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True crime. Casually done.

Operation Florida: What Happens When the Police Run the Drug Trade?

Written by Chris Lake

TO PROTECT THE GUILTY

This CasCrim’s a little bit different, as much of what we’re going to be talking about today is directly known to the author. I grew up in Manly, the neighbourhood in question, and personally knew or know many of the main players. And while the set of crimes we’re discussing have all gone through the courts, I’ll still be obscuring some names and exact locations to protect those who’ve straightened up and built lives for themselves. All the detailed accounts of criminal activity we’re covering I either witnessed firsthand, heard directly from the perpetrators, or sourced from various documents, including the Operation Florida Report to Parliament. Given my own involvement, I’ve also had to tiptoe around some specific incidents and actions.  

On a personal note, researching this one has been a bit of a revelation for me. Quite a lot of what the police and their informants were doing was dark to me, and many missing pieces have suddenly fallen into place. It’s like my life at the time was what was happening off camera in a cop show I’d never watched, so reading exactly what the police were up to has stitched everything together into a coherent narrative for the first time. So, I hope you all enjoy these stories from my old neighbourhood. And I also sincerely hope the cops don’t decide to visit Simon’s basement off the back of them.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NSW_Police_Force_highway_patrol_officers_conducting_random_breath_testing_on_Travers_St_(2).jpg

A SHORT TOUR OF THE NORTHERN BEACHES

It’s about nine in the morning in Sydney’s Northern Beaches suburb of Manly. Far from the affluent, hipster-riddled beachside resort it is today, Manly in the nineties was a depressed backwater. A tourist spot originally designed for rural visitors now run to seed and riddled with crime and social problems. The ordinary business of the day is going on. A trickle of tourists from the city and western suburbs are debarking at the ferry wharf. Disconsolate alcoholics, drug addicts, and beach bums are shuffling their way up and down the main thoroughfare, a broad paved mall called The Corso, running from the ocean beach to the wharf. The day drinkers in the Ivanhoe Hotel are getting into full swing and the little cluster of dealers at the public benches down by the billiards hall are thinking about setting up trade for the day. Less than two hundred meters away is the Manly Police Station. There’s a bit of a commotion there, as a minor drug dealer we’ll call “Paul” is throwing gram bags of pot at the façade, screaming, “Come out and arrest me, you fucking dogs!”

Now it’s about one in the morning and we’re in Turramurra [TA-ra-MA-ra], a leafy, semi-rural suburb about forty minutes’ drive from Manly. Turramurra was famous for weed plantations, meth labs, bikies, and evangelical Christianity. It was also mostly just paddocks at this time, and a prime location for doofs [rhymes with “poofs”] or raves. For those who don’t know, these are both types of illegal dance party. The doof we’re concerned with is happening in a small forest clearing, with the DJ sitting in a demountable with an awning out the front. This one’s for the alternative crowd, and there’s a scattering of goths and some trustafarian[1] types trying to dress like the natives and achieving a look part duck hunter and part prostitute. There’s also some hardcore ecstasy freaks, gurning and sweating and milling their arms around like they do. Two young men are standing near the back of the crowd. They exchange a look and a nod, and then pull police jackets out of their bags and put them on. They flick on torches, waving them around at eye level. One of them flashes a badge and shouts, “Police! Everyone stay where you are!”. Panic and devastation follow, and within an improbably short time pretty much everyone’s disappeared into the tree line. A handful of the trustafarian types have gone ‘deer in headlights’, however, and they stand looking pale and worried in the flickering coloured lights, no longer moving to the pounding house music still coming out of the speakers. “Get the fuck outta here, idiots,” says one of the men, waving at them impatiently. They finally get the message and sprint off into the trees. Then both men put their jackets away and begin picking up all the drug bags the fleeing dancers have dropped in their panic, chuckling as they work.

