Walk with confidence, Zailee Zainal was told. That was the key to being a flight attendant with parcels of heroin between her legs, in her bra and in her underwear.
After three months of practising with a pillow between her legs, Zainal got the knack and was soon smuggling heroin – one kilogram at a time, divvied up into smaller parcels – into Melbourne as a critical component of a syndicate that imported millions of dollars of the drug from Malaysia.
The syndicate relied on flight attendants who were working with cabin crews for Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air to smuggle heroin into Melbourne on flights and then exchange the parcels for cash at local hotels.
The Melbourne head of the syndicate, Michelle Ngoc Tran, paid $155,000 for each one-kilogram “ticket” of heroin, and sold them to buyers for $195,000. She deducted from her profits payments for couriers and other intermediaries.
Tran, a nail technician, was known as the “Queen of Richmond”, according to a prosecution summary tendered to the County Court this week, and during her reign the syndicate imported 6.6 kilograms of heroin with a street value of up to $8 million between October 2018 and early January last year.
The syndicate also trafficked seven kilograms of ice and 500 grams of cocaine during that time.
The key players
MICHELLE NGOC TRAN, 49. Also known as Lily, Ngoc, “The Queen” or “The Queen of Richmond”. Melbourne-based head of an international syndicate involved in the importation of heroin in Australia. Drove a red 2016 Mini Cooper sedan.
MR HANOI. Drug supplier to “The Queen”, based in Malaysia. Contact between the two was facilitated by men known as Johnny and “The Manager” who were both based overseas.
KHA TIEN NGO, 57. Also went by the name of Danny and Brother Hung. Drove a white Porsche Macan wagon. Was of significant standing within the Melbourne-based arm of the syndicate.
ZAILEE HANA BINTI ZAINAL, 40. Malaysian national who at the time of her arrest was a member of Malindo Air cabin crew. Also went by the names Joanna and Mary. Carried out about 20 drug importations before her arrest in January last year.
THI THUY TAM TRAN, 49. Also known as Lina and Tam. Came to Australia in 1992 and was a friend of The Queen. Worked as a courier, collecting drugs from crew members in hotel bathrooms and paying them in cash.
BENG LEE GOH, 44. Malaysian national who also was known as Raymond and used the name Tommy during offending, guilty of trafficking heroin.
THUY THANH THI TRAN, 57 and son KHOI PHAN, 28. Thi Tran, also known as Phung or Sister Phung, helped to source methamphetamine which she gave to her son to sell to Ngo.
A 45-year-old Malaysian national who was a member of the Malindo Air cabin crew left Australia last in December, 2018 and has not returned.
A 38-year-old woman known as Princess has not yet been charged and is currently in custody in WA for unrelated matters.
As she drove through Richmond and Abbotsford in her red Mini Cooper, Tran used coded language when speaking with her network of associates. Her supplier in Malaysia was “Mr Hanoi”, she deployed her “soldiers” to exchange cash for drugs and asked flight crew members if they were coming to see “Mandy” (Melbourne) or “Sandy” (Sydney), to help plan importations.
The queen claimed she had been in the drugs business for nearly 30 years, her name was very famous and one of her soldiers held her phone while she spoke.
Late 2018 was a busy time for the queen, as her syndicate was involved in eight importations between October 2 and Christmas Day, although Tran wanted more. When one importation was cancelled, she told an overseas associate, “Motherf—er, do you want the market here or not?”
Police and other authorities intercepted four of the eight heroin packages in late 2018, prosecutor Jonathan Manning wrote in the summary, but the other four were not intercepted and the drugs entered the community.
The importations were reliant on flight attendants such as Zainal, who was recruited into the syndicate by a workmate, advised how to conceal the heroin and carried the drugs onto and off aircraft and stored the parcels in a toilet during the flight.
On January 6 last year, Zainal had heroin on her at Melbourne Airport when selected for search by border patrol officers, who discovered the parcels on her.
Zainal, 40, later told police she smuggled the heroin for money to help her sick mother and sick daughter. She was paid about $1700 for every ticket she smuggled and admitted carrying at least 20 into Australia.
Zainal has pleaded guilty to one charge of importing a commercial quantity of heroin.
How it worked
- “Mr Hanoi” alerts Michelle Ngoc Tran (Melbourne head of the syndicate known as “The Queen”) of upcoming flights to Australia.
- Code words are used to refer to various cities in Australia to indicate where the heroin would arrive.
- Mr Hanoi, in Malaysia, and other overseas associates liaise with cabin crew members.
- Cabin crew members would import “tickets” of heroin – each weighing approximately one kilogram – into Australia smuggled in their underwear.
- Tran arranges for her couriers to meet the crew member once they have arrived in Australia to complete the importation.
- Transactions would usually occur in the toilets of the hotel where the crew member was staying.
- Tran would arrange for her couriers to collect the drugs and pay the crew member in cash to return to Mr Hanoi. Crew members would return to Malaysia within 10 hours.
Judge Michael Cahill acknowledged Zainal’s family predicament would attract a degree of mercy at sentencing next month, although she knew the wrongfulness of her actions and the harm drugs caused.
Zainal’s failure to show at a scheduled exchange alerted the syndicate something was wrong, and Tran and the others were arrested in the following days. But three members, all Malaysian nationals, flew out of Australia before they could be arrested.
Tran, 49, appeared before the court on Monday to plead guilty to importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug and trafficking a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug. She is due to face a plea hearing next month.
Another four syndicate members faced court on Tuesday and Wednesday, including Thuy Thanh Thi Tran, 57, and her son, Khoi Phan, 28, whose involvement was trafficking ice. The mother cried during her hearing, which was told she was guilt-ridden at involving her son in the syndicate.
Another two members have already been sentenced by magistrates.