Michael Moylan

There were two Michael Moylans, father and son. We are interested in the son as a representative of how some organised criminals of the 1960s, with a background mainly in illegal gambling, moved into the even more lucrative but much less certain world of illegal drugs in the 1970s. This marked the beginning of the end of the heyday of organised crime in Sydney.

The seventies and eighties saw the legalisation of the crimes that had provided the basis for much of the organised crime of the past: most gambling, prostitution and abortion. (The other factor, restrictions on the sale of alcohol, had already disappeared.) This plus the rise of the illegal drug trade transformed organised crime, for two important reasons.

First, the drug market has no fixed locations like the sly grog joints, brothels and casinos of old. (One exception is the modern nightclub, which often serves as a retail outlet for some drugs. But it plays a relatively small role in the overall drug market.) This makes it much harder to control and organise, which means more volatility. Huge profits can be made by those prepared to take big risks, so younger and more violent criminals are always trying to muscle in. Therefore the advantages of incumbency are much less than before. Although there have been some long-term successes in the drug trade, the common pattern is criminals coming together for specific importation projects and soon disbanding, and businesses that succeed for maybe five years (eg. in growing marijuana or distributing amphetamines in part of Sydney) but are then destroyed by upstarts or police.

The second reason organised crime has changed is that drugs lack the social acceptance that most of the old crimes, such as gambling and drinking after hours, had among many citizens. This has meant police and politicians have been far less prepared to take bribes and protect criminals than in the past. The media has been far less prepared to treat criminals as celebrities.

Due to these two factors, and assisted by the Wood Royal Commission of the 1990s that helped clean up the police force and make it more effective at catching criminals, crime is far less organised than before, and there is no longer anyone in Sydney with the power and status of Lennie McPherson, George Freeman and Abe Saffron.

Michael Moylan snr came from England to Australia in 1964. Landing with nothing, he built up contacts and capital through SP bookmaking, and in 1968 bought out a baccarat school at 33 Oxford Street Darlinghurst. In those days illegal gambling occurred in grotty surroundings but Moylan, perhaps with memories of London’s private casinos, had other plans. At considerable expense he renovated the premises and turned it into the 33 Club, which for years flourished as one of the city’s most successful illegal casinos, its main games roulette and blackjack. The old working class and ethnic clientele departed and new customers poured in from the worlds of business, entertainment, and politics. The fact the club was only 300 metres from Darlinghurst Police Station rarely worried anyone.

Other casino bosses were upset by Moylan’s success, but he had wisely obtained the protection of George Freeman, who recalled in his autobiography, “We had ‘Sirs’ there by the roomful! Titled ladies and business magnates rubbed shoulders at the roulette wheels and the free booze [a Moylan innovation] flowed all night long. The décor was all gold-embossed wallpaper, panelled ceilings and chandeliers. It was a pleasure to lose your money there; and everyone did.”

Freeman addressed a meeting of the disgruntled old guard at the Forbes Club and urged them to follow Moylan’s lead, and go upmarket in pursuit of bigger profits. They voted in favour and the renovators were called in. Sydney’s casinos entered their golden age.

The 33 Club was open from 7.00pm to 7.00am seven days a week and was reputed to turn over five times as much as Australia’s first legal casino in Wrest Point, Tasmania. Moylan snr acquired a penthouse apartment in Elizabeth Bay and drove a Rolls Royce with his initials on the doors. Other members of the family worked in the casino and did very well too. But Moylan snr died in 1973, and the club lost its protection and had to close within a year. Moylan jnr and his wife Patricia were faced with the problem of how to earn a living.

The couple became major importers of marijuana, in the form of buddha sticks. In the words of Alfred McCoy in Drug Traffic, they “contrived one of the most legally and logistically complex smuggling operations ever mounted in Australia”. Using their many contacts in the underworld, they set up an office in Bangkok where the drugs were bought and sealed in specially constructed compartments inside Samsonite suitcases. They recruited between 30 and 40 young couriers in Sydney who went to Bangkok and returned with two suitcases each, containing drugs worth $84,000 on the street in Sydney.

The couriers were paid about $2,500 a trip, and returned to Sydney via Auckland, flying in from New Zealand with a new ticket so Customs had no idea where they’d really come from. The Moylans’ barrister, Frank Lawrence, briefed the female couriers on what to do if caught. They were to say they’d had an affair in Thailand with an American who’d given them the suitcases as a gift. If arrested, the couriers had the choice of being defended by Lawrence (paid for by the Moylans), or of taking a fake passport and skipping the country on bail.

Moylan approached an old family friend, ex-policeman and now serious criminal Murray Riley, to provide protection for the venture and explore the prospect of smuggling drugs into America. But by the end of the year the operation collapsed, after a number of couriers were arrested for various reasons. In one case, a Customs official became suspicious of the number of camphor crystals that had been spread through a suitcase to disguise the smell of fibreglass glue. Before long the Moylans were identified as the organisers and fled to Britain, where they were arrested and brought back to Australia to face the country’s first major drug importation trial. They were convicted, along with their lawyer and the man who’d run their Bangkok office.

In terms of what was to happen with drugs, the Moylans’ drug importations were insignificant. But they were, at least so far as the courts were concerned, just about the first. Notes McCoy: “The Moylans’ business methods, their ownership of the illegal 33 Club casino and close relationship with Murray Riley all added up to only one possible conclusion – Australian organised crime had shifted personnel and funds into the international drug traffic.”

And that would change everything.


MAIN SOURCES: Reports of the Commonwealth-New South Wales Joint Task Force on Drug Trafficking; Drug Traffic by Alfred McCoy