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Police hit the road to turn wild ones into mild ones

November 24, 2012

John Silvester
Crime reporter, The Age

MOST crime squad offices are a little bit battered and frayed at the edges - much like the detectives who inhabit them.

In contrast, the 11th-floor St Kilda Road office of the anti-bikie Echo Taskforce is clean and spacious with room to expand - which gives you the first clue that bikies are a crime problem the brass thinks will only get bigger.

For the record, Victoria Police was the first Australian law-enforcement body to target bikies, but then for some strange reason senior officers declared the gangs were no more aggressive than tamborine-toting Hari Krishnas.

Around two years ago we had another shift, with police command deciding to finally get with the program and set up Echo.

The taskforce's instructions are simple: investigate and disrupt organised criminal activities conducted by members of some of the groups.

It should be pointed out that not all outlaw bikies are outlaws in the real sense. Sure, they drink beer out of dirty glasses, but many work straight jobs and remain oblivious to the criminal conspiracies planned around them.

So detectives selected for the job first had to work out who were the main players calling (and occasionally firing) the shots. This was made more difficult as the area had been neglected for so long that no one had a handle on the local scene. In fact, Echo found the intelligence file on bikies consisted of a VHS tape of Easy Rider and a black-and-white poster of a leather-clad Marlon Brando astride his Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One.

Now, after developing contacts and encouraging street police to fill in intelligence reports after any bikie contact, team leaders feel they have an accurate picture - and it is not pretty.

Echo chief Detective Inspector Ian Campbell says some big outlaw motorcycle gangs have quietly moved into debt collecting - a rather inevitable act of multiskilling.

But what is disturbing is that respectable business types are turning not to accountants in cardigans but bikies in gang colours to recoup legitimate business debts.

In one way, it makes sense. Chasing down debts from a stubborn non-payer is time-consuming, expensive and often doomed to fail. So a heavy or two with a don't-take-no-for-an-answer attitude can cut through the red tape. And if bikies take 40 per cent, so what? It is better than 100 per cent of nothing.

That is if everything goes smoothly. But what if it doesn't? What if the other side won't pay or, worse, hires a rival bikie gang to argue the case for the defence? Then a businessman trying to cut corners will find himself painted into one.

Police caution that if you hire bikies and it goes bad you can be looking at serious jail time. "You engage these people and it goes wrong you will be held responsible," Campbell says. "Many can seem quite pleasant but they can turn violent very quickly."

In recent times bikies in colours have turned up at one business to demand the immediate payment of more than $200,000, at another firm over a $5000 squabble, and have been chasing down heavy trucks as part of a bankruptcy claim. By the time the rigs reach the receiver, many of the trucks have been stripped of much of the expensive mechanics and are just shells.

For very large men, bikies seem extremely adept at squeezing through the smallest legal cracks.

From the middle of last year, debt collectors no longer needed to be licensed and police have since seen a jump in bikie involvement.

A recent suspicious fire in a bayside business has all the markings of a bikie payback over a debt. Such suspicions were hardly dispelled when members of the gang drove past flipping the bird at investigators.

Many bikies have legitimate businesses, but some use gangster tactics to intimidate competitors.

One is in the heavy haulage business and is now turning up at truck breakdowns in club colours, telling would-be towies to hit the road. Each job is worth nearly $1000.

Detective Senior Sergeant Wayne Cheesman has been with Echo since it began and is called a ''subject matter expert,'' which is a fancy way of saying Cheese knows his onions.

He certainly looks like a bikie investigator with his shaved head (a most attractive look) and a physique that suggests he could bench-press a bison.

Big Cheese says the 24 outlaw bikie clubs operating 59 chapters in Victoria vary from old-style bourbon types who still play Canned Heat on their Walkmans to the new breed of ''Nike bikies''.

This new mob spend hours in the gym, munch steroids like Smarties, display designer tattoos and wax themselves like Brazilian beach volleyballers. It is, sadly, a sign of age that your columnist remembers the days when a bikie pit-stop involved a visit to the garage, not the beautician.

Gangs that were stubbornly racist have embraced multiculturalism, recruiting Pacific Islanders and Middle Eastern members, who are invariably the size of a fridge-freezer combo.

So, which gangs are the ones to watch? The Finks down at Port Melbourne are quite visible, while the Bandidos have decided to maintain a lower profile. The Hells Angels are old-school and would prefer to avoid violence, while the Comancheros have declared they want to be the most feared gang in Victoria.

And then we have the Rebels, a gang in the middle of an aggressive recruiting campaign with a declared plan to "take over Australia".

Of concern is the chatter the Angels, Comancheros and Bandidos are considering a temporary alliance to thwart the Rebels.

This is unlikely to involve a stern letter to The Times, but something a tad more robust.

Police know that when push comes to shove on the street, someone falls down. In the bikie world they sometimes don't get up.

Headlines are made when bikie gangs go to war, but detectives who have worked on the groups say most violence involves feuds inside an individual club. They call it ''internal cleansing'' though it usually leaves a hell of a mess.

Police say the gangs have been moving into regional Victoria to explore ''business opportunities'', with the Rebels attempting to monopolise the drug business in Mildura. To run the show, they have been encouraging local dealers to look seriously at the tree-change option - retire or get buried under one.

Now, Mildura is a lovely place with sun, fresh oranges, caravan parks and five-star restaurants. It also is near the tri-state border, which means police from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia are unlikely to be impressed with the Rebels' expansion policy.

Which leads your correspondent to believe a law-enforcement show of strength may be on the agenda.

On such occasions may we suggest it would not be advisable to take to the Sunraysia streets on a Vespa, let alone a Harley-Davidson.

It is wrong to suggest that only tough-guy tactics work. Echo investigators regularly sit down with bikie office-holders to work out civilised ground rules. At one such coffee meeting (skinny milk with one) a gang boss said he was happy to work within reasonable constraints but complained that local police were harassing them. ''If it continues some of your guys will be murdered,'' he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

The state government expects to have its anti-gang laws up and running in the new year. Attorney-General Robert Clark is confident such laws will survive any legal challenge because any ban orders will be made by the Supreme Court after examining evidence.

In fact, some in police circles say if the bikies spend millions in legal challenges it is one way of stripping them of assets.

Anti-fortification laws will be introduced around the same time, forcing gangs to shed clubhouses' perimeter shields. If they don't, the Special Operations Group will do it for them, meaning the scrap won't even be fit for eBay.

Bikie gangs always have enemies but what they really want is friends. That's why they would like people to think that they, like the cuddly toys they donate to charity, are just big teddy bears. They would also like to have friends in places of influence, leading senior police to warn junior colleagues about the dangers of improper associations.

A Melbourne strip club is offering free entry to all emergency and military personnel - meaning men in uniform are encouraged to see the establishment's girls out of theirs.

The club is a known bikie haunt, which police say is bankrolled by one of the bigger gangs. So for coppers out on the town, if you are considering taking up the offer, think again - drinking with bikies is not the way to get a promotion.

And if you choose to ignore this warning, the only thing you will see sliding down a pole will be your career.

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