The first question is: Is the information legitimate? And the second question is: Do those involved have the capability to do it? In this case, the men involved had the means.

Brett Smith (4.50)

Obviously, they had access to the fishing boats. The Englishman had a lot of priors in the drug trade. And once we became aware that the Spaniard was involved, who was a long-term target of the AFP and a very highly intelligent and good criminal, that gave it a legitimacy that we knew that there was something to it, and allowed us to continue and get resources, towards investigating it further.


Investigations told the AFP that the syndicate of men were planning to import huge quantities of cocaine and heroin into Australia. Surveillance operatives followed members of the syndicate around Sydney as they met in parks and cafes to discuss how they would bring the drugs into the country. Talk usually centred around taking fishing trawlers out into international waters and meeting a drug courier vessel and transferring the drugs at sea. The syndicate members arranged for a practice run to where they would bring 30 kilograms of heroin to be imported from Fiji to Australia, via sea transfer. Part of the test was whether the Fisherman was up to the task.

Brett Smith (6.03)

Because the Fishermen was not a career criminal, and the syndicate was keen to see how he would be able to successfully do it. And so to the other guys that they can do things of this magnitude, and that he’s a viable option for future much larger importations.


We aren’t going to say too much about police undercover work in order to protect the men and women who do this job, but an undercover operative was used in Operation Okesi. His role would be an important one.

Brett Smith (6.36)

Any undercover that you’re trying to insert into a syndicate, obviously it has to just be filling a role that would be filled by someone else. Police aren’t able to manipulate the investigation beyond that. It’s looking for a gap and filling a gap that would otherwise be filled by just another criminal if the police undercover operative wasn’t there.


With the undercover operative in play, and extensive surveillance watching him, the members of Operation Okesi recorded meetings between the main players. When members of the syndicate began talking about bringing a drug importation in from Fiji, the Fisherman asked the undercover operative to go to Fiji and check things out.

Brett Smith (7.22)

The Fishermen wanted the undercover to go to Fiji, basically meet a contact over there, discuss the importation, also go and have a look at the other fishing vessel and meet the crew, and then report back to the Fishermen that, yes, this was okay, that these guys were good to work with, and basically that was his role in this initial stages.


The men in the syndicate met regularly to discuss the Fiji plan. It gave the AFP the chance to find out how they were planning to bring the drugs into the country.

Brett Smith (7.55)

They had a couple of regular parks and cafes that they would meet. They’re very much creatures of habit. So that provided us with an opportunity to get recording devices and record conversations in these places. There was a lot of talk about that it would be transported from the vessel to Fiji, but then met by another vessel out at sea here and brought ashore.


When the undercover operative was asked by the Fisherman to travel to Fiji, the AFP had to quickly put together a team to go over there with him.

Brett Smith (8.28)

All of a sudden in early December, the pace quickened, and it was clear, that it was going ahead, but it came basically within the space of a week, it became apparent that okay, it’s a goer, and that there was drugs on the water that would be landing in Fiji in middle of December, and basically picked up pace from that time. And then the undercover operative was given a secure phone, probably a couple of days before he left.


When an unexpected trip comes up just weeks before Christmas, Brett had to organise the AFP’s involvement very quickly.

Brett Smith (9.00)

In this situation, you actually had three agencies, all who had a stake. The New South Wales had the undercover. We were having the AFP running the investigation and having the Fiji police come on board. Organisationally, they had to be pulled together very quickly.


When Brett had a new recruit – Angela Majdandzic – join Operation Okesi, he knew that taking her on the Fiji trip would provide her with some great learning experiences.

Brett Smith (9.28)

I saw tremendous potential in her. I thought this would give her a bit of a view into the bigger picture; you so far just saw what happens in Sydney and what we’re doing on our little team. But this will give you an idea of how we work with partner agencies and offshore with other countries.


When Brett told her she would need an official passport, Angela was excited to see an overseas drug meeting up close. 

Angela Majdandzic (9.54)

When Operation Okesi came to our team, it was a lot for me to process. Given that Brett had seen this time and time again, I was still trying to completely comprehend where does one even begin with an investigation like this?


An added bonus was that Angela was young and she could blend in as a tourist.

Angela Majdandzic (10.17)

Not only did Brett want me to come to Fiji to witness what an investigation would look like, but I did have a role and that role was to assist in identifying things, being able to blend in, be a tourist, essentially not bring any attention to what we were doing. There was a time that one of the targets had gone to the Sofitel and Brett had said to me, ‘Could you go in and check where they’re situated and where they’re seated?’ And it was quite funny. Brett, even having to step back and just say to me, just walk through and see where they’re situated in the restaurant. I was going to be witness to something that was happening. The crime unfolding in front of you essentially. 


When the AFP landed in Fiji, they worked with the local island police force’s transnational crime unit. The Fijian law enforcement wanted to use their own surveillance teams which Brett and Angela needed to coordinate. 

Brett Smith (11.23)

They said, ‘We have our own surveillance team of locals.’ We could do that, confident in the knowledge that when they said they’d have a team of locals, it would be a team of local Fijian surveillance police who had all previously been trained by the AFP. So in some countries that might be a concern, but in this case it was absolutely fine. Yeah, it worked out very well.


The undercover operative’s tasks were: to get to Fiji, meet connections, and check the boat. He looked at a boat and met a potential crew. One of the contacts the undercover operative had to meet was a man originally from Laos but who was now an Australian citizen. We are going to call him Egan. Fijian surveillance followed Egan after he met with the Australian undercover operative. With the undercover operative met with Egan, Angela got her first look at big scale drug dealers operating in plain sight.

Angela Majdandzic (12.22)

I remember distinctly I had seen who the target was, Egan at that point. I was quite shocked at how young he was. He was quite young, quite trendy. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid at him. So that was what shocked me, but also on the flip side, what also shocked me was having witnessed the UC, was how young, how hip, I guess, how funky they were and how they had blended in. It’s something, I guess, you see in the movies, but when you see it unfold in front of you, you’re like, ‘Oh, wow. It really is what it looks like in the movies.’


Fijian surveillance followed Egan who met with a corrupt local official.

Brett Smith (13.05)

The UCO on about the 12th or 13th of December met Egan, who had flown in from Laos. They had the discussion in relation to the importation. After that, the Fijian police followed Egan, and he went and saw a local Fijian male, who the Fijians ultimately, that was how they identified that that was the person that was their issue in terms of the corrupt local authority.


The corrupt local authority was in possession of the drugs and Egan had led police straight to him. The Fijians moved into the resolution phase. In a surprise move, something spooked Egan and he messaged the undercover that he was leaving Fiji that night and suggested he do the same.

Brett Smith (13.52)

The undercover got a message from Egan saying that he was a bit concerned and he was going to leave the country today. He suggested that the UCO also leave, which the UCO had left in the afternoon. Fortunately, that’s before him. When Egan when to leave later that night, after discussions with the Fijian police, it was decided that they would start to go into resolution mode. They stopped Egan at customs. He was charged, had excess currency. He was charged with that as a holding offence. So he was charged with I think, $15,000 of excess currency. And then that allowed them to keep him out of play over the next three or four days.


The excess currency charge was enough to hold Egan until the locals could find the drugs.

Brett Smith (14.40)

They then focused on the corrupt contact that he’d led them to. And in subsequent three or four days, we located the drugs were in a container at Lautoka Wharf in these quad bikes. And obviously once that had happened, then Egan was charged with that as well.


Hidden in the quad bikes was 30 kilograms of heroin. It was a stroke of luck for the AFP and the New South Wales police undercover operative. Since Egan had advised him to go, it gave him the chance to legitimately leave Fiji in the eyes of the syndicate and put distance between him and the huge drug seizure.

Brett Smith (15.18)

It allowed him to legitimately leave early cause he’d been instructed by the guy that knew the locals there. I don’t know that we knew whether he, Egan really was spooked or whether it was he wanted to get out of the country before the drugs became accessible. But it worked in the police’s favour on both parts, from New South Wales to get the undercover back in a legitimate way that it would play the syndicate. And it worked also for us because it could also localise the resolution phase.


Brett and Angela got back to Australia on December 23rd. On the flight home, Angela reflected about her time in Fiji.

Angela Majdandzic (15.57)

I remembered how fortunate I was so early in my career to have this opportunity. And that was something that never left me because I had learnt that that opportunity so early on had actually put me on a really wonderful path moving forward in my career in gaining that understanding of what it took to not only run an investigation, be a part of it, but to also understand all the moving parts of it.


Jobs like Operation Okesi have no respect for the Christmas holiday. As the news of the drug bust in Fiji trickled back to the syndicate, their phones rang hot as they tried to work out what went wrong.

Brett Smith (16.41)

We get back just before Christmas, but there’s obviously a huge fallout for the syndicate members here, getting little pieces of information. They’re scrambling trying to find out what’s happened. Obviously, Egan’s phone contact on the secure phone stops. That Christmas period that it just calls back and forth, as well as the investigation side of things. It was very hectic.


