Police Rowers

An interesting link between several corrupt police officers was their participation in competitive rowing. Possibly this sport’s popularity, among police generally, was due to the fact it was the international version of the surf boat competitions common off Sydney’s beaches.

The seminal event was the participation by the all-police Men’s Eight in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This was funded by a compulsory levy on the pay of all police officers in New South Wales. The unofficial team manager was Superintendent George ‘Monkey’ Fergusson, son of one of the rowers, Don. George was tainted with allegations of taking bribes from SP bookies, while Don, who committed suicide by shooting himself when head of the CIB in 1970, was probably involved in a range of corrupt activities including protecting abortions.

Also in the Eight – which was unplaced at the Olympics – was Mervyn Wood, a rower of extraordinary ability who went on, in single and double rowing events, to win a gold, a silver and a bronze medal in subsequent Olympics, as well as a swag of other international medals. The Olympic bronze was won with fellow police officer Murray Riley, in Melbourne in 1956. The two men also won gold at the Empire games in 1950 and 1954.

Murray Riley, Helsinki 1952 (back row, 2nd from left)

In 1962, Riley left the force to embark on a career as one of Australia’s major gangsters for many decades. He was a pioneer in the heroin trade, and in 1978 organised an audacious plan to import of 4.5 tonnes of cannabis from Thailand to Australia. By that time Merv Wood was Commissioner of Police (1977-1979). When detectives started to investigate the planned importation and advised Wood, he told them he had lunch regularly with Riley, and if it turned out his old mate was not involved, he would shut down the unit the detectives worked for. When the importation was foiled and some of the drugs were seized on the north coast of NSW, Wood turned up for the media opportunity but refused to talk to the detectives responsible for the coup.

Riley was sentenced to 10 years for his role in the planned importation. He is still alive, in his nineties, and lives on the Gold Coast in Queensland under the name Murray Stewart.

Murray Riley

Merv Wood quit as Commissioner after just two and a half years, driven out by a series of scandals and a tolerance of corrupt police practices that may have been no more than that of his predecessors but was much more open. He claimed there was no organised crime in NSW, and once said publicly that he could not shut down illegal casinos because the loss of jobs would cause hardship to staff at Christmas.

Commissioner Merv Wood