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Who's Who in the Zoo
A Story of Corruption, Crooks and Killers
By Domenico 'Mick' Cacciola, Ben Robertson
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2014 Domenico Cacciola and Ben Robertson
All rights reserved.
To understand a creature like me, you have to understand the Valley. If suburban Fortitude Valley was the beating heart of corruption in Queensland in the dark old days before Fitzgerald, then its arteries were Brunswick, Ann and Wickham streets. This was where I roamed after arriving by boat in Brisbane as a ten-year-old from war-torn Sicily. It's where I 'cut my teeth', as you skippys are wont to say. It's where I became a man.
The Valley was forever testing me, first in my childhood and teenage years, then off and on as a police officer for decades. The battles were endless: bullies in the schoolyard; neighbourhood thugs and racists; the wogs who ran the illegal games; the spivs behind the brothels and the hard drugs; those clueless communists who met in a tin shed and thought they could eventually run the state; the anti-nuclear tree-huggers and the union and student agitators who didn't mind a spot of violence and a vicious punch to your kidneys or the back of your head when it suited them; the bent conservative politicians such as Don 'Shady' Lane and Big Russ Hinze, who worried about being unmasked for what they really were; the Rat Pack and its rotten to the core police commissioner Frank Bischof and, later, Terry Lewis; and finally the crooked police from Licensing Branch when the bagman Sergeant Jack Herbert ran the show. I tangled with them all in the Valley.
I've never been one to back down from a fight. My papa wasn't into diplomacy. If you got on the wrong side of him, you had an enemy for life. If you did him a good turn, he would repay the kindness a hundred times over. Every year, he would kill and dress two roosters and deliver them with a platter of fruit to the bank manager who'd given him the loan to buy his fruit shop on Brunswick Street. I remember the dead roosters being bled off our back verandah after he had wrung their necks and cut their throats. Many other bank managers had turned him down but Papa wouldn't give up. There wasn't much of Papa, but he was solid and tough. He was also mentally strong. I think it's fair to say that I am a chip off the old block.
When I first started being bullied in the schoolyard, not long off the boat from Calatabiano, I was scared to fight back. I hated Brisbane with its humid weather and frightening thunderstorms. While my brothers hid under the bed, I pretended I wasn't afraid of the lightning and the thunder and the golf-ball-sized hail that destroyed Papa's tiny vegetable and herb garden out the back. What was this strange land? And what the hell were these strange creatures that screeched in the mango trees or banged across the tin roof of our rented house in Fortitude Valley? The trams rattling down Gregory Terrace past the Old Museum were almost as scary as the storms.
I had come from a quiet little village at the base of the volcano Mt Etna, where we ate snails after it rained, and chased and milked goats that ran about the streets. Papa patted me on the head when I finally snapped and belted a kid for calling me a wog and making fun of the smelly sandwiches my brothers and I were eating. Mortadella sausage and cheese didn't win you too many friends in the playground in those days, I can tell you. The funny thing was that the kid poking fun at us was Chinese. 'You are a good boy, Domenico,' Papa said when he found out. I was protecting the Cacciola family honour, and that made him happy.
I sometimes laugh when I see all this anti-bullying stuff in the media. The bullying ended for me when I stuck up for my family and myself. The bullying in the police force, well, that was another matter altogether. Hitting back didn't work. Diplomacy didn't work either, nor did burying your head in the sand. Entrenched corruption firmly rooted under a corrupt commissioner and a government that didn't mind participating or looking the other way required stubbornness on a massive scale to wrench out, and luckily I had plenty of that too. You with me?
* * *
'Hey, Uncle Mick, I can take you! I've got my black belt. And you're getting fat!'
My younger brother's family was over for a barbecue during the Christmas holidays. For as long as I can remember, people have called me 'Mick'. Nobody in Brisbane could ever pronounce my name, so Domenico became Dominic for a while, and then one day Dominic became Mick. I couldn't speak English when I first came to Brisbane, and I wasn't about to correct anybody. I just walked around the place nodding my head. 'Si, si,' I'd say with a smile to just about every question.
I looked my nephew up and down. He was tall and strong, in peak physical condition. I was short, overweight and well past my prime. What I had over him in spades, though, was experience. After years in the force, I hadn't lost the curious habit of assessing the size, weight and strength of people when they entered my personal space, or were figuring on entering my personal space. Even family members. Some habits are impossible to break. Even in retirement, my mind is constantly ticking over, working out where people's weak points are, just in case I have to arrest them. That bloke has a thick neck. Probably grab him by the throat and squeeze his windpipe rather than go for a headlock. I can tell by the way a man carries himself if he can fight; how far to stand away from him so he doesn't get in too close and get under my guard. A legacy of arresting criminals. A legacy of my time in Special Branch when I had to break up protests. A legacy of my childhood growing up in the Valley.
