Ferret's manifesto




Monday, 02 August 2010

If Good Housekeeping magazine ever gives an award for the nation's tidiest Den Of Iniquity, the western Sydney clubhouse of the Finks outlaw motorcycle club will be odds-on to win ... writes Richard Guilliatt from The Australian

One recent Friday evening, as 20-odd Finks gathered inside this fortified warehouse for their weekly social meeting, nominee members fastidiously vacuumed the blue carpet and mopped the chequerboard tiles around the bar under the watchful gaze of the goateed, tattooed hulk who is their sergeant-at-arms, Ferret. The place appeared spotless, but when Ferret spotted a couple of fellow-Finks smoking down the back of the gym among the weight machines, his eyes narrowed.

“Don’t you blokes drop any butts down there,” he called out, his jaw clenching in a manner that caused the “Finks M.C.” tattoo emblazoned on the side of his neck to pulsate forebodingly.

It’s a tough gig, being the disciplinarian in a bikie club. But Ferret, who has been a sergeant-at-arms with the Finks for 19 years, brings the requisite physical presence to the job: his shaven head is shaped like a missile warhead, his neck is almost the width of a tree-trunk and his massive chest and 19-inch biceps are pumped from years of weight-lifting. The tatts covering him from ankle to ear are a multi-coloured riot of flames, demons, skulls, crashing waves and Finks logos.

Exactly what punishments Ferret has meted out in his years on the job is a subject he’s reluctant to get into. “You have to do what you have to do,” he says phlegmatically. Suffice to say that being a Finks sergeant-at-arms is not a low-risk occupation. One of his predecessors, Allan Bradford, was shot dead in 1980 while sitting astride his Harley on a suburban Sydney street, a suspected retribution for Bradford’s role in the killing of a Hells Angel eight years earlier. The current sergeant-at-arms of the club’s Gold Coast chapter, Greg “TwentyFive” Keating, was recently jailed for four months after refusing to give evidence to the Australian Crime Commission.

A year ago, however, Ferret took on a job even tougher than keeping his fellow Finks in line: trying to win over middle-Australia to the idea that bikies are a persecuted minority. With assistance from a professional public relations agency, Ferret has taken to the radio airwaves, the National Press Club, even the hallowed halls of Sydney Law School, to argue that “anti-bikie laws” introduced in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland represent a grave and dangerous attack on the public’s civil rights.

On face value a man with three convictions for violence and the word “Unforgiving” tattooed around his throat might seem an odd salesman for this cause. But Ferret is also a father of two, grandfather of five, a teetotaller, health columnist for Live To Ride magazine and a small businessman (proprietor of Blacktown Tattoos for the past 10 years). His MySpace profile suggests he is also tertiary-educated, although he doesn’t appear keen to promote this. “It doesn’t matter about that stuff,” he demurs. “Just go on the angle that I’m extremely smart.”

Before a lunchtime crowd at the National Press Club in Canberra last August, dressed in his full regalia of black Finks T-shirt and patched leather vest, he got off to a slightly nervous start but was soon scoring laughs at the expense of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. By the end of the lunch he was posing for photographs with his arms around a group of private school students.

As part of the PR drive, the Finks have opened their Blacktown clubhouse to the media, which is why I’m here with Ferret being introduced as “Louis, from The Australian newspaper.” This is not an error – in Ferret’s opinion I am a ringer for the gormless British television journalist Louis Theroux, and a “bodgie” name is mandatory in bikiedom. “You’ve gotta have a bodgie, Louis,” he advises. “It makes it harder for people to find you.” Street-philosophy is one of Ferret’s specialties, his other maxims including “Anything’s fixable with stitches”, “The weak shall perish” and “Only the shiny part hurts”.

The Finks’ Blacktown clubhouse is painted almost entirely black inside, and features a pool table, sound system, a small stage (primarily used by strippers), video games, wall-mounted flatscreen TV, pinball machine, gym and a private upstairs lounge area accessible only to members. Four wall-mounted closed-circuit television screens offer multiple views of the surrounding industrial streets, and anyone entering the club passes through a security area enclosed in high-tensile steel mesh which, I’m assured, no bullet can pass through. High on the wall, next to a roll-call of deceased Finks, is a sign in gothic lettering which reads:

“We’re group-sex friendly,” explains Ferret. “If girls come along we will gangbang them and look after them. Not like some of these footballers who fuck girls and treat them like dirt.”

