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Don Hancock and the Perth Mint Swindle

Don Hancock

The Mickelberg brothers, Peter, Ray and Brian were convicted of eight charges relating to a robbery at the Perth Mint, on June 22, 1982.

49 gold bars vanished and were spirited away to a mystery hiding place in exchange for three fake cheques.

Police alleged their evidence showed Ray Mickelberg's fingerprint appeared on one of them.

The gold bullion weighed 68kg and was then worth $653,000 (valued at about $1.36million in June 2002).

Three separate couriers bearing three false cheques had arrived at the mint, been admitted, and not long after driven out with the gold.

It had then been delivered by the unsuspecting couriers to an office a few kilometres away. The couriers then disappeared.

The crime caused a sensation around Australia. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood heist - it was daring, complex, carried out with almost military precision - and no one was hurt.

The crooks had also carried it out with ridiculous ease, taking advantage of the incredibly lax security procedures at the mint, which was smack bang in the middle of the city.

And there were few clues, if any.

So few clues that the perpetrators might have seemed unlikely to be caught and convicted by conventional police methods.

Leading the investigation was one of the hard men of the Perth CIB, Detective Sergeant Don Hancock, or "the grey fox" as he was known at the time.

On July 26, 1982, a month after the robbery, Peter Mickelberg was driving to his home in the northern Perth suburbs when a car pulled across in front of him, forcing him to brake suddenly.

It was the police - more specifically, detectives involved in investigating the swindling of the mint.

Peter Mickelberg was bundled into the police car and taken, curiously, to Belmont Police Station.

Through circumstantial evidence, the Mickelberg brothers - Peter, Brian and Ray - had come to the attention of police. 

The three dashing brothers prosperous abalone divers and pilots who drove Porsches, were basically cleanskins but they obviously had a penchant for excitement.

Amongst the trio was a former Vietnam SAS commando, Ray Mickelberg, who had served in Vietnam. Police believed him to be the mastermind.

Peter had once been fined $50 for possessing an unlicensed firearm.

It was Don Hancock who was waiting at Belmont Police Station when Peter, the youngest of the brothers, arrived.

Author Avon Lovell records in his 1985 book, The Mickelberg Stitch, Belmont was a curious choice of venue given there was a special operational headquarters set up in the city.

Stranger still was that by the time Peter Mickelberg arrived, all the officers stationed there had gone, except the officer in charge, and he left soon after. That officer, Bob Kucera, became, and remains, the WA Health Minister. The opposition called for him to stand down pending an inquiry on June 11, 2002.

With Hancock was another officer, a more junior detective named Tony Lewandowski.

Mickelberg was left alone with Hancock and Lewandowski. For the best part of two decades the WA Police, up to the commissioner himself, have strenuously denied Mickelberg's version of what happened next. It is central to the claims by the three brothers that they were framed for the great mint swindle.

According to Peter Mickelberg, and as recorded in Lovell's book, detective Lewandowski grabbed him by the throat and said: "This is where you die you little fucker."

When Mickelberg asked for his solicitor, Lewandowski replied: "You're on another planet, no one knows you're here. As far as they're concerned, you could be dead."

Don Hancock, "a man of unexplained wealth," then entered the room and said to his colleague: "Make him strip." Naked, he was handcuffed and seated.

"It was then that Hancock punched me in the solar plexus on at least two or three times . . . I was pretty shocked. He then chopped me . . . in the throat."

Lewandowski would back up Mickelberg's story when in a 2002 affidavit to Western Australia's Director of Public Prosecutions, he recalled the incident at Belmont Police Station.

"I said to Don Hancock that I didn't believe we had enough evidence and he said to me: 'Don't worry, it will get better.'

"(On that day), Don Hancock came into the room and told me to make Peter strip naked. Don then went up to Peter and gave him two or three quick punches in the solar plexus. The statements purportedly taken from Peter Mickelberg . . . on July 26, 1982, were in fact not taken in Peter's presence that day, but were a fabrication made by Don Hancock and myself shortly after September 2, 1982.

An insight into Hancock's character and his modus operandi emerged in late 1982 in a conversation involving Hancock, Peter and Ray, just before they went to trial.

Secretly recorded at Ray's house, Hancock says at one stage: "Don't ever challenge me to do something because I'll f---ing well do it, all right. You can rest assured about that."

