Judgment day for bikie brotherhood (blah blah blah....)
July 5, 2010
Bikies will be in the spotlight at this week's committal hearings. The hearings should run eight to 12 weeks. Photo: Kate Geraghty
A hearing is due to start today for 13 bikies following a deadly brawl at Sydney Airport. Michael Duffy reports on the rise of the gangs.
It was a typical Sunday as travellers went about their business at Australia's busiest airport. But the events of March 22nd, 2009, remains embedded in their memories, as Comanchero and Hells Angels bikies clashed in a roving, moving brawl in which one man was bashed to death.
"I have never seen anything like this before in my entire life. I was absolutely terrified," one witness told police, while others spoke of the extreme viciousness shown.
Ten Comanchero have since been been charged with murder and three Hells Angels with affray. This week's hearing is in a courtroom purpose-built for the 2008 terrorist trial - because of the number of accused, although some consider it symbolic. Despite claims made by the gangs' representatives, the United Motorcycle Council, that they are just people who like bikes, many are serious criminals who use violence to instil fear.
The evidence of dozens of witnesses in coming weeks could hardly come at a worse time for the state's bikies, as police move to have one prominent gang in effect outlawed under new legislation that directly sprang from the airport attack.
Just 10 days after the fight, the state government introduced the Criminal Organisations Legislation Amendment Act. This allows a Supreme Court judge, on application by the police commissioner, to declare a group a criminal organisation and restrict whom its members can associate with.
History suggests this law has the potential to greatly diminish these outlawed gangs. The organised crime expert Bob Bottom has noted how a consorting law introduced in NSW in 1930 wiped out the razor gangs and the cocaine trade, which had been flourishing. The question now is the extent to which the new law will be applied.
The gangs responded to the law last year by setting up the United Motorcycle Council, which has among its members non-''outlawed'' gangs such as the Disciples of Christ and the God Squad. According to its website, the council is dedicated to the promotion of a "sociably responsible motorcycle culture". The council hired a PR company and its website promotes the views of Nicholas Cowdery, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, a critic of the law.
Chief Superintendent Ken McKay, director of the State Crime Command's Organised Crime Directorate, says the new law will be an important addition to the fight against organised crime. He rejects the idea that it will be used against innocent groups. "A lot of people represented on the UMC are of no interest to us," he says. "We only target criminals.''
So what evidence is there that outlaw motorcycle gangs are heavily involved in criminal activity?
Superintendent Mal Lanyon, commander of the NSW police Gangs Squad, says there are 1630 members of these gangs in NSW. This includes nominees (a bit like apprentices) but does not include the many hangers-on who do more mundane criminal activities. Nor does it include the organised crime group Notorious, which does not have bikes. These 1630 members are spread over some 20 gangs.
In the 10 years to the end of 2009, 8118 charges were laid against gang members in this state. Over that decade there were 1959 members (including those who have left or died), giving an average number of charges per member of 4.1. Crimes included murder, assault, manufacturing and supplying prohibited drugs, robbery, possessing loaded firearms in public places and drive-by shootings. These figures, presumably representing only a fraction of the crimes committed, suggest a large proportion of bikers are involved in crime.
And they are not concentrated in just a few gangs - Superintendent Lanyon says most outlaw gangs are "represented in criminal activity". They are particularly concerned with drug-related activity, especially making and selling various types of amphetamine.
This is big business. The Australian Crime Commission's Illicit Drug Data Report for 2008/09 says most amphetamines consumed in Australia are made here; 316 clandestine laboratories were detected in that year. Amphetamines accounted for one-fifth of national drug arrests, second only to cannabis.
A monopoly requires not just supply but control over the territory in which a product is sold. Typically the gangs use violence to ensure their hold over certain areas, where people working for them sell drugs in hotels and clubs and other locations. Public violence between gangs occurs over territorial disputes, or when a club is "patched over". For example, a chapter of one gang might decide to join another gang, thereby upsetting its former brothers. It was the decision of the Birchgrove chapter of the Comanchero to form a Bandidos gang in Australia that led to the Milperra fight of 1984, in which the two gangs clashed and seven people died. This dispute, like many subsequent ones, involved issues of pride and identity - and drug sales.