We’re back in Manly, in one of the areas behind The Corso, slick with slimy rotting garbage and plastered with graffiti. This is the back dock of a successful shop, and the night manager is finishing up his shift. He comes out half in work uniform and half in his casual clothes, clearly in the process of getting ready to go out on the town. It might be three in the morning, but Manly at this time is blessed with no fewer than three 24-hour licensed premises, as well as a handful of speakeasies, so the party never really stops. He’s got a backpack on and is also carrying a small gym bag. He looks up at the camera over the back door and sighs – it’s been smashed again. Just one more thing for him to do tomorrow. He’s got about five meters to walk from the pool of light at the door to the darkness where his car is parked, just outside the back dock. He walks briskly, eyes up and head on a swivel, but for all his alertness he doesn’t make it. Three men burst out of the shadows and the lead man swings a short baseball bat into the back of his head. Before he’s even properly hit the floor, the second man has taken the gym bag, and the third has rifled through his pockets and found and taken the shop keys. The three then split off in different directions, leaving the night manager face down on the asphalt. An hour later, they’re in an apartment a few miles out of town, divvying out the $10,000 in takings which had been in the gym bag, and which the manager had been about to deposit in a nearby night safe. One of the men hands the shop keys to a fifteen-year-old boy, giving him detailed instructions as to what he should take when he uses them to rob the place. “You can keep the float, but if you fuck me on any of the other stuff, I’ll come back here and kill you, your missus, and your dog,” he says.

A few hours later and we’re still in Manly, this time in an apartment in the Manly National Building, a tall apartment complex which, for some insane reason, has been painted a livid shade of sky blue. Sitting on a couch in one of the small, split-level apartments, is Cam. There are empty bottles scattered around the place, some powder on the coffee table, glasses and mugs on most surfaces – it’s clear there’s been a moderately good party here the night before. Cam’s a borderline addict, but he’s been working to get his life together and has been very excited about getting his deckhand qualification so he can, in his own words, “Fuck off up north and go work on the trawlers”. This is probably what the party was celebrating. It’s the cold light of day now, though, and someone’s knocking on the door. Actually, he’s pounding on it, yelling that he’s the building manager and that he has to come in. Cam’s not answering, though, he’s just staring at the ceiling. Mainly because he’s been dead for several hours, having tipped just a little too much heroin into his system. The building manager uses his master key to enter the apartment, throws up, and runs back out again. The cops are pretty un-fussed by the whole thing. This is a region which produces dead youths at a pretty constant rate, and overdose is probably the most boringly routine way in which it does so. As they stretcher the body away there’s a sense of tedium – just one more damn thing to deal with. Cam’s graffer[2] friends head to a nearby skate park to create a memorial wall, a sort of memento mori with his tag and some nice, heartfelt pieces of art. It stays there for a little while until the next few kids die and the space is needed for new memorials.  

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/firehose-of-complaints-about-nsw-police-not-investigated-as-watchdog-faces-cuts-20191101-p536jo.html

THE STATE OF PLAY

It should be clear that the kind of activity just described can’t really be going on in any normal area that’s being properly policed. And the Northern Beaches was very far from being Compton or downtown Detroit, so it was pretty clear to most at the time that policing must have been at least part of the problem. In response to this, Operation Florida was started by the New South Wales Police Integrity Commission, tasked with exposing corrupt police officers from a variety of Local Area Commands (LACs) [sound out each letter], as well as the Armed Holdup Unit. After the Wood Royal Commission of 1995-7, when the infamous detective Roger Rogerson was outed for running a criminal fiefdom in Kings Cross, there was a sense amongst the public that corruption problems had been solved. But the thing about Sydney is that it’s huge. It’s ranked as one of the top ten most connected cities in the world. While it’s only got five million people in it, the whole area of Greater Sydney is more than twelve-thousand km2, or four-and-a-half-thousand mi2. For comparison, Greater London covers one-and-a-half-thousand km2. A city this size is always a diverse collection of radically different towns and villages, all sprawling outwards from the shiny skyline of the city centre. This means that even if you rip out a corrupt police force from one area, there’s still dozens more. Combine this with the fact that while criminals rarely move, police are posted to different areas all the time, the whole undertaking basically becomes a game of whack-a-mole. One of the bigger moles to whack were the LACs covering the Northern Beaches.

