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Bruno The Fox Romeo
Bruno 'The Fox' Romeo

Cerberus was the name of a three-headed dog which guarded the gates to the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology.

It was also the perfect title for a National Crime Authority operation aimed squarely at Italo-Australian organised crime and, more specifically, members of the Calabrese crime group L'Onorata - the Honoured Society.

For years, the group had dominated the marijuana-growing industry in Australia, boasting connected cells in northern Queensland, the tri-border area of Victoria-NSW-SA and the NSW Riverina city of Griffith, where it was led by notorious crime boss "Aussie" Bob Trimbole and, according to Justice Philip Woodward's report on the 1979 NSW royal commission into the illegal drug trade, Calabrian-born Tony Sergi.

But WA was also in the grip of the "grass" farmers. In 1978, a marijuana plantation was discovered at Lake Grace, east of Katanning, and three Italian men were arrested and jailed. Justice Woodward attributed the 2000-plant operation to L'Onorata. It was also suggested that the Lake Grace crop was not its first in this State.

Despite the emergence of heroin in Perth in the late 1970s, L'Onorata continued growing cannabis crops Australia-wide for distribution throughout its network until the 1990s.

In late 1989 a WA Department of Agriculture inspector stumbled on a cannabis crop at Kalli sheep station, near Cue, triggering a police investigation which would smash the L'Onorata syndicate and lead to another crop at Gingin and a planned crop at Mt Elvire Station in the Goldfields.

Ten men were arrested, including WA ringleaders Rocco Versace and Sebastiano "Dom" Pizzata, but the principal, named at the so-called "10 heads" trial as being Bruno "The Fox" Romeo, was nowhere to be found.

The 99-day trial finished just as the NCA was launching Operation Cerberus. Five men were convicted of conspiracy and three of related charges. But now the three-headed hound had its first target. Cerberus was going on a fox hunt.

Born in 1929 in Plati - the same Calabrian village as Trimbole and Sergi - Romeo was identified by the Bureau of Criminal Intelligence as being a senior member of L'Onorata as early as 1965. His three sons all have drug convictions, including one who was jailed in WA in the mid-1980s for a cannabis crop at Mt Magnet.

He was a close associate of the Sergi family and his wife Nazzarena Perre is related to Domenic Perre, who was later named by South Australia's coroner as the man behind the 1994 bombing death of WA police officer Geoffrey Bowen. Romeo's crime links ran deep and he had evaded police for 30 years.

But it took just three months for WA detective Peter Coombs, working under a Cerberus subsidiary operation codenamed Rottweiler, to arrest Romeo near Lismore in NSW after a bush stake-out complete with camouflage. Eighteen months later, looking frail and old, Romeo pleaded guilty to conspiracy and cultivation charges and was jailed for 10 years. Cerberus immediately began sniffing out new quarry.

WA police had first visited the Bickley orchard of Salvatore "Sam" Scaffidi in 1991, when they found two marijuana crops with more than 600 plants and arrested Scaffidi's brother Francesco, who claimed he planned to smoke all the plants to relieve the chronic pain he still suffered from a 1960 motorcycle accident and a 1987 truck accident.

Sam Scaffidi, meanwhile, didn't appear to need the money. He had successful fruit and vegetable businesses in Armadale and Spearwood which boasted $1 million-plus in annual turnover. But Scaffidi was greedy and knew he was dying of mesothelioma - a legacy of having worked with hundreds of other mainly ethnic men as a mill hand at the Wittenoom asbestos mine for a few months in 1963.

In May 1993, detectives found 214kg of cannabis, worth more than $1 million, hidden in fruit packing boxes on top of a cool room. Bundles of cash, totalling $755,000, were also found buried in a garden behind his orchard though Scaffidi would later claim $1.17 million had been buried and that police had stolen the difference.

They also raided an Eneabba farm leased by Scaffidi where they found evidence that the property, Tanderra Farm, had been used to cultivate cannabis crops, including cannabis seeds, and they found the necessary reticulation, machinery and paperwork.

