A Bungendore business owner has been jailed for more than a decade after attempting to import an excavator stuffed full of high-purity cocaine, then giving "deliberately dishonest" evidence about it.
Adam Phillip Hunter, 35, stared straight ahead as he was sentenced in the NSW District Court on Friday to 12 years and nine months behind bars.
Judge Andrew Colefax, who described the landscaper as a key player in the operation, imposed a non-parole period of eight years and three months.
Hunter, a father of four, was well-regarded in the community when he used his business, Bungendore Landscape Supplies, in a bid to make an illicit importation appear legitimate.
He did so because he was in such a financial hole at the relevant time, in 2019, that he was "unable to meet even basic living expenses".
Hunter's money troubles were seized upon by a mysterious regular client, known only as "coffee man" because the pair regularly met for a warm drink.
Judge Colefax said "coffee man" was involved with a criminal syndicate that wanted to import, from South Africa, a significant amount of cocaine that had been concealed in the hydraulic arm of a refurbished excavator.
This shadowy figure recruited Hunter, who was told to scrape together roughly $50,000 and send it to a South African corporation in exchange for this machine.
Hunter was to receive the 20-tonne digger at his landscaping yard and hire it out to members of the syndicate, with whom he communicated using an encrypted phone given to him by "coffee man".
Judge Colefax said Hunter had obviously trusted these unknown criminals because the idea was that they would remove what was hidden inside, repair the damage done to the excavator during the retrieval, and return the digger.
Hunter was then supposed to send some unidentified person an invoice for $50,000, meaning he would effectively receive the excavator for free.
But the plan fell apart when the second-hand digger arrived in an "unusable" state, leading the syndicate to offer Hunter an additional $50,000 to cut the drugs out himself and leave them for collection.
He and a friend, who cannot be named, were using an angle grinder to extract what they thought was the cocaine when police, who had been surveilling them, pounced.
Authorities had earlier intercepted the excavator at the Australian border and replaced the 384 packages of cocaine it held with an inert substance.
Hunter, who later pleaded guilty to a charge of attempting to import a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, has been in custody since his arrest in July 2019.
During protracted sentence proceedings, he said he knew there was a concealment in the excavator.
But Hunter denied knowing specifically what it was when he agreed to import the digger, though he said he had suspected it to be illicit drugs.
He claimed he was not "remotely interested" because he just wanted a free excavator; a story Judge Colefax described on Friday as "inherently implausible".
The judge found Hunter had known when he "purchased" the digger that it held a "significant" quantity of illicit drugs, even if he had not been aware of the exact type or amount.
Judge Colefax also rejected the proposition that Hunter was only initially promised "a sight unseen" excavator in exchange for his "highly risky criminal conduct", saying he must have been under the impression the syndicate would reward him with more.
While Hunter was not the "mastermind" behind the plot, he was found to have been "closely involved in the entire importation process" and to have known more than he let on in court.
Judge Colefax described aspects of Hunter's evidence as implausible, to be approached with circumspection, and deliberately untrue.
In light of this, he was unable to find Hunter's expressions of remorse, which had seemed "powerful" at face value, were indeed genuine.
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Rather, the judge found Hunter was only sorry for the position he now found himself in behind bars at the notorious Goulburn jail.
With time already served, Hunter will become eligible for parole in October 2027.
Police have previously estimated the value of the cocaine concealed in the excavator as being $144 million, but Judge Colefax said on Friday its exact worth was unclear.
He said the 384kg of plastic-wrapped blocks found in the machine had contained high-purity cocaine, with a minimum total pure weight of 276.1kg.
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