Elite units often adopt animal mascots such as tigers, bulldogs or even Tassie devils to illustrate their fighting spirit. So it remains a mystery why the Purana ganglands taskforce concluded the most appropriate creature to represent it was a mature-age yabby.
Perhaps it was because it would never stop digging and thrived in murky conditions, or more likely because it fulfilled the first rule of policing: it was free (It arrived in the office courtesy of a detective who seconded it from a Castlemaine dam).
But once the decision was made the yabby was on easy street. It was given near five-star conditions in an aerated aquarium cleverly converted from a seized 25-litre glass receptacle previously used to produce top-quality amphetamines.
The freshwater crustacean was named Tony after the owner of the raided speed lab, one Antonios Sajih Mokbel, who was still on the run in Greece.
The Tonies had another thing in common. Both were close to boats – the yabby’s was a toy one at the bottom of the tank while Mokbel’s was a $340,000 ketch he used to sail to the other side of the world.
In the 10th floor St Kilda Road office of the Purana taskforce Tony was given a daily feed of a gourmet fish food and was probably the only yabby in the history of yabbydom to enjoy stunning city views.
Then a couple of the administrative staff became concerned he was lonely in this marine version of solitary confinement. And so they bought a couple of goldfish to keep him company. Sadly, Tony ate them.
It is 10 years next month since the Purana taskforce was established as a belated response to Melbourne’s gangland war. Until then police had stubbornly refused to change tactics. As the body count mounted, each case was dealt with by whoever was on duty at the homicide squad.
It was Detective Senior Sergeant Phil Swindells who first saw the obvious connections between three of the murders and urged his superiors to set up a taskforce.
That was in November 2002, but it was not until May 12 the following year Purana was up and running – first under Swindells and then under Detective Inspector Andy Allen.
The initial operational plan suggested a staff of 13 (not including the yabby) and a time frame of three months. Eventually it grew to 52 and is still going.
At the beginning there was one name that kept popping up and it wasn’t Tony Mokbel, or Carl Williams or the Morans or even members of the Carlton Crew. It was a little-known car thief called Andrew ”Benji” Veniamin.
The former boxer was the suspected shooter in the murders of Dino Dibra in October 2000, Paul Kallipolitis in October 2002 and Nik Radev in April 2003. (Eventually police would declare Veniamin killed seven gangsters, although he would not live to be charged.)
The irony is that Veniamin was killed over a murder he didn’t commit. On March 23, 2004, he was involved in an argument with Mick Gatto, who blamed him for the murder of his great friend Graham Kinniburgh.
Veniamin said he wasn’t involved but Gatto was not convinced. The discussion turned nasty and Veniamin ended up dead. Gatto was charged with murder but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.
For the previous seven years Veniamin had been kneecapping anyone who crossed him, from fellow drug dealers to a competitor for a lady’s affection.
So how did someone as unsubtle as Benji progress from being just another Sunshine street hood to a deadly hitman?
Basically police not so much dropped the ball as buried it in the backyard. Veniamin couldn’t go a week without committing an obvious crime – his rap sheet over the previous decade included escapes, assault, drugs, arson, thefts, and shootings. His last job was as a butcher’s labourer back in 1995 and he was living way above his $435.20 fortnightly Centrelink payment. He should have been targeted, harassed, arrested, convicted and then forgotten.
For years serious investigations of organised crime were considered too expensive, too protracted and too hard. It was a false economy as it is always harder to cut down a tree than pull out a weed.
The void was quickly filled with crooks who made unimaginable fortunes from drugs and then fell for the trap of believing their own publicity.
If they had just kept pumping out the pills many would still be alive and probably heading to the BRW Rich List.
Instead, having watched too many episodes of The Sopranos, they started shooting each other in a most public and embarrassing way.
And so the Purana taskforce was formed.
At first detectives rapidly built intelligence profiles on the main players. Eventually they targeted the 13 key members of the so-called Carlton Crew, headed by Mick Gatto, and the same number christened the Williams Syndicate, led by Carl Williams. All the investigators were volunteers and all were warned of the risks involved in dealing with gunslinging gangsters. One was forced to move home twice after threats and a homicide investigator who was followed home by a Williams hit team eventually sold his house at a loss.
”We pretty much had to start from scratch,” Allen recalls. ”It didn’t take us long to establish Veniamin was a gun for hire who would shoot anyone if the money was there.”
While Purana was getting up to speed, the crooks were getting rich manufacturing it.
And Allen knew they needed results as there were growing calls for a royal commission. As the murders continued, critics confidently predicted Purana would fail. ”We were under significant pressure. Victoria was becoming known as the Gangster State,” Allen says. Certainly the gangsters showed no signs of backing off. Williams started calling himself The Premier because he ran the state and Mokbel the Prime Minister because he ran the country.
The tipping point came just six weeks after the taskforce was formed when Jason Moran and Pasquale Barbaro were shot dead at the Essendon Auskick in front of a van-load of children.
”There were people out there who thought the police should just let these characters take each other out, but when something like that happens in front of hundreds of kids and parents then there was a need for an immediate response.”
It was the homicide squad that made the breakthrough in the double killing, which led Purana to identify the gunman as a career criminal known as The Runner.
They managed to bug the car he was to use on the next job, although they had no idea that Carl Williams and The Runner had taken a $300,000 contract to kill hotdog salesman and disco drug dealer Michael Marshall.
Marshall was shot dead by The Runner outside his South Yarra home on October 25, 2003. The Runner was arrested by the Special Operations Group that night after he rang Williams from a phone box to say the horse they liked ”had been scratched”.
The murders would continue but that was the night the momentum shifted. Eventually Purana broke the underworld code of silence and has since cultivated eight key informers.
Williams was arrested and found guilty of one murder before pleading guilty to three more. (As he was led from the interview room, Allen reminded him, ”Hey, Carl, now you know. We run the state.” Touche!)
Williams was murdered in jail three years ago after trying to cut a deal with police.
So what is the tale of the tape? Purana was one of the most costly investigations in Victoria’s history and yet was more than self-funding due to its seizing crime proceeds valued at $55 million. Purana asset recovery expert Jim Coghlan grabbed everything that wasn’t nailed down, including investment properties, pubs, racehorses, cars, luxury watches and even Tony’s favourite wig.
But he is yet to get his hands on Tony’s escape yacht, Edwena (renamed St George), which this week was put up for sale in Athens for a second time.
Purana laid charges over 15 killings (gaining convictions in 11) and prevented six planned murders.
In the first three years, Purana investigated 316 people, had listening devices operating for more than 100,000 hours, recorded 6000 hours of telephone conversations, used 23 tracking devices and followed suspects for 22,000 hours.
Jim O’Brien took over as head of Purana in 2005 and spent two years dismantling the $400 million Mokbel drug empire, which culminated in the Athens arrest, extradition and sentence of a minimum of 22 years.
”We were able to steer clear of office politics, pick people with the right mixture of skills and were well resourced. It is the way major investigations should be conducted,” he says.
And Tony the Yabby? He died in captivity from old age – a fate his now slimline human counterpart sincerely hopes to avoid.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.