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Very few people have heard of Peter Vassallo and quite a few of them hated his guts.
They were the pen pushers masquerading as law enforcers, corrupt cops who didn’t want him to shine a light in the sewer where they lived and the Mafia bosses who hid behind grass castles and carefully crafted images as harmless old pensioners.
Vassallo and his mate Jim Slade were middle-ranking cops - Peter from NSW and Jim from Queensland - yet it is no exaggeration to say that together they brought down a corrupt empire.
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At a time when the media is running the Right to Know campaign explaining why investigative reporting matters and governments’ attempts at intimidation are dangerous, it is worth noting that while Vassallo and Slade had the bullets, it was a journalist who squeezed the trigger.
Both men pulled the deadly double – investigating Mafia bosses and the police who protected them.
To put this in perspective, it was the 1980s – a time when a police badge was no protection. In 1984 NSW undercover policeman Michael Drury was shot twice through the kitchen window of his family home after refusing a bribe from corrupt detective Roger Rogerson.
In 1989 Australian Federal Police assistant commissioner Colin Winchester was shot dead outside his Canberra home and in 1994 National Crime Authority investigator Detective Sergeant Geoffrey Bowen was killed by a parcel bomb in the Adelaide office.
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Vassallo was seconded to work as an intelligence officer for the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence (ABCI) and Slade had just completed a deep undercover job in northern Queensland. Both were working on Project Alpha - the first attempt to develop an Australia-wide profile of the Mafia.
In 1984 they were both selected to attend a three-week National Intelligence Analysis Course at the Manly Police College and hit it off immediately.
(As a local, Vassallo was assigned to organise a day out for the students and he arranged a jolly jaunt on the harbour aboard the police boat Norman T. W. Allan along with slabs of beer and mandatory roast chooks. The irony is the boat was named after one of the most corrupt police commissioners in Australian history.)
Peter Vassallo is now 73 years old and long retired. He lives quietly in north-western NSW and has just completed his memoirs. It is an extraordinary document that addresses corruption, cover-ups and courage.
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The ABCI was the first agency designed to look beyond state borders and investigate national crime syndicates. The first two targets were the Mafia (Alpha) and the bikies (Project Wing Clipping). My father Fred was the first director and he was repeatedly frustrated by wooden-headed senior police, who refused to accept the threat of organised crime, and corrupt ones who did not want investigations into the crooks they were protecting.
The existence of the Mafia had been established 20 years earlier during the Melbourne Market Murders. Since then the cartel had come to dominate the cannabis industry, moved into narcotics, had an interest in vice networks, corrupted senior police and state and federal ministers, employed hitmen, ordered murders here and in Italy, infiltrated the Tax Department and regulated the price of fruit and vegetables grown in Victoria’s food bowl.
In the original blueprint the ABCI was supposed to have its own investigators in every state, but Queensland police and politicians scuppered that plan and we will soon see why.
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Vassallo came to policing later than most – he had been a successful industrial engineer before joining at 33. In those less sensitive days he was given the nickname "Mafia" due to his Italian-sounding surname.
In 1984 he was appointed to the ABCI, where in the early days he was suspected of being a Mafia plant (there were a few in law enforcement) or a stooge for corrupt NSW police (there were plenty).
Soon Vassallo proved to be good at his job – too good for many. He called for all the information on major cannabis plantations uncovered by police in the previous decade. His findings finally silenced the idiots who wanted to argue about the existence of the crime syndicate.
At a conservative wholesale price of $1000 a kilo, Vassallo estimated organised crime was making more than $570 million a year.
He also found that over an 11-year period 15 major Calabrian families were linked to 113 plantations, or 60 per cent of those found by police. Of the remaining 40 per cent Vassallo estimated most ended up being controlled by the 15 families, giving them a 90 per cent share in the illegal industry.
He also developed a theory on Mafia murders. Of the 13 he examined all were committed between April and August – the non-growing months. He surmised the bosses didn’t want police attention while they were cultivating their giant crops. He said the Mafia only had two seasons - the growing season and the killing season.
