In A Time Of Murder: The Murder Of Don Mackay

About 6.30 pm on a Friday night, July 15 1977, a local anti-marijuana crusader named Donald Mackay left the Griffith Hotel and walked outside to the car park where his mini-van — with its conspicuous Mackay’s Furniture logo — was parked. An assassin was waiting. As Donald Mackay went to open the front door of his van, the assassin emptied his .22 revolver into Donald Mackay’s body. In an office nearby, an accountant heard a sound ‘like someone being sick’, and three sharp cracks ‘like a whip’.

Mackay’s blood-spattered vehicle was found in the early hours of the next morning. There were blood spots and stains extending from the front mudguard back to the bottom of the driver’s door. The keys had fallen under the car, and two drag marks extended from where the keys lay to a large blood stain on the ground. Three spent .22 cartridge cases were found near the large blood stain. It looked like murder and a very professional hit too. For the body of Donald Mackay would never be found.

In 1977 there had been high hopes that cannabis use might be decriminalised in New South Wales. In the previous years, nine US states had decriminalised cannabis use, and many Australians were eager that we should follow suit. In March that year, the Joint Committee upon Drugs of the NSW parliament recommended the removal of jail sentences for personal use of marijuana, and in April, NSW Premier Neville Wran outlined a plan to remove jail sentences as penalties for people convicted of having marijuana for personal use. Mr Wran said that marijuana was widespread and that “tens of thousands of parents whose sons and daughters smoke marijuana” would not want their children to carry “the stigma of being a jailed, convicted criminal.”

But the murder of Donald Mackay would change all that. Mackay’s face became a newspaper icon: he was the man the “Mr Bigs” murdered because he knew too much. He was the martyr of Griffith, whose blood cried out for revenge.


The Pot Capital of Australia

The town of Griffith, situated 600 km south-west of Sydney, is the regional centre of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, whose irrigated fields make ‘the Area’ one of the largest producers of wine, rice, citrus, stone fruit and vegetables in Australia.

In the early 1970s, a group of Australian-Italian farmers began using their irrigated fields for the production of a new, illicit vegetable. In February 1974, members of the Sergi and Barbaro families were caught with two cannabis plantations, but they escaped with very light fines — excusing themselves in court by claiming that they were unaware it was marijuana they were growing; they thought the crop was ‘American tomatoes’. The sympathetic testimony of Det Sgt John Ellis, a Griffith detective who would later be convicted of corruption, was also helpful in reducing their sentences.

The Mackay family first became involved when Don Mackay’s wife, Barbara, wrote a letter to theGriffith Area News in February 1975 about this case. Barbara Mackay noted that this crop of marijuana was worth a quarter of a million dollars but that the fines imposed on the two growers were $250 and $500 respectively. In contrast several Leeton youth had receiving gaol sentences and fines of $900 for smoking the end product of the growers: “The contrast between these two judgements is alarming.” Her husband, Donald Mackay, let it be known that he was interested in finding out where these rumoured marijuana plantations were. His inquiries were to lead to the largest cannabis seizure in Australian history.

Warned against trusting the local police, Don Mackay met with selected members of the Drug Squad in Sydney; using information and vehicles supplied by Mackay, the Sydney Drug Squad raided a property at Coleambally 60 km south of Griffith on November 10 1975. The four police officers were amazed by the size of the crop they discovered. Screened from the road by a line of trees was a huge marijuana plantation spread over 31 acres. The operation was very sophisticated and each row of pot plants had its own water supply. The police estimated that there were 375,000 marijuana plants in total, and that, when mature, this one plantation would produce 60 tonnes of pot. At a time when the total value of agricultural production of the entire Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area was estimated at $60 million, the police estimated this huge crop had a street value of $60 million. To this day, Coleambally remains the biggest plantation ever discovered in Australia.

In March 1977, the Sydney Drug Squad raided another property at Euston 300 km due west of Griffith and discovered five acres of cannabis, some 5000 drying marijuana plants, along with evidence that another nine acres had been recently harvested. Although Mackay was not responsible for this raid, it seems that he was the man who was blamed.


The Criminal Takeover

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the cannabis dealing scene in Australia was run by an amateur network of young people who were drug enthusiasts themselves and who were known as ‘the old hippie dealers’, a group described by David Hirst as “one of the remaining aspects of an otherwise disembowelled counterculture”. However, in the winter of 1976 a criminal gang launched a takeover of pot dealing in Australia. Reports of the attack on the old hippie dealing network were carried in the Australian underground press, and they were remarkably similar. Marijuana only dealers would be visited by ‘heavies’ who offered a simple choice: either deal heroin or get out of the business. Along with US style prohibition, US style organised crime came to Australia.

In May 1977 an underground paper ‘with all the dope on dope’ called The Australasian Weed was published from Melbourne with the aim of becoming the voice of Australia’s marijuana smokers. Banned in Queensland and Victoria, restricted in NSW and other states, The Australasian Weed was forced to change its name rather than go out of business, becoming next The Australasian Seed, which was similarly banned, and then, in a long cat-and-mouse chase with the censor, The Australasian Need, The Australasian Greed, the Australasian Pleed and finally The Australasian ?eed.

In the fourth issue, The Australasian Greed, editor J.J. McRoach reflected on the changing nature of the Australian marijuana scene and the recent criminal takeover.

“Back in the ‘good old days of the counter-culture’, marijuana dealers were regarded by most smokers as Robin Hood types , romantic urban outlaws bringing the good stuff to the people. Some money was made by these dealers but we assumed the prime motivating force was the spirit of a new consciousness, not merely the carrot of fiscal reward. Now these Robin Hood dealers have, in the main, fallen by the wayside. The marijuana scene has been infiltrated by the barbarians – stand over merchants, organised crime, informers and corrupt police. They all combine to form what can be called an Ocker Nostra – merely isolating the bad boys of marijuana as Italian Mafia members operating out of NSW is a dangerous simplification, a red herring fostered by the media which draws our attention away from the fact that the tentacles of organised crime in marijuana permeates our society. Certainly there is evidence of an organised group of Italians growing marijuana, but they are only part of a system that reaches right into the Australian power structure.

Robbery, violence and murder are now part and parcel of what the Bulletin once described as an industry bigger than BHP. If Don Mackay was murdered because of his knowledge of a marijuana conspiracy, his death was by no means the first. Many drug murders have already occurred but, because the victims didn’t have the squeaky clean image of Don Mackay, not too many questions have been asked. The newspaper headlines, if at all existent, have been small.

The generation before us learnt the problems associated with the prohibition of a popular drug. The Alcohol Prohibition proved to be the spawning ground for America’s organised crime syndicates. Today the marijuana Prohibition is creating the same syndrome, and it is this syndrome that we dedicate this publication – GREED.

As McRoach predicted, it was the Italian-Australians who would be blamed for Mackay’s murder; the “Ocker Nostra” of corrupt police and standover men behind the criminal takeover and the Mackay murder would escape the investigating officers of the NSW police.

To be continued…


Dr John Jiggens.

“In a Time of Murder – The Murder of Don Mackay” (part 1 of 3),
StickyPoint Magazine Issue 02 (2007)
Posted in Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.