Outlaw motorcycle gangs began after World War II and were boosted by an influx of veterans following the Vietnam conflict. Typically they appeal to violent men who don't like mixing with normal society. Usually they ride Harley-Davidsons and wear their club colours, with their identifying words and symbols on the backs of their black leather jackets. The club and its rules are the most important elements in their lives, and considerable punishment is given to a member who leaves a club.
Club organisations vary, but usually each chapter has between 10 and 20 members (all men) and its own clubhouse, often in a light industrial area. There is a president and a sergeant at arms responsible for ensuring club rules are observed. Absolute loyalty and silence are requisite qualities in a biker, and the penalties for talking to the authorities can be extreme. The close match between bikie culture and the needs of running a successful drug business drew many bikies into the amphetamine trade in the 1980s. Since then this match has attracted many criminals to the gang culture, most famously in the case of Notorious.
Gangs vary in their degree of sophistication. Some have international connections, some use accountants and lawyers to launder money and buy assets. Private detectives are often used to dig out details of police or witnesses. "There's evidence they have obtained information about police home addresses," Superintendent Lanyon says. "We monitor and react swiftly to any information or activity in that regard."
Some gangs have expensive equipment such as scanners for detecting listening devices or for hearing police radio communication around a clubhouse. Friends and family in government agencies are used to obtain information and create false identities.
This mix of capabilities makes outlaw motorcycle gangs the closest Australia has to a mafia.
"OMCGs are very prominent in organised crime in NSW," says Superintendent Lanyon, "as a group they'd be the largest entity."
The airport incident came after a period of inter-gang warfare, including conflict between the Hells Angels and the Comanchero over drugs, and a number of drive-by shootings at the end of 2008 related to disputes between the Rebels and Bandidos. Drive-bys were a new feature of bikie warfare, a result of what Superintendent Lanyon calls "demographic and cultural changes. Once, members' residences were considered sacred. That's changed in recent years, with OMCG members convicted for shooting at residences associated with other OMCGs."
Following the airport murder there was an increase in police activity against the gangs. Strike Force Metter investigated the airport death of the Hells Angels associate Anthony Zervas, while Strike Force Raptor, with 54 members, was created to complement the Gang Squad's 60 members. Raptor is more proactive: in the month after the airport murder it arrested more than 50 outlaw gang members and has continued to arrest and charge people. Late last month, it charged the former Nomads boss Scott Orrock with drug offences.
Another important operation has been Strike Force Wolsley, run in conjunction with the Australian Crime Commission. This targets Hells Angels and their associates involved in the drug trade. Recently the Hells Angels lost an attempt in the Federal Court to stop the commission insisting 12 leading members answer its questions or face going to jail. This could be an important step in breaching the gang's code of silence.
"There has been an acceleration in our activity," says Chief Superintendent McKay. "This is because the level of OMCG threat has been increasing over the past five or six years. We've been seeing more groups, more conflicts between groups over territory such as Kings Cross, and more links to other crime groups, all related to underlying criminal activity.''
At this week's committal hearings, the Director of Public Prosecutions will argue for a joint trial of all 13 accused. The defence is expected to be well-funded and to argue for individual trials. Police are acutely aware of the possible intimidation of witnesses and others involved in trials of bikies. Some people, for instance, feel it is potentially threatening for bikies wearing colours to sit in the public gallery, although this is legal.
"It's an issue we treat very seriously," says Superintendent Lanyon. "We take all appropriate actions to ensure the safety of witnesses.''
The committal should run eight to 12 weeks, and there will be more than 70 witnesses. The picture they will paint of gang activity may not be the one the United Motorcycle Council is likely to be happy with. When the fight began at Gate 5 last year, one bikie called out "Not in here, go outside." In the coming weeks the state's 1630 bikies might wish that advice been taken.