The Mysterious Lawyer X
Nicola Gobbo defended Melbourne’s most notorious criminals at the height of a
gangland war. They didn’t know she had a secret.
On the morning of June 22, 2007, when officers from the Victoria Police arrived at Faruk Orman’s suburban Melbourne home to arrest him for murder, he promptly asked to speak to his attorney. Orman was no stranger to legal trouble, and he happened to have a lawyer’s cell number handy. Not just any lawyer, but one of the preeminent defense attorneys in the city, a swashbuckling criminal barrister named Nicola Gobbo. She was, as one newspaper described her, “almost as big a celebrity as the gangland toughs she represented,” a figure alternately cherished and loathed for her ability to argue her clients out of seemingly dead-end charges.
The veteran investigator handling Orman’s arrest, Boris Buick, saw no reason to dissuade Orman from placing the call. “It was his request, not my decision or instigation,” Buick testified at a 2019 public hearing. Buick acknowledged that with the benefit of hindsight, he could see that he’d held “a naïve view” of the call’s implications.
The call went to voicemail. Orman then phoned a solicitor who sometimes worked with Gobbo. (Under the Australian justice system, solicitors are generally the attorneys who handle client relations; barristers like Gobbo are those who make arguments in court.) The 25-year-old Orman had never faced an accusation as serious as murder. His past scrapes with the law included a punch-up at a bar, a shooting in which no one was hurt and he was acquitted, and a conviction for heroin possession. He’d never spent time in prison, partly due to the efforts of Nicola Gobbo. But for years, he’d associated with some of the most feared underworld figures in Melbourne. Many of them had also been represented by Gobbo.
The murder Orman was charged with occurred on the night of May 1, 2002. According to police, at around 9:10 p.m., a notorious Australian criminal named Victor Peirce was sitting in a parked car outside a mobile-phone shop in Port Melbourne, along the city’s southern waterfront. (Peirce and his family’s life would later inspire the film and TV series Animal Kingdom.) A stolen blue-gray Holden Commodore pulled up beside him. A hit man named Benji Veniamin jumped out, approached the car, and shot Peirce three times through the driver’s side window. At the wheel of the Commodore, the police alleged, was Faruk Orman.
By the time they’d gathered the evidence to make arrests, five years had passed and Veniamin himself had been killed. The weight of the prosecution would land on Orman.
But first, the police tried to use the murder charge to convince him to talk. For years, Orman had been associated with an underworld figure named Domenic “Mick” Gatto, a former heavyweight boxer who ran illegal gambling rackets, a mediation business, and — police believed, but could never prove — more-sinister operations. The prosecutors offered Orman a deal if he was willing to roll on his boss, implicating him in a crime. Orman declined; Gatto, as it happened, was raising money for Orman’s defense. The state’s corrections department proceeded to place Orman in solitary confinement while he awaited trial. He would remain there for three years, spiraling into depression as the case dragged on.
Nicola Gobbo joined Orman’s defense team, largely working in the background on legal strategy. She appeared several times for him in court, at hearings in which she tried unsuccessfully to subpoena information and documents about police witnesses. Nonetheless, Orman had a strong defense. There was no evidence placing him at the murder scene. All that linked him to the stolen Commodore was a ping from his cellphone, within a few hours after the murder, to a tower near where police found the burned getaway vehicle.
When the case finally went to trial, in 2009, the prosecution hinged almost entirely on a single witness: a drug trafficker and convicted triple murderer already in prison. The witness, a friend of Veniamin’s who sometimes took him along to drug deals as an enforcer, told police that Veniamin and Orman had confessed to him. On its face, the witness’s testimony appeared surmountable. He had minimal contact with Orman, and his statements seemed to diverge from the forensics of the crime scene. There was little evidence to corroborate his account, which had shifted over time in multiple statements to police. What’s more, in exchange for his testimony, prosecutors had agreed to request that the witness be sentenced on just one of his three murder convictions.
After Orman’s seven-week trial, however, the jury found the witness credible. A judge sentenced Orman to 20 years in the state’s maximum-security prison, 14 of them without the possibility of parole.
Orman faced still greater legal peril. In the years he awaited trial, the police had charged him as the getaway driver in another murder, again based primarily on the witness’s claims. This time, Orman had a new defense team, minus Gobbo, and they won the right to subpoena documents held by the police. On the eve of trial in 2013, the prosecutor suddenly dropped the charges.
By that point, Orman had exhausted all of his appeals in the Peirce conviction. One of his appellate attorneys, Ruth Parker, moved his files into a safe in her office. “I never destroyed anything, even though we only had to keep files for seven years,” she told me at a seaside café a few miles from where Victor Peirce was killed. “Faruk’s matter haunted me. Because I knew something wrong had happened.” Even if new evidence somehow emerged, the Australian court system would offer Orman no clear recourse. Still, Parker thought, “someday, something will come out about this.”
David Abramson* remembers precisely where he met Nicola Gobbo, even if he’s a little hazy on when. “1996 or 1997, I’m not quite sure,” he said one morning last November in Melbourne. We were sitting at a conference table surrounded by boxes in his law firm’s office in the Central Business District. Abramson, who has waves of silver hair, exuded the impish charm of a man known for his colorful legal career. We were meeting on Melbourne Cup Day, the holiday celebrating Australia’s biggest horse race. But he’d recently sold the building that housed his firm and had skipped the day’s festivities to sort through two decades of accumulated files. “You normally advise the clients that you’ve kept the files for seven years,” he said, in an Australian accent tinged with his native Russian. “Perhaps longer for matters that may or may not become controversial in the future.” The trouble, he added, is knowing what “might become important 20 years from now.”
Twenty years earlier, Abramson was running his then-fledgling firm from a Melbourne suburb, taking on a hodgepodge of real estate and criminal cases. That day in ’96 or ’97, visiting another firm’s office to negotiate a settlement, he was approached by a young woman.
“Are you David Abramson?” she asked.
“Yes?” he replied.
The woman introduced herself as Nicola, a law clerk just out of school, and explained that she was interested in criminal defense. “I do commercial work here, and it bores me stiff,” she said. “Do you have an opening?”
Abramson suggested she come by for a chat. Only when Gobbo handed over her CV did he realize, “Oh gosh, she’s one of the Gobbo clan,” he told me. The Gobbos were legal royalty in the state of Victoria: Nicola’s uncle, Sir James Gobbo, had been an acclaimed barrister and a long-serving judge on Victoria’s Supreme Court. In 1997, Queen Elizabeth appointed him governor of Victoria, representing the Crown’s interests in the state.
Nicola, one of five siblings born to a nurse and a local government official, was raised middle class and attended a Catholic school. She’d excelled, but her high school tenure was disrupted by her mother’s and then her father’s diagnoses of lymphoma. Her mother recovered, but her father died, in May 1990, just before Gobbo earned a spot in the University of Melbourne’s law program. She’d wanted to become a lawyer since childhood, she later wrote in her bar application, “having been instilled with a strong sense of social justice in a family with an established legal background.” As Abramson could see on her CV, she was ambitious and accomplished, elected as editor of the university’s newspaper and vice president of the Law Students’ Society.
