In the days before Antonius ‘Tony’ Mokbel began his odyssey to Greece, vanishing mid-trial, his lawyer Nicola Gobbo did something strange.
The infamous barrister-turned-informant told police to keep a close eye on him – and, at the same time, covertly encouraged him to escape. The perplexing motive behind issuing these contradictory directives remains a mystery.
Mokbel was on trial for importing cocaine in March 2006, facing decades in prison, when – official records show – Gobbo told her handler that Mokbel had twice told her not to call him over the weekend.
It put her on notice. She thought maybe he was doing something criminal. When Gobbo came back to court the next week, Mokbel was gone.
Mokbel’s allegation that Gobbo told him he should “seriously think about absconding” emerged during the week as he provided evidence in a trial supporting his appeal against the drug conviction, for which he’s serving 30 years.
Sharp, confident and energetic in the witness box, wearing a blue tie and pressed suit, Mokbel on Tuesday sensationally claimed to Judge Elizabeth Fullerton that detectives inside the now-disbanded underworld-busting Purana Taskforce told Gobbo multiple murder charges were imminent.
He went further the next day: Purana, he said, intended to keep charging him, murder after murder, until one stuck. It was that which moved Gobbo to spill and prompted him to flee, he said.
Fullerton, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge overseeing the case here in Victoria, has been brought down in case any of the Supreme Court bench need to be called as witnesses.
Judge John Champion, formerly director of public prosecutions, is expected to be sworn in. Fullerton’s job is a fact-finding mission for the Court of Appeal, trying to sort truth from fiction before the appeal is decided in full.
In this first week alone, instead of dispelling the fog of the underworld war, Mokbel’s evidence has only thickened it – and further obscured the character of his and Nicola Gobbo’s relationship, around which so much of the tumultuous saga of the war and its fallout orbit almost 20 years after the fact.
Each day Mokbel is trucked into the County Court under the watchful eye of specialist security guards. He walks freely for the brief moment between the dock and the witness box, and stands as he gives evidence in a crowded courtroom.
Mokbel’s evidence so far has sought to tightly weave Gobbo’s presence into the fabric of his personal and professional life, positioning her not only as a trusted advisor but also as a confidante, a companion at dinner and a gym buddy.
“She was an in-house counsel, she was a friend, she was everything,” Mokbel told Fullerton on Thursday afternoon. “She was extremely kind to me … we had a great relationship, your honour”.
“I trusted her so much it wasn’t funny … I respected her like my sister.”
And on the other side is David Glynn, the lead barrister for the Office of Public Prosecutions, who dedicated the week to dissecting Mokbel’s claims and repeatedly putting to the former drug kingpin that he was inflating their relationship.
“I’m putting to you that in fact you’re systematically exaggerating her role in what’s going on,” Glynn pressed Mokbel.
“Absolutely zero not,” Mokbel replied.
Mokbel didn’t waste his time in the box. In a single week he began picking at old wounds that had only just started to heal over since the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants.
Carl Williams hated Gobbo, he said, and warned Mokbel against using her.
He implied Gobbo was reporting false information to her handlers, including rejecting an allegation Gobbo made that Mokbel was considering speaking to police.
It was, to a certain extent, Gobbo’s relationship that compelled Purana to enlist her as an informant in 2005, in their fervour to capture Mokbel, but it is also this relationship which might allow Mokbel to free himself of Barwon Prison six years before his parole date.
She was an in-house council, she was a friend, she was everything.
Mokbel on Gobbo
Mokbel now finds himself in the witness box arguing the depth and meaning of a relationship with someone who betrayed him.
It is ironic, too, that Gobbo, for all her playing double agent, was so mercurial about Mokbel.
Gobbo talked during the royal commission of her animosity for the drug lord and underworld kingpin.
She felt trapped by him, and how he and boss Carl Williams were coercing her to act as a defacto legal enforcer on their behalf.
“I adamantly refused to play along with [Mokbel and Williams], their rules which was, ‘You’re part of the crew and you must ensure that you act for people but … don’t let them roll’,” she said in 2019.
She was driven to inform on Mokbel, she told Commissioner Margaret McMurdo, to free herself of him.
“I wanted all of them out of my life,” she said.
“I wanted a tram to hit me on the way to court … because I could not work out how to not disappoint anyone, or how to not let anyone down and how to get out of that mess,” she said.
But she was also drawn to him.
“Like every person, he does have some redeeming features … looking back, I wanted to belong,” she said.
“As pathetic as it is for me to admit, I did derive some self-importance and some feeling that I was relevant or validated, by reason of being wanted by people like Tony.”
Gobbo told police she was an agent of Mokbel’s criminal enterprise, paid in drug money and enlisted to pervert the criminal justice system.
Layered within this contradiction sits the secondary inconsistency: Why did she tell Mokbel to leave but encourage police to make him stay? Was it a trap?
For years Gobbo’s identity was masked behind different pseudonyms. Victoria Police called her Informer 3838, she was dubbed EF in litigation, and the media called her Lawyer X.
In this trial, her simultaneous presence and absence filled the crowded courtroom on William Street. The figure whose intentions were being debated but who won’t be called to the witness box.
Perhaps it was the gravity of the three-month trial ahead, or the sense that the fog is again gradually descending, but Fullerton breathed a sigh at the end of argument on Friday.
“That’s week one, tick,” she said.
John Silvester lifts the lid on Australia’s criminal underworld. Subscribers can sign up to receive his Naked City newsletter every Thursday.