This in-depth article covers the investigation, sea chase and court phases of Operation Sorbet, including the controversial acquittal of the ship’s senior crew members in early 2006. This article could not have been written without the assistance of several personnel from the various police services involved. A very special thanks goes to the AFP’s case officer, Federal Agent Celeste Johnston.
HEROIN, MOTHER NATURE AND FATE
On a cold autumn night in 2003 a small grey rubber inflatable dinghy was lowered from a 4,000 tonne freighter into heaving seas just off Victoria’s southern coastline. In the dinghy were two Asian men who had earlier loaded 150kgs of tightly packed blocks of heroin into the small craft. The heroin blocks were bundled into six elongated packages weighing around 25kgs each and were individually waterproofed by blue tarp like plastic coverings. Upon touching water the dinghy immediately began to be thrown about in a choppy swell that was powerful enough to toss the much larger freighter around. Despite the danger, the dinghy’s crew nevertheless commenced their journey to the secluded shoreline which was practically invisible to them even though it was less than 300 metres away.
Sailing in a stretch of water known as the ‘shipwreck coast’, it was perhaps inevitable that the two inexperienced mariners soon found themselves in trouble. Within minutes the dinghy’s outboard motor suffered catastrophic failure because the two men neglected to loosen the motor’s valve. Leaving the valve securely fastened prevented air from being drawn into the motor and created a vacuum that destroyed the machine’s ability to operate. Without power and in hostile sea conditions, the two men scrambled for paddles in their attempt to make it ashore. This came to a dramatic conclusion as the dinghy was tossed into the air and capsized by the rough seas. Thrown into the ocean were most of the dinghy’s contents, including its two hapless crew and much of their illegal cargo.
One of the men, Ta Song Wong, upon staggering ashore, despite suffering shock and exhaustion, quickly retrieved the drugs and dinghy. More urgently, he had to rescue his accomplice who was now lying motionless in the surf. Upon reaching him Wong saw that his partner in crime had a gash on his head and was apparently dead. It seemed that when thrown from the dinghy the male had been knocked unconscious on rocks and then drowned. A carefully prepared criminal act had gone awry because of old Mother Nature.
The survivor, Wong, was met on shore by a party of agitated and shocked co-conspirators who took the heroin and scrambled into their nearby cars before speeding away into the night. Left behind to fend for himself, the almost drowned Wong was without a passport and unable to speak English. The smuggler was totally unprepared for this eventuality and hid in the scrub overlooking both the beach and its adjoining road.
Around 36-hours after coming ashore Wong was captured by police. The shore party that met Wong were arrested by Australian Federal Police (AFP) agents within 12-hours. Meanwhile the freighter that carried the heroin and the couriers to Australia would also try to flee from police, but would be caught after five days of dramatic pursuit involving police from four jurisdictions as well as personnel from Customs and the Australian Defence Force (the latter utilising helicopters, special-forces and a guided-missile frigate).
Although it is not known for sure when the idea for the importation was first conceived, it is believed an Asian transnational criminal syndicate with worldwide contacts commenced detailed planning in 2002. Certainly the group was well enough connected to facilitate a dramatic prison breakout for one of its own in Denmark. In November 2000, Wee Quay Tan (born 20 June 1968 somewhere in the ‘Golden Triangle’ region of Asia) was arrested at Copenhagen’s international airport with 5kgs of heroin. Some of the drugs were detected strapped to Tan’s body and the rest was secreted in his luggage.
Tan’s escape from prison reads like a Hollywood movie script – in 2001 he and his cell mate blasted a hole through their cell’s wall and then used five bed-sheets to lower themselves to an adjoining roof in order to scarper over the prison’s fence. Finding safety by hiding in Germany, Tan eventually made it to Singapore where he later claimed he was shot over a dispute with other criminal figures. He also stole a passport and assumed the name of its owner, Chin Kwang Lee. As Tan was processed in the Australian judicial system under his alias Lee, that name will be used in this account.
Lee’s criminal syndicate was definitely powerful enough, or at least had sufficient connections, to recruit the North Korean government owned firm Pongsu Shipping Company for its 2003 Australian importation venture. The question to this day is how much did the company (and its government) know about its role in the importation. Certainly, when the AFP prepared a brief of evidence for court in 2004 a number of experts onNorth Korea proffered their view that the involvement was deliberate collaboration.
To these experts it did not seem logical that the company was innocent as the North Korean society is highly centralised and deeply suspicious and a merchant ship could not have been allowed to sail so far from home without at least someone in government knowing about the voyage’s purpose. The Washington Post newspaper would later report the North Korean regime has been involved in drug smuggling for many years,* the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said that the government of North Korea “thrives on criminality”.† The North Korean government angrily denied these accusations but what is clear is that in April 2003 one of its ships was at the centre of a major drug importation.
MOTOR VESSEL (MV) PONG SU
The 106.4 metre long, 4,015 tonne twin mast freighter Pong Su was built in Japan’s Shin Kurushima dockyards in 1980 and spent 18-years operating for various companies registered in Panama, Liberia, Greece, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Capable of carrying over 8,000 cubic metres of grain the ship (then somewhat ironically called the ‘Treasure Road’) was sold to the Pongsu Shipping Company on 2 August 1998. The new owners not only changed the ship’s name but in 2003 the vessel received secret modifications of a type banned by an international safety convention, to which North Korea was a signatory. The ship’s ballast tanks were modified to connect to the main fuel tanks, enabling them to be filled with either ballast water or fuel. With the ballast tanks capable of holding 836 tonnes of fuel, the Pong Su became capable of travelling 48,000kms or 100 days without the need to refuel.
On Tuesday 25 February 2003 the Pong Su sailed from the main North Korean port of Namp’o with its routine compliment of 30 crew, commencing a supposedly standard series of routine trips within the Yellow Sea area. The ship sailed west to China and spent short periods of time in the ports of Tianjin, Xingang and Yantai. At the latter location the ship took on a cargo of 5,100 tonnes of felspar‡ and left the port advising Chinese authorities that it was returning to Namp’o. Instead of reaching Namp’o’s main port though the ship diverted to a nearby location called Ja Mae Do, arriving there on Saturday 15 March 2003 for a stay of only a few hours. Australian prosecutors later alleged in court that it was at Ja Mae Do where 150kgs of heroin and two deliverymen boarded the Pong Su for its voyage to the southern hemisphere.
Setting off that same day, the Pong Su sailed south stopping at Singapore on Tuesday 25 March to take on an unusually large amount of fuel for a routine trip (around 450 metric tonnes). The ship left Singapore and arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia on Friday, 28 March, to unload its felspar cargo. Despite records being provided to authorities by the vessel’s shipping agent that the Pong Su’s next stop was Singapore, members of the crew told Indonesian health officials that they were heading south to Melbourne.
After leaving port on Tuesday 1 April, the ship (with no lawful cargo and now 32 ‘crew’ listed on shipping documents) sailed towards Australia’s west coast with sufficient fuel on board to avoid the need to refuel until it returned to Asia.
THE SHORE PARTY ARRIVES
On Thursday, 27 March, (the day before the Pong Su docked in Jakarta) two Malaysian men using the names Yau Kim Lam (born 28 May 1970) and Kiam Fah Teng (born 1 January 1958), flew into Sydney from Beijing China. The two stayed in Sydney for only a short time before travelling to Melbourne and checking into the Crown Casino’s hotel. Lam and Teng immediately took an interest in the coastal areas southwest of Melbourne, particularly around the southern city of Geelong (about 75kms away). Taking taxis in and around Geelong, the two made inquiries about hiring short-term accommodation in mid-April and inspected several areas of note, including the port and piers within Port Phillip Bay and remote beaches further south, along the Great Ocean Road. On their third trip to Geelong (Monday 31 March) Lam and Teng hired a Tarago van. When signing for the car the two (who spoke minimal English) sought a map and advice on nearby coastal areas.
Afterwards they visited a local camera shop and purchased a pair of binoculars, a digital camera and memory stick, paying by cash. Over the following week the two men based themselves in Geelong, spending a good deal of time each day driving along parts of the coast, particularly the remoter locations to the south of the seaside town of Lorne (about 70kms south of Geelong).
On one of their occasional visits back to Melbourne, on Sunday 13 April, Teng strolled into Melbourne’s centre. At a café in Elizabeth Street Teng met Chin Kwang Lee for coffee and a convivial chat, before the two caught a tram to the casino. The two knew each other as they had spoken often by mobile phone. This was Lee’s fifth day in Australia, having flown to Melbourne from Singapore on Wednesday 9 April. Teng and Lee spent a fair bit of time gambling (as seemed to be their habit) at the hotel casino, while Lam mostly remained in his hotel room.
Around 10:20am the following day (Monday,14 April) Lee and Teng checked out of the hotel and drove off in the Tarago. After shopping in town the two drove to Geelong. During the hour-long drive the 34-year-old Lee voiced his concerns that the 32-year-old Lam was an eccentric person, difficult to get along with. The 45-year-old Teng was instead worried that they might be under police surveillance. Lee reassured him that if there had been any suspicions on the part of law enforcement then they would not have been allowed into Australia. In Lee’s view only America’s FBI had the power to investigate international drug dealing. Despite this Lee suggested caution in using mobile phones and that having multiple mobile phone sim cards was the preferred way to ensure anonymity. Lee was certain that it was okay to talk in the car. He couldn’t have been more wrong!