Gobbo was open with him about the one black mark on her record: a 1993 arrest for drug possession while she was in law school. “I thought: student, drugs, cannabis — I was told it was cannabis — and you are older, wiser,” he recounted to me, shrugging. He decided to let it pass and offered her a one-month provisional position. She had little criminal-law experience but was eager to learn. “I realized she’s very quick, highly intelligent, perceptive,” he said. She was also a relentless worker, staying at the office late, even as Abramson insisted that her salary wasn’t based on hours. Before the month was up, he offered her a job.
Soon he was giving her a share of the firm’s criminal work — small tasks, like motion hearings — without supervision. Gobbo had a talent for courtroom arguments, but outside of court, she seemed to personalize cases in ways that, to Abramson, could seem intemperate. “She had a hatred of police. It was unbelievable,” he said. To Gobbo, all officers seemed to be either incompetent or corrupt. “She would say, ‘Well, this cocksucker is useless. He’s as dumb as shit and a liar,’ ” Abramson said. “Obviously, I have no love for corrupt coppers, but you have to live with them.”
As Abramson watched Gobbo’s legal talent blossom, he also grew concerned about her interactions with defendants. Her professional relationships seemed to easily bleed into social ones, including coffees and drinks with the firm’s clientele, which included major players in the city’s drug trade.
“I said to her, ‘Don’t come too close to them,’ ” Abramson remembered. “ ‘You’ll get yourself burned.’ ”
“Yeah, yeah. Look, I know what I’m doing,” Gobbo said.
“But you don’t know what they might do to you.”
At first, he was willing to overlook her indiscretions. Then one day, he noticed Gobbo leave the office in the company of a man he recognized as a cop — the species she had so vocally despised. Abramson was mystified. “You don’t run with the hounds and play with the foxes,” he told her. “You just can’t.” They mutually agreed she would leave the firm after a year, when she would officially join the defense bar. But they remained close, and for nearly a decade, Abramson would continue to work alongside her on cases.
Gobbo hung out her shingle as an independent barrister and built up her practice defending an oddball collection of minor criminals: a failed magazine publisher accused of harassing his secretaries, a prisoner who broke out to check on his girlfriend, a man who tried to smuggle rare parrot eggs in his underwear. “When I started practicing, I had a lot of passion and a lot of drive,” she later told an associate. “There was a lot of variety. There was the excitement of, ‘Where am I going today? Who am I going to meet?’ ”
For Faruk Orman, the lifelong drift that led him to Gobbo seemed at times directed by fate. He’d met Benji Veniamin at a kebab restaurant when they were kids in Sunshine, a working-class, immigrant-heavy suburb west of Melbourne. Orman was raised by his Turkish Cypriot mother; his father had abandoned the family and returned to Turkey when he was 9. Not long afterward, his older brother died of leukemia. As a teenager, the awkward and shy Orman gravitated toward Veniamin, a tattooed amateur boxer and the son of Greek Cypriot immigrants. A thriving marijuana distributor by his early 20s, Veniamin had already shown an aptitude for violence, raiding other dealers for their stashes. When he began associating with Mick Gatto, an illegal gambling kingpin and member of the so-called “Carlton Crew,” in the early 2000s, he brought Orman with him.
The Carlton Crew was a loose mixture of Irish and Italian bookmakers, extortionists, and loan sharks. In addition to Gatto, it included a prominent drug dealer named Lewis Moran, whose sons, Jason and Mark, were active suppliers in the city’s party-drug scene. In 1999, the Morans began a feud with a young drug cook and sometime ally named Carl Williams. Among other affronts, Williams had married a woman formerly attached to a friend of the Morans. More significantly, he’d underpriced the market with his own drug supply. The brothers lured Williams to a city park, where Jason Moran shot him in the stomach but decided to let him live.
Williams declined to press charges — telling the incredulous police that he hadn’t seen who’d shot him. Privately, he vowed to take revenge. Williams’s vendetta would launch years of violence that the Australian press dubbed “the gangland killings,” involving nearly 30 murders, beginning with Mark Moran in June 2000 . The mob bosses and hit men would become household names, as would many of the victims.
Williams, meanwhile, had allied his growing drug-production business with another Carlton Crew rival: Antonios “Tony” Mokbel. Born to Lebanese immigrant parents, Mokbel was a former pizza shop owner who had been in and out of prison on drug charges. In the late 1990s, as the amphetamine business surged, he built an underground empire dubbed “the Company,” branching out into real estate, race horses, and a fashion line. Williams, a husky local boy with Lance Bass hair, and Mokbel, a suit-wearing Tony Soprano doppelgänger, dominated the multibillion-dollar drug trade as it fractured into violence. “We were all mates,” Mokbel later told a reporter. “It started over a silly thing and suddenly there were just bodies falling all around me.”
Williams, Mokbel, and the murders were daily fodder for the front pages of the Rupert Murdoch–owned tabloid the Herald Sun. The press fueled mounting public pressure to stop the killings. The Victoria Police established a special task force in the spring of 2003, code-named Purana. It would be a two-pronged effort to solve the murders and stem the drug trade, staffed with “the best of the best” officers from around the force.
Still, the killings continued. Within weeks of Purana’s launch came the murder that would stun Australia. On the afternoon of June 21, 2003, the surviving Moran brother, Jason, and a bodyguard had just loaded Moran’s 6-year-old twins and their three friends into a van, following the kids’ Australian Rules football practice. A masked gunman ran up to the driver’s side window, blew it out with a shotgun, and then fired a revolver through it five times, killing the two men in full view of the children.
Eight months and six murders later, in March 2004, Benji Veniamin walked into an Italian restaurant for a meeting with Gatto. Veniamin had long since switched sides and allied himself with Williams, and Gatto believed that Veniamin had been involved in the murder of a close friend. They began arguing in a back hallway, five shots rang out, and Gatto emerged from the back covered in blood. Charged with murder, he argued that Veniamin had pulled the gun, Gatto had grabbed his hand, and then shot him through the neck and head in self-defense. Orman, who was at the restaurant when the shooting happened, testified on Gatto’s behalf, and a jury acquitted him of the charges.
Two weeks after Veniamin’s murder, a pair of masked gunmen burst into the crowded Brunswick Club, where Lewis Moran was known to drink. One chased him through a bank of poker machines before shooting him in the back of the head. It was the murder everyone had seen coming but the police proved powerless to stop. “Last night was the first time I have been shocked by what has occurred,” Simon Overland, the deputy commissioner who had launched Purana, told reporters. “What we’re dealing with here is a desperately serious situation.”
Operating amid that chaos, with her defense services increasingly in demand, was Nicola Gobbo.
In A legal community featuring few prominent women attorneys, particularly defense barristers, Gobbo stood out by default. As her defense practice moved up the hierarchy of Melbourne’s underworld, she increasingly became a subject of the same press that greeted her clients outside the courtroom. By early 2002, that included Mokbel, who hired her while in jail on cocaine and amphetamine charges to advocate for his bail. In a clever legal maneuver, Gobbo convinced the judge that an ongoing corruption scandal in the police drug squad meant that Mokbel’s prosecution should be shelved.