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The Northern Beaches, as the name suggests, is a stretch of beachside land north of the centre of Sydney. It stretches from the northern entrance of Sydney Harbour, where Manly is, all the way up to Palm Beach, and as far inland as the Ku-rin-gai [koo-RING-guy] Chase National Park. The Northern Beaches covers about two-hundred-and-fifty km2 and is home to about a quarter million residents. Apart from the many beaches along its Pacific Coast, there’s semi-rural areas, light industrial, a whole lot of suburbs, and some forested stretches. It’s also relatively sparsely populated. I’m not talking the Mongolian Steppe or anything crazy like that, but the population density in this area is half the city’s average – unlike most of Sydney, people here mostly lived in detached houses or on big blocks of land. What all this very dry demographics and geography adds up to is that it can be quite a difficult place to police. The distances are long, and there’s a near limitless number of places where business can be conducted away from prying eyes. During the period we’re talking about, the mid to late nineties, there was quite a bit of business happening in and around Manly. There were several crews, including bikies, involved in the bulk supply of amphetamines, including some ethnic syndicates, some lone wolf operators, and the “gay mafia”. These last were not anything like a mafia, really, but were just a loose group of clubland and city types. Heroin was coming in through Port Botany, in Sydney, in huge amounts. Importation was handled by an odd assortment of Chinese Triads, especially 14k, Vietnamese syndicates, Middle Eastern ethnic gangs, and some lone wolf types. And, of course, some bikies, though the members I knew swore blind that the clubs themselves didn’t condone this traffic. By far and away the biggest and most established market was for marijuana, and in the nineties basically everyone and their dog had spent at least some time selling gram bags at the very least. This more than anything else was the local business, and in the words of Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.

It’s worth noting that Sydney as a rule doesn’t have the same kind of organised crime you find in places like America or Europe. While there are definitely clusters of all your classic organised crime groups – mafia, triads, bikies, etc. – they don’t have the same kind of reach or control as they do in places like Juarez [HWA-rez] or New York. Sustained organised crime in Sydney tends to be more laissez faire, with syndicates of friend/family groups vying against each other in a more or less open market. There are some international players and a handful of serious and well-equipped crime families, but for the most part it’s a loose demi-monde of small local crews, hustlers, survivors, hobbyists, and mad-dog loners. The Northern Beaches at the time was becoming more ethnically diverse as well. This isn’t saying much, though – it’s always been a predominantly white area, with big islands of affluence sitting uneasily next to its poorer pockets. In the mid-nineties, an influx of Pacific Islanders, Māori [MOW-ree with a rolled ‘r’], Lebanese, and Southeast Asians into Sydney took the neighbourhood from 99% Caucasian to about 97%. But even such a small change was highly visible, especially as the Pacific Islanders chose to settle in large family groups in Manly and its surrounds. These groups didn’t integrate entirely comfortably with the long-time local crews, and there was the inevitable ethnic violence and gang formation. By the early 2000s, however, things had settled into a comfortable hierarchy. At the top of the food chain were the cleanskins, various syndicates both organised and lone wolf, who took care of the commercial side. Below them were the big connects, a surprisingly large and diverse number of people who made their living by selling wholesale quantities to small-time dealers. And right at the bottom of the food chain were these small-timers. Some of these were local surfies, or one of the many neighbourhood street crews, or most forlorn of all, the lone user dealers buying the smallest wholesale weights on credit, getting high on their own supply, and barely breaking even every few days or weeks. Besides the drug trade, there were a few armed robbery crews hitting armoured trucks, shops, and drug dealers, and doing ram raids, as well as organised burglary and shoplifting teams called ‘shoppers’. There were the ‘steamers’ as well, small groups who would go into a bank wearing ballcaps and sunglasses, jump the counter and clear out the cash drawers, keeping their heads down for the cameras the whole time. And then there was all the miscellaneous crime – gang assaults, property destruction, arson and insurance fraud, underage prostitution, and all the other dreary assortment associated with neighbourhoods where police have surrendered the streets.

