The decision was described by senior police last night as courageous and a perfectly sound operational move, despite suggestions that the two officers should have sought assistance first.
It resulted in the two officers, Detective-Sergeant John Kapetanovski and Senior Detective Rod MacDonald, suffering serious gunshot wounds, the fifth and sixth policemen to become victims of the late Max Clark.
The man who had earned his nickname by shooting four policemen in Noble Park eight months ago, died dramatically at the wheel of his panel van as it careered out of control through cow paddocks alongside the Hume Highway. His stomach had been blown to pieces by two shotgun blasts.
The shootout was the ending everyone expected. It was Clark who went on a four-hour rampage where he carefully selected and ambushed police targets after he was discovered on the roof of a Cheltenham factory on 19 June last year.
Clark, who was high on the Victoria Police most wanted list, tried once again yesterday to shoot policemen who dared to stand in his way.
In January, amid controversy over the way police had handled the hunt for Clark, formerly Pavel Marinov, Detective-Sergeant Kapetanovski was put in charge of the major crime squad team employed on the case because he speaks two Yugoslav languages and has an intimate knowledge of the community. He, Sergeant MacDonald and another officer had spent two days watching a house in Wyndam Street, in the fast developing town of Wallan, where a man described as similar to Max Clark had been staying with a young family.
Shortly before 9 am yesterday the man took two young children from the house to the Wallan Primary School and then drove off to the Hume Highway towards Melbourne.
The officers watching the house were not entirely sure that they had the right man because he had a beard and more hair than “Mad Max”, so they decided to take a chance and confront him while he was still in the bush.
It was their own decision and last night senior police rebutted suggestions from the secretary of the police union, Inspector Tom Rippon, that they should have been given back-up. The senior police said assistance had not been requested.
The two officers, in their light brown un-marked Commodore, drew level with the van and showed their police identification. The man acknowledged them, stopped and waited for the two plain clothes officers, both carrying shotguns and revolvers, to approach the vehicle.
The officers stood on each side of Clark’s van and ordered him to put his hands on the dashboard. But he distracted them momentarily by offering his wallet and then produced a 9 mm automatic pistol and shot them both.
The first two bullets slammed into Detective-Sergeant Kapetanovski’s shoulder and hand. Clark then whipped around and fired a third shot into the chest of Senior Detective MacDonald.
As Clark planted his foot on the accelerator in an attempt to make yet another escape, Senior Detective MacDonald lifted his 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and fired off two shots. The ultra-heavy pellets ripped through the van’s side and rear panels and into Clark’s stomach and right arm.
The van then veered sideways off the highway, smashing through a roadside post and the fence of a cow paddock belonging to Mr Angelo Garro.
It ploughed on up a hill, through six more wire fences and came to rest in a field of parched yellow grass and thistles nearly a kilometre from the scene of the shootings. The van was about 150 metres from the highway.
Not knowing what had happened to Clark, the police officers radioed for help and then flagged down a passing motorist and asked him to stop a truck or car with a CB radio to call an ambulance.
The man, a farmer on his way into town to get his car’s wind-screen replaced, stopped a truck and then escorted the wounded policemen as they staggered back into their car and drove down the highway towards Melbourne.
After eight kilometres Detective-Sergeant Kapetanovski gave up, stopped the car at a house at Craigieburn North and asked Mrs Santina Mangiafico to use the phone. He had driven with one arm while his partner bled profusely in the seat beside him.
She said that as he came into the house she saw his red T-shirt and thought the bloodstains were sweat. “He said: ‘I’m a policeman. I’ve been shot. I want some help. I want to call the police.’
Mrs Mangiafico said that as Detective-Sergeant Kapetanovski completed his call to police head-quarters, “he slumped to the floor. He had only Just made it to the phone”.
“The other policeman was sitting in the passenger seat,” she said. “I gave him a glass of water to drink but he couldn’t take it. He couldn’t move at all.”
Near the highway, a police helicopter had located the panel van and was carefully circling towards it, the crew looking for signs of life. The helicopter reported that a man was crouched in the front seat so police brought in officers from the special operations group to surround and rush the car in case Clark was about to open fire again on police officers.
Instead they found him dead, his large body sprawled sideways across the front of the car. But it was not until after they removed a wig that they were sure they had Max Clark.
The two injured officers were flown in the police helicopter to Fawkner Park and transferred to Prince Henry’s Hospital.
Detective-Sergeant Kapetanovski underwent surgery last night to remove a bullet from his shoulder. He has three bones shattered in his left hand and his condition was said to be serious but stable.
According to the hospital’s di-rector of emergency, Dr Allen Yuen, Detective-Sergeant Kapetanovski probably saved his own life with his instinctive movement to clutch his right shoulder after the first shot was fired at him. His hand deflected the second bullet.
For some time doctors were confused about the wounded left hand because the officer was too shocked to recall he had been shot a second time.
Senior Detective MacDonald has a punctured and collapsed right lung after a bullet passed through his chest. Doctors had to drain more than a litre of blood from his chest cavity to re-expand the lung. He was in intensive care last night where his condition was also described as serious but stable.
For some hours after the incident the officers’ blood-spattered car was left beside the Mangiafico house to bear witness to the drama that had taken place on the highway. There was a shotgun and Senior Detective MacDonald’s heavily bloodstained T-shirt and tracksuit top lying on the front seat and a pair of binoculars and a box of shotgun shells on the back seat.
Assistant Commissioner Kelvin Glare said the two men had taken a courageous decision to intercept when they did. “The person was heading towards a populated area,” he said. “They saw an opportunity to intercept him before he got into a crowded situation where even surveillance would have been difficult and even fraught with danger for others. They acted with great courage.”
Asked why the special operations group had not been employed, Mr Glare said: “The special operations group were too far away. By the time a rendezvous could have been arranged with the special operations group the person could well have been in a population area.”
Asked why the two officers had no other back-up, the assistant commissioner said there would not have been time. They had taken an operational decision and it was a good decision.
The officers had bullet-proof vests available but they had decided not to wear them.