After Fiji, the drug dealers lay low for a while. Luckily for Operation Okesi, they decided it looked like a local thing and they didn’t make the connection back to Australia with the drug seizures in Fiji.

Brett Smith (17.20)

It would appear that the Fijian police had been following this corrupt member. They’d identified Egan. It wasn’t clear to the syndicate, but it did legitimise that all this could be a local thing here and Fijian police could get credit for it. And our importation back in Sydney could hopefully continue along with them being able to write off that was a local matter over there.


By this time, the Englishman was getting desperate. He had sunk money into the drug importation schemes and so far, all attempts to bring drugs into Australia had ended badly. Schemes like this can become like a gambling addiction. They gamble money and lose, and it seemed their preferred way out was to gamble more, rather than cut their losses.

Brett Smith (18.09)

It became quite chaotic at that time in terms of the syndicate, because the Englishman who was a career criminal, who would probably seen his better days, but he was quite desperate at that time. This was now January, February. So what he’d originally planned in July ’14, we’re now six months down the track. Not only has he not made any money, they’ve had one seizure of drugs seized. So he’s got nothing for that. Plus they’ve input the money. He became quite desperate. He would come up with numerous different plans. There’d be talk of a Spanish importation. There’d be talk of a Colombian importation. And just trying to give weight and, and decide what was plausible and what was just um, the Englishman clutching at straws and trying to pull something together, was quite chaotic at that time.


With the undercover operative still in play, the members of Operation Okesi kept the syndicate members under constant surveillance and soon, the next plot emerged. In a trawler called The Eclipse, the Fisherman and a crew would sail out to meet a Columbian boat and bring back 400 kilos of drugs. In May 2015, the Fisherman sailed The Eclipse 200 nautical miles outside Australian waters, to attempt to meet up with the Columbians. The Fisherman had a satellite phone and a number to call the Columbian mothership.

Brett Smith (19.35)

The plan being that he would sail all the way out to, into international waters in The Eclipse, meet with the mothership and offload the drugs in international waters. He would then sail back and meet the family members on the vessel that they were on and transfer the drugs to that for transportation back to Australia. Obviously, it fell apart when he was out there and he just had the Columbia number that he was trying to contact. He could not get through to this number. And basically, in the end, just after two or three days, just abandoned the venture and they all sailed back into Australia.


In one lighter moment of the long drug investigation, the AFP were able to identify a covert phone the Fisherman had.

Brett Smith (20.21)

It’s a bit of a funny story, how we located the number of his new covert phone was that after he’d come back, he was quite distressed. He wanted to call the Englishman to basically say what happened. ‘I sat out there for three to four days and got nothing. Couldn’t get in contact with the number.’ Obviously, we’re recording his conversation at this time, and there was various listening devices in place. He was sitting in his lounge room basically talking to himself that, ‘Where did I put that other phone?’ Ends up doing, as we all do on occasions: ‘Oh, I’ll dial that phone.’ You hear another phone ring that’s oh, slipped down the back of the couch or whatever. Picked up that phone. And then that’s so that, by that way, that’s how we identified his covert phone that he’d lost it and needed it gently to ring the Englishman. So from that point, obviously shortly thereafter, that phone was intercepted, and we got further conversations on. At the time, I think the guys in the office were saying, ‘That could be something I do.’ And of course it is. We will all do that. So that’s how we identified that phone.


Meanwhile, the Englishman was getting more and more desperate. He’d just gotten out of jail and was struggling to find ways to make fast money. His desperation led to cracks in the syndicate.

Brett Smith (21.40)

He was desperate for money. There was at one point, money got so tight, the Englishman and his brother were arguing over… their mother gave one of them $10 to buy fish and chips or something. And an argument between the two brothers came out over that. They were literally down to bare bones. That was the problem that the Englishman then and his brother would come up with these desperate plans. The Spaniard had a lot of loyalty to the Englishman, but I think he started to lose credibility in the Spaniard’s eyes. I believe that’s why the Spaniard started to you know, distance himself. I think the person that he dealt with previously, he now thought that he wasn’t the crook that he once was. And so he, he started to back away.


It was up to the operatives of Operation Okesi to keep tabs on a growing number of syndicate members. The Spaniard was trying to distance himself from the syndicate and organise other jobs. Meanwhile, the Englishman kept the Fisherman on the hook by promising wildly inaccurate amounts of money once the importation took place.

Brett Smith (22.42)

Because the Fishermen wasn’t a career criminal he didn’t know exactly what money was available. He would rely on some things of what the Englishman would tell him. One week, you’d hear, ‘Oh, there’s a million in it for each for us, or, ‘We’ll make 10 million.’ It would change, and he didn’t really have the background knowledge. He was relying on his information from someone who was very desperate and would tell him whatever he wanted to hear to keep him in play.


Operations like Okesi can take years of investigation and years more to get through the court system. About a year into the investigation, there was a shuffle of personnel. New recruits like Angela were moved around so they could get a broader picture of the AFP. Coincidentally, officer Joel Rivers was her replacement. Angela and Joel joined the AFP at the same time and had been through recruit college together. Joel would spend five months familiarising himself with Operation Okesi before Brett himself transferred out.

Brett Smith (23.50)

He was incredibly dedicated, had incredible, tremendous knowledge of the job. I’d been doing this job for a year at the time. When you were on an investigation that size, you invest so much time and effort into it. You really do treat it like a kid almost in a sense. You don’t want to let go, but because I knew that the person that was coming back from overseas to run the investigation; excellent investigator, long track record of successfully running large scale investigations, and that he would have also Joel, who had an intimate knowledge of the job, and was incredibly dedicated to it and invested in it, it allowed me to feel like okay, I can let go. And I can transfer knowing that this job’s is going to be given the attention and dedication that it deserves. So that made it easy for me to, to transfer.


Joel had been a primary school teacher prior to joining the AFP. While it might seem like an unlikely foundation, what teaching taught Joel was that a lot of it is about planning, collecting data, documenting it, then using it to target effective instruction. Being a stickler for paperwork and organisation, Joel was a great addition to the team particularly as the case progressed to what they thought was resolution phase.

Joel Rivers (25.07)

When I first graduated from police college, I was put in fraud, anti-corruption and most of our jobs were related to fraud. Looking back at it now, it allowed me to understand the importance of the paperwork, and the recording that needs to go into any investigation that you do, how vital that can be when you want to go back and try and find information, or when you’re trying to piece together some information.


For Joel, the best way to find out the intricacies of the huge operation that Okesi had become was through the paperwork.

Joel Rivers (25.42)

I think what I also learnt that was a really good lesson was that if you are coming into a job and you need to fully understand what that job is, or you want to work out the narrative of that job and get your head around it, doing the paperwork, whether it writing the affidavits for search warrants or telephone intercepts or listening devices, or even just the statement of facts as you go through, is a really good way to understand what has happened. Who was who? Who were the targets? What have you tried? What evidence do you have and where are the holes in your brief of evidence that you might need to plug, going forward.


Once Brett moved on, and the new team leader came in, Joel took over as case officer.

Joel Rivers (26.26)

Brett was leaving organised crime to move to surveillance and we were getting a new team leader, and I was fortunate enough at that time for Brett to ask me to be the case officer of Operation Okesi. There’d been a lot of work put into it previously and it felt like quite an honour to be asked to do it.


Operation Okesi was playing the long game alongside the syndicate organising the major drug importation. Like Brett before him, Joel found out what it was like to investigate forward rather than back, trying to anticipate what would come next. As the syndicate was trying to work out what went wrong with the Eclipse meet-up in international waters, the AFP was just as curious. To complicate matters, the Englishman was facing state-based drug charges.

Joel Rivers (27.18)

We were able to intercept phone calls between the Fishermen and an unknown person overseas. So we knew that the Eclipse run was a legitimate attempt. We knew that they were talking to people overseas who were saying that the incoming vessel would be there a certain time and date, at a certain location. And that he had to be there that time. So it wasn’t that we thought it was made up. It was a legitimate attempt by them that just happened to fail. So, the Fishermen wanted answers. He was trying to get on to the Englishman. As time went by, the same issue came about that the Englishman was facing other state-based drug charges. And I don’t think he had answers himself, so he wasn’t sure why it hadn’t turned up. There’ll be, just that there’ll be another opportunity for them to do this again. And as we were trying to work out what had happened along with the bits of evidence that we were getting from numerous players, the Englishman, to avoid his state-based drug charges, he went into hiding.


With the Englishman on the run, the operatives working Operation Okesi had to see if the syndicate still had potential.

Joel Rivers (28.41)

The Englishman’s brother would take out money out of the account that we knew the Englishman had. And so trying to also find out what the Englishman’s brother was doing, which would lead us to the Englishman. So, there’s many sort of offshoots at this point in time, this ran over a couple of months of trying to work out what was going on.