With his release on an AUD $1 million bond — complete with a provision allowing him to travel to Queensland for a lavish beach vacation — Gobbo’s public profile began to explode. She appeared in the city’s gossip pages, spotted wearing a sling after a gym accident, or on vacation buying rounds at the Hard Rock Cafe in Bali. She was also earning a reputation among both clients and cops as a formidable advocate. “She’s good at what she does,” said Charlie Bezzina, a retired homicide detective who appeared in trials opposite Gobbo. “You knew that you were in for a fight. She knew her stuff. She was destined to become a Supreme Court judge.”
“She was a very, very good operator,” said Ruth Parker, the defense attorney. “And she came with the clout of the Gobbo name.” But among her colleagues, Parker said, “people often didn’t like her, or trust her, because she was always seen socializing with her clients.” So routinely was she spotted with Mokbel and other clients at Wheat, an outdoor café downstairs from her office, that people joked police had bugged the salt shakers at her favorite table. A respected female barrister pulled Gobbo aside, as David Abramson had, and warned her that she was crossing ethical lines. But Gobbo seemed simultaneously enthralled with the world of her clients and unconcerned about appearances.
So unconcerned, in fact, that she often represented a kind of neutral presence amid the shifting alliances of the gangland war. Back in the summer of 2003, Gobbo obtained another $1 million drug bail, this time for Lewis Moran of the Carlton Crew — arguing that his grandkids needed “a father figure and a role model” after the murder of his sons. Only weeks later, she appeared in court on behalf of a man police suspected had shot Jason Moran in front of those grandkids. Within months, she was also representing Carl Williams, the man who’d signed their death warrants.
Purana had arrested Williams in November 2003, after listening devices installed in his house captured him threatening a detective named Stuart Bateson, who’d been assigned to investigate him, and Bateson’s girlfriend. Gobbo appeared in court for Williams the following day, complaining that her client had been deprived of food, his antidepressants, and a change of clothing. His legal team then argued successfully for bail on the basis that the threats were a joke — Williams knew his house was bugged, they pointed out. Five days after Williams walked free, Gobbo showed up as a guest of honor at a lavish $150,000 christening he threw for his daughter at Melbourne’s Crown Casino. She was photographed in a low-cut cocktail dress standing between Williams and Benji Veniamin, the three of them beaming like old friends. She then took the stage alongside Williams and delivered a speech. “I’ve been asked to make a special thank-you that Carl could be with us tonight,” she said, and offered a mock toast to “the boys at Purana and, especially, Stuart Bateson.”
By then, Gobbo’s gangland stature had earned her her own profile in the Herald Sun, headlined “Million-dollar eagle flies high.” “A formidable presence in impossibly short skirts, the blonde, blue-eyed barrister is fast becoming a legal celebrity,” the paper proclaimed. As often happened, even amid Gobbo’s colleagues, her legal prowess was downplayed in favor of stereotypes and snide asides. “But the niece of former governor Sir James Gobbo is described by a sibling as a one-person Salvation Army,” the paper added. “She spends time at weekends visiting clients in prison or on remand. However, she has managed to rile some of those in the police force who pay professionally when she succeeds.”
“I have friends who are police,” she told the reporter. “I have clients who are police, former police who are clients. Those that are professional in what they do … it’s not an antagonistic relationship at all.”
Those same police were indirectly supplying her with more clients. In 2004, after years of running up against a “wall of silence,” as the cops called it, Purana slowly began to get a grip on the gangland war. The first domino to fall was a client of Gobbo’s: the driver of the getaway vehicle in the children’s football-clinic murders. He rolled on both the shooter and Williams, telling police Williams had ordered the hit. The shooter then followed, and in June 2004, Williams was arrested on multiple murder charges. He would never be released again, eventually pleading guilty to three murders and conspiracy to commit a fourth, earning him a minimum of 35 years in prison.
Tony Mokbel would be the next to fall, when the government finally took him to trial in early 2006 on his long-delayed drug charges. Again, Gobbo would represent him. This time, on one of the final days of his trial, Mokbel failed to show up in court. Police soon discovered he’d vanished from the country. He was convicted in absentia of cocaine trafficking and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Mokbel’s departure marked the beginning of the end for Purana’s biggest targets, even as many of the murders remained unsolved. With Mokbel on the run, Williams inside, and the Carlton Crew decimated, the killings dwindled. The drug trade simply adapted, as did Nicola Gobbo. In June 2007, customs officers intercepted a massive shipment of ecstasy, worth some $400 million on the street, hidden inside 3,000 tomato cans in a container arriving from Naples, Italy. The alleged importers had ties to the Calabrian mafia. One of them was already a client of Gobbo’s. “It never ends,” Simon Overland lamented to a reporter, reflecting on Purana’s successes. “As we take one individual or group out, others take their place.”
The same month, after more than a year on the run, Mokbel was finally captured at a café in Athens, Greece, slimmed down and sporting a ludicrous brown wig. He promptly called Nicola Gobbo, who began helping him fight extradition, a battle that would take two years. “I knew it would come to this at some stage,” he told a reporter in a Greek courtroom. “You can’t stay on the run forever. You’ve got to die with pride. That’s life.”
Two weeks later, Faruk Orman was arrested in the long-unsolved Victor Peirce murder. Orman’s first call, as well, was to Gobbo.
As the gangland violence faded, there were stirrings that Gobbo had somehow run afoul of dangerous forces. From prison, Carl Williams lodged a formal complaint with the Legal Services Commission claiming Gobbo was working against him, visiting opposing witnesses in his case in prison. In a letter to a friend, Williams said he believed Gobbo was a “dog,” Australian slang for snitch. She began receiving anonymous threats by text message, calling her a “slut fuck dog” and telling her to “keep your mouth shut or die.” Then, on April 16, 2008, she was sitting in a restaurant when her BMW, parked outside, suddenly went up in flames. When firefighters arrived, they were unable to save the car and found two bags full of cash smoldering in the trunk.
To reporter Anthony Dowsley, Nicola Gobbo was for years a figure of only passing interest, one of any number of criminal lawyers who popped in and out of the spotlight. Dowsley arrived on the crime desk of the Herald Sun at the end of 2004, after bouncing around in community newspapers. With a stocky build and a penchant for jeans and T-shirts, his own paper once described him in a story as “marked by sartorial indifference.” He felt at home in the daily news churn and viewed reporting as a vocation more than a job — the hours and days spent chatting up sources on the chance that one of them, one day, could confirm a scoop. “You build your networks out, and that’s how you corner stories, really,” he said. When he landed at the Sun, the gangland murders featured heavily amid the tabloid’s daily diet of scandal, celebrity, and sports. His day-to-day beat crossed paths with the killings, he told me, but “not at a high level.”
Five years and hundreds of stories later, the war had wound down, and the police from the Purana task force were lauded as heroes. On the back of its success, Simon Overland rose to the top job of chief commissioner of the Victoria Police. Detective Sergeant Stuart Bateson was enshrined into Australian pop culture, alongside the likes of Carl Williams and Tony Mokbel, with the release of Underbelly, a television series on the national Nine Network. The show dramatized the gangland killings with enough fidelity that the Supreme Court temporarily banned its airing in February 2008, out of fear it would taint the jury pool in the still-ongoing trials. Because of his public pursuit of Williams and the threats against him, Bateson served as the model for the lead Purana cop in the series and had a cameo as an extra in one of the episodes.
