A former Hong Kong policeman played a key role in cracking a drug syndicate that smuggled 17kg of pure heroin from the mainland to Australia. Inspector Thomas Li, who is now a member of the Joint Asian Crime Group, played a critical part in the police operation, listening to 11,000 intercepted phone conversations. The importance of his work and the remarkable success of the crime group, which was formed in l997 to target big heroin importers, emerged during a Sydney court case that resulted in one of the longest sentences imposed in Australia. Jack Chen has just spent the first weekend of his massive 40-year sentence behind bars after District Court judge Barrie Kinchington imposed a non-parole period of 26 years. Chen, 43, will be almost 70 before he is eligible for release. The rise and fall of Chen, who lived in the Sydney suburb of Strathfield, has captivated the Chinese community, which knew him as a respectable businessman. He would describe himself as a company director, but many wondered how he could afford to drive around in luxury cars while appearing not to work. In truth, Chen was a member of the Sun Yee On triad society and one of the biggest importers of heroin Sydney has known. Police believe he masterminded 42 drug-smuggling operations into Australia from Asia, involving at least 375kg of heroin with a street value of more than A$300 million (HK$1.25 billion). When police arrested him in April 2000 he protested his innocence, but earlier this year pleaded guilty after hearing the weight of evidence against him.