– It was supposed to be a straightforward armed robbery when John William Samuel Higgs and his three mates bailed up a West Meadows chicken farmer called Vincent Dugan. The gang surprised the farmer outside his home around 9:50pm on the first day of autumn and marched him into the hallway of his house.
Why one of them panicked and shot Dugan dead with a .22 rifle will never be known, but at that moment young Higgs graduated from robber to killer.
In the eyes of the law, although he did not fire the fatal shot, Higgs was guilty of manslaughter and in 1970 he was sentenced to 12 years’ jail with a minimum of 10.
Higgs was born in November, 1946. Like many youngsters who became heavy criminals, he was in constant trouble with the police as a teenager, with his first conviction recorded at the age of 13, about the time he left school.
He has convictions for theft, stealing cars, assaults, manslaughter, assaulting police, resisting arrest, possession of cannabis and firearms. He was also charged with illegal possession of a stuffed possum.
The string of juvenile offences was an apprenticeship for the budding gangster. Drugs was the growth industry in his line of work. Higgs was a founding member of the Black Uhlans motorcycle gang, declared by police to be heavily involved in amphetamine distribution for many years.
Police reports show that Higgs gave the gang its Melbourne clubhouse and that he was rewarded with life membership. He was released from prison in 1978 after serving more than eight years of his manslaughter sentence and began to live with his girlfriend, Karen McLennan. They had two children.
He became close to her brother, David McLennan, who became his right-hand man in the drug business and company director of the legitimate arm of the syndicate.
In 1984, police started to receive intelligence that Higgs was becoming a big player in drugs and he received his start from the most unlikely source – a disaffected former member of a rival gang.
Peter Hill was a Hells Angels member who first learnt how to make speed from the US mother chapter. After he fell out with the Angels he sold the original speed recipe to the Black Uhlans and Higgs for $1000 as a final act of revenge.
Police soon learnt Higgs was involved in producing amphetamines and the importation of heroin, cocaine and hashish. Like a generation of other Melbourne crooks who had moved from street offences to robbery to drugs, he was cunning. He learnt counter surveillance tactics, rarely trusted telephones, spoke in code and tried to deal only with fellow crims he had known for years.
Many made a good living from drugs, but Higgs was to make a fortune. He was to become Australia’s biggest amphetamine producer dealing tonnes while others thought of kilograms.
He would stockpile truckloads of chemicals for huge speed cooks in clandestine labs. Police say they believe Higgs had the dash and the natural flair to have made good money if he had gone straight. But it was not to be.
The Higgs group was a loose cartel, with individuals coming together to work and then splitting into different groups. They had a network of corrupt, outwardly legitimate experts to advise them on how to stay ahead of investigators.
For police, the difference between knowing and proving his crimes would turn out to be a 15-year battle. The National Crime Authority, federal and Victorian Police tried to gather evidence on Higgs but after eight separate taskforce operations, he was still the biggest amphetamine producer in the country.
By 1991, police had not established the identity of Higgs’ cook, where he produced his amphetamines, where he got his chemicals or the structure of the organisation.
There can be little doubt that Higgs stayed in front of the posse with the help of inside information.
On August 20th, 1993, he delayed an amphetamine cook for more than two weeks after he was warned police were about to launch a blitz on the five biggest speed gangs in Victoria.
Police received information that Higgs took out an $800,000 contract on one Daniel Hacking who, he claimed, owed him $100,000. Hacking fell from a boat in Caloundra, in Queensland, and drowned in mysterious circumstances in 1992.
Late in 1991, Higgs called in contractors to work on homes owned by him and David McLennan. He paid cash and bragged to the workers he needed to get rid of $100,000. Police say he also bought harness horses to disguise his income.
Police found the Higgs group was a collective that would deal in anything the market wanted. Cocaine was imported from America, cannabis from New Guinea, guns from the Philippines and amphetamines from Victoria. It was one-stop shopping when you dealt with Higgs.
Frustrated Drug Squad detectives wrote in one report: “Evidence has been extremely difficult to obtain regarding Higgs. He has insulated himself through a number of companies and apparent legal businesses and controls a large number of other criminals in his illegal dealings.”
Police established that $1,773,491 went through Higgs’ hands from 1982 to 1993. He bought a fish-processing plant and retail outlet in Geelong, and an ocean-going trawler in Eden on the NSW south coast.
He used a retired town planner to set up an excavating business which helped remove soil for the construction of Crown Casino. Police claim corrupt officials were used to obtain building permits for the company, run by a former member of the Black Uhlans.
Higgs tried to organise a huge rock concert just outside Melbourne over Easter in 1994. One fellow investor was former AFL star Jimmy Krakouer, who lost his money.
