A prominent businessman from the southern tablelands, who claimed to offer "white-collar ... logistics advice" and "board" experience in a major international drug trafficking operation, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to import the second largest cocaine seizure in Australian history.
Rohan Peter Arnold, 44, was apprehended during a dramatic gunpoint arrest in a Serbian hotel in January last year, over his role in the importation of 1.28 tonnes of the illicit substance, hidden inside hollow prefabricated steel on a container boat in April 2017.
His co-accused, Tristan Waters, 34, and David Campbell, 48, were also detained by local Serbian authorities during the arrest.
The 44-year-old Murrumbateman man had been facing five potential life sentences for five charges linked to his alleged role in the drug importation.
However less than two weeks ago he appeared before Sydney's Central Local Court, having cut a deal to plead guilty to a single offence of conspiring to import a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug, cocaine, between January 18, 2017 and January 16, 2018.
The four remaining charges against him, which included importing and attempting to import a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug, and attempting and conspiring to possess such a drug, were dropped.
It is understood the four related charges were discontinued in view of Mr Arnold's plea of guilty, at the discretion of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
On the single conspiracy charges, Mr Arnold still faces a possible maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
A well-known stockyard director and steel importer with multiple business interests, Mr Arnold has been in custody ever since his arrest and subsequent extradition from Serbia last year, which included an extraordinary sightseeing tour of Paris under federal police escort during his journey back to Australia.
Mr Arnold's guilty plea comes almost eight months after he made an unsuccessful application for bail in the Supreme Court, during which the court heard extensive details about the alleged importation from China and how it ended with dramatic scenes in Serbia.
In March last year it was revealed Mr Arnold had walked into a trap carefully laid by Australian Federal Police, who had utilised an undercover operative while conducting ongoing surveillance of the group ever since seizing the shipping container when it arrived in Australia in 2017.
When the group did not receive the container they had been expecting, the undercover operative led them to believe it had mistakenly been delivered to New Zealand, before luring them to a meeting in Serbia under the guise they could retrieve the cocaine for $3 million.
Instead the men found themselves face down on the carpet of a Belgrade hotel lobby, as their meeting was stormed by local police.
Mr Arnold's various business interests and experience in property development, the steel industry and the livestock trade were purportedly key to his alleged involvement in the importation.
"I do not fit the stereotype of the normal here ... I am a white-collar, successful businessman, where I sit on a number of boards," he allegedly wrote in an encrypted messaging chat group between syndicate members in 2017.
"Throughout my involvement I have tried to ... get this group to make decisions like a board ... right now we have a board at war with each other ... While my fingerprints are not directly on the project ... I have given logistics advice ... [so] the manufacturer may potentially come looking for my blood."
Mr Arnold is still listed as the director and secretary of nine companies, many of which hold his name, including Arnold Consulting Services Pty Ltd, Arnold Trading Pty Ltd and steel manufacturer Arnold Contracting (NO2) Pty Ltd, formerly S4Steel Pty Limited, which is currently under external administration.
Stephen John Hundy was appointed as liquidator in August last year, following Mr Arnold's arrest, after which it appeared to cease trading.
Mr Waters and Mr Campbell remain before the courts, with both men yet to enter a plea. Mr Waters will next appear at Central Local Court on July 24.
- SMH/The Age