The Murder of Donald Mackay

Despite the size and sophistication of drug smuggling operations like those organized by Murray Riley and the Moylans, the amount of cannabis entering Australia’s drug market from foreign sources was dwarfed by illegal domestic production. Hidden midst the fastness of eastern Australia’s pastures and farmlands, large marijuana plantations, usually covering ten to fifty hectares, came into production during the mid-1970s. Although many country districts concealed the odd marijuana patch, there was a concentration of plantations in the Griffith area of southwestern New South Wales. There, legitimate market garden farms — many Italian-owned — shifted lands into cannabis production, and brought the crop to urban consumers through the cover of the wholesale produce channels.

Lying some 640 kilometres west of Sydney in the Riverina district, the Griffith area was largely parched and poor until the early decades of this century when the Murrumbidgee River Irrigation Scheme began providing the water to sustain market gardening. Formally established in 1906, the Mirrool Irrigation Area was occupied in the years after World War I by Australian soldier-settlers awarded 20 hectare blocks. Attracted by a land tenure system suited to the family-style agriculture of their native land, Italians began moving into the Griffith area during the 1920s. The first Italian migrants who settled there were largely northerners, or Veneti, and comprised only a small minority of the town’s total population. Following World War II there was a second wave of Italian migration, largely from the Calabrian region of southern Italy, and the Italian community as a whole began acquiring a majority of the leases and titles to the town’s properties. By the early 1970s Griffith showed its affluence in the modern shops and homes lining its Canberra-style concentric streets, laid out by architect Walter Burley Griffin sixty years earlier. The town had 1,750 irrigated farms and a population of 12,500, 62 per cent of whom were of Italian origin.

The boundaries between Veneti and the Calabrians, or Calabresi, were clearly defined, with Calabrian arrivals more closely-knit and subordinated to a powerful local leader they call the ‘father of the Calabresi’. Although they only comprised 40 per cent of the town’s Italians, the Calabresi’s habit of voting en bloc according to the directives of their godfather figure made them a potent force in local politics.

Among the leading beneficiaries of the town’s agricultural progress were the produce wholesalers and packers like the Nugan Group Ltd. Established in 1941, the Nugan Fruit and Vegetable Company began as a packing shed and grew rapidly during World War II to provide canned goods for Allied troops. By the late 1970s the group had grown into the largest fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Australia. A related company directed by another Nugan brother, Nugan Hand Investment Bankers, was the fastest growing finance house in Australia. Other growers and packers also enjoyed good though less spectacular returns from supplying the almost equidistant wholesale markets of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

The climate and location which contributed so greatly to Griffith’s success as a market garden centre also made it a likely area for marijuana plantations. The first hints of the area’s new business appeared in the mid-1970s when a small circle of Calabresi farmers began showing an undue prosperity.


The first corroboration of local suspicions came in early 1974 when police discovered two marijuana plantations in the Griffith area, among the first in the State. Acting on information received in February 1974, police raided two farms, each with about five hectares of marijuana under cultivation and arrested the proprietors, Rocco Barbaro and Guiseppe Scarfo. Presented to the courts as ‘poor, hard-working farmers’, Barbaro and Scarfo were convicted and given prison sentences, reduced on the grounds of first offence to fines of only $500 and $250.

Later investigations by the N.S.W. Drugs Royal Commission in 1978 discovered that neither Barbaro nor Scarfo were the innocent, individual operators they had made themselves out to be. Both were related by marriage to the wealthy Griffith winery proprietor Antonio Sergi, a Calabrese who had migrated to Australia in 1952 and had seven sisters married to local Calabresi. As the Royal Commission’s counsel Mr William Fisher, QC would later demonstrate, both accused were members of the ‘very few families’ involved in the marijuana trade, all of whom shared Calabrian origins and family ties through blood or marriage to Antonio Sergi. The Drugs Royal Commission also discovered evidence indicating that marijuana growing in the Griffith district had begun in 1972-3 and had expanded rapidly from seeds produced at these early plantations.

Not long after the court handed down its sentences in the Scarfo and Barbaro cases, an ‘incensed’ Griffith housewife, Mrs Barbara Mackay, wrote to the N.S.W. Attorney-General complaining of the obvious inequality of their treatment in comparison to the gaol sentences and fines of $900, $600 and $300 another court had simultaneously imposed on local youths for the lesser offence of marijuana smoking. When the Attorney General responded in a ‘waffly’ manner, Mrs Mackay wrote an angry letter to the local newspaper Area News in February 1975:

Exactly a year ago a crop of marijuana worth a quarter of a million dollars was discovered growing, carefully concealed, on a farm at Tharbogang, near Griffith.

Fines imposed on the two grocers were $250 and $500 respectively. Gaol sentences were suspended on the grounds that they had ‘previously unblemished records’.

Last Friday, the Griffith Area News reported a Leeton trial where youths received gaol sentences and fines of $900, $600 and $300 for smoking the end product of the growers. The contrast between these two judgements is alarming.