By this time the AFP had commenced a major investigation into the actions of the three men, coordinated from its Melbourne office. Intelligence had been gathered that an Asian drug syndicate had sent an advance party to Australia to facilitate a large heroin shipment by boat. By Monday 14 April AFP federal agents had installed listening devices in the Tarago. A significant challenge for police was the fact that the offenders spoke mostly in Mandarin (sometimes using a Fukkien dialect) and it took time for reliable translations to be made. In many instances it was not until after the arrests that key pieces of information became known.
While in the Tarago travelling to Geelong on 14 April Lee and Teng reaffirmed their plan that Teng and Lam would hold onto the heroin until they contacted a dealer, who would take it from them to distribute.
Speaking in code, the two talked about the heroin as Teng’s ‘girlfriend’ and that each bag of the ‘girlfriend’ was able to be carried by one person. Teng also spoke in some detail about the difficulties he and Lam had surveying the intended target area on the coast and how, when approached for directions, helpful Australians indicated that the two ‘tourists’ should take public transport rather than drive around by themselves.
Teng was worried that these coastal areas may be too much of a tourist location. Later in the trip Lee turned the conversation towards a more sinister issue, hinting to Teng that unpleasant work may be required should Lam want to back out. Lee focussed on the issue of cleaning up a mess if someone dies, and the importance of the three working together as a team. The two arrived at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Lorne about 7:46pm and spent an hour having dinner at the establishment’s restaurant. Afterwards they were seen by AFP surveillance operatives driving along the Great Ocean Road towards Apollo Bay and the small township of Wye River. After a while the vehicle turned around and drove not to Lorne, but to Geelong to stay overnight.
LAST MINUTE PREPARATIONS
Around 11:23am the next day (Tuesday 15 April) Teng and Lee were observed in a Geelong real estate agents office. While at the premises the two were seen to receive three short phone calls. After midday the two inspected local Geelong locations such as Cunningham Pier. In between the increasing number of phone calls they either made or received, the two discussed with each other counter surveillance measures and how they could quickly contact each other if things went wrong at the delivery site.
Three things were becoming evident to investigators; firstly Lee was planning to have a hands-off role in relation to the unloading and the secreting of the drugs into the vehicles. Secondly, the three conspirators were not necessarily united or at least could not fully trust each other; at least one of them appeared comfortable with using violence against the others if necessary. The third and most serious development was that the delivery appeared imminent although the exact location and timings were unknown to investigators. Also unknown to police was that Lam was in the process of organising airline tickets for him and Teng to fly to Beijing at 8:30am the following day (Wednesday 16 April).
Lee and Teng discussed at length final preparations. Lee in particular was heard giving extensive (even rambling) advice to his partner in crime; be alert, people cannot be trusted in this enterprise and if people are late then that is normally bad news. Later in the conversation Lee was heard specifically mentioning a speedboat stopping somewhere along the coast. The two drove back to Melbourne and met up with Lam, who subsequently hired a blue four-door Ford Focus hatchback for two nights.
By this time a considerable number of federal police officers and support staff from across the nation were preparing to take action. In addition to the surveillance operatives shadowing the targets, investigators set up a forward command post in Geelong. Major Incident Command Centres were activated in the AFP’s Melbourne and Canberra offices. Heavily armed tactical police from the AFP’s Special Response and Security Group (SRS) from Canberra were also assigned, as it was not known at the time if the suspects were armed. Certainly Lee had indicated he was prepared for a fight and he had previously used ingenuity and force to escape custody in Europe.
Investigators remained uncertain as to the exact location of the drop-off and the vessel that would bring the drugs ashore. Checks by Customs had failed to identify any registered ship in the area that presented the typical profile of a heightened risk of involvement in illicit enterprises. This was perplexing. The option of using marked police boats (either Victoria Police or Federal Police) was discarded on the basis that their presence in the waters off Geelong might scare away the offending vessel before it revealed itself. Victoria Police’s helicopters were called upon to conduct (relatively) discreet searches for large ships off shore. However, poor weather conditions made flying dangerous.
THE SHIP’S APPROACH
By late afternoon darkness had fallen and bad weather was settling in. Near the coastal area adjacent to the town of Apollo Bay several residents noticed an impressive sight – the freighter Pong Su about a kilometre from shore and slowly making its way along the coast. While bemused locals looked on at the slow-moving ship sailing alongside the treacherous coastline, the three suspects left the casino in Melbourne and headed south.
It was a tense period for the occupants of the Tarago; Teng was nervous that the vehicle might not be able to carry the drugs. While Lee was positive that it could, he was focussed on Lam and his motives. It appears that by this time relations between Lee and Lam had soured. Lam’s apparent refusal to regularly gamble with the other two did not impress Lee; his hiring a separate car and subsequent failure to answer a mobile phone call from Lee was disconcerting. It was clear to investigators that Lam was a senior player in this enterprise because Lee mentioned at one stage that the drugs would not be handed over unless Lam was present at the drop off. The failure to contact Lam by mobile added to Lee’s insecurity.
By 9pm the Tarago with Teng and Lee on board passed Lorne and came to a halt near a signpost for Boggaley Creek. It was a remote part of the coast consisting of narrow rocky beaches, mini-cliffs and steep hills covered by thick waist high scrub. The road itself was a single carriageway that predominately hugged the cliffs and hills overlooking the surf.
At Boggaley Creek the road straightened for a few hundred metres and there was sufficient space for a small informal parking area to enable people to traverse an improvised track to the shore below. The area was exposed to the chilly elements and because of its remoteness, posed a headache for surveillance operatives attempting to remain out of sight from the suspects. The only way to protect the integrity of the operation was for surveillance members to remain at a considerable distance from the targets and accept the risk that the suspects might do something out of sight.
At this time an AFP officer, over a kilometre away from Boggaley Creek, was able to see the Pong Suanchored just off shore in rough seas. The ship was flying a red ensign flag and swinging at anchor at the mercy of the winds and currents. The method of delivery had been deducted, as had the approximate location and the identity of the shore based ‘players’. The only question now was the exact time the drop was going to occur.
Any thoughts that the delivery would occur immediately were dashed when the Tarago suddenly started a trip back northeast. Through the listening device installed in the car, police heard Teng and Lee talk about hiring a room for the night, as well as reconfirming that there would be two people and 150kgs of heroin arriving. Just before 10pm the van arrived at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Lorne. Lee entered the hotel with two suitcases and checked in. Teng then drove alone for the 12km journey back to Boggaley Creek. He arrived at around 10:15pm and joined Lam who had just arrived in his car. Immediately prior to Teng’s arrival, federal agents posted nearby had heard the Ford’s horn sound and saw its brake lights being activated. The Pong Su was within eyesight of both Teng and Lam.
If federal agents near the site were feeling their adrenaline pumping in anticipation of ‘taking out’ the offenders, they again had to quickly temper their thoughts when the Tarago sped away and returned to the Grand Pacific Hotel around 10:48pm. Once there Teng sought out Lee. Lam had stayed next to the shoreline for a short while after Teng left, but he too drove away around 10:25pm. For investigators the uncertainty of exactly when the delivery would occur and being unable to maintain close surveillance because of the exposed terrain and lack of traffic on the road at that time of the night, were proving frustrating. It would get worse.
THE DROP OFF AND DEATH
No law enforcement officer witnessed the actual delivery of the heroin, or more to the point, the capsizing of the runabout, the death of one of the importers and the abandonment of the other one. Around midnight the Pong Su was seen to dim its lights for a while. It was clear to the investigators, from what could be discerned from electronic intercepts that frantic activity was occurring. A little after 12:14am on Wednesday 16 April, both Teng and Lee were seen by police to hurriedly leave the hotel and head to Boggaley Creek. The van performed some basic counter-surveillance measures before pulling up next to Lam’s car. It is around this time that investigators believe the drop off occurred and one of the importers in the dinghy died.
About 1am a listening device in the Tarago picked up the emotional conversations of Lam, Teng and Lee. They were talking to each other as well as making panicky overseas phone calls. Later translations revealed Lam frantically telling someone that there had been a death. Lee was heard questioning if a car in the distance was a police vehicle. Comments were also heard about loading drugs into the vehicles, before the two drove off a short time later.
By 1:22am Teng and Lee were back at the Grand Pacific Hotel. Lam on the other hand remained in the general area of Boggaley Creek for some time and he was seen driving back and forth slowly at around 40-50km/h, before finally driving towards the town of Colac. Later police deducted that it was at this time that Lam hid three large packages of heroin from the dinghy in thick scrub about 1.5kms away from the delivery point.
With early translations of the recorded conversations sketchy, a decision was made to see what was inside the Tarago while it was parked in the covered carpark at the hotel. An agent discretely walked past the van and saw two blue covered packages covered by netting laying in the back of the van. Each package was about one metre long, half a metre wide and just under-half a metre thick. Unable to maintain constant surveillance of the vehicle because of a lack of appropriate hiding places, police instead periodically walked past the van in order to confirm that the packages remained in place. At all times there was the real potential of Teng and Lee suddenly appearing from their nearby room but fortunately they slept for a couple of hours. At 6:55am they checked out of the hotel and hurried north in the van.
