The killing was supposed to end when Carl Williams, Australia's most feared gangland figure, was jailed in 2007. But yesterday it was Williams himself who lay dead, clubbed by a fellow inmate with the stem of an exercise bike in a maximum-security prison unit.
Police were last night questioning a man who, they allege, crept up on Williams and struck him from behind as he sat at a table in a common area of the solitary confinement wing of Victoria's Barwon Prison. The baby-faced 39-year-old, who was serving a life sentence for four murders, suffered serious head injuries, then went into cardiac arrest.
It was not immediately clear whether the attack was connected with Melbourne's long-running gang war, of which Williams was a chief architect, or was the result of bad blood between two individuals. But there were fears last night that it might reignite the tit-for-tat violence that claimed more than 30 lives between 1998 and 2006, inspiring best-selling books and a high-rating television series, Underbelly.
Coincidentally or not, a Melbourne tabloid, the Herald Sun, had revealed yesterday morning that Victorian police were paying for Williams' nine-year-old daughter, Dhakota, to attend an exclusive private school. The newspaper said it could not reveal the reasons, for fear of legal repercussions, but the front-page report sparked speculation that it might be payback for Williams turning informer.
The self-confessed "mummy's boy", whose cherubic features belied his sadistic and ruthless nature, will be mourned by few: his mother, Barbara, who had been suffering from depression, took an overdose in late 2008. His father, George, himself released from prison last June after serving a sentence for drug trafficking, was told the news by plainclothes officers at his home yesterday.
Detectives believe Williams was responsible for at least 10 of the shootings which shattered Melbourne's civilised reputation. (He pleaded guilty to four, and was convicted of a fifth.) One of his victims, Jason Moran, was gunned down in front of his six-year-old twins as they sat in a van, watching a children's football training session. The charred body of another, Mark Mallia, who had been strangled and apparently tortured with a soldering iron, was found inside a burning wheelie bin.
But Williams – who always smiled for the television cameras during his many court appearances – did not, for the most part, pull the trigger himself; as the trial judge, Justice Betty King, remarked as she sentenced him to a 35-year minimum parole period: "You are a killer, and a cowardly one, who employed others to do the actual killing."
If it was a hit ordered by someone on the outside, it was a brazen one. But the conduct of the gangland war, fought mainly over drugs and territory, was never exactly subtle. Williams' best friend, Andrew "Benji" Veniamin, was shot dead in a crowded pizza restaurant in an inner-city neighbourhood of Melbourne in the middle of the day, in front of horrified families.
His worst enemy is the Moran family – what is left of it. A convicted drug trafficker, Williams ordered the killing not only of Jason, but of Jason's father, Lewis, shot dead while drinking in a Melbourne bar. Jason's half-brother, Mark, was also murdered during the orgy of shootings. Mark and Jason's mother, Judy, detested Williams with a vengeance – but she herself is in prison now, awaiting trial on a charge of killing Des "Tuppence" Moran, her brother-in-law, in a café last year.
Williams' ex-wife, Roberta, who is the mother of Dhakota, and a convicted drug dealer, made no statement on his murder yesterday. A reporter from Melbourne's The Age, who telephoned her home, was told by an unidentified man to "fuck off". At George Williams' house in suburban Melbourne, journalists were abused and called "animals" by friends who gathered outside.
Andrew Rule, a journalist from The Age who co-authored the Underbelly books on which the TV series was based, described Williams' death as "another episode in a very violent life". He told a Melbourne radio station: "He was lucky not to be killed 10 years ago by the Moran brothers, who are now both dead themselves."
His lawyer, Rob Stary, said he had been upset about the Herald Sun report because he feared it might expose Dhakota to risk. "Of course he was concerned about that," he said. "He was not concerned about his own well-being; he was concerned about her."
Mr Stary called for an independent investigation into Williams' death, saying: "He was in the state's most secure environment, solitary confinement ... and whatever happened, one would expect [he] would have been supervised."
Williams – who called himself "the Premier", claiming he ran the state of Victoria – always asserted that the underworld bloodletting began after he was shot in the stomach by Jason Moran in 1999, following an argument about money. In 2008, in a letter to his mother, he gloated that "I will always be able to see and talk to my loved ones, and that is a lot better than the scumbags who shot me can do".
In the letter, he defended the murders, saying: "I am certainly not ashamed of the lengths I was forced to take to protect myself and my loved ones ... Every day soldiers have to kill the enemy, otherwise the enemy will kill them, and no one calls soldiers murderers ... The people I killed were far worse people than I will ever be ... I never killed or harmed any innocent people."
