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As the alleged leader of an illegal sports gambling and international drug-smuggling ring awaits trial in the US, four Australians are also accused of having links to the network. By Donna Walker-Mitchell.

Australian links to FBI drug-smuggling bust

The 20 lawyers and their clients stood four deep in the San Diego courtroom, some at the back of the pack up on their toes so they could see and hear Judge William Q. Hayes.

A few metres to the right of the crowd, Owen “O-Dog” Hanson jnr, dressed in a light army green jail jumpsuit and black Crocs sandals, sat silently. Two United States marshals in suits and ties stood guard between him and an exit door.

Hanson, a powerfully built former member of the national champion University of Southern California football team, scanned the crowd.

According to US authorities, the 33-year-old is the ringleader of an international narcotics-trafficking, illegal-gambling and money-laundering organisation dubbed the ODOG Enterprise. Its tentacles allegedly traversed the US, stretched south to Lima, Peru, and reached across the Pacific Ocean to Australia.

ODOG allegedly imported, exported and distributed hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs, including cocaine, throughout the US and to Australia.

“ODOG Enterprise objectives included the following: Enriching its leaders, members and associates through (1) importing, exporting and distributing illegal drugs throughout the United States, Australia and elsewhere; (2) operating an illegal gambling business; and (3) practising extortionate debt collection,” an indictment filed in the US District Court states.

The FBI and New South Wales detectives arrested Hanson on September 9 last year at the five-star Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego.

On January 27 American authorities swept across the US, arresting a further 19 alleged members of Hanson’s operation in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Phoenix, Louisiana and Virginia.

Another, Kenny Hilinski, a US expatriate who from the perceived haven of Peru allegedly maintained ODOG’s various gambling websites and directed the distribution of proceeds through shell companies, remains a fugitive.

In total, 22 men including Hanson, former San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos NFL running back Derek Loville, and men with the nicknames “Animal”, “Tank” and “Jazzy”, have been charged, with the FBI publicly thanking the NSW Police, the Australian Crime Commission and NSW Crime Commission for their assistance.

Loville is accused of a racketeering conspiracy related to illegal gambling and narcotics trafficking.

Many of the accused, who have been granted bail, were present at that crowded February 29 court date in downtown San Diego.

Alleged NSW connection

The alleged trail from Australia to Hanson and ODOG in the beachside southern Californian city of San Diego can be traced to an August 2011 incident at Sydney’s Hilton Hotel.

NSW Police seized a suitcase containing $A702,000 at the hotel, resulting in the State Crime Command’s organised crime squad, the Australian Crime Commission and NSW Crime Commission launching an investigation.

In late 2014 $A68,000 in cash, drugs, steroids, documents and electronic equipment were seized after warrants were executed in Richmond and Balnarring in Victoria and Sylvania, Potts Point and Luddenham in Sydney.

The investigation also revealed an apparent US link – the alleged importation of 300 kilograms of cocaine from Mexico to Australia, via the US.

NSW Police contacted the FBI and began working with its San Diego field office. Within hours of Hanson being taken into custody on September 9, NSW Police also made a move in Australia.

Three men, pastry shop owner Zeki Atilgan, crime figure Craig Haeusler and solicitor Michael Croke, were arrested in Sydney, and with the assistance of Victoria Police, music promoter Andrew McManus was arrested at Melbourne Airport.

Atilgan was charged with money laundering. Haeusler, Croke and McManus were charged with perverting the course of justice, intention to defraud by false or misleading statement and knowingly participating in a criminal group.

Police said at the time of the arrests the charges against Haeusler, Croke and McManus related to an unsuccessful case brought against the NSW Police Commissioner in the NSW Supreme Court for the return of the $A702,000 found in the suitcase.

McManus’s lawyers, who have said he will strenuously defend the charges, stressed police have never alleged McManus was involved in drug importation.

NSW Police had planned to extradite Hanson to Sydney on arrest warrants for money laundering, perverting the course of justice and supplying a large commercial quantity of drugs, but a US federal indictment announced in San Diego on January 27 will likely see him prosecuted in the US first.

