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Brothel owner denies ‘hit man’ plot: court

Ricky Barbaro is standing trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Ellie Price.

A key witness in a murder trial has repeatedly denied he manipulated family members of a slain mother to withhold information about his “brothel empire” in court.

Mark Gray returned to the witness box on Monday for his third day of giving evidence at the Supreme Court trial of Ricardo Barbaro, 36.

Mr Barbaro is facing trial after pleading not guilty to the murder of his then-girlfriend Ellie Price, who was found in her blood-soaked South Melbourne apartment on May 5, 2020.

Describing his relationship with Ms Price, Mr Gray told the court they became close friends after meeting at the Mens Gallery in Melbourne, where she worked as an exotic dancer, in 2017.

He denied suggestions from Mr Barbaro’s barrister, Rishi Nathwani, that he was her “sugar daddy” but said he had spent a “small fortune” helping her out financially.

Instead he said he had paid for her rent, luxury car and weekly allowance as a “loan”, claiming Ms Price had returned about 50 per cent of the money.

Mr Gray was repeatedly questioned about whether he had instructed Ms Price’s sister, Danielle Price, and her mother, Tracey Gangell, to hide his occupation as a brothel owner during an earlier court appearance.

Tasmanian mum Ellie Price was found dead in her South Melbourne apartment in 2020. Photo: Facebook
Tasmanian mum Ellie Price was found dead in her South Melbourne apartment in 2020. Photo: Facebook
Police allege she was murdered at the hands of her boyfriend Ricardo Barbaro. Picture: Supplied
Police allege she was murdered at the hands of her boyfriend Ricardo Barbaro. Picture: Supplied

“Do you accept that you told Danielle to attempt to pervert the course of justice by not giving a truthful account and withholding information about your work,” Mr Nathwani asked.

“Do you accept you manipulated Danielle Price and Tracey Gangell?”

Mr Gray told the jury he “definitely” did not accept that, saying he was asking what was in their police statements because he was concerned about being “embarrassed” by media reports linking him to brothels in Melbourne and Sydney.

“I’m a private person … It‘s unnecessary and irrelevant and a tremendous embarrassment to my family and friends,” he said.

“I just wanted to ask if there was any mention so I could prepare my mum for what will be in the media.”

Mr Nathwani told the court after Mr Gray sent Danielle text messages questioning what she told police about his “$25 million brothel empire” she lied in court.

Last week, during her cross-examination, Danielle admitted Mr Gray had told her not to mention his relationship with brothels and to say he had loaned Ms Price money and not given it to her.

Ricky Barbaro is standing trial for the murder of Ellie Price.
Ms Price’s sister Danielle told the court last week she had been asked by brothel owner Mark Gray not to mention his relationship to brothels and to say he had loaned Ellie money, not given it to her. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Luis Enrique Ascui

The jury was told Danielle had previously stated she “hardly knew” Mr Gray and had denied knowing he was involved in brothels.

Mr Gray denied this was the case, saying he had only asked her what was in her police statement and expressly told Danielle to “tell the truth”.

Mr Gray further denied he had hired a hit man to kill Ms Price because she had attempted to extort $100,000 from him by threatening to file a false rape complaint, as suggested by Mr Nathwani.

Text messages between Mr Gray and Danielle Price were shown to the jury in which he suggested Mr Barbaro’s lawyers would try to pin her death on him.

“Amazing so I arranged a hit man because she extorted $25,000. Really? Her car was 4-5 times that amount and both her bonds were more why didn’t I call the hit man then. What a joke,” Mr Gray said in December 2020.

“The only problem is they (sic) when people throw mud some of it sticks even if you done nothing wrong.”

Mark Gray (not pictured) avoided cameras as he left court. Picture: NCA NewsWire

In his opening remarks to the jury last week, Mr Nathwani said questions would be raised about whether others had a motive for Ms Price’s death.

“To be clear this is a whodunit, that is Mr Barbaro denies that he killed Ellie Price,” he said.

“It’s not in dispute that Ellie Price worked in the adult entertainment industry … Did she upset anyone to a degree they would want to harm her?”

Prosecutors, led by Damien Hannan, allege that Mr Barbaro murdered Ms Price in a “violent altercation” during an early morning argument on April 29 before leaving her home in Ms Price’s Mercedes-Benz “never to return”.

She was reported missing by Ms Gangell, who lived in Tasmania, six days later after several days of failed attempts to contact her.

During a welfare check on May 4, police found her body with six stab wounds and an 8cm cut to her throat.

Mr Hannan said the prosecution would allege Mr Barbaro visited his father, Joe Barbaro, in Melbourne’s west before renting a van.

It’s alleged he drove to NSW, where he was arrested on May 13, “shortly” after Joe told his son that detectives had visited looking for him.

The trial, before Justice Lex Lasry, continues.