Griffith winemaker Marcello Casella has been jailed for at least six months for failing to tell police about a large cannabis crop grown by a long-time friend.
Casella, 58, pleaded guilty in June to concealing a serious indictable offence after he failed to tell police about the crop of 2750 cannabis plants grown on a farm at Crowther in south-western NSWin late 2013 and early 2014.
At the time, Casella was a director of Casella Family Brands, a high-profile wine business behind labels including Yellow Tail and Peter Lehmann Wines. He stepped down in February 2014 and is no longer involved in managing or operating the company which is headed by his two older brothers.
Casella's sentencing hearing was told he may have been guided by "misplaced loyalty" to his friend and one of his employees, who was also involved with the crop, when he kept quiet.
On Friday, District Court judge Peter Zahra sentenced Casella to eight months behind bars with a non-parole period of six months.
He said the offence concealed was "a crime of some gravity" and Casella was aware those who planned the sophisticated enterprise "were to engage in criminality of the highest order.”
“Ultimately I am unable to determine the full extent of the motives of the offender," Mr Zahra said.
“The fact remains, however, that it was a grave error of judgment.”
Mr Zahra said the crime was above the mid-range of seriousness and, although Casella was jailed in 1995 over a cannabis crop in Queensland, he showed good prospects of rehabilitation.
Casella's barrister Graham Turnbull, SC, indicated he plans to launch an immediate appeal and apply for bail while the appeal is pending.
According to agreed facts tendered to the court, Casella's friend is Luigi Fato, a south coast drug kingpin who was jailed for at least 12 years.
Fato and his associate Hank Pickett arranged in late 2013 to plant the cannabis crop on Karoopa farm at Crowther and approached Casella to help with funding, equipment and irrigation.
Casella visited the farm three times from October to December 2013, however he did not become involved in the illegal activities.
In January 2014, he became aware that a crop "well in excess of 1000" plants had been planted and knew that one of his employees, irrigation expert Andre Turner, had become involved – but he did not know the exact number of plants.
In a police interview in September 2014, Casella denied having any knowledge of the cannabis crop and denied ever visiting the farm.
Casella spoke to his legal team before he was handcuffed and led from the court dock.