FROM TO TO HAPPILY EVER AFTER “Judges and silks turned on him because they’d socialised with him”
Not long before the sky crashed on Andrew Fraser’s world, the then controversial criminal lawyer was rushing along the footpath in Melbourne’s legal precinct when he saw someone he knew across the street.
The friend had sometimes attended what Fraser and his mates called the “Negroni Commission”, a floating group that lunched monthly over negroni cocktails, fine wine and (in Fraser’s case, although not exclusively) cocaine of the grade that some of his clients reserved for their own use.
The friend waved and suggested a coffee. He was amazed when Fraser replied, “something like, ‘No, no – gotta go and get a big bag of the white stuff!”’
This display was, the witness recalls, “so bizarre” for its lack of prudence that he later called a mutual acquaintance and predicted Fraser was “going to fall and fall hard”.
“It would have been bad enough anywhere but it was in Lonsdale Street outside the courts, with lawyers and police everywhere. He had been getting more and more erratic. It was almost as if he wanted to get caught.”
Fraser cannot even recall that incident now. But a distinguished “silk” who still rates him a close friend saw the same self-destructive bent at close range.
One evening, the barrister saw Fraser arrive at their favourite haunt, the Botanical hotel in South Yarra, in a flashy American muscle car full of people who had obviously already been partying hard. A boxing champ and his entourage celebrating after a title fight would have made a quieter entrance.
Back then, Fraser’s shrinking group of friends and lengthening list of enemies agreed on some points: that he was confident to the degree of cocky and he loved being centrestage. But his friends saw offhand generosity where others saw only faults. He was the last to leave a party – and first to pick up the bill.
That’s the sort of reckless behaviour that might be shrugged off in Sydney’s more rakish circles, but raises hackles in the Melbourne legal profession.
To the Melbourne establishment, the rockstar lawyer was like Bon Scott in a church choir: impossible to ignore and headed for a bad end. Abusing cocaine was a symptom of a compulsive personality already hooked on the most addictive drugs of all, adrenaline and applause. Conniving with his supplier to import the drug showed he had lost touch with reality.
The fact that one of the “Negroni Commission” regulars was a judge, and another was destined to be, didn’t help. It probably made it worse: Fraser was not only trashing his reputation but tainting theirs. He got too hot to handle.
“It was all a bit outrageous,” says the Queen’s Counsel, one of the handful of legal colleagues who didn’t shun Fraser after his arrest on September 13, 1999. “Judges and silks turned on him then because they had socialised with him – and that jeopardised them.”
But, he says, Fraser showed he was made of tougher stuff than most of his clients and many of his detractors.
“Crooks nearly always give each other up,” the barrister says. “But Fraser did not take one person down with him. He took the rap for all of them.”
TIME WOUNDS ALL heels, the saying goes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A decade after getting out of jail, the man the media still calls “Disgraced Former Lawyer Andrew Fraser” is a changed person.
On a Monday night last month, he collected his 91-year-old mother from her nursing home in the staid Melbourne suburb of Camberwell and took her to dinner at a modest Chinese restaurant nearby.
Fried rice with Mum was a long way from long lunches with gangland bosses like the late Lewis Moran in the expensive Flower Drum in Chinatown; further still from partying with billionaire Alan Bond or drug dealer Dennis “Mr Death” Allen.
Fraser had good news for his mother, a dedicated churchgoer who has endured plenty of bad bit news about the son whose name has been tinged with scandal for more than 20 years. Earlier that day, he had driven to Melbourne from the mountain property he shares with his partner in north-east Victoria. He had an appointment to monitor treatment of the bone marrow disease threatening to kill him. The good news was he’d been cleared for another three months. For now, he’s off death row. It is five years since Fraser was told he had maybe five to seven years left. He wisecracked then that when he was sentenced to jail in 2001 he got seven years with a minimum of five… but now he’d be happy to reverse the numbers, thanks. And more. The extra time was precious. Not just because he wanted to repair his relationship with his two children – teenagers by then – but because he had started a new life with Lindy Allen, the woman his friends suspect has saved him from himself. From the high life to prison to happily ever after: it’s quite a story arc, now with a third act to round off the saga that has already spawned books and a television drama, Killing Time, in which David Wenham played Fraser as a charismatic but flawed character. The hardy, headstrong attitude helps him to survive
now that he’s thrown himself into healthy living the way he used to throw himself into his self-destructive ways. Fraser has responded so well to stem-cell treatment that he has passed the five-year mark. He’s backing himself to be around long enough to see out his mother, maybe see in some grandchildren.
