The mafia is a general term used to describe organised crime gangs of predominantly Italian ancestry around the world. The mafia came to Australia with the Italian cane cutters who arrived in Queensland in the 1920s, and grew as the Italian population swelled with post-war migration. Its activities were largely confined to Italians involved in growing and selling fruit and vegetables until the 1970s, when the opportunity arose to satisfy the growing demand for marijuana.
The man who organised a lot of what happened next was Robert Trimbole, born in 1931 to Calabrian immigrants. By the early 1970s he was living in Griffith, a major centre for Italian farmers, and arranging for marijuana to be grown in the area and shipped to Sydney and Melbourne, where it was sold to distributors. The business proved immensely profitable – with returns of about one million dollars per acre – and soon Trimbole and the growers were wealthy and built themselves large houses in the area known as “grass castles”. Although Trimbole was sometimes called “The Godfather”, he was not actually a member of the local mafia, but his contacts with it were excellent.
Something essential to the success of the venture was the corruption of the local police, who for years rarely bothered the local marijuana growers and truckers.
After a while, Trimbole left Tony Sergi to look after the growers and moved to south-west Sydney, where he handled transportation and used his drug income to set up legitimate businesses, including a trucking company, a wholesale wine business, and a supermarket. He was a very sociable character and continued the criminal tradition of interest in horse racing, often profitably combining his interests in gambling and race-fixing. At one stage he had 13 jockeys on his payroll.
A growing problem for the mafia was Donald Mackay, a Griffith businessman and Liberal Party candidate who began to complain publicly about their activities and police inactivity. He finally told some honest Sydney police about a large marijuana crop in the area, and a number of arrests were made. In revenge, Trimbole and others had Mackay killed in 1977. (He was shot after leaving a hotel and his body was never found.)
As often, an act of unusual violence (some have called it Australia’s first politician assassination, because of Mackay’s role in the Liberal Party) attracted public and then political attention. There was a campaign to resist this: retired corrupt police officer Fred Krahe was one of those who told journalists Mackay had actually run off with a lover. But the Labor government reluctantly appointed the Woodward Royal Commission in 1977, which established the existence of the Calabrian mafia in Australia.
In the late 1970s, Trimbole became involved with the Mr Asia syndicate, which imported heroin into Australia, after he met its leader Terry Clark at the races. When couriers Douglas and Isabel Wilson became police informers, Trimbole arranged to have them killed. It is suspected that at different times he had many more people killed, possibly as many as 18.
For much of the seventies, Trimbole was one of the most violent and successful of Sydney’s criminals, and also one of the best organised and connected. Not only did the Griffith mafia have local police in its pocket, for years it used Al Grassby, at various times Griffith’s parliamentary representative at the state and federal levels, and minister in the Whitlam government, to further its interests. One of Grassby’s actions was an attempt to publicise a rumour that Don Mackay had actually been killed by his family. At the state level, Labor politicians over a long period gave the impression of being reluctant to move against Italian criminals in Griffith. In 2005 the ACT Labor government erected a statue of Grassy to celebrate his contributions to multiculturalism.
With the announcement of the Stewart Royal Commission into the Mr Asia syndicate in 1981, and suspecting he was to be arrested in connection with Mackay’s execution, Trimbole fled abroad. He died six years later in Spain, and appears to have been successful in hiding most of his fortune.
The mafia continues to be active in Australia although it attracts almost no publicity these days. In its 2009 annual report, Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate said of the Calabrian mafia: “The links with the mafia families are steadfast and deeply rooted in Australia where permanent traditional links with the Calabrian clans have been solidly established. Clans like Sergi, Barbaro, and Papalia have been active through their Australian affiliates for some time.”
In 2008, Griffith man Pasquale Barbaro was arrested with 19 others for organising the world’s biggest known ecstasy import, 4.4 tonnes hidden in tomato tins shipped from Italy. According to the Woodward Royal Commission, Barbaro’s father had been associated with Robert Trimbole in the murder of Donald Mackay 31 years earlier.
MAIN SOURCES: The Godfather in Australia and Shadow of Shame by Bob Bottom; Smack Express by Clive Small and Tom Gilling; Big Shots 1 by Bob Bottom, David Wilson and Lindsay Murdoch; articles in the Sydney Morning Herald by Jo McKena.