O’Brien was given the unenviable task of running the clandestine laboratory squad, which was gutted after detectives corrupted a scheme in which police would buy ingredients to manufacture drugs then sell them to dealers. It was meant to be a tool to catch criminals but some officers instead used it to line their own pockets.
“I’ve walked into a minefield, basically,” O’Brien, who went on to head gangland taskforce Purana, told the royal commission into police informers this week.
The inquiry has been dubbed the “Gobbo royal commission”, so focused has it been on barrister-turned-informer Nicola Gobbo, who is yet to give evidence. But the state’s most senior police, past and present, are under even greater scrutiny than the disgraced lawyer.
O’Brien’s evidence this week offered a glimpse into how corruption shattered good cops and why police chose to take the gamble on Gobbo.
During O’Brien’s tenure at the drug squad, he said the force moved from “one passage of chaotic behaviour” to the next, with his team continually under review and several of its members investigated.
It was akin to “being a babysitter for the executioner, not knowing who around us was to fall next”.
He rebuilt the squad, only for two more of his detectives, David Miechel and Paul Dale, to be charged over robbing a drug house that had been the target of one of the squad’s investigations.
O’Brien’s bitterness towards Miechel, caught trying to flee the Oakleigh house by the dog squad, and Dale, who eventually beat his charges, was clear during his six days of evidence.
Asked by counsel assisting the commission about Miechel’s “probable” involvement in the burglary, a frustrated O’Brien folded his arms and replied: “Not probably, he bashed the dog handler with a torch and was bitten by a police dog … he had his calf chewed off.”
O’Brien’s disdain for Miechel and Dale was only surpassed by his contempt to Tony Mokbel.
Then one of Victoria’s most-wanted drug traffickers, Mokbel arranged a meeting in April 2004 with two detectives at Yarra Bend Park in Fairfield.
He wanted to use the corruption scandals as a wedge to get the cops off his back. He told them he’d keep his mouth shut about more police criminality and stave-off a royal commission. His associates would serve heavily reduced jail stints and in exchange he would end the gangland war.
Mokbel’s mate, a clothing store owner, then offered to dress the Purana taskforce in Versace suits.
The drug kingpin’s arrogance incensed O’Brien and strengthened his resolve to bring him down.
“He believed he held himself in such a position of power in this state. That he controlled things and controlled people,” O’Brien said.
Enter Nicola Gobbo, a peripheral player in Mokbel’s syndicate who was in too deep and wanted out.
Police registered her as an informer, believing they could navigate the tangled web of information she provided, separating intelligence classed confidential because of her lawyer status from information they could use about crimes.
Gobbo claims she had a hand in hundreds of arrests – including Mokbel after he fled to Greece – but O’Brien said some of her intelligence was “garbage”.
He did credit her, however, with two things. The first was her information about contact numbers of police targets who would chop and change mobile phones.
“Things like that were obviously imperative around what warrants were up – we monitored something like 328,000 telephone calls during the course of it,” O’Brien said.
And the second was the information she provided in 2006 about a drug cook client, who had become infatuated with her, that led to police busting a drug lab.
“I don’t know whether we would have located this lab without this information,” he said.
After the cook was arrested, she was his first point of call. She pretended to be in his corner, but gave her handlers information about how best to get him to “roll” on Mokbel’s brother.
“You won’t get anywhere – you won’t get anywhere with him unless you allow him to chain-smoke,” she said.
She and the police knew the precarious position she was in and the ramifications if her involvement in his arrest ever came out.
“The general ethics of all of this is f—ed,” she said.
Her police handlers have told the commission they tried to wind her up as a source after that. But they still received thousands of pieces of information from her up until she was deregistered in 2009.
The consistent explanation from police so far was that ethics were hers to manage and her use was sanctioned by police top brass.
O’Brien, scarred by the execution murder of another police informer, Terence Hodson, and his wife Christine, gave a telling answer when asked if police ignored their obligations to the justice system.
“I didn’t turn my mind to that,” he said.
“I had been through the Hodsons, so my full focus was her personal safety.”
Whether or not the woman at the centre of the commission will tell her side of the story remains a live issue.
She has been served with a notice to attend, but it is unclear if she will front up and whether the commission could compel her to give evidence.
Commissioner Margaret McMurdo is expected to address this issue when the commission continues next week.
Tammy Mills is a Crime Reporter for The Age.