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CHEM STREET

It’s a bright sunny day in Manly. The autumn sun sits serenely in a cloudless indigo sky, and seabirds wheel lazily over the wharves and jetties of the ferry terminal. At the southern end of The Corso are a set of public benches outside a billiards hall, a chemist, and a supermarket. Even though it’s May, the chemist is playing Christmas carols over a loudspeaker at ear-bleeding volume, a vain attempt to disperse the twenty or so street dealers and local rats who gather outside their store every day. There’s a vertical banner next to the door reading “CHEMIST”, which some witty local has vandalised, scraping off the “I” so the sign appropriately reads “CHEM ST”. On a normal morning, the crew would be loitering around the benches, selling grams, halfweights, quarts, or eightballs to passers-by, and generally being loud, wearing sports brands, and being a menace to society.  Today, however, they’re all lined up against the wall of the chemist, and Detective Senior Constable Dave Patison is leading a couple of uniformed officers in a search. One of the suspects is our friend Paul, whom we saw earlier throwing grams of pot at the police station. Paul isn’t being cooperative, so a couple of officers force him face down on the ground, spread eagle him and begin patting him down. As part of this process they hitch up the cuffs of his tracksuit pants, and everyone can see a massive bulge in his left sock. There must be at least an ounce of gram bags stuffed in that sock, but the coppers deliberately pat around it, then drag him to his feet and murmur something in his ear. Then, as if on cue, they all walk away without completing their other searches. At this point, Paul goes completely spare. “Fuck you, you fucking dogs!” he screams. “Come back here – I’ll give you dogs what you want!”. He pulls the ounce out of his sock and waves it at the backs of the departing police officers, claiming to have had sexual congress with their mothers and daring them to arrest him at the top of his voice.

Detective Senior Constable Dave Patison joined the New South Wales Police Force in 1978[3]. He was a uniformed general duties officer for seven years, before transferring to plainclothes in 1985. By 1996, Patison had done some time in the Armed Holdup Unit (AHU) and the Major Crime Squad North Drug Unit (MCSN). The MCSN operated in the area directly adjacent to the Northern Beaches. In ‘96 he was transferred to Manly under a cloud, having been accused of inappropriate dealings with drug traffickers. By the time Patison came to Manly, he already had a long history of corrupt conduct. Starting with accepting a payoff when he was still a junior constable, Patison graduated to stealing money from raids on properties and beating suspects for confessions. He wasn’t alone in this, though – throughout the eighties and nineties, the Armed Holdup Unit was well known for this, and we’d always tell newcomers that an arrest by that division generally came with a beating. Patison was also involved in “verballing” suspects. To “verbal” a suspect, in Australian slang, means to frame them. Planting evidence, like firearms or drugs, is called “loading”, and a bribe was either “a drink” or “a tickle”. A “dog” is interchangeably either an informant or a police officer. Patison would falsify confessions in notebook interviews, i.e., questioning which happens outside an interview room and is recorded in a police notebook. Or sometimes he’d just fabricate the whole interview. The AHU at the time also kept various stashes of firearms which they’d use to plant on suspects. On one particular occasion, AHU officers dumped a bag of firearms in the Hawkesbury River, fabricated a confession from someone they had in custody, and then sent a dive team out to find it, before charging the suspect with firearms offences. There’s no evidence Patison was directly involved in this activity, but it seems likely he would at least have been aware of it. While he was in the MSCN, Patison routinely stole money and drugs from police raids, taking advantage of lax supervision practises. He was also involved in “greenlighting”, where a criminal is given a so-called green light to conduct their activities on the understanding that police will turn a blind eye. The typical rent charged to a dealer or thief for a green light was between $500-1000 per week.

Patison claims he didn’t engage in corruption in the first couple of years after his transfer to Manly, but by 1998 his past seemed to be catching up with him. He was barred from participating in drug investigations for a period of six months and was also subject to proceedings under section 181D of the Police Act – an administrative process used to expel officers from the police force. He was able to defeat the 181D proceedings and also lift the restriction on his duties after receiving a positive report from the station’s Crime Manager, one Detective Sergeant Ray Peattie [pee-dee]. Peattie joined the police in the mid-seventies and, unlike Patison, became a plainclothes detective quite early in his career. According to his testimony, his first act of corruption was in 1980, when he was part of 21 Division. One day, 21 Division raided an illegal gambling den known colloquially as a “card school”. After the raid was over, a senior constable handed him $100 and he took it, no questions asked. From these humble beginnings, Peattie’s corrupt conduct blossomed. Between 1984 and 1991, Peattie routinely engaged in verballing suspects – so routinely that he couldn’t remember, when questioned, how many people he’d framed. All he could offer the commission was that it happened regularly, but not every day. He habitually made false statements, fabricated records of interview which were used, often successfully, to prosecute suspects, and also fabricated briefs of evidence. When he was in command of the Manly and Collaroy District Drug Unit from 1989-91, Peattie routinely stole thousands of dollars from dealers while conducting drug raids. During his time as Crime Manager – a position which effectively, if not technically, amounted to being chief detective – Peattie was in charge of the Local Area Corruption Prevention Plan. I think we can all guess how effective that one was. He would also use police fuel cards to fill up his own personal vehicles. While this isn’t exactly the crime of the century, I think it’s illustrative of character – a man who’s already raking in tens of thousands of dollars in bribes, yet still feels the need to steal a tank of gas from the taxpayer.