Although Mrs Mackay retired from the debate, her husband, local Liberal Party leader Donald Bruce Mackay, picked up the issue and mounted a well-publicized anti-marijuana campaign. A number of interested citizens approached him to lend their support, and in October 1975 he received an anonymous letter describing a cannabis crop at Coleambally 62 kilometres south of Griffith. Flying to Sydney, Mackay approached the Police Drug Squad and urged an investigation. Police took no action and in November Mackay received a second letter with even greater detail. Again, he contacted the Drug Squad.

Arriving from Sydney, officers of the Drug Squad raided the Stevenson property at Coleambally on 10 November. As the four-man police party under Senior Constable Ronald Jenkins approached the property, six or seven men fled into the bush. After a search police arrested a Calabrian named Guiseppe Agresta, and he finally led the officers to 32 hectares of cannabis. Subsequent investigations resulted in the arrests of five Calabrians, including Francesco Sergi, a brother-in-law of Antonio Sergi.

Rather than congratulating himself for his role in the raid and dropping the issue as most men would have done, Donald Mackay kept ‘stirring’ the cannabis question through petition, private conversation and public address. As the local Liberal Party chairman and frequent parliamentary candidate, Mackay mixed his anti-cannabis campaign with local partisan politics. If marijuana growing was primarily a moral issue and secondarily a political one, there was also a subtle undercurrent of ethnic conflict between native and new Australians running through the whole of the Griffith affair. Mackay was both a leader of the Liberal Party and a direct descendant of one of Griffith’s early settlers, while the real and imagined marijuana growers were recent Calabrian migrants and devoted Labor Party supporters.

Griffith has a long and not too-distant history of ethnic hostility and discrimination. Designated ‘enemy aliens’ during World War II, Griffith Italians were ‘terrified to go into town’ in the immediate postwar years since crowds of returned Australian servicemen greeted them with shouts of ‘bloody dagoes’ or ‘spags’.Responding to pressure from returned servicemen who were concerned about the area’s rapid rate of ‘Italianization’, in 1947 the Full Court of New South Wales affirmed the right of the State Irrigation Commission to bar farm transfers to ‘persons of Italian origin whether they were naturalized or not’.

Ethnic barriers in agriculture were soon removed, but social segregation survived. The area’s ‘most prestigious’ social club, The Jondaryan, founded in 1928 by a hundred wealthy Australian property owners, barred all Italians until 1959 and in the early 1970s still had only thirty-eight Italians and only one Calabrese among its 700 members.

By the 1960s the ‘overt animosity’ between new and native Australians had faded. Instrumental in the betterment of community relations was Albert J. Grassby, a flamboyant native Australian of Spanish-Irish descent who settled in Griffith in 1950. Elected to State Parliament in 1965 on a Labor Party ticket in a strong Country Party district, Grassby capitalized on his personal popularity among the Calabresi to win a federal seat in 1969 and become Minister for Immigration in 1972. Popular among the migrants for his anti-racialist migration policies, Grassby was the object of a racial-hate campaign by several non-local ‘White Australia’ groups. Suffering as well from Labor’s unpopular agricultural policies, Grassby lost his seat to an unknown Country Party candidate in a bitterly contested federal election in May 1974.

While almost everyone in Griffith was surprised by Grassby’s defeat, the Calabresi took it as a personal affront. According to one observer, ‘most Calabresi were besides themselves with grief and flooded Grassby’s house with ‘a constant stream of flowers, wines, cakes and fruit’. Among the obvious targets of blame was Donald Mackay, the defeated Liberal Party contender. According to a statement Mrs Mackay later made to police, her husband ‘received phone threats from a foreign male that the shop would be bombed and in June 1974, a letter from a person signed “A Fuore”, an illiterate Italian, threatening to get back at Don, was published by the Area News. I was told that it was typed on Al Grassby’s typewriter by the editor of the paper.’ That Mrs Mackay should attach any significance to such an unverified claim was but one more indication of the ethnic tensions that divided the town.

Donald Mackay continued to play an active role in the local Liberal Party. In the context of the Riverina’s strained ethnic relations, the combination of Mackay’s candidacies with his anti-cannabis campaign acquired racial overtones. Mackay was an archetype of the area’s original Australian settlers. Born at Griffith in 1933 where his father and grandfather owned a furniture store, Mackay was educated at Sydney’s Barker College and returned home in 1955 to join his brother in managing the family business. During the 1960s he took an active role in the Apex service society, the Jondaryan social club, and the Methodist Church, all largely non-Italian organizations. Although he inherited the family furniture company and was a successful businessman, Mackay lived in a modest $85,000 middle-class dwelling, in marked contrast to the lavish ‘grass castles’ erected by the alleged Calabrian cannabis growers. Mackay moved into politics and anti-drug campaigning almost simultaneously, a volatile combination in Griffith.

