TRUE CRIME STORIES FROM THE RURAL FRINGE
Our outback highways have been the scene of every type of crime imaginable. The dirt roads that carry our vehicles once carried convicts, bushrangers, psychopaths and chancers, and sometimes they still do. Let’s take a look at some of the forgotten rural crimes that scared and titillated Australia…
THE MAGNETIC DRILL GANG
Murwillumbah, NSW, 1978.
This was a gang of crims so disorganised that their first robbery involved them stealing an empty safe.
It turns out there was method to their madness, day in and day out they practiced cracking the empty safe, a Chubb model that was popular with most banks.
They thus perfected a technique that involved a cytoscope, a tubular camera ordinarily used by doctors. The cytoscope was threaded through a hole created by a diamond-tipped drill on an electromagnetic clamp.
Up to 20 safes were cracked in the big smoke of Melbourne, to get the technique just right for their big raid on a small country bank in Murwillumbah.
The gang had been scoping out the Tweed Valley branch of the Bank of Wales for months. Although it was in the middle of the main drag, there weren’t a helluva lot of local residents sleeping nearby when they noisily entered the vault through the ceiling.
In under an hour they managed to get through the ceiling, use their ingenious method to crack the safe, and split with almost $2 million. Then, the largest bank robbery in Australia.
When the police discovered that someone had messed with the safe, they called in all sorts of specialists, and even a handful of local council workers with jackhammers, and it took them ten times as long to find out whether there was any money left in the vault.
According to the Telegraph: “The workmen used drills and sledgehammers to smash a hole through four layers of bricks and then used a diamond-tipped drill to cut through the steel wall of the vault.By the time the good guys got through, the bad guys had already touched down in Hong Kong to celebrate, as some of the notes turned up with money changers there.
The case has never been solved, with James Morton explaining in his excellent expose Gangland Robbers— “With jobs such as this, the police would know the names of the handful of people capable of such work…the almost inevitable conclusion was that the gang was paying protection.”
The two names linked most often by those who still research the Murwillumbah heist are ‘The Fibber’ (Jack Warren) and ‘The Munster’ (Graham Kinniburgh)
It turned out The Fibber, apart from being quite a handy liar, was Australia’s most talented underworld kleptomaniac and had been for decades.
On one occasion while on a robbing holiday through Europe he took a Sung Dynasty emerald elephant from Aspreys jewellers in London, but when none of the local fences wanted to buy it, he just shrugged his shoulders and it was “used as a doorstop in his flat. When he left the country he left the elephant behind for the unsuspecting landlord.”
Although Prince Charles had visited the humble sugarcane town the year before, that paled in comparison to it being home to Australia’s largest bank heist, as The Daily Telegraph explained: “A local menswear shop marketed special T-shirts to ‘celebrate‘ the event. Tea towels, calendars, beer mugs and coffee cups followed, all recalling the night the Magnetic Drill Gang came to town, and put Murwillumbah on the map.
THE BULL & THE SNAPPER
Sunshine Coast, Q, 1985.
You don’t have to dig too deep to work out that a fair chunk of our true crimes are going to be set in Queensland in the 1980s.
It was “the sunny state with the shady police force”, the state that had the same government in power for decades, the state where organised crime was so brazen it existed in broad daylight.
Enter Barry Bull, an ex-butcher who owned a hair salon with his wife Sylvia in Noosa. (Writer’s note: I grew up on a dirt road and Barry Bull lived at the end of our dead end street. Let’s just say there were a lot of Porsches and BMWs driving up and down that dusty road to get to the only other house on the street.)
In the 1970s, semi-rural Noosa was where most of the drug boats were co-ordinated from, and they came in like clockwork through Darwin Harbour, Shute Harbour, Hervey Bay and Coffs Harbour, many of them skippered by local surfers taking a chance on making a dirty fortune while on their way back from the tropics each year.
There was so much dirty money being laundered through the resort town that sleepy Sunshine Beach, Bull’s hometown, was even home to a clandestine casino, complete with a roulette wheel that popped up out of the floor, where mob bosses, crooked cops, surfer/smugglers, union heavies and politicians would meet regularly.
It was getting out of hand, with federal cops setting up Operation Silo, if anything, just to see how much cocaine and heroin Bull and his partner ‘Snapper’ Cornwell were bringing in. And their investigations stunned even them, uncovering the biggest drug network in the country.
The investigation saw the pair intersecting through most walks of police and political life across most states, and they were mentioned at the heart of a number of government investigations including the Fitzgerald Inquiry, the Woodward Commission, and the Costigan Inquiry.
In 1984, Justice Costigan believed the pair’s exploits were so far-reaching that he recommended a Royal Commission to investigate them alone.
According to the Canberra Times, the feds had uncovered assets including “Units in Sydney and Noosa; bank accounts in Britain, Jersey, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Hong Kong; shares in British companies; trust accounts; racehorses in NSW; a stud farm; and a Queensland gold mine.”
It wasn’t all pina coladas on the beach for the drug kingpins though, a number of underworld deaths were linked to the pair, and after much surveillance they were finally caught with a relatively small two-tonne cannabis importation through Coffs, and another yacht being intercepted with the same amount going through Perth.
