I’m a latecomer to the work of Matthew Condon but I was converted after reading his personal and personable brief portrait of Brisbane recently. I was aware of his latest book Three Crooked Kings when it was released earlier this year and it gradually filtered to the top of my conscience wherever investigations of modern Queensland took me. Three Crooked Kings is the first of two Condon books on the sordid history of Queensland’s Police (now softened as a Service rather than a Force). It is about a cabal of crooked cops in cahoots with corrupt politicians from 1940 to 1990 that ended with the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Condon’s monumental investigation takes its spine from voluminous interviews he did with disgraced former police commissioner Terry Lewis as well as access to his copious diaries. Lewis’s story weaves in and out of a cast of coppers, politicians, prostitutes, club owners and gangland murderers. They got away with murder with the explicit approval of the powers that be, because they were the real powers that were.
Lewis joined the force in 1949 aged 20. A US army messenger boy during the war, he was looking for direction in life since leaving school at 12 and he thought the structured administration of the police would suit him. Lewis started on the beat and moved to traffic duty and became a police motorcyclist. He made the papers after three months when he was almost run off the road by three youths in a utility who threw milk bottles at him. After a citation, his attention was drawn to a vacancy at the CIB, Brisbane’s glamour detective squad. He got the job and was paired with the up-and-coming Tony Murphy. Lewis was a hard worker who put in long hours and he learned fast from senior detectives such as Francis Bischof.
One night he heard a woman’s scream while on patrol in South Brisbane. He chased a man running away who eventually raised his hands and said “Don’t shoot. I just kill my girl.” The man was Josef Dvorac but his girlfriend survived thanks to Lewis’s quick thinking of hailing a taxi to take her to hospital.
Lewis’s diaries also showed a great interest in brothels which he visited on a regular basis. The police unwritten rule for the sex trade was containment and control. Prostitutes paid protection to Bischof, though he would occasionally order his detectives to raid the brothels and arrest them all. Lewis and Murphy were among the favoured detectives who carried out Bischof’s dirty work.
When Labor’s long regime in Queensland came to an end in 1957, Bischof was sworn in as police commissioner. Lewis and Murphy continued to rise under him as did the third crooked king: Glen Hallahan. Together they were known as the Rat Pack. Hallahan started his police career in the tough mining town of Mount Isa and was transferred to the CIB after cracking a murder case. The trio regularly partnered together. Their HQ was the National Hotel at the corner of Queen and Adelaide St near the Custom House. The National was a busy bar which ran a call girl service.
Lewis and Hallahan won commendations when they faced down a crazed gunman who Hallahan knew from Mount Isa and whose wife was a prostitute. Hallahan wrested the gun from the man and they were nominated for a medal.
However the pair got into trouble when Bischof was on holidays and a prostitute complained to his temporary replacement about detectives demanding a rise in protection money. Lewis and Hallahan were placed under investigation and narrowly avoided being booted out of the CIB, thanks to patron Bischof who undid the damage when he returned from holidays.
Bischof was a compulsive gambler who hid SP bets under false names. Another bent copper, Jack Herbert, was the bagman for officers in the Licencing Branch who offered protection to SP bookmakers in a scheme the coppers called “the Joke”. The annual fee was $80,000 for Brisbane and less for smaller towns. In return the police left the bookmakers alone. No one in the force was sure who was on the take and Herbert ran the Joke with quiet efficiency. When politician Tom Hiley found out about Bischof’s betting, he confronted the commissioner who temporarily ordered a crackdown. But he was never charged and it was soon business as usual.
Lewis’s career took a different turn in 1963 when he became the founding officer of the Juvenile Aid Bureau located in a room next to the commissioner’s office. The JAB was Bischof’s baby and part of his public image as ‘father’ of the state’s children (Bischof was named Queensland’s father of the year in 1959 despite being childless). The new bureau put Lewis off the radar for 10 years. Another politician Colin Bennett accused Bischof and his acolytes in parliament of encouraging the call-girl service at the National. Premier Frank Nicklin ordered a royal commission with narrow terms of inquiry. Bischof’s men easily defeated the charges by undermining the witnesses. Murphy, Hallahan and Bischof all gave testimony and Justice Gibbs found no evidence of a call-girl service at the hotel, nor any suggestion the officers drank there after hours. Bischof held a victory party for his men that night at the National.
An emboldened Hallahan forged relationships with equally corrupt detectives in NSW. Sydney criminals coming to Queensland had to pay ‘rent’ to Hallahan of a thousand dollars a week while the reverse applied to Queensland criminals in Sydney.
Bischof’s health collapsed in 1968 and he retired just as a new politician was coming to the fore: Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Queensland’s accidental leader after premier Jack Pizzey died of a heart attack. Bischof’s replacement Norm Bauer was 65 and a stop-gap commissioner till Bjelke-Petersen could find a long term replacement. He chose career cop Ray Whitrod, an intellectual pivotal in founding the Federal Police and had served in Adelaide, Victoria and PNG. But to Lewis and the others, Whitrod was an outsider with radical notions like education qualifications and promotion on merit.
Bischof’s open door policy which saw Lewis, Murphy and Hallahan visiting twice a week, was swiftly ended and the Rat Pack were on the outer. Mattered worsened when Lewis publicly insulted his boss at a barbecue and Whitrod stormed off. When they next bumped into each other in a lift Lewis called the new commissioner a ‘fat pig’.
In 1970 former Brisbane-based prostitute Shirley Brifman went on Sydney television to make allegations against NSW detectives. She was also close to the Rat Pack (she had an affair with Hallahan) who had reason to be worried. She admitted she perjured herself in the National Hotel Inquiry in fear of her life and her children. After her revelations, Murphy convinced her to come back to Brisbane where Whitrod ordered her to be questioned.
Whitrod was under the glare in mid-1971 when the Springboks came to town. Bjelke-Petersen ordered a state of emergency and gave police wide powers of control and arrest. Whitrod was uneasy at being used as an arm of government but the powerful police union gave enthusiastic support. Bjelke-Petersen made a secret deal with them to go hard on the protesters in return for a massive pay rise. Two nights before the game, there was a protest outside the team’s motel. Whitrod lost control of his forces who deliberately attacked protesters.
Hallahan was also sailing close to the wind. Whitrod put him under surveillance and eventually had him charged with corruption. Murphy too was charged with perjury over the 1964 Inquiry. But the case against him collapsed when Brifman committed suicide. Murphy was banished to Toowoomba. Eventually Hallahan had his charges dropped but at a big cost – he resigned from the force.
Whitrod also had Lewis in his sights but he was harder to dislodge. Lewis was banished to Charleville but he patiently withstood his boss’s white-anting before finding a powerful friend. Whitrod turned his attention to bagman Herbert and the Joke in the Licencing Branch. Despite an epic Southport Betting Case, Whitrod couldn’t lay a hand on him.
His failures were noticed by Bjelke-Petersen. On a grand tour of Queensland, many senior police complained about Whitrod. One inspector told the Premier Whitrod had arrest quotas recorded on ‘kill sheets’. Whitrod denied the charge and this lie sealed his fate. While on his tour, Bjelke-Petersen asked senior officers who they would want to replace Whitrod. Lewis’s name kept coming up. Bjelke-Petersen met Lewis and accepted him into the Premier’s inner circle of trusted advisers. Within months two scandals gave Bjelke-Petersen the chance to move against Whitrod.
The story of Three Crooked Kings ends in mid-1976. Condon takes up the story in All Fall Down due ‘late 2013’ which would make the release any day now. It promises to be a gripping read and important history for the state of Queensland.