The added complication was that while the Englishman had skipped out on state-based drug charges, the AFP had to make it look like the New South Wales police were looking for him, rather than them. If he knew the AFP were after him, he’d know they knew about the bigger importation plans. It was at this time, another man entered the picture. We are going to call him the Sparrow.

Joel Rivers (29.26)

So as that side of the operation was going on, in conjunction with AFP and New South Wales, we were looking for the Englishman. One Saturday, the Englishman’s brother turned up, and picked up the Fishermen and said, he’s got someone that he wants him to meet. And he said, okay and so they drove to a park in Double Bay. And then they met a third individual. We knew this was unusual for them; this wasn’t an area that they would generally go to. And so we had to then work out who the third individual was. We had an idea the Englishman’s brother was a go-between for his brother. So, we thought another importation might be on the cards. We later identified the third individual as the Sparrow. The Sparrow had a contact who could bring drugs from overseas. They need someone who could go out and pick up the drugs, pretty much the same as the Eclipse. They need someone who could put a boat and a crew together to go into international waters and do a drug transfer at sea, and then safely and quietly bring those drugs back into a designated point on the east coast.


The more meetings that took place, the more the AFP operatives knew that the syndicate was going to make its third attempt. In the meantime, their surveillance was so wide that they noticed a contact delivering food to a motel on several occasions. It turned out, he was delivering food to the Englishman who was then arrested. And then it was back to surveillance.

Joel Rivers (31.06)

When drug importations occur, it’s not like it runs to a set schedule, so they might be talking about it for months. They might plan for a certain date, but there’s so many things from their point of view that are out of their control. When does the boat leave? Does it hit bad weather? Does it actually have as much on it as they have led to believe? And so, it feels like you’re waiting for quite a while. You’re getting the same information said at meetings that you’re able to capture. And we’re fortunate that we’re able to capture a lot of discussion about what was happening, what was going on, what they planned to do. On one occasion in Double Bay, we captured a conversation which Sparrow described what was going to be on the boat, the type of boat it was, there was going to be 610 kilos. I don’t believe he said the actual drug, but we believed it was from where we thought it was coming from, it would be cocaine, but it was 610 kilos, described the types of wrappings that would have, the blocks it was in, so it would be in 20 kilo bags, with one kilo blocks. And it would be wrapped in a very specific kind of way. And, the type of boat that would come across. So we knew at that point that it was legitimate. It’s not something that you would make up, 610 is a very specific amount of drugs, the wrappings, a very specific way of doing it, and sort of discussed the general route that the boat would take and whether that was the safest route and what, what was going to happen.


Using their overseas networks and the coordinates discussed by the syndicate, the AFP could pinpoint the boat which turned out to be a yacht. But instead of meeting the Australian boat to transfer the drugs, the yacht was intercepted by the French navy.

Joel Rivers (32.54)

The incoming yacht just had been acting suspicious and went through French territorial waters to the point of the French Navy decided to board that vessel. The vessel’s in their waters. That’s their decision to make. We believe this is our incoming yacht. And so they did board the vessel. They found 610 kilos of cocaine, pretty much wrapped exactly as the Sparrow had described it.


The boat stopped by the French navy fit the description of the boat the syndicate members intended meeting. Adding weight to the conclusion that it was the target boat, was the fact that when the syndicate got news of its capture, they turned their boat around and returned to Sydney.

Joel Rivers (33.39)

We made a request to French authorities in order to gain access to the evidence that, that boat and the drugs provided for prosecution in Australia.


To build the case, Joel went to Tahiti where the yacht had been taken by French authorities, to meet with law enforcement there and to look at the evidence they had.

Joel Rivers (34.03)

While the evidence and the drugs were in Tahiti, a judge had been appointed from Paris to oversee that investigation. So we had to liaise with the judge in Paris in order to get permission to access the evidence. So once the evidence by the French is put into evidence bags and sealed, no one can give permission to open that evidence or look at that evidence, except the judge that’s in charge of that case. So that took a little bit of time, but that was very important that we were able to gain access to that information and that evidence, in a manner that fitted evidential standards for our courts, otherwise we weren’t going to be able to prosecute them for this attempted import.


In Tahiti, Joel saw enough evidence in the form of nautical maps and satellite phones to link the yacht with the syndicate. The case was building. Back home, the members of the syndicate were nothing, if not persistent. Even though they lacked success in all of their ideas to date, they began planning the next iteration of their drug importation scheme. Taking over as case officer, meant that Joel became an expert at making decisions, and quickly. He also utilised all the resources available to the team.

Joel Rivers (35.30)

There were times where we would use New South Wales police. We would use their surveillance teams, their technical teams, AFP surveillance teams, AFP technical teams, to try and capture as much evidence as possible, but it got to a point where we had a large number of syndicate members doing things all the time. You would only find out if we intercept a text message saying, ‘Do you want to meet for a coffee in an hour?’ And we’d just have to drop everything we were doing and run out and do it. There were many times you’d be in the office late in the afternoon, a text would come through. There was no time to get any other support areas in place. We had to take what equipment that we had, what we’re able to do and try and beat them. And sometimes you’re guessing the location that they were going to. You would send a couple of people to different locations and just see who was right, and really try and get in place before they were there so we could capture a conversation.


After all the failed attempts to import huge quantities of drugs into Australia, and having no idea they were being thwarted along the way by Operation Okesi, the syndicate kept planning for the next big haul. They had already sunk a considerable amount of time and money into the endeavour; too much to cut their losses and run.

Joel Rivers (36.53)

It had all failed as far as they were aware, just through other circumstances and maybe bad luck, but it wasn’t because they were being watched, or that the police knew what they were doing. So, over the next couple of weeks or months, they become more comfortable in organising another attempt.


The Sparrow organised a fourth attempt. Even though the Fisherman had proven loyal and capable in the first three attempts, the Sparrow’s overseas contact said they would send an inspector out to check his boat. And just to make things more complicated, the Englishman’s brother wanted the Fisherman to do another job on the side.

Joel Rivers (37.36)

We were able to work out that Sparrow’s contact was the person called Hooper, and so Hooper was liaising with overseas and telling Sparrow and the Fishermen, what they needed. And it was very smooth because they knew that when Hooper said he would have drugs coming across from overseas, that it was legitimate and it would happen. So, while that was going on, the Englishman’s brother turned up and asked the Fishermen to go to a meeting. The meeting was in a different park in Double Bay. And they met with a person we identified as Warren. Warren informed that they had a consignment of drugs that was coming from Asia, that it would be 400 kilos of methamphetamines. And could the fishermen help them out, and at that point of time, it wasn’t can you do it, but can you help us out where it be a boat or a crew?


We will call the next two phases of Operation Okesi, the fourth attempt and the fifth attempt.  With the split between watching the Sparrow and watching Warren, the AFP had to monitor meetings from both jobs.

Joel Rivers (38.50)

Sparrow’s contact Hooper had a legitimate job. We knew that it would be coming towards the end of 2016, but also as time went by, they realised because they had to wait so long for Hooper’s job, that they could do Warren’s job in between, as long as they didn’t tell Hopper about it.


Hooper gave the Fisherman $50,000 as a show of good faith. This was further proof for the long running Operation Okesi that the new import was definitely going ahead.

Joel Rivers (39.23)

They used that $50,000 to buy a rib boat, which is a rigid hold inflatable boat sort of like the Navy. So they can take it off the fishing boat and go out to the yacht and transport the drugs back and across. The issue that they had with a big fishing boat is you can’t get too close to it at sea to a yacht, because if you start smashing together the yacht doesn’t have a chance against a big fishing boat. So they needed some way to transport it.


Once the inspector flew in from overseas, the large scale drug importation grew closer. In such a long and complex operation, Okesi had its tense moments. The Fisherman and Sparrow purchased the rib boat but needed to test it locally before using it for the ocean transfer of drugs. They planned a dry run up the Hawksbury River. The men were under surveillance and the AFP operatives watching them knew they only intended the trip to be a short one. But then, they didn’t come back.

Joel Rivers (40.30)

They needed to test the rib and Sparrow wasn’t a seasoned fishermen, I don’t think he’d ever been on a boat in his life but the captain and Sparrow took the rib up to the Hawkesbury Valley and we were fortunate enough to be able to follow them up there with our surveillance team. This was going to be a quick run, just test it out, see how it goes up to a certain property, how quickly they could get there and back. And so we’re like, well, that’s fine. We’ll wait and see what happens here. And we’ll just keep watching. And so a couple of hours went past, nothing, nothing happened. Late that night, like many hours went past, we’re talking like eight, nine hours went passed, something like that. And late that night, the rib comes putting back in. During that time, we were quite concerned because one, what have we missed? Where have they gone? What have we missed? And so we’re trying to scramble to find out what was happening there. We had surveillance on them. They load the rib up and they head back down to the fish markets. We intercepted a call later on that they, during the test, they had forgotten to fill the rib up with petrol and there was no oars or anything in the boat. And not far up the Hawkesbury Valley, they had run out of petrol on the rib and had to just float for a while and then try and make their way somehow, down the river to try and find someone who would help them and tow them back to get petrol. So for all our fussing, it was legitimately, they just had run out of petrol.


