Heroin Comes to Sydney

Although the demand for heroin increased sharply after 1977, large quantities of Southeast Asian No. 3 granular grade had already begun entering Sydney in 1974-5. Initially developed by middle-class trendies like James Sweetnam and the young Palm Beach tourist-adventurers, the drug trade was increasingly dominated by organized crime syndicates as its dimensions grew rapidly beyond the financial means of small operators. While individual entrepreneurs still continued to risk their fortunes on the Bangkok-Sydney run, irregular heroin shipments of one or two kilograms were insufficient to meet the demands of a Sydney market which required, according to conservative estimates, some 896 kilograms each year by 1977. Assuming that each courier could carry one kilogram body-packed or concealed in luggage then two or three heroin couriers would have had to clear Sydney’s airport’s international arrivals terminal every day — an unlikely proposition.

In 1975-6 drug import groups linked to organized crime began making regular heroin runs from Bangkok to Australia. Using a variety of methods ranging from couriers on ordinary passenger aircraft to low-flying charter flights, the drug syndicates brought bulk shipments into Sydney for distribution across Australia. Although the various drug marketing groups were well organized internally, there is no evidence that any single individual or syndicate exercised an overall control over the heroin traffic. Small groups of close mates within the Sydney milieu drew upon available finance and skilled operatives to mount medium-scale import operations moving from five to ten kilograms of heroin per shipment. The narcotics market had developed into an attractive financial opportunity for organized crime.

There is strong evidence that leading Sydney syndicate figures have been involved in every aspect of the developing drug trade. In 1966, as heroin addiction was just starting in Kings Cross, Royal Hong Kong police reported that Stanley Smith and Leonard McPherson were trying to make contact with Chinese narcotics dealers in the colony. Soon after the N.S.W. government banned amphetamines sales in 1969-70 and created an instant blackmarket demand for the drug, Stanley Smith was arrested trying to sell 25 pounds of amphetamines to an undercover narcotics agent. When consumer demand for cannabis boomed in the mid-1970s, a number of established organized crime figures were arrested and convicted on cannabis charges: Stanley Smith (possession, 1973), Michael Moylan Jr (importation, 1977), and Murray Riley (importation, 1978). And, as the demand for heroin rose in the late 1970s, there was every indication that organized crime was heavily involved in both narcotics import and distribution.

There is, moreover, some direct evidence that organized crime may have played a key role in linking Sydney to the Southeast Asian drug trade as Australia’s mass heroin addiction began in 1975-6. From 1965 onwards N.S.W. and Commonwealth police have monitored regular meetings between leading figures in the Sydney milieu and American organized crime contacts. The former N.S.W. government adviser on organized crime, Bob Bottom, has reported that a number of Australan criminals met with U.S. Mafia contacts in San Francisco in 1976-7, including Salvatore Amarena, a member of the Santos Trafficante, Jr crime family of Tampa, Florida. The regular Australian-American meetings, which increased in frequency during the late 1970s, conform to an established pattern in American Mafia operations.

Australian police intelligence analysts who monitored the meetings were surprised by the frequency of these Trans-Pacific contacts and could not understand their rationale, given the considerable risk involved. Unlike ordinary corporate executives who can transact much of their business by telephone or letter and have recourse to the courts in case of misunderstanding, American organized crime leaders are wary of police surveillance and rely on personal contact to negotiate a binding contract. Whether in their domestic or international operations, U.S. syndicate leaders have consistently preferred the risk of exposure through personal meetings to the near-certainty of detection through letter intercepts or telephone wire tapping. In 1968 Santos Trafficante, Jr, for example, visited Saigon, Hong Kong and Singapore meeting with prominent local personalities through his family’s resident representative. Several years later the first large shipments of Asian heroin began entering the United States.

Conforming to this pattern of operations, a well-known West Coast Mafia figure made a series of visits to Sydney in the mid-1970s and was observed by N.S.W. police meeting regularly with local milieu personalities. Evidently enjoying the State’s laissez-faire attitude toward criminal figures, the American moved about Sydney freely taking little trouble to conceal his investments in a range of gambling and property ventures. Towards the end of his 1976 visit to Sydney, Australian police received intelligence indicating that the American was trying to link Australia with the international narcotics traffic. An official N.S.W. police report on his activities stated that ‘information was received that __________ was here for the purpose of organizing a network for the reception of heroin into this country from the Golden Triangle and for subsequent distribution on the local market and in the United States’.

