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The Truth About Australian Bikers
By Adam Shand
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Adam Shand
All rights reserved.
MEDIA MIKE AND THE MORAL PANIC
In 1996 the then South Australian Opposition Leader, Mike Rann, became the herald of a new dark age. He warned of a looming bikie war that state governments up to that point had ignored at their peril.
Rann told parliament that an investigation by New Zealand police into trans-Tasman gang activity had revealed that by the year 2000 there would be just six Australian clubs remaining: the Hells Angels, the Outlaws, the Bandidos, the Rebels, the Black Uhlans and the Nomads. The balance, up to fifty clubs, would be consumed by force or agreement into the Top Six.
It was a powerful and enduring notion, demonstrating that bikers posed a new threat to the social order. A once disorganised rabble, the bikies could apparently form a parallel government, just as US mobster Charles 'Lucky' Luciano had done in creating the National Crime Syndicate for the Mafia back in the 1930s.
The 'Australia 2000' pact would apparently centralise the control of crime worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the hands of the six foundation clubs. Outbreaks of inter-club violence could be tracked back to a 'fight for supremacy', with the six clubs pushing for exclusive control of turf. Rann said he had been warned of the potential for bikie violence when he visited the FBI that year and at the time had passed those warnings on to the South Australian Police (SAPOL), the National Crime Authority 'and even in person to the Prime Minister' (then — Liberal leader John Howard). But his earnest advice had fallen on deaf ears.
In 2002 Mike Rann became the Premier of South Australia in a minority government. With his background first as a political journalist with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and later as a speechwriter for the legendary Don Dunstan, he was media savvy and inevitably came to be dubbed 'Media Mike'. According to Flinders University lecturer Haydon Manning, Rann was a 'self-consciously constructed' leader who 'assiduously appealed to popular prejudices for his tough and almost perpetual campaign on law and order'. Successful leaders 'command attention and make it look as though they have discovered the neglected concerns of the general public. Rann was a champion of such politics', Manning concluded.
For a time Rann was one of the most successful state politicians in Australia. His attempts to take on the bikies resonated right around the country and were mimicked by many of his fellow premiers. In one sense, he was a founding father of the 1% Nation. Adelaide had long been regarded as the bikie capital of Australia, setting the tone for how the clubs were organised and run around the country. To defeat them here would have national implications, the theory ran.
But his campaign to eliminate this scourge would ultimately only serve to unite the bikies. And a large group of sympathisers and friends would in time discover they had a common cause with them.
In such matters, of course, inevitably what goes around comes around. And in Australian state politics what comes around has often been around the circuit at least once before. Rann's master plan was, in effect, to revive the old consorting laws, which police had used to restrict the interaction of the criminal classes until they fell into disuse in the 1980s.
South Australia had in fact been the first state to introduce consorting laws, in 1928, giving police the power to prevent the mingling of habitual criminals, drunkards, thieves, prostitutes, fortune tellers and vagrants. The other states soon followed: New South Wales in 1929, Queensland and Victoria in 1931, Tasmania 1935 and Western Australia in 1955.
Yet, while revolted by the bikers' wild and unkempt appearance, the South Australian community had never held any burning objection to them until the mid-1970s.
The roots of the biker subculture that emerged in Adelaide from the late 1960s had been purely social. Every Saturday afternoon, they had gathered out the front of Burnie's Bar on Rundle Street, long before it became a pedestrian mall. They would hang out all afternoon, talking motorcycles and swapping recent war stories about life on the road. All bikers were welcome, even as they formed into clubs under various patches. The early clubs had included the Undertakers, who were mostly the sons of European migrants, and the Iroquois, who were Anglo boys from Elizabeth. The Filthy Few became the Mandamas (Latin for 'We Command') after the Hells Angels had objected to them using Filthy Few, which they regarded as the property of their club. There were Reapers, Barbarians and a grab bag of other clubs, making up a total population of about 200 bikers in 1974.
Sometimes up to a hundred bikers, plus their women and machines, would line the footpath on Rundle Street without attracting any grief from the cops. They would drink and loll about, talking shit and planning their next debauch before heading off into the night. There was always a party to go to, or one to crash, where they were happy to flog a few footballers or other bikers if the chance arose.
