Inside Nathan Baggaley’s downfall
Standing on the dais at the 2004 Olympics in Athens with a silver medal around his neck, Nathan Baggaley was the image of athletic perfection. Tall, strong, clean-cut and confident, he had reached the pinnacle of our nation's sporting success, one of the most powerful paddlers ever.
Nearly two decades later, on April Fools' Day 2021, in a crumpled black business suit, he was a lonely figure in the dock at his criminal trial, about to write himself into the history books of disgraced sportsmen.
"Guilty," the jury forewoman announced. Firstly for his brother Dru, 39, then again for Nathan, 45. Dru was alongside him in the dock of the Supreme Court in Brisbane, but their long-suffering parents Noel and Sue were nowhere to be seen. The former kayaker shook his head with shock and disbelief, staring intently into his lap, his face flushed red with emotion.
Now the brothers, both found guilty of attempting to import a commercial quantity of cocaine into Australia, face the prospect of more time behind bars.
Their two prior jail stints were for making illegal party pills to sell to schoolies, and planning to produce the drug ice. But this time their roll of the dice carried much more risk, with an audacious bid to smuggle $200m of cocaine tossed overboard by a bunch of gun-toting masked South Americans on a passing freighter.
Did they really think they would not be spotted motoring ashore at Brunswick Heads in northern NSW with 650kg of cocaine on board a glorified rubber dinghy?
Thursday's verdict shows the jury believed prosecutor Ben Power when he said the brothers thought they could get away by lying to authorities if Dru was caught and telling them he was going to sea to pick up tobacco - which while also illegal, carries a much lesser penalty than 30 massive blocks of cocaine.
The plot was sunk from before Dru donned his blue rain jacket and motored for 11 hours through the night to pick up the drugs from a "big red" rusty freighter on his rigid-hulled inflatable boat. A covert surveillance plane contracted by Customs Border Force was filming them.
There Dru was, zooming along in the boat surrounded by blocks of cocaine wrapped in black plastic. That's when events suddenly turned all very Miami Vice, as Dru and Nathan's defence barristers described it.
"This big boat come out of nowhere and it was f--king Customs … (we were) like trying to avoid it … they were just still behind us and realised f--k, not good," Dru told Nathan in a covertly recorded chat while they were in prison awaiting trial. Dru told his brother that he and skipper Anthony Draper kept motoring at high speed towards the shore and, hours later, a second boat appeared.
Draper has previously pleaded guilty to his role in the alleged cocaine importation plot and agreed to give evidence in the trial against the Baggaley brothers in return for a three-year reduction in sentence.
"Black boat. All with f--king army guys in it. They had like balaclavas … f--king machine guns, like army-coloured machine guns. So they just come and it was all over. Just pointing guns at us. 'Don't f--king move, I'll blow your f--king head off'," Dru told his brother on August 15, 2018.
"What was it like? Big decision throwing all the coke overboard," one of the cops told Dru.
Nathan began his athletic career as an ironman, graduating to surf ski padding and stillwater kayaking. In 1995 he was selected in the national team for the world championships in Germany. In 1998 he won the national chamionshp in the K1 1000m. At Athens in 2004 he won silver in the K1 500m race and silver in the K2 500 with Robinson. His descent from Olympic darling to drug pusher began in 2005, just a year after his Olympic success when he tested positive for anabolic steroids.
He later claimed he unknowingly ingested the drug while drinking from a steroid-laced bottle of orange juice Dru had mixed to help recover from a cracked rib.
He was given a 15-month ban, but before he could compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics he was busted with ecstasy pills, cannabis and cash in his car near his Mermaid Waters home.
He claimed ahead of his sentencing in 2009 for an ecstasy racket that he was forced into the drugs scene to save Dru, who was facing debts from standover men.
Police started taking interest in Dru in 2006 after he was busted for importing an industrial pill press from China. He claimed it was to make pellets for a planned fish farm. In October 2007 Nathan was busted with fellow lifesaver Kurt Battese with 762 ecstasy tablets, cannabis and cash in a car near his home. Battese was jailed, but the charge against Nathan was dropped.
A month later Nathan and Dru were arrested in northern NSW over the seizure of thousands of ecstasy pills, with an estimated street value of $2.5m, that police alleged were destined for Schoolies celebrations on the Gold Coast and in Byron Bay.
Two years later the brothers would serve their first stints behind bars for dealing and manufacturing ecstasy,
Nathan was slapped with a nine-year sentence, Dru for 12 years. Dru was still behind bars when he was accused of his next drug plot in 2013, and Nathan was on parole.
When he was busted in 2013 Nathan's then-partner Emeree sent him a text message: "U have thrown away a life with ur son so you can live like some drug lord batchaclor (SIC) in ur own sad little world".
In December 2015 the brothers were jailed for their roles in another drug ring that made thousands of illegal party pills and planned to produce 100 grams of ice. Both pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to manufacture a border-controlled drug and manufacturing a marketable quantity of methamphetamine for helping to produce 18,000 tablets of the psychedelic drug 2CB and planning to produce ice in labs.
The 2CB pills were never sold and didn't make the brothers any money, and they also botched their bid to make ice from pseudoephedrine.
Nathan described his role in the 2CB drug production as a "gofer".
PROMISING YOUNG MEN
The pair were members of the Byron Bay Surf Life Saving Club as youngsters and, with their powerful physiques, soon became accomplished sportsmen. Dru played first-grade rugby league and Nathan was the standout in the surf. Even at the time of the 2018 importation both were regulars at footy training, and Nathan told the jury he worked out in his home gym each day before going to work at his fibreglassing workshop.
Dru was working for his parents' business, Brunswick Seed Oysters, still living with them in the town of Stokers Siding when he was arrested.
The question that remains is was the 2018 cocaine smuggling plot just sheer stupidity or a sign of desperation?
While Nathan was not on the cocaine boat, he was sending messages to Dru as "Thunderbutt" using the encrypted app Threema on a phone subscribed under a pseudonym.
"I'm on standby ready. Let me know what's," he sent to Dru while he was on his way back with the drugs.
The jury that convicted Nathan last week were told that he was not a "Mr Asia", slang for a drug kingpin, with the wealth to bankroll such a large importation of cocaine, but rather he was the brains behind the operation, co-ordinating logistics on shore such as purchasing the powerful $106,700 boat, a $7000 navigation system and a satellite phone, and keeping in touch with other drug ring members set to receive the cocaine.
IT BREAKS YOUR HEART
Ian Hanson got to know Nathan Baggaley well in his role as a long-time media manager for the Australian Olympic team and Surf Life Saving Australia and was with him in Athens. He says his demise 'breaks your heart'.
"Nathan was one of the most powerful paddlers we've ever seen," Hanson said. "There was one race … that he dug his paddle into the water so hard it snapped in two. He was that powerful. He just had that X-factor. He was an amazing competitor and just such a strong bastard. It breaks your heart to see someone like him go off the rails."
Originally published as Star paddler to drug peddler: Inside Nathan Baggaley's downfall