Genteel Melbourne shocked as gangland erupts in murder

New outrage brings total to 16 unsolved murders as tit-for-tat killing spree escalates
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even by gangland standards, it was a brutal and brazen act. Two men were shot dead as they sat in a van watching a children's football training session on a Saturday morning. Five youngsters in the back of the van, including the six-year-old twin daughters of one victim, witnessed the killing at close quarters. Hundreds of others were milling around nearby.

The double execution took place not in Chicago or Johannesburg, but in the suburbs of Melbourne, statistically one of the world's safest cities. Safe, that is, except for members of the criminal underworld, which is locked in an escalating war of tit-for-tat killings.

The war has claimed up to 16 lives in recent years and all those murders remain unsolved. The latest casualties were Jason Moran, a notorious gangland figure, and Pasquale Barbaro, his friend and minder, who died in a hail of gunfire unleashed by a man in a balaclava through the windows of the Mitsubishi van.

Moran, 35, was the main target of the "hit", which took place a week ago in the car park of the Cross Keys Hotel, a pub overlooking a scruffy football pitch in North Essendon. He was suspected of involvement in 12 shootings, including the murder in 1998 of Alphonse Gangitano, his former business partner and a prominent crime boss.

The Morans are part of a network of criminal families who form the backbone of Melbourne's underworld and whose forebears hail, in many cases, from the southern Italian province of Calabria. Jason's half-brother, Mark, was shot dead three years ago. His father, Lewis, is in prison awaiting trial on drug charges.

Jason grew up in Ascot Vale, a quiet area of neat bungalows with latticed verandas, and carried a handgun before he was old enough to drive. John Silvester, a crime writer at The Age, describes him as a hothead with a vicious temper. Jason once attacked a motorist with a wheel brace after the man cut in front of him in traffic. Most recently, he served time for his part in a savage nightclub brawl.

The challenge for police, who will mingle with mourners tomorrow at Moran's funeral at a church popular with the criminal fraternity, is not so much to identify his enemies, but to isolate which of the numerous men with a grudge pulled the trigger.

Some observers believe his killing was retaliation for the murder of Victor Pierce, shot dead outside a supermarket last year. Pierce was an associate of Frank Benvenuto, gunned down in 2000. The theory is that Pierce blamed the Morans and shot Mark as payback. Jason then murdered Pierce - and was killed himself. The other suspect is a rival amphetamine manufacturer who survived after being shot in the stomach, allegedly by the Morans, over a £160,000 debt.

Whatever the reason, Jason knew he was a marked man. He changed addresses frequently and varied his routine. His only regular activity was taking his twins to football training. He would have felt safe there; killing people in front of children is regarded as bad form, even by gangsters.

The flouting of that code has shocked Melbourne's most hard-bitten characters. Kath Pettingill, matriarch of a renowned crime family, said: "It's not on. It's a sad world if it comes to that."

Some of the ancestors of the men now settling scores emigrated to Australia after the Second World War, and set themselves up in Melbourne's wholesale fruit and vegetable business.

The families then moved into more lucrative areas: drugs, guns, extortion, armed robbery. The subsequent decades witnessed a series of turf wars; in the 1960s, a number of market stallholders were shot dead. But, in terms of body count, the current war is the deadliest.

After Moran's death, one police officer told Melbourne's Herald-Sun: "It made my morning. He's not a person who contributed to society." The problem is that matters are unlikely to rest there. The city is already braced for the next hit.