The drug mules were caught in the ultimate vice-like grip.
One was a model, another was a DJ, a third was starting out as a music promoter and the fourth worked in events.
Each one was trying to break into Toronto’s arts scene when the then music editor of Canada’s Vice magazine, an industry heavy with alleged links to a Mexican drug cartel, approached them to carry drugs into .
For various reasons they reluctantly agreed, and when each in turn attempted to back out they learned it was already too late.
Toronto DJ Jordan Mykel Gardner, 27, New York model Nathaniel Brandon Carty, 23, music promoter Robert Wang, 25 and events management worker Kutiba Senusi, 24, were sentenced in the NSW District Court on Friday to minimum prison terms ranging from three years and four months to four years four months for importing commercial quantities of cocaine.
Their contact with n law enforcement began three days before Christmas in 2015, when customs officials at Sydney airport detected several passengers arriving on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles with a large amount of luggage for a short stay.
They also had in common a stopover in Las Vegas and suitcases that tested positive for cocaine.
Between five drug couriers – including Porscha Wade, 20, who has also pleaded guilty but not been sentenced – a total of 28kg of cocaine with a street value of more than $22 million was seized.
Based on the agreed facts, Judge Dina Yehia found that drug ring figures including Vice journalist Slavo Pastuk had heavied and cajoled the mules into carrying the drugs and most had accepted the task under duress.
Gardner, an electronic music artist, had been living with Pastuk and rebuffed several approaches to do such a trip. He finally relented under pressure when Pastuk called him shortly before he was due to perform at a promotional event.
He tried to back out the next day, but by this time Pastuk had already obtained his passport and he now threatened to hurt Gardner’s girlfriend and family if he did not go through with it.
Gardner had overheard Pastuk telling his friend about those who had been tortured and killed for assisting the authorities. He believed that Pastuk was connected to a Mexican cartel, and he had no doubt that the threat was genuine.
But he told the court that he tried to pull out again in Las Vegas, when he was given the suitcase to take to and noticed that it smelled strongly of glue.
This time his contact grabbed him by the collar and pushed him against a car while holding a gun. He relented.
Senusi told the court he was dragged into taking the drugs after his friend, whom he had agreed to accompany on a drug run, bailed out due to his criminal record.
He demurred, but his friend said that if he did not go through with it “he could not guarantee his safety, or that of his brother”. He was told that others who tried to pull out had razor blades placed under their fingernails.
Wang agreed that for him, the trip was a way to ingratiate himself with Pastuk, who was influential in the music scene and promised to help him further his career.
But when he learned of Pastuk’s involvement with the Mexicans he tried to withdraw.
He texted Pastuk: “Sorry bro, thought about it a lot, just not a step that makes a lot of sense for me atm.” He was then told by a third contact that if he did not go through with it “bad things would happen”.
Carty, who Judge Dina Yehia found was “the most naive of the offenders”, had initially believed he was being given a free trip when Pastuk offered him a holiday in Sydney.
They had met at a Vice party in New York and Carty told Pastuk he had always wanted to visit .
“I can make that happen,” Pastuk allegedly replied. Tickets were organised the following day.
It was only when a mutual contact told Carty he would be required to carry some extra luggage that the model smelled a rat and tried to back down.
He then received a call from an unknown male: “The guy is really mad. This doesn’t look good. He has your passport so he’s going to know stuff about you.”
Judge Yehia said the offenders were low in the drug importation hierarchy.
“I am very firmly of the view that these offenders were exploited by people who were ruthless, persistent and manipulative in recruiting them,” she said.
She sentenced Gardner and Senusi to seven years and six months in jail with a non-parole period of four years and four months. They will be eligible for parole in April 2020.
Wang received a minimum four years, while Carty was sentenced to a minimum three years four months.
Judge Yehia said she took into account Carty’s immaturity and the fact he was “completely lacking in wiliness” in giving him a lighter sentence.
“He was completely out of his depth.”