A young man in a Holden Commodore rear-ended my car at the traffic lights not so long ago. I was aged in my mid-sixties. He got out of his car and was yelling and screaming, putting his red, angry face close to mine. 'You stupid old bastard. Why did you stop so suddenly?' he shouted. I wasn't too worried. I was getting my weight centred and preparing to grab him by the throat. I think he thought I was an easy target, a small Italian man with a bit of a belly. Bullies back down when they can see you are not frightened. He'll never know how close he came to eating the pavement. That's the Valley coming out in me.
'What are you waiting for? C'mon, you old fart. Are you scared?' my nephew taunted.
The whole family was watching now: uncles, aunties, grandparents, nephews and nieces, friends and cousins, my mamma and papa – Sicilians and skippys from the next generation mixing together in a typical multicultural Aussie barbecue. The conversations had stopped. A tension of sorts had replaced the jovial, animated atmosphere of the gathering. Dean Martin's Christmas album was playing in the background, on one of Papa's favourite songs.
'Are you sure you want to do this?' I said to my nephew. 'Once we start, there's no turning back.'
I put my stubby down and started rolling up my sleeves. My nephew followed close behind me, playing up to the rest of the family, shadow-boxing, doing a few karate kicks.
'I'm gonna kick his arse,' he boasted to his father.
My brother chuckled kind of nervously. I'd heard that chuckle before, as we'd gone into battle in the schoolyard or outside Papa's fruit shop when people called us wogs or made jokes about Italy and the war. How many gears does an Italian tank have? Just one: reverse. One bloke used to make the sound of a bomb going off. He'd start halfway up Brunswick Street and it would explode outside the fruit shop. EEEEEEEEEEEE-kaboooom. Mamma paid the family of one kid twenty pounds for dental bills when I knocked out his front teeth. The thing I remember most about Mamma, though, was her inviting a tough kid from the neighbourhood to our house for lunch when she had caught him throwing eggs at our house. 'Why do you do this?' she asked the boy as he ate spaghetti she had made for him.
'My dad hates wogs,' he said.
'You are always welcome in this house,' she told the boy. 'You tell your father we are nice people.'
That kid would have died for Mamma from that moment on.
The barbecue was on a landing with a step down to the al fresco eating area on the back porch. As I stepped down, I swung around and with one hand grabbed a handful of my nephew's shoulder-length black hair. Then I twisted it around and around in my fist so it became like a piece of plaited rope. Now, using two hands, I swung him onto the ground just like I was unloading sacks of potatoes with Papa from the ute parked at the Roma Street Markets at four in the morning when I was a teenager. My nephew screamed, more out of surprise than pain, as he hit the bricks near the table with a thud. Seconds matter in a fight; the first few are the precious ones. Fighting fair has got absolutely nothing to do with it. On the streets, things like that don't mean shit. You have to be first or you won't win. Simple. That's how it worked growing up in the Valley.
'Give,' I whispered in his ear.
'No way,' he yelled, struggling to get back on his feet. 'I can still take you.'
Still clutching his hair, I pulled his head back and put my knees in his back. I've been a bodyguard to a premier, a prime minister and the pope. I've broken up protests and brawls too numerous to mention. I once attended a riot outside an Aussie Rules club, and as I was fighting off some of the revellers my partner told me that I had better ease up on the bloke under my arm. In all the confusion, I had forgotten about the man I'd grabbed in a headlock. He was still resting there peacefully as I was fighting off the crowd. I know how to take down people bigger than me – which is most people. (My father was once told by a factory boss at Golden Circle that Sicilians were nothing short of trouble. He replied, 'Trouble no, but short yes.')
Once, when I was vice president of the Italo-Australian Club, a supposed tough guy from Milan turned up in his slip-on Italian shoes and leather jacket and started slagging off Sicilians, calling us all wankers and not real Italians. He said it was a disgrace that someone like me had risen so far in the club. Then he invited me out the back to sort out our differences, grabbing the gold chain around my neck and snapping it off. I was having an espresso, for crying out loud, reading the newspaper, and suddenly I'm dealing with this! Now, I have a pretty thick skin, and sticks and stones won't break my bones, but breaking my gold chain was like breaking my heart. We didn't go out the back. A couple of whacks around the chops was all it took to sort it out then and there.
'Don't get up,' I said to the tough guy. 'You're still ahead as long as you don't get up.' It was something I often said to crims on the street.
Well, he didn't listen. Later, as I escorted him out the door as gently as I could, I reminded him that Sicilians were Sicilian first and Italians second, and perhaps he should watch his manners next time. Then I patted him on the back, gave him a few tissues to clean himself up with and went back inside to finish my newspaper. An hour later, he came back in and tapped me on the shoulder. One of his eyes had closed up and his lips were swollen. Here we go again, I thought.
'I heard you were a good fighter,' he said. 'I wanted to see if it was true.'
What an idiot! A Sicilian would never be so stupid.
