This is the third installment of a series where I’ll examine cannabis cultivation in the Northern Territory of Australia from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. Most of the accounts of crops are based upon recorded ‘busts’ of plantations by police and I welcome any information—either about crops the subject of these articles or others—that weren’t detected by police, the subject of media accounts or that proceeded to prosecution in the Courts.
Part One – Mount Isa, Sydney and Wollogorang
Brian Cuddihy’s previous service as a Queensland Police officer had given him a nose for the distinctive “musty, lavender” smell of cannabis, so it was no surprise that his sense of smell was triggered when Neil Trcin walked into the TAA terminal in Mount Isa in far north-western Queensland on the morning of December 6th 1977 with three rather smelly ex-Army ammunition boxes to accompany him to Sydney as excess baggage on the afternoon flight.
Cuddihy’s curiosity about the distinctive smell coming from the boxes led him to report his suspicions to his manager who contacted local Police. Trcin was subsequently arrested when he returned that afternoon to catch his flight to Sydney.
The three ammunition boxes, which contained 140 lbs of cannabis, were consigned to a company called Cooktown Industries in the Sydney suburb of Mosman, a company in which the “prominent Sydney businessman” Bela Csidei had an interest. The Sydney number that Trcin gave TAA as a contact to call when the boxes arrived was Bela Csidei’s home phone.
Two days later a combined task force of Queensland and Northern Territory police raided Wollogorang Station on the NT/Queensland border, busting the largest cannabis plantation in the NT to date.
Following his migration to Australia in the early 1950s, Bela Csidei led a largely uncontroversial life until the early 1970s, when he fell in with a group of fellow Jewish Hungarian emigres—many of whom would be far more successful, and more controversial, than Csidei—that included transport magnate Sir Peter Abeles, property developer Sir Paul Strasser and perhaps a dozen or so others not so well-known.
Most unfortunately for Csidei, the Hungarian emigre milieu also included Alexander and Thomas Barton, with whom he would soon establish a business relationship that would in a few years cause Csidei substantial financial and legal grief. This clique of Hungarian emigres was sometimes referred to—erroneously in the strictest sense—as the “Hungarian Mafia”.
Csidei thought he’d pulled off the business deal of his life in 1972 when, without the advice of lawyers or accountants, he acquired substantial parts of the dubious Barton corporate and property holdings that included Wollogorang Station and the Redbank mine.
In his 1986 book Disorganised Crime, journalist Richard Hall provides the following account of a conversation between Csidei and Sir Peter Abeles—who had been somewhat of a mentor to Csidei and had introduced him the Bartons—after he’d sealed the deal with them.
Csidei: Buy me a drink, you can congratulate me – I own the mine and the companies.
Abeles: What do you mean you own the mine and the companies?
Csidei: I signed all the contracts.
Abeles: What contracts did you sign?
Csidei: I don’t know…
Abeles: Bela, how do you think you’ll come out of this?
Csidei: I arranged to buy it without money. I think Redbank, a copper mine, is so valuable that my companies together will build the greatest company…
Abeles: Son, you’re unbelievable.
Csidei: I am your stupid son.
What spurred Csidei’s interest in the Northern Territory—and the NT formed only a small part of the operations he bought ‘without money’ from the Bartons—is unclear, but around the same time he acquired his interest in Wollogorang Station, Csidei expressed interest in Kurundi Station south of Tennant Creek and Goodparla Station (now part of Kakadu National Park) in the Top End.
By late 1976 Csidei was in real financial and legal trouble, with debtors—including the Bartons—and corporate regulators on his tail. Around this time, while on one of his occasional trips to Sydney, Harald Paech, manager of Csidei’s Wollogorang Station, suggested—half-heartedly and after a few too many drinks—that Csidei might investigate the possibility of growing a cannabis crop to raise some cash.