Although Mackay concealed his work as police informant, there is a possibility that his role was inadvertently revealed to the five accused during their trial at Griffith District Court in March 1977. At one point the judge, over police protest, ordered that all relevant official documents about the raid be handed to the defence, and police notebooks indicating Mackay’s role were shown to the accused. The court found four out of the five defendants guilty and awarded them sentences ranging from two to five years’ imprisonment. The alleged manager of the operation, Francesco Sergi, was found not guilty, but the Attorney-General reserved the right to bill new charges against him.

On 5 March 1977, the day before the Coleambally plantation trial was got underway, N.S.W. police raided yet another marijuana farm located at Willra Station near Euston, 300 kilometres due west of Griffith and arrested four Calabrians linked to ‘the same people’ involved in managing the Coleambally crop. Although Mackay was in no way involved in the Euston raid, there was a burst of newspaper publicity linking his name to the latest seizure.

Angered by Francesco Sergi’s let-off in the Coleambally case on what he considered minor technical grounds, Don Mackay launched a petition to demand a strengthening of the State’s drug laws. Signed by 2,000 Riverina residents and presented to Premier Wran in May 1977, the petition called for laws to make cannabis cultivation a major felony, to raise minimum drug sentences from two to ten years and the posting of a permanent Drug Squad detachment in the Riverina district. In addition to personal canvassing, Mackay spoke on local radio station 2RG and was written up in a lead article on the petition appearing in a 7 June edition of Area News. Accepting Liberal Party pre-selection for candidacy in the Murrumbidgee electorate, he continued his anti-cannabis crusade and on 15 July, the day of his disappearance, spoke again on the radio charging that children were being recruited to harvest the local marijuana crop.

About a week before Mackay’s disappearance there occurred a minor incident which took on a rather sinister significance in light of later events. Some time during business hours on 6 or 7 July a caller who identified himself as Mr Adams rang Mackay at his store, explained that he had just won the lottery and said he wanted to buy his daughter a house full of furniture. He arranged to meet Mackay outside the Flag Inn motel at Jerilderie, 126 kilometres south, at 10.30 a.m. on 12 July. Unable to make the trip, Mackay sent his sales assistant, a man of markedly different appearance. When he arrived there nobody was waiting. Police later entertained suspicions that the caller was not a furniture buyer but a hired killer. Police were able to account for everyone in Jerilderie that morning except an unidentified forty-year-old male of ‘medium build, dark collar-length hair, olive complexion, dark moustache . . driving a late model white-coloured sedan’.

Three days later, on 15 July, Donald Mackay ‘disappeared’ under circumstances which would seem to indicate that he was murdered. During a normal working Friday, Mackay lunched with his wife who reminded him to be home at 7 and quit work at 5.30 p.m. Arriving at the Griffith Hotel at 5.45 p.m., he parked the firm’s Morris mini-van, clearly marked with the family name, in the car park and joined his senior salesman at the public bar for a beer. For the next forty-five minutes Mackay drank at the bar appearing ‘jovial and in good spirits’, discussing the non-prosecution of Francesco Sergi. One friend said to him, ‘Get right up those marijuana bastards, Don’, and he answered: ‘There’s only one I’m after’.

At about 6.30 p.m. Mackay purchased a cask of wine in the bottle shop, and stepped out into the now darkened car park. Two ‘strangers’ were parked in a white Holden opposite Mackay’s van. An accountant working in his offices adjacent heard ‘a human noise, similar to someone being sick or vomiting and similar to a groan’, and then three noises like the ‘cracking of a whip’. A short time later a motorist driving into Griffith noticed a white EJ Holden speeding out of town along Hillston Road at 110 to 120 kilometres per hour.

By 7.15 p.m. Mrs Mackay had become concerned and called the Jondaryan Club where her husband usually drank, but was told that he was not there. At 9.50 p.m. she called a friend who drove around town for several hours until he found Mackay’s van parked in the Griffith Hotel car park at 1.30 a.m. Noting blood stains, the friend drove to the police station to report the finding. Arriving on the scene at 5.30 a.m. police from the Scientific Investigation Section at Wagga Wagga found three .22 calibre ICI cartridge cases, some drag or scuff marks, and a number of blood stains of Mackay’s blood type, several containing some of his head hairs sheared off by the passage of a bullet.

But there was no body. For a week police directed an intense search of likely dumping grounds. And there were some untidy aspects of the case as well: one witness claimed to have seen Mackay’s van after the time of the shooting, there were reports that his key was later used to open the Liberal Party postal box and rumours that his marriage was troubled or he was depressed by the failure of the anti-marijuana campaign. After nearly a year of work on the case, Detective Sergeant Frederick Parrington of the Special Breaking Squad told the Drugs Royal Commission that ‘there must be a strong presumption he is dead, not because of available evidence but because he has never been seen since’.


from Drug Traffic by Alfred McCoy