Gangs recruit teens for arson attacks

Police have arrested four teenagers over arson attacks.

Police have arrested four teenagers over arson attacks. Photo: AAP

Gang members are allegedly recruiting children into Victoria’s unrelenting tobacco war, with four teenagers arrested over a string of arson attacks.

Officers raided three homes on Friday and took a 14-year-old Mulgrave boy, a 15-year-old Springvale boy, a 16-year-old Mulgrave girl and a 16-year-old Pakenham girl in for questioning. 

Police suspect they were involved in car burglaries at Wonga Park, along with an attempted arson attack at a Mill Park restaurant and the torching of a tobacconist in Ballarat.

The tobacconist’s owner was asleep at the back of the shop at the time but woke up when the store was hit.

Taskforce Lunar is investigating more than 40 fires linked to a conflict between warring crime syndicates over illegal tobacco profits in Victoria.

Detective Inspector Graham Banks said police were yet to determine the full chain of command of the syndicates, but they suspected gang members tasked children already involved in petty crimes to carry out the hits.

“It’s gone through at least one set of hands from the top, to a gang, and that gang has then tasked down to the children who aren’t gang members,” Banks told reporters.

“It’s a lot to do with cost – it’s cheap.

“There’s no real care for the children for starters, and then it removes (criminals) several steps from the offending itself.”

Children recruited into the illegal tobacco dispute were likely getting their instructions through encrypted apps or text messages, Banks said.

He pointed to technology as an enabler of the alleged recruitment and said it reduced children’s fear of the potential consequences of criminal acts when they knew what the likely ramifications would be.

“It’s not just a policing issue,” Banks said.

“Children are committing offences that they don’t have a concept of the seriousness of in some instances – in some instances, not so much.”

Young people detained in youth justice facilities and then adult prisons were networking with gangs, he said.

There were hundreds of people with “skin in the game” of the illicit tobacco trade including Middle Eastern organised crime syndicates, Asian crime syndicates and outlaw motorcycle gangs, he said.

“This is a community problem,” Banks said.

Police allege the Wonga Park burglaries happened when a white Isuzu D-Max and silver Ford Ranger were stolen between February 19 and 20.

The Ford Ranger was used in a firebombing on the Emerald Reception Centre in Thomastown on February 22 before it was found burnt out about 2.5km away in Bundoora less than half an hour later.

A 20-year-old St Albans man, who was previously on bail, faced court on Thursday after being charged over the attack.

Police allege the other ute was involved in an attempted arson at a Mill Park restaurant in the early hours of Tuesday.

It reversed towards the front door of the venue and several occupants exited before one reached back in to remove a jerry can.

The would-be arsonists fled after a witness ran towards the scene.

The same vehicle was used the following morning in an arson attack at a tobacconist on Sturt St in Ballarat before it was discovered burnt out on Eureka St.


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