Waiting nearby for Lee and Teng were heavily armed SRS federal agents. At gunpoint the two were extracted from their van and arrested on the narrow Mountjoy Parade. A test conducted on the compressed powder blocks in the blue packages confirmed the substance to be heroin. Each of the two 25kg packages contained 72-blocks of heroin. Also seized from the vehicle were several mobile telephones and phone sim cards, travel documents and luggage belonging to Lee and Teng.
A search then commenced for Lam in the Ford Focus, who had by this time evaded (by chance) surveillance operatives. Messages were sent to all federal and state police vehicles between Lorne and Melbourne to look out for Lam’s car. By mid-morning the press had found out about the dramatic gunpoint arrest of Lee and Teng and the pressure was on as 100kgs of heroin was still unaccounted for.
Around 11:11am federal police surveillance located Lam parked in Geelong at the main Cunningham Pier. Parked next to Lam’s vehicle was a red BMW sedan and the occupants of the two cars seemed to be talking to each other. Around 11:35am the red car drove off and surveillance members were forced, without backup, to intercept it once it was out of Lam’s view. Lam himself was seen to briefly clean inside his car before driving off northwards. Within minutes the red BMW was stopped but it had to be ‘persuaded’ to do so, with minor damage being occasioned to both it and a federal police vehicle. About 1:50pm Lam was intercepted and arrested on the Princess Highway near Laverton.
The property seized from Lam and his vehicle included a mobile phone, several phone sim cards, a number of identification documents and numerous business cards, particularly a card purportedly belonging to a Malaysian company by the name of KIMTO. Another KIMTO business card (in the name of a John Thompson) would be later found in Lam’s hotel room when AFP agents executed a number of search warrants. Furthermore, the mobile phone in Lam’s possession was registered to a John Thompson. This would prove significant in later linking Lam to the importation. The one item police didn’t find was heroin (although subsequent forensic examination of the carpet in Lam’s car revealed imprints consistent with the shape and weight of the missing packages of heroin).
The driver of the red BMW was arrested and like Lam, Lee and Teng was conveyed (along with his car) to the AFP’s office in central Melbourne. Subsequent investigations cleared this man of any involvement.
BODY ON THE BEACH
Around 11am that day (Wednesday 16 April), while the majority of federal agents were hunting Lam, a small group commenced searching the beach area of Boggaley Creek. Only 50kgs of the 150kgs had been found and members were uncertain as to where the rest was. Within minutes they located the damaged grey inflatable dinghy, laying on the beach with the motor and other equipment left inside it. Hidden nearby under kelp were two life jackets. Other items of equipment were left strewn around the boat.
About 11:47am a dramatic development occurred – which is probably best recorded in a newspaper column printed in 2006:
‘Finding something hidden under seaweed and ferns on the beach, AFP Agent Stephen Meagher got Agent Doug Boudry to take video footage of him uncovering what he presumed would be the lost heroin. Agent Boudry was recorded shouting “holy s***!” when Agent Meagher pulled back seaweed and saw a body rather than the expected heroin.
A lighter moment in the seven month trial (in 2005/2006) was when Agent Boudry apologised for the expletive after the video was shown to the jury. Justice Murray Kellam immediately put the embarrassed agent’s mind at rest, “I wouldn’t worry about your language Mr Boudry, I thought it was pretty temperate in the circumstances”.’§
The body proved to be something of a surprise for the investigative team and immediately the Victoria Police Homicide Squad were called upon for assistance. Also sent to the site were members of the Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad as well as officers and helicopters from the Victoria Police Air Wing. Before day’s end an extensive joint agency search was underway at the beach for more evidence relating to the dead man and the importation.
Concurrent to all these happenings was the attempt to resolve a ‘small’ outstanding issue – catching the ship that brought the drugs to Australia!
For most of the morning the Pong Su remained anchored close to the beach and without cargo, it bobbed around like a cork on rough seas. At times the freighter was just 250 metres from shore, close enough that police could see figures on the bridge of the ship. An independent expert witness would later claim in court that the ship’s proximity to the coast was foolish and dangerous given the conditions and the risk that it could run aground. The abandoned Wong would later claim in court that the reason the freighter remained so close was that it had been tasked to pick him up when he returned in the dinghy. As morning drew on however the vessel powered up, raised its anchor and began to steam away. Staying close to shore the ship headed southwest towards Wye River before turning south into Bass Strait. In a short time the freighter was out of sight of federal agents on the shore. The Pong Su could now only be observed from a small plane hastily chartered by the AFP.
By mid-morning the ship’s name was known and urgent checks conducted by Customs revealed its history, owners and facts such as the freighter had never before visited Australia and it had just had its country of registration temporarily transferred from North Korea to the pacific nation of Tuvalu. The investigation immediately gained international political significance given the identity of the ship’s owners, the world’s last Stalinist regime.
High-level meetings were held in Canberra involving a range of policing, security, policy and diplomatic agencies. What investigators were certain of was that the ship had imported the heroin and that it was moving away from land. The degree of complicity of the Pong Su’s crew and the ship’s new destination were uncertain, as were the means by which authorities could quickly intercept and stop it. By late afternoon the Pong Su had passed the regular shipping lanes into Melbourne’s port and continued eastwards towards the Tasman Sea. The light plane that the AFP had chartered had by this time returned to land and was later replaced by a Customs surveillance aircraft. A police pursuit unprecedented in Australian policing history was underway.
The vessel obviously had to be intercepted at sea but there were few options immediately available. The sea conditions were worsening and predicted to become abysmal. No boat near Geelong or Lorne was large enough to carry a full SRS team nor fast enough to overtake the Pong Su. With nothing immediately available in Victoria, help came from Tasmania. Just after 10pm the Tasmania Police’s 23 metre launch Van Diemen put to sea from a marina at Beauty Point, in the state’s north. Built in 1995 and powered by two 1,100 horsepower engines, the Van Diemen is capable of sailing around 30 knots for up to 1,000 nautical miles. On board the vessel was its normal crew of four water police from Tasmania, along with two Federal Agents from the AFP’s Hobart Office, a Customs Officer and five members of the Tasmania Police Special Operations Group (SOG). With only a few hours’ notice, the 12 officers were as prepared as they could be for what would prove to be a highly eventful day of sailing.
FAILURE TO STOP
A couple of hours later the Van Diemen picked up the Pong Su on its radar, the fleeing ship was zigzagging well south of Bass Strait’s normal commercial shipping lanes. During the early hours of the morning in a heavy swell the Van Diemen closed on the freighter. Just before dawn broke on Thursday, 17 April, (day 2), at 5:45am, the freighter came into view of the police boat some six nautical miles away. Under the Customs Act 1901 the Van Diemen’s crew and passengers were empowered as Customs officials to demand the Pong Suto stop and head for the nearest port. The police were also allowed to board the Pong Su if need be, however a decision had been made by senior AFP command that this would not occur due to the potential dangers of the Van Diemen’s crew being outnumbered by the Pong Su’s crew of 30 and unknown weapons cache(s).
Around 6:30am the Van Diemen positioned itself about 200 – 300 metres behind the target vessel. For the first time police were about to directly hail the ship:
“Pong Su, Pong Su, Chinese vessel. This is Australian Police and Customs vessel. Do you copy?”
This opening greeting from a federal agent on the Van Diemen had to be repeated twice before a response was received. Upon being directed to take the freighter to Melbourne for inspection, the Pong Su’s radio operator indicated that it would not comply before the captain consulted his government. Another delaying tactic was the Pong Su’s argument that it did not have to heed any orders as it was in international waters (a blatantly wrong assertion). The situation quickly became one of contesting wills.
About 7am two men were seen walking on the deck of the Pong Su and one dropped two blue packages into the sea. The packages (plastic bags) remained afloat long enough for the Van Diemen to recover them. Inside the bags were nine pirated DVD’s. Two white shoebox size items were also thrown overboard but sank before the police boat got to them.
Throughout the day members on the Van Diemen took turns attempting to negotiate with the Pong Su’s radio operator. Little by little more details were ascertained from the operator such as the ship was “in ballast” (ie: without cargo) and that it had intended to go to Melbourne to collect cars but that the order was cancelled at the last moment. The ship’s destination was now Papua New Guinea so it could collect a load of timber. Advice conveyed to the ship by police that failing to stop or head to port constituted an offence under Australian law seemed to have no impact on the ship, until around 9:40am when the North Korean vessel advised that the captain was considering complying with a new order to go to Sydney (this had been given as Sydney was now regarded as a better port to dock at). Around 1pm the operator confirmed that the Captain was prepared to go to Sydney to allow a search of the vessel, but the ship slowed significantly from a slow speed of 5.8 knots to the decidedly pedestrian pace of 3 – 4 knots.
