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May 8, 2010
Richard Walsh, left, was the chief supplier of amphetamines in Newcastle and Todd Little is illiterate but an expert "cook" of amphetamines.
Two whistleblowers provide a rare glimpse into the shady dealings of an outlaw motorcycle gang and its east coast drug syndicate, writes Michael Duffy.
This story begins in 2000, when a small-time Newcastle drug dealer and user named Peter Bennett could not repay a debt to his supplier. Her name was Julie Clarke, and she was the de facto of Richard Walsh, serjeant-at-arms in the local chapter of the Nomads and chief supplier of amphetamines to the people of Newcastle.
Business was booming and every three weeks Walsh bought several pounds of methylamphetamine from a manufacturer up around the Queensland border. This would be cut by Julie, and she and some of the other Nomads would sell the resulting product to dealers outside the gang.
With this arrangement, Walsh protected himself by having as little as possible to do with criminal outsiders. He knew he could rely on his fellow bikies not to betray him to police. In outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs), loyalty is fierce and usually forever: the penalties for leaving a gang can include savage beatings, being scalded with boiling water, and having club tattoos removed with an electrical sander without the benefit of anaesthetic.
But the risk-averse Walsh still had a problem: how to get the drugs to Newcastle. It was not a task he wanted to take on himself.
Bennett did a few jobs for Walsh and proved himself a reliable sort of fellow, and soon he was heading north to bring back Newcastle's speed supply. His wife Wendy was also employed by the Walsh household, as a nanny, cleaner, and tester of the amphetamines once they had been delivered by Bennett and cut by Julie.
It was a happy arrangement that might have gone on for a long time except for a breakdown in the Nomads' human resource management. They had lent Bennett a shotgun and it was seized by police during a search.
To punish him for losing the weapon, the Nomads beat him senseless, so he needed hospital treatment.
To add insult to injury, Walsh withheld a promised Christmas bonus. This meant Bennett had no money with which to buy presents for his wife and children. Being a family man, he robbed a bank to get the necessary funds, but was caught and spent Christmas in jail.
Brooding on his treatment at the hands of the Nomads, he made a decision to become a police informer in March 2001. His wife, still employed by Walsh and Clarke, agreed to help him. Because of their level of knowledge of the Nomad operation, this was an event almost unprecedented in the annals of organised crime in Australia.
The delighted police, who had been looking at the Nomads for some time without much success, set up Strike Force Sibret, run by the Drug Squad and Northern Region and headed by Detective Superintendent Wayne Gordon.
Because of the high quality of the information on offer, the investigation received valuable resource back-up and analytical support from the NSW Crime Commission.
Outlaw motorcycle gangs are important because they comprise the largest category of organised crime gangs. In the words of Chief Superintendent Ken McKay, director of the State Crime Command's Organised Crime Directorate, they are ''indicative of organised crime in its purest form''.
''They have national, sometimes international, links,'' he said. ''They have a hierarchy with different roles in the structure, and that carries through to criminal activities. At the bottom there are a lot of ordinary workers. The gangs can be effective at ingratiating themselves into smaller communities.''
For three months Sibret monitored and followed Walsh and the Nomads, using the full panoply of modern surveillance technology. Phones were tapped, listening devices placed inside premises, cameras focused on buildings, tracking devices attached to cars.
It was soon established that the drugs were being bought from Todd Little, the president of the Gold Coast chapter of the Nomads and, despite being illiterate, an expert ''cook'' of amphetamines. Little paid people to do ''pseudo runs'', going from chemist to chemist and purchasing enormous quantities of Sudafed, from which he extracted the pseudoephedrine needed to make amphetamine.
Although Little lived on a rural property on top of a ridge at Terranora in the Tweed Valley, police were able to enter his house covertly and found the drugs were not being made there. They wanted to locate his lab before making their arrests, and observed seven drug deliveries to Newcastle while they tried to track Little's movements.
It was a difficult operation because of the remoteness of the property and the distances involved.
''The drug couriers were using amphetamines and did the 20-hour round trip almost without stopping,'' recalls Detective Senior Sergeant George Radmore, a senior officer in the strike force. ''Sometimes it was hard for us to keep up. The police have certain OH&S requirements that need to be observed.''
Meanwhile, Walsh had a new problem with his supply chain. When Bennett went to prison he'd been replaced by Nomad Phillip ''Big Phil'' Quinnell. But on May 16, when Big Phil reached Little's Terranora property, he stopped his vehicle on the steep track and got out to open the gate. He forgot to put the handbrake on, and the vehicle rolled back and killed him.
Having no one else he could trust, a reluctant Walsh began making the pick-up runs himself. He used a hire car, hiding the drugs in the door cavity, and always took someone with him. This meant if he was stopped by police he could argue the drugs had been placed there by (a) a previous hirer or (b) the other person in the car.
