Bookie Robbery mobster finally runs out of lives
FOR a man who was once the flashiest of flash gangsters the end would come without a bang or even a whimper. For a man who had millions pass through his chubby, gold-encrusted fingers, the last scene was anything but glamorous.
But then it rarely is.
Dennis Greedy William Smith was once a jet-setting millionaire who drove a Rolls-Royce, owned an Asian vice den and thought himself untouchable.
Yet when his heart gave out on Sunday he had lost his fortune to mismanagement, a leg to diabetes and many of his friends to gangland bullets.
With the death of ”Greedy” Smith we have lost one of the last links with one of Melbourne’s most infamous crimes – the Great Bookie Robbery.
He was a key member of the planning team for 1976 robbery on the Victoria Club, where six bandits, armed with sub-machineguns, grabbed 118 calico bags filled with cash on bookie settlement day. The haul was officially listed as $1.4 million but many claim the real figure was closer to $15 million.
Smith was the man who laundered much of the money overseas. Some say he had a hands-on role and drove a cash-filled van from the scene but now we might never know.
Smith used his share to set up the Aussie Bar in Manila. For many years it was used as a stopover for gangsters on their way to Europe, a recruiting zone for drug and gun dealers looking for merchant sailors prepared to smuggle for a price, and a safe house for Australian escapees and wanted crooks.
When I infiltrated the scene 25 years ago it was more tragic than titillating. Girls of questionable ages, wearing large heels, small bikinis and bored expressions danced on the bar to disco hits of the day. Each wore a small number to make it easier for those who wanted to buy them for the evening for $12.
The largest breasts in the single-fronted building belonged to fat Australian men sitting at the bar wearing shorts and singlets that advertised popular beer brands.
I sought an audience with the large, bling-laden man sitting at a table. An even larger man suggested firmly but politely that Mr Smith was not available.
Smith may have been protected but it came at a cost – the money came in only to flood out. At one point, he had nearly 50 Manila officials on the payroll, including six immigration officials and 30 police whose names were collated in a blue book. In those days, Smith bragged he bought the Aussie Bar for $25,000 and was making $40,000 a month.
He dealt in drugs and guns, moved stolen property, pretended to be the son of a war hero to get free air travel, smuggled prostitutes and made three giant industrial diesel motors disappear for the insurance money.
He organised international credit card frauds from Australia to Hong Kong. He protected criminals who needed respite from Australia – such as the notorious Russell ”Mad Dog” Cox – another man close to many of the bookie robbers.
Years later when the gang survivors were still pulling jobs an inside man in the security industry was promised 10 per cent of the takings from every payroll job – to be laundered through the Aussie Bar.
When NCA investigators went to Manila to investigate him, ”Greedy” had them followed. That was his pull in his patch.
Even while he was living in the Philippines he remained a benefactor for the North Melbourne Football Club and had an advertising sign spruiking the Aussie Bar at Arden Street.
He was a company director, owned 10 racehorses, luxury cars and country property. He was known as ”Greedy” because of his love of money and Fatty for his love of fried food. (His idea of a vegetarian meal was six potato cakes with tomato sauce.)
”Greedy” was one of a group of armed robbers with dockland connections who graduated to drugs harbouring ambitions of exotic travel and endless wealth.
But it is sometimes wise to be careful of what you wish for. One of them – Stuart John Perry – was allegedly thrown from a plane without a parachute over an Asian jungle after allegedly stealing $1 million from a drug syndicate.
At a time when smart crooks were learning to conceal their wealth, ”Greedy” flaunted it. He would wear chunky gold chains and large rings valued at $320,000.
I returned home from Manila to write an expose on Smith in late 1985 only for the paper’s lawyer (dressed in a cardigan and slip-on Hush Puppies) to decree we could not name him or use his nicknames – ”Greedy” or ”Fatty”.
We gave him a new alias – that of ”Fatcat” – a moniker he detested. We wrote of his activities and the story seemed to die away, for a time.
