Sunday September 15 2013
– Van Hung Nguyen arrived from Vietnam in 2002 for an agricultural show in Brisbane he didn’t attend, then disappeared for nine years until he resurfaced to apply for a new business visa.
By April last year his business in Melbourne was clearly booming.
Adorning his rented house in Burnside Heights was a Rolex watch, two $1750 pairs of Tag Heuer sunglasses and Louis Vuitton dress shoes. Stashed in the kitchen was $39,900 cash.
The contents of 21 other houses in 14 north-western Melbourne suburbs that Nguyen “managed” also displayed healthy growth figures – almost 5000 mature, immature or seedling marijuana plants with a “wet” weight of 1.2 tonnes.
Of the plants, 1697 were high-quality product estimated to be worth between $1.4 million and $2.3 million if sold per kilogram, but valued up to $8.9 million in gram deals.
Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions John Champion, SC, with Michelle Zammit, told a court it was the largest number of plants identified since the introduction in 2002 of a charge of cultivating a large commercial quantity, to which Nguyen has pleaded guilty. It carries a life sentence.
In response to recent massive increases in hydroponic “crop houses”, and where syndicate-based activity was involved and organisers faced court, Mr Champion said he would seek to uplift such cases, as Nguyen’s was, from the County Court to the Supreme Court.
Nguyen, 42, was the main target of Operation Permute by the Fawkner Divisional Response Unit which traced him for eight months from August 2011, until his arrest at home surrounded by wealth.
He had been seen “going from crop house to crop house” in his “managerial role”, and buying goods that included plasma TVs and DVD players to help the “crop sitters”, 14 of whom have now been jailed, Mr Champion said.
The operation was “sophisticated and highly organised” with electrical meters bypassed, reticulated watering systems, high-powered lighting, chemicals, cultivating tools and equipment – including harvesting machines – with automated nutrient feeding systems in roof cavities.
Nguyen told police he had previously picked grapes and strawberries and repaired houses, but denied involvement. “I might have been there, but just for fun,” he said.
Although he later admitted guilt, at his first appearance before Justice Weinberg in April, the judge, Mr Champion and defence lawyer Charlie Nikakis were “surprised” to learn Nguyen had scored an IQ of 40 in tests conducted by psychologist Jeffrey Cummins.
He had assessed Nguyen because Mr Nikakis felt his client’s intelligence did not fit the Crown’s depiction of him.
“I’ve never struck an IQ of 40, I must say, or anything like it,” Justice Weinberg remarked, who felt Nguyen “would not be able to function” with such a score.
Mr Champion described it as “inexplicable” and a “mystery” and questioned whether Nguyen was fit to plead.
Given Nguyen had not only held a managerial role in a large, complex operation, but had negotiated the purchase of a $130,000 BMW, got a driver’s licence and had sent money overseas about 20 times, Mr Champion had a strong case for confusion.
In evidence, Mr Cummins said Nguyen’s true score was 70 or below which meant he was in the mildly intellectually disabled range, but thought it unlikely Nguyen had misled him.
The hearing was adjourned in April for the Crown to have him examined by a second experienced psychologist, Professor James Ogloff, who recently told Justice Weinberg he was “quite surprised” to learn from Nguyen he not only played chess, but won games.
The professor concluded that Nguyen did so poorly in testing that he was “most likely…malingering”.
Recalled to the witness box, Mr Cummins said he would be “absolutely shocked” if Nguyen played a “sensible game of chess”, but denied Mr Champion’s suggestion his first report was misleading because he had suggested his IQ was about 70.
In his plea in mitigation, Mr Nikakis said Mr Nguyen, who has no prior convictions, helped the crop sitters but in the syndicate he was “not a general…a lieutenant at best”.
Asked by Justice Weinberg about the money and items found at his house, Mr Nikakis said his client could not prove where it all came from.
Mr Champion submitted the “highly exploitative” offending was aggravated because people illegally in Australia of low-education status were targeted as crop sitters, including some who were escapees from immigration detention, and those who controlled the operation “took advantage of a number of vulnerable offenders”.
After serving whatever jail term Justice Weinberg imposes on Monday, Nguyen will be deported.
– Steve Butcher