Back then there was no one more protected than the detestable Abraham Gilbert Saffron, the man they called Mr Sin.
The policeman put in charge of the Luna Park investigation was Detective Inspector Doug Knight, who was neither an arson nor homicide expert. Five years earlier a Royal Commission found him to be a liar and in business with a Saffron associate. The only cop who apparently didn’t know Knight was a crook was Commissioner Cec Abbott, who said in 1982: “In my own personal opinion (he) is a highly intellectual person and one who performs most efficiently.” (More of Cec later.)
Can there be a worse crime than covering up the murder of seven people, including six children? After his pathetic investigation Knight was twice promoted, retiring a superintendent.
Years later the National Crime Authority reviewed the Luna Park investigation. It found: “Luna Park, it was alleged, had been coveted by Saffron for over 20 years and the fire in the ghost train had been lit as a trigger to evict the incumbent tenants and gain control of the park lease for himself.”
It found insufficient evidence to charge but did pinch him for tax evasion, finally sending Abe to jail where he belonged. At the point of arrest his reputation – and the red boxer shorts he was wearing – became hopelessly stained.
Saffron built a vice empire on a triangular business model – the three points were bribery, blackmail and arson.
He organised sex, often with underage boys and girls, secretly photographing patrons for later use against them. He paid bribes to police – $750 per club for local police and $5000 a week for senior police – and was so brazen he repeatedly visited the bent Deputy Commissioner Bill Allen at headquarters.
Victoria Police mounted a secret surveillance operation (without telling NSW cops) after being tipped off Allen would leave his office at the same time each week to take a slice of the bribe money (Saffron was only one of many contributors) to be distributed to key politicians. As predicted he left police HQ at the exact nominated time and was followed as he wandered with lunchtime crowds in Macquarie Street on his way to Parliament House. Allen was part of the Luna Park cover-up.
The third point of the triangle was arson. Seven Saffron properties, bars, massage parlours and nightclubs caught fire between 1980 and 1982. At inquest he was implicated in four and, surprise, surprise, the authorities failed to prosecute.
Instead of trying to conceal his smouldering reputation, he used it to make even more money.
One honest (and tough) Melbourne businessman bought a two-star hotel in Sydney for $2 million, unaware it was a Saffron property.
Three days before settlement Saffron reached out to him, saying the new price was $2.25 million. When the Melbourne man mentioned the iron-clad contract, Saffron responded: “What if there was a fire? What if one of your hotels burnt down? Or more than one? People could be hurt, businesses closed, insurance premiums could go through the roof. It would be a tragedy.”
The Melbourne man paid the extra $225,000.
Saffron had senior police, premiers, federal politicians and judges on his payroll. (Former attorney- general and High Court judge Lionel Murphy was a special friend.)
As an old man Saffron tried to use his power to rewrite history. He started to donate dirty money to charity and sue anyone who called him Mr Sin, including me. At the same time court records started to “disappear” from official holdings. It was as if it never happened. But it did.
While you can buy some cops and some friends, you can’t buy a reputation. You earn that. Abraham Gilbert Saffron died in 2006 a gangster, a parasite, a corrupter and a killer. The world is a better place with his passing.
Here is just a small personal example of how the Sydney System worked.
“In summary no evidence of a substantive nature was produced which would prove such an allegation.”
Police Commissioner Cec Abbott after his “exhaustive” investigaton.
A group of NSW criminal intelligence police, sick of the fix, started an illegal bugging campaign to gather information on protected crooks. One was drug boss Aussie Bob Trimbole,a likely target of a proposed royal commission.
The tapes picked up chatty conversations with a NSW police officer Trimbole called “The Gardener”. Trimbole was fishing. In multiple conversations to multiple sources he asked if there would be a commission.
He fled Australia in 1981. Three weeks later a Royal Commission was established under the gun barrel-straight Justice Donald Stewart (a former NSW policeman who saw the corruption first-hand).
On June 23, 1983, I published a story highlighting the questionable relationship between Trimbole and The Gardener. It was not a big story in Melbourne but in Sydney they went nuts.
I was accused in Parliament of having a pathological hatred of NSW Police. Commissioner Cec Abbott was livid, saying it was outrageous lie but, in the interests of justice, he would order an exhaustive investigation.
On June 27, 1983, I was interviewed by two stern-looking NSW Internal Affairs detectives who flew all the way from Sydney in search of the truth. They wore dark suits and furrowed brows (so they must have been serious) as they walked into the Russell Street press rooms just after 2pm.
They managed to ask a total of seven related questions – four regarding the source of the story and three the identity of the alleged corrupt leak.
What I did tell them was Trimbole had been tipped off by a second source. “This information, plus the evidence about The Gardener, was given to a senior NSW policeman who destroyed this evidence,” I told them.
They asked his name and I declined to give it, although it was obviously someone in criminal intelligence. They looked at each other, put their pens away, closed their government-issue folders, packed up their portable typewriter, made their excuses and left.
The typed record of interview went just over one page.
Here was not one but two bombshells. A middle-ranking cop had buddied up to Australia’s number one drug boss and a senior officer had covered it up. They could have checked files, seized diaries, looked for whistleblowers, identified witnesses at a bar used for secret meetings and run a comprehensive investigation.
What did they do? They closed the file in three days. On July 1, Abbott released a statement that after receiving a report (they interviewed me for 20 minutes on the Monday – he got the report on Thursday) the matter was closed: “In summary no evidence of a substantive nature was produced which would prove such an allegation.”
Abbott may have considered the matter closed but Justice Stewart didn’t. Less than two weeks later I was in his witness box at a secret session in Sydney. I told him Trimbole had been illegally bugged talking to The Gardener and gave him 27 pages of handwritten notes of the conversations.
The police who bugged the buggers gave evidence saying a senior Criminal Intelligence officer played The Gardener the tapes and showed him the transcripts, blowing the secret bugging operation.
The Gardener gave evidence to the Commission on Monday November 26, 1984. He entered as a high-flyer (NSW Police had wanted him to be the liaison officer for the Stewart Commission). He left the witness box with his reputation in tatters. He retired on the Friday.
He told Justice Stewart his relationship with Trimbole was perfectly professional and conducted with the knowledge of then Assistant Commissioner Abbott. (Funny Abbott didn’t mention this when bagging my story and ordering a three-day “exhaustive” inquiry.)
The Gardener produced his type-written notes, all signed Sergeant First Class. The trouble was that at the time he was Sergeant Second Class. “He could offer no explanation as to why he would misrepresent his rank on the notes,” Stewart found.
But I can: he faked them.
No charges were ever laid against anyone for accepting bribes from Aussie Bob. Trimbole, Australia’s most wanted fugitive, died of natural causes in Spain in 1987, a free man.
John Silvester is a columnist.