The Fisherman agreed to both jobs. In October 2016, he bought a fishing boat from a friend. While the Sparrow couldn’t go on this job, the Fisherman used the Sparrow’s brother who was down from Queensland. More and more people were brought into the job. The telephone intercepts picked up that the Fisherman needed a captain. He found one to do the job, but the AFP found no indication that the captain and crew knew what the trip was for.

Joel Rivers (42.43)

They were told that it was going to be a fishing survey to check fishing grounds way off Australia, and to do water temperature testing and things like that.


After leaving the east coast of Australia, a couple of things started to make the captain suspicious. That’s when he was finally told that the trip was in fact a drug collection.

Joel Rivers (43.06)

And they were offered money to keep going, and to their credit, they said no. He turned the boat around. And so they had a bit of an issue of, they were on a time schedule to get to a certain location, but what do we do? There’s six people on the boat. You’re going to lose half of them because they don’t want anything to do with it. It takes a lot of courage and that particular position to say, ‘I’m not doing it.’ And lucky for him, he made that decision, because it didn’t turn out well for the others.


It was agreed that the three crew members who didn’t want to be a part of the drug pick-up would be dropped off on Lord Howe Island and those remaining would captain the ship.

Joel Rivers (43.46)

The problem being that they were already behind schedule. So when they got to the arranged destination, they were already late. They hung around for about a week also, hoping that the boat would come, trying and get in contact with the boat, trying to get in contact with the other side. And after a week, the Fishermen, just told them to turn around. And so for all that effort, that boat came back into the fish markets empty-handed again.


And then it was time for Operation Okesi to move to the resolution stage. Unfortunately for the syndicate, their ultimate success in a huge drug importation would mark the moment they were arrested. A couple of weeks after the last failed meet up, the Fisherman and crew set sail for their final rendezvous. 

The incoming yacht hit a storm and broke a mast. There were delays of several days, but finally, the AFP got confirmation that the crew were in sight of the yacht laden with drugs.

Joel Rivers (44.53)

By the 17th of December, it was, ‘Yep, we can see the boat.’ And that was pretty much it for a couple of hours. And then all we got was, ‘We’re on our way back.’ It hadn’t been confirmed whether the drug transfer was successful. So we knew the yacht, which was really beaten up, had turned around and was heading back into Fiji. From our understanding that had no drugs on board. Our fishing vessel had the drugs on board. By the time they got back, it was Christmas day, 2016. We believed that they had cocaine on board and at that point, the investigation was going to get a resolution and it was all going to wrap up.


On Christmas night, they arrived back in Sydney. Even though Christmas had been chaotic for members of Operation Okesi over several years, there were hundreds of volunteers from the AFP, New South Wales Police, and the Australian Border Force to work Christmas Day and Boxing Day for the final resolution stage.

Joel Rivers (46.02)

Yeah, so the rib came into Brooklyn Bay, north of Sydney. That was driven by Sparrow, and waiting at the bay was the Fishermen. When the rib was first caught at the ramp there at Brooklyn Bay, it was uncertain how much drugs were on it. So at this point we didn’t know what level the import was. And when we first searched the rib, there was only, 120 kilos that we could find. And it was like, well, it’s a lot of effort for 120 kilos. When previous amounts had been 610, had been 400, were talked about. So, Hooper had contacts and the last one was 610. As the evening progressed into the next day though, there’s a lot of storage space in that rib, and the investigators up at that location found more and more. So, by the time we found it all, it was 505 kilos of cocaine. There was probably about 35 warrants that were served. There was 15 people or 16 people arrested. There was warrants in New South Wales, in Brisbane, in Tasmania executed. There were search warrants and then we had to obviously seize the drugs, and forensics had to do their job on it. It was a big couple of days. Resolution started on Christmas day and ended four days later.


Sometimes cocaine is called the party drug or the celebrity drug. But from Joel’s experience, any arguments for or against the drug, usually stem from its effect. As far as he’s concerned, the real issue is the multitude of lives it affects.

Joel Rivers (47.47)

One of the things that we learned from even the captain of the incoming vessel that stopped in Tahiti, is a lot of the people that are involved over there don’t have a choice. So they’re forced to do the job for the syndicates overseas. And I think that’s something that’s really important to remember. So while people may think there’s no harm to having certain drugs here in Australia, there are many lives that are, that are really affected before it even gets to them. People are forced to do things. People are killed because of it. But even the crime that it creates when it comes to our shores. People are willing to pay for drugs. And there is violence that leads to that. There’s crimes that lead to that. And so, when you talk about cocaine, it’s the lives that can affect; it’s the crime that comes with it, and the agony that comes with something like this.


After two and a half years of investigation and 20 arrests, the court process can take even longer.  

Joel Rivers (48.50)

We really put the brief together over a couple of years that was then presented for prosecution. And we were fortunate that a number of them pled guilty early. A number of them pled guilty after reading the brief, and then we had a number go to trial. So we had three Supreme Court trials back to back in end of 2019, I think it was and the start of 2020.


As with any case like this, the gathered data is vast. Operation Okesi intercepted 425,000 phone calls and Joel listened to all of them and transcribed them. Five thousand of them were used in court. And after so many years of investigation and court preparation, the personnel from Operation Okesi waited for the verdicts.

Joel Rivers (49.46)

So, of the 20 that finally charged, 18 were either found guilty or pled guilty, and they were all held with, given prison time. For people who were just out on the boat, once assisting, and probably just being paid a small amount, from five years jail time, right up to like the Fishermen got over 40 years jail time. The Englishman, roughly about 20 years. The Englishman’s brother was over 10. Hooper was given over 20. Sparrow was over 20. Warren was over 25 years. So, they were all quite lengthy custodial sentences.


After it was all over, Joel took a well-earned break.

Joel Rivers (50.39)

But you’re just relieved that it was done. I think it took a couple of days to understand that it was over. It was so weird after watching them for a couple of years from a distance or sitting next to them in cafes and really making an effort not to be known, to then arrest them and have to go and speak to them face to face and say, this is what we’ve done. It was really weird cause you knew everything about their lives, but they didn’t have any idea who you were and essentially, we could put it to rest. And yes, it was going to affect the family members of those targets for a long period of time, and that’s unfortunate, and there are some really good people who were affected by this who were completely unaware of what was going on and you do feel really sorry for them.


For the original case officer, Brett Smith, Operation Okesi was the most complex and demanding investigation he had led during his 30 years of policing. But for Brett and the team, the resulting arrest of 20 drug traffickers and combined sentences of more than 350 years, meant the highest total sentence for a single investigation in Australian history. During the two-and-a-half-year investigation, law enforcement in Australia and around the world seized 30 kilograms of heroin, 4 kilograms of methamphetamine, and over 1.1 tonnes of cocaine. The AFP also seized 1.4 million dollars. It was a great result for the team of dedicated members of Operation Okesi.

Serious crime is getting seriously complex. To stay a step ahead, the AFP is recruiting people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds – just like AFP officers Brett, Angela and Joel, and the roles they played in interrupting over a tonne of cocaine hitting Australian shores and our streets as part of Operation Okesi.

After all, it takes all kinds to solve crime. With more than 200 roles across the organisation, in Australia and across the globe, you could help the AFP stay a step ahead too. Consider a career with the AFP.

Read or download episode 6 transcript - Operation Middleham

Download the transcript

Read the transcript

Host – introduction

The Australian Federal Police – or AFP for short – is Australia’s national policing agency. Its aim? To outsmart serious crime with intelligent action. Officers from the AFP work with local, national, and international agencies to combat serious criminal threats. Their work includes counter terrorism, serious organised crime, human trafficking, cybercrime, fraud, and child exploitation. The AFP exists to disrupt major criminal operations. In 2020-21, they did that over 400 times. They seized 38 tonnes of illicit drugs and precursors, and assisted overseas police services in seizing 19 tonnes of drugs. The AFP charged 235 people with child exploitation, and charged 25 people following terrorism investigations.

We’ve got exclusive access to the AFP case vault and personnel to provide you with in-depth insight into how they investigated and interrupted the most serious of crimes to stay a step ahead.

[theme music]


One of the AFP’s priority crime types is countering terrorism. Terrorism remains a major security challenge for Australia, and its global partners. The AFP works with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, both domestically and globally, to keep Australia and its citizens safe from the threat of terrorism. The AFP deploys officers in key locations around the world, including in the Middle East, the UK, US and Southeast Asia.

Nick is a Detective Superintendent and has been in the AFP for 33 years. In recent years, he has worked in the counter-terrorism portfolio.