The beginning of the end for ”Greedy” came in 1986 when the corrupt Marcos regime fell and the new government promised a clean-up. One of Smith’s underworld enemies sent the ”Fatcat” stories to the Philippine Presidential Commission on Good Government, which used them as an excuse to start an investigation. Australian police sent their files and his fate was sealed.
Manila officials leaked details of the probe to the local press, which started to call him ”Fatcat”, a name that stuck when it was picked up by the Melbourne media. He never forgave us, but we were the least of his problems. He was deported in August 1986 and without his corrupt network was an easy target after being out of reach for a decade.
Within months he was gobbled up by the NCA and sentenced to 11 years with a minimum of nine for trafficking cocaine and marijuana valued at $500,000.
When he was released he tried to rebuild his empire only to be snared again in a Victoria Police undercover operation.
This time he was seen selling drugs out of the driver’s window of his Rolls-Royce.
Only ”Greedy” would run a major drug syndicate based out of a Carlton hotel and still find time to sell an undercover policeman a shoplifted shirt for $30.
His health was fading and he had been diagnosed with cancer when he was sent to jail for the last time. On his release he rallied for a few years before being consumed by a host of illnesses and finally living in an Essendon nursing home.
The last visit from police was from Petra taskforce detectives who wanted to question him over the murder of Brian Kane, who was shot dead in 1982 as a payback for the 1979 murder of Bookie Robbery boss Ray Bennett. The main suspects are a convicted killer already in jail and Smith’s old mate Russell Cox.
As usual Smith, 65, was unable to help. He may have been many things, but he was no informer.
He was restricted to a wheelchair and was almost unrecognisable when a friend took him to a pub for a recent outing. He died in hospital on Sunday, broke and broken.
”Fatcat” had run out of lives.
Crime Of The Decade
The Sunday Age
Sunday December 13, 1998
Ask me no questions, mate, and I’ll tell you no lies.- “Dave”, an undercover policeman who helped stop Australia’s biggest robbery.
IT WAS the perfect night for the crime of the decade. The filthy weather meant nosy joggers would stay indoors while the blinding hail dropped visibility to a few metres and would help wash clues away long before the raid was discovered.
The six-man team was confident, even a little cocky. They had done their homework – checking six potential targets in Victoria and South Australia – before settling on a factory in Melbourne’s south-east.
They had broken into the sprawling complex more than 20 times to plan every detail and prepare for every contingency. They had practised disabling the electronic security system and had brought a truck-load of sophisticated equipment with them to ensure nothing could go wrong.
After more than nine months of research and training, and having invested $30,000 in equipment, it would be only a few hours before they were all millionaires, never having to work – or steal – again.
Inside the safe they were about to drill was a product more valuable than gold – pure amphetamines and chemical by-products, produced not by some motorbike gang in the filthy kitchen of a rented house but by one of Australia’s most respected pharmaceutical companies.
Behind the huge, metal door were enough amphetamines and related products to make more than 3300kilograms of the street drug.
To the firm that produced the drugs for legal purposes, such as providing medication for children with attention deficit disorder, it was valued at a mere $113,000 – but on the street it was worth more than $166million.
THERE isn’t much Geoff Smith (not his real name) doesn’t know about safes. He has been in the industry for 23 years and is acknowledged as one of the best in a game where the experts all know each other. He is one of those self-motivated businessmen who carries a mobile phone everywhere and doesn’t grasp the concept of after-hours.
He sees each call as an opportunity rather than a distraction and, when his home phone rang on the evening of 22 August 1996, Mr Smith answered with his usual polite, businesslike voice.
He was mildly surprised to find the caller was an old acquaintance, George Ernest Lipp, a man he had last seen in 1982. “We were never really mates,” Mr Smith was to recall. “We shared an interest in GT Falcons. He was just a local hood – a friend of a friend.”