The implications of this visit and subsequent Australian-American organized crime contacts for Australia’s heroin problem are profound. Judging from its timing, it is possible that these contacts may have played a critical role in linking international heroin merchants to Australian drug distribution syndicates. It was during the 1976-8 period, following this visit, that the amount of Southeast Asian heroin entering Australia showed a dramatic increase. N.S.W. police statistics reveal unprecedented growth in narcotics violations in the years following the intensified Trans-Pacific meetings of 1976-7. Annual narcotics violations jumped by almost 300 per cent, rising from 305 in 1974 to 909 in 1977. The sudden surge in narcotics arrests in 1975-6 was a radical departure from the up-and-down trend over the previous five years — a rise from 125 narcotics violations in 1969 to 239 in 1972, down to 173 in 1972, up slightly to 198 in 1973.

Bulk heroin importation lent itself readily to control by a series of small, interlocking groups directed exclusively by senior men within Sydney organized crime. Heavy international narcotics enforcement efforts in Bangkok made Chinese exporters wary of dealing with any but established contacts in amounts above one or two kilograms. While the constant demand for heroin opened street dealing to anyone with drugs, bulk importation required the skills and contacts that only organized crime possessed. This loosely-structured supply system was remarkably efficient in keeping Sydney’s heroin reservoir full, but its style of operation does not lend itself to the type of comprehensive analysis one can make of casino gambling or SP bookmaking. It is simply not possible to narrate the history of a single, or even several, heroin syndicates assuming that they are anything more than an example of the kind of groups that are operating within the Sydney milieu. All known heroin distribution groups of any size, however, share two noteworthy characteristics: strong connections with established organized crime figures, and frequent recourse to murder as a means of doing business.

The exceptional violence of the heroin trade, once found only in America and Asia, was evident in Sydney almost from the start. Handling enormous amounts of cash through networks of dealers and addicits who are notorious for their duplicity, major heroin distributors regularly suffer from ‘rip offs’, bad debts, stolen shipments and adulterated merchandise. Narcotics merchants the world over have found that murder is the only deterrent which commands any attention in the demoralized demi-monde of the heroin user. Infrequent and sensational events when the heroin subculture first established itself, drug-related executions became, at times, almost weekly occurrences in eastern Australia by 1978-9.

Sydney’s first known heroin-related execution was the Jan O’Truba murder in September 1972. A twenty-year-old Mosman youth employed as a casual at the Orpheum Theatre in Cremorne, O’Truba was a heavy heroin user who maintained his costly dosage by dealing to his peers in the hotels and streets of the lower north shore. He began using heroin at fifteen while a student at an Eastern Suburbs school and two years later was convicted by the Children’s Court on a charge of heroin use. Arrested in 1971 for breaking into a pharmacy to steal drugs, O’Truba was sentenced to prison and later released on parole. Returning to live and work in the Mosman area, O’Truba began dealing professionally and became known in the area, in the words of a young addict, as ‘one of a dozen guys who could score shit at that time’. But O’Truba also developed a reputation as a dealer willing to cheat his suppliers out of their payments and his customers out of a fair dose.

Investigations into O’Truba’s movements immediately preceding his death revealed little hard evidence to establish the identity of his killer. At 8 p.m. on the day before his death he was at a ‘hit party’ when he received a telephone call from a seller who arranged a meeting for the same evening. Several hours later he met the seller, who friends claimed was a senior detective constable in the N.S.W. police, and paid $450 for about an ounce of heroin. The next day he travelled the northern beach hotels peddling the heroin in capsules at $20 each. At 10.20 p.m. he met a potential buyer outside the Orpheum Theatre in Cremorne and was never seen alive again.

The following day, 2 September, a motorist pulled off the Wake-hurst Parkway in Oxford Falls, twelve kilometres north of where he was last seen, and discovered Jan O’Truba’s body braced against a tree on the steep embankment. His face showed signs of possible torture and he had been shot in the head three times at close range by a .32 calibre pistol. Although police issued a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of his killer and gathered a number of leads, nobody was charged and his murder remains unsolved.

If Jan O’Truba’s murder seems to have involved some business disputes in the lower reaches of the heroin demi-monde, Maria Anne Hisshion’s execution three years later was something altogether different. A beautiful, twenty-four-year-old fashion designer, Maria divided her time between the fashion and drug worlds. She operated at the upper echelons of the distribution chain, working as both a courier on various Asia-Australia routes and a distributor within Sydney. Living in a luxury unit at Rose Bay, Maria was widely known as a friend and lover of the models, designers, criminals, solicitors and company directors who moved in the intimate circle of drug dealers known as the Windsor Castle set.

Initially involved in cocaine and hashish selling, she apparently moved into heroin with some reluctance as the narcotics market began to expand. She made a number of brief trips to Asia, several of which included a Bangkok stopover, and was thought to have carried drugs back to Sydney. In the months before her death, police learned ‘she told friends she was frightened and wanted no more to do with the world of drugs’.