Gobbo wasn’t a character in Underbelly, but she continued to appear in the remaining fragments of the gangland story. In early 2009, Dowsley reported on the arrest of a former police detective named Paul Dale, accused of the murders of an informer named Terence Hodson and his wife. Hodson had been arrested in a drug-house burglary in 2003, along with Dale’s drug-squad colleague. He had subsequently told police that Dale had orchestrated the job — part of an ongoing scheme in which cops were raiding drug houses and selling the merchandise themselves. Gobbo was set to represent Hodson in the case. But before it could get to court, Hodson and his wife were found dead in their home, shot in the back of their heads.
The case was so tangled that Simon Overland had given it its own task force. For years, the police maintained a theory that Dale had arranged the killings, but there was scant evidence to corroborate it. Then in 2009, they got a break: Carl Williams — already serving 35 years — decided to talk. He gave a statement claiming that years before, when Dale was on the force, he had paid Dale for information, meeting with him at least a dozen times. The two were so suspicious of each other, he noted, that they’d once met in bathing suits at a public pool to make sure neither party was armed. (Dale denied ever entering the pool.) At one of their meetings in 2004, Williams claimed, Dale had offered to pay him $150,000 to organize the hit against the Hodsons.
Even more intriguing to Dowsley, the murder case against Dale came with a second witness. He’d overheard a source saying that Nicola Gobbo had worn a wire to a meeting with Dale in a Melbourne park. On the recording, Dale described Carl Williams’s recollections as “very accurate, to the point of every single time we met, he seems to have documented it.” The tape wasn’t exactly a confession, but Gobbo’s and Williams’s testimonies would form the backbone of the state’s case against Dale.
Dowsley was unsure what to make of it. “I did think it was very odd that someone in her position would wear a wire,” he said. “I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t have any detail around it.”
Soon the information would be moot. On April 9, 2010, Carl Williams was bludgeoned to death with the seatpost of an exercise bike by a fellow prisoner. The case against Dale collapsed.
Weeks afterward, Gobbo did something Dowsley found even more odd: She went on national television and outed herself as the witness. Sitting at an outdoor table at night, with a walking cane propped beside her, she calmly read a short, prepared statement to a reporter from the Australian network ABC. “Having had the courage and strength to agree to become a witness,” she said, “I was required to give up my home, my security, my sense of life as I knew it.” She offered no explanation for why she’d done it but claimed that now the police had abandoned her without pay. “I was assured by Mr. Overland that I would be compensated and that I would be left no worse off,” she said. “My health has deteriorated as a result of constant stress and uncertainty. I remain in fear for my life since agreeing to give evidence for Victoria Police.” She then filed a lawsuit against the force for $20 million.
The Melbourne legal community was baffled. Gobbo had always been out on the edge, but a barrister secretly recording an ex-cop seemed beyond the pale, even for her. Some colleagues speculated that the police had something on her — perhaps she’d gotten criminally entangled with her clients after all — and pressured her into wearing a wire.
The Victoria Police quickly settled Gobbo’s lawsuit for a reported $2.9 million. When Dale was charged with perjury, based on the tape Gobbo had made, she failed to show up as a witness in his trial. (Dale was acquitted and has never been convicted of the accusations Victoria Police leveled against him.) Gobbo left the Victoria Bar, had her first child, and retreated from public view.
It would be another three years before Dowsley picked up the story again. One afternoon, he was at a South Melbourne pub frequented by cops and lawyers, discussing a rumor that Gobbo’s child — the object of some speculation in the legal community — had been fathered by a senior police figure. Someone jokingly suggested to Dowsley that he could track down the child’s birth certificate. “It wasn’t really that interesting to me,” he said of the paternity speculation, for which there was no evidence. “The interesting bit was how she seemed to be in close proximity to police, senior police” — enough, at least, for the rumor to gain traction. “It sparked something in my mind: Why does she know so many people? What has been her role with police?”
Those were the questions Dowsley began putting to police and legal sources over the next year. The answers came at first in snippets of fact and speculation. She had been listed as a potential witness in other cases beyond the Hodson murders, he learned, but never appeared in court. She sometimes seemed to be quietly pitting one of her clients against another. She used burner phones, someone told him. Even more intriguing, he heard that the Victoria Police were in the midst of closing down a secret division, and somehow Gobbo was the reason.
To Dowsley, it all seemed to add up to one outlandish possibility. Sitting with a law-enforcement source one day, he expressed it aloud: Had Nicola Gobbo been a police informer all along?
The source looked at him, said nothing, and gave him a thumbs-up.
From there, the story “just started spiraling out,” Dowsley said, one that seemed at first too extraordinary to believe. Nicola Gobbo, among the most fierce and famous defense attorneys in Melbourne, counsel to mob bosses and drug kingpins, had been a registered informer for the Victoria Police, code-named 3838. She’d been supplying cops with information since before she ever became a lawyer, but her most significant help had come at the height of the gangland war. In Gobbo, Dowsley had found the missing link in how Purana had cracked it. Her information had led to hundreds of arrests, overseen by the highest levels of the Victoria Police, including Simon Overland. But the existence of her double life had never been disclosed at any trial. “All of that becomes a mess of conspiracy to defraud the justice system,” he realized. “I pretty much worked that out in six to eight weeks.”
Dowsley reported out the story on his own, telling no one, before finally revealing it to his editors in March 2014. He’d hoped for more time to tie up the loose ends, but as soon as the paper’s brass heard what he had, they wanted the story in print. For the first time, he called Gobbo, who batted away the accusations. “I would call them weak denials,” Dowsley recalled. “But there was also tacit agreement that I wasn’t on the wrong track. There was this ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ kind of stuff, a bit of silence. There was no ‘don’t write this’ or ‘you are wrong.’ I knew it was right by then, and I let her know that.”
He spent hours on the phone with representatives from the Victoria Police, who had also dispatched lawyers to take the paper to court in the hope of stopping the story’s publication. Gobbo, now a mother of two, faced a high risk of being killed, as did her children, they claimed.
Outside the courtroom, the paper’s and the police’s lawyers came to an agreement: The story would go forward with certain details removed. Published on March 31, 2014, under the headline “Lawyer a secret police informer,” the piece replaced her name with a pseudonym concocted by Dowsley’s editor: “Lawyer X.” The article, just a few hundred words, captured only the general contours of the story — enough to be shocking but without the mountain of specific evidence Dowsley had gathered. The paper published a second story the next day before the police again returned to court.
When Dowsley called Gobbo again, she intimated that she was unhappy with the police and might join the newspaper’s fight to tell all about her past. He quickly realized it was another spy game. “She was basically trying to glean information out of me, which is quite a pattern of behavior, where she plays both sides,” he said. “She was just playing with us.”
On April 2, a state court issued an injunction banning publication of any further mention of Lawyer X. The Herald Sun was forced to stop the presses to remove a follow-up article from the next day’s paper. For five years, Dowsley’s reporting was largely put on ice. Other media outlets openly questioned whether he’d overreached with his original story.
But Dowsley’s articles had set another chain of events in motion. The anti-corruption wing of the Victoria Police launched its own internal investigation of “Human Source number 3838,” as did the state’s director of Public Prosecutions. When the latter concluded that it had an obligation to alert some of Gobbo’s former clients to potential conflicts in their representation, the police and Gobbo both sued to stop them. Since every entity in the suit was meant to remain secret, it traveled through the courts under the farcical designation AB & EF v. CD.
