Alex Vella, millionaire bikie.
FROM the windows of the mansion on the hill, it looked like the Normandy beaches at dawn on D-Day. Rumbling through the peaceful paddocks on the outskirts of Sydney in the early morning light came a convoy of armed men - not a military operation, but one of the largest police raids ever staged in NSW.
It takes a lot to impress Alex Vella, the man who owns the house, the hulking chieftain of the Rebels, Australia's largest bikie gang, who has had more than his share of run-ins with the law. But the Maltese Falcon (as his followers call him) was gob-smacked. "I couldn't believe it ... even now, I can't believe it," he says.
There were about 60 officers from every imaginable law enforcement outfit, State and Federal - police from the regional crime squad, the State Crime Commission, the National Crime Authority, the Customs. Even the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service arrived to bundle his pet kangaroo into a sack.
They came in a column of cars, buses, pantechnicons and a mobile crane, and soon the sound of Alex Vella's house being stripped to the boards could be heard far and wide across the landscape of market gardens, dairy herds, and the pillars, palm trees and three-car garages of ostentatious new housing estates.
At the end of that long day, the lawmen drove away with goods and paperwork to property they valued at $3 million, one of the richest hauls in Australian law enforcement history. They say it is the ill-gotten gains of crime and they intend to keep it. Vella says he acquired his fortune through hard work and smart investment and he's fighting to get it back.
Most of the Vella family - staunch Catholics, Alex is one of 11 children - live near Horsley Park, 40 kilometres south-west of the city, where they established a strawberry farm not long after arriving from the Mediterranean island state of Malta in the 1960s. Theirs is a classic immigrants-made-good story.
They came from dirt-poor origins: Alex's parents lived in a cave, with no electricity and a well for water. Alex began work in Malta at the age of eight, carrying buckets of water on a building site for 30 cents a day, and is functionally illiterate - he still can't follow a street directory, read a phone book or fill in a bank deposit slip.
The hard work here involved taking two, sometimes three, jobs at a time - bouncer, labourer, brick-worker - as well as pursuing a promising career in the boxing ring. At 42, Alex still has the thickly-muscled torso and the hands like hams that won him the Maltese light-heavyweight crown 20 years ago.
The smart investment came (Vella testified during a lengthy interrogation in the Supreme Court) from importing bikes and parlaying the compensation from three serious road accidents, some $225,000, into a property portfolio that, as well as the spacious house in Horsley Park, includes an office block, a rental mansion bringing in $1,000 a week, luxury cars and what must be Australia's finest collection of Harley-Davidsons, the classic Easy Rider "hog" that is the only bike any self-respecting Rebel would be seen dead on.
Even by the standards of the nouveaux riches of Sydney's outer west, Alessio Emmanuel Vella had done extraordinarily well. The inventory of property confiscated by the police that fateful day last September is eye-popping: two Rolls-Royces (one of them, REBEL-1, a wedding present from members of his bike club), two Chevrolet Corvettes, one Bentley, one Mercedes, and about 70 motorbikes, some of them vintage models such as the prewar "Knuckle-head" worth up to $20,000.
The real estate is even more impressive. Alex owned an office block in Enmore leased to Welfare Services, a huge house (nine bedrooms, six bathrooms) in nearby Abbotsbury he reckons is worth $1 million, and a villa in Malta, not far from the cave where his parents once lived. There are loans and mortgages, but even taking that into account the police simply do not believe Vella could have acquired his estate by honest means.
They think he is a major drug dealer, although the only evidence they have been able to gather is a $15,000 stash of marijuana, seized in an earlier massive raid on Vella's house back in 1990. Vella said it was left there by a friend who was minding the house, but a District Court jury last year disbelieved him, and he is completing an 18-month sentence of two-nights-a-week prison, and two-days-a-week community service at the Eastern Creek raceway.
Unfortunately for Vella, it doesn't matter that the crime is relatively minor (the police were actually searching for an amphetamine factory). In fact, for the purposes of the Drug Trafficking (Civil Proceedings) Act, you do not have to be convicted of anything to have all your property seized. The burden of proof is reversed - Vella has to convince the Supreme Court that he came by his property honestly.
He believes his real crime is to be a bikie, a member of what the law enforcement authorities, with their penchant for unpronounceable acronyms, have branded an OMCG - an Outlaw Motor Cycle Gang. According to a report tabled in Federal Parliament two years ago:
"There is growing international concern at the development of a number of these gangs into organised criminal networks ... the Hell's Angels are now the fastest-growing organised crime group in the world, involved in drug trafficking, contract killing, prostitution and violence ... they have achieved in 40 years what the Cosa Nostra (Mafia) took 80 years to achieve."
Since then, there has been a massive undercover offensive called Operation Panzer, coordinated by the National Crime Authority and involving up to 200 Federal and State investigators. The targets are Australia's largest bikie gangs: Alex Vella's Rebels (who boast about 400 members in 30 clubs), and others with names like the Black Uhlans, Bandidos, Commancheros and Fourth Reich - swastikas are a popular accessory.
In NSW alone (according to the Crime Commission's last annual report), the ongoing operation had been "particularly successful", with 76 arrests of bikies and associates, and the seizure of eight kilos of amphetamines, 28 kilos of marijuana, ecstasy, heroin, LSD and cocaine, as well as an arsenal of shotguns, rifles and explosives and $62,000 cash.