Nick (2.33)

The counter-terrorism environment has evolved significantly since I’ve started in the AFP. I mean, prior to September 11, many Australians were not really aware of terrorism. And they thought it was something that happened to other people far from Australian shores. But our threat level was raised to probable in 2014. And since then, 147 people have been charged with CT offences as a result of about 70, 75 related operations around Australia. There’s been nine recognised terrorism attacks across the country and 21 major CT disruption operations in response to potential or imminent attack planning in Australia. Today, terrorism is a real threat to Australia and it’s got a global reach. We now see the regular use of internet and social media to recruit, radicalise, and train people in attack methodologies, and in some cases to incite the actual execution of those attacks.


Because of the need in this area, the AFP works with state police forces all around Australia.

Nick (3.41)

They were joint counter-terrorism teams set up across Australia and they were set up directly following the Bali bombings in 2002, and all of them are a partnership between members from the AFP, the state and territory police in that particular jurisdiction, and ASIO. So, all also CT work with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, is done jointly. And the aims of those teams is to work closely with the broader intelligence community, both here and with our international partners, to identify and investigate terrorist activities in Australia. And the emphasis is on preventative operations. So the AFP’s international network is key in some of that international collaboration. And we’re currently span across 35 countries. Many of those are in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Now predominantly, those posts are set up to combat transnational, serious organised crime. We conduct joint operations and training. We share capability, but most importantly, is the exchange of intelligence and information that we benefit from that international space.


Since September 2014, Australia’s national terrorism threat level has remained ‘Probable’.

Nick (4.55)

Australia uses a five-level system to indicate the current threat of an onshore, terrorism act, and since 2014, our level sits at Probable, which is the middle level of those five. So Probable means that there’s credible intelligence indicating that individuals or groups have got both the intent and capability to conduct an attack here in Australia. Do we need to be alarmed? No, not alarmed, but certainly, aware, but that level is constantly assessed by our various intelligence partners and the government in general. And the purpose is so that we make sure we have the appropriate level of preparedness and response planning to minimise the threat of terrorist attack. From a law enforcement perspective, our activities don’t change a whole lot in that we always have the highest level of preparedness as we possibly can within our limitations.


Australians who have travelled offshore to fight with extremist groups present an ongoing threat. The AFP remains committed to disrupting, prosecuting, and managing foreign fighters.

We asked Nick to explain the extent of this.

Nick (6.12)

Islamic State had significant territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State declared a caliphate and called upon followers from all over the world to travel to Syria and participate in an armed conflict to expand and defend the caliphate. When I say caliphate, I’m talking about an Islamic State, in this case, a self-declared state that’s led by a supreme religious and political leader referred to as a Caliph. So, with that call going out, Islamic State or IS, attracted an unprecedented number of foreign fighters who travelled to join from all over the world. We estimate about 40,000 people probably travelled to that zone during those early years, from over 80 countries, including Australia and many from Southeast Asia. Since around about 2012, we estimate that around about 230 Australians travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight or to support those groups involved in the conflict. Around about half or probably a little over half of those have since died in the conflict that we’re aware of, with the reminder either being unaccounted for all a large number are actually detained in either prisons run by the Syrian defence forces and the Kurdish forces, or are in internally displaced camps in Northern Syria. And many of the female foreign fighters and their children are contained in those camps.

Host (7.42)

How does Australia prevent people from joining these overseas conflicts?

Nick (7.48)

Since those early days, in 2012, around about 250 Australians have had their passports cancelled or applications for passports refused. And this was in a direct attempt by Australian government to prevent these people from travelling into the conflict zone and becoming part of that war or that conflict. And I have been asked, I suppose, by a few people: Why wouldn’t we just let them travel? and then they become somebody else’s problem. And as I mentioned before, a great many number of them have since died in the conflict. What I would say is that, we’ve got an international responsibility for one thing. And that if we had foreign partners who are aware of their citizens, that intended to travel to Australia, in order to commit violent acts, we would very much expect and hope that they would do everything within their power to stop them from leaving that country and coming to Australia. And we have that same responsibility to them. So that’s the first point, but the second one is: someone who does leave Australia and go and fight in a conflict zone, picks up significant skills and can be further radicalised and obtain that combat experience, and experience in all sorts of attack methodologies and things of that nature and would present an even greater danger to Australia where they then return to Australian shores. So that’s the other reason that we prevent those people from departing Australia and participating in the conflict.


Covid lockdowns provided the perfect opportunity for the release of propaganda online.

Nick (9.23)

During the last couple of years with COVID, we’ve seen a lot more of our kids are spending a lot more time online. For the last couple of years, they’ve been doing schooling predominantly online and they’ve been locked away in their bedrooms and things like that. And whilst we’ve always encouraged parents to have as much oversight over their children’s activities whilst online, I think it’s been more difficult in the last two years because of COVID. And so when they are locked away in their bedrooms doing schoolwork, there is obviously that danger that they are doing other things online as well; being involved in chat groups with people like this is one of the dangers that we’ve seen emerging over the last couple of years.


Domestically, attack planning from a small number of violent extremists is a continued threat which shows no signs of abating. Nick explains the nature of these threats and the architecture in place to manage them.

Nick (10.24)

We’re concerned about any threat that’s presented to the public, and whatever form that comes in. But our assessment is that the most likely threats will be low capability, from either lone actors or small groups. And when I say low capability, I mean, without extensive planning and lead-in time. The sorts of attacks that we’ve seen like here in Bourke Street, and down in Brighton a couple of years ago, those sorts of attacks that take very little planning, very little resources in order to facilitate. But over recent years, the main modes of attack have been a lot more simplistic, easier to plan and less resource intensive. So we continue to look at any individuals or groups that start to indicate a mobilisation toward a violent act. So, with our partners overseas, and here in Australia – so in the case of the Victorian JCTT with our Victoria police partners, ASIO ourselves, and that international network, we’re aware of numerous people, individuals, and groups that espouse or adhere to certain extremist views. And what we do is continually monitor, as best we can, as many of those individuals and groups, in order to identify when that belief that they have, or those ideologies that they’re espousing become more than just rhetoric, become more than just words, and they start to move toward actually planning or facilitating or conducting an act of violence.


When we think about terrorists, it’s easy to form a picture of ones we are familiar with from the news. But at Nick explains, the thinking around this has changed.

Nick (12.22)

People still associate terrorism with Islamic extremism, but it’s no longer the case. Since commencing in CT around about three years ago, I’ve seen a real increase in the time and the resources that law enforcement and intelligence agencies dedicate to investigating extremist activity that’s motivated by a range of other issues, religions, and ideologies. I mean, up until last year, law enforcement in Australia tended to refer to terrorism as either ISLEX or XRW. ISLEX is Islamic extremism or XRW, extreme right wing. But last year, ASIO announced a change to this form of language, offering an alternative terminology of RMVE and IMVE. As the whole left- and right-wing descriptors weren’t really fit for purpose. And they didn’t actually, accurately capture the nature of the emerging threats that we’re seeing. So when I talk of RMVE, we’re talking about religiously motivated violent extremism. Which pretty well speaks for itself, but it’s not only talking about Islamic extremism, it’s talking about Christian extremism or Hinduism, whatever the religion may be. It’s the violent extremism part that we concentrate on. And that is of concern because that’s where the threat comes. And when I say IMVE, I’m talking about ideologically motivated, violent extremism, and that covers a whole raft of issues and ideologies. So, for example, anti-government sentiment, whether it be right wing or otherwise, racially motivated, violent, extremism. Those sorts of activities could all be included in the IMVE umbrella. We now talk about those as a more accurate way of encapsulating. I know the general public may think that we focus on a particular religion or certain communities, but it’s, it’s just not the case. It’s the violent extremism part of it that we concentrate on, and we take all extremist activities seriously. We target the criminals and the criminal activity, not the ideologies or their backgrounds, and our primary concern is when those extremist views develop into planning or facilitation of violent activities. So, if people commit a crime, then we will investigate and charge or disrupt that criminal activity.


In 2016, Operation Middleham was a Victorian joint counter-terrorism investigation which investigated a group of men from Australia who planned to engage in hostile activity overseas in support of religiously motivated violent extremism.

We are going to refer to the principal offender as ‘Richard’. Richard grew up in a large family in Melbourne. He was a typical Aussie boy who loved playing footy, listening to music, and socialising with his mates. Richard adopted the Islamic faith when he was 17.

AFP officer Jake has been a police officer for over 20 years and in the AFP for 15. He has worked in counter terrorism both in Australia and overseas. Jake was the case officer for Operation Middleham.

Jake (15.47)

I’d worked in counter-terrorism in Asia for three years, and it was sort of in the lead up to the rise of Islamic State and the changing threat environment around the world, including in Australia as well. The AFP’s role in having counter-terrorism liaison officers based offshore is to facilitate information exchange and to protect the Australian national interests, so that harm doesn’t come to Australians overseas or in Australia because it’s, as we all know, it’s a networked and globalised world. But that was, by coincidence, very useful work to have done offshore in Asia because this particular job, Operation Middleham, because I was aware of the growing threat in the Philippines, the Black Flag movement, which is, I guess, groups becoming supportive of the Islamic State.


