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Murder, Extortion, and Gelato: a History of the Italian Mafia in Australia

The body of a Melbourne lawyer was found behind his gelato shop on Tuesday. For the "Honoured Society," he was just another casualty of their 90-year history.

by Maddison Connaughton
20 March 2016, 12:00am

Photo by Flickr user Tony Webster

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia

Around 3AM on March 15, the body of Joseph Acquaro was found behind his gelato shop in Melbourne, Australia's Italian heartland of Lygon Street. It's thought Acquaro had locked up for the night and was walking to his car when he was shot in a drive-by attack.

Police interview the garbage man who discovered Acquaro's body. Image via

Locals mourned Acquaro as a pillar of the Italian community: a former head of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, a stalwart at the Reggio Calabria Club in Parkville. But media suspicion quickly turned to Acquaro's other Calabrian connection – as the longtime lawyer for the Australian outpost of the 'Ndrangheta mafia gang, the Honoured Society. If this is true, it makes Acquaro the latest victim of one of the country's most secretive and brutal criminal groups, whose violent history stretches back almost a century.

It's possible you haven't heard of "The Society" because Melbourne's other gangland circle, the one headed by Carl Williams, dominated media bandwidth throughout the 2000s. But while Jason Moran, Mick Gatto, and Tony Mokbel were becoming household names in the country, the Society consolidated its power quietly in the background. Between 2004 and 2014, the gang's members amassed more than £5.25 million ($10 million in AUD) in real estate and race horses in Victoria alone, pouring money into wholesalers, cafes, and restaurants, and the La Porchetta pizza chain.

Diverse business interests have been the Society's game since the start. The 'Ndrangheta's presence in Australia can be traced back to 1922, when a ship named the Re d'Italia left Calabria – the boot-shaped southern end of Italy – and docked in Adelaide. The ship offloaded three 'Ndrangheta gang members, and a criminal franchise was founded. The Society's first local business was in fruit and vegetables—for which they quickly became known for extorting farmers and charging market stallholders protection fees. From groceries the Society diversified, moving into drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and the occasional murder.

Those early years were marred by a violent war between the newly arrived Calabrians and the Sicilians, who had arrived some 20 years earlier. While the two groups were neighbors back in Italy, the 'Ndrangheta and the Sicilian mafia were fiercely independent of one another in New York's underworld. This animosity was carried to Australia where, between 1928 and 1940, 10 murders in northern Queensland were attributed to infighting.

By the 1960s the Calabrians had a stranglehold over Melbourne's wholesale vegetable and fruit trade, but the murder of a market worker named Vincenzo Angilletta sparked a new wave of violence. As Angilletta sat in his car in the driveway of his Northcote home, he was shot twice through the back window. His wife Maria later found him dead at the wheel, the car still running.

Queen Victoria Markets in the 1960s. Image via archive

The question of why Angilletta was killed comes back to the Honoured Society's ruthless desire for control. It's thought Angilletta had started a faction called La Bastarda – literally the Bastard Society – and with 300 members at its peak, the group became a threat to the establishment. His death was allegedly ordered by the Australian Crimine, which is a sort of board of directors tasked by their headquarters in Italy to ensure the Australian outpost doesn't splinter into chaos. It's believed the Australian Crimine still operates today.

Retribution came quickly. In 1964, Vincenzo Muratore – the Society's money man – met the exact same fate as Angilletta: shot while sitting in his car in his driveway as he headed for the dawn markets.

The Market Murders gave Australian police a glimpse into the criminal underworld that had been forming right under their nose. Support was called in, with US Bureau of Narcotics supervisor John T. Cusack, and Calabrian assistant police commissioner Dr. Ugo Macera traveling to Australia to investigate the group. Neither report has ever been made public.

Leaked copies of Cusack's findings speak of an Italian secret society operating in Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia; with footholds in Queensland and Western Australia. "The Calabrian L'Onorata Societa is well entrenched in Australia," he wrote. "It is already engaged in extortion, prostitution, counterfeiting, sly grog, breaking and entering, illegal gambling, and the smuggling of aliens and small arms."

The Parkville Reggio Calabria Club in Melbourne, a popular haunt for Honoured Society members. Image via

It was more than a decade before the Society made news again, when Liberal Party anti-drug campaigner Donald MacKay was murdered in 1977 in Griffith, NSW, which is the Society's Australian headquarters. MacKay vanished from the parking lot of the Griffith Hotel, where he'd been having drinks with friends, and was never seen again. Investigators found bloodstains on his locked van and three .22 shell casings scattered across the bitumen.

