– For nearly 10 years the man who had shot a policeman and killed a security guard was waiting for a knock on the door. Although he had stolen a friend’s identity and moved interstate, he had to remain in the shadows.
Even when his father died he couldn’t go to the funeral, fearing police would be waiting for him.
In 1985, then aged 19, he killed an unarmed security guard and then fired 27 shots at police, critically injuring a young senior constable.
In the end, it was over a cheap cup of coffee near the Melbourne Remand Centre that he agreed to stop running. The man who persuaded him was Detective Sergeant Mick Gunn, who has spent the last few years chasing down fugitives – hundreds of them.
This one ha done his time for murder and attempted murder but on release committed a simple burglary, then disappeared.
This time the courts were sympathetic and took into consideration that he had not reoffended for more than two decades. So, after a few months in jail he was released, with his debt payed in full.
Gunn is an old-fashioned copper who has spent most of his career in the specialised crime squads chasing heavy-duty crooks.
A few years back he checked how many warrants had been issued for parole jumpers and was shocked to find there were more than 250. He found the parole violators had committed more than 2000 crimes.
So what happened? Coppers are supposed to chase crooks, right? Well, the police force is now broken into geographic divisions and crooks who move about are hard to trace. They often become someone else’s problem and no one’s responsibility. Or, as Assistant Commissioner Steve Fonatana says, “There was a clear gap in our capacity to respond.”
In 2008 they started to close the gap by setting up ROPE, Repeat Offenders Parole Enforcement, headed by Gunn. But while they targeted parole violators there were plenty of other hardheads slipping through the cracks.
Today we can announce exclusively (A scoop! Hoorah!) the establishment of the Fugitive Taskforce, under Detective Senior Sergeant Jason Goddard, to pursue all types of serious runners from justice.
Over an eight-week trial period the crew had found three armed offenders all considered serious dangers to the community.
One is alleged to have used a shotgun to commit armed robberies, carjackings and also to have produced some very bad rap music. Another with a skinful of ice was running around inner Melbourne with a gun and the third used a stolen car to try to mow down a couple of coppers in the wild west.
All three are now behind bars. And a fourth can expect a rat-a-tat-tat on his door sometime soon – and it won’t be the Avon lady.
The Fugitive Taskforce will now look for parole violators, dangerous bail jumpers, prison escapees and serious sex offenders who bolt while still on supervision orders.
Of the sex offenders, the squad has found three before they could reoffend – one in Queensland, one in South Australia and the third about 40 kilometres from Ararat.
Gunn says his team rely on established and proven police methods. “I’ve never seen a computer lock up a crook,” he says. Take that, you nerds.
Fugitive Taskforce investigators usually start with the runaway’s family. They reach out to say the wanted suspect will be treated well (“You catch more flies with honey”). A surprising number turn themselves in, although many require some early-morning persuasion via surprise raids.
A week doesn’t go by without the taskforce kicking in a door or two. They have found fugitives hiding under sinks, in long grass, chook sheds, in the roof, and one inside a mattress imitating – it would seem – a very large bedbug (that is, one with tattoos and no teeth).
However, not one target has been injured or capsicum sprayed during hundreds of operations. “They have arrested some of the state’s most dangerous offenders and no police officer or suspect has been injured,” Fontana says.
Gunn is considered the human bloodhound of the Victoria Police. With an extensive network of contacts, he can find those previously considered invisible.
With his name, he could play an old-fashioned American bounty hunter – and he has the gear to match. He recently returned from a massive road trip around the New Mexico region and has bought his wife a 1965, left-hand-drive, red-and-white Chevrolet pick-up truck. And who said romance was dead?
The Parole Board has been given a belting recently for some of its decisions, but according to Gunn the system has toughened up over the past few years. And the figures seem to bear this out.
For a time many prisoners on parole failed to understand they had agreed to a contract in exchange for their freedom. The conditions include attending meetings with case workers, residing at an agreed location, remaining drug free and, obviously , not committing more crime.
In 2009 there were 264 warrants issue for parole violations, but that figure had more than doubled by last year. This shows the police are quicker to identify breaches by parolees, case workers are more efficient in reporting them, and the Adult Parole Board is more likely to send them back to jail.
In 2009, police grabbed 269 parole violators. Last year the figure had jumped to 579. Quick intervention is the key, Gunn says.
Parole will always be an inexact science. The aim is to release offenders while having some control over them. Leave them to the end of the sentence means that many can slip away to reoffend. It is also a prison management tool – behave and you can get out early.
But there have been some horrible mistakes. At least 12 people have been murdered by parolees in less than five years.
The Parole Board and the Justice Department are preparing for a firestorm of criticism when a wicked case becomes public.
A man with a violent criminal history committed another offence while on parole but, inexplicably, was not sent back to jail and as a result someone lost their life.
It simply should never have happened.
No wonder Premier Ted Baillieu has ordered a review of the system, which almost certainly will result in a serving or former senior police officer being appointed to the Adult Parole Board.
Some crooks become experts at hiding. The Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, in an operation code-named Gap, identified a collective of sympathisers who provided safe houses up and down the east coast for escapees and could even organise false passports.
Certainly the notorious Peter “Rabbit” Steele fled to England, where he committed a series of bank hold-ups before he was convicted of murder.
And Russell “Mad Dog” Cox was on the loose for 11 years before he was arrested in a wild shootout at Doncaster Shoppingtown only matched for its ferocity by the hordes at Christmas sales.
Adelaide bent copper Colin Creed found Melbourne and Brisbane perfect hideouts before ultimately being arrested in Perth. Once stopped and questioned by Queensland Police, he managed to persuade them he was the wrong man before sauntering off.
“The Age’s” gifted overseas correspondent, Lindsay Murdoch, who for decades has survived on a diet of sticky rice, malaria tablets and pink gin, was once mistaken for Creed when the journalist left a Melbourne nightclub.
While the physical resemblance was uncanny, there were obvious differences. One was a dangerous identity who should have been incarcerated, while the other was a policeman turned armed robber.
In many ways it is back to the future. Many years ago the job of catching escapees was the domain of the late lamented Major Crime Squad.
On one occasion, a well-known crook escaped legal custody when he was escorted from prison to visit his sick grandmother.
Acting on information received, the Majors burst into a residence to find the (very) wanted man, sans his prison uniform and locked in an embrace of sorts with a well-known Melbourne identity of the female variety.
The lady, who may or may not have had one eye, looked up and said, “Do you mind if we finish? He’s going away for a long time.”
The police waited patiently to make their arrest. For those who remember the Major Crime Squad this was quite remarkable as its detectives were not renowned for such compassion.
Back then, many believed coitus interruptus was a shipboard deck game abandoned due to inclement weather – John Silvester