By Kirra Grimes
COUNCILLOR Jeremy Rich’s bail application hearing took roughly 45 minutes, as Magistrate Louis Hill heard from police prosecutor Jodi Kellow, Bass Coast CIU Detective Acting Sergeant Michael O’Neil, and defence lawyer Cecily Hollingworth.
Sitting in the dock shoulder to shoulder with two custody officers, Rich appeared to watch proceedings intently. His two older brothers, Simon and Adam Rich, sat at the front of the court in a show of support.
Ms Kellow started by presenting the prosecution’s summary of the case, outlining what police allegedly found in their search, where on the property the items were located, and where on the property Rich and his two co-accused were when police arrived just after 8am on Monday, April 15.
Ms Kellow told the court Mr Rich and Mr Cox were found sleeping in separate bedrooms of the property’s main residential building, while Mr Vukovic was found sleeping in a separate cottage/office building.
On the kitchen bench of the main residence, where Mr Rich and Mr Cox were sleeping, police allegedly located 40 blue ‘Mano’ pills, along with a ziplock bag containing white powder, a ziplock bag containing green vegetable matter, and a syringe containing a dark viscous liquid. Throughout multiple rooms of the house, police allege they found 7.5 kilograms of green vegetable matter in 16 plastic bags, a rifle magazine containing eight .22 rounds of ammunition, a set of digital scales, ziplock bags, a further 100 rounds of .22 rifle ammunition, a second syringe containing a dark viscous liquid, a black container containing white powder, and a .22 rifle. The rifle was later found to be registered to Jeremy Rich’s father, Jacques Rich.
In the cottage, where Mr Vukovic was sleeping, police allegedly found 14 kilograms of green vegetable matter in a number of plastic bags and tubs, a double-edged knife, and a Winchester shotgun that was later found to be unregistered. This building also allegedly had wires and chains suspended from the ceiling “similar to that of a clothesline or a drying room”. Green vegetable matter residue was also allegedly found on the floor.
A crop of eight cannabis plants was allegedly found in a heavily treed area about 100-200 metres away from the property’s main residence. The plants, each 6-7 feet tall, had wire cages around them, the court heard. A plastic watering system and a dome tent were also allegedly found set up amongst the plants.
After the prosecution’s case was laid out, Ms Hollingworth argued Rich should be released on bail despite the seriousness of the charges, because, like Cox who had already been released, Rich was not found to be in the immediate vicinity of a commercial quantity of drugs at the time of the police search, and his knowledge of any commercial operation could not be proven.
The only difference between Cox’s and Rich’s cases, Ms Hollingworth argued, was that Rich was a member of the family that owned the property where the drugs were allegedly found, and he had “some control” over the property.
But this familial connection was not enough to establish that Mr Rich was involved in criminal activities being carried out on the property, Ms Hollingworth argued.
The court heard that Mr Rich’s permanent residential address was in Armadale, Melbourne, and that he only attended the Walkerville property “sporadically,” occupying the main residential building on these occasions.
Ms Hollingworth argued, given these factors, as well as the Walkerville property’s large size (1000 acres) and multiple buildings, it was plausible her client had no knowledge that commercial quantities of cannabis were being grown, dried and packaged on the property.
She suggested it was more likely Mr Vukovic was involved in these activities, as he had been living at the Walkerville property on a permanent basis “for some time”; and the bulk of the dried cannabis, and the “commercial set up” of drying and packaging equipment, were all allegedly found in the cottage that Vukovic alone had been occupying. The court also heard that Mr Vukovic, in his first recorded interview with police, admitted the 14 kilograms of dried cannabis found in the cottage belonged to him. Prior to his second interview, Vukovic – a Serbian national with limited English – requested a solicitor and made no comment.
Describing the prosecution’s case against Rich as “weak,” Ms Hollingworth said, on the basis of the evidence, the most her client could be found guilty of was possession.
She said there was no evidence to connect Rich to cultivation or trafficking suggested by the alleged presence of the cannabis crop and the drying and packaging set up in the cottage, other than his family’s ownership of the property and his presence at the property at the time the drugs and other items were allegedly found.
“Their [the prosecution’s] theory is it’s all encapsulated in the one business, but there is no evidence of that,” she said.
“It’s a very large property. He may technically be in possession, but he may be ignorant of what’s going on, on the 1000-acre property,” she said.
“Entire operation” known to both parties, says detective
But police argued there was a link, as the plastic garbage bags of dried cannabis allegedly found in the immediate vicinity of Rich in the main residence were “identical” to those found in the drying room, in the immediate vicinity of Mr Vukovic.
Detective Acting Sergeant O’Neil also argued Rich had told him, in an off-the-record conversation, that he “spent most of his time” at the farm property, contrary to what Ms Hollingworth told the court.
“We believe there’s been cannabis cultivation on the property and that Mr Vukovic and the applicant [Rich] have conspired to grow this cannabis…” Det Act Sgt O’Neil said.
“The entire operation has been known by both parties and they worked between the two residences to manufacture and dry the product, to then be trafficked on.
“The setup in the cottage is a fairly extensive setup. It’s got exhaust fans. It’s not something that’s been set up overnight. It would be an amazing coincidence for [Rich] to say that he’s had no idea that that was down there. It’s clearly evident.”
After hearing these arguments and seeking advice from police, Magistrate Hill was satisfied there was “some defence” and that Rich was unlikely to abscond if released on bail with certain conditions. In granting bail, Hill said he’d taken into account Rich’s personal circumstances including his lack of prior offending.