Today's old-timers still remember fondly those days. The occasional serious dispute between clubs was settled in time-honoured fashion — a punch-on at a discreet location beyond public view.
But on 4 June 1974, everything changed after what the press called 'a wild beach brawl' at Port Gawler, an hour north of Adelaide. It started as a disagreement between the Iroquois and the Undertakers, but soon affiliated clubs and friends lined up behind the two clubs.
As eyewitnesses remember it, the fight was over ethnicity. The Iroquois believed the Undertakers were getting out hand and failing to show respect to the established order, which mirrored chauvinistic attitudes in the broader society. The Iroquois were going to put 'the wogs' in their place. But it seemed the wogs had plenty of mates prepared to show the Aussies that the world was changing.
After dark two mobs, totalling more than a hundred bikers, gathered on the edge of a highway above a deserted beach. They left their bikes and walked down through the scrubby coastal dunes ready for battle, carrying hockey sticks, cricket bats and motorcycle chains. All this would have stayed below the radar if one biker had not turned up with a shotgun.
In the melee that followed four shots were fired and one biker was wounded in the chest, a few others less seriously. Police made eighty-five arrests and as the Advertiser newspaper later noted, South Australia had a 'new breed of bad guys': 'Port Gawler is recognised among the biker fraternity as being the end of an old era of biker, and the beginning of a new one,' the paper solemnly opined.
Out of the public outrage that followed Port Gawler, a new police squad emerged, which would become infamous. The leader of the Bikie Squad, Rodney Piers (Sam) Bass, was a very unusual policeman by today's standards. In fact, some bikers said if Bass hadn't been a cop he would have made a fearsome biker. A former champion speedway rider, Bass understood the mentality of the motorcyclist — how his machine symbolised a spirit of rebellion. He knew that this was a genuine sub-culture like the hippies, not a dedicated crime group.
I found Sam Bass in 2011 living in a quiet coastal town six hours' drive from Adelaide on the road to Port Lincoln. A Google search revealed he was now a volunteer ambulance officer and had recently helped deliver a baby on the highway, a far cry from his rollicking days as head of the Bikie Squad. He had fond memories of tangling with the Rundle Street biker crowd: 'There was the odd druggie and rapist among them, a few thieves as well, but the overwhelming majority were actually decent sort of blokes,' he told me.
Bass believed that by mingling with the bikers, he would gain some respect and a huge amount of information. So he encouraged his squad of eight members to grow beards and wear their hair long. He himself sported a denim cut-off jacket with a patch, just like the rest of the bikers, and topped off the ensemble with a belt inscribed 'Fat Sam'.
Bass's squad were big, bluff types normally found in pubs and they roared around town on 750cc Suzukis and Yamahas. They were hardly undercover, because news of the 'bikie cops' quickly spread through the clubs. Initially, the bikies warmed to Bass, who drank and played pool alongside them. He seemed to be one of them. When things got out of hand, he was prepared to put aside the badge and duke it out with them, just as the bikers had at Port Gawler.
'I didn't lose too many fights with the bikies, because I was big and strong, but win or lose these were incidents that were never reported,' Bass recalled. 'One night on Hindley Street, Pete [a colleague] and I took on four bikies. We dealt with the first three quite easily, but the fourth one was a huge bloke and he and Pete had a huge stoush that went on for nearly twenty minutes, right there in the street. When he finally got the better of him, Pete turned to me and asked: "Why the hell didn't you back me up?" I said it was too much fun watching him, it was like a boxing match.'
In the early days, there was little confrontation. Bass had used his friendly relations with the clubs to quietly gather intelligence for other squads to act on, compiling dossiers on key targets in the clubs. After the Port Gawler incident, the state government had in fact directed the police to drive the bikies out of South Australia using the consorting laws.
From 1976 to 1981, conflict between Bass and the bikers progressively escalated. The arbitrary power the Consorting Act offered the police, plus Bass's own flexible approach to the law, made him a dangerous and ruthless foe. 'Sometimes you had to break the rules, if you were going to get the job done,' says Bass now, still unrepentant at seventy.
