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Its midday in a fashionable restaurant in Brighton, in one of Australia’s most fashionable shopping strips. Well-dressed young mothers fill the footpath with expensive prams and the street with expensive cars.
I order pancakes with ice cream. The man next to me picks up his phone and orders ice — as in crystal methamphetamine, aka “shard”, the drug that has destroyed thousands of lives.
The pancakes arrive from the kitchen in 15 minutes. The ice takes five minutes longer — but it has to come from another suburb. “Jock”, the buyer, alerted by phone, goes outside to take delivery.
Like prudent police in the age of terrorism, cagey crooks drive around in pairs, largely because they deal in thousands of dollars cash every day — selling “gear” worth a fortune on the street. They make a tempting target for anyone who penetrates their cover.
But the ice couriers are not in the black two-door Mercedes that double-parks outside the restaurant, or any of the Range Rovers or BMWs cruising the strip. They are in a tradie’s ute, just another anonymous workhorse carrying two blokes in “high vis” looking as if they have nipped down the street to buy lunch. The ute reverses into a parking spot and the driver and his minder wait for the cash to cross the road.
The one riding shotgun handles the money — $200 for half a gram. The driver hands over the little plastic bag with its clip-lock seal. Separating the cash handler from the man holding the “gear” creates an added layer of legal complication for the prosecution in the unlikely event they are arrested.
The tiny bag of crystals is branded with Ace of Spades motifs. The dealer behind the middleman who directs the fake tradies on their daily rounds knows the value of branding. It’s as important in the illegal drug business as in any retail enterprise. So is speed of delivery, which is better for ice than for pizza.
“This could be anywhere from Broadmeadows to Brighton, Thomastown to Toorak,” says Jock, palming the bag on to the table beside the plate of pancakes.
Jock says he is one of the tiny percentage of ice users who has got off the drug and stayed off it, along with what he calls “the gateway drug”, alcohol. Plus cocaine and heroin. The only vice he didn’t have was smoking tobacco, which killed both his parents.
Jock is a former champion professional sportsman who fell hard. He is now determined to show the underbelly of a business that cost him his livelihood and almost his life — and which has cost him plenty of mates. He wants to demonstrate just how close it is, with dealers a phone call away no matter where you are or who you are.
For every dealer the police “bust” there are plenty more — and the smartest of them fly below the radar. Either through cunning or corruption, a favoured few flourish out of view, year after year.
The man behind the Ace of Spades brand has been known as a “dealer to the stars” for more than 20 years. His clients reputedly include jockeys, cricketers, AFL players, actors, lawyers and other high earners.
It is said Cousins bought drugs from this dealer when he was playing for Richmond — and that players from other clubs and other codes also have his telephone number. He used to arrange sex and drug binges on houseboats for well-connected sport and business people, well away from prying eyes and the short arm of the law. The dealer is discreet, trusted by those with a taste for his wares, which have moved increasingly from cocaine to ice to suit the changing market.
The dealer — call him “Ace” — is middle-aged but looks younger because he is too smart to use the poisons he sells. He lives in a deluxe bayside apartment and spends most of his time working out in the gym or entertaining young women who love his bottomless cash and cocaine supply and don’t care where it comes from.
Few people know his real name — only that he is Eastern European and extraordinarily well connected. He is often referred to as belonging to the “Russian mafia” — a species, like Great White sharks, that rarely break the surface but are widely feared for good reasons.
“Ace” has not been publicly photographed or named, despite his close connections with a Melbourne drug dealer and race fixer linked with a corrupt lawyer well known as among Australia’s biggest underworld money launderers.
The Melbourne fixer, then part of the late George Freeman’s interstate race-fixing cartel, was known in Australian betting rings as a “rough diamond”. In the days before Tony Mokbel’s “tracksuit gang” hit the racetracks with millions of dollars of drug cash in the late 1990s, the rough diamond teamed up with Freeman’s Sydney crew and Hong Kong triad members to bet black money.
On one occasion, in the late 1980s, “the diamond” was driving a jockey back from a Western District race meeting when he diverted to the city office of the bent lawyer who did his money laundering.
He went into the lawyer’s office and came out with a cardboard carton full of $100 notes, saying it was “ammunition for tomorrow”. The syndicate was confident it had a sure thing at Moonee Valley next day.
Their information was correct — but the then top jockey Greg Hall made the mistake of “lairising”, cockily looking over his shoulder before hitting the line, only to have another horse sneak up and beat him. It looked bad to anyone who assumed Hall might have double-crossed the syndicate, which he hadn’t. It was a just “pilot error” — but it could have got him killed.
Hall didn’t know it then but angry Chinese gangsters who had bet hundreds of thousands on his mount were planning to abduct him in the Moonee Valley jockey carpark by shoving him in a car boot. What saved him was a warning by two jockeys who told the angry punters that they weren’t in Hong Kong or Macau and risked a life sentence if they abducted Hall. In Australia, even jockeys of beaten favourites are protected by law.
Cynics would say the law also protects some drug dealers as well. The clue to identifying the one mentioned above, if investigators can get close enough, is that he has the Ace of Spades tattooed in a rather private place.
No children, addicts or animals were harmed in the making of this story. The buyer flushed the drugs into the sewer.