A safe expert has to know everything about the different metal boxes that are supposed to be thief proof. He studies them to find their strengths and weaknesses. The handful of trained experts know what keeps them shut, and, more importantly, what makes them open.
Lipp chatted with Mr Smith about the old days but after a few minutes of small-talk he cut to the reason for his call. He knew Mr Smith was in the security industry and he wondered if he could help with a safe. Lipp said his mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and could not remember where she had hidden the key to her small home safe. Could Mr Smith pop over to the family home in Greensborough and give it a tweak?
Mr Smith said he would be free in about two weeks. When he arrived he gave the safe, positioned in an alcove near the lounge, a cursory glance. It was the type that might deter a sneak burglar but was no problem to an expert. He opened it in seconds.
Lipp seemed impressed. He took him into the kitchen and while he made cups of coffee he explained that he had another, more difficult problem. He slipped over a Polaroid photo of a huge, industrial vault door. Could Mr Smith open that one?
The safe man looked silently at the photo. He knew immediately what he was being asked to do – he also knew whose vault it was. The poisons code on the front was only on safes in two pharmaceutical companies in Melbourne.
Lipp came straight out with the offer. There would be $100,000 for Smith if he could open the safe.
Lipp didn’t wait for an answer but let his plans spill out. It was the safe at Sigma’s Croydon plant. Lipp was part of a team that planned to raid the two Sigma factories at Croydon and Clayton on the same night.
The team knew the factories were to merge and they needed to move soon. To impress his potential recruit, Lipp explained their team had already broken into the Croydon plant to check the layout.
Lipp told Mr Smith the gang had developed a system to bypass the alarms and the seismic sensors. He said they would knock out the telephone lines into the factory on the night of the job.
Lipp then started to quiz the expert on technical matters such as the use of thermal lances and core drilling to bust the vault. He said his people were installing a pin-hole camera in the ceiling of the factory to obtain the combination of the safe.
Mr Smith, father of two, simply didn’t know what to do. He was actually quoting for a security contract with Sigma – the firm he was now being asked to rob. For a moment, he thought he was being set up, that this was a form of integrity test organised by the company, but why would they use a half-baked mate he hadn’t seen for 14 years as the bait?
He needed to stall for time, to think of what to do next. “I didn’t want any part of this plot – I didn’t want George to think this at the time.” Then he saw that a pole on the photo slightly obscured the safe door. “I didn’t really know what to say so I said I would need a better picture of the door.”
He went home and the next day went to see one of the senior men at Chubb Security. When he told the state manager, Chris Gyngell, what he had learned the state manager was straight on the phone to the drug squad.
Detective Sergeant Graeme Sayce of the drug squad listened to the story. He thought if Mr Smith had the guts, he might be prepared to introduce an undercover policeman as a safe breaker and then police may be able to gather enough evidence to grab the offenders. It would be a big ask but it had worked before.
Mr Smith didn’t need inducements. “I’ve got two kids myself and I don’t like drugs. You can’t leave this sort of thing to the next guy.”
Mr Smith was introduced to “Dave”, a police undercover operative chosen for his ability to think on his feet and act a role to fit any investigation.
But this one would be more difficult. This wasn’t a case of tricking junkies or snowing the gullible. If the thieves had pictures of the safe door, police would have to work on the basis the gang knew what they were doing.
Dave would have to understand the safe-breaking craft and to learn that he would have to go to the experts. He was taken to a one student “safe school” at Chubb and taught about timers, locks and security systems.
Mr Smith helped train the policeman. “He had to be able to talk the talk,” the expert said.
Dave would need to know all the terms because Lipp, who had been doing his own research, would not be easy to fool. For months he had been pretending to be a customer, walking into security companies, asking about safes – comparing one with another.
LIPP was the front man and one of the organisers of the scheme. His partner was Paul Geoffrey Elliott, whose uncle was the notorious convicted drug dealer, Dennis William “Fatty” Smith. Elliott met Lipp when they both were in the paving and stonewall trade. Both owned their own companies and while working on the Western Ring Road they recruited two men, Mark William Wills and Brain David Zerna to help pull off Australia’s biggest robbery.
