Sheu arrived first, police believe, to scout some targets and meet local contacts. They believe the gang was encouraged to come to Australia because there were ‘‘easy pickings’’. Sheu flew out, then returned ready for business.
Some tourists arrive with a selfie stick in their backpack. In the lining of the Albanians’ luggage were dismantled two-way radios and high-powered binoculars. Soon they were travelling Australia breaking into ATMs and often getting away with more than $100,000.
The first sign of the gang’s activities came when a plasma cutting set (a high-heat device to cut through metal) and other tools were found inside the Dandenong Basketball Stadium. The serial number showed Sheu bought the cutter a month earlier and when he was interviewed by police he told them the gear was stolen days before the break-in. When police took his DNA (to eliminate it from the alleged crooks’) he decided it was time to broaden his horizons.
Soon they were joined by Aniello Vinciguerra, who arrived on a false Italian passport. Much later it would be established that Vinciguerra was Bekim Zogaj, wanted over smuggling 13 people from Italy via Belgium into Ireland. Only five survived.
That was in 2001 and he would spend more than 10 years on the run. Convicted in his absence in 2003 he was grabbed in 2012, then bailed pending an appeal. He headed to Albania, then to Italy with his forged passport and ultimately Australia.
Enter Senior Detective Garth Beavis, then from the NSW Property Squad, who was investigating ram raid and ATM offences. Eventually he found 16 raids in Victoria, NSW and Queensland where the gang usually entered through the roof, disabled CCTV, alarm and telephone systems, then used cutting gear to disable the locks. Depending on the target they would collect anywhere between $25,000 and $180,000.
The jobs varied from the Melbourne Zoo to supermarkets and heavy mining outlets. They stole cash and any gear they thought could help them get cash.
There are often problems when crooks criss-cross Australia, as our law enforcement is usually based on state police. This time Beavis would seek and gain the co-operation of officers in Victoria, NSW, South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, Border Patrol, Interpol and the FBI. He became lead investigator in Strike Force Chiver – the investigation that would spread around the world. It would emerge that at least one of the crew honed his skills not in Albania but in the United States, pulling similar jobs in the states of Wisconsin, South Carolina, Ohio and New York.
If it was a working holiday the gang weren’t slacking off, hitting 10 targets on NSW’s east coast in four months. They flew into Cairns for a busy long weekend – stealing eight oxyacetylene bottles from a gas retailer, then $65,000 from a Commonwealth Bank ATM.
In West Sydney they raided a Coles Express, grabbed $7000 from one safe, $30,000 from a note reader and $60,000 from an ATM. It would have been an outstanding success if they hadn’t been spooked and left gear that provided a DNA match to Sheu’s sample from the Dandenong job.
In late 2014 Beavis contacted police in Melbourne and began to work with Senior Detective Peter Jessop. Soon police found the gang holed up in three Tullamarine townhouses in a compound protected by a large fence and electric gates – the chronic crooks knew the value of state-of-the-art security.
Later DNA samples would link the gang to marijuana crop houses in Victoria and South Australia.
Soon after police found their headquarters, the four main offenders – Sheu, Vinciguerra, Nika and Boka – headed off on a crime road trip in two four-wheel-drives. Think Thelma & Louise meets Crocodile Dundee with Albanian subtitles. Victoria Police followed them to the South Australian border, where they were picked up by Adelaide surveillance officers. The chase was on.
The four set up camp in an Adelaide motel and over four days checked out ATMs, furiously taking notes for use in later raids. Despite using counter-surveillance tactics, the gang didn’t spot police watching them, planning to catch them in the act.
Police watched as the four loaded their cars preparing for a job. Suddenly they became spooked after seeing a suspicious car nearby. They scurried inside and immediately abandoned the job. The car they spotted was not a surveillance vehicle but a security driver waiting for an escort working in one of the motel rooms.
Next day the four headed off through Port Augusta, Coober Pedy and into the Northern Territory, where they were again followed by local police. According to Beavis they drove around 3000 kilometres in three days to try and flush out any police tailing them.
Occasionally they stopped to take cheesy tourist snaps – maybe to justify the trip if they were questioned or maybe just because they liked cheesy tourist snaps.
Darwin in December is hot and steamy. Many of the usual tourist spots are closed and locals stay inside whenever possible. Yet our crooks, now split into two crews, headed to every Woolworths store in Darwin, buying just a few bottles of water. Clearly checking out ATMs is thirsty work.
Finally the two teams merged for a late-night raid on a Darwin shopping centre – followed by police. The shops blacked out as the gang sabotaged the power flow but this time they failed to open an ATM. As they left local police stopped them in what is quaintly called a ‘‘Hostile Vehicle Apprehension’’. Put it this way, the vehicles handled 3000 kilometres of rough roads but barely survived the police intercept, which left most of their windows shattered.
In an excellent Australian Police Journal report on Strike Force Chiver, Beavis writes with wonderful understatement: ‘‘All males were compliant and the apprehension completed without injury.’’ The Journal piece was central to this article (research is a more generous word than a nasty one such as plagiarism).
According to Beavis, the four suspects were more than happy to be extradited to Sydney to face charges, if only to escape the Top End’s humidity. He said none of the proceeds were recovered: ‘‘We honestly don’t know how much they stole. We know funds were sent overseas and they lived lavish lifestyles while they were here.’’
In NSW Nika was sentenced to a minimum of nine years, Sheu eight and Boka seven. Vinciguerra was sentenced to a minimum of 10 years. DNA confirms they pulled four ATM jobs in Melbourne, although they were never charged.
On completion of their sentences they will be deported, with Vinciguerra likely to again face the multiple manslaughter charges over the 2001 people smuggling deaths.
There have been thousands of stories about ethnic gangs in Australia – Mafia, Middle Eastern and Asian – yet it has always been said in the underworld that you mess with Albanian criminals at your peril.
Standover man turned author and crime historian the late Mark Brandon ‘‘Chopper’’ Read said the small Albanian crime cell in Melbourne was the most dangerous. At his wedding, for reasons never fully explained, when the band began to play Albanian folk music many of the serious-looking men with bulges under their jackets took to the dance floor.
Although not Albanian and not acquainted with the subtleties of the Adriatic state’s musical culture, I had sufficient shiraz on board to join the group, finding myself arm-in-arm with the leader – a man wearing impossibly shiny gold shoes.
Some time later, after an underworld murder, I asked Mark if he had any clues to the killer. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ he said, ‘‘But you may have been dancing with him.’’
That murder remains unsolved.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.