However, Vella's barrister, Geoffrey Nicholson, QC, argues that the anti-bikie campaign is "xenophobic, paranoid McCarthyism at its worst" and believes his client has been framed. "I'm not seeking to whitewash them, but I do believe they have a right to tell their side of the story," he says.
Vella doesn't want to talk about what other gangs might have done. Understandably. A full-scale inter-gang war is raging in Scandinavia - apparently involving some Australians - in which four bikies have been killed by automatic gunfire, a gang leader has been blown up in his prison cell by a hand grenade, and stolen anti-tank missiles have been used to destroy three gang clubhouses.
"We have never been involved in anything like that," he says, relaxing with his family in his sunken lounge room decorated with the pelts of a brown bear with an apple in its mouth, an Indian tiger and a stuffed eagle. "We keep to ourselves and the club rules are strict. Anyone caught with heroin and they are out - they lose their bikes and their colours are burnt."
That's not to say the Rebels are always model citizens - "every family has its black sheep", says Vella. Two years ago, two bikies were shot when a rival gang invaded Rebel turf in Geelong; one man is dead and the other is in a wheelchair for life. Another Rebel is awaiting trial for murder following the stabbing of a man in a pub at Campbelltown.
Vella himself has a police record "as long as the road", says his wife, Heather. However, apart from the marijuana, there are very few convictions. He says he was once charged (but "no billed") when a tenant grew a crop of marijuana on a farm he owned at Tamworth. Proceedings were also dropped after he was charged with stabbing two men, and he was freed on appeal after being given six months' jail for "assaulting" a woman in Canberra.
BUT, at their monthly meeting one drizzly Tuesday night, the Rebels are on their best behaviour. About 80 of them roar up on their Harleys to the clubhouse, set on two hectares of land not far from Horsley Park - an imposing warehouse of a building, shielded from the road by a tall iron wall, flanked by a row of cabins where visiting Rebels stay, and a lawn the size of a football oval on which up to 3,000 people regularly gather for barbecues and bike-shows.
Jeans, black leather, steel studs, beards, tattoos and rings embossed with skulls are the fashion statement. Surnames seem not to exist, even on the memorial plaque mounted on the wall commemorating five Rebels cut down in their prime - four killed in bike accidents, one, known only as "Logg", of selfinflicted gunshot. But the only drugs to be seen tonight are tobacco, beer and bourbon, served from a bar illustrated with the motto "The Rebs recommend Harley Davidson, Jack Daniels, and wild, wild women."
Alex opens proceedings by chiding his fellow Rebels for hogging the highway on a recent run, announces the gift of $320 to buy a crippled child a walking frame and reads a letter from the Very Rev John Bogle, Dean of Parramatta, thanking the Rebels for $2,000 they raised to help rebuild St Patrick's Cathedral, burned down in a fire last February. "We'll all go to heaven," quips one Rebel, and laughter rumbles round the table.
The charm offensive may work on the media. However, later this year it will be an uphill battle to convince a hard-eyed Registrar of the Supreme Court of NSW that Alex Vella is an honest man - particularly since his records have been seized and his accountant is in jail for fraud.
If he can't, then it will be back to the brickworks and the strawberry fields for the millionaire bikie of Horsley Park.
THE BOOTY BONANZA THAT WASN'T
IN 1985, after years of lobbying by law enforcement agencies and recommendations from crime royal commissions, NSW became the first Australian State to pass legislation allowing the seizure of criminals' ill-gotten gains. The Crimes (Confiscation of Profits) Act has since been copied by the Commonwealth and every State and territory.
Although it was originally aimed at large-scale drug dealers, the legislation has been used to attack the assets of corrupt police and other officials, armed robbers, fraudsters and smugglers. What the Draconian laws have in common is a reversal of the normal burden of proof - those accused have to prove their innocence by convincing a court that they came by their property honestly.
It was hoped - some would say hyped - that this would prove to be a bonanza for the Government, as well as a major deterrent to criminals. In the United States, similar, but tougher, legislation results in the seizure of more than $1.5 billion worth of property annually.
Here, it was claimed that the asset confiscations would pay for enforcement of the law and would leave a lot left over for other purposes such as drug education and rehabilitation, and compensation for victims of crime. That has not happened.
An educated guess (there are no national figures) is that Australia-wide there have been more than 1,000 seizure orders against crime proceeds, worth more than $50 million. However, the actual money recovered is running at less than half this figure and would go nowhere near covering the cost of administering the legislation.
In NSW, the Crime Commission - which is responsible for Australia's largest booty confiscation operation - says that last year, for the first time, it operated in the black. There were 38 orders totalling $3 million, including motor vehicles, a boat, a plane, jewellery, property and bank accounts.
However, this is misleading. Since the commission's 20person Confiscation Division was set up six years ago, it has cost $10 million to operate, but is likely to recover only $8 million. Its only "outside" benefit has been one donation of $5,000 towards an anti-drug sports event.
There is also considerable controversy over provisions allowing an accused criminal to use confiscated assets to pay his "reasonable" living and legal costs. In one notorious case, the entire $1 million-plus seized in a drug-smuggling case was spent on lawyers fighting a committal hearing. With the money gone, the accused pleaded guilty when the case came to trial.
Ben HillsPhotography: Sahlan HayesCaption: Alex Vella .. "We keep to ourselves and the club rules are strict."Comments: 'The booty bonanza that wasn't' joined to story