Finally, in November 2018, the High Court of Australia ruled against Gobbo and the police, although it kept her name secret pending a final appeal. In the verdict, the justices expressed shock at law enforcement’s “reprehensible conduct” and Gobbo’s “fundamental and appalling breaches” of basic legal principle, calling it “corrupted in a manner which debased fundamental principles of the criminal justice system.” The following month, the premier of Victoria announced a Royal Commission — a special independent investigative body convened for matters of public importance — to examine the use of Lawyer X.
Then, on March 1, 2019, the Supreme Court lifted the suppression order on Nicola Gobbo’s identity. Months before, Dowsley and a reporting partner named Patrick Carlyon had put together an eight-part series detailing the astonishing revelations they’d uncovered about Gobbo’s informer career. Then they’d shelved it, waiting for this day to arrive. By 5:22 p.m. on March 1, the articles were live, and Dowsley had upended the previous legends of the gangland war. “This is affecting almost every big case of organized crime that hit Melbourne,” he told me. “It’s revisiting everything that happened before.”
As he was piecing together Gobbo’s secret life, Anthony Dowsley had paid a visit to David Abramson. He was known to have given Gobbo her start in criminal law and to still be close with her. He’d even once represented her in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Herald Sun. So Dowsley remained cagey about the nature of his investigation until the pair sat down across a coffee-shop table.
“David, she’s an informer,” Dowsley said.
“Bullshit,” Abramson responded. He’d heard the rumors years before from criminals whose cases had gone sideways. Gobbo must be working with the police, they’d told him. He had always dismissed them as disgruntled criminals looking for someone to blame.
This time, however, Dowsley started laying out the details of what he’d learned, and Abramson saw his own past reconfiguring before his eyes. “Suddenly, three and three became six,” he said, “and I realized I’ve been very naïve.”
Gobbo hadn’t lied to Abramson about her 1993 arrest, not exactly. That August, after an anonymous tip, the police had begun weeks of surveillance on a house belonging to Gobbo — “said to be the niece of Justice Gobbo of the Supreme Court” — a report noted. The focus of the investigation was a suspected drug dealer named Brian Wilson, with whom Gobbo was “living in a de facto relationship.” A raid turned up 3 pounds of amphetamines, nearly a pound of marijuana, and a cache of weapons. Wilson and another man were arrested at the house; the police picked up Gobbo at the university. All three were charged with drug possession and pleaded guilty. Gobbo received probation and a “good-behavior bond,” expunging her record after a year.
Left out of Gobbo’s account was the fact that two years later, the police had raided the house again, finding another stash of speed. This time, Gobbo was frantic, telling an officer that another drug charge could keep her from being admitted to the bar. The officers on the scene that day have since claimed not to recall the precise moment when Gobbo became a source. But no charges were filed against her, and shortly afterward, she was officially registered as police informer G395.
Her initial information concerned the continued dealings of her semi-estranged boyfriend, Wilson. Gobbo was “eager to participate,” a detective named Tim Argall recalled at the Royal Commission hearings, and offered to introduce an undercover police officer to Wilson. But from the beginning, Gobbo could be a difficult source, Argall said. She invented her own pseudonym for the undercover agent without consulting her handlers and then mentioned the name to Wilson. “Plucked a name, and we had to run with it,” as Argall put it. She asked for favors, calling Argall for help in avoiding what she said were a pack of reporters hounding her over a Victoria election controversy to which she had a minor connection. The police agreed to meet her at a mall, only to discover that no one seemed to be following her.
Shortly after Gobbo introduced the undercover cop to Wilson, the operation fizzled out. A police report in 1996 noted that Gobbo was “a loose cannon” who was “making arrangements and not liaising [with investigators].”
Curiously, by 1998, the police were again turning to Gobbo, now a practicing lawyer. This time the target was David Abramson, her mentor. Her datebook recounts a meeting with a pair of police sergeants in which one told her that Abramson “is a crook, should be in jail,” and that she could be implicated in possible illegality herself. “Mud sticks, get a raincoat soon,” the officer advised, she wrote, indicating that “he was aware of my priors.” Gobbo told her new handlers that she could supply evidence that Abramson was involved in money laundering. She accessed his digital files and handed copies to the police. Once again, the operation went nowhere.
Looking back, Abramson believes that Gobbo had seen an email in which he’d suggested to a drug-dealing client that he put his money into flipping houses. Even now, he seems astounded that for years afterward, Gobbo had remained a close friend. He and his wife, he said, had looked after her following the death of her mother. They’d bought her children Christmas presents, even though the Abramsons were Jewish. “My colleagues laugh at me, a bloke who is suspicious in cases with witnesses,” he told me. “And in fact, I had one in my office, and I didn’t pick it up.”
Gobbo’s new handlers, like the previous ones, found her demeanor confounding at times. She requested favors, like asking an officer to look into a restraining order connected to another client. “I think she was testing the relationship,” a former police officer named Jeffrey Pope told the Royal Commission. (Gobbo would later claim that she and Pope engaged in a sexual relationship, an accusation Pope denies.) “She was also someone difficult to keep focused,” he added. “She would talk an awful lot about a whole range of things, lots of discussion about criminals … high-profile crimes, police, policing, football, politics.”
After her information against Abramson came to nothing, in 1999 her informer status was changed to “inactive.” But rather than cut off contact with police, they slipped into a kind of friendly background rapport. She “was very social with police members and in the legal fraternity,” one officer later testified. With the Melbourne gangland war heating up and her client list expanding to include the likes of Mokbel and Williams, Gobbo could be found drinking with Paul Dale and other members of the drug squad. Officers wrapped up in police-corruption scandals came to her for legal advice.
By mid-2003, Gobbo was back to providing covert assistance — “informally,” as she would describe it — this time to Purana Detective Sergeant Stuart Bateson, the subject of her own mocking toast at Williams’s daughter’s christening. She told Bateson she was frustrated with Williams’s attempts to manipulate witnesses and began updating the Purana detective on both Williams’s and Mokbel’s efforts to intimidate anyone who could testify against them. Among those potential witnesses was another client of hers, the alleged driver in the football clinic murders. She would later claim that it was she who helped the police convince him to roll on Williams, the first crack in “the wall of silence.”
As Gobbo knew, there are generally two types of confidential informers who find themselves working for law enforcement. The first are those who are in some kind of legal jeopardy, whether convicted, under arrest, or living in fear of it. These assist police in the hopes of favorable treatment: a lighter sentence, say, or a lesser charge. The second are those who do it for money, whether regular payments or rewards at the end of a case. Nicola Gobbo, as a law student facing drug charges, began her informer career as the first specimen. But now she seemed to have evolved into a third, nearly singular species: a practicing lawyer eager to undermine her clients. Her motivations often seemed as pliable as they were baffling. In retrospect, her habit of popping up amid important cases seemed less random than by design. The drug house that was robbed by Terence Hodson and a police officer? She’d represented the owner. When Hodson offered to inform on Dale about the drug-house robbery, she’d served as the conduit to police. And yet one night in 2004, out at a pub with Dale, she’d made a call to Carl Williams and handed him the phone. There was no part of the web that she didn’t seem to have touched.
