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Ernst Hufnagl. Photo: Kate Geraghty
They were the Aussie Ocean's Eleven - no guns, no masks, no getaway cars. With the last of the crew behind bars, Kate McClymont details how a group of robbers staged one of history's biggest bank heists - without setting foot in a bank.
It's lunch time on Christmas Eve 2003, and last-minute shoppers, jostling and rushing past to get everything done on time, pay scant attention to the two men entering a side door of Telstra's phone exchange in Dalley Street, in the heart of Sydney's CBD. Using his Telstra card to swipe himself through the security door, Barry Osborne, 42, a Telstra linesman, along with Ernst Hufnagl, 52, an underworld figure, confront a spaghetti-like network of phone cables covering a large swathe of the city.
Osborne knows exactly what he's looking for. It only takes a matter of minutes for the wiring whiz to hack into cables connecting him to a special phone line at State Street Global Advisers (SSGA), an international financial outfit, housed in a skyscraper across town, that manages billions of dollars. Osborne needs this authorised line to send a fax containing investment instructions to JPMorgan Chase, another banking monolith located only a stone's throw from the Telstra exchange. Once Osborne has hot-wired the line, and he has the two financial giants "talking" to one another, Hufnagl sends a five-page fax through to JPMorgan, purportedly from SSGA, requesting a $150 million transfer from account number 28966, belonging to the superannuation funds of federal public servants.
Barry Osbourne. Photo: Kate Geraghty
The first page of the fax goes through without a hitch. But when the remaining pages stall, there are several minutes of white-knuckle panic. After multiple failed attempts, and with precious minutes slipping away, the two are forced to switch to a generic Telstra fax line, figuring it will be the number on the title page that counts.
Over in a secure room at JPMorgan, a fax machine spits out the first page, then suddenly stops. Although a senior clerk puts in a call to SSGA about the missing pages, this is the day before Christmas, and no one calls back. And sure enough, soon the remaining pages roll out of the machine, full of dollar signs in stark black and white. A $150 million transfer, into four nominated overseas bank accounts. Two of the accounts are with the HSBC bank in Hong Kong: one, for a company registered in the British Virgin Islands used for depositing money into gambling cruises, is to receive $30 million; the other, for a company involved with gambling in Macau, is to get $20.6 million. The third account, in the name of a Richard Kurland at Switzerland's Banque Cantonale Vaudoise, is to receive $26.7 million. The fourth account, in the name of Stylianou Georgios Ltd at Greece's Laiki Bank, is to be injected with $71.9 million.
While transfers of this size are hardly unusual in today's globalised banking world, had anyone at JPMorgan bothered to look closely at the names on these four accounts - including those two companies associated with gambling - alarm bells would have rung out loud.
Dallas Fitzgerald. Photo: Nick Moir
Meanwhile, the two swindlers still have their biggest security hurdle to cross - the "confirmation call back". Using the SSGA line that Osborne has hacked into, and posing as Craig Slater, an authorised signatory to the Commonwealth Super account, Hufnagl calls Greg Bourchier, an assistant treasurer at JPMorgan. In his best attempt at impersonating a banker, Hufnagl asks Bourchier, a pudgy, rather nervous man, to complete the "call back" to the designated line at SSGA, confirming that all details in the faxed instruction are correct.
Everything appears to be proceeding to plan. The two men are jubilant as they pack up their tool kit and gear. And there is a spring in Hufnagl's step as he walks the short distance to a seedy strip joint on Market Street called Lady Jane's, to report back to his boss, underworld legend "Teflon" Tony Vincent, who has masterminded the operation. In sheer daring, the Vincent plan is in a class with some of the best heist movies ever made - an Australian "Ocean's Eleven", if you like. But for now, all Hufnagl can think about is what he'll do with his cut.
Later that afternoon, senior bank staff from JPMorgan return from their festive Christmas lunch, eager to get away on their four-day holiday. Despite noticing that the people from SSGA have mistakenly dated the fax November rather than December, they authorise the release of a colossal $150 million. Within minutes, four overseas bank accounts with next to no money in them - two in Hong Kong, one in Switzerland and one in Greece - are bursting with balances each in the tens of millions.