While Jake was working in counter-terrorism in the Philippines, he also kept a close eye on what was happening in the Middle East, because law enforcement intelligence was finding links between insurgents and terrorists operating there, and those operating in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Jake returned to Australia at the end of 2014 to face a changing climate in counter-terrorism.

Jake (17.18)

And that was kind of the real rise of the Islamic State threat and the things that were happening in Iraq and Syria and the whole foreign fighter issue that we were facing. Australians wanted to go and join. And also, the sort of Islamic State inspired attacks around the world were beginning as well. And so, I wanted to go back into counter-terrorism in Australia, for that reason, because I recognise that, that was where the AFP was going to be particularly busy for the next few years.


Not long after Jake returned to Australia, the offender we’re calling Richard, came onto his radar. This unlikely young man from Melbourne had studied the Islamic faith, learnt several languages, and become popular overseas as an Islamic preacher. His online presence was seen by law enforcement as being very influential.

Jake (18.10)

So, Richard already had a very high profile, through his own doing, as a very outspoken and almost theological leader online. And as a result, had a lot of influence around the world with and particularly attracting foreign fighters to the cause of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And so that had put him already on the radar I guess of the Australian Federal Police, as well as also other counter-terrorism and agencies around the world.


With his growing online presence, Richard’s influence wasn’t measured in the number of views to his social media videos, but rather in the amount of people who were swayed by his sometimes fire-and-brimstone online lectures.

Jake (19.00)

I guess it’s more in terms of influence rather than numbers. So it’s as, it’s still relatively small cohort of people in the world that have these extremist views, but amongst those people, he was extremely influential.


What made Richard so potentially dangerous was that he was articulate and well-spoken, which meant he sounded really convincing to those who followed him. 

Jake (19.21)

He provided a theological justification and understanding and education, I guess, to people to join the Islamic State, and for the whole sort of theological framework that justified what was happening in, in Syria and Iraq. And because he was a well-spoken educated, intelligent person who spoke multiple languages as well, he was able to transfer that message to a much wider audience. I guess the main concern that people had, these extremist ideas and extremist views that justify terrorism.


And it was this ability to justify terrorism that made Richard dangerous. When he studied overseas and gained a devoted following, he quickly came onto the radar of international law enforcement. This will always happen when teachings advocate violence.

Jake (20.20)

Safe to say counter-terrorism is, you know, one of the highest priorities of all law enforcement around the world, and obviously preventing any sort of terrorist offences, receives a lot of resources from all around the world, including the AFP. If you are spreading hate then absolutely, you’ll be monitored to the full capability of multiple law enforcement agencies.


While he was living overseas, the AFP monitored Richard’s activities. But in June 2014, he was deported from the Philippines back to Australia. Richard’s Australian passport was also cancelled, effectively preventing him from travelling outside of Australia again. Counter-terrorism is very much about prevention, so as soon as Richard set foot on Australian soil, the AFP monitored his activities.

Jake (21.14)

He really came to notice again on my watch, in July of 2015, when there was an incident in Melbourne where a group of people, including Richard, were gathered with Islamic State flags – so, flags used by the Islamic State terrorist group – and this attracted a lot of attention from members of the public and it was reported to police. As a result of that incident and other things, the original investigation commenced, which was a precursor to the wider Operation Middleham investigation.


When the crowd of men took the Islamic State flag to their meeting in the park, it was a declaration. The flag was commonly used by religiously motivated violent extremists as a symbol of allegiance to the Islamic state and violent ‘jihad’. It was effectively a call to political violence.

For the AFP’s joint counter-terrorism team, it was a significant event. Nick explains.

Nick (22.20)

We’re aware of numerous individuals and groups that hold, extremist ideologies and so forth. But we’re looking for those indications where, that’s likely to mobilise into violent acts and that display that our investigators saw in the park was just one of those indications that this group warranted a lot closer attention. Since its evolution, Islamic State has adopted a black flag with the white Arabic text, often referred to as a jihadist black flag. It’s their version, I suppose, of a military ensign or a standard. The reports of this group of males flying the flag in a public place was of significant interest that showed that there was an escalation in their behaviour.


While a crowd of men waving the Islamic State flag around in a park might not seem like much for some; for others who knew what it represented, it was a dangerous symbol.

Jake (23.18)

It’s abhorrent to people. It creates fear. It creates division in society, and it’s potentially showing support for prescribed terrorist organisation.


There was a flurry of calls from members of the public reporting the flag-waving gathering. Some of the calls were from people who had experienced terrorism firsthand, and others from members of the public who feared for their own safety.

Matt is an AFP investigator working in the counter-terrorism field. For him, the flag-waving in the park was an important change in the way Richard was operating.

Matt (23.56)

As he returned, we wondered what his profile was going to be. Is he going to keep it low profile? I mean, he’s been effectively kicked out of the Philippines for coming to their attention in relation to his online content and his views. For us when he was involved in a gathering at the park, with a number of people holding up an ISIS flag, that I guess triggered something for us.


For the Joint Counter-Terrorism team, the flag waving in the park showed that Richard was prepared to push the boundaries of his activities and it was a further mechanism for him to openly advocate violence to further an extremist cause.

Matt (24.35)

It probably flagged for us that, for example, he wasn’t, he hadn’t reformed or recanted his ways. He wasn’t prepared to keep a low profile or just meet behind closed doors. Doing something obvious like that, it drew his attention and, and I guess it was a warning to us that that might precede other activities, if he’s prepared to fly an Islamic State-like flag in a park, in a public place, that he’s probably going to cause us issues later on.


The AFP doesn’t work alone in the counter terrorism space. In Victoria, they are part of a joint counter-terrorism unit where all the operatives from a range of agencies, including the Victoria Police, work together and pool resources and expertise. Tony is a detective sergeant in VicPol. Over the years he’s been working in joint counter-terrorism, he has seen the team grow and strengthen.

Tony – VicPol (25.34)

The joint agency type work is probably got stronger and stronger as we’ve gone, as we’ve realised to work together is, is the best way to get things done, especially in this environment.


While the joint counter-terrorism team was watching Richard, they were also watching five men who emerged as his close associates. After the Islamic State flag waving incident in the suburban park, police surveillance intensified.

Tony – VicPol (26.03)

And it grew from there obviously with other persons of interests, and it became obviously quite protracted and very complex by the time we finished it. That’s for sure.


Not only were police concerned about the incident at the park, but they had to prepare for what might come next.

Tony - VicPol (26.22)

When you see there’s an allegiance to say Islamic State in that type of situation, if they’ve got an Islamic State flag, or there’s been any mention of an allegiance to ISIS, there’s obviously a concern that what will they do next if you’ve got that allegiance to that particular group in what that particular group espouse. That initially puts us in a position to be on high alert as to what they are going to do.


Early surveillance revealed allegiances among the men. Richard preached his particular doctrine that advocated terrorist violence. Sometimes his sermons were long-winded where he would explain the nuances of Arabic terms, while other sermons were more of the firebrand variety. Through continued surveillance, AFP officer Matt and the Operation Middleham team discovered that Richard and his small band of followers planned to leave Australia.

Matt (27.22)

Eventually, it unfolded that there was a plan by the group to travel to leave Australia. And each of them individually, we knew had attempted to leave the Australian jurisdiction. But, we knew that all individually made attempts to leave the Australian jurisdiction and either had their passports cancelled or not issued. So once we uncovered that plan, then the investigation focused on the activities that were acts in preparation to leave Australia.


When Australian law enforcement receives credible intelligence that people want to leave the country to participate in terrorist activities, there are a range of strategies available to prevent this, including the cancellation of Australian passports.

Jake (28.09)

At that particular point in time, there was such a draw card for people wanting to join the Islamic State and become foreign fighters and fight overseas. And so it was a preventative tool to stop people doing that. It is our duty to stop people leaving Australia, if they have malicious intentions to commit offences overseas.


When Richard was deported from the Philippines, the Australian Government had already cancelled his passport. The investigators of Operation Middleham also looked at the men close to Richard, and their passports were cancelled too. With no passports, the men could not simply fly out of the country. Jake explains how this narrowed the means by which they could attempt to leave.

Jake (28.56)

It became apparent that they wanted to leave Australia by boat, and a couple of members of the group went up to Darwin and put a deposit on a, on a boat with the idea of actually leaving Australian waters illegally.


Some members of Richard’s group even went as far as calling into Neil Mitchell’s top rating radio program to complain that they couldn’t leave the country.

Jake (29.24)

I guess they were just airing their views in a public forum, basically saying they wanted to leave Australia; that they should be allowed to leave Australia. It certainly triggered some public debate.


