‘Protect Ellie’: Text messages from brothel owner’s phone laid bare in murder trial

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The mother of a slain dancer denies she was instructed by a brothel owner to conceal evidence of his business interests and relationship with her daughter after “secret” text messages surfaced in her murder trial.

Ellie Price, 26, was found dead in her South Melbourne apartment in 2020 with a large wound to her neck, before her then boyfriend Ricardo Barbaro was arrested and charged with her murder.

Accused killer Ricardo Barbaro arrives at court this weekCredit: AAP

Price had been friends with brothel owner Mark Gray, 60, who she’d met while working at the Men’s Gallery in central Melbourne. The court heard Gray was also paying her rent before their friendship became strained when she attempted to blackmail him for $100,000.

An initial trial this year was aborted before a second was later abandoned after Barbaro’s defence team received fresh data off Gray’s mobile phone.

On Tuesday, a Supreme Court jury trial into her death heard for the first time that1800 pages of data including text messages sent between the victim’s sister Danielle Price and Gray, in the year after her death, had since surfaced.

While questioning Price’s mother Tracey Gangell, defence barrister Rishi Nathwani suggested this included “secret” text messages with what appeared to be instructions from Gray to the Price family on how to answer questions in court and conceal his involvement in the brothel business.

Ellie Price and Ricardo Barbaro.

Nathwani told the court the messages also suggested Gray had wanted to marry Price and at one point planned to propose to her on the 24th floor of the Sofitel Hotel.

“Be prepared to protect Ellie as I know you will. When in doubt say ‘I don’t know’,” a text from Gray’s phone to Danielle Price on May 11, 2011, said.

Police allege Barbaro killed Price, 26, inside her Park Street apartment before leaving the scene in her Mercedes-Benz in the early hours of April 29, 2020.

When she was reported missing days later, police found her body on the floor of her bedroom with six stab wounds including a large laceration to her neck.

Crown prosecutor Damien Hannan said blood was later found on almost every surface of the room.

Tracey Gangell mother of Ellie Price, at the Supreme Court of Victoria on Tuesday.Credit: Paul Jeffers

Police allege that over the following days Barbaro visited his father, Joe Barbaro, in Melbourne’s west before renting a van and driving to NSW, where he was arrested on May 13, 2020.

The court heard there had been instances of violence between the two in the lead up to Price’s death amid an on-again off-again relationship marked with jealousy.

Barbaro has pleaded not guilty to murder.

Nathwani told the jury to remember they were in a court of law and not morality, warning them they would hear evidence about people who lived in a different world awash with strippers, brothels and drug use.

“It’s not in dispute that Ellie worked in the adult industry. Did she upset anyone to a degree where they’d want to harm her?

“Did Ricardo Barbaro have a motive to kill Ellie Price or were there other people who had motive to kill her. Did Ellie Price have the sort of life that resulted in her upsetting people who may want to harm her?”

On Tuesday, the jury heard at the time of her death Gray was associated with a Touch of Class brothel in Sydney and in the process of renovating and opening another named Harem, also located on Park Street in South Melbourne.

Mark Gray arrives at the Supreme Court trial of Ricardo Barbaro for the murder of Ellie Price.Credit: Joe Armao

Gangell denied suggestions she knew Gray was involved in the adult industry and maintained he only ever told her that he was an accountant.

But on Tuesday, Nathwani said numerous text messages sent between Gray and Danielle Price’s mobile phones seemed to suggest he had instructed the victim’s family not to reveal he was involved in brothels in the year following Ellie Price’s death.

“I want you to remember one word throughout this whole process. That word is ‘I don’t know’,” the court heard he wrote.

In other messages sent between Gray and Danielle Price, between October 2020 and May 2021, Nathwani said a message from the sister’s phone discussed that the three would all be summonsed to give evidence.

“Omg what the f—,” Gray’s reply read.

“Don’t worry about. You, me and mum will prepare for it. When I come down, we will go through everything. I’ve been through this sort of thing before … you need not worry about that part.”

Nathwani told the court that two days before an earlier court hearing, text messages from Gray said he was still trying to keep his brothel occupation out of the media before he had to tell his mum.

“Mark Gray brothel owner is a huge embarrassment,” the message read.

The trial continues.

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