Even the police who arrested him say Brad Clark wasn’t a bad bloke. Even the judge who sentenced him accepted he was no career criminal and deserved a sentence discount in exchange for pleading guilty and showing contrition.
Assistant Commissioner Robert Hill warns that 1,4-butandediol can be deadly. Credit:Paul Jeffers
But there would be no second chance for Bradley Leigh Clark, who will now spend years with the sort of hardened criminals he had never met.
In late February 2019, he was flying and preparing to celebrate his 24th birthday in a few days. He would spend it in a small remand cell before ultimately being sentenced to 11 years with a minimum of seven for drug trafficking. It was his first offence and first conviction. He had imported a total of about 888 grams of the stimulant MDMA (ecstasy) and a small amount of ketamine in 15 importations from Germany and the Netherlands.
He took delivery over five months and was arrested on March 1, having picked up his last posted package that contained just seven grams of MDMA.
Factory worker Clark, who built commercial sliding doors, including high-security prison versions, saw drugs as a business opportunity. Buying on the Dark Web, he didn’t need vast criminal contacts or an army of heavies to protect him. He didn’t own a gun and thought he could remain invisible to law enforcement dealing from the rented Cranbourne home he shared with his fiancee.
He says he didn’t even use drugs. He just considered he was supplying a demand for people who did. No one would get hurt and he would have a more than handy second income.
When he was arrested, there was no gangster-like code of silence. He readily confessed the truth and that was he wasn’t much good as a drug dealer. “Between people ripping me off and asking for lower prices … I probably only made … about 16 grand all up,” he told police. He didn’t even order ketamine, it just turned up instead of MDMA. And you can’t whinge when your illegal drugs aren’t top quality. The Dark Web doesn’t have a complaints department.
He spent $10,000 to buy the drugs and police found $8000 in a safe in his house. Clark said that was his profit from his drug venture.
In the big league, 900 grams is chump change but it is over the commercial quantity 500-gram threshold punishable by a maximum life sentence. And so Clark loses at least seven years of freedom for the price of a reliable second-hand car.
A week before his arrest, he posted on social media the cryptic message, “sometimes we need fantasy to survive reality”. Was he promoting his product or commenting on his lifestyle? Then, his fantasy was to get rich. Now, his reality is a small prison cell.
Sentencing Judge Frank Gucciardo said: “Stern punishment is warranted here to reflect your culpability and the great social consequences of your offending. The sentence must signal to others who may be like-minded that the financial rewards to be gained are neutralised by the risk of severe punishment.”
Maybe we in the media who love to highlight so-called soft sentences are doing the world a disservice. Maybe the tough sentences should receive equal publicity to show the risks of trafficking drugs.
“He had no form and was quite a nice fellow,” says detective Senior Sergeant Mark Newlan. “The results for him are catastrophic. His life will never be the same. I think people need to understand the risks, it ruins lives.”
It is the sixth age of modern drug dealing. The first was Italian organised crime that grew cannabis along with legal crops; the second, Asian gangs specialising in heroin; the third, career armed robbers who, as the cash economy dried up, moved to the more lucrative illicit powder markets. The fourth was bikies who learned how to manufacture amphetamines and the fifth was drug dealers such as Tony Mokbel who built crime empires from the ground up.
Drug heavyweight Robert "Aussie Bob" Trimbole, from the first age of modern drug trafficking. Credit:Fairfax Media
The sixth age involves people with little or no crime experience who set up Dark Web distribution networks. Such as the respected national sales manager who supplemented his $150,000-a-year income by buying deadly fentanyl to sell online, preparing it on the kitchen table in front of his two daughters. So efficient was his system his customers gave him a five-star rating for delivery and quality with the product labelled “Perfume Forever”. That is until his "five-star" product killed a Perth customer.
“They think they will not be detected; they don’t need to worry about informers, don’t need guns and won’t get ripped off in drug run-throughs,” says Newlan. “They don’t consider themselves to be criminals.” Such as the young couple recently charged who will probably not see each other for years other than the day they share the court dock to be sentenced.
Newlan says the naive get-rich-quick internet dealers think that if caught, they will be treated leniently by courts. The case of Bradley Clark shows this is just not true.