In another raid in October, police were greeted at the Scaffidis' front door by Franca Scaffidi, who made tea and cakes for the officers. But it didn't stop them finding more cannabis and another $95,000 inside. In May 1994, Scaffidi was charged with two counts of possessing cannabis with intent to sell or supply. Then, while on home detention awaiting trial, Scaffidi was charged with being the financier of a Gingin amphetamine laboratory where police discovered 4kg of "speed" base worth about $2 million.

But Scaffidi would never face trial. While waiting for his day in court, he settled his civil suit against CSR over his deadly illness, and died in October 1994.

After his death, it was revealed he had borrowed $100,000 from Northbridge's illegal gambling boss Carlo Rispoli and had never repaid it. The links between the gambling clubs and the drug scene had never been more obvious.

It was perhaps a blessing for Scaffidi that he died when he did. His amphetamines project was doomed from the start because of the involvement of an NCA informant named Francesco Domenico La Rosa.

La Rosa was sentenced to 12 years jail and later rose to fame after he successfully claimed a $220,000 tax deduction for money stolen from him during a botched drug deal. Last year, police found the bodies of La Rosa and his wife Kim buried on a property in Chittering. Two men have been charged with the murders.

But for all their Australia-wide notoriety in the cannabis industry, the Italian L'Onorata members were by no means the kings of Perth's grass castles. That title belonged to one Ivan Jack Marinovich.

Born on Christmas Day in 1943, Marinovich became a drug Godfather in the 1980s, but had started out as a truck driver and heavy gambler. In the early 1970s, he first came to the attention of police when he was charged with the gang rape of a 17-year-old girl at Mullaloo. There were three juveniles co-accused with Marinovich. A gambler named Martin "Freddy" Rintel and friend Salvatore Tomarchio were also charged. Tomarchio was a lifelong cannabis user and gold prospector who made national news this year for loan sharking to struggling Aboriginal families in Laverton.

But the rape charges fell away after the girl signed a statement saying the crimes never happened. She was then charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice - a crime which she admitted. Eventually, the rape charges were reinstated, and a court was told the girl had been paid $2000 to sign the statement. The defence denied the allegation and the charges were dropped again when a doctor gave evidence the girl was faking the complaint.

For the next few years, Marinovich and Rintel, who later became Burswood International Room patrons, were as thick as thieves. The police rarely caused them problems and they increased the size of their tight-knit gang when they hooked up with a group of northern suburbs hoods who fancied themselves as future boxing champions. Marinovich, being much older, naturally became leader and friend to many of those boys. Among them was a promising young fighter named John Kizon.

In 1979, Marinovich was charged with growing more than 7000 cannabis plants in remote scrub country north of Lake Gnangara. At his trial, which was held in the old Beaufort Street Courthouse, Marinovich said drug squad detectives had only seen him inspecting the cannabis plants because he had accidentally discovered the plantation when he went to chop wood. He said the plastic bags in his garage had been for his sandwiches, the seed trays at his house were used to germinate palms and the cannabis seeds were there because he smoked the occasional joint. The magistrate believed him.

It wasn't long before police tried again and this time Marinovich's counterclaims didn't work. In 1981, Marinovich, Rintel and market gardener Giuseppe "Joe" Cardile faced charges of cultivating and possessing cannabis with intent to sell or supply it.

At their trial, Marinovich said he and his friends had heard about the Yanchep crop from a man named John Kizon and had gone there to steal some. Kizon had drawn them a map so they could find the crop easily. The magistrate found them guilty only of possessing the 1.4kg of cannabis they managed to stuff into their bags before being arrested by waiting detectives. The trio were jailed for just five months each and Rintel was later convicted for heroin dealing.

But Marinovich was still in the game.

"Marinovich was using the name Conti and had a red Mercedes," former detective Bob Colton said. "He was moving heaps of stuff. But because of the finances and the time it was, we wanted to keep what we were doing a secret. So we eventually got set up in the Kings Ambassador Hotel. The Australian Federal Police and Customs were listening in real time to Marinovich."

Cerberus had badly mauled WA's crime bosses, but now it was time for a new operation called Synecdoche.