The Ambush. When you have a camp that is made up of a large percentage of drug dealers/users you would think management would be happy if you found someone’s stash of drugs-utensils-needles. Not so, it was the head in the sand mentality. If you keep discovering these things, especially hard drugs you run the risk of undermining the system. The outback communities where these prisoners worked would then become apprehensive if they knew drug dealers were amongst them. I found out early that there were no slaps on the back for these discoveries. Sunday nights were hectic, the camp numbers swelled to maximum as those out on leave returned to be bussed out to their far-flung camps the following morning. Three officers had to search, breath test and maybe urine test some or all of the prisoners, these were the nights when you earned your wage. Rob and I decided after everything had calmed down to take a quick walk around camp. One long time resident, a heroin addict who had been in and out of jail his whole adult life had left his door wide open and an array of utensils on his bed. There it was, a mirror with traces of white powder on it, a razor blade laying on it and under his pillow two syringes ready to go and three foils of heroin. A prisoner who I had helped with some issues walked past and told us where our dealer was. We caught him in the act and hauled him to the office. The duty manager called in the police drug squad and a full investigation began. To say the camp manager was upset would be an understatement, he was shit faced. A couple of deals of marijuana he could handle, or a prisoner or two testing positive for cocaine or amphetamines he could brush aside. That happened when they were away from camp. No, this made the camp and therefore him look bad. Oh dear.
Naturally he took it out on me as I had located the drugs. He accused Rob and I of being negligent for not finding the heroin when the prisoner came in. ( I think the prisoner threw it over the fence behind his room before coming into camp ) Anything to divert the blame and make himself look better. Taking me aside he threatened me with dismissal if I didn’t give him the name of the prisoner who informed on the dealer. To my shame I told him, I knew the manager would make it happen and there would be a battle to return to work. The informant didn’t come off to badly he went to a prison farm closer to home. They charged the dealer with possession leaving out the evidence of dealing, he received more time and lost his remissions. I felt dirty somehow and life went on as before. I wasn’t totally deterred from searching for drugs though.
We always had at least two Vietnamese in on drug charges, sometimes half a dozen they kept to themselves and generally behaved. Migrant groups tend to live in the same suburbs and create their own enclaves, where they can keep their identity and heritage intact. It also means those of a criminal persuasion keep their roots intact and you have racial gangs. I didn’t care where you came from, in the police I was an equal opportunity copper. I also didn’t care what colour you were, you broke the law you got arrested. The same in jail, if a prisoner behaved himself I left him alone, play up and watch out. I spent seven months in Viet Nam in 1971 in armoured corps and did my bit as it were. I didn’t dislike the Vietnamese then, although I became wary of them. They were a symbol of my nightmares and their war a cause of my PTSD, still I treated them no differently.
It was a dark and stormy day ( again ) and the deputy manager’s son Vincent joined us for some on the job training. He had finished his officer’s course and wanted hands on experience. The intel officer brought down his list of rooms to be searched with Tran Nguyen’s ( not his real name ) room underlined in red. Subtle very subtle, so away we went and searched a few rooms before alighting on Nguyen like Starsky and Hutch, without the squeal of tyres. I loved ripping room doors open as they tended to offer you a wonderful set piece. Surprise surprise our victim stood there, rooted to the spot giving us a surly look, something like an Asian James Dean with a lip curling sneer. I looked at him, he looked at the carpet with a suspiciously large lump under it. I looked at the carpet he looked at me. Hello hello thought I, there’s more than fluff bunnies and dead spiders under that rug. Still feeling a little unloved from my last run in with management I told Vincent to search while I kept an eye on Nguyen. Vincent leapt on the cupboard like a rapacious Rottweiler and began throwing clothes out, “Steady up old son, lift the rug and have a look there.”
Clang! You could hear Nguyen’s arse hit the ground. He glared at me then went to walk out, “Hang about sunshine, you’re not going anywhere.” In retrospect my fate was sealed in that moment, I nearly missed the look in his eyes. It was the same one I’d seen in the Viet Cong prisoner’s eyes I wrote about in an earlier blog. I disregarded it, nothing was going to spoil the moment as Vincent pulled the carpet back. A plastic mug stood there half full of a pink powder, pseudoephedrine, used in the manufacture of amphetamines. I thought Vincent was going to ejaculate with delight. Nguyen hung his head and looked at his jacket on the bed, Hmm, more? “Take him and your find to the office Vincent, I’ll keep searching.” Nguyen picked his jacket up and I took it off him, “Ta.” Standing at the window I watched until Vincent reached the office with his prize, I’m sure he stood a foot taller.