Peter: "You're mean Don."

Hancock: "I'm not a mean person, but I'll tell you what: I've done things in my life that you never did, and harder things, worse things, and if I've got to do them again, well, I'll do them again."

Ray: "In the line of duty?"

Hancock: "That's it, yes. What I believe is my line of duty - to get the job done."

Ray: "With violence if necessary?"

Hancock: "Well, maybe not - tried everything else!"

That conversation was not tendered during the trial, although it later emerged in another matter. Don Hancock's reputation is encapsulated in that tape recording - a hard, tough cop who knew how to get things done, to get results.

The Mickelberg brothers were convicted in 1983.

Peter Mickelberg said in the 1980s, and says to this day, he never confessed at Belmont to any involvement in the swindle. Nor did he implicate his big brother Ray, who police claimed was the strong man behind the operation.

Of course, Hancock and Lewandowski, had a different version - Mickelberg had confessed and made statements implicating himself and his brothers, although they were unsigned.

The jury believed the police. Peter, Ray and Brian were found guilty of swindling the mint, although Brian was later acquitted on appeal after serving nine months. Ray got 20 years, Peter 16.

The courts, initially at least, accepted the police version of events without too many qualms.

Don Hancock went on to become head of the Perth CIB, partly on the back of his "solving" of the high-profile case.

Although the evidence against the Mickelbergs was compelling, the brothers insisted from the start that the police had framed them.

The brothers fought to prove their innocence in four Court of Criminal Appeal and two High Court cases, and their allegations sparked West Australia's longest-running police internal inquiry.

Raymond and Peter made seven appeals, essentially on the grounds their confessions had been fabricated. The appeals - six before the Western Australian Court of Criminal Appeal and one before the High Court - failed.

In November, 1989, seven years after the robbery and a great deal of publicity, the WA Court of Criminal Appeal rejected Peter's appeal against his conviction and sentence.

The police commissioner, Brian Bull, said the decision "totally vindicates the actions of the police in their investigation into the Perth mint swindle".

Raymond Mickelberg was released from jail in 1991 after serving eight years of a 20-year sentence. 

Peter Mickelberg served six years of a 14-year sentence. Brian Mickelberg had his conviction overturned after nine months behind bars. He died in a helicopter crash in 1986.

Most of the gold was anonymously dumped in a Perth suburb in 1989 while the Mickelbergs were behind bars (not gold ones!).

A gold bar and two containers of melted gold were sent to Channel Seven studios with a note saying the Mickelbergs were set up. The Perth Mint claimed it as the missing gold.

Retiring as head of the Perth CIB in the late 90's, and having grown up in the Goldfields, Hancock went to the hamlet of Ora Banda, near Kalgoorlie, to run the local pub.

But in October, 2000, things started to go terribly wrong. Members of the Gypsy Jokers outlaw motorcycle gang started abusing the barmaid - Hancock's daughter - and he threw them out.

Later that night, one of the bikies, William Grierson, was shot dead as he sat around a campfire and the Gypsy Jokers immediately blamed the former detective.

Hancock was known as a crack-shot.

The case became notorious after Hancock fled several hundred kilometres to Perth after the shooting, consulted a prominent criminal lawyer, and was unhelpful to detectives.

Even in retirement, Hancock behaved like a man who thought he was above the law - perhaps because, while in the force, he had been exactly that.

In September 2001, Don Hancock, then 64, was killed by a car bomb in what police believed was a payback killing by Gypsy Jokers motorcycle gang members.

Hancock had attended a Perth race meeting and driven home with book-maker friend Lou Lewis. When they arrived at the Hancock residence, a massive car bomb was remotely detonated. Both men were killed and a huge crater was left in the road.

Right to the end, Hancock refused police protection.

On June 10, 2002, a shock confession that police fabricated evidence to convict the three brothers threatened to expose a new layer of police corruption in Western Australia.

A former detective had made an affidavit to Western Australia's Director of Public Prosecutions admitting he used lies, made up confessions, partook in beatings and fabricated evidence to build a case against the Mickelberg brothers for the mint swindle.

The extraordinary development in one of the state's most notorious cases was referred for investigation to the royal commission into police corruption and other agencies. It is the first identifiable case to be directed to the commission, which starts in Perth in July 2002.

