In the world of policing it is normally the squad detectives who get the top billing.
These investigators are the ones who take on the professional crooks and the headline-grabbing cases. They are the heavy hitters, especially the old armed robbery squad boys who took a suspect’s refusal to confess as a personal insult that required a vigorous and protracted counter-argument.
In reality the vast majority of crimes are solved by station detectives and uniform police who do so with barely any public recognition.
Which brings us to Detective Sergeant Nick Goodear, then of the Yarra CIU, who uncovered an entrenched organised group that relied on corruption to control a lucrative vice network, laundering truckloads of cash in the process.
And while he was not a one-man band, it is fair to say that for most of the investigation he played lead guitar and drums, as well as producing the vocals.
It wasn’t even his patch. He was a sergeant from Fitzroy, who in 2010 was upgraded to acting detective sergeant just down the road at Richmond.
So when he received intelligence that illegal brothels were being protected by a former policeman-turned-council investigator, he could have left it for the next bloke.
No one would have blamed him if he had flicked it up the chain, written a few nice reports and hoped that someone down at the St Kilda Road Crime Complex got off their shiny bottoms to have a go.
For more than 10 years it was an open secret that there was a web of unlicensed brothels working in Richmond, Collingwood and Clifton Hill, often using illegal immigrants and swapping sex workers between businesses.
Those allegations are difficult to prove. What happens between ”masseuse” and client tends to stay behind closed doors. But the breakthrough into this sewer industry came when a plumber was called to unblock one. What the tradie found as he cleared a drain at a Clifton Hill shop left him in no doubt about the real nature of the business hidden behind that blue door.
Instead of heading home with a colourful war story, the plumber turned up at the Fitzroy police station to report what he believed was an illegal brothel.
Goodear is a copper with a bit of dash about him. He has worked the squads and dealt with crooks, creeps and kidnappers.
After more than 22 years in the job he has a fair idea when something is not quite right. How was it, he wondered, that these illegal knock-shops were never knocked off?
He had met the former policeman-turned-council investigator who should have been dealing with the problem, and while he was friendly enough, he was just a little too slick to be convincing.
A check of police files showed a series of calls to Crime Stoppers suggesting the illegal brothels were being protected, but also showed that nothing had been done. Indeed, the council officer had been nominated by name, but thanks to a misspelling it was never matched to the guilty party. Out of curiosity, Goodear dragged out the council worker’s old police file (he quit in 1991 as a senior constable) and found he was unreliable, failed to repay money borrowed from colleagues and would turn up to work late smelling of grog. In other words, a lash with cash who liked to get smashed.
But there was more. The police file showed he confessed to being a problem gambler.
So was he a crook? Another check showed that while acting treasurer of the Aspendale Rotary Club, he was a habitual and opportunistic thief, pinching more than $8000 at around $300 a time.
He was charged with 40 counts of theft, and ordered to repay the money.
It was the classic behaviour of a problem gambler, and Goodear made contact with the TAB to find out about his account.
After swearing out a warrant he found the former policeman had made 35,000 bets in just on six years. That is about 16 a day – every day.
There was ample initial evidence to start a special investigation into the former cop, and it was given the rather grand name of Operation Ostium.
In the beginning, Nick Goodear was the only member, which meant that at least no one was there to tell the boss to get nicked.
The next step was to grab the suspect’s phone records for the previous four years and six months. This left Goodear to check 15,000 calls while continuing his usual duties.
Some of those calls matched up with movements in a TAB account. There were hundreds of unexplained deposits of between $500 and $1000, which were made only minutes after the suspect made a phone call.
Then the money would be immediately withdrawn from the other side of town.
It was clear the ex-copper had the brothel owners deposit his bribes directly into his betting account. The upside was he would not be seen taking cash. The downside was that a blind accountant with hay fever could follow the electronic money trail. Goodear concluded the investigator was tipping off illegal brothel owners when they were to be raided by police, Consumer Affairs, Yarra Council or the Immigration Department.
It had all the elements of an organised crime ring that would have been difficult to unravel from within a busy suburban CIU, so Goodear decided to enlist outside help from Victoria’s Office of Chief Examiner.
This is a small but extremely powerful law enforcement agency set up in 2005 during the Melbourne underworld war.
When detectives are investigating organised crime and can show that traditional police methods are unlikely to work, they can ask the Supreme Court to allow them to call in the Chief Examiner.
This is the mob that will not take no for an answer, and while they don’t bounce suspects off the walls like the old armed robbery squad, their questioning is persistent, skilled.
In their small North Melbourne office, Chief Examiner Damien Maguire or his offsider, Stephen McBurney, can call witnesses into a secret hearings room and demand answers under oath.
Most of their work comes from crime department operations, but once Goodear explains that his investigation included allegations that public officials had been corrupted, they were happy to jump in.
”What really set Nick apart was his commitment and dedication,” said McBurney.
”It was unusual for a local copper to take on an investigation of this nature. He had greater knowledge of the case than either Damien or myself, and as case officer, was the critical person.”
A series of witnesses in this case were called into that hearing room, and while their answers remain confidential we suspect that many who had initially feigned ignorance on the subject at hand, all of a sudden became extremely co-operative. During the investigation, Goodear had to deal with a personal crisis. His baby son, James, was born at 28 weeks, and was still in hospital (all are well now). According to Goodear: ”We could see this investigation was about organised crime, and so we approached the Chief Examiner’s office for assistance. It was their capacity to compel witnesses to answer questions that proved to be pivotal.” No longer a small investigation, an 80-strong raiding party hit 17 properties in November 2010, seizing $100,000 and, perhaps more importantly, incriminating paperwork.
In June 2011, the council investigator – ”who turned a horrible shade of grey” – was charged over accepting bribes of about $130,00 (although police believe the true figure is closer to $200,000).
He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to a minimum jail term of 20 months.
He cannot be named, as he too has decided to co-operate with authorities.
The investigation also exposed that a lucrative area of organised crime – illegal brothels – were flourishing almost undetected.
Police found about 20 shopfront parlours, each making about $20,000 a month, with none paying tax. At least two are still operating, while others have moved out of the district.
Financial checks on one owner showed she gambled millions at Crown Casino, bought designer handbags at $5000 a pop, ate regularly at five-star restaurants, and had built an impressive real estate portfolio.
Meanwhile, the Asian sex workers, mostly listed as foreign students, were moved from shop to shop in a mini-bus and paid the same wages as casual factory workers.
Earlier this year, Goodear’s work was recognised when he was commended in the inaugural Mick Miller detective of the year award.
This week he caught up with a family celebrating their daughter’s 15th birthday. She was just five when he helped arrest the three men who kidnapped her from her home.
Now that’s after-sales service.
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