It would be redundant to point out that this is not a lifestyle for everyone. Like all outlaw bikie clubs, the Finks live in a world of maximum machismo and tribal loyalty. But if there is major criminality going on here, the police have apparently failed to uncover it, despite a raid last year by the massed forces of the NSW Gangs Squad, Blacktown police, the local council, the Fire Department and the water and electricity utilities. According to Ferret, the only outcome of that raid was a citation from the council for a staircase that wasn’t built to code.

The raid was one of countless actions NSW police have launched since a horrendous brawl between the Hells Angels and Comancheros at Sydney airport in March last year left one man dead, sparking fears of an all-out bikie war. The airport incident, for which 13 people are facing different charges that are now being defended, marked an ugly turn in the inter-bikie violence which had sparked a succession of shootings and clubhouse bombings across the nation over the previous five years. It was also a watershed for the NSW Government, which rammed its “anti-biker” legislation through Parliament less than two weeks later, modelling it on South Australian laws passed the previous year. Queensland’s Labor government followed suit in August, and Western Australia is drafting its own copycat legislation.

With minor variations, the laws all share the same basic thrust, treating domestic crime like terrorism. Police can apply to have an outlaw club “declared”, based on secret intelligence which the club itself has no right to see, after which anyone who is a member can be subject to control-orders which ban them from meeting each other and, in some states, from holding specified jobs.

The haste with which the NSW laws were written was evident from the speech by then-Premier Nathan Rees introducing them, which assured Parliament that legal safeguards would ensure the legislation is “specific to outlaw motorcycle gangs”. In fact, there are no such safeguards and police can target any organisation they deem to be a criminal enterprise. Civil libertarians and criminologists are appalled, and the outgoing NSW chief prosecutor, Nicholas Cowdery, warned he saw auguries of a “police state”. But the public cheered on as the laws were passed with barely an opposing vote. The state’s Opposition leader, Barry O’Farrell, told Parliament he’d be happy if all outlaw bikies were locked in two rooms and left to “shoot themselves to death”.

The predicted all-out bikie war, however, never came to pass. Instead, hostilities appeared to ebb as rival clubs banded together to sort out their differences, court the media and raise money for a legal challenge to the laws. Last year two members of the Finks successfully overturned the South Australian laws in that state’s Supreme Court; the SA Government is now asking the High Court to reinstate the laws. The bikies have suddenly become a legal cause célèbre whose arguments are supported by prosecutors and even former police.

“We could read right through it,” says Ferret. “They say it’s an anti-bikie law but it applies to anyone. They brought in the legislation thinking they would disband the clubs but all it did was bring us together.”

A field day for the tabloids
When he’s not using his bodgie, Ferret is known to his mum as Mark Moroney. We know this because WA’s police commissioner, Karl O’Callaghan, telephoned the Perth radio station 6PR last October, at the tail-end of an on-air debate between Ferret and WA attorney-general Christian Porter, to publicly assert that Ferret had a “long history of violence” which included 40 convictions for assault.

Unfortunately, O’Callaghan got it wrong. Ferret acknowledges three convictions for violence, for which he spent 28 months behind bars, and admits he once pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman. But the latter offence, he says, occurred when he pushed the woman away during a pub brawl 23 years ago, for which he received a good behaviour bond. One of his convictions goes back to 1981, when he was an 18-year-old misfit running around Dee Why, on Sydney’s northern beaches.

“I went to jail as a kid for violence,” he says. “But that was before I was ever in the Finks.”

The episode highlights one of the bikies’ central complaints: that police routinely sensationalise the nature and magnitude of bikie crime. Since the airport bashing the tabloids have had a field day with scare-stories that suggested, among other things, that bikies were planning to randomly assassinate a South Australian cop, and that the Hells Angels had been ordered to kill all Comancheros on sight. In fact, the Comancheros and the Angels are among more than two dozen clubs which now meet weekly under the banner of the United Motorcycle Council (UMC), an umbrella organisation of bikie clubs that has formed in NSW and three other states as a lobby group and central council.

