‘I wasn’t a sugar daddy’: Murder trial hears brothel owner didn’t tell police of his ‘business interests’

‘I wasn’t a sugar daddy’: Murder trial hears brothel owner didn’t tell police of his ‘business interests’

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One of the last people to see Ellie Price alive says he innocently omitted to tell police he was a longstanding brothel owner in two different states or that he met the victim at a Melbourne strip club, as another man faces trial charged with the 26-year-old’s alleged stabbing murder.

Mark Paul Gray also denied being Price’s “sugar daddy” and told the court that the day before her alleged murder in 2020, she had told him that her boyfriend had recently choked her.

Ellie Price sustained six stab wounds.

Gray, formerly Mark Gdanski, initially told police in his signed statement that he was an accountant who met Price during a night out in Melbourne’s CBD in 2017 before they developed a close platonic friendship.

The 60-year-old said he felt sorry for Price after learning she was couch-surfing with a baby and offered to provide her a character reference and advanced rent to secure homes over several years.

Price was found dead in one of those properties, in Park Street, South Melbourne, roughly six days after police believe she was fatally stabbed, about April 29, 2020.

Her boyfriend, Ricardo Barbaro, was arrested and charged with her murder.

Barbaro arriving at the Supreme CourtCredit: Penny Stephens

In the days before her alleged murder, Price had attempted to extort $100,000 from Gray and threatened to report him for rape unless he complied, the court heard.

While under cross-examination from Barbaro’s defence barrister, Rishi Nathwani, in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, it was revealed Gray had owned brothels in two states over more than 30 years. He moved his business interests to NSW in the late 1990s when his licence to operate in Victoria was suspended after a child prostitute was found on the Melbourne premises.

When asked why he failed to include his brothel history in his police statement, or that he met Price at the Men’s Gallery, where she worked as an exotic dancer, Gray said he did not see owning brothels as his career and that he wasn’t asked exactly where he had met her.

“Brothels are not an occupation. I’m not a member of the brothel association,” Gray replied.

The jury heard Gray ran Club 234 in Melbourne from 1992 and 1996 before his licence was suspended for five years after a 17-year-old girl was employed. Gray said he then bought Sydney establishments the Golden Apple, in 1998, and Liaisons, in 2006.

He said he also changed his last name in 1992, when entering the adult industry, to avoid impacting his family, including his brother who works as a lawyer.

“Brothels are highly moralistic. People don’t like them even though there are many accountants – even lawyers – who have a financial interest in them,” Gray said.

Gray was one of the last people to see Price alive. Earlier he told the court that on the day before her alleged murder, Price had confided in him that Barbaro had choked her, leaving bruising to her neck.

Ellie Price’s mother, Tracey Gangell (right), outside the Supreme Court.Credit: Paul Jeffers

He said that on April 28, he sat on a bench on Clarendon Street, in South Melbourne – not far from her rental home – where they spoke briefly before parting ways abruptly.

“She was wearing a scarf. It blew off in the wind and I saw a mark on her neck. She said it wasn’t a hickey mark, that it was where [Barbaro] tried to choke her,” Gray said.

Gray said he was renovating a site known as the “Melbourne project”, an unnamed brothel at the time of Price’s death and he had sent photos of the worksite to Price’s mother, Tracey Gangell, in April 2020.

He said Price was aware of his business interests but denied any knowledge of her working as a prostitute. He also denied ever acting as a “sugar daddy”, despite the court hearing he spent $100,000 on a Mercedes for Price and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent for her apartments.

“I wasn’t a sugar daddy. Incorrect,” he said.

Gray said that after paying Price the $100,000 she had demanded, he planned to cease their friendship as she was becoming too reliant on him, but maintained contact with Gangell, who lives in Tasmania.

Police allege Barbaro left the apartment after stabbing Price and cutting her throat, before travelling to visit his father, hiring a van and driving to NSW where he was ultimately arrested.

Barbaro had been in a relationship with Price for about six months and has pleaded not guilty murder.

He maintains he was not the last person to see the young woman alive.

A postmortem found Price had six stab wounds, including an eight-centimetre injury to her neck.

The trial continues.

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