An ex-cop has issued a grave warning over a recent spate of targeted arson attacks on Melbourne tobacconists, saying it is “only a matter of time” until somebody gets hurt.
Former police officer Charlie Bezzina told the Today show on Friday that legitimate shop owners were getting “muscled” out by organised crime syndicates seeking to push illicit tobacco sales.
“Organised crime are targeting legitimate shopkeepers, saying ‘You sell our products or we’ll burn your place down’,” Mr Bezzina said.
“Where does he go?
“They go to the police saying, ‘These people are wanting me to sell these goods for them’, (but) who are they? They don’t know.”
A tobacco store on Station St in Oakleigh in Melbourne’s southeast was set alight on Thursday, succumbing to a trend of smoke shop fires linked to Victoria’s illegal tobacco trade.
It marks the second time a shop has caught fire on the street in less than a month, with the prior incident occurring on September 6.
Victoria Police said Thursday’s blaze was suspicious.
“No one was present inside the business at the time of the fire, but the building was destroyed,” police said in a statement.
Mr Bezzina told Today’s Karl Stefanovic and Sarah Abo on Friday that it was only by chance that no innocent passers-by had been injured in the incidents, which were occurring in densely populated areas.
Arson and explosives squad Detective Acting Inspector Mark Kennedy said police believed they were aware of the “main players” within the crime syndicates involved.
“These criminal syndicates and their associated offending linked to illicit tobacco has the complete attention of police and we will do everything we can to bring this to an end and hold those responsible to account,” he said.
“We will relentlessly keep working our way up until we get all the way to the top of these organised crime groups.”
Mr Bezzina warned that if left unchecked, such arson attacks “will lead to a fatality”.
“Victoria Police need to get their intelligence and work out who’s who in the zoo,” he said.
“They’ve made four arrests but they’re the ‘puppeteers’ as they call them.
“It is the Middle Eastern crime groups together with the outlaw motorcycle gangs.”
The former police officer said the spate of arson attacks was a result of Border Force officials being “overwhelmed” by an increase in attempts to illegally smuggle drugs and firearms into the country.
“We’ve now got these arson attacks that will then lead to, if not serious injuries, a death eventually,” he said.
“That’s when the balloon will really go up through the government and the pressure (will be) put on through the federal police and the state police.”
The fire in Oakleigh came a day after a suspected arson attack on a tobacco shop in Whittlesea, north of Melbourne.
Wednesday’s fire engulfed a Church St business at about 2.30am, destroying the shop.