THE GREAT ESCAPE – Sunday July 8 2012

– In the days before he fell off the face of the Earth, Tony Mokbel was secretly laying the foundations for one of the most inspired fugitive escapes of all time. Through a devastating combination of desperation, design and dumb luck, Mokbel’s disappearing act was an absolute triumph.
It fiendishly manipulated people’s assumptions that he would make a flash first-class getaway. It played on expectations that smooth-talking Tony with a cash-filled suitcase would have bribed his way to the other side of the planet overnight. And like all good magic tricks the real action went on out of sight while all eyes were fixed on the compelling spectacle playing out on centre stage.
When Danielle McGuire flew out of Melbourne just months after her boyfriend disappeared, those in her camp loudly proclaimed she was not going to reunite with Mokbel hiding out in a distant exotic locale. “I’m sure they’re following her anyway. And they’ll find out she’s just on a holiday,” Danielle’s mum said.
It turned out that was the truth. Or at least a half-truth.
The federal agents following Danielle as she was jet-setting around the globe, and others who had their heads turned from their work, were being drawn like sirens’ victims half a world away from their target.
France, Italy and Turkey were some of the glamorous locations in which Mokbel was said to be hunkering down. But the whole time Mokbel had never left the Garden State. The banal reality was that he was stuck in a small white Victorian homestead at the foot of a grassy hill, off a red dirt road in Bonnie Doon, nursing a case of fugitive ennui.
Despite the generous Scottish adjective, Bonnie Doon is a bland town at the desolate northern tip of Lake Eildon, about two hours north-east of Melbourne. It is a place where families like the Kerrigans in the film “The Castle” go to race jet skis and speedboats on the big lake, smell the two-stroke and take in the serenity.
Tony made his emergency tree change there after his last police check-in on that Sunday night in March. The rural property was owned by Company cook and trusted Mokbel man George Elias, and Mokbel shared the house with Elias, his wife, Sharon, and their daughter.
Tony paid his way as a tenant at Bonnie Doon.
Elias’s wife didn’t necessarily, at least initially, know the true identity of her husband’s mate on the permanent sleepover. But as the months ticked by Elias must have warned his daughter, about 12, not to mention “Uncle Tony” to anyone.
The fugitive passed the days watching the walls, phoning through speed-making tips to the Company and liaising with his escape-plan mastermind. Remarkably enough, given the heat on him, he did get at least one special visitor to break the monotony.
The federal police had launched a massive operation to investigate Mokbel’s escape and hunt him down. They interviewed Danielle, but in the weeks after Mokbel vanished it seems no one was tailing her. Under the noses of the authorities she made the trek to Bonnie Doon and visited him. There among the lowing of Bonnie Doon cattle the lawless lovers were reunited.
And while police scoured the globe, Australia’s most wanted man and his girlfriend conceived a fugitive baby.
No one had been watching Mokbel when he legged it. But then he had been deemed fit for bail and conditional freedom by the courts. If police had caught him immediately after he vanished on Monday morning, it is likely his only offence would have been failure to appear. It is less comprehensible that after Mokbel vanished and became the nation’s most wanted fugitive, no one was watching his girlfriend.
Victoria Police still unofficially blame the feds who had carriage of finding Mokbel for the monumental slip. But a bit of dumb luck saved Mokbel’s bacon, too.
When Danielle made her move, Melbourne was in the thick of hosting the Commonwealth Games. The event accommodated more athletes and events than the 1956 Olympics in the same city, shutting down roads and bringing waves of visitors into the inner city. Public transport was extended and a massive law-enforcement contingent was supplied to prevent disorder, disaster or political embarrassment.
And so while the sporting event was in full swing the nation’s most wanted fugitive was able to have his girlfriend casually drive up to meet him for a rural date undetected. Danielle was not Mokbel’s only visitor. He rarely left the indoors at Bonnie Doon but every so often he would walk through the farm to a nearby forest. There, pre-arranged visitors would pop out of the bushes to discuss drug trafficking or nautical matters with him.
Mokbel sired a child and watched a lot of television in the seven months he spent at Bonnie Doon. It is not clear what else, if anything, he did for fun in the great indoors deprived of gambling, epicurean delights, and with next to no female company.
Police later found cannabis in the farmhouse, so it’s possible Mokbel fended off cabin fever by getting stoned and watching the sand fall through the hourglass on “Days of our Lives”.
Bonnie Doon was phase one of Mokbel’s plot: get the hell out of dodge and fall off the radar at all costs. For the subsequent more complex phases of his extraordinary escape, Mokbel would have to rely on his own personal Mr Fixit.
