CRAIG Lembke was a talented saxophonist and an accomplished flautist, an established and well-known member of the Newcastle music scene for the past three decades with his upmarket wedding band Saxanova. And he was a regular at yacht clubs in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, a passionate sailor and teacher who hoped to make a living picking up and delivering yachts for the super rich.
And to those who knew him best he was a "dreamer" and a "romantic", a man not motivated by wealth or greed but his passion for music and sailing.
But Lembke, 49, was living something of a double life.
At some point between September 30 and November 15, 2017, Lembke - the super chill muso and part-time model who had a reputation as being a bit of a Casanova - became knowingly involved in an international drug syndicate who used the code names "Black Prince", "Spider Wizard", "Scarecrow" and "Brisk Eagle" and who plotted to import 700 kilograms of cocaine - with a street value of $245 million - on board a catamaran from Tahiti to Australia.
On Wednesday, after listening to more than five weeks of evidence and deliberating for three days, the jury in Lembke's Newcastle District Court trial found him guilty of importing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug, a charge which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Lembke was typically stoic as the verdict was read out, but members of his family burst into tears in the public gallery. He will face a sentence hearing on December 16. The case focused on Lembke's state of mind and whether he knew about the drugs on board the yacht or, crucially, as the key players began giving evidence during the trial, whether he "knew or believed that there was a real or significant chance" that there was a substance secreted on the Skarabej.
It also centered on whether or not Lembke was told before accepting the delivery that he would be paid $500,000 to sail the yacht from Tahiti to Toronto.
Drug importation has an extended definition, and the prosecution had said Lembke was guilty because he either knew about the importation plot before he agreed to sail the 13-metre Skarabej from Tahiti to Toronto or because he ferried another syndicate member out to the boat - after it had arrived at Lake Macquarie and after another syndicate member had offered him an additional $500,000 - so the syndicate member could cut holes in the boat and remove the drugs hidden in the hull. Lembke admitted to sailing the 13-metre Skarabej from Papeete to Toronto, but always denied knowing about the illicit cargo on board.
He also denied that in late September or early October, 2017, before he agreed to deliver the yacht, that a drug syndicate member had offered him $500,000 to complete the voyage.
Public Defender Peter Krisenthal, for Lembke, advanced a hypothesis during the defence case that a comment made during a covertly recorded conversation between Lembke and a drug syndicate member suggested Lembke may have thought the yacht was to be used for an exportation from Lake Macquarie and not an importation.
The jury's verdict is clear; they were left with no doubt that Lembke knew about the drug importation plot at some point during his involvement with the Skarabej, either before he accepted the yacht delivery job or after he arrived at Lake Macquarie and was offered an additional $500,000 to help facilitate the removal of the cocaine.
But unlike judge-alone trials, a jury does not give reasons for their verdict and so Lembke's exact involvement and their reasons for convicting him remain ambiguous.
That will be a matter for Judge Jonathan Priestley, SC, to determine when it comes time to sentence Lembke.
The verdict could mean Lembke was not an unwitting mule unknowingly ferrying drugs for a shadowy drug syndicate.
That he wasn't duped or tricked.
It could mean that he was "Brisk Eagle", the skipper who communicated with other syndicate members using an encrypted phone, knowingly sailed the illicit cargo on board the 13-metre Skarabej from Papeete to Toronto and, depending on who you believe, stood to make between $500,000 and $1 million
Or it could mean his role in the drug importation plot was limited only to the day of the police raids and his arrest when Lembke agreed to ferry another drug syndicate member in a tender out to the Skarabej so the syndicate member could cut holes in the hull and extract the bricks of cocaine.
The truth, as it often is, may be found somewhere in between. Lembke may have sensed something was suspicious; the encrypted phones, the code names, the secrecy and the potential for a huge pay day and thought all he needed was plausible deniability to sail on through and avoid being implicated.
As Crown prosecutor Rob Ranken put it during his closing address, while discussing the plot with another syndicate member, Lembke was a bit like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes, constantly claiming: "I know nothing".
"It's pretending to turn a blind eye when the bare truth is staring you square in the face," Mr Ranken told the jury. "You know exactly what's going on but you're saying I don't know anything. That is reflective of Mr Lembke's attitude to this job throughout. He has constantly been looking to position himself ... so that he could have some sense of deniability and so that he could be able to distance himself from those who were actually organising the importation."
Lembke did not give evidence during his trial.
But the two drug syndicate members jailed for their respective roles in the importation agreed to become Crown witnesses and gave evidence in exchange for substantial discounts on their sentences.
However, those two men, who cannot be identified, did not exactly help the prosecution case.
Both men had their credibility and reasons for giving evidence attacked, struggled to remember events and conversations from the period of the importation between September and November, 2017, gave evidence that Lembke was purposely not told about the drugs, could not be certain when Lembke was told he would be paid $500,000 and the key witness even acknowledged, under grinding cross-examination from Mr Krisenthal, that Lembke was "duped" into being involved in the importation.
And while they were repeatedly proven to be either lying or mistaken, the jury's verdict means they must have accepted at least some of their evidence incriminating Lembke.
Those two other syndicate members were jailed in January for a maximum of 19 years and 13 years, respectively. Both received 40 per cent discounts on their sentences due to their guilty pleas and assistance to the authorities.
One syndicate member, who coordinated the Australian end of the importation, would have been jailed for a maximum of more than 32 years had it not been for his significant discount. Lembke will receive no such discounts on his sentence. Meanwhile, Lembke's co-accused during the trial, Western Australian man Daniel Percy, was found not guilty of importing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug.
That is reflective of Mr Lembke's attitude to this job throughout. He has constantly been looking to position himself... so that he could have some sense of deniability and so that he could be able to distance himself from those who were actually organising the importation."Crown prosecutor Rob Ranken during his closing address last week.
The prosecution case was that Mr Percy flew to Tahiti to meet Lembke and facilitate the transfer of the Skarabej and its illicit cargo into Lembke's care for its delivery to Australia.
Mr Krisenthal bookended his case with a simple question for the jury; was it really plausible that this man, the sailor, the musician, the dreamer, the romantic, would throw his life away in such a greedy and risky endeavour.
The jury, through their verdict, found it was.
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here.
IN THE NEWS
- One in 11 Newcastle inner-city households have had their power disconnected
- Government long service leave agency grilled at Senate estimates over treatment of 'casual' mineworkers
- North Stockton, Fern Bay strategy shows vision for new town centre
- Cocaine catamaran case: Craig Lembke found guilty of importing 700 kilograms of cocaine
- UK cops find 39 bodies in truck container
- Plastic waste sector needs a lot more public attention in the Hunter and worldwide