Higgs liked Krakouer and gave him the chance to make a legal dollar. Higgs was going to invest in the huge rock concert with a set of major international acts. Krakouer was persuaded to invest the last $130,000 from his football career.
The convert went belly up and so did Krakouer’s hopes of a financial comeback. But Higgs had a sure-fire way to make money – drugs – and he offered Krakouer a slice of the action.
Amphetamines produced by the Higgs syndicate in Melbourne were packed into the front door cavities of a Nissan Bluebird and transported to Western Australia. But police from Operation Phalanx were able to tip-off their WA counterparts.
In January 1994, police followed the delivery and burst into a Perth garage to find Krakouer and another man unloading 5.3 kilograms of amphetamines packed into 12 freezer bags.
He was sentenced to 16 years’ jail, won a retrial but received the same term in February 1999 after again being found guilty.
Ironically, the speed Krakouer was caught with was only 5% pure, having already been cut by Higgs’ distributors from 80%.
Despite this, and the fact he was only a tadpole compared with the big fish in the Higgs pool, he suffered the most severe penalty by far. Even police who worked on the case felt Krakouer was dealt with harshly.
The police informer E292 who set him up felt the sentence was a disgrace. “Krakouer was a naive young bloke who got caught up in something too big for him to understand,” said the informer.
In 1993, Higgs became a director of a business set up to export powdered milk to Vietnam and horse feed to Malaysia.
On February 14th that year, he flew to Asia for a month, visiting Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.
According to police, Higgs was going to set up a fake company in order to get federal government grants and a subsidy to export to Asia, and at the same time use the business to import massive amounts of heroin.
Police say one of the group approached a police informer and asked whether he could launder $200,000 every thee days through Hong Kong companies.
Higgs was heavily involved in fixing harness races, including a failed bid to rig the Geelong Cup in1992. David McLennan was rubbed out as a driver for pulling up a horse that year.
In February 1992, Higgs and four of his team booked into the Sheraton Hotel in Darwin and were noted as big spenders. Northern Territory drug detectives followed the five men to a remote seafood business, where they stayed for days. After they left, the owner of the business was seen to be spending large amounts of money.
According to police, one of Higgs’ team later delivered two hovercraft to the business.
Police believe the hovercraft were to be used to import cannabis from Papua New Guinea. Higgs was known to be able to supply hundreds of New Guinea cannabis on demand.
Police had information that Higgs moved $600,000 overseas through a corrupt lawyer’s trust account. They were also told, though it could not be confirmed, that he had invested $18 million in city real estate – and land in Queensland valued at $10 million.
Police accept they will never know how much he made nor have any real chance of finding the hidden wealth.
In 1992, police intelligence claimed Higgs completed one Cook of amphetamines that had a street value of $48 million and a wholesale value of $7.5 million.
It took years for police to finally get enough evidence to charge Higgs. Their big break came from cultivating an informer, code-named E292. The businessman was able to infiltrate the syndicate and provide the key evidence against its boss.
But his arrest came at a cost. Police used the now discredited controlled delivery method to get their man. This meant providing him with precursor chemicals to try to catch him manufacturing drugs.
One police source said he produced “truckloads” with the police chemicals before he was finally caught.
On January 6th, 1997, confidential documents and tapes were stolen from a secure Drug Squad evidence room. The documents related to the investigation into Higgs and the activities of E292.
Police believe Higgs or his associates paid a corrupt detective to break into the Squad office to steal the secret material.
Although the Ethical Standards Department later identified 13 serving and former police as suspects in the break-in, including one who was bitter after his application to join the Drug Squad was rejected, no one was charged.
“While there is little doubt that the proceeds of the burglary have eventually been received by John Higgs and that a significant sum of money was paid to individuals responsible, at this stage of the inquiry insufficient evidence exists to either charge Higgs or effectively identify the others involved,” investigators said in their final report.
Higgs pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to traffic methylamphetamine between January 1st, 1993, and June 30th, 1996. Judge David Jones sentenced him to six years with a minimum of four.
Graphic proof that Higgs was Australia’s dominant amphetamines producer was that the quality of speed around Australia dropped substantially when he was jailed.
No one ever thought jail was anything but a sabbatical for Higgs. When he was released he sent a Drug Squad detective he had threatened a postcard from the Gold Coast.
It read: “Remember what I said the last time we saw each other.”
Supreme Court judge Betty King on Tuesday jailed Higgs for 18 years with a non-parole period of 14 years over his role in the failed importation of 15 million ecstasy tablets hidden inside tomato cans.
Weighing 4.4 tonnes and with a street value of $122 million, it was the world’s biggest ecstasy haul.
Higgs, 66, is no longer in a position to send anyone poisoned postcards from luxury holiday locations. That shop has sailed and Higgs’ drug empire has finally been sunk – John Silvester
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