The arrests last week of two suspects in the notorious 2003 murder of vampire gigolo Shane Chartres-Abbott have done more than prick the ears of Underbelly script writers — they have also piqued the interest of media watchers who wondered how national broadsheet The Australian would report it.
The Oz, Crikey readers would recall, has strongly argued — in editorials, features and general news pieces — that the five-year-old Operation Briars was ” a “bad joke”, a “failed probe” and — just two months ago — “one of the most hopeless beat-ups in the history of Australian policing”.
Now, that same investigation has managed to get charges laid against Warren Shea and former kickboxer Evangelos Goussis as a result of an investigation assisted by the Australian Crime Commission.
The paper’s argument has always been that there could be no substance to Briars because it was based on the evidence of a notorious hitman and liar, “Jack Price”, whose real name cannot be published. Price had alleged that two former police officers — David “Docket” Waters and Peter “Stash” Lalor — had been complicit in the murder and that Lalor had provided him with Chartres-Abbott’s Reservoir address. It was reported that police will argue that Shea, a childhood friend of Mark Perry’s, acted as the middle man to secure Price’s services.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
(On the morning of the murder, Chartres-Abbott was due to front court on the r-pe and bashing of Perry’s girlfriend. But there was the suggestion that his death was not just revenge for that incident, but that the self-professed vampire might be about to name in court several of his high-profile s-x clients).
There is no question that Price has a dubious record of spinning the facts to suit his own ends, as John Silvester has repeatedly pointed out. But, on the other hand, the DPP doesn’t recommend charges on people lightly. It remains to be seen what other evidence is presented.
The Australian argues that Briars and spin-off operation Diana, had been propped up, Weekend at Bernie’s-style, by a vendetta waged by former chief commissioner Simon Overland against his internal enemies, notably former union chief Paul Mullett and assistant commissioner Noel Ashby.
But the Victorian public now know that it is not just police that believe the hitman’s evidence. The DPP also thinks that Price’s word — along with whatever corroborating evidence there is — is enough to justify two murder charges.
The Oz‘s campaign has been nothing if not relentless. Last month, the paper was reporting Mullett’s and Ashby’s view that Briars was an “illegal and malicious beat-up that led to miscarriages of justice, and ruined careers and reputations.” In June, a critical article appeared on the front page.
In December, the thoughts of Price’s then-lawyer Bernie Balmer were aired. And then there was this memorable 2010 yarn advancing Waters’ theory (who left the force in 2002 and was charged and acquitted of drugs offences) that Price couldn’t have done the murder because he wasn’t a fast runner.
There are also logistical problems with the theory of simply dismissing Price’s evidence. It is established that Price and Balmer attended Prahran police station on the day of Chartres-Abbott’s murder — staffed by Peter Lalor — so outstanding warrants for driving offences could be executed. The contention appears to be that Price had deliberately set-up the meeting so he could then confess four years later to a crime he didn’t commit.
So how did The Oz respond to last week’s charges? It would seem difficult to maintain that the DPP — like force command — had also been suckered by a lying hitman.
On Saturday, the paper revealed that force command — Overland, assistant commissioner Luke Cornelius and Office of Police Integrity deputy director Graham Ashton — had ignored suggestions from investigators that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. The suggestion appeared to be that a retrospective cold case should have been dumped because the DPP was reluctant to authorise charges. Of course, if Briars was terminated at that point three years ago, last week’s charges wouldn’t have eventuated.
As Paul Millar and Nick McKenzie wrote in The Age last week, until Price confessed to the murder and alleged police involvement in 2006, detectives “had no information linking the hitman, Perry, or Shea to the plot.” The Oz’s general theory is that Price fingered himself and his accomplices in a deal with police and the DPP to ensure his existing 19-year sentence for the slayings of Lewis Caine and Lewis Moran was not inflated further.
The Oz has done some good work on the case — its coverage of Diana, an investigation into leaks from Briars implicating Overland and VicPol media manager Stephen Linnell, made interesting points despite suspicions, pointed out by Margaret Simons back in 2010 of a tendency to overreach given the substance had been reported by The Sunday Age‘s Mel Fyfe nine months earlier. Simons said the campaign represented “something warped and dangerous in journalism”, a claim vigorously denied by journalist Hedley Thomas (Thomas declined to comment this morning). And importantly, its main sources, Waters and Lalor, have not been charged.
For most readers it is likely the claims and counter-claims have become an impenetrable sideshow of vested interests and vitriol. But now, with witnesses queuing up to testify, the near decade-long saga seems unlikely to drift away.