Mackay mystery a story of a lifetime
Donald Mackay knew he was marked down as an enemy of the drug growing families of the irrigated farmlands around Griffith and the secret syndicate that ran them.
He had been exposed as the covert informant of drug squad detectives who used his furniture store in 1975 to plan secretly what was then Australia’s biggest drug bust adidas superstar marijuana valued at $60 million growing on a property at Coleambally, 65 kilometres from Griffith.
In July 1977, two days before he was assassinated, his body spirited into a 36 year mystery, Mr Mackay sat in that same furniture store and told me his blood had “run cold” when he found his involvement in the bust had been exposed.
One of the drug squad members had been forc adidas superstar ed to hand over his notebook at the trial of four men alleged to have been involved in the crop. Mr Mackay’s name and the drug squad’s use of his store as their Griffith headquarters were documented within its pages.
Mr Mackay did not, of course, contemplate being murdered he was a former political candidate and a pillar of Griffith’s community.
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But he knew that Griffith in the mid 1970s was not a good place to make enemies.
He also knew strange things happened when citizens tried to tip off police.
In 1974 an agriculture inspector named Joseph Patrick Keenan had stumbled across a group of men and women, including a fellow named Antonio Sergi from a district winery, packing marijuana into green plastic bags in a farm shed. In rural Australia in 1974 it was an astonishing sight.
When Mr Keenan reported what he had witnessed to Griffith police, Detective Sgt John Kenneth Ellis didn’t seem interested and took no statement.
Within a day, Mr Keenan got a call from one of Mr Sergi’s relatives informing him the family knew he had spoken to the police.
Several weeks later, the body of a man named Joseph Patrick Keenan was found floating in a canal near Griffith. He was no relation of the agricultural inspector.
Ellis, who was in charge of the in adidas superstar vestigation of the unfortunate man’s death, reported at his inquest Mr Keenan was an alcoholic and there were no suspicious circumstances. Just an amazing coincidence, apparently.
Mr Mackay and others in Griffith detected things were crook. They proved to be right.
Ellis and the other two detectives from Griffith at the time, Sen Constable John Francis Robbins and Detective Sgt Brian James Borthwick, were later jailed for perverting the course of justice in relation to two drug crops.
Thus, when Mr Mackay got wind of a big crop at Coleambally in 1975, he went undercover and likely sealed his fate.
To know marijuana growing was flourishing and to condemn it was one thing. But to provide information and accommodation to the quiet men from the NSW drug squad, with spectacular damage to the growers and the syndicate, was quite another.
Yet Mr Mackay, a conservative man, disliked being called an anti drugs campaigner.
His mission was also political, against former Whitlam minister Al Grassby. In 1974, Mr Mackay stood as a Liberal candidate against Mr Grassby for the federal seat of Riverina. He lost, but his preferences helped the National Party unseat Mr Grassby.
Mr Mackay said Mr Grassby was unusually close to the main drug growing families and he received political patronage from the man he described as the “real” old time Godfather of Griffith, a shoe shop owner named Peter Calipari.
He dismissed Robert Trimbole as a half smart thug, but dangerous.
Speaking with me and Michael Cahill from The Border Mail, Mr Mackay scorned Trimbole for having his old panel beating business and his tax records burnt by a character known as “The Torch” before muscling in to the drugs business. His judgment of Trimbole proved right.
It was, police have long alleged, Trimbole who employed the triggerman who ended Mr Mackay’s life. Six other local men were fingered by the Woodward Royal Commission. All had handy alibis. Two were having dinner with policemen.
No one has ever been charged with Mr Mackay’s murder, although the now 87 year old Melbourne hitman, James Frederick Bazley, served 15 years for having conspired to murder Mr Mackay and murdering two drug couriers.
And Mr Grassby? In 1980, he hawked around a document claiming it was not the Mafia who killed Mr Mackay. It implied Mr Mackay’s wife, Barbara, son Paul and solicitor Paul Salmon were the conspirators. Mr Grassby was charged with criminal libel; adidas superstar 12 years later he was acquitted on appeal.
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