For Richard and his five co-offenders, it made sense that they would seek to escape by sea. A surveillance team followed two men from the group as they drove up to Darwin to try and buy a boat. Along the way, the men listened to recorded speeches by Richard, in which he advocated the use of violence to establish an Islamic State under Sharia law. They also sang along to songs by Men at Work. As Matt explains, the deal to buy the boat fell through.

Matt (30.12)

But for a number of reasons that didn’t go ahead, but it showed their level of commitment and that their plan was well underway and that they had the resources and the motivation to do that.


Operation Middleham operatives monitored the group very closely to try and figure out what the plan was. It was Matt’s job to coordinate the vast amounts of information coming in – captured lawfully using statutory powers available to the AFP.

Matt (30.42)

Well, I mean, you can imagine the huge pipe of information that’s being generated in an investigation like this. So, part of that is unpacking that and trying to identify what their plans are, what their next step is, what their end goal is. So, managing that, a massive amount of information and being able to have it at hand in order to make decisions and to anticipate what’s going to happen next, and to mitigate any risks that they pose, is very important. That was my role in it is an information coordination role.


AFP efforts continued and members working on Operation Middleham were interested to see where the men were headed. Jake had a feeling they might be heading towards the Philippines.

Jake (31.32)

So there was debate amongst the investigators about where they were going and what they were going to do. In counter terrorism, we work in the preventative space as much as we possibly can. And, I guess, because of my experience in Southeast Asia, I sort of lent more towards them going to the Philippines because of the environment that was there.


While there’s no suggestion that the suspects investigated by Operation Middleham had anything to do with the current political climate in the Philippines, it was important for the AFP to know what was happening there, to have an understanding of how, if their offenders made it to the Philippines, they could make the situation worse.

Jake (32.17)

It’s important to understand the context of what was occurring in the Philippines, in the lead up and during that time. The concern was that there were growing links between groups in the Philippines and the Islamic State in the Middle East, including groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State operating in the Philippines. And the concern that this could be drawing Australians and other Westerners and other foreign fighters to the Philippines was a real threat to Australian interests and Australians in the Philippines and the Filipino people and peace just in general.


The Operation Middleham team uncovered information about the five men who seemed most closely aligned to what Richard was planning.

Matt (33.10)

Each of them have got very different backgrounds. What I would say they have in common is that none of them are involved in a mainstream established mosque.


While the AFP kept Richard and his group under surveillance, the potential terrorists knew the police would be watching them. Ironically, when the two men travelled to Darwin and back on the failed boat-buying trip, they took counter-surveillance measures. But despite this, there were eyes and ears on them all the way.

Jake (33.42)

I think it’s fair to say that they were very aware that they are being monitored or possibly being monitored, and they conducted counter-surveillance activities. And they acted as if they were being monitored. So, they were aware of law enforcement capabilities to some extent, and they tried to defeat those as best they could, and obviously they weren’t successful.


For a while, after the men returned from Darwin, things went quiet for Richard and his followers. The AFP wondered if they had changed their mind about leaving Australia.

Jake (34.18)

After the two men came back to Melbourne after the Darwin trip and they sort of dropped the idea of that particular boat, they got back in February, and then in May it became very apparent, very quickly what was going on. And then we sort of went straight into battle stations, but we focused on the resolution phase.


In an investigation like Operation Middleham, police in the joint counter-terrorism team need to be ready as soon as their targets make a move. The joint counter-terrorism team can be a complex and challenging place to work but the teams are made up of experienced and motivated investigators, intelligence officers, and professional staff, who are prepared and trained for any scenario.

Jake (35.04)

So, after they returned to Melbourne in February of 2016, we continued investigating them to see what they intended to do, and it became apparent that they still intended to leave Australia by boat. And in early May of 2016, they bought a car for that purpose. And the following day, they drove to Bendigo and bought a boat, a seven-metre fishing boat, and then continued driving to Queensland from Bendigo. And so it all happened very, very quickly. And they were under surveillance leading up to that point and during that journey.


When Richard and his co-offenders set off in a Hyundai SUV towing the seven-metre boat they’d bought in Bendigo, the provisions were not packed carefully into the boat; a couple of life jackets fell out along the way. And while the group had tried to dress in regular clothes, they stood out as they made their way up north. Matt explains what happened when a police car pulled into a remote service station.

Matt (36.22)

At one stage on their trip where they’ve driven from Melbourne to far north Queensland and along that way, we’re surveilling them and following behind them. And at one stage, the police had pulled into the service station there, I think the attendant said, ‘Oh, the guys you’re looking for went that way.’


Because of the Victorian Joint Counter Terrorism Team efforts, when the five men set off from Victoria to head north, the fact that the AFP is an organisation with a national (and global) footprint, meant that interstate travel and borders did not present an investigative problem. Police and joint counter-terrorism teams in every state assisted in monitoring the group.

Tony – VicPol (37.07)

Persons of interest don’t know of boundaries, don’t care about boundaries, so therefore, over the border, it doesn’t mean much to them. So, we’re having to actually facilitate how we do our operations to combat people that do go over the border. We can’t just confine it to Victoria. So that’s what I was saying with AFP comes into it that we can actually then expand that into the rest of Australia or even offshore.


As the men and their boat travelled north, preparing to head overseas in the boat to a foreign country for the purpose of engaging in a hostile activity, the arrest team swung into action when the decision was made not to allow them to depart Australia.

Jake (37.41)

We believe that they were intending to leave Australia from far north Queensland or that we didn’t exactly know exactly what they were doing. And so, on the 9th of May, quite a number of investigators, including myself from Melbourne flew to Cairns. And we started preparing for resolution in far north Queensland to stop them leaving Australia. A critical decision was made not to let them get on the water, to stop them before they got in the water, because I guess there’d be risks involved in, to their safety, to police members’ safety, to potential loss of evidence. And so a decision was made that they would not get any further north than a place called Lara in far north Queensland. And so I guess that’s a classic example of you know, you can have months and months and months of reasonably mundane investigation. And then, it can move very fast, very quickly. And that’s what happened. So, Victoria Police members, Australian Federal Police members, Queensland Police members, a whole gamut of resources had to be pulled together quickly. And on the 10th of May, they were stopped in far north Queensland and tactical police arrested them.


The five men towing their boat, were about 200 kilometres north of Cairns when the tactical police intercepted them.

Jake (39.09)

So then they were brought to Cairns police station and there was a major incident room being set up in Queensland and a major incident room being set up in Melbourne as well, to coordinate simultaneous search warrants and activity in Melbourne at the same time as, or as soon as we could, that they were arrested in far north Queensland, and six search warrants were conducted in Melbourne simultaneously while they were being processed and interviewed, and the search warrants were executed on the vehicle and the boat as well, to gather as much evidence as we possibly could. 


During the execution of the warrants, important evidence was collected. Nick explains its significance. 

Nick (39.55)

When police searched the vehicle and the boat, they found numerous items that was of interest. There were plans for the journey, petrol cans, backpacks. There was a portable toilet, hiking boots, camouflage clothing, portable solar power charging system. They had hunting knives, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats. There were first aid kits, navigational maps, travel guides, foreign language books, foreign currency, and a navigational card showing the Indian ocean and South China Sea, which was interesting, and a notebook containing notes, diagrams and handwritten maps. Now, this was of interest because the CT legislation is designed to prevent an act of terrorism. And in this case, the act would have been departing from Australia for the purpose of a foreign incursion. So, a number of the elements of the offence need to be proven in order for a successful prosecution. And that includes that the group intended to travel to another country. And that the purpose of that travel was to engage in hostile activities. So our investigators suspected that the group intended to travel to a remote region of the Philippines and engage with other groups to overthrow the Philippine government. So, proving a person’s intention before they actually commit an act is always going to be challenging, but it can be achieved through building a circumstantial case. So generally, no piece of circumstantial evidence in isolation is sufficient to prove a particular element of an offence. But if you combine several pieces of circumstantial evidence, you can paint a clear enough picture to convince a jury that there is no other reasonable alternative explanation. So, for months, the JCTT investigators did an exceptional job building a very strong circumstantial case. And during the resolution, during the search warrant that included the search of the vehicle and the boat, those items I mentioned earlier were found, and they all supported the inference that that group intended on a long sea journey, followed by an existence in a remote location. Obviously, the kind of equipment that was found would have been useful for this type of endeavour, as opposed to say a normal equipment, the normal equipment that you might prepare for say a fishing trip. And that’s why that equipment was, was so significant.


One of the group did not travel north. He was arrested in Melbourne.

Jake (42.25)

So five of the six offenders were charged on the 10th of May, 2016 in far north Queensland or in Cairns, and then they were subsequently remanded and extradited back to Victoria. The sixth offender was charged in Melbourne. A number of search warrants occurred simultaneously to the arrests in Cairns. And as a result of those search warrants, that a lot of evidence was obtained. Forensics did a fantastic job and were able to, through handwriting analysis and through, indentation analysis on notepads, gather other pieces of really useful evidence that supported our prosecution.