The tiniest of slip-ups
It's now late on Christmas Eve 2003, and a posse of topless strippers in stilettos listlessly perform their raunchy routines for a sad throng of lonely, glassy-eyed men. In a private room at the back of the club, crime boss Tony Vincent, a bullet-headed brute of a man in his mid-60s, is nervously moving his blue-tinted glasses up and down the ridge of his nose. Word has come through that the whole sting, for which he had assembled a diverse crew of criminals of different nationalities and skills, and which promises to make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams, is at risk of becoming unstuck by the tiniest of slip-ups.
A tiny, three-letter slip-up, to be precise. Some time earlier, when the bank manager of the Laiki Bank in Athens was going through his accounts on Christmas Eve - at that time of year, Greece is nine hours behind Australia - he was astonished to see $71.9 million suddenly deposited into the bank account of Georgios Stylianou, a man of very modest means. And so he called Stylianou personally. "Were you expecting such a sum of money?" he enquired. Stylianou declared he most certainly was. Apologetic, the bank manager explained that the funds could not be cleared because a "Ltd'' appeared beside Stylianou's account name. Stylianou would need to get JPMorgan to remit the funds to the correct account name - minus the offending "Ltd".
After hanging up, the bank manager took the added precaution of sending a fax through to JPMorgan, double checking that such a vast sum was really meant for Stylianou's account. Meanwhile, a panicked Stylianou was on the phone to Vincent in Sydney, informing him of the "Ltd" glitch.
But Vincent, knowing that the bank staff in Sydney have left for their Christmas break, and will not return until the following Monday, has time to plan a crisis strategy. He and the Ocean's Eleven crew will have five days' grace until the bank will be alerted to any kind of mistake, but it also means they'll have to wait until Monday to send another fax purporting to come from JPMorgan. Sending a fax any earlier may be too risky, as the overseas banks will be suspicious as to why they are receiving a fax from a bank in Australia closed for the Christmas break.
Vincent immediately summons three of his loyal lieutenants to a crisis meeting at the strip club, including a man nicknamed "Mr Pink". (In the film Reservoir Dogs, Mr Pink is one of the criminals planning a diamond heist.) Mr Pink is Dallas Fitzgerald, the 22-year-old son of one of the country's scariest men, bikie boss Felix Lyle. Also at hand is Garry Peterson, nicknamed ''Fat Bastard'' by his criminal mates, and Matthew Terreiro, who helped set up the fraudulent Greek bank account.
Meanwhile, a bank account in Switzerland that has lain dormant for 10 years with the paltry sum of $90, is suddenly brimming with $26.7 million. The account belongs to Richard Kurland, a 56-year-old South African-born solicitor and fraud investigator who moved to Australia some 20 years earlier and settled in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Some months earlier, Kurland agreed to his Swiss bank account being used by a friend, Leon Kuris, who insisted he was about to receive a great deal of money from an investor. As Kuris was unemployed - and full of crazy get-rich-quick schemes - Kurland assumed it would amount to nothing.
High-seas rollers … Jian Ping Wang (third from right) with Alexandr Roizman (second from right) aboard the floating gambling den, Captain Omar III.
So you can imagine his astonishment on Christmas Eve when he receives a call from Kuris asking him whether "the money" has arrived. He gets an even bigger shock when he rings to check his account balance at the Banque Cantonale Vaudoise in Lausanne. A bank staffer confirms that Kurland's account is now bursting with $26.7 million. Kuris hastily explains that the money is from an "investor" named "Dallas O'Hara" (actually Fitzgerald), introduced to him by his old friend Alexandr Roizman. Kuris gives instructions to Kurland that the funds are to be immediately transferred to other accounts across the globe.
Because Kurland's account has been dormant for 10 years, and is now awash with money that he immediately wants to transfer, the Swiss bankers want to ask a few questions. To buy time, they tell Kurland that because he wants to transfer such a large sum of money, he'll need to come to Switzerland to do it in person.
