Cops swoop on child stealing network
AN ALLEGED criminal syndicate with links to the 2016 federal election has been swooped on in raids across the country, with police claiming it masterminded some of Australia's longest-running child stealing cases.
Australian Federal Police yesterday charged three people in Queensland and NSW, while a West Australian woman is expected to be charged under Operation Noetic, a complex, two-year investigation that included raiding a yacht that was allegedly being refitted to spirit children and their mothers overseas.
Pensioners and many professionals are said to have been part of the alleged conspiracy, which used the same encrypted applications used by terrorists and organised crime gangs.
Some of the text messages were sent using Signal, which deletes messages after they are read.
Some of the children and mothers - who had made unfounded allegations that their partners sexually abused their children - had been off the grid and missing for years.
The Courier-Mail has been aware of aspects of Operation Noetic for more than nine months but has not published details at the request of the AFP to protect the integrity of the investigation.
It will be alleged Dr William Russell Massingham Pridgeon, 64, the founder of the Australian Antipaedophile Party which ran Senate candidates in the 2016 poll, used Commonwealth resources and a network of up to 40 people to help women and their kids go on the run, contravening Family Court orders.
Pridgeon, a GP in Grafton, is alleged to have paid some supporters in gold bullion to help up to three women - and potentially others - escape police attention.
He was arrested at his residence yesterday in Grafton.
He will appear in a NSW court today where prosecutors will allege he spent $70,000 to buy the yacht 56 South.
He has been charged with conspiracy to defeat justice, dealing in the proceeds of crime and aiding and abet child stealing.
Police will also allege he spent up to another $70,000 on getting the vessel seaworthy and planned to sail it to Tasmania to help mothers and their children start a new life in New Zealand or Zimbabwe.
He also undertook sailing lessons.
Police believe he had liquidated his assets and at one point had 11kg of gold bullion, worth about $750,000, at a storage facility in Martin Place, Sydney.
Pridgeon allegedly wrote scripts in other patients' names to give mothers and children access to drugs on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule.
In one case he allegedly performed minor surgery on one of the mothers.
It will be alleged his friend, Patrick O'Dea, 63, a pensioner also arrested yesterday, was appointed to drive throughout the country to quickly pick up women and children.
He has been charged with conspiracy to defeat justice, dealing in the proceeds of crime, aid and abet child stealing, unlawful stalking and using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence.
O'Dea, who was once in the Rhodesian army, has also been accused of stalking and threatening to harm a father who had his children returned to him after several years.
It will be alleged O'Dea would drive for days across the country, either getting the women and children to a destination or tag-teaming with other members of the network for transport.
A woman, 78, is expected to face charges in Western Australia for her alleged role in helping one of the mothers escape police detection.
A North Queensland man, 83, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has also been charged with financing some of the women being helped by the alleged syndicate.
AFP lead investigator Sergeant Darren Williamson told The Courier-Mail police would allege all those charged and served were "issue-based motivated".
"We call it a syndicate... (and) it probably reflects exactly what we are looking at," he said.
"There is a degree of organisation for this network. There's some clandestine way in which this syndicate operates, encrypted applications, the cash economy.
"There's a connection between a series of Family Law Recovery matters."
Police believe Pridgeon is the financier of the syndicate.
"We will allege he provides the financial assistance and the resources to parents who parentally abduct their children," Sgt Williamson said.
"We will allege he funded the movement of the network.
"So if parents and children went into hiding, he provided his vehicle. He provided a car to move these people around the country.
"He's also give them provisions (like) food (and) medical support and everything suggests so far indicates that it was off the books."
Sgt Williamson said Pridgeon, who is facing defamation action and is due in court next week for accusing a father of being a paedophile, started liquidating assets, including selling his house.
He then bought gold bullion.
"Since we identified the gold we will allege he paid other elements of this syndicate in gold bullion."
He said O'Dea received "referrals" on a Facebook page from mothers who asked for help.
Police will allege a pattern of behaviour among those involved emerged during the two-year investigation.
Asked how many people were involved, Sgt Williamson said: "We're talking quite a large number of people Australia-wide.
"The syndicate, I would put down to half a dozen to 10. The rest are more your advocates and supporters."
Sgt Williamson said he believed there were others who have received help and called for people with information to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
AFP Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz said investigators had disrupted an organised and well-resourced group demonstrating a complete disregard for the rule of law and decisions of the courts.
"The actions of these people are not ensuring child protection. They are endangering the safety and ongoing wellbeing of children for selfish or misguided reasons," she said.
"During this two-year investigation, 10 missing children have been safely located in the custody of a parent who had taken them. Five of these are believed to be linked to this group of people.
"We believe this group has sought assistance from other people - some who may be unaware of their involvement - so we are urging anyone with any knowledge about these activities to come forward to the AFP."
WHAT INVESTIGATORS ALLEGE
● South Australia academic puts Dr William Pridgeon in contact with a Queensland mother who has accused her ex-husband of sexually abusing two of their young children.
● Pridgeon allegedly organises for the mother and children, plus in a separate incident, another Queensland woman and young child, to be picked up and transported by his mate, Patrick O'Dea.
● Police claim O' Dea runs a Facebook page where he receives "referrals" from women asking to escape men they say are paedophiles. Others, including one in Toowoomba, make contact and receive help.
● O'Dea allegedly makes several journeys to pick up women and kids, moving them across Australia or handing them to members.
● The network takes them to Kununurra and Perth, WA; northern NSW; and Brisbane.
● When they arrive in certain locations, Pridgeon allegedly provides medical and financial support.
● Pridgeon allegedly pays a NSW man in gold bullion to investigate men mothers accuse of being paedophiles.
● Pridgeon allegedly buys a yacht for the purpose of spiriting women and children overseas to start new lives.
ALLEGED MASTERMIND AND FINANCIER
William Russell Pridgeon, 64
OCCUPATION: GP, Founder of the Australian Antipaedophile Party
LOCATION: Grafton, NSW
CHARGES: Conspiracy to defeat justice, punishable by 10 years jail; Deal in the proceeds of crime to the value of $50,000 or more, punishable by
15 years jail; Aid and abet child stealing, punishable by seven years jail.
ALLEGED MOTHER/CHILD COURIER/STALKER/SMEARER
Patrick O'Dea, 63
LOCATION: Grafton, NSW
CHARGES: Conspiracy to defeat justice, punishable by 10 years jail; Aid and abet child stealing, punishable by seven years jail; Unlawful stalking, punishable by seven years jail; Using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence, punishable by three years jail; Publish an account of proceedings, punishable by one year in jail.
ALLEGEDLY PAID TO DEFAME FATHERS ONLINE AND INVESTIGATE PAEDOPHILES
Cannot be named, 37
OCCUPATION: Called himself a paedophile hunter but was jobless
LOCATION: Bateau Bay, NSW
Served a court attendance notice for role in alleged criminal activity.
ALLEGEDLY HELPED MOTHER AND KIDS
Cannot be named, 83
LOCATION: Townsville, Qld
CHARGES: Deal in the proceeds of crime punishable by 10 years jail; Aid and abet the publication of an account of proceedings, punishable by one year in jail.
ALLEGEDLY HELPED HIDE MOTHER AND KIDS
Patricia Plaisted, 78
LOCATION: Perth, WA
Served a court attendance notice for role relating to the alleged criminal activity.