In anticipation of worsening weather, Coastwatch (the body coordinating the sea chase) ordered the Van Diemen to redirect the Pong Su to the southern NSW coastal town and port of Eden. For about 90 minutes the Pong Su indicated it would ignore that order and would instead now head for the Solomon Islands. Around 4pm however the ship suddenly picked up speed and began to steer towards the Eden area.
While the Van Diemen was pursuing the Pong Su, Victoria police officers at Boggaley Creek encountered a surprise. By early afternoon it was becoming apparent that any heroin left at the beach was either well hidden or possibly underwater. Translations of the frantic conversations between Teng, Lam and Lee the night before had indicated that some of the heroin was lost at sea. Investigators found in the abandoned dinghy a rope tied to something heavy in the ocean. Police divers were called for and the following day (Friday 18 April) they discovered that the weight was the runabout’s anchor.
Around 3:30pm on Thursday 17 April, with the afternoon sun beginning its relatively quick descent, Senior Constable Rebecca Caskey from the Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad was walking along one of the hills covered with short, spiky and wind resistant ground plants. Looking down she found some pieces of paper, a glove and a water bottle. This turned out to be an observation post. Senior Constable Caskey later told a reporter:
“It seemed strange at the time but every time I moved, there seemed to be something else moving. I at first thought it was a wombat or a kangaroo, or some sort of animal that I disturbed in its area. But it just seemed to be coincidental every time I moved it moved, and when I stopped moving it stopped moving.” ¶
Sensing the presence of a person, Senior Constable Caskey spoke to Sergeant Tim James. A former Special Operations Group member, Sergeant James crawled through the scrub, followed tracks and eventually body odour, and soon saw an Asian male shivering and hiding, overlooking the beach and the group of police searching it. Unarmed, Sergeant James crawled back to get reinforcements. The male was arrested around 5:20pm, as day gave way to night.
The arrested man was obviously tired, cold and somewhat in a daze. Wearing a dark beanie, lightweight brown pants, lightweight shirt, jacket and only one shoe, the male also had a green bag slung over his shoulder containing:
- a hand held GPS unit
- an orange coloured mobile phone with white rope attached to it,
- a spare phone battery
- three phone sim cards
- the binoculars purchased by Teng and Lam in Geelong,
- a torch,
- a ‘leatherman’ pocket knife/pliers combination
- paperwork from the Pongsu Shipping Company
- USD$1,000 in cash in a small snaplock plastic bag, and
- a small piece of black coloured rubber about 5cms wide.
Intriguingly, holding up the man’s pants was a piece of rubber like an inner tyre tube. Several pieces of this rubber had also been located by police in the abandoned dinghy and scattered nearby on the beach. The male could not speak English and had no identification papers on him. There had been unobstructed views of the beach and road from both the spot where he was arrested and the place Senior Constable Caskey had found earlier. Both locations were similarly well hidden from the beach and road. Despite being unsuited to survive in a foreign environment, the male had been switched on enough to set up two excellent observation points.
This dishevelled male was obviously involved in the importation; the question was, how and to what extent. AFP agents bundled the man into a car and later questioned him at the AFP’s Melbourne Headquarters. The male was identified as Ta Song Wong, born in China on 10 October 1965 to North Korean parents.
Victoria Police officers continued their beach search for the drugs and other property, immeasurably assisted by Wong’s GPS unit and its memory of its travels from the time it had been first activated in Australia. Using the GPS, police were able to locate a bundle of evidence either buried or discarded by Lam and others in the area, including a plastic bag containing mobile phone parts, paperwork mentioning the Pongsu company and passport type photos of Lam. Two cartons of cigarettes, a partially drunken bottle of vodka and a makeshift fern bed were also located at a second observation post. The memory from the GPS unit would prove invaluable not just for finding discarded evidence, but it would be a crucial part of the AFP’s brief of evidence against Teng, Lam and Lee (for they had used the GPS in their preparations before giving it to Wong).
About 6:30pm on Thursday 17 April (about an hour after Wong’s arrest) the Pong Su advised the Van Diementhat it was having engine problems. An hour later it slowed to a stop about 27 nautical miles off Cape Howe (the eastern most point of the NSW/Victorian border), less than 100kms or five hours sailing time from Eden. The North Korean vessel indicated that urgent repair work was required. Earlier the Pong Su had turned to head away from Australia, for a second time, but a low-level flyover by a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules seemed to play a part in convincing the ship’s captain to turn again towards Eden.
The Van Diemen pulled up just under a kilometre from the side of the Pong Su, however the police boat was in trouble as seasickness, lack of sleep and dehydration were taking their toll on all of the crew. Normally police boats would only put to sea in such weather conditions for life and death rescue missions and after almost a day of sailing the Van Diemen’s crew were rapidly becoming ineffective.
Coastwatch assessed the situation and ordered the Van Diemen to go to Eden so the boat’s occupants could receive medical treatment and rest. At the same time Coastwatch asked the NSW Police to assist and around 5:35pm the Eden-based police vessel Fearless put to sea. About 11:45pm the Van Diemen arrived at Eden, its crew were met by local authorities and ambulance personnel. Among the welcoming party were a group of seven federal agents from Melbourne, who had just flown in to set up a forward command post in anticipation of the Pong Su’s arrival.
By this time the four men arrested had been interviewed by federal police in Melbourne. Needing the services of an interpreter, Lam sought legal advice before speaking to police. Lam volunteered that he was a casino dealer who had worked in Thailand, Cambodia and Taiwan. He came to Australia to look at the casino market and had first met Teng in Beijing. After arriving in Sydney Lam said he stayed at the Star Casino for a few days before travelling by bus to Melbourne, where he ‘accidentally’ met Teng again. Lam admitted to hiring a blue Ford Focus but that he had only driven it around Melbourne. He then refused to answer any more questions. Despite being able to speak some English, Teng also called upon the services of an interpreter and spoke to a lawyer. He told police he was a businessman in charge of an unspecified company and was paid around USD$1,000 per month. Teng stated that he had come to Australia as a tourist, met Lee at the casino and was in Geelong visiting friends when he was arrested. Teng offered no comment to questions relating to the drugs in the Tarago, his visits to real estate agents and other questions seeking the level of his knowledge or involvement in the importation.
Lee did not need an interpreter and claimed that he was a sales executive for a diamond company who received his salary in cash. After befriending ‘Stanley’ (Teng) at the Crown casino the two decided to travel to Geelong. Lee had a person named ‘Chris’ book him an apartment in Geelong and on the way that reservation fell through. ‘Stanley’ (Teng) then indicated that there were better places to stay further down the coast and they rented a room at the ‘Pan Pacific’ (Grand Pacific Hotel). Lee then claimed that he slept most of the night while ‘Stanley’ (Teng) left the room periodically for unknown reasons. Lee told police that he didn’t go to Boggaley Creek and he denied making a number of phone calls that police knew he had made. Another lie was the suspect claiming not to have known the exact reason why ‘Stanley’ (Teng) went on the trip apart from having to tend to general business. Lee denied knowledge of heroin being in the van. Teng and Lam unsuccessfully sought bail on 16 April, all three were remanded in the Melbourne Custody Centre late in the evening of 16 April.
On the evening of Thursday 17 April, having arrived at the AFP’s Melbourne Headquarters after his arrest at Boggaley Creek, the deserted importer Wong gave a somewhat disingenuous account of his role in the enterprise. He indicated when he boarded the Pong Su (employed as a deckhand) there were almost 50 crew members but since then most had got off in ports outside of Australia. Wong was adamant that there were only 10 or so crew left on the ship when he came ashore. He did not know the name of the captain or other crewmembers and didn’t know why the ship had come to Australia. He described the crew as nasty but well mannered, unarmed and not violent. Wong had virtually no understanding of English and two interpreters were called upon to translate. It became apparent to investigators that Wong had difficulties in comprehending complex questions and had a very limited educational background.
THE CHASE CONTINUES
The 10-metre NSW Police boat Fearless took about five hours to reach the Pong Su, its speed limited to just 10 knots by heavy three-to-four-metre swells. Declared a Commonwealth ship for the purposes of this operation (like the Van Diemen), the Fearless attempted to contact the Pong Su, initially without success. Just before 11pm a radio operator from the North Korean ship acknowledged both the identity of the Fearless and the orders to head to Eden. Yet the ship did not head off.
Instead, around 11:35pm the radio operator told the Fearless that the Pong Su was suffering from a major mechanical problem and repair work would have to be undertaken. Soon afterwards smoke emanating from the ship’s funnel ceased and the ship activated the ‘Not Under Command’ lights. For all intents and purposes, the Pong Su had shut down and the Fearless would have to remain as a sentry until the 72 foot NSW Police Launch Alert arrived to assist. The Alert was based in Sydney and had put to sea with nine NSW police and a Customs officer around 10pm, but the heavy seas meant that it would take about 20 hours to arrive off Eden, a trip that would take half that time in fair weather.
