When up-and-coming drug dealer Carl Williams was shot in his ample tummy in 1999 in a small park in Gladstone Park no one could have predicted Melbourne was about to plunge into a decade-long underworld war.

Williams met half-brothers Mark and Jason Moran at the park to sort out a few business details, including the ownership of a pill press and a $400,000 disputed debt.

Carl Williams arrives at court with father George in April 2004.Credit:Jason S outh

Without warning, Jason pulled a gun at the Barrington Crescent park and ended the debate with a bullet. When Mark suggested he finish the job by killing Williams, the ever-practical Jason said, “Then how are we going to get our money back?”

Carl, an unemployed supermarket shelf stacker making a $100,000 a month, made it home and then to hospital. It was his 29th birthday.

He refused to tell police what happened, claiming he popped into the hospital for a precautionary visit due to a pain in the stomach and was surprised as anyone when they removed a .22 slug from his belly.

While recovering he decided the Morans would ultimately take Mark’s advice to finish the job and he decided to get in first.

The non-fatal shooting of Williams didn’t make headlines, but it soon would. Gangsters started turning up dead, leaving 11 unsolved underworld murders. One was Mark Moran, shot outside his Aberfeldie home in June 2000.

Lewis Moran and his son Jason leaving the Coroners Court on separate occasions in 2002. Both would later be murdered on the orders of Carl Williams.Credit:Matthew Bouwmeester, Andrew De La Rue

Police initially treated each crime individually, despite it being obvious that some (but not all) were connected. Senior homicide investigator Phil Swindells saw that a little-known crook from the west, Andrew “Benji” Veniamin, was the suspect in three murders being investigated by different homicide crews. He successfully lobbied for a dedicated taskforce to target Veniamin, Williams and their associates.

The Rimer Taskforce, later renamed Purana, was set up in May 2003. It started with a team of 12 and soon grew to 55. Eighteen years later almost to the day it is to be scrapped.

The taskforce has hit the highs and lows of policing. It cracked underworld murders that looked unsolvable, broke the underworld code of silence, developed an unprecedented network of informers, tracked a drug boss across the world, smashed major drug syndicates and recovered $70 million in tainted assets.

It also used a practising criminal barrister named Nicola Gobbo as an informer, a move that threatens to taint dozens of heavyweight convictions.

Purana detectives leave court. Phil Swindells is on the left.Credit:Michael Rayner

When Purana was established few believed it had any chance of success. Its intelligence holdings were non-existent, the police hardly knew the main players and the crooks thought it was a joke. Drug boss Tony Mokbel was so cocky he named one of his companies – a fashion label – LSD (Love, Style and Design). At Flemington races he handed out small samples of cocaine – even flicking a bag to a female undercover assigned to watch him.

Weeks after Purana was established, Jason Moran and his friend, Pasquale Barbaro, were gunned down in a van filled with kids at the Essendon Auskick. It was probably the most audacious, reckless and brazen hit of the lot.

(Jason once threatened to bite my nose off in what was a gross over-reaction. A stern letter to the editor would have sufficed.)

A year after the taskforce was established police informer Terence Hodson and wife Christine were murdered at their Kew home. It was a clear reminder of what can happen if you talk to the cops.

Carl Williams at the funeral of slain underworld figure Andrew Benji Veniamin at the Greek Orthodox Parish of St Andrews in March 2004.Credit:Jason South

Meanwhile, Carl was getting too big for his Ugg boots. He was holding press conferences and calling himself The Premier – “because I run this state”. Hitmen were queuing up to work for him, from a veteran crook who should have had the brains to retire, prolific armed robbers and the evil Rodney “Duke” Collins, who would kill anyone if the price was right.

(Veniamin, one of Carl’s trusted gunman, was made permanently redundant in March 2004 when he was shot dead in self-defence by Mick Gatto.)

The main players, many who usually stayed in the shadows, were headline news. Purana was given more resources with a clear message: start getting results. Many crooks didn’t appreciate the attention highlighted by this ditty written by a jailbird turned Prison Lorikeet.

F…..g Purana Squad.

You’s are a f…..g joke,

Why pick on us?

We’re nothing but good blokes.

We know you get jealous,

Of our girls and our cars,

Instead of living your lives,

You keep trying to live ours.

So before I curse your family,

And pray to God you die,

I hope it’s clear that you are the animals,

And we’re the good guys.