It seems it didn’t take very long for Patison and Peattie to start forming a corrupt alliance in Manly Police Station. And it wasn’t just Manly – there were a bunch of other officers: Jasper, Messenger, Hill, and Davidson, among others. These men were spread out between Manly and nearby Dee Why. I vaguely remember Constable Davidson. He was the most junior of the bunch and had a good rapport with most of the locals. I never personally came across Jasper, Messenger, or Hill, but I heard about Detective Senior Constable Jasper quite frequently. The word on the street was that if you had to get arrested, you could make a deal with Jasper or Patison. Patison was reputed to be expensive but reliable, whereas Jasper was rumoured to be cheap but unpredictable. In any event, Patison was everywhere, and was definitely the most active of the lot.

THE GAME

Elements of the New South Wales Police Force earned a justified reputation for appalling corruption all through the seventies and eighties. The Kings Cross detectives mentioned earlier were the highest profile cases, but Manly based police weren’t slacking off during this period either. In 1991, a group of detectives stole up to thirty thousand dollars from a single raid on a hotel room in the Manly Pacific – a hotel which was incidentally owned by a man who’d murdered his wife and then claimed she’d been assassinated by gangland figures. Through the nineties, under the management of Ray Peattie, a culture of bribe-taking and theft persisted. This was totally unchecked by the Local Area Commander, a man named Superintendent Gary Raymond. Raymond oversaw Manly Police Station’s operations but wasn’t stationed there. In his whole time as LAC, he never once watched a video recording of his officers’ raids or attended one in person. If he had, he would have noticed that many of these recordings had never been made, and of those which had, there were only brief periods of the raid actually recorded. Superintendent Raymond also relied on Peattie’s reports to satisfy himself that raids were being conducted in accordance with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). It seems that he never took concrete steps to check this, though, as Peattie himself testified that he didn’t actually know them. Mostly because he’d never read them. In his own defence, Superintendent Raymond pointed out that the corrupt officers in question were hard to catch because they were “sneaky”, that he didn’t think anyone would behave that way so soon after the Royal Commission, that he’d put posters up all over the station warning against corruption, and that his weekly and monthly reports, coming from Peattie and from the Duty Officer, indicated that the situation was improving. It’s important to mention that the Operation Florida Commission didn’t find any indication that Superintendent Raymond himself was corrupt. It was, however, highly critical of his management practices. It seems strange to me that they were able to detect any. In this somewhat lax management environment Patison was effectively under the command of Sergeant Peattie. Peattie gave him a clean bill of health and glowing reports over and over again. By 1999, Patison – a copper who’d been under suspicion of drug-related corruption – had been specifically assigned to deal with the backlog of drug investigations at Manly Police. This was a long list, mostly concerned with the holy trinity of Northern Beaches drug taking at the time: ecstasy, heroin, and marijuana. To Dave Patison, it must have basically looked like a shopping list.

As someone who’s been at both ends of drug raids, I’m quite familiar with how they’re supposed to go. It’s important to understand what’s supposed to happen in order to get just how egregious the conduct of these particular officers was, so please bear with us as we go through some dry police procedure. First of all, a warrant needs to be obtained. This requires the submission of a brief of evidence and/or statements by the investigating officers. These need to reach a certain threshold of evidence such that the court will approve a search of the premises in question. Once you’ve got the warrant, you need to gather up a team. This might mean liaising with Police Dog Squad, or the special weapons group – the Australian equivalent of SWAT – or specialists from anti-drug units such as the MCSN. Most importantly, however, there needs to be an independent officer, who must be from outside the investigation and preferably not from the station conducting the search. This independent officer is there to see fair play, to supervise the search team, and to generally ensure no coercion, corruption, or breaks in the chain of evidence occur. And finally, there needs to be a video and exhibit officer, whose job it is to record the whole raid as a further guarantee of no breaks in the chain of evidence. The chain of evidence, for those who don’t know, is basically the careful recording of every person who had possession of every piece of evidence from the moment it’s found to the moment it’s destroyed or returned. The idea being that every piece of evidence can be accounted for and tracked for every second it’s in the hands of the police.