It’s through the UMC – which includes the Vietnam Veterans and Christian clubs such as the Brotherhood and God’s Squad – that the bikies have mounted their PR blitz, hiring the public relations firm Cole Lawson Communications as media adviser. And it was during an early council meeting that Ferret won the job of chairman and spokesperson of the NSW chapter, in part because his wisecracks broke the stony silence that descended on the room when bikies found themselves staring across a table at rival clubs they’d historically been at war with.

“We realised we had to get out there amongst it,” he says. “A lot of the stuff they write in the papers is hearsay; it’s a continual soap opera. We’ve been laughing at the stories for 40 years.”

There’s something undeniably jarring about a bunch of self-styled outlaws hiring a PR company to stop the government from outlawing them. But the Finks may be the first organisation in Australia banned by government decree since the Menzies government tried to snuff out the Communist Party in 1950. On May 14 last year the South Australian attorney-general, Michael Atkinson, “declared” the Finks to be an organised crime operation under the state’s anti-bikie legislation. Atkinson said the Finks had committed numerous acts of violence against the public, and 13 of its 46 members in SA had been jailed since joining. Two Finks, Donald Hudson and Sandro Totani, were promptly slapped with control-orders prohibiting them from associating with anyone else in the club.

That the Finks have a long history of violence is not exactly in dispute. A sickening brawl between Finks and Hells Angels during a kickboxing tournament at a Gold Coast resort in 2006 left three men shot, two others stabbed and the resort ballroom extensively trashed. In 1997 a dozen Queensland Finks were charged over the bashing death of a man who had stolen one of their bikes; two of them were jailed on murder and manslaughter charges.

“The Finks is a very violent motorcycle club,” says Ferret unhesitatingly. “If people want to f..k with us, we’ll f..k with them. We go into bars and there’s always some idiot who wants to say they took on a bikie. It’s like Jeff Harding, the boxer, he’s always getting punched in bars because some drunk is trying to impress his mates by picking a fight with him.”

It’s a plaint bikies have been voicing since the clubs first roared out of post-war America more than half a century ago. There may be truth to it, but like nearly all bikies, Ferret is loathe to admit that the blood-brother ethos of the clubs is itself a root-cause of much violence. “We don’t endorse violence,” he insists, “we’re just saying that if people want to f..k with us, we will deal with them. We’re not riding around the streets pulling people off the road and beating them up.”

As evidence that the Finks are an organised crime group, the South Australian Government released a report alleging that the club’s members in that state have amassed 162 convictions for violence since 1967 and 173 drug convictions since 1970. But nearly three-quarters of the violence convictions and more than half the drug convictions occurred before the individuals in question joined the club. Broken down, the statistics show that over roughly four decades, the Finks racked up just over one violent offence per year.

Police argue that the conviction rate is just the visible tip of a proverbial iceberg, given how reluctant people are to give evidence against an outlaw motorcycle club. But whether bikies truly constitute a threat to society akin to the mafia is a question that divides even law enforcement bodies. Victorian police have declined to pursue the new bikie laws, and Kevin Kitson, the acting chief executive of the Australian Crime Commission, downplayed the significance of bikie gangs when he gave evidence to Parliament in November 2008.

Clive Small, former assistant commissioner of police in New South Wales, says some have morphed into organised crime gangs over the past 10 years as clubs proliferated and restrictions on membership loosened. In his new book Blood Money (co-written with Tom Gilling) Small catalogues the extensive busting of amphetamine laboratories linked to various bikie gangs since the late 1990s, most notably a raid on the Newcastle and Gold Coast chapters of the Nomads which netted 74 firearms and $55 million worth of speed in 2001.

In Blood Money Small asserts that another bikie club, the Rebels, now include “Italian crime figures” in some chapters, and points out that a dozen Rebels led the funeral procession of the underworld figure and convicted drug importer Graham “Croc” Palmer in Sydney nine years ago. Police in South Australia have already identified the Rebels as the next club they want declared under the anti-bikie laws, should the state government win in the High Court.