By daylight on Friday 18 April (day 3 and Good Friday) it was apparent the Pong Su was not so much sailing for Eden as drifting with the currents, bobbing about and now about 18 nautical miles from Eden’s port. The ship’s engines were restarted but it continued to drift. Around 7am the Fearless radioed the Pong Su for an update, the response was that the crew was having breakfast. Minutes later the ship began to make its way not towards Eden but eastwards away from shore. The Fearless commenced its pursuit unaware that around 9am, in response to a coded message from North Korea telling the Pong Su to stop and fight ‘the enemy’, the freighter replied, “as soldiers for the greatest general we are determined to fight to the last man”.#
On shore at Eden, Federal Agent Damien Appleby contemplated the options open to him to resolve the situation. Agent Appleby was the forward operational commander, he had based himself at Geelong for the land based apprehensions and had hurried to Eden the previous evening by charter flight. It was increasingly unlikely that the Pong Su would voluntarily surrender itself – in fact there was plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. The only first-hand information about who and what was on the ship had come from the deserted offender Wong, whose reliability and truthfulness interviewing agents doubted.
A search warrant for the vessel had been issued but had a 48-hour expiry date, and officers were becoming extremely tired as they had had virtually no sleep for days. Those who had been at sea were either sick or (in the case of the Fearless) in the process of getting seasick. Three options presented themselves:
- Send the Van Diemen back out, this time with SRS agents on board, and have the SRS shoot across the vessel’s bow in an attempt to ‘persuade’ it to stop
- Dispatch a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warship with special forces to seize the Pong Su, and/or
- Have military special forces storm the ship from helicopters only.
Each option was legally feasible but to Agent Appleby the safest option was the use of a warship and special forces. Senior AFP Command and the Chief of the Australian Defence Force came to a similar conclusion and to the steps to implement overt military involvement. Until a warship and special forces were ready law enforcement assets would have to remain at the forefront of the operation.
For the crew of the Fearless this would involve injury and life-threatening action, as sea conditions suddenly became worse. Within minutes waves increased from around 3 – 3.5 metres to between 6 – 8 metres; wind gusts rose from 30 knots to over 40. Both the Pong Su and the much smaller Fearless had to dramatically drop speed in order to prevent being battered into oblivion. Slower speeds meant less control against the impact of the waves in what was now a ‘sea state six’, extremely hostile wind and sea conditions not unlike those which decimated the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race (killing six sailors and damaging or destroying scores of yachts in that fleet).
The crew on Fearless had cause to be wary of ‘rogue’ or ‘freak’ waves that could cause immense damage or even overturn the vessel. About 11:12am such a wave (about 10 metres in height) hit the launch, quickly followed by another. Both almost overturned the Fearless, its gunwales were twice put into the water. The following paragraph is from a subsequent NSW Police Force report recommending commendations for the crew of the Fearless:
“The period between waves was very short and it became increasingly difficult to recover course and speed after each wave. Fearless was then hit beam on by a breaking wave and was knocked onto her side, she then slid down the face of the wave before righting herself.”
This third rogue wave forced Fearless 180 degrees off course. Three of the four crew received injuries, the worst injured was a senior constable who suffered severe concussion when he fell and hit his head on the boat’s communications table. Another senior constable was thrown from the bunk in which he had been trying to rest and injured his knees, ribs and lower back. The Customs officer on board received heavy bruising to his chest.
By 11:20am the battered vessel with its injured crew was ordered out of the chase and it began to limp home. Losing sight of the Pong Su the Fearless was replaced at 11:47am with low flying aircraft tasked to track the North Korean vessel. Using an aircraft was not an ideal option but it was the only one available until the NSW Police Launch Alert could arrive from Sydney, to be joined later by the NSW Police Launch Nemesis (which had been dispatched from Port Stephens). Meanwhile, a ship purposely built to survive for lengthy periods in rough seas was being readied.
Commissioned in August 2002 the ANZAC class guided missile frigate HMAS Stuart was the sixth vessel of its type to be built and was, in April 2003, the youngest warship in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). With a length of 118 metres, a full load displacement of 3,600 tonnes, maximum speed of over 27 knots and a full spread of modern weaponry and defence equipment, the Stuart was the nearest, best equipped fighting vessel to intercept the fleeing Pong Su.
In April 2003 the Stuart was undergoing routine maintenance and on 18 April (Good Friday) most of its 176 crew were on shore leave. Those crewmembers that couldn’t make it back in time for departure were replaced by sailors from other warships at the base and the frigate left Garden Island around 7:30pm. As the ship passed Sydney Harbour’s Middle Head, the Stuart’s powerful radar was activated and it instantly located the Pong Su and its NSW Police pursuers.
In addition to the Stuart’s normal compliment of sailors was a group of the army’s Special Air Service (SAS) regiment, navy clearance divers, AFP agents, two NSW police and a Customs officer. In command of the federal police group was Sydney based Federal Agent Karsten Lehn. Lehn, a keen recreational yachtsman, found the heavy-going in open water okay but noticed that the warship flexed in different directions when being pounded by rough seas, only to spring back into shape when the pressure was released. It was an unnervingsensation which quite obviously was a design feature of the ship judging by the way that the sailors seemed to ignore it. Many of the soldiers and police who hadn’t experienced rough seas soon fell ill.
Cramped living conditions in corridors and makeshift bunking arrangements in communal rooms compoundedthe problem and it wasn’t long before seasickness gave way, on the part of many, to frequent vomiting. Unpleasant odours and mess aside, the SAS and police worked throughout the night to finalise the tactics to be used to seize the Pong Su. Also aboard Stuart was a Seahawk helicopter and three inflatable dinghy’s, each to play an important role in the boarding of the ship.
While the Stuart was in a position to intercept the freighter on Saturday 19 April (day four), the sea conditions were judged too rough. The Stuart shadowed the Pong Su, remaining out of visual sight while continuously tracking the fleeing vessel on radar. The NSW Police launches Alert and Nemesis sailed within sight of the Pong Su, continuing previous fruitless attempts to order the North Korean vessel to port.
Conditions on board the police launches were no less rough than they had been for the Fearless and Van Diemen, some of the crew of the Alert were starting to feel quite sick, especially as they had been unable to eat since putting to sea. At one stage the Alert’s radar unit was smashed into oblivion by rogue waves, a truly frightening thought considering that the unit was located 11 metres above the water line on the boat’s main mast!
Amidst this danger, the Alert’s crew placed their lives in further jeopardy by taking oil samples from a slick dumped by the Pong Su when it was 100 nautical miles off Broken Bay. In order to take the sample (needed as possible evidence) water police donned full wet weather gear and flotation devices, and then hung themselves off the side of the boat.
Everyone on the police boat knew that the chances of recovering an officer who fell overboard in such conditions, were slim. The two police boats had a secondary role of discouraging the Pong Su from moving into international waters. Although legal advice was adamant that an interception in international waters was legal if there had been a continuous or ‘hot’ pursuit, it was preferable for the freighter to remain within Australian limits. Of course the obvious preference was for the Pong Su to turn left and sail into Sydney Harbour but it was apparent that wasn’t going to happen when, in the afternoon of 19 April, it sailed past the turn off point about 50 nautical miles out to sea.
During Saturday 19 April the SAS, sailors and federal police on the HMAS Stuart rehearsed boarding tactics, using the flight deck of the warship to practice rappelling and the ship’s side to practice rope ladder climbs. Around lunchtime the AFP agents on the Stuart received a detailed briefing on developments from Federal Agent Graham Ashton, the officer then in charge of all AFP operations in southern Australia.
The purpose of the briefing was to formally give the agents on the warship the information which would enable them to lawfully enact their Customs Act stop, search and detain powers. Information provided included that Wong had given a statement to Victoria Police Homicide Squad that he and the deceased male had been aboard the freighter, and that blood from the deceased had been located on Wong’s trousers. The dinghy’s outboard motor was not commercially available in Australia and a throw rope canister found at the site had been manufactured in China.
Overall it was clear that the Pong Su’s proximity to the heroin exchange point gave sufficient rise to the hypothesis that the drugs had been on that ship. While this occurred, frantic planning was underway in Sydney to receive and process the Pong Su’s crew. With an estimated 30 crew requiring interviews and processing, all available federal agents in Sydney were called upon to assist when the ship came in.
Several NSW Police charge facilities were alerted to assist in processing the crew; another team of AFP SRS operatives deployed to Sydney and liaised with the SAS on prisoner handover strategies. Negotiations also commenced as to finding a long term storage location for the ship, which was to be seized under the provisions of the Customs Act. By Saturday night all groups were relatively satisfied with their hurried preparations and now waited for Sunday morning.
Just after 5am on Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday and day-five after the first arrests) HMAS Stuart accelerated to full speed. The NSW Police vessels Alert and Nemesis were ordered well away as the warship closed in on the listing freighter (which had again stopped and was displaying its ‘Vessel Not Under Command’ lights). By 5:56am the Stuart was just off the Pong Su, about 70 nautical miles northeast of Sydney.
The Pong Su’s radio operator requested an hour’s grace as the crew were asleep and the ship’s engine was still inoperative. The Stuart however was uncompromising: “This is Australian warship: I intend to board you.”
With the order given to take the ship, three navy inflatable dinghies full of police, troopers, customs officers and sailors sped into position off the freighter’s side. Overhead, hovered a Seakhawk with SAS troopers on board. On the warship sailors were in their combat positions, with numerous weapons loaded and ready to shoot should the freighter’s crew open fire on the Australians.
