Gang­sters, cops and Lawyer X: the po­lice in­for­mant scan­dal that has shocked Aus­tralia

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Calla Wahlquist

In 2005, eight years af­ter the mur­der of the un­der­world fig­ure Alphonse Gan­gi­tano kicked off a long and bloody gang­land war on the streets of Melbourne, a prom­i­nent crim­i­nal bar­ris­ter agreed to be­come a reg­is­tered po­lice in­for­mant in ex­change for a prom­ise that her iden­tity would be kept se­cret.

The woman – known var­i­ously as Lawyer X, EF, and in­former 3838 – had rep­re­sented some of the gang­land war’s most in­fa­mous fig­ures, in­clud­ing Carl Wil­liams and Tony Mok­bel.

Thir­teen years later, a royal com­mis­sion has been an­nounced into what has be­come one of the big­gest le­gal scan­dals and most ap­palling cases of po­lice mis­con­duct in Aus­tralian his­tory.

Lawyer X is still alive but has re­fused to go into wit­ness pro­tec­tion, her trust in po­lice so shaken by leaks to the me­dia and the at­tempt to use her as a wit­ness in the mur­der trial of a dis­graced ex-po­lice of­fi­cer that she says she no longer be­lieves the force could keep her and her chil­dren safe.

At 9am on Mon­day, sup­pres­sion or­ders con­ceal­ing the ex­tent of her in­volve­ment in the pros­e­cu­tions that ended the gang­land war were lifted. Within hours state and com­mon­wealth pros­e­cu­tors had writ­ten to 22 peo­ple, in­clud­ing a num­berof her for­mer clients, in­form­ing them that they may have grounds to chal­lenge their con­vic­tions.

The Vic­to­rian pre­mier, Daniel An­drews, called a royal com­mis­sion to cal­cu­late the num­ber of crim­i­nal con­vic­tions af­fected and ur­gently re­view the man­age­ment of po­lice in­for­mants.

And the state’s po­lice min­is­ter, Lisa Neville, has al­ready been forced to de­fend the chief com­mis­sioner of po­lice, Graham Ash­ton, against al­le­ga­tions that he knew or ought to have known about the use of Lawyer X as an in­for­mant.

Ash­ton has con­fined his own com­ments to a writ­ten state­ment say­ing po­lice “acted in good faith” and urg­ing the pub­lic to re­mem­ber what Melbourne was like more than a decade ago, when the gang­land war was at its height. It was, he said, “a des­per­ate and danger­ous time”.

He de­fended the ac­tions of po­lice in tak­ing their ob­jec­tions against the re­lease of the in­for­ma­tion to Lawyer X’s past clients all the way to the high court, say­ing: “At all times when han­dling these mat­ters our ab­so­lute con­cern has been for the pro­tec­tion of the lawyer and their fam­ily, who Vic­to­ria Po­lice be­lieved would be mur­dered if this in­for­ma­tion was re­leased.”

The high court de­ci­sion, de­liv­ered last month but pub­lished when the sup­pres­sion or­der lifted, said the very real risk to Lawyer X’s life could be man­aged in wit­ness pro­tec­tion (not­with­stand­ing her re­fusal to en­ter it) and that the con­cerns raised by both Lawyer X and po­lice did not su­per­sede the over­rid­ing pub­lic in­ter­est in restor­ing the in­tegrity of a jus­tice sys­tem that en­cour­aged a lawyer to in­form on clients.

Lawyer X’s con­duct, the high court ruled, was a “fun­da­men­tal and ap­palling” breach of her obli­ga­tion to her clients and her duty to the court. The con­duct of po­lice, it said, was “rep­re­hen­si­ble” and an “atro­cious” breach of duty.

“If EF chooses to ex­pose her­self to con­se­quent risk by de­clin­ing to en­ter into the wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gram, she will be bound by the con­se­quences,” the court said. “If she chooses to ex­pose her chil­dren to sim­i­lar risks, the state is em­pow­ered to take ac­tion to pro­tect them from harm.”

A brief his­tory of the gang­land killings

Melbourne’s gang­land war is usu­ally said to have be­gun with the mur­der of Alphonse Gan­gi­tano in 1998. Gan­gi­tano was the face of the so-called Carl­ton Crew, an off­shoot of the Cal­abrian mafia, who mur­dered a petty crim­i­nal, Greg Work­man, in the bay­side sub­urb of St Kilda in 1995 and was mur­dered in turn in his un­der­wear in the laun­dry of his Tem­plestowe home three years later.