Tom Mackie liked to say that he had never won a fight until he got to Australia.
Growing up on the tough turf of north Auckland in the early 1970s, Mackie and his brother Perry were used to conflict, but taking on the Maori gangs had been a recipe for a weekly flogging. Every Saturday night, the Maori heavies from the south side of town would pile into their old Ford Zephyrs and come looking for a blue at the north-side dances frequented by the Mackie boys and their mates. There were no guns or knives back then, so the worst they would take home was a black eye or a split lip. But as long as they inflicted something similar on the enemy, they would call it a good night out.
But once they got settled in Adelaide in the early 1970s, Tom and Perry didn't lose too many fights and the outlaw motorcycle club they founded in 1974, the Descendants MC, has stood the test of time.
Around Australia, literally hundreds of independent clubs like the Descendants have disappeared over the last thirty-five years. They have been patched over by choice, or by force, as the big US clubs have transformed and dominated the local scene. Others have just disappeared, harassed into non-existence by the police or wives and families anxious that their wayward sons might finally grow up.
Today the Descendants' colours, featuring the mythical griffin with the head of an eagle and body of a lion, still fly over the clubhouse. An inscription over the club reads: 'OF GRIFFINS; So doth it well make out the properties of a Guardian, or any person entrusted; the ears implying attention, the wings celerity of execution, the Lion-like shape, courage and audacity, the hooked bill, reservance and tenacity, also an Embleme of valour and magnanimity, as being compounded of the Eagle and Lion, the noblest Animals in their kinds'. The bikie professor, Arthur Veno, once wrote that the Descendants 'contained some of the hardest bastards you'll ever meet'. To remain viable and independent, they had no other choice than to stand their ground. They had never expanded from a single chapter, but they had never retreated.
A mutual friend took me to meet Tom Mackie at the Descendants' clubhouse in 2008. He was still every inch the outlaw bikie with his long flowing grey hair and goatee beard. His face bore the scars of old battles and he had the almost obligatory limp of the veteran rider, courtesy of a serious motorcycle accident in the 1990s. Ironically, the club had the police to thank for their longevity, he said.
He recalled those far-off times in the 1970s, when the bikers had made matters worse by ridiculing and taunting Bass: 'We'd say, "Thanks Sam — all the pressure you're putting on helps test the mettle of our members and friends." If they didn't fold to him, we knew they were the right kind of blokes for the club.'
Those who failed to cooperate with Fat Sam could expect plenty of attention. After one of the Bikie Squad's motorcycles turned up at the bottom of a dam, it was the Descendants' turn to feel the heat.
In 2010, the club gained access to a slew of old court records through Freedom of Information applications. Included was a report by Mackie's probation officer, Lew D Vincent, which captured the action as Bass unleashed his wrath on the club in the summer of 1977.
'18/1/77 I have received information to the extent that the Police are "out to get" Tom Mackie and his brother Perry. My contact [a Police Officer] indicates that Sam Bass wants to send Tom "down" for a long time. According to my contact Tom will be arrested for consorting very soon.'
'18/1/77 Phone call from Tom. I suggested he come and see me this P.M. as wished to discuss the above with him and his forthcoming court appearances.'
But Mackie failed to turn up for the meeting.
'20/1/77 Phone call from Tom — apology for not keeping appointment. Had been arrested and charged with Consorting as he stepped from the phone box after calling yesterday.'
At the time, Mackie was on bail for two cases of minor assault. He was hardly an accomplished criminal — his entire record consisted of a few fines for summary offences, including theft and forgery, totalling a few hundred dollars — but Bass had set out to crush him. Mackie had racked up more than thirty bookings for consorting with other club members. In December 1976, Bass and his squad had made a seven-hour round trip to Minlaton on the remote Yorke Peninsula simply to catch the Descendants hanging out together in contravention of the Consorting Act. He could add another black mark to the Descendants' files, which would allow him to lay charges against the whole club.
