Far North Queensland's ice underbelly
THE police operation codenamed 'Ice Bulletin' culminated in the arrest of drug trafficker Gregory Betts, and shows that Cairns isn't only a "pot city", writers Damon Guppy.
For a scheme executed with such precision, Gregory Peter Betts’ elaborate drug trafficking network came to an inglorious end.
On May 14 last year, the 37-year-old career criminal stepped off a flight from Sydney to Cairns.
He was promptly detained by detectives and federal agents, none of whom believed the fake name he provided.
The officers whisked him to the Cairns police station and searched him thoroughly.
In his underwear, they found $12,000 in cash.
Detectives suspected he was carrying an illegal substance.
They extracted a confession that he was but they could not extract the drugs which, according to the police report, were “secreted internally”.
After eight awkward hours in a watch‑house cell, he finally produced 20g of crystal methylamphetamines, known on the street as “ice”.
That development helped close the chapter on an investigation into a trafficking scheme that turned over hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Six months earlier, the Far Northern Drug Squad launched an operation codenamed Ice Bulletin after receiving intelligence about a syndicate sourcing meth from interstate and selling it locally.
Lead investigator Det Sgt Brad Grace says Betts was identified as the mastermind.
“We established he was the organiser,” Det Sgt Grace says.
“Betts was knowledgeable and had the contacts to obtain the drugs.
“He was the organiser and distributor.”
Detectives were hardly surprised that Betts was so heavily involved.
The brawny thug has spent most of his adult life in jail.
His lengthy criminal record spans more than 10 years and includes two violent home invasions.
In one, he was among a group that used knuckledusters to bash a man at Stratford before they kidnapped him.
In the other, he and an associate stormed a Woree home and held a woman at gunpoint.
Almost all of Betts’ crimes, which include burglaries and assaults, have involved drugs.
In 2004, he was jailed for trafficking amphetamines in Cairns.
He was the ringleader of a small operation, guiding a “delivery boy” around the city to make regular sales.
Betts was sentenced to six years in prison but was out in 2008.
After launching their investigation, drug squad detectives tracked Betts for five months.
Their first major breakthrough came when officers tapped phone conversations between he and a close friend, Matthew James Burrell.
Police listened as they plotted to purchase, sell and make meth.
The exchange gave detectives a clearer idea of the network Betts was running.
His main sourcing method was to hire Natalie Fay Foley to fly to Sydney, buy two ounces of ice – up to $27,000 worth – and return with it concealed on her body.
Betts paid Foley $1000 plus expenses each trip she made.
Det Sgt Grace says she travelled to Sydney at least four times over a three-month period.
“The ice was returned to Cairns by Foley and then Betts and Burrell would on-supply the drugs to drug users in Cairns,” he says.
Burrell, 28, was Betts’ right-hand man, his dealer on the street.
Like Betts, Burrell had form and is no stranger to prison; he has been done for drugs, armed robbery, burglary and stealing.
When he was 19, he looted a convenience store at Magnetic Island during cyclone Tessi and confessed to a long string of break-ins, fraud offences and a serious assault.
In 2005, he surrendered to police a stash of firearms hidden in a waterfall and bushes at Crystal Cascades.
Foley, however, has no major prior history with police and she hardly resembles a drug mule.
The 35-year-old user would have resembled just another respectable-looking passenger.
Betts also sourced meth from Townsville.
From there and Sydney, he bought more than 220g of the drug, enough to sell for more than $300,000 on the street.
On the same day that Betts was arrested last year, the Far Northern Drug Squad and Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) officers launched simultaneous raids on properties in Cairns, Kuranda, Mossman and on the Tableland.
Burrell was at one of those properties, a White Rock home.
He tried to flee but was chased down by a police dog.
A SERT officer shot a guard dog that tried to attack them.
In Burrell’s bathroom, detectives found a loaded handgun.
On a 50ha grazing property near Mossman, police uncovered a clandestine drug laboratory and a cache of firearms.
A well-established campsite, hidden on the edge of rainforest, contained a trailer, 10 guns, chemicals, glassware and meth.
The set-up was traced back to Betts and his cohorts.
For her role as a jet-setting courier, Foley was sentenced to three years’ jail in March this year.
She’ll be eligible for parole in March next year.
Two weeks ago, Burrell was sentenced to six years but is up for parole in December next year.
Both had come to know Betts because they were users.
“Burrell was an associate who got mixed up with him,” Det Sgt Grace says.
“They (Betts, Burrell and Foley) just came across each other – the main thing was the use of the drug.”
Betts copped a nine-year sentence for trafficking meth, three years for producing it and three years for possessing the drug.
All terms are to be served concurrently but he will be eligible for parole in 2015.
Seventeen other people were charged during Ice Bulletin but they were minor players.
“They were users who were on the periphery,” Det Sgt Grace says.
To say smashing Betts’ network has pleased police is an understatement.
Crystal meth is a drug that fills authorities with fear; it’s the rocket fuel of stimulants and it’s lethal to the user and anyone around them.
Users experience an intense rush for 12 or more hours, followed by “bulletproof” behaviour; psychotic episodes are common.
“It’s the level of purity of the drug that’s the biggest concern,” Det Sgt Grace says.
“It could be young kids using it and it’s in its strongest form possible.
“This is a serious drug, a dangerous drug.”
Only the naive would believe such a drug is confined to metropolitan cities, and that Cairns is a cannabis town.
Det Sgt Grace says Betts’ venture – and several other seizures in recent years – prove ice is a threat to the region.
“As it shows, there’s obviously a market for it up here,” he says.
“What they were bringing back was very high quality.
“Clearly, we don’t want that up here.”
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Cold catch: A police officer with some seized methamphetamine. Picture: BRENDAN FRANCIS.