MacKay's fate had been sealed when his name was accidentally leaked as the whistleblower during a trial of four Calabrian men. They had been growing a large marijuana crop in Coleambally, about 40 miles south of Griffith. Robert Trimboli, a Griffith-based man rich and audacious enough to own a yacht called "Cannabis," was charged for MacKay's murder but fled to Spain.

Confronted once again by the brutality of the mob, the government sprung into action, launching the Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking. This two-year investigation brought national attention to Griffith, where the Society was growing massive quantities of marijuana between orange trees or grape vines. Once harvested, their illegal haul was stashed amongst boxes of fruit and veg, and trucked to major city markets. More than 30 years later, a 2011 police report found the group's business model remains largely unchanged.

Anti-drug campaigner Donald MacKay disappeared in 1977. Image via

The Society's racket continued to grow through the 1980s, and members began buying great tracts of land along the east coast. It's estimated their marijuana dealings yielded profits of around £31.5 million ($60 million AUD) a year. "New South Wales has been turned into a huge mafia corporation," wrote researcher Anna Sergi.

It was money worth killing for. In 1982, Domenic Marafiote disappeared after leaking the names of Society members and the locations of mob marijuana plantations to police. His parents were shot and killed too in their Adelaide home. It took five years for anyone to find Marafiote's body, buried in a shallow grave in a chicken coop in Victoria.

While the Society became more violent throughout the 1980s, it also became more business savvy. Its monopoly had become so vast, the group had the weight to start extorting supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, charging them 50 cents for every box of fruit and vegetables. In the early 1980s Coles estimated it was paying the group £3.1 million ($6 million AUD) a year.

Late on the night of December 19, 1990, John Vassilopoulos—a Coles employee who'd been asking questions about these extra fees on the books—heard the bell ring at his Ivanhoe home. "Open the door, John," called a voice through the front door. He cracked it open slightly, and was blasted with a shotgun. Although Vassilopoulos survived, the company had to relocate him and six other employees who feared for their lives.

The supermarket giant turned to businessman and Geelong Football Club president Frank Costa, pleading with him to break up mob control by taking over their fruit and vegetable supply. The Honoured Society offered Costa about £525,000 ($1 million AUD) a year to leave it alone, and when he wouldn't tow the line, they threatened to kill him.

Crops growing in Coleambally, NSW. Image via

In January 1998 Melbourne's gangland war kicked off with the shooting of Alphonse Gangitano, ushering in a decade of infighting between the city's top crime families, and one too many Underbelly sequels. While 36 men were murdered in vicious killings, the Honoured Society remained on the edges of the conflict. Its only major loss came in 2000, when Melbourne boss Frank Benvenuto, a greengrocer by day, was shot in the driveway of his Beaumaris home.

It was around this time that Joseph Acquaro first proved his worth to the Society as a skilled lawyer and networker. In 2005, through special favors and party donations, he was able to secure a visa for Francesco Madafferi, a Calabrian career criminal who'd overstayed his tourist visa 12 years earlier. Then immigration minister Amanda Vanstone was convinced that Madafferi should be allowed to stay on "humanitarian grounds."

But just three years later, Madafferi was arrested in the world's largest ever drug bust: an attempt to smuggle 15 million ecstasy pills into Australia, hidden in tomato tins. He was charged along with 17 other Honoured Society members across the country.

But Francesco's criminal dealings did little to tarnish the reputation of his brother, Antonio, who maintained his status in Melbourne as a powerful businessman with political interests. Last year, as part of a lengthy investigation into the Calabrian mob, The Age journalist Nick McKenzie discovered Antonio had hosted a political fundraiser at his £2.1 million ($4 million AUD) Docklands venue, attended by Federal Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, and Victorian Opposition leader Matthew Guy, who was then planning minister for the state Liberal government.

Many believe that it was this investigation that led to Acquaro's death. Early reports suggest Acquaro may have crossed Antonio Madafferi by leaking names and information about the Society to McKenzie. Other theories swirl about Acquaro's play to become a boss in the Honoured Society, selling himself as the Godfather of the Calabrian community.

However, as it stands, the most conclusive evidence pointing to the former theory came in December 2015, when a court found "it was reasonable for police to suspect accused Melbourne Mafia boss Antonio Madafferi had put out a £105,100 ($200,000 AUD) hit on a man he believed was providing information to The Age."

@madconnaughton

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