Perhaps because of the activity from the Stuart, the Pong Su turned on its engines and began to steer a course towards Sydney. About 7:34am the Stuart’s Seahawk moved over the Pong Su and rapidly unloaded its cargo. As the troopers slid down ropes from the helicopter the North Korean captain indicated that he was prepared to head to Sydney. It was too little, too late.
Using speed and surprise the troopers secured the bridge by 7:41am and the entire ship by 7:43am. The Pong Su’s crew offered no meaningful resistance to the special forces. Climbing aboard the listing freighter from one of Stuart’s dinghies which had zipped alongside the freighter, Federal Agent Lehn and his party rushed to the bridge where the Pong Su’s captain was lying on a couch, complaining of chest pains. Within minutes another Seahawk helicopter (this one from the mainland) darted into place above the ship and lowered an army doctor to tend to the North Korean.
The years of training for the helicopter crews was evident in that they did not get caught in the myriad of wires and rigging suspended from the freighter’s two masts, even though the ship was being thrown about by the wind and sea. Federal Agent Lehn and others were then escorted through the ship by the senior SAS officer (later codenamed for court as ‘37’).
In various rooms key documentation was located and seized including passports, charts, log books, papers and USD$20,562 in cash. All the crew (with the exception of the captain who was receiving medical treatment) were held under armed guard in the ship’s galley. In total 30 men had been detained, few of whom spoke English. Soon after seizing the vessel, sailors from the Stuart took over responsibility for sailing the Pong Su to Sydney.
Federal agents then commenced to video tape the ship and many of the cabins thought to be vital to the upcoming court case. Shortly after 10am, ‘37’ formally handed command of the vessel and his personnel to Federal Agent Lehn, who immediately tasked the troopers and sailors on board to continue to get the ship to shore and maintain security over the arrested crew.
The NSW Police vessel Alert had by this time returned to the vicinity of the Pong Su and it escorted the seized ship into Sydney Harbour. The Customs patrol vessel Hervey Bay had also arrived on the scene after racing from its base in Queensland; too late to play a part in the chase but it would later help in searching the waters near Boggaley Creek for the missing heroin.
Just before 3pm on Sunday, 20 April, a pilot ship drew alongside the Pong Su and several personnel climbed aboard, including both civilian and military naval pilots and an AFP SRS team. The pilots guided the listing ship into harbour while the SRS took over from the SAS. At 3:58pm the Pong Su berthed at the Oil Wharf, Garden Island naval base. The chase was over.
PROCESSING THE CREW
Greeting the ship at Garden Island was a large contingent of police and other officials as well as a sizeable number of journalists. Since becoming public, the search and seizure of the Pong Su had made for gripping news reports. The press certainly got some worthwhile footage when several of the crew began to shout and resist being escorted from the ship. It is not known if the bad behaviour was prompted by a sense of duty to the motherland, a genuine concern about the fate awaiting them in custody or a desire to generally ‘stack it on’.
Four of the crew were sent by ambulance to hospital; the captain with chest pains and three sailors with suspected tuberculosis. Also of concern was the possibility of SARS, the respiratory illness which at the time had emerged from Asia as a potential pandemic. In Melbourne, offender Lee had presented with SARS like conditions but he was quickly diagnosed with a severe case of flu. Ultimately, the three North Korean sailors were also cleared of tuberculosis. Precautions were nevertheless taken by all police who had been in contact with the offenders.
By the evening of Easter Sunday the Pong Su’s crew were either in hospital or custodial centres and AFP forensic members were undertaking a detailed search of the vessel. In addition to the documents and paraphernalia discovered by the first AFP team to board the ship, police found a drum of blue two-stroke fuel which was able to be matched with the fuel in the abandoned grey inflatable dinghy. Paint from the ship’s deck was also able to be matched to flakes found on the clothing of the deceased smuggler and on his accomplice Wong.
It was obvious that the North Korean ship was in terrible shape, run down and rust infested. Coats of new paint had been applied in an attempt to spruce the ship up to fool casual inspectors as to its actual seaworthiness. On Tuesday 6 May the Pong Su was towed from Garden Island to a commercial berth in Darling Harbour where officials from the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service conducted a thorough inspection to remove ‘quarantine risk material’. Foodstuffs, wood products and other items posing a risk of bringing disease to the nation were removed and disposed of. A considerable amount of vermin on the ship were also eradicated. On Monday 12 May the ship was again moved to Snails Bay, Sydney Harbour, where it would remain as a potential exhibit until its final voyage in 2006.
EXTRADITIONS AND BRIEF PREPARATION
On Tuesday 22 April the ship’s crew who were not sick attended Sydney Local Court, where they were ordered to be extradited to Melbourne to face charges of being involved in the importation of narcotics into Australia. The extradition occurred on Wednesday, 23 April, a considerable logistical nightmare for police and protective service personnel.
Under heavy guard the 26 prisoners were flown to Melbourne. On Thursday, 1 May, after receiving medical clearances, the remaining four crew (captain and three sailors), were flown to Melbourne. Preparing the brief of evidence posed a considerable challenge for Federal Agents Damien Appleby and Celeste Johnston, the investigators coordinating the case. Statements were taken from a range of witnesses and experts from the shipping, intelligence, engineering and law enforcement industries. While obviously many of the witnesses were from Australia, some were as far afield as the United States, South Korea as well as a number of other Asian countries. Also, in Asia were many leads in relation to the source of the drugs and other offenders in the syndicate. A group of AFP agents were deployed overseas to assist Asian police in their operations to dismantle the other end of the drug pipeline.
Back in Australia, comprehensive analysis of mobile phone records, computer and GPS data systems, as well as financial records, had to be completed quickly. Also undertaken with great speed was the forensic evaluation of a host of items, ranging from the rubber that Wong wore as a belt to the paint flecks on the deceased’s shoes and the ship. In under ten weeks the ‘hand up’ brief was completed and submitted by Federal Agents Appleby and Johnston, a Herculean effort given its impressive size of eight thick volumes of written material, 27 video discs, 14 audio discs and four compact discs of technical information.
By the time of the eventual trial, the brief would be even bigger. Some of the more intriguing aspects of the brief preparation period revolved around the actions of three officials from the Pongsu Shipping Company who arrived in Australia on Friday, 9 May, and presented their credentials to the AFP through Melbourne lawyers. The men produced documentation they believed exonerated their crew – an order by Malaysian company KIMTO for the ship to pick up luxury cars in Melbourne for export to Asia. This was the contract which the Pong Su’s radio operator had referred to during the chase.
Rudimentary inquiries in Australia and Malaysia quickly revealed KIMTO to be fake. No company of that name was trading at the time, the reputed business address in Malaysia was false and no attempt was made at all in Australia for the Pong Su to book a berth at Melbourne’s port to load cars onto the ship. The paperwork faxed to the Pongsu Shipping Company was obviously forged and two KIMTO business cards were found during the arrests, one in Lam’s car and the other in his hotel room. The name on one of the cards, John Thompson, was a name used to register one of the mobile phones used by the shore party and it was also the name used by an unidentified Asian male who had earlier in the year sought some quotes from an Australian shipping agent.
AFP agents were very keen to speak in detail to the Pongsu company representatives about the entire event, although it seemed as if they were holding information back. For instance, they wouldn’t explain why they had allowed their ship into a contract to carry cars when the freighter was not designed to carry vehicles. The cranes on the ship were also unable to safely lift vehicles. The representatives proved tardy in giving details of what they knew to police, so applications were prepared under section 56A of the Victorian Magistrates Court Act, to compel the businessmen to give statements to the court. Before the applications were obtained though,the senior director flew out of Australia on Sunday 11 May (having been in Australia for only three days). The other two provided information under threat of court direction.
In May 2003 a second round of intensive searches was undertaken along and off the coastline near Boggaley Creek. Federal police and maritime Customs officers combined for a final check of all possible areas on land and sea near the crime site.
On Wednesday 7 May, 75kgs of heroin was located by AFP agents 1.5kms southwest of Boggaley Creek, well hidden under long grass and other plants. Three large packages, each weighing about 25kgs were partially buried alongside each other, covered in blue tarp like wrapping (although one package had a dark green cloth wrapped in its tarp). The sub packets of drugs found were also wrapped in the same manner as the 50kgs found on 16 April; each with an Asian ‘U-O-Globe’ symbol printed on the plastic.
During the frantic activities of 15-16 April the offender Lam had taken the 75kgs to the spot to hide it. Before this the GPS unit had been given to Wong who stayed behind, therefore the unit did not record the location. By the end of May the general search was concluded and it is believed that the missing 25kgs of heroin has either dissipated or remains lying at the bottom of the ocean.
The committal hearing in the Melbourne Magistrates Court had initially been scheduled to commence in August 2003 but was postponed to November. The volume of evidence, the communication difficulties between lawyers and their non-English speaking clients and the need to find a venue large enough for all participants, necessitated the delay. On Wednesday 5 November the committal commenced in the Ceremonial Court Room of Victoria’s County Court, the only courtroom in the state large enough to house all 34 defendants, their legal representatives, prosecution lawyers, court staff, police and the media.
