Two alleged international drug smugglers were involved in a plot to import half a tonne of cocaine into Australia before the light plane spectacularly crashed in Papua New Guinea, police say.
But the pair claimed in the Victorian Supreme Court on Friday that there was no proof of their crimes.
Salvatore Formica, 33, and Pierino Forni, 61, were arrested in Melbourne after a special investigation from Australian Federal Police that had been tracking key drug importation players for over a year-and-a-half.
Five people have been arrested, and it is expected more arrests could follow.
The private aircraft crashed in Papua New Guinea on July 26 allegedly because it had been overloaded with $80 million worth of cocaine.
The cocaine allegedly made its way to Papua New Guinea from Peru on boats and was on its way to Northern Queensland before the journey came to a sudden crashing halt.
The accused pilot, David John Cutmore, 52, an Australian, turned himself into authorities in Papua New Guinea in July after the crash – he had previously been jailed in 1995 for smuggling native birds.
He was secretly recorded talking about the men’s involvement in the high-stakes drug plan, police claim.
Mr Formica is accused of organising an import of 300 kilograms of cocaine in 2018 using an undetectable “black flight” as well as the doomed July 2020 mission that ended in the dramatic crash.
The 33-year-old is alleged to have fitted out a plane for cocaine importation – removing seats to make room for the drugs – as well as loading and unloading it before and after flights.
Mr Forni is charged in relation to the 2020 failed importation and is also accused of money laundering.
The 61-year-old allegedly deposited money gained from the drug trade into legitimate companies, including the Australian Cricket Bat Company.
But his lawyer Ian Hill QC, when seeking bail on Friday, said police may “have a belief” his client imported drugs and laundered money, but they “had no proof of that belief”.
He said it appeared his client had arranged flights but there was no evidence he was “aware” the flights were for the purposes of importing massive amounts of cocaine.
The “elderly” Mr Forni needed to provide “financial and emotional” support to his wife and child after the couple had a baby via IVF when he was aged 59, Mr Hill said.
Mr Formica’s lawyer Robert Richter QC said there was a “fundamental flaw” in the case against Mr Formica, “namely proof” that he had imported drugs.
Rather, the case had been “pieced together” from a complex web of flight and car rental records, phone data, recorded conversations, money transfers and other evidence and was a “weak” case, he said.
He argued his client needed to look after his wife and baby after she gave birth in August.
Mr Formica is charged with importing a commercial quantity of a drug and conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of a drug.
Mr Forni is charged with conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of drugs and dealing with the proceeds of a crime over $1 million.
The hearing continues.