Ja­son Mo­ran, whose un­der­world her­itage ran back to the wa­ter­front disputes of the Painters and Dock­ers union in the 1960s, was im­pli­cated in the killing but never charged.

Mo­ran and his brother, Mark, were also im­pli­cated in the 1999 non-fa­tal shoot­ing of Carl Wil­liams, who later rose to head his own crime fam­ily.

Wil­liams killed Mark Mo­ran out­side his lux­ury Aber­feldie home in 2000. In 2003 Ja­son Mo­ran and Pasquale Bar­baro were shot dead in a car as they watched a ju­nior foot­ball clinic in Essendon, with five chil­dren as wit­nesses.

In to­tal, more than 40 deaths are con­nected to the so-called gang­land killings. Many of the hits took place in pub­lic.

The events were the ba­sis for a pop­u­lar Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion se­ries, Un­der­belly, which spawned sev­eral pre­quels and spin-offs. In the true crime his­tory of Aus­tralia, noth­ing has gripped pub­lic imag­i­na­tion like Melbourne’s gang­land war.

Pro­duc­ers are al­ready re­port­edly in­ter­ested in adapt­ing the story of Lawyer X into what would be the show’s eighth sea­son.

Her role was, by her own ac­count, in­stru­men­tal. In a 2015 let­ter to the as­sis­tant po­lice com­mis­sioner Stephen Fon­tana, pub­lished in full in a 2017 supreme court judg­ment re­leased this week, Lawyer X said the ev­i­dence she had pro­vided had led to the ar­rest of at least 386 peo­ple and named a “top 10” that in­cluded the ar­rests of Rob Karam and 35 oth­ers over the im­port of 4.4 tonnes of ec­stasy in 2007.

In the let­ter, Lawyer X said she had been mo­ti­vated to be­come an in­for­mant out of frus­tra­tion with the way some crim­i­nals, specif­i­cally Wil­liams, were “seek­ing to con­trol what sus­pects and wit­nesses could and could not do or say to po­lice”.

She de­scribed her­self as hav­ing “played a piv­otal role in con­vinc­ing Thomas Hentschel”, con­victed, with Vic­tor Brin­cat, of a killing hot dog sales­man and street-level ec­stasy seller, Michael Mar­shall, on Wil­liams’ or­ders in 2003, to “roll over” on Wil­liams and Brin­cat.

Hentschel’s de­ci­sion to turn state wit­ness, she wrote, has since been recog­nised as hav­ing “laid the foun­da­tion for the pros­e­cu­tion of nu­mer­ous mur­der­ers, and oth­ers fol­lowed his ex­am­ple”.

At another point in the supreme court judg­ment, Lawyer X’s de­ci­sion to be­come an in­for­mant was at­trib­uted to her de­sire to get free of Mok­bel. Av­enues of ap­peal

Karam has al­ready be­gun le­gal ac­tion chal­leng­ing his con­vic­tion be­cause of Lawyer X’s role as an in­for­mant, and Mok­bel, who had pre­vi­ously ex­hausted all av­enues of ap­peal, is ex­pected to fol­low suit. Faruk Or­man, now serv­ing a 14-year sen­tence for act­ing as get­away driver in the mur­der of the sus­pected po­lice killer Vic­tor Peirce – a crime he has long de­nied – is also re­ported to be chal­leng­ing his con­vic­tion.

Both Mok­bel and Karamhad sus­pected the woman was the in­for­mant iden­ti­fied as “Lawyer X” since the News Corp-owned news­pa­per the Her­ald Sun pub­lished a se­ries of stories coin­ing the moniker in 2014.

At that point, the Vic­to­rian In­de­pen­dent Broad-Based Anti-Cor­rup­tion Com­mis­sion had al­ready be­gun in­ves­ti­gat­ing the man­age­ment of In­former 3838. No­ti­fy­ing Mok­bel and six of his as­so­ciates that their cases could be af­fected by Lawyer X’s ac­tions was one of the key rec­om­men­da­tions of the com­mis­sion’s re­port, sup­pressed un­til this week, which be­gan three years of le­gal ac­tions.

Ash­ton, who be­came po­lice com­mis­sioner in 2015, said po­lice had changed their man­age­ment of in­for­mants on the ba­sis of that re­port and that a case such as the mis­han­dling of Lawyer X could never hap­pen again.

It was also the end of Lawyer X’s trust in po­lice.