Officers working on Operation Middleham were allocated a member of the group, first to interview, then to prepare the brief for court. AFP officer Alex was part of the team that went to Cairns for the arrest stage of the operation and took responsibility for interviewing a man we are going to call Steve – which is not his real name. Until they left Melbourne it was unclear if Steve would be part of the group destined for the Philippines.

Alex (43.45)

So, at the beginning, he was the one, I guess, we knew the least about in terms of his intentions, because he hadn’t been involved in many sort of overt acts preparation as the others had. They’d been before going to Cairns, we knew that they purchased items, they’d done some sort of reconnaissance trips and things like that. But with him, he really hadn’t done very much other than be part of the group, and, you know, attend their gatherings and be part of their conversations and things like that. So I guess we didn’t know for sure whether he was going to be in the car or not, on the way up to Cairns. And it turned out that he was obviously, but in the lead up that wasn’t necessarily clear as with the others they, their intention was more clear.


Once the group were arrested, Alex interviewed Steve.

Alex (44.43)

He was very engaging. Yeah, he was quite charismatic and very engaging on everything other than the charges, everything other than the offending, very open about his religion, very open about Islam and his views on it.


But despite his charisma, Alex got the feeling that Steve was one of the more dangerous of the group.

Alex (45.07)

He wasn’t just a follower like I think the others essentially were really caught up in Richard’s charisma and ISIS and, you know, the excitement and the pull of it and everything.


The big question for all law enforcement is: how do young men go from being peaceful, devoted practising believers to forming extremist views, including supporting violence?

Alex (45.33)

His family life probably had a bit to do with that. There was quite a long history of physical abuse in the household. And so he was essentially kicked out of home at about 19. This is over in Saudi Arabia, and lived on the streets for a little while, but then after that was sort of taken in by his local mosque, and I think it was there that he sort of was exposed to some radicalist, views and ideology.


After a period of time Steve returned to Australia, and it wasn’t long before his passport was cancelled. While overseas travel was out of the question, Steve made his way to Melbourne and soon became part of Richard’s group.

Alex (46.16)

He came to Melbourne in 2014, and became friends with that group. He was friends with another young man who he ended up marrying his sister. They were all sort of part of the same friendship group.


Unlike the others in Richard’s group, Steve came to them with his own fully-formed beliefs.

Alex (46.40)

So if Richard, for example, he converted as a teenager to Islam, and I think the others really looked to Richard for their Islamic teachings. Whereas with Steve, he already had his own religious foundation. And so I think that was a point of difference for him. I think the other thing was as well, he just wasn’t as overt in his actions as, as the others were in terms of this offending as well.


While the others may have been drawn to Richard because of his charisma, Alex believes Steve was drawn into the group for a different reason.

Alex (47.16)

His main differences that it wasn’t Richard’s charisma that drew him into it in the first place. I think it was his genuine desire to go and live under Islamic law, outside of Australia. 


Once all the men were arrested – the five in far north Queensland and the one who had stayed behind in Melbourne – the charge against them was complicated. The men were charged with: engaging in conduct preparatory to offence of entering the Philippines with intention of engaging in a hostile activity, namely encouraging others to achieve overthrow of the Philippines Government by force or violence.

Jake (48.01)

Very complicated charge, all based on circumstantial evidence over a lengthy period of time. Even the time of the offending was up to legal debate and it ended up being narrowed down to October of 2015 until the time of their arrest in May of 2016. Amongst other things, that preparatory conduct included the purchase of the boat and the purchase of the car for the purposes of leaving Australia.


As Matt explains, this type of preparatory acts legislation reflects similar laws around the world.

Matt (48.38)

National security legislation is very different to a lot of other typical offences. Most offence investigations are reactive. So, somebody commits a murder, investigation will uncover who did it, motive and present the evidence of the same. So, but national security is different. I mean, a terrorism incident is so impactful on the society around it, that legislators and the community expect police to act prior to a terrorist act. So we’re looking at things that are acts that are conducted in preparation to either commit a terrorist act or in this case, a foreign incursion. So we were looking at the things that they had done or were going to do in order to conduct a foreign incursion, and those meet thresholds of offences that exist already. So they didn’t have to commit a substantive offence. An offence is made up by those acts in preparation, and that is typical around the world of that type of legislation, just reflecting on the seriousness of, of terrorism.


Preparatory terrorism offences of this nature ensures that the people and institutions of other countries are protected from citizens of this country who form a plan to head overseas and engage in hostile conduct. This means that once law enforcement detects plans, they can move in. This gives counter-terrorism police the power to stop terrorists before they carry out their plans.

Matt (50.06)

The five guys arrested with Richard were going to be supporting him in helping overthrow the Philippine government. That’s a really substantive offence. I mean, they have made actions. We’re not charging them with thought crimes. They’ve made actions in preparation to commit a foreign incursion. The offence was acting on that and purchasing the boat, purchasing the car, travelling and buying supplies. So even though it is a preparatory act offence and it’s well in advance of them committing the more substantive offence. It’s still at a stage where I think we as a community, are comfortable that they’re stopped. And I think if the Australian Government had, or us as investigators had allowed that boat to depart, and there’s a risk that we would never see them again, that’s a risk that we’re not prepared to take, as a community, not just for Australia, but in this case, for another foreign country.


To the Australian Government and law makers, protecting other countries as well as our own, is paramount. The sheer size of the brief of evidence against the six men arrested kept Matt busy for months, compiling it in a way that was accessible to everyone involved.

Matt (51.23)

There’s a lot of information to sort through and to re-examine and to review. And part of the role is then presenting that in a logical systematic format. I think at the end, the brief of evidence was something like comprised of 52,000 files. So, it’s a massive amount of information. And we created the structure for the court and defence and the prosecutors to be able to analyse and understand that information. So, there’s a huge undertaking and a huge task.

Jake (51.52)

The offence that they were charged with, carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.  so, that’s an indication of how seriously the courts and the legal system and the politicians view this sort of offending. The six men themselves pled guilty to conducting preparatory acts.


In this instance, the six offenders received sentences ranging from three to seven years. Richard’s sentence was the longest; a result of his leader status among the group.

Matt (52.27)

Holding Richard at a higher level of accountability. His influence over the group and the expected end results of their actions, if they were successful, would have meant that Richard was in a position to influence and help other people overthrow a government.


The AFP will use the full extent of the law to prevent and disrupt terrorist activity, and to protect the Australian community. Jake has a message for anyone considering a similar path to that taken by Richard, Steve, and the group.

Jake (53.01)

This sort of offending is taken extremely seriously and do not underestimate our capabilities or resources in investigating and prosecuting it to the full extent of the law.


And finally, Nick, the Detective Superintendent at joint counter-terrorism says the AFP needs people with diverse skills to interrupt this crime type.

Nick (53.23)

The JCTTs across Australia have achieved some great successes in our joined endeavours. Working together with our state police in this instance with the Victoria Police and ASIO, we’ve investigated terrorist attacks and disrupted many major terrorist plots since that national level was raised in 2014. It’s really quite rewarding to be a part of these achievements. We’ve got people here in the joint counter-terrorism team from all walks of life. We’ve got a very diverse group here, and we encourage people from those different backgrounds to come and work in the counter-terrorism space. We’ve got men and women, both that are sworn and unsworn, that dedicate their working lives to this sort of activity, and to keeping Australian safe from terrorism. And I’ve been in the AFP now for 33 years, and I can honestly say this is one of the most rewarding areas that I’ve ever worked in, just to contribute to, or be a part of an investigation that leads to the disruption of a terrorist act. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve directly contributed to the saving of lives.


Thanks to the AFP’s network of teams and its joint agency collaborations with State and Territory police, particularly Victoria Police in the case, the team from Operation Middleham interrupted the plot against the Philippines government, and potentially other criminal offending offshore. Joint counter-terrorism team members like Jake, Matt, Alex, and Tony from VicPol are an example of people from different backgrounds that all contribute to that joint effort to protect Australia.

Serious crime is getting seriously complex. To stay a step ahead, the AFP is recruiting those with diverse skillsets and backgrounds – just like the AFP personnel who played a role in countering terrorism as part of Operation Middleham.

After all, it takes all kinds to solve crime. With more than 200 roles across the organisation, in Australia and across the globe, you could help the AFP stay a step ahead too. Consider a career with the AFP.

And that’s a wrap on Season 1 of Crime Interrupted – an AFP and Casefile Presents podcast written by Vikki Petraitis. We hope that like us, you have learnt a lot about how the AFP investigated and interrupted the most serious of crimes.

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Serious crime is getting seriously complex. To stay a step ahead, the AFP is recruiting those with diverse skillsets and backgrounds – just like AFP personnel and the roles they played in interrupting human trafficking, counter terrorism operations, international kidnappings and more.

With more than 200 roles across the organisation, in Australia and across the globe, you could help the AFP stay a step ahead too. Consider a career with the AFP.

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