With a nudge, nudge, wink, wink and a ‘Yer know what I mean’, Neville Biber used to exhort television viewers to buy discount goods at off-the-back-of-a-truck prices. Unshaven, and looking like a shifty character, Biber would close his ads by hurriedly cleaning out the till and taking off to the sound of a police siren.
In advertising jargon, it was perhaps a classic concept of reverse-sell. In reality, though, it projected a real life image of Biber, who actually was a criminal who epitomised the tentacles of organised crime in what has been regarded as one of the more lowly realms of crime — shoplifting.
William Neville Biber, one-time petty thief who became a millionaire, flaunted himself in television commercials for the Harry S. Baggs discount group in Sydney. The masquerade ended when a Liberal parliamentarian, Kevin Rozzoli, disclosed that Biber and a partner, James Richard White, had been mentioned in connection with drug trafficking by the NSW Woodward Royal Commission. White, too, had been a shoplifter.
With shoplifting throughout Australia estimated to be costing businesses well over $100 million a year, the police and community have tended to overlook the extent of the involvement of organised crime.
More often than not, the blame for shoplifting has been attributed only to errant schoolchildren, light-fingered housewives and thieving employees.
What has not been publicly acknowledged is that Australia has spawned the world’s best organised and most sophisticated shoplifting syndicates.
Working hand-in-hand with major criminals responsible for illegal gambling and drug trafficking rackets, professional shoplifters have developed a well-entrenched international network directed largely from Sydney.
Yet, in Australia at least, very few professional shoplifters have been apprehended over the past decade. Previously, arrests and convictions were common, exemplified by the entries in the police records of many of Australia’s now leading criminals.
In contrast, Britain’s Scotland Yard maintains a special squad whose principal job is to keep tabs on and try to stop professional shoplifting gangs sent over from Australia to loot stores in London and major provincial centres.
A rogues’ gallery of pictures and background of known Australian shoplifters prepared by Scotland Yard represents a mini Who’s Who of Australian criminals making predatory sweeps around the world.
The same Australians who have become notorious in London make regular shoplifting expeditions in Rome, Paris and other European capitals.
These professional groups are referred to by London police as the Kangaroo Gangs.
False-bottomed suitcases originally designed for the gangs to send money back to Australia have since been used by other syndicates for drug-smuggling from Asia.
At various times the Kangaroo Gangs are reported to have sent stolen goods back to Australia in shipping containers for resale through discount outlets.
Superintendent Richard Dixon, former head of Interpol in Australia and the Australian Federal Police Force’s foremost authority on organised crime, has been quoted as saying that almost 100 professional shoplifters have been active in stealing from stores in Europe. He has described them as the largest and most professional of their type in the world.
The significance of shoplifting may be gauged from the background of recognised organised-crime leaders who reportedly held clandestine meetings at a home in the Sydney suburb of Double Bay in August 1972. At the time, there was intense public and parliamentary concern over allegations of Mafia infiltration of NSW registered clubs.
A Commonwealth police report noted that the meetings were alleged to have been called to discuss ‘the current activities re-organised crime’. The Double Bay summit rated as an Australian equivalent of the Apalachin episode in the United States in 1957, when crime leaders from different areas were found meeting together at the Apalachin country home of Joseph Barbara. John Cusack, then New York Director of the US Federal Narcotics Bureau, told a Senate inquiry that the Apalachin meetings ‘should be considered a meeting of the Grand Council’ of American organised crime groups.
Similarly, Australian police noted that Sydney’s Double Bay meetings were something of a grand council of local crime leaders.
They were reportedly attended by Frederick Charles Anderson (nicknamed Paddles), Karl Frederick Bonnette (The Godfather), Leonard Arthur McPherson (Mr Big), Stanley John Smith (Stan the Man), George David Freeman (The Boss), Arthur William Delaney (The Duke), Milan Petricevic (Iron Bar Miller) and Leo Callaghan (The Fibber).
Four of the eight have a known background associated with organised shoplifting.
Duke Delaney has been nominated by Australian and overseas police as the main co-ordinator of international shoplifting gangs, and Callaghan was described before the Moffitt Royal Commission in NSW as an associate of Delaney.
In a consorting case in a Sydney court in 1968, resulting in Iron Bar Miller being gaoled for consorting with McPherson, Smith and others, Smith was categorised by Detective-Sergeant Les Chown as a ‘standover criminal and international shop thief’.