While Richard Kurland is up for much of the night dealing with the Swiss, and trying to get the money transferred on behalf of his friend, over in Hong Kong other members of the syndicate are busy trying to launder the $30.5 million that has been sent to an account held with HSBC in the name of Hong Kong Power Limited. Kuris's friend Alexandr Roizman, a 48-year-old invalid pensioner rumoured to be ex-KGB, is on his way to Hong Kong to spend the night on a gambling ship.
Bad company: (left to right) Jamie Vincent, Arkadi Drisner and Dallas Fitzgerald.
This is money laundering at its most basic. Gamblers deposit money into their account before the ship sets sail. Once on board, these funds are issued as gambling chips. At the end of the cruise the gambler's funds are returned by way of a receipt, which can be easily converted into untraceable cash in Macau the following morning. On the night of December 29, having previously sailed rich American tourists around the Caribbean, the Captain Omar III is about to embark on its maiden voyage as an ocean-going gambling den.
By the time the ship sets sail at 8.30 that evening, the penniless Roizman has the astronomical sum of $30.5 million sitting in his gambling account. Gambling with him on this night is a friend from Sydney, 37-year-old Jian Ping Wang, who was a public relations liaison officer at a casino in Macau, before coming to Sydney to work as a cook.
Roizman and Wang have to wait 1 1/2 hours - until the ship gets into international waters - before the gambling begins in earnest. Roizman sips some of the fine cognac on offer and wolfs down food from the generous buffet. He pops his head into the mahjong room on deck 5, looks through the duty-free shops and whiles away some time watching a lame Las Vegas-style show in the bordello-red lounge room.
Unlike Roizman, Wang, a professional gambler, isn't fazed by the croupier's rapid-fire hand movements as she flicks the cards onto the green felt table. For hour after hour the pair gamble at baccarat. As dawn is breaking over the calm expanse of the South China Sea, the pair have lost a colossal sum - more than $3.4 million. But they don't care. The receipt for the rest of their money is in excess of $27 million. As the Captain Omar III is cashless, all they have to do now is redeem their receipt at the famed Casino Lisboa in Macau.
The ship makes its way back to the Ocean Terminal in Hong Kong, at the southern tip of the Kowloon Peninsula. Although it's still early, the wharf, flanked by an enormous modern shopping centre, is already busy. With his dark hair parted in the middle and tied back in a pony-tail, Dallas Fitzgerald stands waiting. He has a million and more reasons to be pumped with adrenalin, but the young man maintains his trademark inscrutability.
Armed with a receipt entitling them to collect $27 million, the trio catch a high-speed ferry for Macau, known as the Monte Carlo of the Orient, where the huge Stanley Ho-owned Casino Lisboa is located. They are about to be rewarded with the mother of all Christmases.
Any residual Christmas cheer among JPMorgan staff swiftly evaporates when they return to work on Monday, December 29. First, there's the fax from Laiki Bank querying the multimillion-dollar deposit into Stylianou's account. Then the JPMorgan people responsible for the Commonwealth Super fund are aghast when they discover account 28966 is catastrophically overdrawn. There are ashen faces all around as they trace the $150 million back into four overseas accounts, now converted into Hong Kong dollars, Swiss francs and euros.
The treasury staff ring Craig Slater, from SSGA, an authorised signatory to the Commonwealth Super account. When Slater says he doesn't know what they're talking about, there is rising panic at JPMorgan and they forward him the fax. To their horror, he swiftly declares it to be a forgery. The two financial institutions then check their phone records. JPMorgan has a recording of the call which Hufnagl, posing as Slater, made to Bourchier. But at their end, SSGA has no such recording. Clearly the voice is not Slater's. And JPMorgan has no record of a ''call back'' from their office to SSGA.
Facing the potential embarrassment of being the victim of Australia's most audacious bank fraud, JPMorgan immediately contacts the foreign banks and puts a temporary freeze on the four accounts while the bank obtains the necessary court orders. Not long after, police from the nearest station, The Rocks, arrive.
