20 April 2024

Canberra builder Tristan Waters gets 20 years' jail for role in $1.5 billion cocaine haul

| Albert McKnight
man in hoodie being arrested by police

Tristan Egon Sebastian Waters (second left, in a grey hoodie) arrives in Australia in January 2019 after being extradited from Serbia. Photo: AFP.

A former successful builder from Canberra has been handed two decades in prison for his role in a globe-spanning conspiracy in which a criminal syndicate attempted to possess up to $1.5 billion worth of cocaine.

In April 2017, 2576 blocks of cocaine weighing a total of 1.28 tonnes had been hidden inside prefabricated steel before they were seized by police when they arrived in a shipping container in Sydney.

It was estimated the drugs had a street value of between about $700 million and $1.5 billion.

On Friday (19 April), the NSW District Court convicted and sentenced Tristan Egon Sebastian Waters to 20 years in jail with a non-parole period of 12 years over his role in the crime.

He had travelled from Dubai to Serbia to help a criminal syndicate possess the cocaine.

He assisted with logistics for four days before the then-34-year-old was arrested in Belgrade on 16 January 2018. He has remained in custody ever since.

Judge Phillip Mahony SC said he had been willing to use violence against an undercover police officer to secure the contents of the shipment and had directed the activities of co-conspirators in Belgrade.

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Last year, Waters pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiring with others to possess a commercial quantity of cocaine, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

In a letter of apology, he wrote, “I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, and I feel terrible for my actions at the time.”

However, the author of a court report noted he also “verbalised blame towards the police for ‘stealing’ the drugs imported by the syndicate”.

Waters’ lawyers argued he had been a minor player “who was a dispensable further ‘trouble shooter’ brought in right at the very end”.

Judge Mahony said that while Waters joined the conspiracy at a very late stage, his role was to facilitate the return of the drugs by exchanging money at a meeting in Belgrade’s Metropol Hotel, and he was clearly a trusted person. The judge rejected the defence team’s claims that their client was a minor player.

Waters studied at the Australian National University, ran a successful construction company in Canberra, then became a director of a construction company in Dubai after moving to the United Arab Emirates in 2016. His businesses failed after he was arrested.

Also, after he moved to Dubai, he became profoundly depressed due to the death of a friend, began abusing alcohol and spent up to $5000 a week on cocaine.

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The court heard Waters has apologised to his wife for the last six years, during which they have struggled emotionally and financially. She has raised their son on her own since he was arrested.

Since being taken into custody, Waters has undertaken numerous courses, works in a clerical position and has been conducting a Bible course via mail. The now 40-year-old plans to work in the construction industry again when he is released.

His sentence was backdated to account for time served, which means he is eligible for parole from January 2030.

Waters had faced a jury trial in 2023, in which he was found not guilty of a charge of conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of cocaine.

One co-offender, Rohan Peter Arnold, pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to import a border-controlled drug and in 2020 was sentenced to 27 years’ jail with 19 years’ non-parole.

Another co-offender, David Edward John Campbell, will return to court on 3 May to be sentenced over his role.

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