She soon discovered that her double life came with a toll. One morning in July 2004, in the midst of one of the gangland trials, she woke up unable to speak, and a friend rushed her to the hospital where doctors diagnosed a stroke. It took her a week to recover her speech, and part of her face remained paralyzed. She slowly returned to work, but the stroke, which her doctor attributed to stress, fed into a growing disillusionment with her work. She was 32 years old, unhealthy, and overworked, she later said, wondering what she’d done with her life.
Then in August, after a bail hearing for a client, two detectives from the Victoria Police Source Development Unit (SDU) approached her at the courthouse. They quietly asked whether, given what she’d already been providing to Bateson, she might be willing to help the police out more formally.
“If anyone finds out about this, I will be murdered,” she told them.
“Yes, this would have to be managed carefully,” one replied.
Gobbo agreed to come in, and on a second meeting, seemed decidedly less concerned. She was eager to “be rid of” certain clients “who tend to consume a large portion of the Source’s time and resources,” she told them, according to a risk assessment compiled by the SDU. Chief among them was Tony Mokbel, who she said was pressuring her to make sure other members of his organization, arrested on drug charges, kept their mouths shut. “Look, ideally what would be fantastic would be you arrest him,” she said. “I know that’s a terrible, terrible thing to say to anyone.”
The SDU assessment considered whether Gobbo might “enjoy acting as a police agent” — she suggested, unprompted, that the police bug her office and she carry a recorder at all times. They noted that she’d “had intimate relationships with some Police members, and it is not known if these are ongoing.” A “lack of control” over Gobbo, they noted, could “jeopardize investigations” and lead to her exposure, causing “embarrassment and criticism of the Force.” She was, after all, a defense attorney and practically a celebrity, as one officer told her. But ultimately, the police concluded that Gobbo, with her access to high-level criminals and history of providing useful intel, was worth the risk. She represented, as an internal police report later put it, “an opportunity for Victoria Police that had never before been encountered and in all probability will never be encountered again.”
On September 16, 2005, the SDU officially registered Gobbo as an informer for a second time — Human Source 3838 — providing a phone number for her to use exclusively for all her future contacts.
The same day, Gobbo sat down for her preliminary interview with her new handlers. The police assured her that she was not being recorded, but the tape was already running. “So where do we start?” one of them asked.
“Well, you — I guess you can start,” Gobbo said.
“I’d like to say, tell me everything you know about Tony Mokbel,” the officer replied.
“How many weeks have you booked the room for?” she said.
“Well, to be quite honest, if you want to go down that track, we will. It will take as long as it takes.”
In Australia, as in the U.S., the legal system includes protections for what’s popularly known as “attorney-client privilege.” Grounded in English common law and dating to the 16th century, legal professional privilege holds that communications between attorneys and people seeking legal advice can’t be discovered by police or courts and used against them. In its modern incarnation, the privilege belongs to the client, not the attorney. With the exception of certain rare circumstances — such as if the information was part of a fraud or threatens the safety of another person — only the client is permitted to waive the right and reveal what they’ve told a lawyer. Attorneys under common law–derived systems also owe a “duty of loyalty” to their clients: an obligation to act in their interests and provide them with the most vigorous possible defense.
Those duties and privileges are more professional obligations — protected by the court — than they are statutory ones. Nicola Gobbo was about to dismantle them in ways the legal system had never experienced. Less than two weeks after sitting down to inform on Tony Mokbel in 2005, Gobbo represented Mokbel in court. In the hearing, she sought a subpoena for information from police about informers they’d used in the case against him.
As she ramped up her work for the SDU, her police handlers — later identified at the Royal Commission with pseudonyms as officers “White,” “Black,” “Green,” “Fox,” and “Smith” — seemed at least cognizant of the professional jeopardy Gobbo faced if her new role was to be uncovered. From the beginning, they assured her that — for both her sake and theirs — she would never have to appear as a witness. Her information would be used to help them investigate, not prosecute. “The information that I gave to police, more often than not I came across because they would encourage me to go and have dinner with 15 criminals … the Mokbel group and associates, because they would have all of their runners there,” she later told one of the internal police investigations. “Quite often their mistresses would be invited as well, and they would talk very openly…. I would carry on a conversation with one person but would be listening to two or three other conversations and it was in that context that I then provided information to the police, not knowing specifically the value of it or how it would be used. And as it turns out, sometimes it was of immense assistance to them.” Her instructions, she said, amounted to: “You tell us what you hear and let us work out what we do with it.”
The Source Development Unit had been created precisely to protect the Victoria Police’s informers from exposure to either the court system or to criminals. Sources would pass their intel to special SDU handlers, who would then strip it of identifying information and move it on to investigators, providing a “sterile corridor” to help protect sources’ identities. Gobbo, however, seemed unconfined by the corridor. She cycled through handlers and worked directly with investigators, providing random bits of information across a seemingly endless assortment of cases. Her information in turn was so valuable to Purana that investigators began tasking her with specific missions, requests that Gobbo seemed to enthusiastically carry out. She wanted, she told them at one point, to be the best human source in the history of Victoria Police. “Source wants to know if any other person has helped as much as she has and if anyone comes close she needs to be told so that she can try harder,” one source contact report noted. “Source advised that she has a comfortable lead!!”
Gobbo was so prolific that, at times, she had trouble keeping track of it all. “You see I can’t in my own mind work out sometimes what I know from reading a brief or what I know from a court case, what I know from conversations with people, what I know secondhand from police officers or whatever,” she told officers Smith and White. She began talking to her handlers multiple times a day, seven days a week. She probed them for information even as she was providing it, making suggestions about the timing of arrests and strategizing about what would follow when one of her clients was detained. In transcripts, her handlers often gestured meekly at the idea that Gobbo wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“What happens at the end?” she asked about the arrest of one client in a meeting with White and Smith.
“The first thing he’s gonna do, we would assume, is … ring you,” White would tell her.
“He’ll ring no one else but me,” Gobbo replied.
“And what would be your response?” asked White.
She’d advise the client to “not say a word,” she said.
“How does that work, if you represent him whilst at the same time you’ve been instrumental in his apprehension?” White said.
“That’s one of the things that keeps me up at night,” Gobbo replied.
“Have you got a plan for how you are gonna manage that?”
“What’s the big deal? You’re not gonna tell him,” she said.
“No, we’re not, but —”
“Nor am I. I don’t really feel like being dead this month.”
Other times, Gobbo seemed overwhelmed by the scope of her ethical transgressions, warning her handlers of the potential consequences of the sterile corridor breaking down. “Repeatedly, I’ve chucked ethics out the window, I’ve chucked legal professional privilege out the window, I’ve chucked my career out the window,” she told White. “If this gets out,” she said at another point, “say nice things at my eulogy, because I will be gone — and enjoy the Royal Commission.” Gobbo was doing more than simply providing information, however. She was strategically representing lower-level members of organizations like Williams’s and Mokbel’s, pressuring them to roll on their bosses. She was given free rein of Victoria’s jails and prisons, coming and going to meet old clients and solicit new ones — some of whom were informing on one another. She coaxed statements from them at the behest of police and later claimed that for at least one, she’d shaped it without the witness even knowing. “I went to Purana secretly one night and edited all his statements,” she told officer Green in one transcript. “I corrected them. But no one ever knows about that. That would never come out.”