The previous year, Smith and Freeman, together with Delaney, had attracted the attention of Scotland Yard in London for what was outlined as an ‘organised campaign of shoplifting’.
In 1968, Smith and Freeman were arrested together in Perth, Western Australia, on charges of conspiring to steal and receive. In previous years, Freeman had had convictions for stealing ‘stockings from store’ and stealing ‘cardigan from retail store’. In a NSW Police Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU) dossier outlining illegal starting price betting operations controlled by Freeman and listing his associates, five of the criminals were referred to as organised shoplifters and associates also of Delaney.
Delaney was referred to in the dossier as a close friend and associate of Freeman, and had been booked for consorting with Freeman in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, in March 1975; at the Motor Club, George Street, later that same month; at the Taiping Restaurant, Elizabeth Street; in New South Head Road, Rose Bay, in June 1975; and again at the Taiping Restaurant on New Year’s Eve 1976.
The CIU report described Delaney as a ‘well-known shoplifter’ and stated that he did not appear to be involved in Freeman’s alleged betting operations. Delaney has convictions for breaking and entering, stealing, assault, possessing an unlicensed pistol, consorting, street betting, possession of explosives, offering bribe, place betting and driving offences.
Since then, Delaney has spent most of his time overseas, some of it serving gaol sentences. His wife, Barbara Ann Brooks, was arrested on shoplifting charges in Melbourne in 1981 after being targeted by undercover crime intelligence police in NSW and Victoria. The previous year, The Duke himself was charged in Copenhagen for complicity in the theft of a diamond worth $29000. Police said he had been operating with a gang of five.
According to evidence given by Lennie McPherson before the Moffitt Royal Commission, Delaney was ‘befriended’ by Chicago identity Joseph Dan Testa when he visited Australia in the late 1960s. During a get-together at Chequers Nightclub in Sydney, Testa, a wealthy Chicago mobster, was photographed with McPherson, Freeman, Iron Bar Miller and Delaney. Another party for Testa hosted by casino proprietor Ronnie Lee at his Watsons Bay home was attended by McPherson, Freeman and Delaney.
Neville Biber was associated with a whole host of criminals involved in the Kangaroo Gangs, both in Australia and overseas. His partner in Harry S. Baggs, Jimmy White, was arrested in Manchester, England, in 1973 and was officially registered as a ‘professional shoplifter’.
Biber ended up living in a luxury home in the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse, and White graduated to Point Piper, just as high on the social scale.
Biber also made a fortune from dealing in pirate cassettes and was once fined $300 after a company with which he was associated was caught selling pirate cassettes.
In April 1982, the then NSW Attorney-General Frank Walker ordered an investigation into Biber, White and their Harry S. Baggs group after telling the NSW Parliament that both had been named in connection with drug trafficking.
A witness before the Woodward Commission, Edwin Smith, told of Biber being involved in heroin dealing, in conjunction with Kenneth Derley, convicted and gaoled with ex-NSW policeman, Murray Riley, and others, over the Anoa boat shipment of $44 million of buddha sticks. Biber was also nominated as having been involved with cocaine. He was also an associate of Stanley Arthur Smith, Sydney associate of the convicted Thailand drug trafficker Warren Fellows and Paul Hayward, and was often referred to as the Big Fellow.
Smith was the mystery man who drove drug dealer Warren Lanfranchi to a fateful showdown with police in Dangar Place laneway at Chippendale, Sydney, in June 1981 when he was shot dead by Detective-Sergeant Roger Rogerson. Smith used a car belonging to Fan-haven Pty Ltd, part of the Harry S. Baggs group. In earlier years, Smith listed his occupation as driver for Custom Cleared Sales, a similar company associated with the same group. In fact, Biber on one occasion paid $15000 cash bail for Smith.
Jimmy White had attended a meeting at Smith’s fortress-like home at Sydenham in September 1978 with Dave Kelleher, Paul Hayward and Warren Fellows. Two weeks later, Hayward and Fellows were arrested on heroin charges in Thailand.
After Frank Walker ordered his investigation, White disappeared, believed murdered. Within days of a scheduled interview with Corporate Affairs Commission investigators, Biber was found dead in his office on Sunday, 16 January 1983. Although a doctor diagnosed death from heart attack, allegations were raised publicly that he too may have been murdered.
