Wine-making brother’s part in massive pot crop
ONE of the brothers behind Australia's largest family-owned winery has pleaded guilty to concealing a drug kingpin's plan to grow an elaborate cannabis crop in rural NSW.
The Daily Telegraph can reveal the inside story of how Marcello Nello Casella, then a director of Casella Wines - a $1.5 billion company whose most famous brand is Yellow Tail - knew of plans to grow the significant cannabis crop on a farm north of Young.
But he didn't tell police about it, lying when they questioned him.
The 57-year-old had been almost 30 days into a district court trial fighting allegations that he provided finances and equipment for the crop plans.
But on Monday he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of concealing information about five members' activities in the illegal enterprise.
Casella now faces up to two years in prison.
Casella Wines grew from a small farm outside Griffith, started by Casella's Sicilian parents in 1957, to bottling its billionth bottle in 2013.
In 2001 the company launched the Yellow Tail wine brand. It quickly became the No.1 imported wine to the US.
Despite the allegations surrounding the youngest brother, the business was valued at $1.5 billion last year.
The latest figures placed the company's revenue at half a billion dollars.
In February 2014 police uncovered 2750 cannabis plants when they raided the Crowther property known as Karoopa Farm. They raided Casella's Yenda home near Griffith the same day but he wasn't charged until later that year.
Two weeks after the raid Marcello Casella was removed from running the family business, with the company issuing a statement distancing itself from him.
"Mr Marcello Casella resigned as a director of Casella Family Brands earlier this year," it read.
"Therefore this matter is entirely unrelated to the company or any of its associated brands."
Last year it was reported that Marcello still retained a 20 per cent stake in the company held in a trust.
Casella's "long-term friend" Luigi Fato was the kingpin of the criminal operation and had been working on plans to create the elaborate cannabis crop with his right-hand man Hank Pickett for almost a year.
Five months before police swooped Fato tried to enlist the help of Casella, asking him to fund equipment for the venture and his knowledge in irrigation.
"As a winemaker the offender possessed such funding, knowledge and materials," agreed facts said.
But unbeknown to them police were listening, intercepting phone calls and even placing a listening device on Fato's car.
Casella admitted he travelled to Karoopa on three occasions between September and December in 2013.
On his second visit the listening device on Fato's car captured Pickett and Fato asking him to supply irrigation equipment and for his advice.
Casella also knew that "well in excess" of 1000 cannabis plants had been planted in January. He was questioned by police seven months after the raids and denied any knowledge or having visited the farm.
He admitted he had asked an employee to erase all data from his phone after police seized it, citing concerns about "personal photos".
Although Casella was aware of the plans, the Crown accepted it could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that he acted with his knowledge to assist the group.
Andre Sebastian Turner, 43, who had worked at Casella Wines since 1996, had also been on trial but pleaded guilty to one count of cultivating a prohibited plant.
Turner, who worked as an irrigation manager at Casella Wines since 2009, helped Fato and Pickett after the pair's first attempt at growing a pot crop at the farm failed.
He delivered equipment and machinery, helped set up an irrigation system and helped deliver 20 boxes of cannabis cuttings to the second crop site on the farm.
When helping with irrigation he advised the piping should be "scattered ... so as to avoid detection from the air".
At one stage while helping with the planting process he said: "What am I doing here? I've got thousands of acres of grapes to be looking after."
The prosecution said it accepted there was a possibility Turner was participating in the commission of the offence at the direction of others.
The court heard Karoopa Farm's owner was unaware of the crop growing on her property. Turner and Casella will next front court in July.
CASELLA WINES TIMELINE
1957: Casella Wines founders Filippo and Maria Casella immigrate to Australia.
1969: The Casella family winery begins.
1994: Marcello Casella's brother John becomes managing director
1996: Andre Turner begins employment at Casella Wines
2001: The famous Yellow Tail wine brand is launched
2009: Andre Turner becomes an irrigation manager
2013: Yellow Tail bottles its billionth bottle
May 2013: Luigi Fato forms a plan to grow a significant quantity of cannabis on a rural NSW property
August 2013: He gains access to Karoopa Farm
September 2013: Marcello Nello Casella becomes aware of a plan to cultivate a large commercial quantity of cannabis at the Crowther property
October 2013: Marcello Casella visits the farm where the cannabis will be planted for the first time
November 2013: Marcello Nello Casella visits the farm a second time. A listening device captures a discussion about a request for Casella to supply irrigation equipment and advice
December 2013: Marcello Nello Casella travels with three co-offenders to the site at the farm where there is a plan to plant a "significant" number of cannabis plants
Late December 2013: Andre Turner helps with planting cuttings at Karoopa farm
January 2014: Marcello Nello Casella becomes aware that at least 1000 plants have been planted at the site
February 2014: Police raid Karoopa farm and find 2750 plants
February 2014: Marcello Nello Casella ceases his director role with Casella Wines
September 2014: Marcello Nello Casella participates in a recorded interview with police where he denies any knowledge or involvement
2017: Yellow Tail becomes first Australian brand to advertise during the Super Bowl
May 2018: Marcello Nello Casella and Andre Turner go on trial for their alleged involvement in the cannabis crop plantation
June 2018: Marcello Nello Casella and Andre Turner are re-arraigned on fresh charges and plead guilty
July 2018: Marcello Nello Casella and Andre Turner will front court again