Vice: That time I thought I was being set up for a Mafia hit

Les Ayton had an overbite. Or was he buck-toothed? It’s hard to say. Even harder to remember.

Which is the more politically correct?

He wasn’t Freddie Mercury buck-toothed. He was more like a rabbit. When he closed his mouth, the white tips of his two front teeth rested on his bottom lip. Visibly. Rabbity. Which is partly why I could never take him fully seriously, despite who he was: Inspector Les Ayton, head of Internal Affairs … the most hated copper in the West Australian Police Force.

Whenever I visited Les at his office, to share with him what my digging around had uncovered, and to take from him information he had uncovered in return, he always insisted we talk inside the cleaning cupboard. Seriously. In the offices of the police Internal Affairs Unit in Perth, circa early 1989, the Inspector wouldn’t talk openly in front of his team.

Were they that suspect?

Perhaps he was the suspect one?

Maybe he just wanted to get me alone in the cleaning cupboard.

The best piece of intelligence Les Ayton ever gave me was concerning a gambling boss I was investigating, who shared with a certain corrupt copper a mining tenement on a block of land near Coolgardie, east of Perth.

I went and found the tenement for myself, and sure enough, Les Ayton was right. Why would a gambling boss share a mining tenement with a copper? There was no gold in that land — people had checked. And yet every so often the gambling boss and the copper filed a return showing the discovery of gold nuggets on their plot. Except that’s not where it originated. It was all a fraud. It was how they laundered their dirty money. One way, anyway. By dirty money I mean cash, obtained by bribes, or drugs, or gambling, or prostitution, or race fixing. They were into the lot.

That was Les Ayton’s theory, anyway.

And not just his theory either. It was Spike Daniels’ theory too. And old Spike knew a thing or two about corrupt coppers. He’d been carrying on about them since the 1970s when he was a star witness at a royal commission that eventually didn’t act on anything he told them, other than to tell old Spike he was crazy and ruin his career.

But Spike was far from crazy. I went to see Spike in Albany, on Western Australia’s south coast, because I was interested in the circumstances surrounding the murder of a brothel madam, Shirley Finn, who was shot multiple times in the back of the head while she parked in her distinctive white Dodge beside the South Perth Golf Club. Spike had a theory on who did it. Not just a theory, he knew who did it. Old Vice Squad chief Bernie Johnson, who’s dead now so it’s safe to print his name. Shirley was due to give evidence in a big tax fraud case and was threatening to blow the cover on all Perth’s corrupt coppers. So Bernie killed her. And the rest of them covered it up … are still covering it up.

Spike was convinced of it. So was Les Ayton.

Spike Daniels was a giant of a man, even in old age. He had a tall, bald head, a hulking frame, and long limbs. He was all power, all passion, pulsing with rage and indignation. He towered over me, in all ways.

Les Ayton was the opposite. Les was small, an office type. Always in a shirt and tie, always the picture of the clean copper. Spike was a copper’s copper. Except he wasn’t. That’s why they made his life hell. Les Ayton was the opposite of a copper’s copper. He was more like a priest. Like a spook. George Smiley or Eliot Ness. By the time Spike died in 1992, Les Ayton had been promoted to Deputy Commissioner. He was the only commissioned officer to attend his funeral.

Les sent me to interview another copper, Don Hancock, so that I could report back anything I found out. Which wasn’t very much, as in turned out. Hancock was the head of the Perth CIB and was irritated by me. He only agreed to see me because he knew I was getting information from somewhere close, and he was trying to work out who that was. They didn’t come any more bent than Don Hancock. When he retired from the force he ran an outback pub in Ora Banda near Kalgoorlie, where he shot dead, from distance, a Gypsy Joker bikie named Billy Grierson. In retaliation, the Gypsy Jokers blew Don Hancock up in a car bomb in 2001 outside his home in Lathlain — him and his bookie mate, Lou Lewis. Some people also reckon Don Hancock, aka The Silver Fox, killed Shirley Finn. My money is still on Bernie Johnson.