The pair managed to flee the country – Cornwell to England, and Bull to Austria –
but were trapped in a net by the National Crime Authority with help from Interpol.
After being arrested in Austria, Bull was being transported to court with three other prisoners when his van was waved over on a mountain road by a distressed motorcycle rider. The rider, thought to be a man at the time, unlatched the back of the van and Bull burst from the door and jumped on the back of the bike and escaped.
It was an escape so smooth and daring it made James Bond look like Mr Bean, the driver of the bike being Bull’s very stunning and very pregnant hairdresser wife, Sylvia.
The pair were recaptured a couple of months later in an Austrian hospital when Sylvia was giving birth to their son.
Even with The Bull and The Snapper behind bars, the drug trade from Asia and South America continued to boom, only this time not through such visible ports and harbours, with 4WDs meeting up with yachts all over the darkest regions of the coastline, ready to deliver their hauls to Mafioso for city distribution.
HIJACK IN THE RED CENTRE
Alice Springs, NT, 1972.
The Adelaide-to-Alice-Springs route is arguably the most picturesque flight path in the world.
With a window seat you can see the Flinders Ranges, Lake Eyre and the MacDonnell Ranges in all their colour clashes.
Especially in a small plane like a Fokker Friendship, as was the case with Ansett Airlines Flight 232, way back in 1972.
On one such flight, the plane was in the last half hour of its journey when one of the passengers Miloslov Hrabenec, a Czech economics student and wannabe survivalist, came out of the toilet with a sawn off .22 and told the other passengers, ‘This is a hijack!’
The pilot told him to sit back down as the plane was just about to land, and so he did. But once the landing gear had dropped he stood up and declared that it was indeed still a hijacking.
Other passengers were flummoxed as to why anyone would hijack such a small plane in such a remote location? They weren’t saying too much though, as by this stage he had also revealed the Bowie knife he had strapped to his leg.
Hrabinec spoke to police and told them he didn’t want any money or want to represent any religious cause, he wanted access to another plane and a pilot who would drop him out into the desert so he could commit suicide “spectacularly”.
With a very unhinged and very armed man on their hands, the police delivered another small plane to him. Out taxied local pilot Ossie Watts in his 6-seater Cessna, together with a navigator who had agreed to drop the hijacker into the desert with a parachute, as requested.
Hrabenic was immediately suspicious of the navigator, and rightly so, as he turned out to be undercover detective, Paul Sandeman. When he knew his jig was up, the cop pulled his pistol but it slipped out of his hands in the central Australian heat and the hijacker shot him twice.
The hijacker then made a run for it and the pilot Ossie Watts, who had only just been shown how to use a gun half an hour earlier, unloaded a clip on him as he ran across the tarmac, as did police snipers who were hiding in a nearby hangar.
Hrabinec made it into a ditch by the terminal and finally achieved his life’s wish of ending it all, with a single gunshot from his own gun.
Constable Paul Sandeman survived and was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery despite never fully recovering.
THE KIMBERLEY KILLER
Fitzroy Crossing, WA, 1987.
When it comes to organised crime, there’s usually a reason for it. I mean who would bother organising anything without having a reason, and that reason usually turns out to be money.
While the pursuit of money is often seen as the root of evil, there’s a far greater evil, and a far less common reason to organise a heinous crime.
Such was the case of German tourist Joseph Schwab – where it was a reason known only to him, a reason that did not come from a sane mind.
This was no crime where the coin toss of life had somehow seen a larrikin choosing to operate on the wrong side of the law – this was a cold blooded psychopath the likes of which the Australian outback had never before seen.
Schwab had been here a couple of years earlier on a hunting holiday, and it looked like he would be doing the same thing when he turned up at Brisbane Airport and hired a spanking new Toyota 4Runner for a solo drive across the country.
But not before stopping at a Brisbane gun shop and buying a handful of guns and 3000 cartridges of ammunition.
This time, the 26-year-old was hunting people; random strangers while hidden at close range.
The Sunday Times recounts: “The gunman’s first victims were a father and son, who were shot dead while scouting a fishing location on the banks of the isolated Victoria River in the Northern Territory.”
Police could not find any motive for the deaths and despite roadblocks the murderer made it interstate, with three more innocent people were gunned down at Kununurra just a couple of days later.
“By now the whole of the ‘Top End’ was on red alert. Roadblocks were set up again and police were now in a race against time before the killer struck again.”
Schwab, a security guard and marksman back in Germany, was meticulously prepared and he actively concealed the evidence after each murder before moving on to the next.
A local chopper pilot spotted Schwab’s rented 4Runner in scrubland on Jubilee Downs Station outside Fitzroy Crossing and cops wasted no time, hoping to avoid another killing spree as tourists were flocking into town for the annual rodeo.
They sent in a police Cessna and deployed ground forces and after a firefight that involved tear gas and grenades and Schwab trying to shoot the plane out of the sky, he was eventually laid out with a bullet to the chest.
And so was any chance to find out what had motivated him to go on such a brutal spree.
