Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Underbelly Experience

In another life I was a policeman.  No secret there, I’ve mentioned it a few times in past posts and also posted photos of me in uniform at various times.  But I haven’t spoken a lot about some of the things I did and it’s probably getting far enough in the past now that I can start to mention a few things without causing any harm to anyone.

In the early 80’s the witness protection program in Australia was in its infancy. Some joint Federal and State police task forces had been set up and were concentrating on organized crime, specifically the drug trade and there was no bigger unsolved crime at that time than the disappearance and presumed murder of Donald McKay.

In the mid 80's I was attached to the Protective Security Groups within the Victoria Police and late one shift around 20 of us got called into a meeting with one of our Inspectors.

"I'll open by saying that you are about to be briefed on a highly confidential matter and if you choose to accept it your lives may well be in danger."

Well as you might imagine that got our attention.

"None of you have to stay unless you want to," he continued, "but if you want to then you should leave now."

We all looked at each other and not one left.  It was then we were introduced to a Vicpol copper who had been working in a joint task force and he commenced to brief us on a criminal investigation that we were told reached into the highest echelons of government and had the potential to see some very high profile people charged with major criminal offences.

The case he was talking about was the murder of Donald McKay and we were to be used to protect some of the key witnesses in the case.   The person we were to be baby sitting was Gianfranco Tizzone and his family.  Tizzone had turned on his boss Robert Trimboli and decided to give evidence against him.   During the briefing we were told that Frank had a lot more to tell and that as it unfolded we would be amazed at what would come out.

So over the next year or so we did look after Frank and my memories of him are mainly to do with his ordinariness.  A small man who wore an Andy Capp hat, polite and soft spoken, but here was a man who was deeply involved in the drug trade and who had been a key person in the murder of an anti-drugs campaigner.

I have to say that over the ensuing years our witness protection methods changed significantly.  At this time though we were very much learning on the job.  Tizzone owned an asparagus farm and in order to keep him happy and to ensure that he kept giving the investigators information it was decided to actually house him and his family there.

It was an old post war farm house with a bungalow and a few large sheds housing tractors and other machinery at the rear.  We boarded up the doors and windows and left only the back door as an escape route and had an armed guard stationed there 24/7. 

We lined half the shed with panelling and set it up with a lounge suite and camp kitchen.  The bungalow became our sleeping quarters and there were four other observation posts around the property from which we recorded the registration numbers for every vehicle that came up and down the road.

I remember having to scramble out of the bungalow quickly one night after a shot gun blast went off.  Turned out to be a colleague on guard on the rear patio who fell asleep in the wee small hours of the morning and jerked a shot off through the ceiling.  Needless to say he was banned from that work for a few months afterward.

At the time our boss was Chief Superintendent Chippy Norton.  Chippy was an ex Scotland Yard Metropolitan policeman what had been in Vicpol for a long time and risen to that rank years earlier.  Hard nosed, tough but fair, I had a lot of respect for him. 

Every shift we had to parade and had a uniform and equipment inspection.  He took great pride in us looking at our best in uniform all the time and I remember one morning standing next to a colleague on parade and quivering in my boots as Chippy stormed out onto the roof, smoke billowing from his pipe, pointing and yelling "YOU!   YOU!" at the top of his voice.  I breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he dragged my colleague from beside me and asked him to pull up his right trouser leg.  Instead of his standard uniform issue black socks this bloke was wearing footy socks and chippy had caught a glimpse of them when he raised his leg coming to attention at the start of the parade. 

I did get a major dressing down from him at one time when I was late to an appointment with him after getting stuck in a lift for half an hour at Russell Street Police Station.  Lifts were banned for us, we had to use stairs because he saw it as a way to aid in our fitness, so when I came clean and told him why I was late I copped a mouthful.

Chippy was one of those blokes who could rip shreds of his men, but woe betide anyone else who tried to do the same thing.  He went to bat for anyone under his command and wouldn't let anyone criticise any of us.

Early on when looking after Tizzone he visited the property with a high ranking Federal Policeman.   Right around the perimeter of the house we had set up strings of hootchie cord with bits of metal attached at intervals set to rattle against other bits of metal is anyone tripped over them.   They were made from bits and pieces we found lying around the arm and served the purpose.  This particular Federal copper offered chippy some electronic surveillance equipment which was politely refused.

The farm was primarily used to grow asparagus but also had an annual crop of wheat.  That made it difficult for us because the view away from the shed at the rear of the property quickly became obscured by the wheat as it grew.  Line of fire now wasn't working in our favour and we later were told that Christopher Dale Flannery aka Mr Rentokill had cased the place and told people he could have taken Tizzone out but wasn't confident of getting away.

We spent a week on week off for months looking after this bloke and later on went into an apartment in St Kilda Road.   After the court case started he was separated from his family and we had him at another location in the city.  I'm not convinced that part of the reason for the change wasn't simply to save money.  In the city we could work three shifts a day and only needed a crew of four.  On the farm we were paid our normal day plus 8 hours overtime per day and there were 12 of us on hand 24 hours a day.

I can tell a few more war stories so let me know if this is of any interest.


Andrew said...

That was a great tale and like to hear more. Any recall of where in St Kilda Road he was housed?

Peter (Worldman) said...

That is indeed an intersting story and of course we would like to read more stories like that.

Gypsy said...

I followed the Underbelly series on TV with great interest and we have the boxed sets of both series. I would be very interested to hear more about your life on the beat Loz.

Micah said...

Great post! This is very helpful. I'm sure I'd visit your site more often. Anyway, you can drop by my favorite online hang out too, at UK Student Community. Thanks!

Dorothy said...

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Dorothy from grammology