As a high school dropout-turned-millionaire Mokbel was a big fan of rough diamonds. You could lord it over them, they showed more respect, and – the narcissist’s favourite reason – they reminded him of himself. Mokbel built a multi-million-dollar speed syndicate from a disparate group of private school misfits. And the man he chose for the epic task of squirreling him out of the country was an equally unlikely character.
The figure who would mastermind the million-dollar escape of a public enemy No. 1 was a work-shy 63-year-old pensioner from Reservoir we will call “The Pensioner”.
The Pensioner and Mokbel had met through their mutual love of gambling. The duo had a long history of playing together at backroom card games around Coburg and Brunswick. The Pensioner was a serious gambler and would have found an easy use for the chunky cash prize Mokbel would deliver him if he helped the fugitive to freedom.
Under-employed and overweight The Pensioner suffered from ailments including diabetes and arthritis. He had not worked for many years and he walked with a limp. If the devil makes work for idle hands, Mokbel’s big fat Greek pensioner was ripe for a diabolical masterstroke.
Mokbel and The Company had nicknamed him “The Greek”, but The Pensioner was the real deal – a dual national with strong ties to the old country. With The Pensioner’s help Mokbel would make a dash for Greece to start a new life.
The fugitive had all sorts of links to Greece. He was taught how to cook amphetamines by Greeks and there was even a theory that there was a group of people he knew living there. But ultimately Tony’s target destination was chosen for him as the country where his Mr Fixit had the most connections. “(The Pensioner) was organising it, (he) had the contacts in Greece, so that’s the place he’s going to head,” Detective Sergeant Jim Coghlan said. “If (The Pensioner) had contacts in Libya the same thing would have happened (there).”
While Mokbel was stuck indoors in Bonnie Doon, the grey-bearded, bespectacled Pensioner and his wife, “Fiona” made trip to Greece to pave the way for Tony to slip out of Australia and pursue his Grecian getaway. As part of the preparations The Pensioner reached out to a long-time friend in Greece called Theo Abigailkis. As well as associates in Greece, The Pensioner was also willing and able to drag in family members as extras in the escape conspiracy.
The Pensioner had married Fiona in 1982 after she left a failed arranged marriage. Fiona had come to The Pensioner with her toddler daughter in tow so he got a four-year-old stepdaughter into the deal. More romance blossomed at their wedding with The Pensioner’s best man, George, and Fiona’s sister, “Abigail”, hitting it off.
The wedding of George and Abigail followed the next year. But unlike The Pensioner and Fiona’s union, George and Abigail’s was a troubled one.
George, like his best mate The Pensioner, was not what you would call a workhorse. Two years into his marriage he hurt his back working at Corinthian Doors, and got a settlement and a pension.
His injured back sustained the rigours of begetting three post-accident babies over the next eight years.
But George’s industrial philosophy was to retire undefeated and he refused to ever risk a return to work. That left his wife, Abigail, juggling a young brood and working in milk factories while George preferred to stay home smoking pot. After 19 years of this kind of marital bliss Abigail left the loveable George and took their five children with her. And that was it, but for one notable postscript: their separation process took a whopping five years because George refused to acknowledge the five children as his own until each had been DNA-tested.
Fast-forward 24 years from the 1982 wedding of The Pensioner and Fiona to the year of Mokbel’s disappearance and what it all meant for The Pensioner is that he had a solid cast of reliable women for his escape plot. The Pensioner’s sister-in-law, Abigail, may have had profound buyer’s remorse about The Pensioner’s best man who had robbed her of the best years of her life, but she was magnanimous enough not to hold the disaster against her sister, Fiona, or Fiona’s hubby The Pensioner.
By 2006 The Pensioner and his adoptive daughter, who we will call “The Stepdaughter”, after so much shared history, regarded each other as kin bound by something as good as blood. It had been a long time since The Stepdaughter was sent by The Pensioner to school and she had grown before his eyes from a toddler to a woman in her 30s with a baby of her own. So The Pensioner counted The Stepdaughter and her baby into the Mokbel plot too.
Her seven-month-old baby boy was so much more to Mokbel’s Mr Fixit than a bouncing grandson – he was also a great decoy prop for a fleeing fugitive.
When the going got tough for Mokbel, his unlikely escape mastermind, The Pensioner, got off the couch and flew to Greece. He added a dash of vaudeville to the escape plot in Athens, recruiting a troupe of Greek sailors willing to fly Down Under for an unorthodox little earner.
East coast ports and air terminals were crawling with police. The nation’s airports were too hot for Mokbel to escape by plane. Technology, computer systems, biometrics and the authorities themselves had got smarter since 1981 when Bob Trimbole flew out as authorities prepared to charge him, eventually dying on the lam in Spain.
