Archibald Award finalists Benjamin Aitken and Shannon McCulloch became suspected drug traffickers arrested for transporting sawn-off methamphetamine, a shotgun


Benjamin Aitken’s painting ‘Untitled 4’, finalist for the Sulman Prize 2020.Credit:

During their search, police reportedly found more than 90 grams of what they believed to be MDMA, but tests later showed it to be methamphetamine, the Melbourne Magistrates Court said this week.

Officers also discovered a stolen shotgun, ammunition, prescription drugs, thousands of dollars in cash, a money counter and six iPhones. Ziplock bags containing cocaine and ketamine were also seized.

The couple gave “no comment” interviews after their arrest, however, the court heard that Aitken had provided the police with the access codes to the confiscated phones. On the devices, police reportedly found messages on the encrypted Wickr app referring to drug trafficking.

The menu for customers included ketamine, MDMA, acid, mushrooms, cocaine, cannabis and prescription drugs, police said.

“They identified the drugs in plain English,” said Chief Constable Timothy Fitzpatrick of the North West Metro Regional Crime Squad.

Mr Aitken looked dejected on Wednesday as he appeared before a virtual court at Port Phillip Prison wearing a green prison tracksuit.

The painting of Benjamin Aitken by Gareth Samson arriving at the <a class=Art Gallery of NSW, where she was a finalist for the Archibald Prize.” loading=”lazy” src=”https://static.ffx.io/images/$zoom_0.152%2C$multiply_0.4431%2C$ratio_1.5%2C$width_756%2C$x_20%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/q_86%2Cf_auto/0932efa6ae109000750d2d84a78b7ee180acd37b” height=”224″ width=”335″ srcset=”https://static.ffx.io/images/$zoom_0.152%2C$multiply_0.4431%2C$ratio_1.5%2C$width_756%2C$x_20%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/q_86%2Cf_auto/0932efa6ae109000750d2d84a78b7ee180acd37b, https://static.ffx.io/images/$zoom_0.152%2C$multiply_0.8862%2C$ratio_1.5%2C$width_756%2C$x_20%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/q_62%2Cf_auto/0932efa6ae109000750d2d84a78b7ee180acd37b 2x”/>

The painting of Benjamin Aitken by Gareth Samson arriving at the Art Gallery of NSW, where she was a finalist for the Archibald Prize.Credit:Edwina pickles

“It was sobering for him, literally and figuratively,” said his lawyer, Belinda Franjic.

Mr Aitken and Mr McCulloch’s friendship spilled over into alleged drug trafficking, the court said.

'Pipe painting' by Shannon McCulloch.

‘Pipe painting’ by Shannon McCulloch.Credit:

“From my analysis of Mr. Aitken’s phone there is a reference to ‘Shannon of Brunswick’ collecting drugs on behalf of Mr. Aitken,” Chief Constable Fitzpatrick said.

Mr McCulloch told the Art Gallery of NSW as part of his Archibald entry that he met Mr Aitken in 2014, while living in Perth.

“[My Archibald] portrait portrays Ben in his living room where he and I have sat countless times discussing everything from art, music, boxing and politics to our personal stories, all night long and until morning, ”he said.

On Tuesday, Mr. McCulloch was shortlisted along with four other painters under the age of 30 for the Brett Whiteley Traveling Art Fellowship, which includes a two-week artistic residency at the Shark Island Institute in NSW.

He is unlikely to be able to attend after being released on bail in early November ahead of a court date next month.

In one profile, art critic Ashley Crawford wrote that Mr. Aitken looked like “bad boys” like Adam Cullen, the grunge artist who died at 46 after a long battle with drugs and alcohol.

Benjamin Aitken has the words

Benjamin Aitken has the words “drug money” tattooed on his palm and “baroque dish” on his neck.Credit:Instagram

“Pray that he doesn’t follow their example too closely,” he wrote.