The Jason Moran murder was the tipping point. Information from homicide passed to Purana pointed to Carl Williams’ crew, including “The Runner”, a career armed robber. Purana suspected the team planned another crime and put a tracking device in a car used by The Runner. They didn’t know it was a hit on drug dealer Michael Marshall. The Runner and The Driver were arrested within hours.

Williams sent a message to stay strong. The Runner, promised $200,000 for the hit, asked that his money be sent to his elderly mother. Williams forwarded her $1500. It was stupid – short-changing a hitman is never good for business.

The Runner changed sides to become a police witness, implicating Williams in a series of murders. Soon several Williams associates jumped ship and headed for the protected witness lifeboat.

Carl Williams is arrested at Port Melbourne. He called himself The Premier because he thought he ran the state. He didn’t.Credit:Angela Wylie

In 2007, Carl Williams, facing a mountain of evidence and a truckload of confessions from former colleagues, pleaded guilty to the murders of Jason Moran, Lewis Moran and Mark Mallia. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder Mario Condello and was found guilty of the murder of Michael Marshall.

Williams was murdered inside Barwon Prison in 2010 after he tried to cut a deal to give evidence into the Hodson murders.

With Carl out of the way and the main Morans murdered, Purana moved its attention to drug boss Tony Mokbel, a former pizza shop owner who was running a $400 million drug empire.

Tony had been arrested over a container load of chemicals but, due to some of the investigating police being charged with corruption, he was rightly bailed. Instead of laying low he ramped up production, believing that by using his brothers as his executives he would not be betrayed from within. He was wrong.

Judy Moran.Credit:Craig Abraham

(The Morans weren’t quite finished. In 2009 Lewis Moran’s ex-wife, the insufferable Judy Moran, organised the murder of her ex-brother-in-law Des at an Ascot Vale café. She turned up filled with fake anguish in an excruciating performance that proved she was as bad an actor as killer. Police found the getaway car in her garage, proof that in crime terms Moran was a moron.)

In 2006, facing certain conviction for federal cocaine charges, Mokbel jumped bail, hid at a friend’s Bonnie Doon shack, then bought a yacht to sail to Greece.

He was found guilty in absence only to have his conviction overturned due to Gobbo’s role as a police informer. (It was a hollow victory as he had already served his time.)

Tony was tracked to Athens with the help of phone taps and an informer (no, not Gobbo). Greek police found him at a trendy café eating fresh fish while wearing a stale wig. Jim Coghlan from Purana and Jarrod Ragg from the AFP were waiting.

Tony Mokbel was arrested in Greece while wearing an ill-fitting wig.

In the Purana office they had a small fish tank inhabited by a sunken plastic ship and a freshwater yabby called Tony. Some staff, fearing Tony the Yabby was lonely, introduced a companion – Zarah the Goldfish – named after gangland lawyer Zarah Garde-Wilson. Tony responded to this act of kindness by eating Zarah. And they say the underworld is ruthless.

Tony (the drug dealer not the yabby) was extradited to Melbourne, accused of a couple of murders that didn’t stick and in the face of overwhelming evidence pleaded guilty to multiple drug trafficking offences.

The underworld war became the subject of the award winning Nine series Underbelly.

One viewer who was not impressed was Supreme Court Judge Betty King, whose eagle (legal) eye spotted that some of the extras were real Purana detectives.

Gobbo put her hand up for the million-dollar reward claiming she helped find Mokbel. Her application was rejected for a good reason – she didn’t. The real insider, code named The Musician, received the money and a new identity.

Despite pleading guilty, Mokbel has appealed and wants the convictions set aside, claiming Gobbo stabbed him in the back. The twist is the original judge told Tony that without his guilty plea he would have been sentenced to life, meaning any contested re-trial would leave Mokbel with the ultimate gamble. Win and walk out the door; lose and die in jail.

The use of Gobbo as a secret source proved catastrophic and put convictions at risk. Faruk Orman’s conviction for the 2002 murder of Victor Peirce has been set aside after he unfairly served 12 years.

For years senior police considered closing Purana as other specialist investigators targeted organised crime groups. What saved it was the public perception of Purana as the gang busters, until the Gobbo fiasco tarnished the brand.

What is undeniable is Purana solved 11 murders, thwarted another six, seized nearly $90 million (including unpaid taxes) stopped the underworld war and saved lives.

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