THE FINE COTTON AFFAIR,
Coffs Harbour, NSW, 1984.
Although the notorious event went down in Brisbane, the horse that actually made it first past the post was a ring-in named Bold Personality, raised on the thick green grass of the Bellinger River delta in NSW.
For years the original horse, ‘Fine Cotton’, had been a liability; an easybeat even when contesting the rural meets around Coffs Harbour. When he somehow got a chance to line-up in a metro race at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm, he was an unsurprising 33-1 longshot.
But there were a couple of men who figured they would make the most of such long odds, namely ex-Kiwi trainer Hayden Haitana, and his partner John Gillespie, a used car dealer who had recently shared a jail cell with Haitana’s brother.
How did they do this? Well, Haitana and Gillespie purchased the vastly superior gelding Bold Personality from Ballina and, arr, they painted it!
They used hair dye and bleach to give Bold Personality a rough resemblance of the original nag, and when they forgot to paint the legs white they simply taped them up at the last minute.
And so the new horse ran, like the wind, paint running down its flanks as it overtook all the other horses as though it were on a conveyor belt, and the pair looked to have won a motza.
But the bold plan was unravelling like the tape on Bold Personality’s legs, mostly due to suspicions caused when large winner-take-all bets were being taken out with bookies all over the country, so much so that the odds had dropped from 33-1 to 7-2 shortly before the race.
When stewards went to check on the horse, the two men had suspiciously left the racecourse and, seeing the dripping paint on the horse, they disqualified the horse before any payouts could be made.
Haitana was being pursued by cops across several states until he came forward to 60 Minutes and explained that if he were to go to the police and tip the bucket on who was really behind the project he would end up a dead man.
In the wash-up it turned out they had been working for a gangster named ‘Melbourne Mick’ who had racked up huge debts with SP bookies all over the country. Melbourne Mick needed an elaborate payday to help clear his ledger.
If the situation was bad for Haitana the country trainer, and for Gillispie the used car dealer (having to do jail stints), then they were even worse for the mastermind Melbourne Mick, who was executed by three men in ski-masks out the front of his home a couple of months later.
Fall guy Haitana – who’s only been allowed back onto racetracks recently – now lives in SA’s Fleurieu Peninsula, and he once told the Adelaide Advertiser: “People have always asked why I didn’t go to the cops. I say – ‘Are you kidding, they were the crooks’. It’s going to be very interesting when Underbelly covers Queensland because they are going to have to tell the full story of Fine Cotton.”
THE ICE MAN COMETH
Rural Australia, 2010s
As comedian Chris Rock states: “Drugs sell themselves. People want to get high. If you got rid of all the existing drugs in the world, people would just find new ways to get high.”
It illustrates the failings of the war on drugs, to think that drug users were ever forced at gun point to take something by their local drug dealer.
Let’s be honest here, drug epidemics are a sign that some part of society is broken and looking for pain relief. And whether they get that on a corner or over a counter hasn’t made too much difference to outback communities until recently.
Nowadays, a new approach is needed, because the loud yet ineffective war on drugs has seen a terrifying new threat metastacising in rural towns – meth amphetamine.
And it seems the government and media are still barking up the wrong tree and following the same visible tropes it has for years.
Tabloids will tell you the dispersal of ice is all at the feet of outlaw bikie gangs, yep, those same maligned convoys who travel cheek to jowl with our rigs on the lost highways of Australia.
Criminologist Terry Goldsworthy recently released a report that debunked this: “The six years’ worth of data I obtained from the Queensland Police Service showed that bikies accounted for only 0.9% of all reported drug trafficking offences in Queensland over that period. This prompts the question: who is responsible for the other 99%?”
It seems this dubious honour likely goes to the ‘Ndrangheta, otherwise known as the Calabrian Mafia.
As the Sydney Morning Herald recently stated: “Extortion, bribery, cannabis cultivation and racketeering have been the hallmarks of the ‘Ndrangheta in Australia for almost a century. But Italian investigators warn that the new generation of mobsters are involved in a much more damaging trade.
“Generally, the Mafia gets what it wants. In Australia, it wants the methamphetamine trade. They are believed to control the supply and trafficking of large quantities of methamphetamine into Australia.
While it’s true that drugs don’t need selling, the damage caused to rural towns is already dystopian, with ice now entering outback communities under some pretty surreptitious means if you believe a recent Courier Mail investigation.
“Police warn organised crime syndicates are targeting major social events, such as rodeos and balls, to get bush workers hooked on the highly-addictive drug before giving them a ‘shopping list’ of items including livestock, tools, machinery, quad bikes and firearms.”
To save rural towns from this scourge, the government has to cut this trade off at the neck, not just with the dealers who arrive at such outback events, but right back at the source.
As organised crime expert Dr Anna Sergi recently told Fairfax, “Italian investigators are still waiting for Australian police to get on the phone.”
But they could be waiting a while, according to former NSW assistant police commissioner Clive Small, who told the Saturday Paper: “By establishing links with both political parties, the ‘Ndrangheta in Australia has insured itself against aggressive scrutiny and surveillance by either party. These political links show no sign of weakening.”