While JPMorgan and SSGA engage in a series of crisis meetings, the Ocean's Eleven syndicate is also busy. Osborne and Hufnagl are back at the Dalley Street exchange armed with a bodgied-up letter on JPMorgan letterhead to correct the ''Ltd'' mistake on Stylianou's account. But it's too late. The account has been frozen by the bank.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald, Roizman and Wang are making their early-morning dash to Macau, the pulsating neon-lit gambling mecca, their destination the once-grand Casino Lisboa. But when Roizman presents the receipt to withdraw the $27.4 million, the trio are informed the account has been frozen. Fitzgerald demands that the cashier try again. The answer is the same.
Fitzgerald immediately jumps on a ferry back across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong's business district, where he attempts to withdraw funds from the other Hong Kong account used in the sting. But to his dismay it, too, has been frozen. A series of tense phone calls ensues between Fitzgerald and Jamie Vincent - Tony's son - back in Sydney. The normally taciturn Fitzgerald is beside himself. He screams down the phone complaining that the money can't be accessed and that he is surrounded by "a bunch of angry f...ing Chinamen". Minutes later, sounding deflated, Jamie rings back to say it is "all kind of f...ed". The Ocean's Eleven sting is dead in the water.
Organised crime's dark
A fortnight passes, and as the mammoth, meticulous scale of the bank heist becomes more and more apparent, the Australian Federal Police is called in. The team leader assigned to the investigation, which becomes known as Operation Riparian, is Brad Kirwan, a fresh-faced 33-year-old, who has only been with the AFP for two years, after 14 years of service in remote outback communities and a stint as a detective on the Gold Coast. His deputy is Scott Miller, a tall 36-year-old, who worked in customer service for Telstra for 13 years and the finance sector until a mid-life crisis of sorts propelled him to join the police. As fate would have it, Miller's background will be a perfect fit for the investigation.
But at this point both men are not to know that this case will take over their lives for the next two years, leading them into the dark heart of organised crime in Australia. The task for the pair of relative ''newbies'' is daunting. Their main leads are a fax, which was sent from the Telstra exchange, and an unknown voice purporting to be SSGA's Craig Slater's saying, ''How are you going, mate? ... Not too bad" as he confirmed the instructions regarding the transfer of the $150 million. Identifying that mysterious voice would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The investigation has two distinct arms: the actual fraud and the laundering of the money once it had been stolen. Kirwan and Miller slog away for more than a month before their first breakthrough: JPMorgan's treasury officer. Greg Bourchier took the call from the fraudsters, and JPMorgan phone records indicate that he didn't make the compulsory ''call back'' to SSGA. When police trawl through his personal phone records, they discover an intriguing connection - and start joining the criminal dots.
Bourchier is a family friend of Garry Peterson, the former secretary-manager of Newtown RSL club in Sydney. Peterson is the ''Fat Bastard'' on phone intercepts for another investigation under way, into illegal drug activity - Strike Force Westbank. Peterson is a close associate of both Dallas Fitzgerald and Tony Vincent. For the past 18 months, members of Tony Vincent's criminal network have been the subject of a covert joint investigation by the NSW Crime Commission and the NSW police who suspect the group of being involved in large-scale drug distribution and money laundering.
As it turns out, on December 24, 2003, undercover police attached to Strike Force Westbank were at their posts watching and listening to Vincent and his crew, although they had no idea about the bank heist. They interpreted the panicked talk of cash transfers as referring to the importation of drugs.
After listening to hundreds of hours of telephone intercepts of Vincent's crew, Kirwan and Miller hit the jackpot. There - on a call to Peterson - they listen to a voice saying, ''How are you going, mate? ... Not too bad." It is Ernst Hufnagl. More intercepted calls confirm that the phrase is Hufnagl's trademark ''phone tic''. They now have the man who rang Bourchier at JPMorgan the previous Christmas Eve pretending to be Craig Slater.
Hufnagl's phone records provide their next major breakthrough. As they match up all the numbers Hufnagl has phoned, they stumble across the number of Barry Osborne. ''Hey, that's the Telstra guy!'' Miller calls out excitedly to his colleagues.