But when he set out for Terranora in September 2001, for what turned out to be his last drug pick-up, he drove his own vehicle, a Toyota HiLux, because he had to tow a trailer. After paying Todd Little $65,000 for almost half a kilo of amphetamines, he began his return journey.
Police had become increasingly concerned about letting the drug shipments reach Newcastle. ''It was an ethical dilemma,'' Radmore says.
''On the one hand, we wanted to find out where the drugs were being made. On the other, we wanted to stop them reaching the public. How long do you let things run?''
On September 23, Strike Force Sibret struck, and Walsh's HiLux was stopped near Murwillumbah and the recently purchased drugs were found inside one of the doors. Simultaneously, raids were conducted at 13 properties in Newcastle, northern NSW, and on the Gold Coast.
When Todd Little was arrested, he was carrying a semi-automatic pistol with a silencer. In his house police found lease papers, made out in a false name, to storage facilities on the outskirts of Murwillumbah. They searched the facilities and discovered one of the biggest amphetamine manufacturing operations found in Australia. The glassware alone was worth up to $100,000.
There was also equipment, such as camouflage netting and generators, to allow the lab to be relocated to remote areas.
The searches found 74 firearms, including a Bren gun, a Remington assault rifle, and other guns stolen from the military. There were plentiful precursor chemicals (including 20 kilos of Sudafed tablets), lots of explosives, hundreds of blank birth certificates for identity fraud, and large amounts of drugs, cash, jewellery and gold nuggets.
The Nomads were involved in a range of criminal activities, and police recovered $1.5 million of stolen vehicles, heavy equipment and other items. Eventually the NSW Crime Commission would confiscate more than $1.5 million of assets under proceeds of crime legislation.
Sibret led to the charging of 43 people, including 16 Nomads. One reason so many convictions were achieved was because Walsh's de facto, Julie Clarke, became a police witness, thereby gaining indemnity from prosecution. Walsh received a sentence of 32 years, the longest ever given for a non-importation drug offence in Australia.
He was charged with supplying one tonne of amphetamines over a period of four years, but his sentence was based on a plea of guilty to supplying 400 kilos.
Todd Little received 24 years, mainly for manufacturing the drugs. The others received lesser sentences.
The Nomads responded with anger. Soon after the initial arrests, those still at large arrived in force at the Cricketer's Arms, a pub in inner-city Newcastle where the police were known to drink. The Nomads blocked off both ends of the street and went through the hotel in search of the Sibret detectives, who fortunately were not there. They learnt the Nomads had hired private investigators to find out their home addresses, and security arrangements had to be put in place.
In September 2004, about 35 Nomads from Sydney arrived at the Newcastle clubhouse and allegedly attacked local members, beating several and kneecapping two.
At this point the traditional loyalty of the gang appears to have broken down. During the subsequent trial in 2007, one of the men who'd been shot in both knees said it was because their Sydney colleagues were unhappy with the level of support Richard Walsh had been receiving in jail. A man was caught filming the only Crown witness as he gave evidence, and a Nomad was removed from court for menacing the jury. The three accused, who included Hassan ''Sam'' Ibrahim, were acquitted on all charges. As the Herald said at the time, there is no suggestion the verdict had anything to do with the apparent acts of intimidation.
The Newcastle Nomads were shattered by Sibret and its fallout. According to Sergeant Brian Burgess, the strike force's intelligence officer, ''the chapter is very much a shell of its former self. Their regular get-togethers are not what they used to be''.
''Sibret was one of the most successful hits on an outlaw motorcycle gang in Australia,'' Ken McKay says. ''It sent a message to the gangs that they can't know who they can trust. And it sent a message to the community that police are capable of working together and bringing down major criminal networks.''
Although the growing sophistication of organised criminals is often alluded to, this wasn't the case with the Newcastle Nomads. They had a lawyer on call; a barrister who liked to party with his clients and has since been disbarred. Walsh had an accountant for his legitimate concreting business (which he was hopeless at managing - the accountant was once heard on the phone asking how he was able to survive) but engaged in no money-laundering activities.
The huge sums of money he earned were not invested in shares or property but blown on flash bikes and jet-skis, holidays at Jupiters Casino, were stashed under the bed in a box, and went up his nose as his own speed habit increased.
Unlike some other OMGs, the Nomads are a purely Australian phenomenon and seem to have had no international connections. They did not import precursor chemicals but relied on the humble and relatively expensive Sudafed tablet as the basis of their drug operation.
What made it all work was the Mafia-like code of loyalty and use of extreme violence. What brought it undone was the quality of the information provided by the informants.
The police are prevented by legislation from saying whether Peter and Wendy Bennett and Julie Clarke are in the witness protection program. None has been seen around Newcastle lately.