Csidei thought such a scheme could raise some ready and much needed cash and through his Hungarian emigre connections met with west coast mafia—the real mafia—hitman and operator Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno during trips to San Francisco in 1976 and 1977. He also acquired a substantial additional debt to Fratianno for several thousand Tibetan cannabis seeds that Csidei later said would “blow your head off with two puffs.”
In the early 1970s, Wollogorang Station—which had a chequered history dating back to the first cattle drives into the Northern Territory out of western Queensland in the 1860s—was suffering from the same long-term depressed market for cattle as the rest of the northern cattle market. Wollogorang Station was no showcase property and there is no evidence that Csidei, surely the least likely pastoralist the NT had seen for a long time, did anything to turn it around in the few years that he owned it.
The Redbank copper mine was also a dud with a solid reputation as a prime producer only of toxic waste and has been described more recently as a “severe example of extreme pollution caused by acid mine drainage and is a clear case of regulatory failure and industry inaction”.
Csidei’s own view of his life was set out in his 2006 book, The Accidental Gangster as ghost written by Norm Lipson and Adam Walters. The publisher’s puffery for the book paints Csidei as a quixotic character fallen on hard times no fault of his own:
From his survival of war-torn Europe to two contracts on his life, Bela emerges as a genuinely colourful character and an optimistic, loveable rogue. In spite of multi-million dollar business deals gone wrong, a drug bust, a stint as a diplomat and an espionage agent for foreign governments, an explorer for minerals, a banker, a womaniser, a shark hunter and a Mafia conduit for Australian big business, Bela has lived to spin a great yarn.
Others had different views of Csidei’s abilities, including this characterisation of Csidei and his ilk by Richard Hall in Disorganised Crime:
A failed wheeler dealer … [t]here is a word in Yiddish for the Csidei’s of this world, those hanging around the edges of big deals, buying the duds and going broke: a “nebbich”, a loser.
There is more—much more—that could be said of Csidei’s failures in business and life but for present purposes, the most damning assessment of Csidei’s character—and competence as a criminal—came from Justice William Forster, Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory.
In late September 1978, sentencing him for conspiracy to produce cannabis at Wollogorang Station, Justice Forster told Csidei that:
If you are a criminal mastermind, you must be the most inept one in history.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Notwithstanding Csidei’s failings as a businessman, the companies and assets he acquired from the Bartons were no prize, and in October 1977—two months before Trcin was busted at Mount Isa with 140lbs of Wollogorang Station cannabis—Csidei was the subject of bankruptcy proceedings, owing more than $2 million in debts and with assets of two dollars. A long way to fall for a man with a harbourside house in Neutral Bay and, for a while at least, a Lamborghini in the garage.
The “blow your head off” cannabis was a last gasp chance for Csidei to turn some much needed cash. In early 1977 he instructed his manager at Wollogorang Station, Harald Paech, to put in a crop using the seeds provided at no small cost by Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno in San Francisco.
The first crop was an unmitigated failure—unsurprisingly as Paech had no prior experience with growing cannabis which—while it is generally an easy crop to grow does require some basic husbandry—and Csidei fell back on his Hungarian milieu to provide some contacts with better experience growing commercial crops of cannabis.
Soon Daniel Drake and Neil Trcin were at Wollogorang and a new crop—at a more suitable location with better soil and water at Redbank Creek—was established in early September 1977, largely under Drake’s supervision. Both Drake and Trcin had experience in cannabis cultivation elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, the second crop was more successful than the first and, prompted by Csidei’s increasingly strident demands for product that he could sell to raise cash, by late November sufficient cannabis had been picked and processed to be sent to Sydney.
The cannabis was packed into the metal ammunition boxes and Trcin drove to Mount Isa to take them to Sydney for delivery to Csidei.
What happened next—the Police investigations across two States and the Northern Territory, the numerous court hearings, contempt proceedings against the editor of the NT News, and the dramatic allegations of NT Police corruption— and more, will be the subject of the next part of this chapter.