Mr Bigs and dills that bling the house down

HE THOUGHT he had got it about right as a drug dealer. Big enough to be rich, cunning enough to keep a low profile, and smart enough to hide both his profits and products from nosey detectives.

HE THOUGHT he had got it about right as a drug dealer. Big enough to be rich, cunning enough to keep a low profile, and smart enough to hide both his profits and products from nosey detectives.

Sure, he lived in a penthouse, had a pretty mistress, owned a $200,000 sports car and, at the age of 40, no longer saw the need to work.

But he reasoned that drug taskforce detectives would be spending their time trying to bust big syndicates rather than worry about a middleweight freelancer.

He knew he was not invisible. He had already done time, but he had learnt from his mistakes and had beaten his last two trials.

Like many in his business he used his leisure time productively with two-hour daily gym sessions, shopping for gangster chic clothing and occasionally visiting his children at their private schools.

His name was constantly mentioned in drug taskforce investigations, but in 2012 he was not on the squad's target list. That is until a tip floated in.

Sometimes major drug jobs into the Mr Bigs take years to come to fruition. This one into Mr Big Enough took little more than hours.

Our man was smart enough to keep his drugs and cash away from his home, but not smart enough to keep it a secret.

On this particular day police sat off his secret stash, watched him wander in and snaffled him as he wandered out.

Inside his hidey hole was enough cash to cover a first division Tattslotto win and enough drugs to keep him comfortable until retirement age.

So stunned was Mr Big Enough that he abandoned his long-held custom of refusing to speak to police. For two hours he shook his head and repeated just one word. (Hint . . . it has four letters and has no place in a family newspaper.)

He was also found to be carrying a concealed handgun, these days almost a fashion accessory for any self-respecting drug dealer. According to the head of the drug taskforce, Detective Inspector Pat O'Brien, for every smart drug dealer there are a dozen dummies.

These are the gangsters from central casting, who make little effort to conceal their chosen occupations. They dress like extras out of Scarface and prefer the dialogue from the Sopranos.

Certainly, when your corespondent recently attended a Port Melbourne seafood establishment once favoured by Tony Mokbel, it was clear that some of his apprentices had moved in to fill the void.

On several tables were well-muscled men wearing gold jewellery, skin-tight T-shirts and black leather jackets. As the Village People were not due in town any time soon, we deduced these gentlemen may make a living through distributing certain illicit substances.

Many were in the company of woman with alarmingly enhanced bosoms, spray-on tans, spray-on jeans, spray-on big hair, and stilettos that defied all Occupational Health and Safety regulations. Yet rather than chat with these most attractive companions while demolishing lobsters the size of Merino sheep, some attempted to engage this humble reporter in some form of staring match.

We quickly decided that as it was unlikely they were autograph hunters, we should concentrate furiously on our plate of curried scallops and glass of house chablis rather than open a dialogue with these fellow diners. We even skipped the complimentary after-dinner mints before hastily absenting ourselves to our sensible sedan for the trip to the suburbs.

O'Brien is a 37-year veteran who took over the taskforce in January, well aware the area has had more than its share of controversies. It was once considered the best in Australia, then came a series of poor management decisions, unwise appointments and slack leadership that allowed a fermentation of corruption to brew a series of scandals.

Bribes were taken, investigations sabotaged, drugs sold and informers allowed to control their controllers. Some of those informers sold chemicals provided to them by the squad to drug dealers as part of sting operations. It was so poorly supervised that some of the go-betweens were able to cream off the profits.

Back then the office was a poorly planned hovel. It was so crazy that the officer in charge did not even work on the same floor. Senior police saw the drug squad as a low priority and allowed investigators to stay in the area for years. Some even saw it as a dumping ground, a place to hide detectives who, for a variety of reasons, had fallen out of favour.

The reputations of the hard-working were tarnished by the actions of the handful who went brumby. But the last big scandal was 10 years ago when two detectives were implicated in a $1.3 million burglary on a property then under drug squad surveillance.

The repercussions continue as the 2004 murders of Terence and Christine Hodson have constantly been linked to the case.

Yet while the Hodson scandal has rightly dominated the headlines, police have been slowly rebuilding the drug unit.

"The days of big-chested detectives with big egos who run their own races are long gone," says O'Brien. Back then complaint files were seen as a badge of honour. It meant you were stirring up the crooks and they didn't like it.

Now, by the time drug taskforce detectives are ready to raid, they already have the evidence and don't need to bully a confession out of a suspect. They can afford to be polite, as they believe they have already won.

"We have had no complaints lodged against us here for years," says O'Brien.

The inspector in charge sits in the corner office of the squad's 12th floor St Kilda Road crime department building, too busy to be distracted by the impressive views of autumn parklands and the Shrine of Remembrance.

He is determined to push his message that the drug taskforce has shed the skin of its predecessor and can get great results working within the rules.

With him is Dale Flynn, who knows a bit about big-time drug dealers having spent several years at Purana chasing the life and crimes of Tony Mokbel.

Now a Detective Senior Sergeant at the drug taskforce, he can vouch for the professionalism of the new breed of investigator.

No longer can detectives have one-on-one relationships with underworld informers. "They are not our friends," he says. "Crooks are crooks, and coppers are coppers. These days we won't meet them alone."

O'Brien makes no excuses about what he describes as the "intrusive management" style adopted in the squad. "They appreciate being scrutinised because they know where they stand," he says. "It protects them from false allegations when we know what they are doing."

And there is a strict rotation policy. Detectives must move after three years, although if they are immersed in a long investigation they can apply for a one-year extension.

Certainly, detectives at the taskforce no longer are satisfied with just a pinch. They want to get the drugs and the cash, for they know some of their main targets see jail as an occupational hazard.

"We have asset seizure experts embedded with our detectives to track down the profits," says O'Brien. "If the dealers keep the millions they have stashed away, some will think that a jail sentence is worth it."

The size of the profits can be shown on the squad's arrest sheet. In five jobs in the last nine months investigators have seized $4 million in cash and 60 kilos of amphetamines.

The size of the illicit industry is not just a drug taskforce problem. The spate of shootings around Melbourne, increased outlaw motorbike activity, a series of murders and regular violence on the streets are all linked to illegal drugs.

In the past two years, police have seen a drop in ecstasy (due to a shortage of one of the main ingredients) but a worrying spike in the use of the aggressive and addictive amphetamine derivative, ice.

Police investigations show the old model of ethnic-based drug syndicates is now obsolete.

Organised crime is the poster boy for multiculturalism. Money is the universal language, and cash breaks down centuries of hostility. Vietnamese hydroponic cannabis growers sell to Lebanese bikies who sell to African kids. Australian-born businessmen use South American cocaine imported through Europe by crooks of Russian origin.

If the UN worked half as efficiently, most of the world's trouble spots would now be Club Med resorts.

One of the problems in drug law enforcement is that it is never ending lock one drug dealer up and there will be another ready to take his place.

But according to O'Brien, the investigators are up for the challenge: "It is pro-active, challenging work. You have to think outside the square to catch some of these crooks.

"We believe we are making a difference, and the enthusiasm here is amazing. One of my greatest difficulties is to get these guys to go home."

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