Bleaching his hair blonde, wearing glasses, growing a beard or changing a digit on his birth date would not be enough for Mokbel. The Pensioner had a plan to address these dangers that was simple in design, more complex in execution but potentially devastating to authorities if it worked.
Mokbel would leave Australia by sea, sailing to freedom as a guest of the Greek sailors The Pensioner had recruited overseas.
While blanket Mokbel media coverage raged on the east coast he would depart from the opposite side of the country. Western Australia considers itself independent from the rest of Australia. It’s capital, Perth, the world’s most remote city, is closer to Singapore than Canberra.
Freemantle, just south of Perth, would be the launching place for Mokbel’s getaway vehicle. But first The Pensioner needed to get Mokbel a nice big boat.
The Pensioner sweet-talked his wife, Fiona, and sister-in-law, Abigail, into catching a train from Melbourne to Sydney to help him with some business. By law Australian-registered vessels require at least partial ownership by an Australian national. The Pensioner told his sister-in-law some friends were having trouble with a boat so it would be put in her name. As instructed Abigail handed over cheques, signed the documents and was made, with some strange Greek sailors, the proud co-owner of a $330,000 yacht. She was then put on a plane back to Melbourne.
The 17.3m-long yacht, known as a cutter sloop and named “Edwena”, had twice sailed round the world. The buyers told the NSW businessman selling the yacht that they wanted to fit it out to be used as a cruise vessel in Greece.
One of the Greek sailors then flew from Sydney back home. The remaining trio sailed the boat to Newcastle where The Pensioner pimped Tony’s ride, adding secret hiding holes for Mokbel and a desalination unit for an ocean journey. The massive yacht was then lifted on to the back of a truck and transported nearly 4000km across the continent from Newcastle to the west coast at a cost of $350,000.
Slowly over six days the “Edwena” made its way through three states with wide-load signs, flashing lights and pilot cars. In WA, tens of thousands more were spent on life craft, generators, new sails and a specially fitted toilet as Team Mokbel raced to be ready for the seasonal winds that would whisk them halfway across the world to Greece.
The Greek sailors flew from Newcastle to Freemantle to hook up with their ride. And in early October the “Edwena” was lowered into the Indian Ocean at Freemantle harbour to await her controversial cargo – Liam Houlihan


About Jumpin' Jack Cash

Deep connections are the most important aspect of my existence. I don’t care if people don’t know what they want. I love books. I’m cynical of love stories, although I’m romantic. I adore gardens. I like women who challenge me. I love the rain as an excuse to stay inside and dream. I'm furiously impatient. If I ask you a question best to tell me the truth as I'm likely to already know the answer. I'm a carnivore. I continuously underestimate the magic of fresh flowers in my home. I love warm rain in the summer. My mood elevates to epic proportions when the sun shines. Tell me not to do something and I'll do it twice and take photos. Running is my antidepressant. I loathe lies. I rarely forgive a lie. Loyalty and honesty are my most noble virtues, and I value them more than anything in other people. I love to love, and am able to fall in love very quickly, although it's only ever happened once. I understood myself and fixed myself only after destroying myself. My greatest excitement comes from deliberately getting lost in foreign cities. I can be extremely loud and frighteningly silent. I hate insinuations. I love storms. Justice for all. I'm a proud man, but welcome the influence of the feminine soul. I have two sisters. I’m a dreamer. I’m a deep thinker. Don’t deal with guilt trips or drama that well. I'm extremely stubborn and persistent. I'm brilliant at keeping secrets. I love driving. I become absolutely and completely lost while watching a burning fire. When the toast pops from the toaster I’m never ready and shit myself. I play the guitar, but require much improvement. Solitude and warmth of the sun are perfect together. I’ve been married once and now divorced. I’m a music junkie. Chocolate mousse is the shit. I curse too much. I find it difficult to make friends. I spent four years as a firefighter. I’ve run my own company since 1991. Bright lights, big cities. I’ve been an executive producer of a feature film. Some people don’t care, and that’s the biggest let-down of the human race. There are cures and solutions for many evils, but no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings. The sound of the Italian language being spoken is as good as my favourite music. I hate corrupt cops. I relentlessly and passionately pursue anybody and anything that sets my soul on fire. I'm a dog lover, and all my dogs are considered family members. I have an obsession with photography. I have some close friends who are household names, but shall always remain anonymous. I’m crazy but not lazy. Losing a soulmate has hurt me badly. My two young sons are the nucleus of my universe. I love airports. I love freedom. If you are dishonest or disloyal, I can erase you from my life and memory immediately and permanently. I yearn to explore, dream about and discover as many friendships, deep connections and places, one possibly can in a lifetime.
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