The hearing was suspended on Monday 10 November to enable Magistrate Duncan Reynolds, legal counsel and police to travel to Sydney to inspect the Pong Su. On Thursday 13 November counsel representing the accused Lee sought to have the committal abandoned because it was in his view unconstitutional. The obscure legal reference point for this dramatic claim was an argument that the County Court House was not a gazetted Magistrates Court premises and therefore could not lawfully be used to conduct a committal. The Magistrate dismissed the appeal.
The episode was an indication of the desperation to evade the charges. Like most committals, this one was a fairly brutal ‘knock down’ affair at times, with counsel tearing into the credibility of witnesses in a way not normally used at trials (for fear of offending and alienating jury members). Fierce debates erupted over issues of legal privilege, particularly in relation to AFP agents refusing to reveal the exact source of some intelligence. Threats of incarceration for contempt were even bandied about against some police witnesses. It was a torrid time but part of the ‘game’.
After five weeks the committal concluded taking witness evidence on Friday 19 December. At this time the counsel for Lee, one of the lawyers who had been most vocal about his client’s innocence, indicated to the court that his client didn’t oppose being committed for trial!
Magistrate Reynolds adjourned the committal over Christmas and in early 2004 took written submissions from the various parties. On Friday, 5 March, 2004 the Magistrate made his rulings:
- Ta Song Wong: committed to stand trial on charges of ‘possession of a prohibited import on board a ship’, ‘import a prohibited import into Australia’, ‘attempt to import a prohibited import into Australia’, all contrary to the Customs Act 1901. Wong formally entered a plea of ‘not guilty’.
- Kiam Fah Teng: committed to stand trial on charges of ‘possession of prohibited import’, and ‘aid and abet the importation of a prohibited import’, all contrary to the Customs Act 1901. Teng reserved his plea.
- Yau Kim Lam: same as Teng and he also reserved his plea.
- Song Man Sun (ship’s captain): committed to stand trial of ‘aid and abet the importation of a prohibited import’, contrary to the Customs Act 1901 and the Criminal Code 1995. Song entered the plea of ‘not guilty’.
- Ri Man Jin (ship’s chief mate): same as Song and pleaded ‘not guilty’, and
- Ri Ju Chon (ship’s chief engineer): again, same as Song with a ‘not guilty’ plea.
The remaining 27 crew members of the Pong Su were discharged as the Magistrate found insufficient evidence to support a conviction at trial. The Magistrate told the court “rather than being able to draw legitimate inferences from the various circumstances, a jury could only speculate as to the state of knowledge of each of these defendants”. The last prisoner, Lee, had already consented to being sent to trial.
Upon being discharged on 5 March the 27 crew were immediately detained by the Department of Immigration because they were unlawfully in Australia. The group was driven to the Baxter Detention Centre in rural South Australia to await deportation. This process took some time for a number of reasons and at one stage even involved many of the crew commencing a hunger strike, which lasted only a few days. It was the second such protest by the crew while in custody, a July 2003 hunger strike (launched with the goal to allow the crew to sail the Pong Su home) had also failed.
On Thursday 24 June 2004, 26 of the 27 crew detained at Baxter were placed on a flight and deported. Choi Dong Song, the Pong Su’s political officer, did not fly home. Instead, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) exercised his right to directly present the North Korean for Supreme Court trial. The AFP was confident and CDPP concurred, that sufficient evidence existed for a jury to determine Choi’s culpability and that the Magistrate had erred in his ruling to discharge him. The trial was now set for eight defendants.
Earlier, on Monday 19 April 2004 the counsel representing the three Pong Su crew who had been committed for trial, made a detailed bail application to Magistrate Reynolds. In their submission the lawyers indicated that it was grossly unfair to keep their clients in custody. In the defence’s opinion, the Crown’s case was weak and it would be an unreasonable delay of almost two years between the arrests and the commencement of the trial. The three men spoke no English, were in a foreign country’s gaol and it was difficult for the lawyers to obtain instructions. In short, the three men were ‘doing it hard’. The defence proposed bailing the three men to reside at the North Korean Embassy in Canberra, with daily or twice daily reporting conditions to the AFP.
The CDPP strongly opposed the proposition, as it was an unacceptable risk to bail people to an address that under international convention was not actually regarded as part of Australia’s jurisdiction. It was argued that the fact that the three men had no ties to Australia, spoke no English and would live at a location where foreign passports were made and issued, actually compounded the flight risk. The prosecution submitted that the court processes were fair, there was no unreasonable delay in the administration of justice, and that there was no actual evidence of the three men ‘doing it hard’.
On Thursday 22 April Magistrate Reynolds not only rejected the bail application but also emphasised to the defence counsel that the case against the accused was far from weak.
Despite protesting their innocence during the committal, by early 2005 the four men arrested on shore indicated that they were guilty. Seemingly every attempt had been made to obtain acquittals however each legal strategy came to naught. Ultimately the guilty pleas were a reflection of the strong briefs prepared by the AFP; proving that the four were intimately involved in importing 125kgs of heroin (65% – 67.5% pure), an amount that could have fetched up to $AUD164 million on the streets of Australia.
Teng was the first to plea, telling the court on Thursday 10 February 2005 that he was a low-level player pressured into the venture because of his gambling debts and the promise of $USD80,000 payment. Teng’s wife worked in the United States while his son was being raised by Teng’s sister in Malaysia. The prosecution however argued that Teng was supposed to play a crucial role minding the drugs before handing them to the Australian connection. On Monday 21 February, Teng was sentenced to 22 years imprisonment to serve a minimum of 15 years. Justice Murray Kellam tended to side with the prosecution’s submission but noted that the admission of guilt deserved some discount on the sentence.
On Thursday 10 March 2005 both Lee (by now admitting to his real name of Tan) and Lam pleaded guilty to their charges. Prosecutors argued that Lee was well connected within the syndicate, used false identities and acted as an advisor to Teng. Defence counsel for Lee highlighted his role as ensuring that a transaction occurred, he did not actually handle or pay for the drugs. Lee claimed to have been raised by criminals who forced him into illegal activities, when he had an ‘epiphany’ and tried to leave that life after breaking out of the Danish prison he was shot by his colleagues. Justice Kellam disagreed with many of Lee’s assertions and believed that he played a significant role in the importation. Furthermore, Lee’s role in the Danish prison escape made it essential to include a penalty which would act as a general deterrence.
On Monday 8 May 2006 Lee received a penalty of 24 years with a minimum of 16 to serve. On Wednesday 15 June 2005 Justice Kellam sentenced Lam, the reclusive member of the team, to 23 years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 16 years. Kellam noted that Lam was a trusted player in the syndicate and had come to Australia solely for the purpose of the importation. By this time it was recognised the name ‘Lam’ was false but the man refused to volunteer his real one, a fact no doubt working against him in the sentencing process.
On Monday 11 July 2005 Wong pleaded that he was the expendable member of the syndicate and almost died (as indeed did his accomplice). Wong claimed the dead man had recruited him into the venture with the promise of $USD13,000 and that the drugs were placed onto the boat in Jakarta (proven by the prosecution to be wrong). He had earlier claimed that he did not know about the drugs until it was time to put them in the boat, however, he abandoned that argument after fingerprints linked him to packing the heroin before it was placed on the ship. Wong also claimed that his risky role proved that he was not a senior member of the syndicate. He sought a lighter sentence to the rest. Justice Kellam ignored the pleas and imposed a penalty of 23 years with a minimum of 16 to serve.
All four offenders had entered pleas during the course of the trial of the Pong Su’s crew and consequently, in order to avoid potentially influencing the jury, Justice Kellam issued suppression orders until after the trial concluded.
Pre-trial legal argument (including another inspection of the rusting Pong Su) commenced in November 2004. In December, Justice Kellam made the first in a series of rulings that would have a marked impact on the trial of the ship’s captain, political officer, chief mate and chief engineer. Defence counsel had applied to have the records of interview with Wong and Lam ruled as inadmissible.
Kellam found Wong’s admissible but Lam’s inadmissible, as he didn’t appear to have been sufficiently aware of his legal rights when giving the interview. This was not too damaging to the prosecution’s case as Lam’s interview had little of substance in it. The judge also made rulings on allowing expert testimony from a range of prosecution experts in the marine, shipping and engineering fields.
The pre-trial debates and legal arguments continued well into 2005 and it was not until 1 August, that a jury of nine females and six males was empanelled (12 plus three reserves). The opening presentations by the various lawyers were extensive; the prosecution’s summary alone ran for around 180 pages.
By the end of October over 100 witnesses had given evidence and the prosecution closed its case on 15 November. The case against the merchant sailors was a complex circumstantial brief intimately tied up with the actions of the shore party. In essence the prosecution argued that it was palpably ridiculous that a North Korean vessel could engage in the suspicious behaviour that it did without the accused (each senior member of the ship’s crew) knowing about the heroin. Key issues presented were:
- The Pong Su was illegally modified to extend its sailing range, had never travelled to Australia before, did not notify Australian authorities of its pending visit and had no valid reason to be in Australia.
