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You judge: who is Victoria’s Cop of the Year?

Do yourself a favour – if you really like someone, buy them Royko’s anthology One More Time. If you don’t like them, buy them a copy of Mokbelly, a crime book I co-authored. A glitch in the system meant the corrections and the original copy appeared together – which means it is as coherent as an 18th-century African missionary speaking in tongues after ingesting a gutful of backyard meth. It is a crime book that remains a crime against literacy. No wonder Tony Mokbel came to refer to me as ‘‘The Bald-Headed Alien’’.

Then again, Tony is serving time while I’m getting served free Christmas drinks at the office party, so I think we know who’s getting the better deal.

As this columnist is the consummate team player, we are prepared to embrace synergy in a big way – beginning with this very article. For many years now on 3AW’s ratings juggernaut, the breakfast program, I have judged the prestigious Police Officer of the Year Award. This column in The Age will provide the nominations and readers here and listeners there will decide the winner via votes on the 3AW website.

Previous winners have included such legends as John ‘‘The Pope’’ Morrish (so named because suspects felt compelled to burst into tears, confess and beg forgiveness) and Rod ‘‘Rocket’’ Wilson, whose team caught Frankston serial killer Paul Charles Denyer. Pope was a mentor to Rocket at Brunswick but in retirement they have chosen different paths: John spends most of his time these days in his man cave carving up hardwood while Rod can be found in a house in the south of France carving up soft cheese.

In the last year police have been subject to massive criticism over barrister-turned-informer Nicola Gobbo, the response to Bourke Street killer James Gargasoulas, a raid in Fitzroy that injured a local and shooting a couple who were armed with a toy gun.

But in our Officer of the Year nominees we see policing at its purest: An off-duty cop who risked his life for the community, a detective who cracked the Dark Web to trap a drug dealer and a local policewoman whose observational skills helped solve a dreadful murder.

Catching a killer

Leading Senior Constable Alison Keppel, a 33-year veteran, has spent nearly all of her career working the Greensborough-Preston area and knows it intimately. It is her Great Keppel Island. That knowledge helped solve the terrible murder of Aiia Maasarwe, who in January was ambushed and stabbed to death in Bundoora by Codey Herrmann in a random and still unexplained attack.

Alison Keppel: Used local knowledge to help crack a murder.

Alison Keppel: Used local knowledge to help crack a murder.Credit:Joe Armao

About a week earlier Keppel was on patrol in her patch: “I had been out and about in Greensborough and saw a group over at a bus stop. There were a few there that I didn’t recognise. I went over and had a chat – I hadn’t seen Codey before, he said he had been couch surfing and he seemed quite disengaged.”

There is something the best cops have – a combination of talent, experience, instinct and natural curiosity. They see what others don’t.

‘‘There was something about him that piqued my interest. I’m a prolific note-taker and I can’t explain why but I looked at his cap and thought ‘I’ll see that again’. It was a black baseball cap with 1986 [printed on it] and I thought I might see it on some CCTV as part of a property crime. I didn’t think it would be anything like Aiia.’’

The day after the murder, Keppel and other local police were assigned to become a visible presence to reassure the community. On the way back she went to the police caravan at the crime scene where they were preparing to comb the area again for clues. She was shown photos of clothing that had been abandoned by the killer. There was a black 1986 cap.

The black cap found at the scene. Alison knew it belonged to Codey Herrmann, since convicted of the murder of Aiia Maasarwe.

The black cap found at the scene. Alison knew it belonged to Codey Herrmann, since convicted of the murder of Aiia Maasarwe.Credit:Victoria Police

At first the penny didn’t drop and then she thought: ‘‘Oh my God that’s the hat from Greensborough.’’

She checked her notebook and gave homicide the name. He immediately became the subject of a statewide search. But Herrmann was on the move and still at large the following morning.

At the station, Keppel’s senior sergeant gave her a simple instruction: ‘‘Go find him.’’

With a detective she took off and, knowing her patch, started looking where the troubled liked to congregate. The third stop was a local park, where she saw him. ‘‘We had a conversation. He was as quiet as a mouse.’’

She arrested him and homicide drove to the park to take him into custody and question him. ‘‘I knew he would have been identified and arrested. I was just happy to assist.’’

Keppel’s father was legendary detective Rex Topp, who in 1979 somehow managed to intercept Sydney gangster Stan ‘‘The Man’’ Smith at Melbourne Airport when he was looking to expand his corrupt empire into Victoria. For some reason Topp checked Smith’s top pocket and found a matchbox full of cannabis. Smith was jailed and later fled to NSW, saying: ‘‘The cops run red hot down there.’’

Putting life on the line

It was four days before Christmas in 2017 and Sergeant Francis Adams was planning his version of power shopping – getting gifts for his family in as little time as possible.

Having jumped off a tram, he was about to head up Elizabeth Street when he heard a commotion behind him. A man in a Suzuki had deliberately pulled out into one of Melbourne’s busiest pedestrian crossings to run over as many people as possible. He hit 17 and killed one before he ran into a tram barricade.

Adams was unarmed and could have been excused for taking cover. Instead he knew that while the car was stationary the attack may not be over, as terrorists usually continue to kill as many people as possible before being shot by police. “I thought if he had a knife or a gun I would try and take it from him. I also thought he might try and detonate something.”

Francis Adams, left, the veteran police officer who was off duty but compelled to act during the December 2017 car attack.

Francis Adams, left, the veteran police officer who was off duty but compelled to act during the December 2017 car attack.

He dragged the offender from the car and tried to keep control of his arms so he couldn’t detonate a bomb. ‘‘I remember taking a big breath and thinking ‘if he detonates I’m screwed’. I accepted that if this thing goes bang with me on top of him, I will get it.’’ He continued to squeeze the offender’s throat until he was no longer a threat. ‘‘I was prepared to deal with the consequences later.’’ In other words, he was prepared to kill him.

The offender (we won’t name him, as these clowns like the publicity) went limp, was arrested, charged and convicted.

Adams did not know it at the time but he had suffered serious injuries. A finger on his right hand was badly damaged, his left shoulder smashed and just recently an MRI discovered an undiagnosed fractured ankle. He will retire in February and should be used as a guest lecturer at the Police Academy to impress upon recruits their duty to act to protect the community. He must also surely be given the Valour Award for exceptional bravery.

A light on the Dark Web

A Serbian refugee, Senior Detective Igor Rusmir knows a fair bit about overcoming adversity and so he was handed a seemingly impossible case. A young man had died of a drug overdose in Perth and his family believed the drugs (lethal fentanyl) had come from a dealer in Melbourne. The trouble was the purchases were done under the cover of the Dark Web.

Senior Detective Igor Rusmir receives the Mick Miller Detective of the Year Award from Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh (left), Deputy Commissioner Wendy Steendam and Mick Miller's son Geoff.

Senior Detective Igor Rusmir receives the Mick Miller Detective of the Year Award from Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh (left), Deputy Commissioner Wendy Steendam and Mick Miller’s son Geoff.Credit:Victoria Police

With help from the E-Crime Squad, Rusmir learnt how to delve into the Dark Web and found the identity of the cyber-protected dealer who provided the drugs to Henry Phillips, 25, who in March 2017 died after taking fentanyl.

The dealer was a national manager of a large firm who was himself a regular fentanyl user. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine and has caused an epidemic of fatal overdoses in the US and Canada. When Rusmir started his investigation there were six Dark Web fentanyl dealers in Australia. Now there are 106.

You can vote for John Silvester’s Police Officer of the Year at https://www.3aw.com.au/vote-for-slys-2019-police-officer-of-the-year/

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