Brothel boss denies using underworld contacts to kill ‘soulmate’ after $100k rape extortion

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The owner of a multimillion-dollar brothel empire denies he used his underworld connections to kill a woman who was blackmailing him for $100,000, as another man faces trial for her alleged murder.

Mark Gray told a Supreme Court jury on Monday that dancer Ellie Price, 26, had been his “soulmate”, whose lifestyle he helped fund before she was found dead in her South Melbourne apartment in May 2020 with a large wound on her neck.

Mark Gray outside the Supreme Court earlier this year.Credit: Joe Armao

The court heard Gray told a mortician to make sure Price’s body looked “smoking hot”.

Price’s boyfriend, Ricardo Barbaro, was arrested in NSW two weeks after Price’s death and charged with her murder. He has pleaded not guilty and is currently on trial.

Gray in about 2014.

Gray denied killing Price and said he stayed in contact with her family for more than a year after her death because he was grieving.

But text messages shown to the jury show Gray was worried about the Price family telling the police and court about his business operations.

Gray told the court he had been worried about his 92-year-old mother finding out about the court proceedings, but said the elderly woman knew he ran adult venues and had even planned to visit one after Price’s death to change the linen.

“She knew about the existence of them, but she didn’t know about this mess,” Gray said.

The court heard Gray met Price in 2017 at the CBD strip club Men’s Gallery, where Price worked, before the pair formed a close friendship.

Over the following years, he paid her a $2000 weekly allowance and much of her rent, payments that were due to cease at the end of 2020. He also helped finance the purchase of Price’s $100,000 Mercedes-Benz, but denied being the 26-year-old’s “sugar daddy”.

Ellie Price and (inset) murder accused Ricardo Barbaro.Credit:  Supplied

In the days before she died, the court heard, Price told Gray she wanted $100,000 or she would tell police he had raped her.

At the time, text messages showed Gray was applying for a licence to open a multimillion-dollar South Melbourne brothel, Harem, which he’d been renovating with Price.

The court heard Gray had historically operated brothels in Victoria but had his licence cancelled for five years at one stage after employing an underage girl who provided a doctored birth certificate.

He then moved his business to NSW, where he purchased adult venues Liaisons, A Touch More Class and Stilettos. He later bought Harem in Melbourne.

During cross-examination by Barbaro’s defence barrister, Rishi Nathwani, Gray denied that Price’s blackmail on the eve of applying for a licence for Harem would have damaged his chances of being approved.

He also denied Price’s allegation would have affected his brothels in Sydney, as he said licences are not required there, only planning permits.

Other text messages between Gray and Price’s sister, Danielle, showed the brothel owner was worried that the defence lawyers would suggest he hired a hitman to kill Price.

“Ellie sold me down the river, according to [Ricardo Barbaro’s] statement, they were very much in love and planning a long-term future,” he wrote.

Mark Gray told the court he had only a financial interest in the brothel business and rarely visited the venues he owned.Credit: Luis Ascui

“They are going to suggest I hired a hitman to kill Ellie.”

When asked if he had used his underworld connections to have Price killed, he replied: “That’s totally wrong.”

The court heard Gray purchased a “friendship” ring for Price within the first month of meeting her, but he later told her sister he felt he had been replaced by Barbaro and was “always the bridesmaid and never the bride”.

In other text messages to Price’s sister after the 26-year-old’s death, Gray compared his earlier relationship with Price to the characters of Eddie and Shauni from US television franchise Baywatch.

“Eddie in Baywatch is me [with] dark hair and Shauni is Ellie [with] blonde hair. That’s the only reason I watch it,” he had said.

He wrote a eulogy and sent it to Price’s family for the funeral, which he watched remotely, saying Price was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. He recalled driving to her house for their first date with a rose in one hand, and that when she opened the door, he “felt like a jar of honey was being poured over my head”.

On Monday, Gray said he had found the speech on the internet and simply switched the names to his and Price’s.

Police allege Barbaro killed Price inside her Park Street apartment on April 29, 2020, and fled the scene in her Mercedes-Benz.

When Price was reported missing days later, police found her body on the floor of her bedroom with multiple stab wounds.

Barbaro was arrested more than a week later, on May 13, in NSW, where he had driven after hiring a van.

The trial continues.

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