Four suc­ces­sive court de­ci­sions which found in favour of no­ti­fy­ing a group of Lawyer X’s for­mer clients that she was work­ing as a po­lice in­for­mant while pur­port­ing to rep­re­sent them also found that con­firm­ing the ru­mours about her in­volve­ment would sub­stan­tially in­crease the risk to her safety.

Threats have al­ready been made against her old­est child.

The un­rav­el­ling

Lawyer X met witha de­tec­tive on the Pu­rana task­force, which was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the gang­land war, six times and pro­vided in­for­ma­tion in “the strictest con­fi­dence”.

She was reg­is­tered as a po­lice in­former on 16 Septem­ber 2005 and re­mained on the books un­til 12 Jan­uary 2009, when she fell out with the force over a de­ci­sion to list her, un­der another pseu­do­nym, as a wit­ness in the mur­der trial of the dis­graced po­lice of­fi­cer Paul Dale for the 2004 dou­ble killing of Ter­rence and Chris­tine Hod­son.

Ter­rence Hod­son was him­self a po­lice in­for­mant and had agreed to give ev­i­dence im­pli­cat­ing his po­lice han­dler, David Miechel, and Dale in a bur­glary that covered up con­nec­tions to the drug trade.

The cou­ple were mur­dered, ex­e­cu­tion-style, in their home in Kew.

Dale was al­leged to have paid the un­der­world hit­man Rod­ney Charles Collins $150,000 to kill Hod­son, and was charged with one count of mur­der in 2009 (Collins was charged with two counts) af­ter Lawyer X recorded con­ver­sa­tions with Dale for the po­lice.

The case against Dale was dropped when Carl Wil­liams, a key wit­ness and for­mer client of Lawyer X, was mur­dered in prison in 2010.

Wil­liams is re­ported to have been sus­pi­cious of Lawyer X and warned Mok­bel to drop her as a lawyer.

Mok­bel con­tin­ued to use Lawyer X un­til he skipped trial in 2006 and fled to Greece. He was ex­tra­dited to Aus­tralia in 2008 and sen­tenced in 2012 to 30 years in jail, with a min­i­mum of 22 years, for run­ning a drug syn­di­cate.

It is a de­ci­sion that, iron­i­cally, could pro­vide his only av­enue of re­lease. Mok­bel was con­victed on a guilty plea but could, po­ten­tially, ar­gue that he had suf­fered a mis­car­riage of jus­tice by be­ing de­nied in­de­pen­dent le­gal ad­vice.

Lawyer X sued the then po­lice com­mis­sioner, Si­mon Over­land, and his pre­de­ces­sor, Chris­tine Nixon, as well as the state of Vic­to­ria in 2010.

The case set­tled, and Lawyer X said she had de­lib­er­ately main­tained close re­la­tion­ships with a num­ber of un­der­world fig­ures as part of a “strat­egy of plau­si­ble de­nial” about the level of her co­op­er­a­tion with po­lice.

The rev­e­la­tions this week mean that strat­egy can no longer pro­tect her fam­ily.

Ad­vice pro­vided to the supreme court by po­lice said at­tempts to pro­tect Lawyer X and her chil­dren if they did not en­ter into wit­ness pro­tec­tion would be “un­sus­tain­able”.

At a me­dia con­fer­ence an­nounc­ing the royal com­mis­sion this week, Daniel An­drews, who was briefed on the high court case the morn­ing af­ter win­ning a sec­ond term of gov­ern­ment, said the con­duct of Vic­to­ria po­lice in en­cour­ag­ing and man­ag­ing Lawyer X as an in­for­mant had made a num­ber of high­pro­file con­vic­tions “un­safe”.

“As I get more and more in­for­ma­tion on this I am left in no doubt that a royal com­mis­sion is the thing we need to do,” he said.

If EF ex­poses her­self to risk by not en­ter­ing the wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gram, she will be bound by the con­se­quences

High court rul­ing

Athens po­lice es­cort Aus­tralian gang­land fig­ure Tony Mok­bel out­side court in 2007. Mok­belused Lawyer X un­til he skipped trial in 2006 and fled to Greece. Pho­to­graph: AFP/GettyImages

Kevin Har­ring­ton as Lewis Mo­ran and VinceColosimo as Alphonse Gan­gi­tano in thehit Un­der­belly tele­vi­sion se­ries about Melbourne’s gang­land war. Pho­to­graph: GregNoakes

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