The four were an unlikely safe-breaking gang. They were all in their 30s, married with children, in regular employment and without extensive criminal records.
If they were to succeed, and kept their mouths shut, they would not be the type that police would immediately consider as suspects. The gear could be sold on the black market for cash and not leave a money trail for investigators.
The four men knew they would probably have only one chance to pull off a crime of this size. They also knew Sigma was about to undergo a major security upgrade. “This is it. We can only do this once,” Lipp said in a conversation secretly recorded by police.
Police were later to estimate they had broken into the Croydon factory 25 times over the previous months.
They were prepared to be patient because they new if they got it right, it would be the biggest burglary in Australia’s history. Lipp was to say he was ready to spend two years on the planning alone.
The gang checked several factories. They decided to make Sigma Croydon their main project when they went through the industrial bins and found drums labelled “Dexamphetamine”. It was pay-dirt; pure speed.
In one break-in they checked the company’s records to establish the amount of drugs in the safe. “We went through all their manifests and the books,” Lipp boasted to Mr Smith.
The records showed huge quantities of dexamphetamine and pseudo-ephedrine were stored in the building.
The going rate for a 25-kilogram container of pseudo-ephedrine on the black market was $300,000. Police say that half the drug is pure amphetamine.
The complex at Croydon is huge and having gained access to the factory they needed to find the vault. Police said one of the gang broke into the telephone control area and rang the extension marked safe room. Then they just followed the ringing until they found the area.
During the regular nightly visits they checked the alarm system and practised the best way to get the drugs out of the property.
But they needed to get into the safe, and that is where Geoff Smith came in.
GRAEME Sayce asked Mr Smith to pretend to be interested in the scheme and organise another meeting with Lipp. Mr Smith rang Lipp at his home on 7 September but the once-enthusiastic planner now seemed strangely reticent. He hung up, but a few minutes later he rang back from a public phone and this time he sounded keen and upbeat. Lipp was later to tell Mr Smith not to ring his home again.
They met at the Templestowe Hotel public bar about 8pm. Lipp walked in and immediately ordered Mr Smith to remove the batteries from his mobile phone and place the phone on the ground.
Lipp said he feared police would be able to activate the telephones through remote control.
At first it appeared that all Lipp wanted was advice. He wanted an old vault door to practise safe-breaking techniques. He asked if Mr Smith could get plans of the factory and he even suggested the experienced safe man make a cardboard template of the Sigma door with instructions marked on it for Lipp to follow.
He wanted to know where he could buy a magnetic drill capable of piercing the safe. As they chatted Mr Smith realised that he would be wanted for more than just technical advice. His old car buddy wanted him for a more hands-on role.
“During the conversation George hinted on several occasions that perhaps I could come along with them and actually open the vaults for Lipp and his co-offenders. I tried to ignore the hints and really didn’t commit one way or the other. Towards the end of the conversation he said he could team up and knock over many of these factories and make very large sums of money,” Mr Smith said.
“George made a comment along the lines that with my skills, I could become a millionaire.”
During the meeting Lipp brought another one of his gang, Brian Zerna, who just sat and glared at Mr Smith, trying to intimidate him. Lipp told Mr Smith that if another man in the safe industry “gave them up he’d be whacked”.
On 11 September Smith met Lipp again at the Templestowe Hotel. He was instructed by police to introduce the undercover agent “Dave” as a safe expert from Adelaide and then gracefully withdraw, leaving the detective to gather the incriminating information.
That was the plan, but undercover police operations have a life of their own and have to be continually refined as the unexpected becomes the reality.
Lipp wanted Smith to be part of the team or the deal was off. Graeme Sayce was left with a black and white problem. If Operation Baxley was to continue, Mr Smith would have to go undercover for as long as it took. He would have to put his own business on hold in a bid to help police infiltrate a gang that had already said it would kill if needed.