So the clubhouse of the Rebels’ Camden chapter, in southwestern Sydney, comes as a bit of a surprise. Located behind a steel roller door in a strip of warehouses on a main highway, it’s not much bigger than a four-car garage and has the makeshift ambience of a rumpus room. The floor is concrete and painted dark blue, the walls are festooned with Rebels posters, there’s a pool table under fluoros, a bar with a dozen burly blokes gathered around it, a small stage with the obligatory chrome stripper’s pole, some white plastic chairs and tables crafted from sheet-metal. Erald Hassan, a veteran Rebel who invited me here during a UMC meeting, says that since pubs across NSW now routinely ban any bikie wearing colours, the Thursday night gathering has become the Camden Rebels’ primary opportunity for socialising.

“Wives go shopping on Thursday night,” explains Hassan over a Coke. “We come here and talk shit. That’s how it works, isn’t it?”

A swarthy and garrulous 42-year-old with a heavy smoking habit, Hassan was 21 when he swapped his red V8 Brock Commodore for a secondhand Harley-Davidson Shovelhead. The son of Turkish Cypriot immigrants, he joined a wave of new-generation “wog boys” drawn to the thunder of 1200cc bikes and the Confederate flag patch of the Rebels, whose national president, Alex Vella, is a Maltese-born immigrant from nearby Horsley Park.

“If you live in Cronulla, you play with the Cronulla Sharks, you know what I’m saying? The Rebels were near us in the Macarthur, Liverpool, Campbelltown area. As a 21-year-old I could have been a junkie, a pot smoker or a car-thief. But I chose to work and buy a bike and hang out with the Rebels.”

The Rebels have had their own image problems over the past couple of decades. Vella was convicted of possession of a trafficable quantity of marijuana in 1995 and subsequently forced to pay $650,000 to the New South Wales Crime Commission to settle a proceeds-of-crime action; four Rebels were shot dead in Queensland and South Australia in 1998, and in 2003 a Sydney Rebel, Constantinos Georgiou, was convicted of murdering three Bandidos in the basement of a Sydney nightclub.

“It could be occasionally that there are bad eggs,” concedes Hassan, “but there are bad eggs in every group. The Rebels name can’t be held responsible for every man’s actions… If one person from a club gets charged with possessing cannabis, another gets charged with assault and another gets charged for failing to pay his taxes, that’s not a criminal organisation. In fact, you’d have to say it’s very disorganised.”

Now married with three kids, Hassan is a motor mechanic by trade but ditched that job several years ago to open a pawnbroking business. As it turns out, he’ll be banned from both jobs if subject to a control order under the NSW anti-bikie-laws – motor mechanic and “commercial agent” being among the 12 proscribed professions. Hassan closed down his hock-shop a few months after the legislation came into effect. These days he runs a pizzeria.

“Put it this way, if we get declared I’m going on the pension,” he says. “I can’t be a motor mechanic, I can’t run a hock shop and I haven’t got the money to fight it, so hypothetically, it sticks. What do I do? Maybe the Government can give me the answer. I haven’t got a criminal record. I’ve stayed within the law for the 21 years I’ve been in the club – that’s not bad. When did the government decide to stop us from working?”

Of course, Hassan has the option of quitting the Rebels, but that would be an unthinkable breach of club loyalty. When his infant son was rendered quadriplegic by a car accident five years ago, the Rebels helped raised $100,000 to fly the boy to Holland for experimental stem-cell treatment.

“You can take all these guys and outlaw them.” he says, sweeping an arm around the clubroom, “and we’re still going to be mates. You’re talking about people who’ve known each other for 20 or 30 years. How can you stop being friends?”

The price of loyalty
Sitting in the back room of Blacktown Tattoos one weekday afternoon, Ferret points to a cupboard door covered in news-clippings, a gallery of Finks fallen foul of the law. “He’s in jail,” he says, pointing to a photo of a wickedly grinning bikie. “…He’s in jail… he’s going to jail… he’s just got out of jail…” The latter comment refers to Greg “Twenty Five” Keating, the massive sergeant-at-arms of the club’s Gold Coast chapter, who married his sweetheart in full Finks colours at the Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort last August, then went to prison two weeks later for refusing to talk to the Australian Crime Commission.