When it did come out, Gobbo’s role as 3838 turned the understanding of case after case inside out. The moment that unlocked the “tomato tin” ecstasy bust, for example, arrived in June 2007, when a Gobbo client named Rob Karam was due in court on drug charges. For months, Gobbo had been providing information on Karam, who’d had connections to both Mokbel and the Calabrian mafia in Italy. Now, before heading into court, Karam asked Gobbo to hold onto a pile of documents, worried that he could be searched. Among them, Gobbo discovered the bill of lading for a shipping container arriving in three weeks from Italy. She photocopied the documents and handed them over that evening to officer Fox. When Customs intercepted the container, they discovered the tomato cans full of 4.4 tons of pills. The authorities quietly held the container on the dock and then monitored the panic among the criminals awaiting it, eventually gathering enough evidence for more than 30 blockbuster convictions, including Karam’s.
Just weeks later, Gobbo landed one of Purana’s most coveted targets, Faruk Orman — the man who had her cellphone number at the ready when he was arrested in the murder of Victor Peirce. Little did Orman know that his own phone was being monitored by the police. The person who had given them his number to target was the same one he was now calling for legal help: Nicola Gobbo. Orman, she promptly told police, might roll on Mick Gatto, the one Carlton Crew member who had long eluded them. “What an amazing golden opportunity for us,” she said: more business for her and more information for them. (Gatto, who has long maintained he was never involved in illegal activity beyond gambling, declined to be interviewed for this story.) Orman, she told them, was obsessive-compulsive and afraid of being alone. He would be “unable to cope” if they placed him in harsh and isolated conditions.
When Orman refused to roll, however, Gobbo had another move. She was representing not just Orman, it turned out, but the witness against him: the triple murderer who claimed that Orman and Veniamin had confessed. Now part of the team shaping Orman’s defense strategy, she was simultaneously helping the witness craft his evolving statements implicating Orman in the murders. When the witness wavered, she warned police to “put him straight,” according to court documents. She urged them to fight vigorously against Orman’s requests — her own requests, in court — for information about the witness, knowing that he’d contradicted himself and lied to authorities multiple times. Years later, in 2015, in a letter responding to an internal police inquiry, she would cite Orman’s conviction as one of her ten “most significant” contributions as an informer.
The motivations behind Gobbo’s double life had always been a tangled mass, nearly impossible to pick apart. By the end, she was both an eager double agent and a reluctant pawn of the police. As the years stretched on, Gobbo seemed to her handlers increasingly manic. She’d long been paranoid, living in fear of her clients, driving around the block twice when she came home and scanning for suspicious cars. By the time she agreed to wear a wire against Paul Dale, the former cop accused of murder, she had already been receiving anonymous texts threatening her with death and rape. Then her car was firebombed in April 2008. By now her handler’s daily contact reports were filled with notes on her mental and physical health. “3838 is having trouble sleeping and dealing with her status as a human source.” “Discussed nerves etc and wanting to escape.” “3838 is again in tears — emotional. 3838 is frustrated with the current direction and status of the SDU relationship.” “Mentioned thoughts of ‘suicide,’ clarified — has no enthusiasm for life … is not going to go and do anything dramatic.” “Extremely emotional and depressed.”
On January 12, 2009, with her potential testimony against Dale looming, the SDU formally deregistered her, realizing that public testimony would render her useless as an informer. For the first time, they began paying for her protection, along with perks like concert tickets, a horse-track membership, and spa treatments. By now they had documented more than 5,000 contacts with her since 2005. More than 100 officers were connected at some level to Gobbo’s informing. By her own count, the police seized more than $60 million in criminal proceeds and charged 386 people based on information she’d provided. “To try to encompass my actual value, reliability and work for Victoria Police in any summary is immensely difficult,” she later wrote in her letter to police. “But there are probably more …”
The wood-paneled hearing room that hosts the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants sits on the sixth floor of a government building in downtown Melbourne. A metal detector just off the elevator is manned by a daily trio of security agents, but the mood among the guards is more sporting-event relaxed than it is airport-security paranoid. Despite the massive publicity around the Gobbo scandal — at least two national reporters were covering it every day during the week I turned up in late October — public attendance is generally light. The hearings, which have taken place in multiweek stretches since February 2019, are livestreamed on the internet and have disgorged more than 10,000 pages of transcripts and evidence.
One afternoon, I sat in the gallery behind a long table of lawyers, as many as 15 representing the constellation of interests in the Gobbo affair: the criminals, the handlers, the investigators, the Commission, and Gobbo herself. The former Purana detective Boris Buick was on the stand. Perched at a podium in front of him, one of the Commission’s lawyers was for the third day politely but relentlessly walking him through his thought process in the case of Faruk Orman.
She returned to what had always been a troubling issue in the case: the fact that Gobbo, representing a witness against Orman, had appeared in court to supposedly advocate for Orman to receive more information about the witnesses against him. “Ms. Gobbo was representing Mr. Orman in the early stages, seeking the disclosure upon which that defense relied?” the lawyer asked Buick.
“That’s right,” Buick said. Despite years of testimony in criminal trials, the grandfatherly Buick appeared distinctly uncomfortable. He often paused before responding, licking his lips or clasping his hands and staring down into them as if seeking a better explanation than the ones he had.
“And no steps were taken to indicate to Mr. Orman that he wasn’t receiving impartial, independent representation during that period?”
“I answered those questions two days ago,” Buick said. “I don’t have a different answer for you, sorry.”
“And the answer to that is no steps were taken?” the lawyer said, evenly.
The justice system had already passed its judgment on the decisions surrounding Gobbo and Orman. In June 2019, the attorney general of Victoria had issued a special referral of Orman’s case back to the Court of Appeal for what’s called a “petition for mercy.” When his longtime attorney Ruth Parker pulled his files out of her office safe to write it, she suggested to the court that “what might sound at first blush to be so outrageous as to be fiction or exaggeration was, in fact, the reality of what occurred.” To me, later, she would call it “the biggest criminal police-corruption conspiracy in the history of the Western world.”
The Victoria Office of Public Prosecutions largely declined to defend the conviction, conceding most of the facts and arguing around the edges. On July 25, a judge declared Orman the victim of a “substantial miscarriage of justice” and immediately acquitted him. Orman walked out of the court arm in arm with Parker, flashing a smile for the photographers.
The case provided a preview of the next phase of the Gobbo affair, when the courts will have to grapple with as many as 600 cases impacted by Gobbo’s involvement. Several of Gobbo’s other former clients, including Rob Karam of the tomato-tins bust, have already filed appeals of their sentences. Tony Mokbel has indicated that he will do the same. (So confident is Mokbel of his pending release that he reportedly bragged about it to other prisoners. In February, he was found stabbed with a shank. He survived.) Others who are out of prison may appeal to have their records expunged. “They knew they were violating people’s rights,” Anthony Dowsley told me. “Whether those people were guilty or not. This isn’t necessarily an innocence project. This is about the pillars of law and order, and how the justice system should work.”
Dowsley, for his part, has picked up every major journalism award in Australia and is working on a book on the scandal, titled Lawyer X, due out this spring. His stories are set to be adapted into an Australian TV series for Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel network. The producers of Underbelly are also working on a new miniseries that revisits the story, this time with Gobbo as the focus. “It’ll make the greatest story one day,” Gobbo had mused to one of her handlers back in 2005. “That’s, well, that’s the book we’re never gonna write,” he responded.