Shutting the window and door I sat on the bed and picked up the jacket, an ex RAAF flying jacket it had a silky lining. Nothing in the pockets but tobacco and papers, hmm what’s this? There it was a carefully folded piece of notepaper snuggling in the lining near the waist band and with trembling hands I opened it. Text speak isn’t my forte but OMG! A list of people, addresses, mobile phone numbers, amounts of drugs to be sold, where, when. A Eureka moment indeed. Acting nonchalantly I strolled back to the office, quite hard to do when it feels like Ferrets are fighting in your trousers. After checking on Vincent and Nguyen I continued my stroll to the main office. Ignoring the manager I leapt into the intel office and shut the door, “Have a gander at this.” He picked it up and read it with his lips moving, looked at me, the door then picked up the phone. Nobody would be hijacking this it was too big.
The following week the intel officer called me up, “Great find Smithy, the coppers in New South Wales and up here have done simultaneous raids. Two million dollars in cash, a shitload of drugs and twelve people arrested and two drug rings smashed.” Good stuff, I thought, so where’s the free lunch, bottle of bubbly and a little ceremony of gratitude? Not to be, I think he took the kudos for that one. Oh well it was a team sport, score one for the good guys. Mister Nguyen hadn’t let jail time stop his entrepreneurial empire at all, he ran it from inside and did the hard yards when he took leave. If only he had used his talents for good.
Let’s shuffle forward two months, another stormy afternoon – really. My shift started at 6pm and I parked opposite the front gate, gathered my stuff and made a run for it. On weekends and after 6pm at night through the week the gates were locked down. Not to keep them in but people out, you would be surprised at the odd sods that turned up. Our camp had been built in between a bowls club and an old prison psychiatric hospital on a ridge. If you stood at the main gate and looked back you would see Wacol Station Road a hundred metres away. Across the road a huge swathe of bushland covered several hundred acres, it had been used by the army over the years for driver training. We had a buzzer and speaker on the gate post and the conversation went like this, “I’m here, let me in.”-“No, it’s raining I’ll get wet.”-“I’m getting wet.”-“Tough.” Thanks a million, then ping, ping, ping. Hmm, that sounds awfully like ricocheting bullets. Another dozen pings. “Shit that is bullets ricocheting.”
I’m a big bloke, no, a big target and I couldn’t go anywhere. Crouching down into a squatting position I reached up and rang the buzzer again, “Oi, I’m getting shot at here, come up and let me in.”-“No then I’ll get shot at.” Sounds logical but it didn’t help me at the time. “Well ring for some bloody help.” I tried heading back to my car, the pinging started again. This time they were bouncing off the road near my feet. A large blue SUV coasted to a stop next to me driven by a Dog Handler, “What are you doing?” What does it look like didn’t seem the appropriate answer, instead, “Well, I’m being shot at and it’s coming from across the road.”-“You’re joking?” Ping, ping, “No.”
He took off and I watched with some anticipation from my crouching position, the shooting had stopped so I made it to my car. Once there I stood up and watched the proceedings, DH pulled up, bang, bang, bang, that was him shooting into the bush with his Glock. Then a return fire of bang, bang, bang, they’d taken the silencer off. More DH vehicles turned up, a loud revving of an engine came from the bush then, silence. The officer I was there to relieve strolled up to the gate, “Have you finished playing silly buggers?”-“Go and fuck yourself.” Shouldering my bag I took a look at the fresh gouges in the tarmac and streaks on the metal gatepost and wandered down to the office. The supervisor looked up at me, “What was that all about?” I told him and received a negative response, “So,” I asked, “are you going to log this event?” He didn’t seem interested so I grabbed the log book, a huge numbered page book and wrote my report in it, then typed out an incident report. (This later vanished).
The only person who believed me was the Dog Handler, he returned later and filled me in on what had happened, “I pulled up on the roadside and saw two men standing next to a white four-wheel drive vehicle, about twenty metres into the bush. One of them raised a semi automatic rifle and began shooting at me. I returned fire and they took off when the other dog handlers turned up. Both men were Asian.”-“That’s great, so why didn’t you drive in and chase them, there are only a couple of places they can get out?”-“Sorry Mate, we’re not allowed to take the vehicles off-road.” Charming, bloody charming, attempted murder of an officer is trumped by the necessity to stop vehicles from being scratched. Was the duty manager informed? Yes, did he turn up? No. Did the police turn up? Yes, two hours later. They sat in their car for the interview, the driver, “Are you hurt?”-“No.”-“Okay, see ya.”
The shift seemed somewhat surreal after that. It appeared obvious to me that Van Nguyen had reached out and organised a little surprise. It wouldn’t be hard, the prisoner who cleaned the offices could get his hands on the roster, the prisoner’s ‘hotline’ stretched everywhere. I’m glad that his choice of hit men were a tad undertrained though. Using a silencer on a rifle over that distance altered the ballistics. Shooting uphill people tend to aim higher and downhill, lower. If it had been a straight across the road affair, well this would all be done through a medium. Other than feeling like a clay pipe in a fairground shooting gallery I was pissed off at the lack of notice taken of the whole event. If a prisoner had hung himself or been injured or there had been an armed breakout, well the place would have been crawling with coppers and management. I certainly wasn’t feeling the LOVE.
Next week in the final Turnkey’s Tribulations we’ll follow my unravelling life and the lead up to the last straw.