That’s how it works in theory. In practice, many of the raids conducted by Manly Police were subject to extraordinary laxness. Ray Peattie himself testified, “You can’t do everything exactly by the book, or you’d be there half a day every time.” And Peattie would know, as he was frequently designated as the “independent officer” on searches conducted by Dave Patison and others. Constable Davidson, who was usually the video and exhibit officer, testified that instead of recording everything as was his lawful duty, he’d only switch on the camera when told to by Jasper or Patison or Messenger. On numerous occasions, they didn’t even bring a camera at all. But when they did, they only recorded fragments of the raid, which must have made it easier on the numerous occasions when they’d check the footage in the middle of a search to determine whether they could safely steal what they’d found. One fateful day in May of 2000, Patison, Jasper, Davidson, and an officer codenamed M5 raided the property of one Luke Benbow. Benbow, when he saw the cops coming, chucked four pounds, or about two kilos, of pot out the window and into the next-door neighbour’s yard. The cops executed their warrant and the independent officer, one Inspector Le Surf, headed out to the balcony to hang out with Benbow’s brother. In the meantime, Patison and co went through the house and found a small amount of cannabis and some steroids. Alone and completely unsupervised, Patison went down into the laundry and found forty thousand bucks in a dirty sock, which he pocketed. When all was over, Luke Benbow was arrested for possession and taken off to the station to be charged. On the trip back from the station, Patison told Luke about the money and told him that the police would be taking most of it, whereas a small amount would be returned to him. Patison also instructed him to pick up the kilos from his neighbour’s yard. He then gave Luke ten grand back, before distributing the remaining thirty between himself, Jasper, and M5. But why, you might be thinking, did none of this skulduggery get caught on the raid recording? Well, because according to Davidson, the battery on the camera was flat. As exhibits officer, Davidson was also meant to record any cash or illicit substances found, but there are no such records for this search. So presumably the battery on his pen was flat too.

A few months later, in August, the officer codenamed M5 hit Luke again, this time with a vehicular stop and search. He found just under a pound of weed and another thirty grand. This time, the money was seized by the book and Luke was charged with having goods in custody, on the basis that the money was the proceeds of crime. According to Luke, however, it seems that M5 also stole a further kilo of pot over and above what was logged. Patison and M5 both approached Luke and told him he could continue dealing drugs so long as he paid a tax. Various extortionate figures were bandied about, but they eventually settled on two grand a month and an introduction to another dealer, Vince Caccamo, who could get wholesale weed to him more cheaply. Vince was a mid-level heroin dealer whom Patison had been ‘greenlighting’ for quite some time. On top of this, Patison hooked Luke up with solicitor Martin Green – an old mate of his who’d started out as a police officer, became a police prosecutor, and finally a defence solicitor. Green and Patison allegedly cooked up a scheme between them whereby Luke would create false invoices in the amount which had been seized. Patison would then “investigate” these invoices, recommend the goods in custody charge be dropped, and then get the money returned to Luke. Minus a fee, of course. We need to point out here that Martin Green denies any of this, but it’s also worth pointing out that the commission has put on the record that they don’t believe him. Now Luke wasn’t really a hardened criminal. He was a plumber – still is – and was mostly an ordinary decent citizen caught up with the wrong crowd. So, when he found himself being harassed and farmed by corrupt police officers, he got scared and went straight to the NSW Crime Commission, who promised him a significant discount on his sentence if he agreed to assist them in the conduct of Operation Florida.

At around the same time officer M5, who’d been living off the fat of the land, so to speak, for years, started to get jittery. To his mind, officers like Patison and Messenger were far too blatant and high risk, and he’d also heard rumours that there were multiple informants working with the State Crime Commission on an investigation into corrupt police. I personally remember that rumours were rife about something called “Eaglenet”, which turned out to be a subset of Operation Florida. I believe there were multiple attempts, some clearly successful, to turn some of the locals, which is why the name of the operation was floating through the streets. I remember about this time seeing Manly Detectives swaggering round the streets in shirtsleeves, weapons on display, exchanging greetings with local hoods and shaking down the bars and clubs. On one occasion Patison stopped me and one of my associates on the road out of Manly. They had a friendly chat while Patison searched him, before carefully counting out the money he had on him and pocketing about half of it before sending us both on our way. This happened in broad daylight by the side of a busy road. With all this nonsense going on, it’s no wonder M5 decided to cut his losses and approach the Crime Commission to confess to his own corrupt conduct and offer his assistance to the Op Florida investigation.