What consequences Gobbo herself, or the police who enabled her, could face remain an open question. She will never practice law again, no doubt, but given that she ceased practicing as a barrister in 2009, there’s no professional censure available to the Victoria Bar. Some legal observers believe that Gobbo and the police may be vulnerable to charges of “perverting the course of justice” or witness tampering. One officer after another has appeared before the Royal Commission to claim that they either never considered Gobbo’s informing to violate legal principles, or assumed that it must be legal or their command would have objected. Their job was to investigate and stop the murderous drug gangs, they’ve said, and any information would do. But the police have been repeatedly caught failing to hand over swaths of documents to the Royal Commission — once claiming that no one had ever asked for the password to a computer that housed hundreds of recordings of the handlers and Gobbo. The questions go to the top of the chain of command, including Simon Overland, who left the force in 2011, and the current chief commissioner, Graham Ashton — both of whom were personally involved in overseeing Gobbo’s use as a human source. In an internal investigation, Ashton had once called Gobbo a “glittering prize” who police believed “could potentially solve a bunch of murders or prevent others.”
In mid-December, Overland appeared before the Royal Commission and at first denied knowing that Gobbo had ever breached legal privilege by informing on her own clients. The next day, however, he admitted under questioning that “ethics were fucked” and that the police had potentially committed illegal acts in signing up Gobbo to take down Mokbel while she simultaneously represented him. He revealed it had been Gobbo’s information that helped them catch her client on the run in Greece.
“They thought they’d get away with it,” Geoffrey Stewart, a defense barrister who has represented Paul Dale, told me. “And they would do anything to secure convictions. Probably thinking that this gangland war has got to stop and whatever is going to assist us in that regard, let’s avail ourselves of it, no matter how wrong. But how can you not know that an informer who is representing people is informing on them? I mean, it beggars belief.”
Gobbo herself is currently in hiding, somewhere outside Australia. (Her attorneys didn’t respond to my requests for an interview with her or them. When I stopped one of them outside the Royal Commission hearings one afternoon, he said, “You’re the one that’s been sending me emails.” I suggested we could talk off the record. He cheerfully responded, “That’s not going to happen.”) In October, her attorneys presented psychological reports to the Royal Commission stating that she was unable to testify — even by telephone — because she was suffering from severe depression and “deteriorating progressively in her intellectual and psychological functioning.” The Royal Commission disagreed, ordering her to testify by telephone at the end of January.
In another twist, Gobbo sat down for a television interview with a correspondent from ABC, who flew to meet her in an unnamed location outside Australia. The program aired on December 9, just weeks after her lawyers had claimed she was unfit to testify. In the interview, shot against an anonymous black backdrop, Gobbo appeared lucid and composed, her voice catching with emotion only when she discussed what the ordeal had put her children through. She avoided specific details about her informing, citing the Royal Commission’s ongoing investigation. For the first time, she spoke publicly about the scandal, placing nearly all of the blame on the police, who she said had manipulated her good intentions. “It began as an ethical and moral dilemma for me, knowing that people were gonna be murdered,” she said. “That morphed into a dependence on Victoria Police, or a small number of Victorian police officers. They made it clear to me that if I didn’t continue to assist them and to do what they asked, then they would release my name and effectively feed me to the wolves.”
When the reporter asked whether she’d breached legal professional privilege, Gobbo deflected. “I suppose if I had my time over, I would do things very differently,” she said. “But then, on the other hand, I think, what choice did I have…?” As to whether she could face criminal charges, she said, “Anything I did or didn’t do was at the behest and control and with the full knowledge and imprimatur of the Victoria Police. So if I’m to be charged, then I suppose we’ll be in the dock together.”
When she first began formally supplying information to Purana back in 2005, Gobbo expressed hope to her handlers that on the other side of it, she’d be able to “go back to the way it was before, which was no pressure, no paranoia.” She dreamed of becoming a magistrate, or scaling back her legal practice to something small and sane.
Now, she said, she suffered from suicidal thoughts and severe depression, as well as neuralgia, a consequence of her stroke that caused her “constant, acute pain.” She said police had told her that if she returned to Australia, her children would be removed from her for their own safety. “I find myself thinking some days that this is an unbelievable nightmare that there is no end to,” she said. Her greatest fear was no longer the criminals, she claimed, but the police.
One afternoon at the hearings, the commissioner order a closed session, excluding the public, so that Buick could discuss portions of the scandal still deemed too secret to reveal. (Australian reporters are allowed to attend closed sessions, but only report on portions of them.) Sitting alone in the adjacent media room, I looked up from my laptop to find Faruk Orman standing in front of me, seeming confused. I recognized him from news photos I’d seen, but attired in a polo shirt and sock-less loafers with his sunglasses hanging from his shorts pocket, he looked like he’d stepped off a cruise ship. Parker later told me that Orman had come to watch Boris Buick, the man who’d helped put him away for 12 years, answer for it.
I introduced myself and explained that the hearings had been closed for the remainder of the afternoon. He offered me a piece of gum and then asked whether it was like this in the U.S. I told him it struck me as an unusual circumstance.
“You can’t even find out about your own bloody case here,” he said.
I asked whether he’d be open to telling me his version of the story. Since a brief interview the day of his release, Orman had declined to speak to reporters, citing a planned lawsuit against the State of Victoria for malicious prosecution.
“Ah no, I don’t think so, mate,” he said with a smile and wandered out.
The Melbourne legal community remains staggered by the Gobbo revelations. “It’s not just shocking, it’s unthinkable,” one prominent Melbourne defense attorney told me. “It trashes the whole criminal-justice system,” the former chief crown prosecutor of the state of Victoria, Gavin Silbert, said. “I mean, we are headed for anarchy, effectively, as a result of this. Already it’s done a huge amount of damage. If people can’t seek legal advice without being turned over, being betrayed by a legal practitioner, it’s the fundamental root of the whole system we operate on.”
David Abramson told me he’d experienced that anarchy. “I’ve had clients that come in — they’ve said to me, ‘Look, how can I be confident that you will look out for my interests and not be blackmailed by the police, help yourself and your other clients, and bury me?’ ” he said. “And my answer is, ‘I can’t tell you that. If you’ve got any doubts, go somewhere else.’ Because how can I tell them, ‘Trust me, I’m a lawyer’?”
When Ruth Parker and I walked away from the café where we’d been talking, she wondered aloud whether we’d been watched by a cop a few tables away. “All the lawyers are under surveillance. It’s crazy,” she said.
As for Orman, to the wider public, he will likely always be known as the getaway driver for a murder. But by the measures of the criminal-justice system, he is an innocent man who spent 12 years of his life in prison. There is no venue to further evaluate his ultimate guilt, because his right to a fair trial had been over the moment he’d dialed Nicola Gobbo’s number.
Upon his release, Orman set about returning to normal life. He planned to marry the woman he’d been engaged to since before he went to prison and relished the workaday boredom of tasks like obtaining a new driver’s license. He’d been in prison so long, Parker told me, the state required him to take a driving test.
“Don’t you think that’s sort of ironic?” she’d asked him. “Faruk was like, ‘Mate, you’ve no idea.’ ”