Man arrested and imitation firearm seized as investigation into tobacco store fires continues

Detectives from Taskforce Lunar have today arrested a man and seized an imitation firearm as part of their investigation into a fire at a business in Fawkner yesterday.

A 19-year-old Westmeadows man was arrested in Westmeadows this morning with assistance from the Special Operations Group and he will now be interviewed by police.

A gel blaster imitation firearm was also located during a search warrant at the Westmeadows address.

The arrest and seizure follows a suspicious fire at a convenience store on Major Road shortly before 6am on Thursday, 16 May.

A vehicle was driven into the business which breached the security door, allowing an offender access to the store, which they set alight.

Following this the offenders drove off in the stolen vehicle before setting it alight in Erinbank Circuit, Westmeadows. These offenders were later captured on CCTV footage, with one holding what appeared to be a firearm.

The owner of the business was asleep at the rear of the premises when the offenders set fire to the business and luckily woke up.

Detectives from Taskforce Lunar are continuing to investigate eight fires over the past week, including the Fawkner fire, targeting businesses selling tobacco.

Those incidents are as follows:

• A suspicious fire at a tobacco store on Barkly Street in Ararat about 3.30am on Saturday, 11 May, resulting in 18 people living above the store having to be evacuated;

• A suspicious fire at a tobacco store on High Street, Epping about 4am on Saturday, 11 May;

• A suspicious fire at a tobacco store on East Street, Hadfield about 5am on Sunday, 12 May resulting in significant damage to the business;

• A suspicious fire at a store in a shopping centre on Gladstone Park Drive, Gladstone Park about 5.45am on Sunday, 12 May resulting in significant damage to the business;

• A suspicious fire at a convenience store on Malmsbury Drive in Meadow Heights about 4am on Tuesday, 14 May;

• A suspicious fire at a tobacco store on Morgan Court, Glenroy about 4.15am on Friday, 17 May; and

• A suspicious fire at a tobacco store on Belair Avenue, Glenroy just before 4.20am on Friday, 17 May.

Police are treating all of the fires as targeted and are keen to speak to anyone with information and who was involved.

Investigators would also like to hear from anyone who witnessed the fires or who may have CCTV or dash-cam footage from the areas.

Taskforce Lunar was established in October 2023 to investigate organised crime syndicates believed to be heavily involved in the illicit tobacco trade and an ongoing dispute for profit.

This includes a series of 51 arsons at stores selling tobacco across Victoria.

Detectives from Taskforce Lunar have arrested 58 people so far as a result of their investigations.

The taskforce has also been supported by members of the VIPER taskforce, with over 100 search warrants executed at properties linked to illicit tobacco and more than 80 people arrested.

Taskforce Lunar investigators believe the current situation is as a result of criminal syndicates in conflict due to competition for profit derived from the illicit tobacco market.

The current conflict includes both the physical placement of illicit tobacco into stores, as well as demands for stores to sell the syndicate’s illicit product and to pay a ‘tax’ per week to operate.

The taskforce includes specialist resources from across Crime Command and also works closely with regional police, as well as a range of external agencies such as the ABF, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), AFP and ATO.

Anyone with information about these fires is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or online at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au

Quotes attributable to Detective Inspector Graham Banks, Taskforce Lunar:

“Since this series of fires started back in March 2023, we have been extremely forthright about the risks they present to the community and the potential for these arson attacks to result in the death or serious injury of innocent people.

“We recently had a period without fires, however we have seen eight in the past week and this is a significant concern for police.

“A substantial investigation into not only the fires but also the organised crime groups we believe are responsible has been in place from very early on in the series and remains a high priority for police. We know these groups are reckless and relentless when it comes it comes to the relentless seeking of control over illicit tobacco profits and do not care for the safety of the broader community.

“We’ve arrested over 100 people we believe to be involved in offending linked to these syndicates, with many of them before the court for serious offences. Police have seized over $7M worth of illicit tobacco products as a result of these investigations.

“However we have also made it clear that cooperation from store owners and staff remains absolutely integral when it comes to getting timely intelligence about the threats these groups pose. We are continuing to appeal to owners and staff of stores to work with police to provide information about activities related to illicit tobacco, and as always this can be done anonymously. Those in the industry are crucial to our ability to bring these organised crime syndicates down.”

/Public Release. View in full here.