It was a big ask, but Sayce was determined not to die wondering. He asked Mr Smith to be his inside man. This average man from middle Melbourne agreed – even though he knew there were risks.
It was to last nine weeks – “It felt like a year” – although it took nearly two years before the final legal case was completed.
Mr Smith and Dave met Lipp and secretly recorded incriminating conversations in Lower Plenty, the Templestowe Hotel, a Little Bourke Street restaurant and Hungry Jacks in Bulleen as they planned the job to the smallest detail.
They recorded Lipp’s proposal: “The money, look, the money’s not a problem … hundred (thousand) each. All right … probably be paid 25per cent up front and the balance a week later.”
They exposed the level of planning: “We know all the entries and all the exits. Mate, we’ve been doing this for nine months,” Lipp said. They were confident they knew the security system. “Put it this way man, we’ve set the bugs (system) off on purpose, for two-and-a-half hours, we couldn’t be bothered hanging around,” he said.
Police set up a surveillance post near the Sigma factory and on Sunday 15 September Lipp, Zerna and two other men were seen entering the site. At 9.07pm, a detective monitoring cameras hidden in the vault room watched as two men in dark clothing and wearing balaclavas methodically checked the room for nearly an hour. The gang’s car was seen to leave the area around 10.50pm.
As the gang prepared to put in their own camera into the vault room they spotted the mini police system already installed. They attached their own camera into the police system and were able to see the vault room was being monitored.
According to Graeme Sayce, Lipp and his crew watched the Robert De Niro-Al Pacino gangster movie Heat to pick up hints. “But they failed to pick up the message from the criminal character that De Niro played. When there is the slightest doubt, walk away. These blokes let greed color their judgment. Even after they found our camera they continued and talked themselves into believing the gear was there to find internal thefts.”
Lipp said: “They could be checking staff … somethin’ gone missin’ too.”
He seemed upset that someone had beaten him to installing the camera. “The staff don’t know that, no one knows about it except me and … hey, we had the same system, it was the same hole we were gonna go to and put ours in.”
According to Detective Sergeant Sayce, the criminals wanted to believe anything that would allow them to pull the raid. “They had done so much planning they just couldn’t let it go.”
Lipp answered the problem with typical bravado: “Flash a brown eye at them .. it was our idea to put a camera in anyway.”
THE gang seemed to vastly underestimate what sort of money they could make. Lipp: “At Croydon they got dexamphetamine … pure … pick it up and walk out with a million bucks. Don’t have to do nothin’.
“It’s pure, they’re the only ones that make it. The only place it’s made in all of Australia is at Croydon. No one else makes it and it’s just sitting there … It’s worth more than gold apparently. Walk around this joint. It’s potentially, I reckon, about two or three million dollars … How slack are they?”
Dave commented drily: “No wonder a hundred grand is no drama.”
As the night gets closer Lipp became more excited, saying there would be a bonus for the safe experts. “We might turn around and say three hundred grand for youse.”
On the night of the raid, Paul Elliott took over as the leader. He provided the six members of the team with a code number, a two-way radio and a designated job. They were also wearing stop watches – similar to those worn by the gang in Heat. “Number one, he’ll be watching the main gates, right. Number two here, he’ll be on the roof … watching all the streets on the other side and number three, he’ll be watching the paddocks,” Elliott said.
“Make sure everything’s sweet. All right. Then we’ll call youse in, the gate’ll be open for you by number one here. He’ll open the gate for you. Brian knows where to drive the van; he’ll be directed, anyway. He’ll drive it around the back, reverse into the garage and then youse just sit tight until we’ve got past the bugs.
“Right, I’ve got hoods (balaclavas) for youse just in case you didn’t bring any,” Elliott said. It was while he was sitting in the van that Mr Smith noticed that Elliot had a .32 handgun. He didn’t know that Elliott also had four spare magazines. “I was shitting myself,” Mr Smith said later.