- The vessel had its registration suspiciously changed during its voyage. In December 2002, the ship’s registration was renewed for a period of five-years but as it reached Singapore in March 2003, applications were lodged for Tuvaluan registration for a three-month period. Tuvalu, a well-known ‘flag of convenience’ nation, charged USD$12,000 for the temporary change. In Singapore the Pong Su’scaptain was told of the new registration and that they should fly a Tuvaluan flag (red ensign). Prosecutors alleged in court that the change was designed to make the ship less suspicious to casual inspection in Australia.
- During its voyage around Australia the ship had veered from normal shipping lanes and came quite close to parts of the West Australian coast at the time in order that phone calls were made to and received from the shore party, using the mobile phone later found in Wong’s possession.
- The story of picking up cars from Melbourne was unsustainable as the ship was not designed to carry such a cargo. The company had also made absolutely no attempt to undertake the mandatory preparations for the arrivals of ships in ports.
- Paperwork seized from the political secretary’s cabin, along with intercepted communications, indicated that the senior officers knew they had 32 people on board (two more than the normal crew); and
- It was argued that the general refusal of the ship to stop for police indicated criminal intention. The crew’s stated fears that they were being chased by ‘pirates’ (ie: the police boats) were incredulous according to prosecutors.
The prosecution’s case was tempered with rulings by the judge that a number of witnesses could not give their evidence. Those prevented from doing so included:
- One international analyst who had part of her evidence barred as she had expressed an opinion that a department within the North Korean government was actively involved in international organised crime in order to generate revenue. Justice Kellam believed this opinion was based on general public information rather than specific intelligence.
- Another international analyst asserted that it was almost impossible for anything to happen on a ship without the knowledge of the political officer. While the analyst was accepted by the Judge as an expert on technical and military issues, his evidence was ruled inadmissible because he had virtually no first-hand experience of North Korean life.
- A Chinese businessman claimed to have sold to the Pong Su’s captain the mobile phone found on Wong. The judged ruled his evidence as hearsay as he was told certain things by a translator acting as a go-between for him and the captain.
- The evidence of an Australian professor on the dominating role of the political secretary on a ship was ruled inadmissible as the judge felt there was a real risk that the opinion was based on ‘speculation, inference, personal and second-hand views’.
- An Australian marine surveyor’s evidence was edited as he made observations about the central command structure on a North Korean vessel which the judge felt was pure speculation.
In addition to these rulings three Korean witnesses, including two defectors from North Korea eventually refused to give evidence in front of a jury.
On Thursday 17 November the defence counsel for the Pong Su’s chief mate and chief engineer put to Justice Kellam that the cases against them be dismissed due to lack of evidence. The lawyers for the political secretary also wanted their client to be released due to lack of evidence.
After hearing the views of all sides, Kellam found in favour of continuing. In relation to the chief engineer the judge believed there was sufficient evidence for a jury to reasonably arrive at a guilty verdict (point of fact) whereas the judge’s role was largely to determine points of law. Given that the prosecution had not excluded evidence from the hearing that supported the assertions of innocence, the judge felt it best for the jury to decide on the competing hypothesis as to the man’s guilt or innocence.
In relation to the chief mate (the captain’s second in command), Justice Kellam indicated that he believed there again was sufficient evidence presented to enable the jury to consider the allegations and defence as points of fact, not law. The failure of the man to liaise with Australian shipping authorities in the lead up to the purported car transport deal was one example of information that the jury could use either to support the prosecution’s case that he was part of the conspiracy, or the defence’s argument that the man was only following orders and ignorant of developments. Overall, Kellam felt there was ‘no black hole in the Crown case against the accused’.
Justice Kellam also refused to hear the details of a submission about the political secretary, again relying on his view of the sufficiency of evidence for a jury decision.
In late November and early December the defence put its case in detail to the jury. The Pong Su’s captain and the chief engineer both presented well in evidence-in-chief but gave contradictory statements when cross-examined. A major issue of debate was the defence’s claims that the reason why the Pong Su came close to Boggaley Creek and stopped several times afterwards was that the ship’s fuel injector and cylinder head system had been incorrectly maintained. The two needed urgent replacement and repair at sea.
The prosecution submitted contrary evidence – the fuel/oil deposits on the injector indicated that it had been in use for much longer than claimed by the North Koreans. Other expert evidence indicated that even if the injectors had failed in the way claimed by the defence, the ship could have continued to operate without the need for an emergency repair at sea.
On 22 December 2005 the last witness concluded his evidence and the jury was sent home for Christmas; one of the reserve jurors was permanently excused because of personal reasons. Another juror had earlier been excused (after only two days of the trial) because of a medical complaint.
Scheduled to recommence in early January 2006, the trial was delayed due to the Pong Su’s captain again falling ill. By early February however closing submissions were made. The defence now agreed that heroin had been imported on the Pong Su but they said it was done without the knowledge of the defendants. These men had been ‘duped’ by Wong and the deceased male, who had engaged the ship under a false charter. When it was obvious that the two would not return to the ship from Boggaley Creek on the morning of 16 April, the ship moved off to its next booking.
It is interesting to note that during the committal the same defence team had bitterly contested the assertion that there were 32 people on the Pong Su when it arrived in Australia (30 crew plus the two smugglers). At committal the defence stated that the smugglers were never on the ship or if they were, the crew did not know they were hiding in a cabin near the bridge of the vessel (as admitted to by Wong). The jury never heard that position. What they did hear was the defence counsel describing the two smugglers as ‘charterers agents’, even though documents from the ship recorded them as crew members.
After eight days of summing up, on Thursday 23 February Justice Kellam sent the jury out to consider its verdict. Before it retired, the jury group of 13 undertook a ballot to identify the juror who would be removed. The unsuccessful juror was visibly upset at missing out on the chance to deliberate.
The wait was tense for prosecutors and police alike. This was a very technical circumstantial brief of evidence but one solid enough, it was hoped, to obtain convictions. Unfortunately, for police it was not to be. On Sunday 5 March, the jury returned verdicts of ‘not guilty’ for all four accused. It was difficult to work out who was more surprised by the jury’s decision, the police or the defence counsel!
The four North Koreans were immediately issued temporary visas by the Department of Immigration and they walked free from court. Three days later (Wednesday 8 March) they flew out of Australia for North Korea, carrying gifts hastily purchased with the money they had earned while working in gaol.
PONG SU’S FATE
Since being berthed as an exhibit in Sydney Harbour in April 2003, storage fees for the Pong Su had cost the Australian taxpayer around $90,000 per month. By early 2006 the bill was over $2 million. Formally seized by Customs on Anzac Day 2003, the North Korean owners had unsuccessfully tried to reclaim the rusting ship. Nominally valued at USD$200,000 with about USD$100,000 worth of fuel on board, the Pong Su had been declared by Australian authorities to be unseaworthy. Even after the not guilty verdicts of March 2006, the Australian government made it clear (much to the chagrin of the North Korean Government) the vessel would not be returned as it had been involved in a serious criminal offence.
The tricky part for the AFP was how to dispose of the freighter. In mid-2005 the Australian Defence Force came up with a solution – sink it as part of a training exercise. The AFP agreed to the request and considerable time and money was spent on obtaining the relevant clearances and ensuring that the sinking would not create an environmental hazard.
In the afternoon of Tuesday 21 March 2006 tug boats pulled the Pong Su out of Sydney Harbour on its last voyage, southwards to an area of ocean 140kms off Jervis Bay. The ship by then was a deteriorating hulk, emptied of everything that could cause a serious environmental problem when sunk. So thorough was the clean-out that even the ship’s 30 portraits of North Korea’s dictator were removed and returned to the North Korean Embassy.
On the morning of Thursday 23 March 2006 with its escort vessels at a safe distance away, the unpowered Pong Su drifted on the gently rolling waters of the Tasman Sea. If anyone had been on the ship at the time they would have heard the increasingly deafening roar of two approaching F-111 strike bombers. The planes were flying the rarest of peacetime missions – the sinking of a real ship.
Two GBU-10 1,000kgs laser guided bombs were dropped by the attacking jets and smashed into the freighter approximately two seconds apart. The debris cloud caused by the explosions shrouded the ship for several minutes, clearing just as what was left of the Pong Su gracefully sunk beneath the waves, on its way to the ocean’s bottom.
Afterwards, Federal Attorney General Ruddock summed up the day’s events: “The Pong Su was used in an attempt to bring heroin to Australia and it will never be put to that use again.”**
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Byrnes joined the AFP in 1991 and has served in various locations in Australia and overseas. He has been an Assistant Editor at the APJ since 2003.
- *Paddock, C & Demick, B (2003), ‘N. Korea’s growing drug trade seen in botched heroin delivery’, The Washington Post, 21 May
- †Spaeth, A (2003), ‘Kim’s rackets’, Time Magazine, 2 June
- ‡Felspar is the name for rock-forming minerals which are commonly used in the production of ceramics, household cleaners and glazing materials
- §Moor, K (2006), ‘$165m foul-up for ship of fools’, Herald Sun, 6 March 2006.
- #Moor, K (2006), ‘Drug ship officers set free’, Herald Sun, 6 March
- **Blenkin, M (2006), ‘Heroin ship sinks to watery grave’, Herald Sun, 23 March