On Christmas eve 1975 Maria Hisshion had dinner at her mother’s home and then disappeared. Two weeks later a local fisherman spotted a body in the water just off North Heads. Later identified through clothes and jewellery, her body was tied to an anchor with a length of nylon rope and a .32 calibre bullet was lodged in her head.

Although Hisshion was already known to both State police and the Federal Narcotics Bureau for her involvement in the drug trade, investigations failed to locate the killer. Appearing before a coroner’s inquest in April 1979, Sergeant Frederick J. Partington, the same officer assigned to direct the investigation of Donald Mackay’s disappearance, testified that Maria Hisshion’s body had been dumped from a boat. Ten days after recovery of her body on 6 January 1976 police had interviewed one Barry Pyne about allegations that he had borrowed a friend’s boat on the night of her disappearance. Pyne, an associate of the narcotics network known as the Double Bay mob, refused to answer any questions and later was reported to have fled Australia.

The N.S.W. Drugs Royal Commission later probed the operations of the ‘Double Bay mob’ and uncovered some inconclusive evidence about the circumstances of Maria Hisshion’s death. A record of interview with the anonymous witness Mr AT contained a later reference to her murder. Evidently the Double Bay mob was having some trouble with another of its women associates whom they feared was talking to the Drugs Royal Commission. In the course of a conversation two years after Hisshion’s death, members of the group discussed a similar solution.

In paragraph 27 AT outlined a conversation he says he had with [John] Ceruto relating a girl named Candida Scutts, of Bellevue Hill. It was suggested that Scutts:

Was blackmailing AE because she knew of him collecting shipments of heroin.

That there were various discussions about ‘how to get rid of her and it was suggested by AE that this ‘would be a job for Neville Stevens . . . the same as Maria Hisshion’. . .

AE planned to get in touch with Barry Pyne ‘to have something done to make [her] shut her mouth to the Royal Commission’.

In other portions of his testimony the anonymous Mr AT elaborated on this statement and made several additional references to the Hisshion killing. Describing Barry Payne and Neville Stephens as ‘partners’ in various drug ventures in the 1974-7 period, Mr AT, himself an admitted member of the same network, claimed that at various times different members of the group had discussed the Hisshion killing. One alleged trafficker had said to AT sometime in 1976 that ‘he knew that Neville Stevens’ boat had been used in the murder of Maria Hisshion’, and ‘told me that Barry Pyne and Neville Stevens had been involved in the murder of Hisshion’.

Although the Drugs Royal Commission failed to solve the Hisshion murder, it did gather a wealth of informative data about the changing patterns of the Sydney drug traffic as it moved from marijuana to heroin in the mid-1970s. The casual style of the Windsor Castle set in the early 1970s had given way to a hard professionalism epitomized in the violent methods of the Double Bay mob. Originally an informal network of middle-class mates, the Windsor Castle set moved, under the apparent leadership of James ‘Jimbo’ Sweetnam, from drug experimentation into full-time selling. Judging from Sweetnam’s conviction with Stanley Smith for amphetamines dealing in 1970, the group acquired its contacts with organized crime rather early.

As the cannabis trade boomed in the early 1970s beyond the capacities of any neophyte organization, the Windsor Castle set merged into a larger network of drug dealing groups based largely in the city’s affluent Eastern Suburbs from Paddington to Double Bay. Involved largely in marijuana wholesaling in 1973-5, the network moved into heroin as the market for hard narcotics grew among the city’s middle-class youth. In his summary of evidence about the various Eastern Suburbs’ drug rings, Mr William Fisher, QC, counsel to the Drugs Royal Commission, explained that ‘there are unmistakable signs that most of the persons involved in heroin graduated in business terms from handling marijuana’.

Perhaps the most revealing evidence presented to the Royal Commission in open session, Mr AT’s testimony described in detail the folkways and finances of the expanded Eastern Suburbs drug network that emerged in the mid-1970s. Supplied with 100-pound lots of Riverina produce through ethnic contacts and shipping through a Camperdown motor trading firm in 1974-5, the network moved bulk cannabis consignments from Sydney to Melbourne and Adelaide in a constantly changing assortment of company cars. Among the alleged couriers involved were Barry Pyne, Neville Stevens and one Michael Haybittle. Marijuana was purchased at Sydney for $150 to $180 per pound and the usual 100-pound shipment was worth up to $18,000 wholesale. A number of nuclear groups were active in the larger network and included some French nationals with interests in the restaurant trade, established organized crime figures, the original Windsor Castle set and a number of new recruits.

