The former director of one of Australia's biggest wine brands may have been motivated by "misplaced loyalty" when he kept quiet about a large cannabis crop grown by a long-time friend, a court has heard.
Griffith winemaker Marcello Casella, 58, pleaded guilty in June to concealing a serious indictable offence after he failed to tell police about the crop of 2750 cannabis plants grown on a farm at Crowther in south-western NSW.
The crop was spearheaded by family friend Luigi Fato – a south coast drug kingpin since jailed for at least 12 years – who unsuccessfully sought Casella's help with the venture.
At the time, Casella was a director of Casella Family Brands, a high-profile wine business behind labels including Yellow Tail and Peter Lehmann Wines. He stepped down in February 2014 and is no longer involved in managing or operating the company which is headed by his two older brothers.
According to agreed facts tendered to the NSW District Court, Fato and his associate Hank Pickett arranged in late 2013 to plant the cannabis crop on Karoopa farm and approached Casella to help with funding, equipment and irrigation.
Casella visited the farm three times from October to December 2013, however he did not become involved in the illegal activities.
In January 2014, he became aware that a crop "well in excess of 1000" plants had been planted and knew that one of his employees, irrigation expert Andre Turner, had become involved – but he did not know the exact number of plants.
In a police interview in September 2014, Casella denied having any knowledge of the cannabis crop and denied ever visiting the farm.
At a sentencing hearing on Friday, Crown prosecutor Tarik Abdulhak argued Casella should be jailed.
The court heard Casella was previously sentenced to five years' imprisonment in Queensland for his involvement with a large cannabis crop in that state, which cultivated 5729 cannabis plants at a remote station in the state's north.
The Queensland Supreme Court judge who sentenced Casella in 1995 found he was not an "initiator" or "prime mover" in the scheme, which involved six others, but helped with the crop over a number of months. Casella's conviction was upheld on appeal.
Casella's barrister Graham Turnbull, SC, said although the past conviction was serious, it was a long time ago. He said it remained open to the court to find Casella is a person of good character who has shown remorse and is unlikely to reoffend.
Mr Turnbull said a good behaviour bond would be an appropriate sentence for his client.
In written submissions, Mr Turnbull said Casella had a long-standing friendship with Fato and a personal and professional relationship with Turner, who pleaded guilty in June to cultivating a commercial quantity of cannabis.
From these friendships, Mr Turnbull said, "it may be inferred that [Casella's] motivation to withhold information is misplaced loyalty and, separately, fear of his own arrest".
Mr Turnbull said by the time police spoke to Casella in September 2014 many of those involved with the crop had either pleaded guilty or given police their co-operation, meaning Casella's information would have been of limited assistance.
He said Casella offered to enter a guilty plea to the current charge in October 2017 but it was rejected, leading to the matter going to an expensive trial.
In letters to the court, friends of Casella described him as a generous philanthropist and family man with a passion for clay target shooting, who recently arranged for dialysis machines to be donated to those in need overseas.
Casella will be sentenced next month.
This story originally appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.