While gang members like White and Biber may disappear or die, the entrenched shoplifting system goes on.
Recruits are known to receive special training at a ‘school’ in Sydney before being sent overseas, in much the same fashion as professional criminals have been providing training for members of poker machine cheating gangs.
Quite apart from the refined techniques they have developed, professional criminals have tended to concentrate more on shoplifting rather than break-ins because of a softer community attitude towards shoplifting, which has meant that the maximum sentence is twelve months’ gaol, compared with five years for breaking and entering.
Criminals, well-versed in court evidence requirements, find it easier to talk themselves out of shoplifting charges if approached by store security employees.
In 1975 one senior store security officer ended up in court and two policemen were sacked from the NSW police force after if was found that they had been bribed into leting go four members of a professional gang caught red-handed in a Bankstown department store.
Shoplifting, by any standard, is big business. Though much of it can be attributed to juveniles, housewives or store employees, the take for organised crime still runs into millions of dollars.
The fence or receivers of stolen goods are entrenched components of organised crime.
Douglas Meagher QC, counsel assisting the Costigan Commission, outlined some of the methods of the shoplifting gangs in a paper on Organised Crime presented to the 53rd Anzaas Congress in Perth in May 1983. As he explained it, ‘A store is selected as a target and on the nominated day a very large number of criminals invade the store dressed as delivery men or executives and proceed to wheel out of the store, quite openly, major items such as refrigerators, television sets, and the like. Once again the operations are meticulously planned. The goods are placed into a van waiting outside and immediately removed to a point of disposal. One group is responsible for the removal of the goods from the store to the van, and no more. Another is responsible for the delivery of the goods to the “fence”. A third group, operating at the fence’s establishment, arranges for the immediate delivery of the goods to the retailer (many of whom would be unaware that the goods are stolen. Indeed, in some cases, the retailers are the victims of the theft)’.
A NSW police estimate put the scale of organised shop thefts at twenty per cent of shoplifting losses, which would amount to $20 million within Australia. As explained by Detective-Sergeant John Kelly, NSW Police Crime Prevention Squad: ‘There is an awful lot of money changing hands in this racket. Even if the professionals only manage to sell the $20 million worth of goods they’re stealing each year for fifty per cent, that still means they’re clearing a cool $10 million.’
The cost and array of goods a professional shoplifter can get away with was illustrated by a British prosecution against an Australian shoplifter in London. Though not identified as belonging to any gang, the Australian, Richard Jeakins, who was gaoled, was found to have a flat which was described to a court as a ‘treasure trove, a fairy grotto, a cross between a department store and an art gallery’. It was decked out with stolen goods worth $153000. Among the stolen items were 1100 works of art, including a William Blake painting worth $20400, a Picasso print worth $11 900 and two icons valued at $7000 each, along with forty cashmere sweaters, two colour television sets and two stereo hi-fi units.
Asked by police how he managed to steal all the items, Jeakins said: ‘I just walk in and take them . . . If you have got the nerve, you can get away with anything. Why not have the best when it does not cost anything anyway’.
In NSW the estimated retail losses from shoplifting exceed by far the total proceeds from armed robberies and other forms of property theft. One retail authority once commented that the scale of professional shoplifting would ‘make the Great Train Robbery look like a piker’s operation’.
The professionals distinguish themselves from the petty shoplifting brigade by the expensive cars they use to hop from city to suburb, and suburb to suburb, as well as the quality of the goods they steal.
Run-of-the-mill juvenile or housewife shoplifters, who make up the bulk of court statistics, are usually apprehended for taking items worth an average of five to six dollars. When caught a professional is more likely to have lifted items worth hundreds of dollars. In a working day organised rings can lift goods running into thousands of dollars.
Several members of a Sydney gang arrested on the Gold Coast in Queensland were caught in possession of goods worth $2500, as well as $1200 in cash suspected as proceeds from stolen items. The gang evaded store security systems whereby shoppers entering a store with plastic bags from other stores had to stop while their bags were stapled at the top. The gang members simply walked through with empty bags with another store’s logo on them hidden in their pockets. After filling the bags with expensive items, they were then stapled at the top using a stapler from the store’s stationery department.