“He’s hung around us since he was 15 years old – he understands loyalty,” notes Ferret. “Why would you go and rat people out to the pigs when the pigs are our enemy?”

The police campaign against bikies has indeed been relentless since the Sydney airport incident, a combination of elaborate military-style clubhouse raids and daily stop-and-search harassment. Various victories have been claimed along the way: on the Gold Coast, Superintendent Jim Keogh recently boasted that bikies are now “lying low” in his region, while the NSW Government has applauded the “on-the-ground and in-your-face policing” of Strike Force Raptor, announcing it has resulted in more than 1500 charges against 724 outlaw bikies and the seizure of 174 guns and more than $1 million in cash.

Again, however, that wasn’t quite accurate. Detective Superintendent Mal Lanyon, head of the NSW Gangs Squad, acknowledges that only some of the 724 arrested were outlaw bikies – how many is unclear, as police failed to supply  detailed figures despite repeated requests. As evidence of organised crime by bikies, Lanyon points to the recent conviction of four Bandido associates for a drive-by shooting. Bikie gangs, he asserts, are structured like paramilitary organisations, actively recruiting people for their particular criminal skills and engaging in extortion and major drug manufacturing.

“One has to ask: if they aren’t criminal organisations, why is there a need for violence between them? What are they protecting?” he asks.

On July 6 NSW police ratcheted up their campaign against bikies when they finally used their new powers, applying to have the Hells Angels declared a criminal organisation in NSW. In support of the application, police lodged 30 dossiers of documents with the Supreme Court. Asked how much of that documentation was “protected criminal intelligence” which the Hells Angels would be prevented from seeing, Lanyon said he was not at liberty to comment.

Even Lanyon’s former colleague, Clive Small, however, expresses doubts about the way the war on bikies is being waged. “That stuff-up at the airport was nasty,” says Small, “but it was really a group of drunks running into people they didn’t like and having a blue. It was no big organised gang fight.” The reality of the bikies is that some club chapters are criminal organisations and some aren’t, says Small. What police need is the resources to jail the offenders using existing conspiracy and drug laws, instead of governments rushing through unnecessary new laws and issuing “bullshit” arrest statistics so that they can trumpet a crackdown on bikies before heading off to lunch.

The PR war, meanwhile, goes on. In June the United Motorycycle Council organised a procession of 30 outlaws in full colours to ride on NSW Parliament House, seeking an audience with the state attorney-general, John Hatzistergos. Ferret led the ride on his Harley, bearing a letter – he had even signed it with his birth name – requesting a full public debate of the anti-bikie laws. Accompanied by Brendan “Brendo” George of the Lone Wolf club and Greg Hirst from the Brotherhood, Ferret was ushered into the reception area, where he took seat on a burgundy leather sofa while a superannuation debate droned over the in-house TV screens.

Out on the street, Hells Angels, Nomads, Comancheros and Bandidos chatted to the public while Strike Force Raptor videotaped the massed Harleys and booked them all for illegal parking. After 10 minutes, word came down that Hatzistergos was refusing to meet the bikies, so Ferret handed his letter to an independent MP, Greg Piper, and asked him to pass it on before leaving. Unfortunately the assembled media missed the most memorable moment of the day: on his way out of Parliament House, “Brendo” of the Lone Wolf club – resplendent in full colours, and with the outlaw bikie’s “1%” insignia tattooed on his neck – stopped to share a few warm words with a grey-suited gent who’d just emerged from the Legislative Assembly. It was his dad, Thomas George, National Party MP for Lismore.

Two weeks later, Ferret led the Finks up to Queensland, where they rode into Surfers Paradise with the Black Uhlans, Nomads and Warriors – an 80-strong contingent there to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Gold Coast Finks and stage a noisy riposte to police claims that bikies on the Golden Mile are “laying low”. It all went without a hitch, but Ferret was affronted by a story in the Gold Coast Bulletin which claimed his platoon of Harleys had roared through northern NSW at 150kmh and run every red light on the Gold Coast Highway.

That was total rubbish, says Ferret – the cops followed them the whole way. “We stayed just below the speed limit,” he insists. “We were getting around in second gear sometimes.”

Being born to be wild is getting harder every day.