Fontana, known in the job for more than 40 years as Fonze, drove up next to the cab when the gunman, the notorious Amos Atkinson, pointed the barrel at him. “I ducked under the steering wheel,” but he didn’t stop.
Eventually, they trapped Atkinson in Meyers Place, a narrow city lane. It was March 31, 1978.
Atkinson fired a few shots, then police fired back. “We were nearly hit by friendly fire,” recalls Fonze.
He glanced back at his van to see the doors open, lights flashing and steam pouring from the radiator.
Atkinson charged up the wooden stairs to the Waiters’ Club, taking 30 patrons and staff hostage and saying that if Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read was not released from Pentridge Prison, he would start killing his hostages one by one.
The newly formed Special Operations Group was dispatched, with a sniper stationed in a building across the lane told to kill Atkinson if he moved his shotgun towards the hostages.
The stalemate was broken when Atkinson asked to see his mother who, it turned out, didn’t approve of her son’s nocturnal activities.
Clad in her dressing gown, she marched up the stairs to dress him down, bonking him on the head with her handbag and telling him to stop being stupid.
He did what he was told and released his hostages.
Fontana is reflecting on his 45-year career on his last day before retirement. He has spent most of his time at the sharp end of investigations.
In policing, where backstabbing is a dark art form, Fonze is a strange bird. In four decades, I have never heard anyone say a bad word about him.
The Waiters’ Club would not be Fontana’s only brush with a shotgun. Transferred to Dandenong, he and his inspector came across a similarly armed man. Even though both police drew their handguns, he refused to drop the shotty. The police would have been entitled to shoot him but instead Fonze walked up and took the shotgun: “I just felt he wasn’t going to shoot.”
The inspector, Carl Mengler, was impressed. This plus the fact Fontana was a first-class crook catcher set him apart as one to watch.
In March 1982, another respected crook catcher, Johnny Weel, pulled over two cars filled with Mafia-grown cannabis. One of the men arrested, Gianfranco Tizzoni, would become a star informer.
Tizzoni said he had recruited Melbourne hitman and armed robber James Frederick “Mr Cool” Bazley to kill Griffith anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay, who went missing in July 1977.
Bazley also killed drug couriers Isabel and Douglas Wilson, whose bodies were found buried in Rye in May 1979.
As a result of the tip-off, police set up taskforce Trio under the command of Carl Mengler, who handpicked a team of elite investigators — including Fontana.
Mackay was murdered in NSW but as the plot was hatched in Melbourne, the taskforce planned to charge Bazley with conspiracy to murder.
The case had been ineptly investigated in NSW by Big Joe Parrington, a Sydney detective with an inflated view of his own ability.
Parrington saw taskforce Trio not as colleagues but competitors and hid information from them, hoping to swoop in and charge Bazley in NSW.
When Parrington first turned up in Melbourne, he refused to talk to the detectives assigned to brief him, saying: “In NSW, we talk to the organ grinder and not the monkeys.”
Fontana says: “Joe Parrington came down – he looked exactly like Lee Marvin – and told us we would never solve it.”
But they did. “Bazley was old school. When he was interviewed he didn’t say a word to us. At the end all he said was ‘Put it [his record of interview] in my back pocket’.”
Bazley was sentenced to life in 1986 for the murders of the Wilsons, nine years for the conspiracy to murder Mackay and a further nine years for a $270,000 armed robbery.
At a subsequent inquiry, Parrington was exposed as “impeding Victorian police officers and Crown law authorities in the prosecution of murder”.
The bickering had a lasting effect on Fontana: “Co-operation is the greatest weapon against organised crime.”
The gun dealer who provided the weapons, George Joseph, eventually made a statement to police. Joseph loved to make homemade liqueur chocolates and for decades, he would send batches to Fontana. Even the crooks liked him.
One of his most difficult and rewarding investigations was into The Shadow, a serial rapist who terrorised Caulfield for four years.
Police increased patrols in the area but the offender was an experienced burglar who knew how to move in the shadows.
Fontana checked the files on nearly 50 unsolved rapes and saw a pattern in about 16 cases. They were all around Narong Road, the rapist targeting women who lived alone in ground-floor flats.
The offender would sometimes burgle the flat, confirm the resident was a lone female and then return to attack.
Fontana put a policeman in a flat that had been recently burgled and occupied by a lone female. Sure enough The Shadow returned and although he initially escaped, police found the registration of a car linked to convicted burglar George Kaufman. “Every time he was released from prison, there would be a rape within days,” says Fontana.
“Eventually, he was charged with multiple rapes and sentenced to 21 years.”
His experience in tracking serial sex offenders led to his selection as senior investigator on the Spectrum taskforce – the hunt for the child sex offender known as Mr Cruel.
Mr Cruel was the prime suspect in a series of sex attacks, including three on schoolgirls in their own homes. The last suspected attack was on 13-year-old Karmein Chan, taken from her family’s Templestowe home in April 1991 while her parents were at work. A year later, her body was found in landfill at Thomastown. She had been shot three times in the back of the head.
The Spectrum taskforce would operate for 29 months and cost almost $4 million. The 40 investigators would examine 27,000 suspects, deal with 10,000 tips and check 30,000 houses. They arrested 73 people on a range of offences, many relating to sex crimes.
But they were not able to identify Mr Cruel. Asked if they were ever close to finding him, Fonze says: “I wish I knew.”
Serial sex offenders usually continue until they are caught or die. Yet Mr Cruel stopped, possibly because the murder was a step too far or he died, was jailed or sought treatment.
“He was a cold and calculating offender. Perhaps we spoke to him and that scared him off,” says Fontana.
Fonze worked in anti-corruption areas and was devastated when in 2004, police informer Terence Hodson and his wife, Christine, were murdered to silence them.
Fontana led the State Emergency and Security Department dealing with anything from terrorism to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, swine flu, floods and locust plagues.
In 2012, Fonze was appointed Assistant Commissioner (Crime) and — remembering his experience from the Trio days — encouraged a program of co-operation with the Australian Federal Police, Border Force, Australia Post, the tax office, the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission and state police forces.
This resulted in joint investigations into the infiltration of maritime ports by organised crime, syndicates using mail to import drugs, cyber crime and international operations into outlaw motorcycle gangs.
The biggest shock, he says, is the widespread appetite for child pornography. Police monitor known sites and when they are accessed, it creates a pinprick on a map of Victoria. The results are depressing – the police map of Melbourne is covered with thousands of dots, each one representing someone accessing child porn, each one exploiting a child. The child is often from a third world country.
One international syndicate was run by a young man from his northern suburbs home.
Fontana asked to view the material his detectives had found and what he saw and heard left the veteran investigator shaken. “I was fuming really. It is disgraceful and so widespread.”
He began to lobby politicians for tougher jail terms for offenders. He got his way.
In his last two years, he has overseen the greatest rollout of technology and communications gear in the history of Victoria Police. It was a long way from when he left the Academy with a rubber baton, a Browning pistol and a shiny set of handcuffs.
Steve had vague retirement plans but when he came home and found his wife Sue had left a blank passport application on the bench, he knew it was time.
“Do you think she was trying to tell me something?”
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.