With Mackie on remand in Adelaide Gaol, police poured on the pressure. They charged Tom and brother Perry with the theft of a safe in the northern suburbs. There were more assault charges and threats of more legal action against him.
His probation officer could hardly follow the myriad dramas Tom was living through. 'Somehow so much appears to be going on with Tom I am losing track of what charges are still pending,' Vincent noted in July 1977.
Tom's father had been a sailor and later a customs officer. He had a strong affinity with authority and order. His attitude was that if Tom and Perry's wild ways caused them grief with the police, then so be it. But he thought Bass was going too far in what seemed to be a campaign against his sons. The probation officer wrote: '9/5/77 Visited Tom's parents. Brother Perry was there too. Discussed at some length — Police confirmed Tom's views. Both Mr and Mrs Mackie extremely resentful and bitter toward them.'
Lew Vincent noted he would investigate the views of other parents of 'lads involved in consorting', and would see what action they could muster, 'e.g. Civil Liberties'. But public opinion, of course, was firmly behind the Bikie Squad. Dramatic stories of Bass's derring-do had appeared on the front page of the Advertiser while ABC TV's Weekend Magazine program had run a national story on 'The Bikie Cop'. Only a good lawyer could help Mackie now.
By September 1977, many members of the Descendants had been sentenced to jail terms of up to three months on consorting charges. Some sentences were suspended on condition that the members did not continue to associate. But of course, they continued to associate regardless, whether in or out of jail. Their bonds of friendship were now strengthened by their defiance of what they believed was an unjust law.
In jail Mackie and his club mates resolved to 'do the time on their ear'. If threatened with discipline or punishment, they would fiercely insist authorities carry it out. They would demand to work seven days a week in the hell of the jail's boiler room or laundry. While other lags feared a transfer to the maximum security jail at Yatala, they would insist upon it.
For the next year Mackie fought the charges. An eighteen-month sentence for assault was reduced on appeal to nine months. The state withdrew a larceny charge relating to the stolen safe and then dropped a lesser charge of illegal use.
Through it all, the club's resolve to remain together had only hardened. Bass had failed to break them. 'He couldn't whip, flog or hang us, so, having put us in jail, he could not punish us anymore,' Mackie now recalls.
But their jail experiences had pushed the Descendants to the margins. While in jail for petty crimes and consorting, some had learnt to be real criminals. The club leaders subsequently turned the focus of recruiting from the Saturday afternoon crowd on Rundle Street to the habitual criminals they had met in the boob. The Descendants rejected any notions of social conformity and embraced their bad boy status with gusto. Hard drugs like heroin began to dominate the recreational menu, where beer and cannabis had previously been the norm. Soon some of the lads were using or dealing heroin and LSD.
Their experiences with Sam Bass had taught them to be clever and cunning. No-one kept their stashes at home or anywhere else that could be linked to them. So, according to Mackie, police began loading them up. The heat just continued to ratchet up.
One night in early July 1979, the climax of this conflict was reached.
A Descendant nominee, 19-year-old Antonio 'Morelli' Esposito, and two club associates, Mick Carey and Dave De Angelis, arrived at the Arkaba Hotel in downtown Adelaide to do a drug deal. They had agreed to sell heroin to two customers from Melbourne staying in the hotel. But there was no heroin: this was a robbery. Armed with a shotgun and a knife they slipped on balaclavas and prepared to burst into the buyers' room. But the men inside weren't buyers; they were undercover cops.
Excerpted from Outlaws by Adam Shand. Copyright © 2011 Adam Shand. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSuburban man and the 1 per cent,
1 Media Mike and the moral panic,
2 The 99 per cent solution,
3 The punisher,
4 Avatar rising,
5 Killer days,
6 In the belly of the beast,
7 Dickhead magnet,
8 A private army,
9 Carefree highway,
10 Walk on by, brother,
11 A political opportunity,
12 Last stand at Stormy's,
13 God's gift,
14 The pushback,
15 A free horizon,
16 Outlawed motorcycle club,
17 Nuts to you all,
18 The good, the bad and the ugly,
19 Somewhat less than zero,