THE STING

I’ve mainly just focused in on a few key players, favouring those who were personally known to me and are in the public record, but it’s important to remember that this was a massive operation covering multiple police units and LACs. There were more than a dozen informants, many designated codenames such as M1 or G2 and so on. In fact, informant M1 was generally agreed to be the most instrumental, but I haven’t mentioned them at all, partly because I don’t exactly know who they are, and partly because I firmly believe their life would be in danger if anyone ever uncovered their identity. Somewhat amusingly, I was suspected of being M1 for a while, but my obvious lack of detailed knowledge of what the police were up to ended up making it clear to all that it couldn’t be me.

On the Manly side of things, the Police Integrity Commission, in conjunction with the State Crime Commission, set up a series of what they called “Integrity Tests”. For some of these, Luke Benbow and Vince Caccamo would have conversations with corrupt officers while wearing a wire. The police officer codenamed M5 would do the same, as well as accompanying them on raids and recording what was said. On one occasion, the commission rented out an apartment in Manly and planted a hundred grams of “green vegetable matter”, money, and stolen DVD players in it. Bear in mind that this is the late nineties, when DVD players were quite expensive. A female undercover officer was assigned to play the occupant of these premises, the girlfriend of a fictitious male suspected of being a drug trafficker. The raid was conducted by our old friends M5, Patison, and Davidson, with the independent officer being another corrupt detective called Hill. Covert cameras in the apartment caught Patison stuffing six grand in cash down his shorts, roughly three quarters of the planted money. They also caught Davidson discharging his duties as video and exhibits officer by simply placing his video camera on the kitchen table without turning it on. Listening devices captured recordings of Patison claiming to have only stolen four grand instead of six and divvying up the cash between them all. Hill was given three hundred dollars, and Davidson two. Later, Jasper – the cheap but unreliable copper, if you’ll remember – submitted false evidence paperwork claiming that the DVD players had been returned to their owners so that he could nick one and give it to his girlfriend.

Further integrity tests were set up at different locations, and on each and every occasion Patison, Messenger, Jasper, and co would steal either the money or the drugs or both. They were also recorded by M5 talking about their greenlighting activity on tape and cutting deals to get information on investigations which would be helpful to their pet dealers and/or thieves. So blatant and routine were their activities that it was only a very short time before the Police Integrity Commission was able to arrest and charge David Patison and Ray Peattie, with the rest of the merry men following shortly after. Almost all the officers involved ended up confessing to what could be directly proved against them. What this amounted to was the fact that Patison, Messenger, and Jasper had been routinely stealing both drugs and money from searches. Over and above this, Jasper and Patison had both been greenlighting criminals, both drug dealers and burglars and armed robbers. They would put them onto good scores, like the store robbery described at the very beginning of this episode, hook dealers up with each other, and tell them where police blind spots were likely to occur, all in exchange for regular fees. Peattie, who was nominally in charge of these fine officers, would turn a blind eye in exchange for regularly being given a ten to twenty percent cut of the proceeds. Davidson, who didn’t really seem to be much involved in any of this, was basically given five to ten percent of each cut just for keeping his mouth shut about irregularities. When questioned at the commission, Davidson could only explain accepting this money by saying, “They were my friends, so I just sort of accepted it.” I personally know that there was more – much more. Patison and Jasper especially maintained a very busy pattern of what amounted to police harassment, searching people and premises, taking the cash and drugs, and then selling it on to their pet dealers. The two mentioned – Luke and Vince – couldn’t really be put in this category. They resisted Patison’s approaches as best they could, but their backs were against the wall. They quickly went to the proper authorities to report corruption and assist in the investigation. In fact, a bit of local pride swelled in my heart when I was reading the Op Florida report at the sheer number of local dealers who didn’t want a bar of working for the police. They paid for it with custodial sentences or being continually robbed, but they stood staunch and simply refused, nonetheless. I can only assume that some or all of the many codenamed informants were Dave Patison’s people, and with that I need to go all Forrest Gump once again and say, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

