December 13, 2003
– The kilometre-square block in the middle of South Yarra is one of the busiest in Melbourne. Traffic regularly slows to a crawl. No one would have noticed the late-model sedan that cruised the choked streets for days.
No one, that is, except the police surveillance experts assigned to help Victoria’s new gangland taskforce, codenamed Purana.
Police were tracking two of the suspects in some of Melbourne’s 21 unsolved underworld murders. One was a known armed robber, rapist and car thief who specialised in raiding drug dealers in their homes. His partner was a convicted rapist who specialised in burglaries with violence.
They drove around the block bounded by Chapel Street and Malvern, Toorak and Williams roads, past the upmarket boutiques that thrive near the 1960s housing commission flats. They cruised by the 24-hour Prahran police complex in Malvern Road, then turned left into Williams Road and past The Bush Inn Hotel, a favourite with local police. They pulled over, checked the side streets and studied the area with the fastidiousness of town planners.
In one week in October, they went to the block at least four times.
Experienced police knew these men were not sightseeing – they were there on business.
Detectives checked the area for likely targets and considered the possibility of a Spring Carnival raid on the Pub TAB at the Bush Inn. Two luxury car dealers were also marked as susceptible. There was also a theory that the two might have been planning an armed rip-off of a drug dealer in the area – but the investigators could only make educated guesses.
The detectives did have one big advantage – they had planted a tiny bugging device in the car being used by the suspects. But while it may have been obvious the men were researching a crime, they were not discussing details. Why would they? They knew what they were planning; there was no need to spell it out.
Police knew it was going to happen. But they did not know what “it” was.
It is a scenario both frustrating and increasingly familiar. In recent years, tensions in Melbourne’s underworld have spilled onto the streets. In the past decade, a violent underclass, fuelled by massive amphetamine profits, has taken control of drug syndicates of unprecedented size. The syndicates have expanded rapidly until they have been competing in the same market.
Self-appointed crime generals, with virtually unlimited wealth but sometimes limited intellects, have responded by sending out their soldiers to destroy the opposition.
In Melbourne, there have been more than 20 underworld murders in just under six years. While many have appeared related, until recently police have been trying to treat each one in isolation. Earlier this year, Assistant Commissioner (Crime) Simon Overland decided on a new approach.
While gangsters killing each other hardly sparks public outrage, Overland knew that, as each murder became more brazen, the risks increased that a bystander would be caught in the crossfire. One victim was shot dead in his convertible in Waverley Road, Chadstone. Bullets were found sprayed into a nearby building, shots that could easily have struck a passer-by.
Without a breakthrough, the murders would continue and eventually affect the larger community.
Overland decided to form a taskforce to deal with groups of murders that appeared to be related. The Purana taskforce is now nearly 50-strong. Despite police budget cuts, Overland remains determined to resource the taskforce.
None of which was proving much help to the detectives sitting in an office, five kilometres from South Yarra, listening in on the muted conversations of their suspects. Police knew who they were. They knew they were up to something. All they could do was wait.
One of the suspects was widely known to police and criminals as the Marathon Man. Small, fit and lean, he was thought by detectives to be responsible for at least 40 armed robberies in three states. He earned his nickname because he often made his getaway on foot, running from banks and building societies to waiting cars. Detectives monitoring the suspects identified the nearby footbridge over the Hawksburn railway station as a possible escape route.
Marathon Man once escaped from a police car as he was being driven from the armed robbery squad office in St Kilda Road to the city watch-house. When he realised the detective beside him in the back seat was dozing he simply opened the door and ran.
He served time in Western Australia and South Australia before being arrested again after he tried to rob a Carlton bank. He was released from jail in December last year.
The second suspect was also known to police.
Four months before this surveillance exercise, on June 21, Melbourne’s underworld war intensified when a gunman wearing a balaclava ran up to a blue van parked at an Essendon North junior football clinic and shot dead crime identities Jason Moran and Pasquale Barbaro.
After shooting the men in front of a group of children, including Moran’s six-year-old twin boy and girl, the gunman ran over a Moonee Ponds Creek footbridge to a waiting vehicle.
On the day of the murders, detectives were tipped off that Marathon Man was the likely gunman, although any chance of police having the advantage of surprise was lost when a television reporter rang the Moran family and nominated the suspect.
Detectives were confident the gunman was not working alone. The other man cruising South Yarra with Marathon Man was also known to police as a “person of interest” in the Moran/Barbaro investigation.
Detectives have a security video from the Cross Keys Hotel showing the gunman running towards the blue van parked near the Essendon football clinic just before shooting the two men. It also shows a white Toyota Hiace van parked near the bottle shop beforehand, then driving off.
It is the same type of van owned by the person of interest in the Moran/Barbaro investigation.
The two suspects had something else in common. They were both friends of prominent underworld figure Carl Williams. In the present gang war, a handful of names have been mentioned as the major players.
At the head of the list is the father and son team of George and Carl Williams, who both deny any involvement in or knowledge of the killings.