Newlan is the head of Icarus, a Victoria Police, Australian Federal Police, Border Force and Department of Home Affairs taskforce concentrating on the booming online drug trade.
Before Icarus, drugs under a kilo discovered in the post were usually destroyed without follow-up investigations. For the dealer, that was simply factored into the business model.
Victoria Police Commissioner Shane Patton.Credit:Justin McManus
Chief Commissioner Shane Patton says the drug effort should concentrate on drugs such as ice and speed that create the most harm. He says police should not be content with grabbing “low-hanging fruit".
The raw figures are grim. Every week, posties deliver thousands of innocuous-looking parcels containing drugs.
The money generated from the illicit drug market in Victoria is about to overtake the budget of Victoria Police, and the number of offenders arrested every day on methamphetamines offences has jumped from nearly nine to 29 in less than 10 years.
There has been a 7000 per cent jump in MDMA seizures in the past 10 years and methamphetamine overdose deaths in Victoria have jumped from 14 in 2010 to 111 last year.
In 2019, there were 516 overdose deaths compared to the road toll of 266. In 405 of the cases, prescription medication, often diazepam, was present in the victims.
It is yet another underground drug market: prescription drugs without a prescription. As doctor-shopping has become more difficult, the online trade has exploded. About 13 per cent of drugs seized from postal deliveries are prescription drugs, used by illicit drug dealers to come down from binges.
More than 95 per cent of all illicit powder seizures are made through the post. Newlan says some dealers have made thousands of on-line sales.
The last 55 Icarus postal operations have resulted in 4300 articles being seized.
The ease of click-and-collect on the Dark Web means drug dealers are increasingly buying multiple types of drugs to create what Newlan describes as virtual general stores.
The new-style drug dealer has found a niche but the market is so big and the profits so vast there is room for everyone, including the syndicates that move huge quantities.
In July, Icarus detectives, acting on information from Border Force, found 4.125 tonnes of 1,4-butanediol in a Brooklyn warehouse, shipped to Victoria from China.
A previous seizure of drums of 1,4-butanediol, sold as a party drug.Credit:Victoria Police
Bute is used as an industrial solvent, a graffiti remover and in the automotive industry. So who in their right mind would swallow it?
Crims set up fake cleaning companies and jump online to order tonnes from China then target nightclubs and music festivals. Few users know they are taking a cleaning product rather than “real’’ GHB.
Bute is turned into GHB by the liver but as the process is slow, users can become impatient and take a second or third swig — resulting in multiple overdoses.
In 2011, there were 451 GHB (read Bute) overdoses. Six years later, the number had jumped to 1299 although in 2018-19 it had dropped back to 808.
Bute is sold as GHB or liquid fantasy. It suppresses heart and respiration when used with alcohol.
It is also a date rape drug, sweetened with cordial and slipped into a victim’s drink.
The profits are massive. Imported for $7000 a 2000-litre barrel, it can be sold immediately wholesale for $200,000.
The drug is sold to consumers for between $7 and $15 for a three-millilitre hit, in little soy sauce fish containers.
Fish-shaped soy sauce bottles are sometimes used to sell doses of 1,4-butanediol, a GHB alternative.Credit:Victoria Police
The Brooklyn seizure took 1.36 million doses off the market at a value of more than $16 million.
Here there is a glitch in the law. While it is illegal under state law to possess Bute for human consumption, it is not illegal to import it for industrial purposes under Commonwealth law.
The multi-prong nature of drug syndicates can be shown that during the investigation, detectives seized 165 kilograms of hypophosphorous (to make speed), steroids, cannabis from crop houses, MDMA, glassware for drug production and cash.
Four men aged from 28 to 31 are facing multiple drug charges after the raids.
Assistant Commissioner (Crime) Robert Hill says 1,4-butanediol is often a drug of choice for users because it’s relatively inexpensive. "However, it’s highly unpredictable and because it works slowly in the body, we have seen a number of overdoses over the years.
"The difference between survival and a fatal overdose can be incredibly small.”
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John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his "Sly of the Underworld" segment.