However well known to police some of them might be, gang members are adept at the use of false moustaches or wigs and other disguises. Similarly they are proficient in the use of coats with concealed pockets or bags with hidden compartments and other hard-to-detect techniques.
While the petty shoplifter may be caught with packets of cigarettes, pens or tins of jam, the professional concentrates on furs, jewellery, clothing, shoes and electrical goods.
A favourite ploy is for a gang to send one group to do the rounds stealing dresses or other items from stores in the one chain, then send other gang members back round the next day as dissatisfied customers to exchange the stolen items for cash. Otherwise goods they steal have to be ‘fenced’ for lower prices for resale as bargains by criminals who sell hot merchandise in hotels.
Another ploy involves a woman gang member, disguised as a little old lady, fainting and falling to the floor in the middle of the shop, drawing attention, while other gang members loot the shelves. Or for two gang members to act the part of a couple about to be engaged, procrastinating over selection of a ring . . . and making off with a tray of rings while the jeweller goes to get another selection.
The professionals prey on the reluctance of many stores to prosecute shoplifters, relying more on issuing a warning or banning offenders from their shops.
Retail trade organisations have been battling for years against an entrenched outlook that shoplifting is a socially acceptable crime.
A section of the criminal clique of the notorious Painters and Dockers Union has been involved in organised shoplifting. When police acted against one gang operating in Newcastle, a gang member (subsequently gaoled for six months) confided that an associate (previously gaoled) had contacted him in Wollongong and told him he could get him a job as a painter and docker if he went to Newcastle and joined the shoplifting gang.
Police would prefer to see the offence re-stated simply as shoplifting. As one detective explained; ‘In crime terms, there should be no distinction between a person who lifts something from a shop counter and a criminal who lifts somebody’s wallet from his pocket’.
Over the past ten years, the onus for detecting shoplifting has shifted from the police to security staff employed by stores themselves. Because of the sheer scale of shoplifting today, the emphasis has been on the more easily detectable stealing forays of juveniles and housewives.
More sophisticated police detection methods are necessary to smash professional gangs.
The main police activity now tends to be confined to the role of State police crime prevention bureaus, which do perform an essential and helpful function in advising stores and the community on how to combat shoplifting.
But, with police no longer walking the beat in the old sense, even in the busy heart of metropolitan business centres, the task of thwarting professional criminals plundering stores is left to the stores themselves.
The Retail Traders Association of NSW has conducted two major public campaigns in recent years seeking to alter community attitudes. One was aimed at deterring housewife shoplifters, using the slogan: ‘Will Mummy Spend Christmas in Gaol?’ The other, directed at juveniles, portrayed shoplifting as ‘dumb’ for young people who faced conviction and a record which could affect them in later life.
The Association also has American literature available which emphasises the role of professional thieves, including posters proclaiming: ‘shoplifters Get Something for Nothing’.
The Australian Institute of Criminology carried out a study of shoplifting and called for greater professionalism in store security.
‘In many retail organisations’, warned the Institute’s assistant director David Biles, ‘it is the effectiveness of security that can make the difference between profitability and bankruptcy’.
Another criminologist, Dennis Challinger, has claimed that the overall losses from shoplifting could be adding up to thirty dollars a week to shoppers’ food bills.
Based on his studies, Challinger believed that up to six per cent of goods in shops were stolen, either by shoplifters or staff. Only one in ten offenders were detected, he found, indicating something like 250000 shop thefts in the State of Victoria alone each year.
The nation-wide G. J. Coles retail chain in 1981-82 reported losses amounting to $40 million from shoplifting and staff dishonesty. Customers caught totalled 26297. Charges were laid against 17 804 of them. In addition, the company sacked 450 of its staff for stealing.
Another estimate as high as sixteen per cent of sales, at least for the grocery trade, was given by a Director of David Jones’ Ltd in Sydney.
In some fields of retailing, shoplifting and employee theft can therefore exceed the normal business profit margin.
Greater professionalism by store security in curbing ordinary shoplifters, coupled with a special police crackdown against professional shoplifters, would no doubt pay dividends.
Just as surely, a round-up and public arraignment of some of the more notorious criminals involved in shoplifting would not only cut retail losses but do more to stigmatise shoplifting as a real crime of theft than any number of subliminal advertising campaigns.
from Connections 1 by Bob Bottom
Illustration by Michael Fitzjames