WA Attorney-General Jim McGinty said the "startling" new allegations struck at the heart of the criminal justice system.

Mr McGinty said that Former police officer Anthony Lewandowski, a member of the team that investigated the swindle, had handed an affidavit to the Director of Public Prosecutions admitting that he and Don Hancock lied and fabricated evidence to convict the Mickelbergs particularly the incriminating fingerprint on the cheque which was, according to Lewandowski, a 'plant'.

Mr McGinty said Mr Lewandowski's admission would strike at the heart of public confidence in the justice system.

"This is one of the most high-profile cases we have had in Western Australia, (and) one of the most high-profile police investigations that has taken place," Mr McGinty said.

"If these allegations are true, then I think it will rock public confidence in the way in which police conducted their investigations as well as the subsequent trials ... they represent a very serious erosion of public confidence in the police investigation and also in the judicial system."

Mr Lewandowski, who fled Australia fearing for his safety, claimed he and Hancock lied during the original trial against the Mickelbergs and at subsequent appeals.

"I gave evidence at the trial and numerous appeals. All that evidence in relation to the (brothers') so-called confessions . . . was false."

Mr Lewandowski claimed he could not speak out while Mr Hancock was alive but felt compelled to after "his best friend" and former boss was killed.

"I have had enough," Mr Lewandowski said in the affidavit. "Now that Don Hancock is dead I can't harm him and I am now telling the truth ... a couple of times I wanted to come clean but there was no way I could go against Don."

Apparently a broken man, he added: "I have had 20 years of hell. I lost my business, I have lost my wife, I have lost my son. I have gained nothing out of this, I am now telling the truth."

He also claimed that Peter Mickelberg was stripped naked and punched while being questioned by two police officers at a suburban CIB office.

He sought an indemnity from the DPP, which was being considered before he left the state.

The allegations appeared to vindicate the Mickelberg brothers, who have long complained of police corruption in the investigations against them.

The corruption allegations aside, Mr Lewandowski said that he still believed the brothers committed the gold robbery.

In his affidavit, Mr Lewandowski said he was convinced the Mickelbergs were guilty.

And lawyer Malcolm McCusker, QC, who said the brothers would lodge a new appeal, said the confession did not prove their innocence.

"What it does prove is that (they) were found guilty on fabricated evidence." He said they hoped other police prepared to volunteer information would be offered immunity.

"It (the confession) was not something we ever expected," Ray said. "We've always hoped that there may be amongst the small group of police officers who have been in the conspiracy to pervert the course of justice someone who had a conscience."

Mr Lewandowski is understood to have fled overseas on Friday after his attempts to get immunity from prosecution were rejected. He was expected to have been a key witness at next month's WA police royal commission.

Peter and Ray Mickelberg could not be contacted yesterday (June 9). Perth barrister Malcolm McCusker QC, who has acted for the Mickelbergs pro bono for 15 years, said he was delighted their claims had been vindicated.

Mr McCusker, who accompanied Mr Lewandowski to the DPP's office, said the brothers should now be exonerated.

"Everything that Peter Mickelberg said, which was totally denied by the police officers, is now said to be true," he said. "It proves that the entire prosecution case was fabricated and therefore that there was no case against them."

He hoped that Mr McGinty would expedite a petition to return the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal.

On June 11, 2002, the two surviving Mickelberg brothers spoke to the press.

"At last we've been vindicated and we're very happy about that", said Ray. "I think that the authorities have been duped by someone who is a very intelligent man who had considerable power."

Ray and Peter praised Mr Lewandowski for coming forward, saying they always hoped someone involved would have a conscience.

Ray commended Lewandowski saying, "he has done a courageous thing."

"He's been under immense pressure for 20 years and he's taken a step that most men wouldn't take, and we respect that greatly."

The brothers said the Lewandowski confession would prove critical in vindicating them.

"It's not just one policeman, it is the policeman," Peter Mickelberg said.

"I've always known I'm innocent of these crimes and that's why I've fought on." 

"After 20 years of saying what really happened . . . and effectively (having) no one other than the people who helped me out legally and my family believe me, to finally be vindicated is overwhelming," he said.

"It strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system that a person can be convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence."

When Don Hancock was killed, the Mickelbergs thought any chance of the truth about the "stitch up" went with him. Ironically the opposite was true, Mickelberg says - Hancock's death allowed Lewandowski to tell the truth.

