Tony Mokbel was a big target in the biggest game in town
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Tony Mokbel was a big target in the biggest game in town

Publicity in the underworld can be deadly and it is always wise to fly under the radar rather than crash into the tower.

Just a day after a front-page story said Tony Mokbel was a powerful enforcer inside Barwon Prison, he was stabbed inside that very jail and left in a serious condition.

It mirrors the events of April 2010 when underworld heavyweight Carl Williams was killed in the same prison the day a page one story was published saying police were paying Carl’s daughter’s private school fees.

This confirmed what many already knew – Carl had become a police informer.

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In fact he was reading the paper when cellmate Matthew Johnson beat him to death with part of an exercise bike.

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Mokbel, 53, was serving 30 years for drug trafficking when he was stabbed on Monday.

Williams was acutely aware that publicity could be fatal. When The Age published a story saying that in 1999 he was shot by Jason Moran in a park in Gladstone Park he contacted this reporter to say: "You could get someone killed writing a story like that."

This is because violent crooks rarely write stern letters to the editor but prefer more direct action.

Tony Mokbel was arrested in Greece while wearing an ill-fitting wig.

Tony Mokbel was arrested in Greece while wearing an ill-fitting wig.

Mokbel, the former syndicate boss, suffered a heart attack in prison and embraced a disciplined lifestyle, lost weight, exercised regularly and became a pescatarian, living largely on tinned fish, brown rice, fresh vegetables and egg white omelettes.

This was a far cry from how he survived an earlier stint in prison.

According to an underworld hitman turned police informer who met Mokbel in 2001 in Port Phillip Prison’s high-security Swallow Division, the drug boss also wanted to be a big player in prison.

"Tony Mokbel came into the unit when he was on remand for drug charges. I hadn’t had any dealing(s) with Tony before he came into the unit. After a period of time Tony became part of our crew; we used to eat together and occasionally drink alcohol. I was working in the kitchen at the time and used to smuggle food out for Tony, as he loved his food," the hitman known as The Runner said.

"Over this time Tony and I became friends. I helped Tony with a dispute he had with another prisoner. I also managed to smuggle in a mobile phone for him whilst in the Penrhyn Unit.

"The mobile was later found by guards outside the Penhyn Unit near one of the cell windows. Tony told me later that he had thrown the phone out the window as he heard the guards were doing a search."

The difference then was that inmates wanted to be on Mokbel’s side. He was the boss of a syndicate that had a lifetime turnover of $400 million. He was powerful, rich and generous and could employ his favoured inmates on their release.

Tony Mokbel arrives at Athens' Korydallos prison in May 2008 before being flown back to Australia.

Tony Mokbel arrives at Athens' Korydallos prison in May 2008 before being flown back to Australia.Credit:John Kolesides

Now he is just another middle-aged inmate, and worse, one with a reputation. Attack Tony Mokbel and your position in the pecking order of a violent prison is on the rise.

It is a story often repeated. When Mark Brandon Read was at the peak of his powers in Pentridge’s H Division, he was stabbed and nearly killed in an ambush.

One of those attackers was Greg Bluey Brazel. Many years later Brazel was attacked by Matthew Johnson.

Killer Alex Tsakmakis took offence at a crack made by fellow inmate, double murderer Barry Robert Quinn. He set him on fire and burned him to death.

Tsakmakis was later beaten to death in the same prison.

For big tough inmates many prisoners have remarkably thin skins. Professional killer Rod Collins was bashed for using someone else's toothbrush and the bloody Overcoat Gang war in H Division started after Chopper Read was accused of eating too many sausages on Christmas morning.

It is the way of the jungle where kings are toppled the moment they show frailty.

The bigger picture is the biggest crime game in town, the royal commission into Informer 3838, who was an informer for the police while acting as a barrister for many of the heaviest crooks around, Tony Mokbel included.

Now some witnesses will be too frightened to testify. After all they can get you when you least expect it. Just ask Tony Mokbel. That is if he wakes up.

John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his "Sly of the Underworld" segment.

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