His spine has crumbled (“collapsed like the Twin Towers”, he says), robbing him of the athletic ability he once had, but he still skis. He used to go to Aspen or Switzerland every year in his rich days and skied so competitively he reached instructor level. Now, he’s back on the beginner slopes but it’s better than the alternative – “the see-ya later stakes” – he jokes with characteristic gallows humour.
The drive that made Fraser a star lawyer also made him crash and burn. As big a fall, in its way, as that of his wealthiest client, Alan Bond, who also went to prison.
Unlike Bond, who had millions stashed away, Fraser went to jail almost broke and came out completely so. His trendy St Kilda West house, his MercedesBenz coupé and fine wine collection were gone. His marriage ended.
It’s been 10 years since prisoner number 160822 walked from Fulham Correctional Centre, near Sale, after all but two months of his five-year minimum. The tiny remission was because, 10 months earlier, he had made a detailed statement to homicide detectives keen to see justice done over the murder of Mersina Halvagis, stabbed to death in Fawkner Cemetery in late 1997 while tending her grandmother’s grave.
The police had one prime suspect – imprisoned sex killer Peter Dupas – but
Fraser was not an escape risk or violent. After more than a year at the Sirius East unit of Port Phillip Prison with the “monsters”, where he once fought off convicted murderer Camilleri with a chair, he entered the mainstream of the high-security jail. He got to Fulham for only the last 20 months of his time.
On his last night inside, officers hid Fraser in the prison hospital to avoid him bumping into other prisoners who had heard on the grapevine that he was helping police nail Dupas for the Halvagis murder. At 3am on September
The farm was a lifesaver. Working on it let him decompress after the pressure-cooker of prison. No one except family and close friends knew he was there. By day he worked outside for $20 an hour; at night he wrote the first of several books. At weekends he visited his children.
Two months later he met Lindy Allen through a mutual acquaintance. Physically, he was as fit as he had been in years, but mentally he had the “fight or flight” edginess that lingers after prisoners leave jail. Opposites attract: Allen, a musician and performer turned arts administrator, was as calm as Fraser never had been – oil on troubled waters.
By the time Fraser was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in late 2011, they were a well-established couple – planning a house, since finished, in the high country near Myrtleford.
These days the man who once used to party all night before rolling up to court is content fetching firewood, cooking, and dabbling in side-projects.
He has sworn off drugs but the effects linger. When he was rushed to hospital in agony with his crumbling spine five years ago, normal amounts of painkiller had no effect: he still had such a tolerance to opiates he needed a double dose to get relief. He laughs about that but isn’t proud.
PETER FARIS, BARRISTER of long standing, has seen a lot of crooks and lawyers since he started work in the 1960s, and a few who fit both categories.
Of all of them, says Faris, he thinks only one has come out of jail a better person: Fraser. It’s an unexpected compliment from a man who spent years as a prosecutor, professional enemy of criminal lawyers.
Faris skewers the legal establishment for the way he says it skewered Fraser. “He shouldn’t have got five years,” he says. “He was a scapegoat for all the lawyers who did coke.”
When Fraser was on bail awaiting trial in 2001, Faris ran into him. They shook hands for the first time in many years. Faris was moved to offer to help his old enemy. “I’d heard a few things,” he recalls enigmatically. “I thought he was being railroaded. I would have said, ‘Don’t plead guilty – fight them.’”
But Fraser, the former attack dog, was a mess. He accepted advice he would never have given anyone else. And it didn’t work. “He got belted – hit over the fence. He appealed and [the
appeal court] was merciless,” says Faris. “After all that, the poor bugger gets cancer. He’s got more guts than anyone else I know.”
One day late last April, Fraser and Allen married quietly at Café Di Stasio in St Kilda. Their adult children – two each – witnessed the simple ceremony and a few friends gathered
They camped in a caravan, then a shed, while they built their hillside house, mostly with timber milled from windfall trees. If Fraser isn’t writing or cutting firewood, he is bird-watching. The resident mob of black cockatoos watch him in return, unimpressed he knows their Latin name among many others.