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Despite all the evidence, he was frustrated in his own office when the then director (a person with no organised crime experience) refused to sign off on the target list of the 15 families because each patriarch was elderly. He didn’t want the ABCI to target "pensioners because it's not a good look”.
Soon word of the report reached the National Crime Authority's chairman, Justice Donald Stewart, who threatened to recommend the ABCI be disbanded if he didn’t have the document on his desk immediately. The report was signed, sealed and delivered.
Meanwhile Jim Slade was facing bigger challenges. In his report on his undercover job he identified the powerful Bellino family as connected to giant cannabis crops.
The problem was that at least one of the Bellinos – Gerry – was paying big money to police to be protected, which made Slade the most dangerous man of all: an honest copper in bent company.
His report was buried and there were plans for him to go the same way. His dog was poisoned, windscreen smashed and a brick thrown through his child’s bedroom window, almost certainly by his police colleagues.
“You won’t find a tougher bastard than Jim. He won’t be pushed about by anyone,” says Vassallo.
Then came the bribe. Senior Sergeant Allan Barnes from Queensland’s Bureau of Criminal Intelligence offered Slade $100 in the Brisbane Police Club.
Later in a car coming back from the airport Barnes gave him another $100 saying it was from “Uncle Gerry” (Bellino).
Not knowing who to trust, Slade sent his report to Vassallo, who wrote a secret briefing paper on the Mafia that identified the Bellinos as a major threat.
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Then the squeeze was on. Queensland Commissioner Sir Terry Lewis was the chair of the committee overseeing the ABCI and the corrupt assistant commissioner Graeme Parker was livid over Vassallo’s report.
(Lewis was twice appointed chair. Victoria’s chief commissioner Mick Miller, gun barrel-straight and the architect behind the ABCI, was snubbed. The fix was in.)
Parker repeatedly tried to force Vassallo to re-write the report. Little wonder. It would later be proven Parker had accepted $130,000 in bribes.
Vassallo was under pressure within his own office but refused to compromise. He began to check under the hood of his car every morning looking for a bomb, such were the stakes. If he was to be killed, he thought, it would be on the instructions of corrupt police.
“They wanted to shut me up. I was told there was a contract out on me and they were certainly trying to get me out of the Bureau. They were absolutely ruthless,” Vassallo says.
Both men knew their only hope was public exposure. Only when there could no longer be a cover-up would they be safe.
In September 1986 the two met a doyen of investigative reporting, the ABC’s Chris Masters, in a Brisbane hotel. “He had to discover what we already knew. It was obvious what was going on,” says Vassallo.
(The Brisbane Courier-Mail also provided a series of revelations that showed deep graft in Queensland.)
Armed with information of systemic corruption throughout Queensland and supported by a series of whistleblowers, Masters completed his Four Corners expose, The Moonlight State, which aired in May 1987.
The following day the acting premier Bill Gunn announced a Royal Commission that became the Tony Fitzgerald Inquiry. It was massive, running for two years, hearing from 300 witnesses and exposing a corrupt network known as The Joke.
The aftermath was profound. Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s career was destroyed while four government ministers and commissioner Terry Lewis were charged, convicted and jailed. Parker did a deal to become a witness in exchange for immunity and admitted to taking bribes.
Gerry Bellino – the man Queensland police insisted was a good guy – was jailed for paying bribes.
The graft ring was massive and included protecting illegal gambling, brothels and major drug dealers. The bagman was the charming former policeman Jack Herbert, who collected $60,000 a month to be distributed to key police. He would later admit to receiving $3 million.
Vassallo left the Bureau to return to the NSW Police, eventually resigning to move into private enterprise with some old ABCI colleagues.
“It was a traumatic time and it cost me my marriage," he says. "You can only do that sort of things so many times without going nuts.”
Few people know the names of Jim Slade and Peter Vassallo. Perhaps they should.
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