In any event, the dominos fell quite quickly for Patison and his fellow bad apples. They were at first suspended without pay for the duration of the investigation, and then without pay once they started making admissions and charges started being brought against them. The years of high-handedness and naked greed with which they’d threatened, verballed, and assaulted the Northern Beaches criminal community worked against them as well, with dozens of witnesses coming out of the woodwork to point the finger and get their own back. In the end, pretty well every officer who’d even been slightly involved in corruption, including one poor bloke who’d just abused his power to skate on a drink driving charge, were hauled up in front of the commission of inquiry and charged with their crimes.

WRAP-UP

For his efforts in helping Op Florida, Luke Benbow was given a two-year suspended sentence and the commission recommended no further criminal investigations be mounted against him. Vince Caccamo was sentenced to eight years, with a five-year non-parole period for a set of offences which would ordinarily have got him a fifteen-year sentence. He was also given a clean slate; in that it was recommended no further criminal investigations be conducted regarding his activities at the time. Both Luke and Vince have paid their debt and moved on from their past crimes.

Detective Constable Davidson – the video and exhibits officer – was sentenced to four concurrent eighteen-month prison terms for accepting bribes, with a non-parole period of nine months. He was also dismissed from the police force.

Jasper was convicted of perverting the course of justice, allowing heroin traffic, receiving bribes, and various other offences. He was dismissed from the police force and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment with a non-parole period of five years. He was also ordered to repay nearly $40,000 in bribes.

Messenger was sentenced to five years, with a non-parole period of three years for receiving stolen goods, receiving bribes, and giving false evidence. He was ordered to repay $1,500 in bribes to the NSW Treasury.

Patison quite rightly had the book thrown at him. He was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for a raft of offences including perverting the course of justice, giving false evidence, allowing drug trafficking to take place, and a few others. His non-parole period was five years, and he was ordered to pay the Treasury for nearly $60,000 in bribes and corrupt income. It’s estimated he would have cleared about $400,000 over the course of his career.

Peattie, who rolled over and, in the words of the commission, “provided significant assistance to the investigation”, was sentenced to three years with a non-parole period of one year. He was ordered to pay back a laughable $2,500, which I suppose was all the money they could one hundred percent prove he’d taken.

DISMEMBERED APPENDICES

  1. Detective Jasper, along with Patison, had been greenlighting a prolific housebreaker in the area, pretty much from the day he got out of prison. It seems from the evidence that he’d set this burglar onto the house of a friend of his girlfriend’s. Also, one of the last things he’d tried to corruptly obtain was a diamond ring. It’s interesting to speculate that he might have been intending to propose to this very same girlfriend with a stolen diamond ring.
  2. Patison lost his badge at some point earlier in his career and applied for a new one. A few years later, he found it in his house. Instead of handing it over, he sold it to this same burglar, who had indicated in interest in using it to approach and question people. Another criminal, codenamed M10, had asked for some police jackets for use as “fancy dress”. Both these jackets and the badge are the ones we saw in the fake police raid on the dance party described in the very beginning of this episode.
  3. Sydney in general was in the grip of a massive heroin epidemic in the late nineties. Huge amounts of high purity supply were flooding in through container ports or being flown in via drug mules. At one point it was estimated there were around twelve thousand overdoses a month. The conduct of these corrupt officers was a small but important part of fuelling this epidemic, and the young man dead in his apartment at the top of the episode was one of several of my friends who fell victim to it.
  4. If it seems like the New South Wales Police Force got pretty rough handling throughout this episode, that’s probably correct. The fact is that only a small number of corrupt officers can do a whole hell of a lot of damage. Operations like Op Florida did a great deal to reach down to grass roots level and pluck out many of these corrupt officers, and the force today enjoys a solid and well-deserved reputation as one of the premier law enforcement agencies in the southern hemisphere.

[1] These were a kind of softcore hippie, usually middle class, who believed trusting people and being nice was the only defence a person needs.

[2] Graffiti artist

[3] In Australia we don’t have municipal police like the US or UK. There’s only state and federal.

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