Perhaps Lewandowski's conscience had pricked him.

Mickelberg doesn't think so. He suggests his old foe is spooked by rumours that other police officers have already "rolled over" for the forthcoming royal commission in exchange for immunity. Lewandowski might want to put in his version of events before it is too late.

The brothers will now make another appeal to have their convictions quashed.

Ray and Peter said they would petition WA Attorney-General Jim McGinty the next day for leave to appeal against the convictions after Lewandowski's admissions.

They hope Mr McGinty will offer indemnity from prosecution for officers wanting to come forward with information about their case.

Mr McGinty said the government would fund any new appeal, but cautioned that the veracity of the claims had yet to be tested in a court.

"At this stage we need to take the sworn affidavit at face value, which really casts a very long shadow over not only this, but perhaps other police investigations, also the operation of the justice system," Mr McGinty told ABC radio.

The Western Australia Police Service would not comment.

Mr Hancock's family said the former detective had been falsely accused.

Mr Hancock's son, Stephen, said his family was devastated and he was convinced his father was not involved in any attempt to frame the brothers.

On June 11, 2002, the Age reported that the West Australian opposition said the state's health minister - who headed a suburban police station in 1982 - should stand aside from cabinet while the Lewandowski claims are investigated.

Health Minister Bob Kucera was officer in charge of the Belmont CIB when one of the Mickelberg brothers was brought in for questioning, Opposition leader Colin Barnett said.

Mr Barnett said that until the matter had been fully investigated, Mr Kucera should not be part of any Cabinet decisions or privy to confidential information that might be discussed about the upcoming royal commission into the police.

"While the opposition is not suggesting Minister Kucera has done anything wrong, he clearly has an association with the Mickelberg case," Mr Barnett said.

Mr Kucera - assistant WA police commissioner before entering politics last year - said he was disturbed by the allegations in Mr Lewandowski's affidavit.

He said he was at the Belmont police station on the day of the Peter Mickelberg interview but had nothing to do with the investigation, other than taking food to the interview room.

He said he also gave a clear statement of evidence at a 1998 appeal, which he stood by.

"That was my sum total of my involvement in this particular case," Mr Kucera said. "I had nothing to do with the Mickelberg inquiry."

The Mickelbergs have protested since 1983 that Hancock and his crew "stitched" them up with fake confessions and evidence, notably a fingerprint conveniently found on a fraudulent bank cheque used to pay the mint for gold.

The case against their conviction has so far spawned two controversial books by Perth investigative journalist Avon Lovell, the first of which (The Mickelberg Stitch) was banned from sale and drew defamation actions by several police, backed by their union. Hancock and others scored cash settlements from the book's distributor and retailers.

Now the boot is on the other foot. The Mickelbergs yesterday hoped to stitch up a deal of their own with a commercial television network - a hefty fee in exchange for their exclusive story. But Ray, Vietnam veteran, elder brother and spokesman, couldn't resist the odd angry shot about the case that has wrecked his family.

Originally sentenced to 20 years, he served a little more than eight before being released - a concession he reads as a sign the authorities were uneasy about the conviction.

"I got out of jail with $40 to my name," he told The Age bitterly. "I lost everything - my wife, my family, the lot. It's a hick state and the police here are a cunning, conniving lot of arseholes. They've killed, raped, handled drugs, anything they like."

His aged parents are still alive, but his brother Brian was killed in a light aircraft crash in 1986 after being released from jail on appeal. Another brother, Graeme, an army officer not implicated in the case, has stood by his brothers throughout.

How the west was a state where police ran wild
By Andrew Rule
June 15, 2002

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links/footnotes

Ex-cop admits framing
Herald Sun


Policeman admits gold swindle fix
The Age
June 11, 2002

Seven Nightly News
June 11, 20002

National Nine News
June 11, 2002

Brothers plan appeal No. 8 after police confession
The Age
By Selina Day and Liza Kappelle
June 12, 2002

Call for minister to stand down during inquriy
The Age
June 12, 2002

The knots in the Mickelberg stitch
By Neil Mercer
The Age
June 12, 2002

The Mickelberg Stitch
By Avon Lovell

Mint duo praise confession
By Mark Russel
Herald Sun
June 12, 2002

How the west was a state where police ran wild
By Andrew Rule
June 15, 2002

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