A one-time labourer and high-school drop-out, Williams acquired a multimillion-dollar chunk of the Melbourne illicit drugs business, particularly amphetamines, using some of the huge profits to dispose of his rivals.
When justice finally caught up with him, he surprised everyone by pleading guilty. That did not impress the trial judge, who told him: "You left me with the strong impression that ... you [believed you] were the real victim ... You do not get to be judge, jury and executioner. You acted as though it was your right to have these people killed."
Yesterday hard questions were being asked about security and staffing levels in the prison wing where Williams died. The gangster was housed in a unit with two other inmates, with whom he shared an exercise yard and day room. According to the state corrections minister, Bob Cameron, the three men were allowed to associate with each other for six hours a day, between 8am and 2pm, and were not always supervised.
Reportedly Williams was housed with his former allies, while his enemies were kept away from him, in a separate unit of the Melbourne prison.
The attack, which took place just before 1pm, was captured on a closed-circuit television camera. Prison officials said a guard was about 10 metres away at the time. The police officer leading the homicide investigation, Detective Inspector Bernie Edwards, said prison medical staff tried to revive Williams until ambulance officers arrived. However, he was pronounced dead at the scene at 1.47pm. Both of the other prisoners were questioned yesterday.
Mr Cameron said three investigations would be carried out into Williams' death, by the police, the coroner and the prison service. "We are very, very concerned that such a notorious criminal has been murdered ... and we want to get to the bottom of it."
The state's deputy corrections commissioner, Rod Wise, said it was not practical to have every prisoner supervised at all times, and there was no history of conflict between Williams and his fellow inmates. His alleged assailant had been in the unit with him for 15 months, and the third man had been there for nine months.
Williams, who would have been at least 71 by the time of his release, said before he died that the most difficult thing he had endured was his mother's death. Forbidden from attending her funeral, he told her in a eulogy which was read out at the service: "There's nothing in the world I would not have done for you. You were my pillar of strength. You were my everything."
Greg Davis, secretary of the Victorian Police Association, said: "It [Williams' death] may close a chapter in the history of Melbourne's criminal activities. Whether it closes the book or not will remain to be seen."
True crime on film
The suspected Indian gangster Abu Salem went to court to try to block a Bollywood film that he claims was based on his life. Abu Salem was extradited from Portugal in 2005, along with his actress partner, as a suspect for bombings in Mumbai in 1993 that killed 250 people. The Indian authorities claim that the bombings were masterminded by figures in the Muslim-dominated underworld in response to Hindu-Muslim religious riots that left hundreds dead. The film's producers insisted that the movie, Gangster, was a work of fiction and not based on the life of Abu Salem, who also faced charges of murder, kidnapping and extortion. The film told the story of a bar girl in love with two men, one a gangster. His lawyer claimed that the release of the film in 2006 could hamper the chances of a fair trial. The attempt failed. Abu Salem remains in prison.
The original series, that spawned many other programmes and films, focused on the Prohibition-era fight against crime in Chicago of the 1930s. The series first ran on ABC in the United States from 1959 and told the story of the Mob-fighting investigator Eliot Ness and his attempts to take on Al Capone. The series was criticised at the time for its use of excessive violence and the Italian-American community was unhappy at being criminalised. Al Capone's family also brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the series for using Capone's likeness for profit.
Jacques Mesrine was a French hoodlum who based himself on US gangster movies and became a hero to sections of the French left. This was based on his claim that he was attacking an unjust state rather than just stealing money from banks. He was finally shot dead by police in Paris in 1979, but before that he was responsible for a 20-year campaign of bank robberies, murders and kidnappings on six continents. Two French films were made about the life of the man who started his criminal career as a minor player on the fringes of a right-wing terrorist group and ended as self-proclaimed anarchist revolutionary. The legend grew in book, film, song and rap, turning Mesrine into a kind of Robin Hood of France. One of the films presented his death as a police execution – infuriating retired police who urged the French state to sue the film-makers.
American Gangster was based on a magazine story about the rise and fall of the gangster Frank Lucas in the 1970s. Lucas, played by Denzel Washington in the movie, ran the heroin trade in the Harlem district of New York, bringing the drugs in on US planes returning from the Vietnam war. The film, directed by Ridley Scott, was nominated for two Academy awards. The film inspired a computer game, and the rapper Jay-Z, who made an album of the same name.
Bonnie And Clyde
The exploits of the outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow and their gang captured the imagination of the American public with a series of robberies on petrol stations and shops across the central United States in the 1930s. The raids left at least nine policemen dead before they themselves were killed by police in Louisiana. Immortality was ensured with Arthur Penn's 1967 film, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.Reuse content