Carl Williams is a known enemy of the Moran family. He is under investigation for allegedly ordering the murders of both Jason Moran and his half-brother, Mark, shot dead outside his luxury Aberfeldie home in June 2000.
Williams was shot by the Moran brothers in October 1999. Police believe that dispute was over the ownership of an amphetamines pill press, but Williams’s wife, Roberta, has told The Age it was about personal hatred.
“Jason wanted someone’s phone number and Carl refused to give it to him. Jason was humiliated and wanted to get back at him,” she said. “Mark was yelling ‘Shoot him in the head’, and Jason then shot him in the stomach.”
She denies, however, that Carl was involved in the murders of Mark and Jason Moran.
“Even at school (the Williams children and Jason Moran’s children attend the same school) Carl would say ‘look away’ when we saw Jason.”
Williams, 32, is now on bail over charges that he trafficked amphetamines valued at $20 million. Last month he was charged with making threats to kill a Purana detective, and the detective’s wife.
On his release from prison last December, Marathon Man began to associate with Carl Williams.
Immediately after the Moran/Barbaro murders, police say Marathon Man began to behave as if he was under investigation, talking in code on telephones and constantly looking for police surveillance units. This did not mean he was the killer, only that he knew he was on the police list of suspects for the double execution.
In October, when the homicide crew had to return to normal duties, the Moran/Barbaro killing was assigned to the Purana team. While the Marathon Man knew he was a suspect, the second target was confident he remained unknown. This let police slip the bug into his vehicle, unnoticed. Now they could observe without spooking the pair.
But they also had a dilemma.
The first job of police is to deter rather than apprehend. If detectives know a crime is to be committed, they have a duty to try to stop the offence. But intercepting a major criminal and his sidekick because they appear to be driving suspiciously looks more like harassment than deterrence. Police had no evidence to lay charges, and pulling the suspects over would only alert them to the electronic surveillance. Investigators had no real choice but to let them run.
The head of the Purana taskforce, Detective Inspector Andrew Allen, was at work on the evening of Saturday, October 25, when he got the call from police monitoring the listening post.
Over the previous hour they had heard two men talking in the car of something “going down”. However, despite their tracking gear, they did not have a location and had no choice but to sit back and listen. Armed robbers often head to a target only to pull out at the last minute because something does not feel right. This could have been just another rehearsal.
Suddenly police heard one man leave the car, then noises that could have been shots, followed by someone jumping back in and the vehicle driving off. Before they had a chance to analyse what had happened, reports started to flood in of a man shot in the street in South Yarra.
Too late, the reason for the men spending the week in the area became apparent.
At gangland taskforce headquarters, investigators have a database of victims, suspects, potential targets and associates. They have established a core of around 100 and a second ring of about the same number. The man who was killed was not on the police list of possible targets – but he was on someone’s.
In underworld terms, Michael Ronald Marshall, 38, was a nobody with a minor criminal record – a former kickboxer whose chosen occupation was self-employed hot-dog vendor, selling mainly around nightclubs.
The fast-food business can be lucrative, but even in that environment Marshall appeared to be flying. He lived in a large, double-storey home on the corner of Williams Road and Joy Street in South Yarra.
Marshall and his de facto wife had bought the house from a Melbourne surgeon in December 1991 and paid off their ANZ mortgage in just three years.
A three-metre-high brick fence and an electronic security camera at the gate on Williams Road protected the house. But it was not enough. The men who had come for Marshall had done their homework. The getaway car was parked in the next road, Howitt Street, facing Williams Road. Marshall had been to a local bakery with his five-year-old son to buy hot-dog rolls for his busiest night, Saturday.
Joy Street is a narrow road filled with blocks of 1970s-style flats and architect-designed townhouses. Marshall parked his four-wheel-drive halfway down the short street, behind his hot-dog van. Although his house had a double garage, he preferred to park in the street. His second security camera looking down on Joy Street was not working.
As he stepped from the car, at about 6.30pm, and before he could open the back door to help his son from his harness, a lone gunman ran up and shot Marshall at least four times in the head.
Just as in the Moran/Barbaro case, the killer seemed to have no qualms about shooting a man in front of his children and, as in the earlier case, the gunman had his escape route planned.
The killer ran down a partially hidden 50-metre path through a block of flats to Howitt Street. The driver had the motor going and took off in the usual getaway style, making sure there was no need to cross traffic flows, turning left into Williams Road and left again into the next main street.
Within hours, two men were arrested near the Elsternwick Hotel. They were in a white Toyota Hiace. At the time of the arrests, Marshall was still alive in the Alfred Hospital. He died about three hours later.
The men were unarmed, although police found firearms during a search of a home in Melbourne’s southern suburbs later that night. Forensic scientists are checking the guns to see if they can be matched to any of Victoria’s unsolved underworld murders.
On October 27, Victor Brincat, 43, and Thomas Hentschel, 41, were remanded in custody over the murder of Michael Marshall. On November 13, Purana detectives successfully applied to court for permission to interview Hentschel over the Barbaro/Moran murders.
– John Silvester