On his Instagram page, Mr. Aitken has guns in several photos and references using MDMA. A post shows a drawing by Mr. McCulloch of Mr. Aitken looking into the chamber of a sawn-off shotgun.

Shannon McCulloch’s “Knife in Hand”.Credit:

His tattoos include the puns “born Toulouse” (possibly after the French bohemian artist soaked in absinthe) and “baroque dish”.

Hours before their arrest, Mr Aitken uploaded a photo to Instagram with Mr McCulloch, whom he describes as the “cornerstone of my bizarre existence”.

Both Mr. Aitken and Mr. McCulloch have been charged with Trafficking in a Commercial Quantity of Methamphetamine, Trafficking in Cocaine and Ketamine, Drug Possession, Receiving Stolen Property, Possession of a Firearm and unregistered ammunition and knowing trafficking in proceeds of crime.

The threshold for a commercial quantity of methamphetamine is 50 grams and the maximum jail term for trafficking in that quantity is 25 years.

Chief Constable Fitzpatrick said he believed Mr. Aitken was addicted to drugs.

“Through my analysis of Mr. Aitken’s cell phone, there are conversations where he told the other person that he was high at some point,” he said.

A photo of Benjamin Aitken and Shannon McCulloch uploaded to Instagram on the same day they were arrested by police on serious drug charges.

A photo of Benjamin Aitken and Shannon McCulloch uploaded to Instagram on the same day they were arrested by police on serious drug charges.Credit:Instagram

Archibald 2021 finalist 'Ben' by Shannon McCulloch.

Archibald 2021 finalist ‘Ben’ by Shannon McCulloch. Credit:

As part of the raid, police reportedly found a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, which was stolen from its registered owner during a burglary in Lavington, NSW in 2002.

The barrel of the gun had been shortened, Chief Constable Fitzpatrick said, and 17 shotgun shells were also found.

The court heard that the shotgun did not have fingerprints on it and when asked if the gun could have been cleaned, he replied: “It is a possibility, yes.”

Mr Aitken was released on bail Wednesday after spending six weeks in detention.

Prosecutors had argued that Mr Aitken could pose a flight risk because he had ties to galleries abroad.

Ms Franjic, Mr Aitken’s lawyer, said her client came from a good family and had no criminal history.

A drawing of Shannon McCulloch from Benjamin Aitken holding a sawed-off shotgun.  Police found a 12 gauge shotgun during the raid.

A drawing of Shannon McCulloch from Benjamin Aitken holding a sawed-off shotgun. Police found a 12 gauge shotgun during the raid. Credit:Instagram

“Clearly the infractions are serious, I won’t submit otherwise but it doesn’t look like double digits. [a 10-year plus jail term], if I can put it bluntly, ”she said.

Ms Franjic told the court that Mr Aitken was an accomplished and accomplished artist. His work includes exhibitions in the United States, Thailand and South Korea.

“It takes maturity to become a well-known artist, 30 years old is pretty young,” Magistrate Ross Maxted said.

Ms. Franjic replied, “He had no difficulty in selling his works, he is in great demand.

In giving bail, Mr Maxted acknowledged that the backlog due to COVID-19 meant Mr Aitken would have spent a long period in custody before his case was resolved.

Benjamin Aitken posing with a gun in a photo uploaded to Instagram.

Benjamin Aitken posing with a gun in a photo uploaded to Instagram. Credit:Instagram

“It is incongruous for a man of good family to be involved in a substantial amount of drugs,” he said.

As part of his bail conditions, Mr Aitken lost his passport and must enter a residential drug rehab center in Hoppers Crossing.

Ms. Franjic asked the centre’s program coordinator if Mr. Aitken would be able to practice the art during his 13-month rehab stay.

The court heard that a two-hour art therapy session is offered to recovering drug addicts every Thursday.

“We can look for ways to help Ben express himself in the art industry,” said the coordinator.

The co-defendants are due again in court on January 18.

Know more? Contact the reporter confidentially at [email protected]

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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