While Sweetnam seems to have lost managerial control to organized crime ‘heavies’ he remained for a while the network’s social secretary, its animating spirit. Subject to only superficial police surveillance, the beautiful people of the Eastern Suburbs network often gathered at large drug parties hosted by Sweetnam and guested by a number of local media celebrities. Recalling these gatherings, Mr AT testified that some time in 1975 ‘the boys in the syndicate were having a . . . party at Woollahra’, run by Sweetnam and attended by the network’s ‘senior partners. . . Hashish was supplied to each guest at the door.’ Among the guests were Vernon Todd, an American who later fled Australia after his aunt, Mrs Vera Todd-Hayes, was arrested in February 1978 shortly after landing in Sydney from Asia with a campervan containing 1.9 tonnes of hashish worth $12 million. The cannabis courier Michael Haybittle was also there. He was arrested sixteen months later at Heathrow Airport, London, arriving from Bangkok with a half kilogram of pure No. 4 heroin worth £150,000 retail. Sweetnam himself subsequently fled Australia to England where he was twice arrested on heroin charges. Among the other seventy guests present were Neville Stevens and Barry Pyne.

The party was raided by N.S.W. police and their arrest report constitutes a unique account of social life among the Eastern Suburbs drug circle. In a statement to the Drugs Royal Commission, Senior-Constable Brian J. Williams recalled that raid:

On 17 July 1975 information was received that a number of known and suspected drug dealers were to be at a party to be held at 65 Wallaroy Road, Woollahra, that evening.

At a briefing Detective Sergeant Lane informed the personnel that leading drug dealers, who would be in attendance, were there to collect money for drugs previously given out on credit. Each guest on his or her arrival at the party was to be given drugs for their use at no charge. A large quantity of hashish was to be raffled, and the hashish would be secreted in the boot of an unknown vehicle parked nearby. . .

Shortly after our entry into the premises, and after Detective-Sergeant Lane had announced our presence, a solicitor named Chris H. Watson, then residing at 5 Hargreave Lane, Paddington, stood on a coffee table and began yelling out to the other guests, telling them that they did not have to answer any questions asked of them by the police. He was searched together with some seventy other persons who were in attendance at the premises.

Gradually expanding beyond the marijuana trade, the network began moving large quantities of heroin in 1975-6, and the casual amity among the beautiful people quickly evaporated. The murder of Maria Hisshion was the first sign that the essentially predatory nature of the heroin trade was having its effect on a network whose hallmarks until then had been fine food and fashion flair. The source of narcotics supply was inevitably Bangkok and the means of moving it into Australia were nearly infinite: furniture shipments, charter aircraft flights from Port Moresby to Cairns, freighter shipments and air passenger couriers cleared by a few corrupted Customs officers at Sydney airport. Once the heroin arrived, members of the group to which it was consigned adulterated it with powdered sugar and forwarded packets to distribution networks in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney. During 1977 the shipments increased in both size and regularity, placing the drug networks in an optimum position to make a complete changeover from cannabis to heroin with the onset of the marijuana drought in 1977-8.

Prosperity bred conflict, however, and by early 1977 the broad Eastern Suburbs network fragmented into a number of smaller trafficking groups, of, which the Double Bay mob was one. Led by known organized crime figures, the Double Bay mob, after breaking with its French associates, began to dominate the heroin traffic, and the Sydney drug subculture became progressively more violent. Many of the beautiful people abandoned the trade and fled Sydney as the hard men took control. Sweetman moved to England in 1977, and a number of his former associates cashed in their savings to move up the coast away from Sydney’s gathering violence. The opulent parties at Palm Beach and Paddington came to an end. When the Drugs Royal Commission returned from the fields of Griffith to assay the Sydney drug trade, the beautiful people cowered and confessed or fled Australia, while the professional criminals sent accountants and solicitors to defend their good names.

Emerging as one of the largest heroin operations in eastern Australia in 1977-8, the Double Bay mob demonstrated all the characteristics of a standard organized crime operation. At its peak were a few leading syndicate figures closely allied for a decade or more with ‘the powers’ that had dominated the Sydney underworld since the executions of 1967-8. Comprising the core of the group were a small number of regular employees who sub-contracted the importation, distribution, security and financial work involved in the drug trade. And at the fringe of the organization were the full-time players in the heroin subculture — couriers, dealers, pushers and hired-killers — who at best had indirect contact with the core of the operation. Evidence of close ties between the nucleus of the Double Bay mob and the other major organized crime drug rings that emerged in the late 1970s were exceptionally strong. Official documentation shows, for example, that the group was linked to the professional criminals who were involved in Murray Riley’s $46 million cannabis smuggling operation, providing still further evidence that organized crime had moved collectively into the narcotics traffic.


from Drug Traffic by Alfred McCoy

[with this change: Sweetman has been corrected throughout to Sweetnam]