Don told me nothing of any of this when I met him in his office at the Criminal Investigation Bureau. He was just a smart-arse. I subsequently discovered he was a close personal friend of my GP, a Greek doctor who spent most of his downtime in the gambling clubs. I was never far away from the very people I was investigating.

I eventually wrote a book about all of this (This Little Piggy Stayed Home: Barlow, Chambers and the Mafia) and about the Barlow and Chambers failed drug run to Malaysia (and their subsequent execution), and the corruption inside the so-called Purple Circle warder racket in Fremantle Prison, as well as Perth’s bent coppers and their connections to the Italian Mafia. On the day of its release I got a phone call from a well-known Mafioso who ran a real estate business in Northbridge, a relative of one of Australia’s best-known gangsters, Robert Trimboli, and a close associate of a copper Les Ayton was particularly interested in bringing down — Colin Pace, the head of the Fraud Squad. Trimboli invited me to a parlay at a “neutral” venue … the Bar Italia in Northbridge. Neutral? Neutral would have been Hungry Jacks. The interior of Bar Italia was identical to the cafe in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey. I was a goner, for sure.

I went to Les Ayton. Who else? Les Ayton would know what to do.

‘Go to the meeting,’ he said.

‘Seriously?’

‘Why not?’

‘Because you’ll never see me again. They’ll put two bullets in the back of my head and drag me out the back and dump me in the Swan River in a sack full of heavy rocks.’

‘Go to the meeting,’ said Les. ‘And listen out for anything they say about Colin Pace.’

For months, I’d been warned away from Colin Pace. There were some coppers you could ask questions about. Others … just steer clear. Now, here I was, about to place my head in the crocodile’s mouth.

I went to the meeting. I was dosed up on diazepam and antidepressants. So sIeepy I could barely talk. Trimboli took me to a small table, where we were joined by the owner of Bar Italia, and a minder. There was no sign of Colin Pace.

It’s safe to say, I was shitting myself.

‘Your book talks about an unnamed car dealer who smuggled heroin into the State,’ Trimboli said. ‘This is Alf Barbagallo, no?’

‘No,’ I said. Because it wasn’t.

‘It is. This is Alf Barbagallo.’

‘No it isn’t.’

‘It is. You’re talking about Alf Barbagallo.’

They wouldn’t believe me. Alf Barbagallo was one of Perth’s highest profile businessmen, an importer of luxury cars, and a well-known racing driver. Rumours of organised criminal activity had dogged him for years, but he wasn’t a focus of my book.

Trimboli wouldn’t have it. He went on and on, trying to convince me of Barbagallo’s innocence, when I didn’t give a crap either way. He said nothing about Colin Pace.

I walked out of the cafe alive — no bullets in the head on this occasion. I went straight to Les Ayton’s office. Les took me to the cleaning cupboard. I told him everything that had happened.

‘Yeah, I know already,’ he said.

‘How?’

‘I was filming the whole thing from across the street. And the cafe was filled with my people.’

He smiled. Les Ayton never looked more like a rabbit than when he smiled.

‘The young couple in the running gear. They were mine. The two guys in the jackets, they were mine. You were never at risk.’

When Les Ayton became the Deputy Commissioner of the WA Police Force some time later, he remained my most important ‘source’. He became embroiled in a public and highly political scrap with another commissioner who had the backing of The West Australian newspaper, where I was a journalist. Because of my links to Les Ayton, I was accused of spying by my employers, and was essentially black-banned.

The thing was, it was true. I was spying for Les Ayton. Why wouldn’t I? No one else was looking out for me in Bar Italia that day. My employers didn’t care … they thought I’d made up everything in my book. I had become WA journalism’s equivalent of Spike Daniels. So yes, I leaked information to Les Ayton on upcoming stories to do with his spat, just as he continued to leak information to me.

Thirty years later, it remains one of the most bizarre periods of my life, and Les Ayton one of its most enigmatic characters.