Debs’ evil nature on display after Silk Miller conviction
When prison officers escorted Bandali Debs and Jason Roberts into the reception unit in Barwon Prison in early 2003, inmates mobbed the unlikely pair of criminal celebrities.
The pot-bellied 49-year-old tiler and a jockey-sized kid had just been convicted of murdering two policemen, Gary Silk and Rod Miller. They looked like a suburban tradie and his nervous apprentice.
One prison officer thought Roberts looked desperate to appear tough. At 21, he was clinging to the notion that a reputation could help him survive the concrete jungle.
But the officer reckoned Roberts was easy to read. "He was used to being stood over by Debs," the former guard told this reporter the day after Roberts' murder conviction was quashed this week.
"It was obvious it was a case of 'If you don't do as I say I will kill you'."
And that, perhaps, might be as sharp an insight into the life of Jason Roberts as we'll get. A teenager pulled into the dark side by an evil man, then disguising his fear by bragging and posing, the way young men always have.
Whether Roberts is guilty of murder will, once again, be left to a court to decide. That's if prosecutors think there is enough untainted evidence to run the new trial granted to Roberts when his conviction was quashed after revelations of doctored statements used against him.
One thing no one disputes in a disputed case is that Bandali Debs is among the most evil men behind bars. As depraved and sadistic as Ivan Milat; as chillingly callous as the Bega schoolgirl killer Leslie Camilleri; as devious as mild-looking monster Paul Steven Haigh, whose seven victims included a mother and her young son.
Debs' evil nature was highlighted after he went to jail for the Silk Miller murders, when DNA evidence linked him to two cold-blooded murders: of a woman in Sydney in 1995 and a teenage girl near Dandenong in 1997. The betting is that other disappearances and murders are linked to him.
What is relevant is not Debs' propensity for evil but his capability for violence. Was he up to shooting two policemen single-handed?
The honest answer to that is probably "yes".
Debs, secretive gun nut and robber, is much like the man whose one-man war against police shocked the force into a rash of shootings in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
That was Pavel "Mad Max" Marinof, a self-taught pistol expert who not only shot four police officers in Noble Park in 1985 but wounded two heavily-armed detectives who approached him, on high alert, eight months later.
Marinof had been detected at a house at Wallan, north of Melbourne, in February 1986. Major Crime squad detectives Kapetanovski and McDonald decided to follow and stop him on the Hume Highway to avoid endangering bystanders.
Knowing how dangerous Marinof was, they had loaded their shotguns with buckshot. They approached Marinof's panel van at the ready, but the Bulgarian still managed to fire three shots, wounding both police. They returned fire through the back of his van as he sped off, killing him.
By comparison, 12 years later, officers Silk and Miller were much easier targets.
This was partly because they left their body armour in the car boot while staking out likely targets for robbers who had been hitting suburban restaurants.
Around midnight on August 16, 1998, Sgt Silk and Sen. Const. Miller sat in their unmarked car near the Silky Emperor restaurant on a corner in Warrigal Rd, Moorabbin. They noticed a small, dark car that had circled the block and then driven off when the driver saw them.
Silk and Miller followed and did a routine interception close by in Cochranes Rd. Two other officers drove past, parked a block away and watched.
They saw the driver step from the car - later describing him as a man in his 30s. They did not see a second man, which later spawned a theory that a second gunman was hiding below the dash.
The watchers saw muzzle flashes and heard volleys of shots.
Two handguns were used to shoot the two policemen, a heavy magnum and a smaller .22, a lighter weapon a shooter might carry as "back-up" - the way some detectives sometimes carried a spare in an ankle holster.
The use of two pistols suggests the presence of two gunmen but does not prove it. After all, in the controversial 1989 police shooting in which a rogue cop, Cliff Lockwood, shot suspect Gary Abdallah repeatedly, he emptied one pistol then grabbed another from his fellow officer, Dermot Avon, and kept firing.
Debs and Roberts were arrested two years later after a painstaking forensic investigation, which proved the killer was driving a Debs family car, a Hyundai.
A story leaked to investigative reporter Anthony Dowsley - and never rebutted - was that Roberts was offered a deal to be charged only with being an accessory if he "rolled" on Debs. Did Roberts refuse from a sense of loyalty to the older man who was a father figure to him, or was it fear? Maybe both.
The first big mistake of Roberts' short life was to join Debs in a string of restaurant robberies. His second mistake was to refuse the chance to extricate himself, blindly following Debs' demand that he do nothing to contradict Debs' flat denials.
Roberts' defence could have argued there was no proof he was present, but Roberts apparently insisted on silence and did not offer the alibi he would raise a decade later when investigator Ron Iddles interviewed him in jail.
Roberts told Iddles he had been home in bed with his girlfriend, Debs' daughter Nicole, on the night of the shooting. Crooks often say things like that.
But to Iddles' surprise, when he found Nicole Debs, by this time in a stable relationship and estranged from her father and Roberts for years, she corroborated Roberts: they'd been in bed while her father took her Hyundai for one of his night reconnaissance drives.
Iddles always put honesty above the police "brotherhood". He once resigned from the force for four years in disgust over tolerance of a corrupt cop. He also once worked to free a man he had wrongly charged with murder.
This time, to the anger of many, Iddles insisted on exposing the holes in the Lorimer taskforce investigation that led to Roberts being jailed alongside the unquestionably guilty Debs.
It was Iddles' work, as revealed by Dowsley in the Herald Sun, that triggered an IBAC investigation of dodgy statements doctored to support the theory there were two shooters, not one.
Iddles, once a respected investigator, has since been derided because he dared speak up over the Roberts case.
Those who join in should remember who's who in the animal kingdom.
A heavyweight player in the Lorimer taskforce capers was the disgraced former sergeant up to his ears in the Hodson double murder, the Lawyer X scandal and the robbing of a "drug house". His name: Paul Dale.
What a coincidence.
Originally published as Debs' evil nature on display after Silk Miller conviction