One thing I learnt in the police force is that, once your knees are in someone's back, the fight goes out of them. Young kids today with drugs dripping out their eyeballs are the exception to this rule, but in general it's hard to do anything when you can't breathe. It makes it so much easier to put the cuffs on. I'd done this hundreds of times to spivs and troublemakers. The university students and lecturers hated me when I shadowed them at the illegal 'right to march' rallies. Then there were the anti-uranium protesters, the union agitators and, of course, the stupid communists who never knew that half the people at their meetings were dogs, giving their secrets to the cops. These were my days in Special Branch. A meeting wasn't over for five minutes before we knew what they had been talking about. One bloke wanted to set fire to Parliament House. A university lecturer used to throw blood on us. She was totally out of control. They weren't all harmless.
'Give,' my nephew finally yelped. 'Give. Give. Give.'
Satisfied that the lesson was over, I walked back onto the landing area to attend to the snags and steak, which were still sizzling away. I sprinkled some beer from my stubby on the steak as some of the skippys taught me when I first started making friends outside the Italian community. Cheryl started fussing around, trying to pretend that everything was normal. My brother didn't seem concerned. He would have done the same thing. I remember him with his slicked-back hair chasing some thugs down Brunswick Street, kicking them in the backside with his pointy shoes as they went.
All the Cacciola boys had wanted to wear jeans, like James Dean, but Mamma wouldn't let us have them. They were what the bodgies wore, she said. Like most parents in that era in conservative Brisbane, Mamma didn't like the bodgies and their widgie girlfriends because they danced to rock 'n' roll music and engaged in delinquent behaviour. No son of hers would ever be seen in such disgraceful attire, because people would think the Cacciola boys were criminals. It's amazing when you think of it, but back in the day police such as Terry Lewis and Tony Murphy used to stop bodgies and make them take off their black shirts. Commissioner Bischof didn't want the youth of Brisbane dressing inappropriately. The 'bodgie squad', as it was known, would take them to the police station and make them change outfits. They even had white shirts for them to put on. Can you imagine doing that now? Unbelievable.
I bought my first pair of jeans three years ago, after Mamma died. I was sixty-five. Mamma was a serious woman. When Papa was honoured at a Sicilian of the Year function, she wouldn't eat the food because it wasn't Sicilian enough. She used to say that it was important to work hard in this life so you could have a good Sicilian funeral.
'You cheated.' My nephew picked himself off the ground and straightened out his clothes. He was embarrassed more than he was hurt. 'What have you proved, Uncle Mick? Hey, you haven't proven anything.'
'You know, I got a black belt too,' I said as I tapped him on the chest with my tongs and gave him a friendly wink. 'And I didn't get it from some wanky dojo. I got my black belt on the streets. I got it in the Valley. Okay, everybody. Show's over. Let's eat.'CHAPTER 2
Who's Who in the Zoo
You can't imagine the fear when you're working with people who can ruin your life and maybe even take it away. Think I'm overreacting? Ask any cop who ever got on the wrong side of the Rat Pack and the bagman Sergeant Jack Herbert. You genuinely feared for your life. And if you weren't fearing for your life, you were fearing for your career. They had spies everywhere. The power of these crooked cops ebbed and flowed in Brisbane for over forty years through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. The corruption system they built and maintained was known as The Joke. As I was to discover, there was nothing funny about The Joke if you were on the wrong side of it.
* * *
So how did a good, honest Sicilian boy like me get tangled up in all this mess? When I graduated from the police depot on Petrie Terrace in 1966, I had not the slightest inkling that corruption was so rampant in Queensland. I'd seen the police chasing the prostitutes and pimps down Brunswick Street outside my papa's fruit shop. They seemed to be doing a pretty good job at maintaining law and order. I'd been questioned once by a police officer for punching a bully in the nose in a fight outside the shop. The officer treated me fairly and sorted out the matter without charges being laid. He used his common sense. I was impressed. Sure, I'd heard talk about illegal casinos from some of my mates, but what city in the world doesn't have criminals trying to put one over the cops? I'd never have believed that police here were corrupt. In Sicily maybe. I came from an area notorious for the mafia. But Australia was so squeaky clean, or so my papa said.
Before joining the police force, I'd led a particularly sheltered life. When I wasn't at school, I was helping Papa at work. I was too exhausted from all the early mornings at the markets lifting heavy crates for anything resembling misadventure. After closing, we'd work into the night getting things ready for the next day. The fruit shop was open 365 days a year, except on a leap year, when it was open 366. Even on my wedding day, Papa worked in the shop for a few hours before rushing to the church.
The eyes of a naive young constable were soon opened to the ways of the world. I might not be the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to books and education, but what I did have in spades was street smarts. I could handle myself if someone tried to put one over me physically. It didn't take long for me to find out who was who in the zoo when it came to policing the Sunshine State.
Excerpted from Who's Who in the Zoo by Domenico 'Mick' Cacciola, Ben Robertson. Copyright © 2014 Domenico Cacciola and Ben Robertson. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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