– It was a long climb to the attic of the peaceful country church but well worth the effort. Inside they found a Vickers machine-gun, mortars, 15 loaded firearms and a cannon. “They have been put there by a bloke convinced World War III was about to break out,” says Sergeant Mark Chandler.
We are talking inside the Victoria Police ballistic library where there is not a book in sight. Instead we are surrounded by 4500 guns, from a Queen Anne flintlock pistol, manufactured in 1725, to a Hells Angels military machine-gun capable of firing 600 shots a minute.
“What on earth would they use that for?” we ask. “Rabbiting,” is the deadpan response.
Police started the collection in 1935 to compare gun types against active cases – such as the murder of a man who was shot repeatedly and then decapitated.
Inside that house of horrors police found a tiny black metal button, no bigger than a press-stud. Using the library, ballistic experts matched it to automatic clip used in a particular type of rifle.
A quick check showed the brother of the victim was the registered owner of that type of weapon, who confirmed he had lent the gun to the dead man’s son.
Confronted, the son confessed. Case closed.
A ballistic expert at the scene of a 1992 shooting near St Kilda saw similarities between the sawn-off rifle used and unsolved triple murder in Burwood several months earlier.
He took the gun back to Forensic Science Laboratory, test-fired it and proved it to be the murder weapon. As a result Ashley Mervyn Coulston was charged and convicted of the triple murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Mark Chandler is one of a handful of ballistic experts in Victoria who attend crime scenes where shots are fired. To them a bullet is as good as a fingerprint and can identify an offender just as readily. The science is based on a key fact: no gun barrel is the same. “Because of microscopic imperfections, each is unique,” he says.
So a fired bullet will have markings left as it rotates through the barrel as well as an identifiable indentation left by the firing pin.
But it is not enough to just identify the markings. Each finding must be corroborated by a second ballistic expert and then it is off to court to give sworn testimony.
The criminal justice system is based on beyond reasonable doubt and balance of probabilities. But in the business of gun analysis there is no wriggle room.
The ballistic boys have to bat better than Bradman and aim for a 100% strike rate. They all know that just one screw-up will be used by future defence lawyers to ask the inevitable rhetoric question – “But you got that wrong. Why should we believe you here?”.
With the more experienced police experts, defence lawyers readily accept their expertise and rarely put up a real fight. Cross-examination tends to end up as a piece of tent boxing, a quick exchange for show and then it’s on to the next bout.
The ballistic team are all sworn police who have trained for at least eight years to be recognised as qualified experts. To put that in perspective, it takes you five years and 150 counter lunches to become a lawyer and for journalists there is no formal standards (toilet training is considered optional).
Of the massive firearm collection, ranging from the pistol Squizzy Taylor used to shoot Snowy Cutmore in 1927 to the type of Thompson sub-machine-gun used in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, all but one are seized or surrendered weapons. The exception is a purchased KTG shotgun identical to the one used in the 1988 Walsh Street Murders of Constables Steven Tynan and Damien Eyre.
When certain brands of firearms are located they will be fired into a large vat of water so the spent bullets can be checked against a list of 300 outstanding crimes, from the 1991 abduction and killing of Templestowe schoolgirl Karmein Chan to the 1978 Manchester Unity building triple murder.
And there is no shortage of guns to check. Each year Victoria destroys 5000 to 6000 weapons – all ending up at the Sims smelter to be recycled into something less deadly.
Despite gun buybacks and amnesties there seems to be no shortage of guns out there, although most seem to be older-style.
There have been reports of large numbers of Glock automatic handguns being smuggled into Sydney, although none have turned up in Melbourne yet.
Police in Victoria are more concerned that gangster types are using cleanskin friends to apply for firearm licences – so the crooks can borrow them in an emergency.
Certainly those in the know don’t seem to have any trouble getting a gun. There was a bad karaoke bar in Chinatown where the wall surrounding the screen was pockmarked with bullet holes.
It became a tradition that the Asian gangsters would open fire as soon as a song they didn’t like came on. Clearly the remote was broken.
It is hard to believe that 20 years ago stores like Kmart sold rifles in their sporting goods departments, which meant you could pop a gun in your trolley if you could prove you weren’t off yours.
On the day the Naked City entourage arrived at the firearms disposal section inside the Macleod Forensic Science Centre, a police four-wheel-drive turned up with a load of 40 guns to be destroyed. It included a single-shot, 100-year-old bolt-action .22, semi-automatic hunting rifles and gangster-type pistols.
Security around the firearms has been massively upgraded after a public servant in the area a few years ago was showing signs of wanting to take his work home with him. Now the destruction area is under electronic surveillance and all weapons are destroyed immediately in front of the police who delivered them.
Once logged and checked, the gun is put into a 50-tonne crusher to be smashed before being placed in a metal dump bin, which when filled (once every two weeks) is welded shut.
The containers are then taken under guard to be melted down unopened. The smelter bosses provide this service at no charge in exchange for the high-grade gun metal.
When we looked into this half-filled one it contained not only twisted guns but lethal-looking crossbows and serrated knives usually only seen between the teeth of Errol Flynn in old pirate movies.
In another section they had boxes of ammunition, illegal fireworks that could fell a rogue elephant at 500 metres and out-of-date marine flares originally purchased for boating emergencies rather than by loonbags who want to set them off at the soccer.
The ballistic team do more than fire bullets into water and peer into microscopes until they go cross-eyed (usually after 20 minutes as they are often staring at two images at once trying to match a crime scene exhibit with a test shot).
They have a shooting range to examine shot spread, which can establish the distance and trajectory of a fatal shot. “It is pretty hard to claim the gun went off in a struggle if the shot was fired from three metres away,” Chandler says.
They are also qualified tool examiners, looking for tiny imperfections left on severed wires, jemmied doors and cut padlocks. They can even identify knives used to slash tyres. At the moment they are looking at the spate of copper wire thefts around Victoria.
All forensic examiners like to keep in the background and the ballistic team even have a giant jar marked “media” that must be filled with sweets as a fine by any member who receives publicity. So the next bullets that Mark Chandler will examine could be chocolate ones.
As a city-bred boy we have never been all that familiar with firearms, although on one occasion a handgun proved to be a most important fashion accessory.
Your correspondent was dancing at a strobe-lit discotheque when a group of Baltic gentlemen on the sidelines seemed to take offence. (They were the days when a wrap-dance was jigging about to Billy Thorpe and Aztecs while munching a kebab).
We returned to our lounge chair to rehydrate only to be confronted by a large fellow with a head the size of an overripe melon and a neck Matthew Flinders couldn’t circumnavigate.
Looking back, it is now obvious he was on the peptides while we were still on the Pepsi (perhaps infused with bourbon). Where was the Australian Crime Commission when you need them?
He asked us outside, but fearing a chill from the nasty draught we sensibly declined. As it was obvious he had difficult hearing through his cauliflower ears, the armed robbery squad detective next to us chose that exact moment to scratch his leg – an action that lifted his polyester-wool-mix trouser leg sufficiently to expose his ankle holster holding his police-issue firearm.
At that moment the Baltic Behemoth realised he was late for an urgent medical appointment and left.
Refreshed, reassured and revitalised, we returned to the dance floor. After all, who in their right mind could resist Boz Scaggs? – John Silvester