“Operation Shovel”

Prosecutors have told Judge Hayes authorities had accumulated a terabyte of data, including wiretaps and surveillance of the accused, during the international covert multi-year investigation.

Hanson has been charged in the US with arranging the delivery of five kilograms of cocaine and five kilograms of methamphetamine, racketeering conspiracy related to gambling and narcotics trafficking, operating an illegal gambling business and money laundering.

US prosecutors describe Hanson as the leader of ODOG, which used “runners” to transport illegal drugs and “collectors” to intimidate individuals who owed money.

A certified public accountant was recruited to launder “illicit funds through shell companies, phoney bank accounts and structured bank deposits” and a private investigator was used to dig up personal information on gamblers who failed to pay their debts, authorities said.

One of Hanson’s alleged collectors was Jack “Animal” Rissell, of North Highlands, California, who “specialised in more aggressive measures to obtain payment on gambling and extortionate debts, using intimidation, threats and violence”, prosecutors said.

To evade detection by law enforcement, Hanson and his ODOG crew allegedly set up shell companies, communicated with encrypted devices and created vehicles with hidden compartments and “traps” to conceal drugs. Their illegal gambling operation allegedly included the website betodog.com and toll-free phone numbers to place bets, while new customers were extended credit so they could bet on sports without pre-funding their accounts.

Key to the prosecution’s case could be a witness from Los Angeles, known in court filings as Individual A, who prosecutors said racked up a $US2.5 million gambling debt with ODOG.

Hanson allegedly threatened Individual A and his spouse, in June 2011, with bodily harm if Individual A didn’t take $US1.5 million in drug trafficking proceeds from Sydney to Las Vegas in the form of a casino cheque.

In August 2011 Hanson again allegedly threatened Individual A and his spouse if Individual A refused to transport another $US2.5 million from Australia to the US.

Rissell and another ODOG associate, Los Angeles private investigator Daniel Portley-Hanks, also arranged for packages containing photos of Individual A and his spouse and a printout of their biographical information to be sent to their home to force the payment of the debt, prosecutors allege.

Portley-Hanks also allegedly sent an email to Individual A titled “Operation Shovel”, which included a photo of Individual A’s family gravestone altered to suggest he would die “very soon”.

Further, Portley-Hanks and Rissell, acting on Hanson’s direction, sent a DVD “that portrayed a masked individual beheading two unknown males with a chainsaw and a knife”, prosecutors alleged. “The DVD also contained the message: ‘If you don’t pay us our money, this will happen to you’,” according to authorities.

“Single in Redondo”

Hanson is being housed in San Diego’s Metropolitan Correctional Centre, a high-rise jail located in the middle of the city’s court precinct. Tunnels allow the secure movement of inmates to the various nearby court buildings.

The conditions are a world away from Hanson’s Redondo Beach, California, upbringing and student-athlete life where his 205-centimetre, 102-kilogram body helped the Pete Carroll-coached USC Trojans to an Orange Bowl victory in 2003 and a national championship in 2004.

A glimpse into his pre-arrest life was captured in a 2014 story in the Los Angeles magazine South Bay, titled “Single in Redondo”.

The publication showcased Hanson’s modern architectural home in Redondo Beach featuring a lap pool, chef’s kitchen, a tequila room and a home theatre where he watched live football games with his mates.

“I go to Vegas a few times each month, and I wanted my house to feel like some of my favourite hotels there,” Hanson told the magazine.

The home featured porcelain tiled floors and charcoal-coloured bricks imported from Australia.

His office had a silver-plated AK-47 assault rifle sculpture with a Louis Vuitton signature mark while the bedrooms were influenced by the Palms Casino and bathrooms by the Vegas-strip’s five-star glass and steel Aria Resort and Casino.

Hanson’s days of luxury and partying may be over. The US racketeering and conspiracy to distribute narcotics charges he faces carry life sentences while the money-laundering count has a maximum term of 20 years.

“Despite his notoriety and the serious nature of his charges, Mr Hanson is entitled to a fair defence,” Hanson’s lawyer, Russell Babcock, wrote in a statement. “Time will show that many of the assertions made by the government against him are false and are based on government witnesses who are criminals and perjurers.”

The trial date is set for October 25.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "Worldwide crime web". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.