He had good reason to doubt his decision to go undercover. He was going into a drug factory wearing overalls and a dark balaclava on a filthy night with armed offenders, knowing the special operations group were planning an ambush.
“I was just praying they would know who were the good guys,” he said.
Zerna drove the van and he had stuck Telstra logos on the side to divert suspicion.
They had magnetic drills, police scanners, Telstra uniforms, communications gear, devices to cover the infrared sensors, stopwatches, torches, a generator and a metal and wire rolled-up ladder.
They entered Sigma after Wills cut the bolt and chain on the gate. He then replaced it with one of their own so as not to create suspicion.
Lipp and Elliott were to break in. They would then come back to get Mr Smith and Dave to make the final break into the vault. Dave saw that Elliott was carrying the semi-automatic pistol.
AFTER the two broke into the factory Dave saw Elliott, in his black balaclava, sprint back to the van to get more equipment. Lipp later came back and abused the safe experts because they had found another infra-red sensor on the vault. But even with the unanticipated problem, they were finally able to cripple the security system.
“Elliott also appeared excited and said that they’d done their bit and it was now up to us and all we had to do was walk straight up and drill it,” Dave later said.
“Elliott said that there was only 20minutes to go and we could celebrate and `go get it’ or similar.”
They then carried the large safe into the factory. “Elliott told me to go make him a millionaire.”
Lipp kept telling the safe men to relax and not to stress. He said it was almost over. He was right although his version of the conclusion was horribly wrong.
The break-in took four hours. Detectives had made sure that no police would use their sirens so the gang would not be spooked. But in the rainy weather there was a bad car accident near the factory and police and ambulance vehicles arrived with emergency sirens blaring.
The gang stopped work and sat in silence until satisfied all was well before daring to move again.
Despite their caution they failed to spot more than 50 police, including drug squad, surveillance, special operations group, air-wing members and uniform members.
When police moved, Wills ran and was brought down by a police dog and Elliott was found hiding under bushes in the sodden dirt.
One SOG man’s position was in a small hollow in the grounds, but as it rained his hiding spot filled with water. He was within metres of the passing criminals and could not move even when the water had risen to nearly cover his face.
As they sat handcuffed in a police car. Wills complained that he had been bitten by the police dog. “Yeah, well I was attacked by a bush,” Zerna said, referring to the SOG man who came out of the shrubbery to arrest him.
After their arrest Graeme Sayce walked up to Lipp and told him, “your planning was excellent, full marks for the preparation, the execution was a bit slow but your choice of staff was terrible.”
In the next few weeks, there will be a small, invitation-only function at the Victoria Police Centre. Police from Operation Baxley will gather with the chief commissioner, Mr Neil Comrie, to present Geoff Smith with one of the force’s highest honors. Mr Comrie, said: “The force has taken the rare step of awarding Mr Smith a citizen’s commendation because of the vital role he played in thwarting a very serious crime.
“His initiative and courage exposed him to potential danger and directly assisted in stopping a flood of drugs reaching our streets. As a result he has been recognised for `exemplary service to the community’.”
In October, all four suspects finally pleaded guilty in the County Court to burglary charges. Lipp was sentenced to six years with a minimum of four, Elliot to five years with a minimum of three, Wills to one year’s jail with two years suspended and Zerna to four years with a minimum of two-and-a-half years. Police believe there may have been a fifth man, a financier, who was never caught.
Judge Campbell made a point of praising the police operation. “Although it is not common to do so, I think special commendation should go to (Mr Smith) and the undercover policeman. Without (Mr Smith)’s honesty and cooperation in harrowing and dangerous circumstances, the prisoners’ plans might have had a very different outcome. The undercover policeman demonstrated great courage in carrying out his duties under the conditions and circumstances in which he found himself.
“This was a most audacious scheme which, had it succeeded, would have made the participants a great deal of money.”
The court was told that Elliott was making real attempts to rehabilitate himself and had worked while on bail. He had found employment with a security alarm company.