Burnt out on the beat in Kings Cross
If you’d been in the back streets of Kings Cross in the late ’90s you might have seen Joe. He was the huge guy of Lebanese background, the one getting out of the Porsche with his hair in braids, wearing a white pinstripe suit and $20,000 of gold jewellery, and smoking a Cuban cigar. If you’d followed him and the attractive blonde woman on his arm down Kellett Street, you would have been led into the company of drug dealers and corrupt police.
Some of that company ended up in prison thanks to Joe, because he was an undercover cop. Joe was good at his job; as it turned out, too good. Thanks to poor supervision by his superior officers and a few bad decisions on his part, the job destroyed his health and, for a period, his mental equilibrium.
This week I met Joe, dressed in a white and green tracksuit and thongs. Years of using illegal steroids to bulk up so he could fit the role of a drug dealer and standover man destroyed his kidneys, and for much of the past few years he has been on dialysis. In March he got a new kidney but his body has started to reject it. He is desperately ill and his wife, whom we will call Jessie and who was the woman with him in Kings Cross, looked desperately concerned. They want the world to know how their situation has been caused by their shabby treatment from the NSW Police Force.
Joe’s training as an undercover officer in 1995 was a 10-day course at the police academy run by the experienced officer Mick Drury.
“It taught us a lot about drugs,” Joe says, “which was good because I’d never come across drugs before.” But he was to learn most of his skills on the job. “Every time I met with a crook I would take one aspect from him to help build my undercover character. For instance, one crook I dealt with would always finish a meeting by saying, ‘Are you happy? If you’re not happy, I’m not happy.’ I started using that on all my jobs, it became part of my undercover character.”
Joe’s early work involved infiltrating criminal networks, but in October 1997 he was hand-picked to join the Special Crime and Internal Affairs command. His new target would be corrupt police. He was the only undercover officer there until he was joined by Jessie, who was motivated to expose corrupt cops because of some bad dealings with police in the past.
Joe and Jessie did important work collecting information on certain Sydney police and the criminals they associated with. Undercover cops are not allowed to take illicit drugs, which presented difficulties Joe handled in various ways. One prominent Sydney drug dealer, Craig Haeusler, insisted he join him in a toilet to snort some powder. “Luckily I had long hair,” says Joe. “I leaned over and pretended I’d snorted it, then wiped it off [the top of the cistern].”
Joe fell in love with his new role and worked out in gyms frequented by crooks and started taking steroids. He says his bosses never commented on his weight increase from 75 to 145 kilos.
He changed his appearance further, adding earrings and tattoos, and spending $400 every six weeks having his hair braided. He was using all his salary on these things. (On one occasion the deputy commissioner, Ken Moroney, saw him with all his jewellery and said, “I hope we haven’t been paying for that.” Joe replied, “No sir.”) His behaviour changed, too, and he moved away from Islam and started smoking and drinking. “I think I got caught up in it,” he says, “I envied these people.”
Joe was still living in his family home, but only his parents could be told what he was doing. As far as everyone else knew, he was a cop living way beyond his means, wearing expensive jewellery and driving sports cars, and mixing with criminals. This put enormous pressure on his family and had tragic consequences for his younger brother, who learnt from friends that Joe was a big man up in the Cross. He was influenced by this and committed armed robbery and went to jail, something Joe deeply regrets.
Joe and Jessie’s most successful operation, called Craven, took place in Queensland. It led to the conviction of a number of corrupt police, including one who’d done undercover work himself.
The pressure on Joe and Jessie mounted. Joe learnt a $100,000 contract had been taken out on his life. Experts think two years is the maximum anyone should work undercover. Joe says he was induced to stay for five by unkept promises of promotion. The pair received almost no psychological testing, despite the well-established fact people in their line of work need continual monitoring by experts. They had no colleagues they could talk with because they were the only people in their unit, apart from supervisors.
In 2000 Joe’s physical and mental health began to give way. He and Jessie – they had recently become a couple – had a series of disputes with the police that ended with them leaving and an out-of-court settlement. The complicated details of this drawn-out affair are described in a new book by Clive Small and Tom Gilling, Betrayed (Allen & Unwin).
Jessie retrained as a school teacher, and Joe returned to religion. The couple have moved far from the parts of Sydney where they used to live and avoid places where criminals are likely to be found. But still Joe scans the faces of people around him when he goes out. Their car has tinted windows so they can’t be recognised.
Looking back, Joe says, “I went into the police to make a difference. But the most satisfying work I did was when I was in uniform, doing beat policing and talking in schools. I hope I helped one or two people.” Does he think locking up some drug dealers made a difference? “No. They say there’s a war on drugs but there’s no such thing. The police take 200 kilos off the street and say they’ve made a big dent, but the next day you can buy drugs for the same price. It makes no difference. For every importation they catch, five more get in.”
Jessie is more positive about their experience. “We would have made a difference in terms of police corruption,” she says. “It’s rare for undercover police to work on police successfully. I think that would have warned a few off.”
Joe shrugs his shoulders, unconvinced.