A "foolish" businessman busted trying to import $144 million worth of cocaine has been likened to a romance scam victim, or someone "who goes overseas thinking they're going to get the riches from some sultan".
Bungendore landscaper Adam Phillip Hunter, 35, was described as a naive and gullible "dreamer" in the NSW District Court on Monday.
He was facing a sentence hearing after pleading guilty to a charge of attempting to import a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug.
The former Queanbeyan resident has admitted trying to sneak a 20-tonne excavator stuffed with 384 kilograms of cocaine into Australia from South Africa in 2019.
He was recruited by one of his regular clients, variously dubbed "the mysterious coffee drinker" and "the coffee man", to do this on behalf of a drug syndicate.
He claims he was so fixated on his reward, which was to essentially get the second-hand digger for free, that he did not bother to find out exactly what it concealed despite his suspicions.
But prosecutors allege he knew there was a significant quantity of illicit drugs hidden inside what was referred to in intercepted conversations as "the big girl".
On Monday, defence barrister Kieran Ginges told the court Hunter was "a simple country folk, who has been exploited".
"I don't mean to be disparaging of him, but he's an unsophisticated businessperson," Mr Ginges said.
The court heard Hunter and his landscaping company were in significant financial strife when the cloak-and-dagger "coffee man" brought him into the drug syndicate.
Mr Ginges said Hunter was given the chance to buy a $130,000 excavator, which he needed to rescue his legitimate business, for just $50,000, so long as he imported it and what was inside it.
He said once the machine had arrived in Australia and its contents were removed and distributed, the 35-year-old was to be gifted it and refunded the cost price.
The barrister suggested Hunter was "not some underworld criminal", just someone who "made the most stupid decision of his life" by getting wrapped up in the importation plot.
"Coffee man knew he was someone who might be exploited, and he was right," Mr Ginges said.
The barrister likened Hunter to a lonely love scam victim, or someone who had been conned into sending their money to fictitious royals from a far away land.
"There are people who are forever being taken advantage of in our community," Mr Ginges said.
"They are real people, like Mr Hunter, who get caught up in these things."
But Judge Andrew Colefax said he was "troubled" and baffled by numerous aspects of Hunter's account.
He found it odd that the 35-year-old, while in dire financial straits, would scrape together money to send offshore to criminals in order to buy the excavator.
"What was going to stop this entity in South Africa just pocketing $50,000?" he asked.
Judge Colefax also thought it was strange Hunter had apparently planned to allow shadowy strangers to take the excavator he supposedly coveted so they could remove the drugs, repair it, return it to him and reimburse him.
"When you're dealing with people you don't know and you think they're criminals, this degree of trust doesn't seem, to me, to make any sense," he said.
Mr Ginges suggested this was all down to Hunter's "glass full" attitude.
But prosecutor Jonathon Emmett agreed with the judge's concerns, suggesting Hunter was "not being entirely truthful".
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He said some of Hunter's actions showed the 35-year-old was "a trusted member of the syndicate", rather than merely "a trusting member" as Mr Ginges put it.
Mr Emmett told the court there was an "irresistible inference" that Hunter was promised something more than just a free excavator when "the coffee man" recruited him.
He said this was obvious for several reasons, including that Hunter had accepted the digger would be significantly compromised if it was cut open and re-welded multiple times to get the concealment in and out.
"If [Hunter] believed the excavator was going to be the thing that saved his business, it doesn't make sense that he would then choose to damage [it]," the prosecutor said.
Judge Colefax indicated he would hand down a sentence no later than September 17.
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