Ray Kelly

It might seem odd to include policemen among Sydney’s top 20 organised crime figures, but to do otherwise would leave a large gap. For years it was argued corrupt police were only a “few bad apples” and it would be wrong to characterise the police culture as corrupt. But the existence of widespread corruption – and the complicity through silence of many more police who were not corrupt themselves – was proved by numerous reports and royal commissions, from the 1938 one into SP bookmaking to the 1994 – 1997 one into the police force. Corrupt activities extended from taking bribes and jailing favoured criminals’ competitors to the commissioning of crimes and even murder.

George Freeman, the only leading criminal to pen an autobiography, wrote enviously that “From my experience, the only real ‘organisation’ of crime in Sydney has come from individual police. Because when it comes to criminal networking, crooked cops have the game to themselves.” Freeman was being unduly modest about his own organisational capacities, but his points about the advantage the police had when it came to corruption, and the advantage many took of it, were valid.

There were many corrupt police – it has been suggested that for decades many, perhaps most police stations in the state took money for turning a blind eye to illegal gambling and drinking. Such activity, especially in the country, was spontaneous rather than organised. Organisation became possible in the city because crime was concentrated, as was police power in specialist detective units. There were many corrupt police, but three of the most extreme were detectives Ray Kelly, Fred Krahe and Roger Rogerson. Each roughly represented a generation of policing, and the culture of corruption flowed from older to younger (although their careers overlapped) from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Ray Kelly was a big, tough miner and farm labourer who joined the police in 1929. His heyday extended from the 1940s to the 1960s. Like many well-known corrupt police, he seems to have been a brave and efficient thief-taker – he received eight commendations – who was also very intelligent and grew bored with his job.

Early in his career a stolen car knocked him through a plate glass window and tried to run over him. Kelly fought back, killing one man, and gained the nickname “The Gunner”. He was to kill again, and once said, “I’ve shot brumbies, I’ve chased steers. But there’s nothing to touch the thrill of a manhunt.”

From 1941 Kelly spent much of his time in the Criminal Investigation Branch, where he built up an impressive number of contacts in the criminal world. Like many police he traded protection for information, and one of his main sources was Lennie McPherson, a leading post-war underworld figure.

In the 1950s, Kelly was particularly active in protecting abortionists (abortion was illegal), including Dr Reginald Stuart-Jones. His friends over the years included Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh, the big gamblers Joe Taylor and Perce Galea, Fred Anderson (the closest Sydney ever had to a criminal boss of bosses), and many Liberal politicians. He was notorious for fitting up people he arrested (hence his second nickname, “Verbal”) and is reputed to have killed a number of criminals who got in the way of himself or his crooked friends.

In 1965 Kelly’s friend Robert Askin became premier. According to a source quoted in David Hickie’s The Prince and the Premier, “When Askin got in, Kelly was running everything – every known racket of the period was worked by Kelly. He was an extraordinary combination of genius and evil – a brilliant detective, but he always reminded me of a snake, a python.”

Journalist and author Kevin Perkins recalled that in 1974 Kelly offered him $500 a week to provide information about media coverage of illegal casinos, which was intense at the time. “No one can open [a casino] without the permission of the premier [Robert Askin] and the police commissioner [Fred Hanson],” Kelly told him. “If anyone opens one against our wishes, we just close them down. … They pay for protection and the right to operate. … I still collect the money and distribute it. I make sure Bob Askin gets his share, and so on down the line.” Perkins said Kelly also boasted about having controlled the ”police side” of illegal abortions for a long time, reporting to previous police commissioner Norman Allan. Perkins declined Kelly’s offer.

Kelly was enormously influential in the police force, his main foe being honest Catholic cop Brian “The Cardinal” Doyle. One of Kelly’s jobs was to interview applicants for plain clothes work (a prelude to promotion to detective), and he would ask if they would be prepared to fit up a suspect. If the young officer replied in the negative, Kelly would say, “Go back to the Cardinal. You’re no f—ing good to me.”

Framing known criminals (eg. by fabricating a confession or planting evidence) was an example of the so-called “noble corruption” endemic in the police force, and indeed was essential to a great deal of police success in the days before improved forensics and the use of phone taps and listening devices. But it could easily lead to the “ignoble corruption” practised by Kelly and his like.

Kelly’s corrupt proteges included Fred Krahe and Don Fergusson. George Freeman wrote of Krahe that he was a “deadly and evil” killer who had his own pricing scheme. “After he’d arrest you, the paying began. You’d pay him to get bail, you’d pay some more later for a reduced sentence, you’d pay more for remands, you’d pay for whether or not he gave verbal evidence against you, and you’d pay again if he decided not to give evidence … And believe me, everybody paid. It was stupid not to. … Krahe not only stood over crims once he arrested them, he had others working for him, doing everything from stealing cars to house-breakings and armed robberies.”

One whom Krahe might have killed was Don Fergusson, who inherited the job of bagman for the abortion racket and in 1970 was found dead in the office lavatory with a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand. The verdict was suicide, but many thought Krahe had killed him due to concerns about his continuing loyalty.

At the farewell dinner when Kelly retired in 1966, Premier Robert Askin described him as “a close personal friend that no fictional detective could hold a candle to”. The premier successfully recommended Kelly for an MBE. By that time the ex-detective was part-owner of an illegal casino on the Central Coast, along with Police Commissioner Fred Hanson. They contracted out their debt collection to Lennie McPherson. Kelly died in 1977.

Krahe and Fergusson’s most notorious protégé was Roger Rogerson, who killed drug dealer Warren Lanfranchi in 1981 in contested circumstances. Rogerson was alleged by criminal Arthur ‘Neddy’ Smith to be one of a group of detectives who gave him the “green light” in the 1970s to commit armed robberies.

MAIN SOURCES: The Prince and the Premier by David Hickie; Mr Big by Tony Reeves; articles in the Sydney Morning Herald by Evan Whitton