The Telstra phone exchange just around the corner from JPMorgan was one of the first ports of call for the police. Although he had never worked as a Telstra technician, Miller's time with the organisation makes him familiar with how phone lines worked, and he revisits the Dalley Street exchange line to determine just how a fax could have been sent from there. That's when he makes another discovery: Osborne's use of his Telstra swipe card to come in the side door. The exchange was being renovated at the time, so if the linesman had bothered to use the front door, there would have been no record of him in the building that day.
As the police team of 14 sift through material, they discover that Osborne didn't work at the Dalley Street exchange, and on December 24, 2003 he was on a rostered day off from the Waverley depot, where he normally worked. Using the surveillance and intercept material from Strike Force Westbank, Kirwan and Miller are able to reconstruct the key movements of the gang leading up to the bank heist. And as they trawl back over surveillance records, they discover customs have secretly copied the contents of a bag owned by a mysterious figure suspected of being an international drug trafficker.
Arkadi Drisner, an Israeli citizen who is on Interpol's intelligence reports, but has no convictions, first turned up on intercepted calls on Tony Vincent's phone in May 2003. In September of that year, customs officers at Sydney airport searched Drisner's luggage and copied everything they could find. Among the documents in his bags were faxes on JPMorgan letterhead relating to foreign-currency bank accounts. There were also handwritten notes about how to transfer money around the world. The notes also had some dates identifying public holidays in Australia and overseas.
When Kirwan checks the handwriting on these faxes, he identifies it as that of the strangely anxious Bourchier - he has found the insider at JPMorgan. Then another big break: they obtain footage from an earlier search, on a drug-related matter, of Dallas Fitzgerald's inner-city apartment. Fitzgerald has JPMorgan documents lying on a table, again with Bourchier's handwriting plastered all over them.
In August 2005, after 20 months of a painstaking investigation that has led them through a maze of international money laundering and local mob activity involving drugs and sex parlours, Kirwan and Miller have amassed enough evidence to get the Feds to swoop. By this time, however, many of the Ocean's Eleven crew are already in jail for unrelated offences.
If there is any lingering doubt about the sheer cunning and bold planning of the whole Ocean's Eleven sting, it's swiftly dismissed by police following the first wave of arrests. Sitting in a paddy wagon are Osborne and Hufnagl, who although plainly anxious about what lies ahead for them in criminal charges, manage to swap some friendly small talk. Opposite them sits a clearly agitated man, the bank insider Bourchier. The pair have no idea who this frightened man is.
What happened to the “Ocean’s Eleven”
■ ''Teflon'' Tony Vincent was already doing a six-year-stretch for drug supply when he was charged with the Ocean's Eleven offences. He was given a three-year sentence, which he served at the same time as his drug matter.
■ Dallas Fitzgerald, who told the jury he was called "Mr Pink" because this was his favourite colour, received a three-year sentence in November last year for his role in the money-laundering aspect of the heist.
■ Alexandr Roizman was sentenced to a five-and-a-half-year minimum sentence in February 2010 for dealing in the proceeds of crime.
■ Gregory James Bourchier, the JPMorgan insider, was given a two-and-a-half-year minimum jail sentence in 2008.
■ Jamie Vincent was jailed for 20 months in 2010. He had only been out of jail for a short time, having already served five years over drug offences.
■ Barry Osborne Ernst Hufnagl received minimum jail terms of three years in 2008.
■ Matthew Terreiro was arrested for his part in organising the Greek bank account. The charges against him were dropped in April 2009.
■ Jian Hua Chen, a well-known gambler at Sydney's Star casino, received a three-and-a-half-year sentence for helping to set up one of the Hong Kong accounts.
■ Jian Ping Wang, who along with Roizman gambled away $3.4 million on the Captain Omar III, received a six-and-a-half-year jail sentence in 2010.
■ Richard Kurland, who had the dormant Swiss bank account, had charges dropped after the court ruled he didn't know the funds were from the proceeds of crime.
■ Leon Kuris also had charges dropped on the basis he did not know the funds were derived from fraudulent activity.
■ Arkadi Drisner flew out of Sydney on Christmas Day 2003, the day after the fraud. He hasn't been seen since.