Wandering through the streets of Newtown on my way back from the pub, the fragrant lingerings of Mr Yeeros dissipating with every step, I am no stranger to the sights and sounds of the area’s rough-around-the-edges side. That said, being caught by the stray words of an aggressive drunk, or witnessing a thrilling (but undeniably small-time) drug bust outside one of King Street’s numerous EzyMarts, is about as close as I have come to the underbelly of the beloved suburbs I frequent; a far cry from the gangland glory days of Sydney.
Sewn by the dealings of ill-famed criminals from as early as the 1930s, much like the rest of Sydney, crime in USyd’s surrounding suburbs peaked in the 70s to 80s. The seedling drug trade of decades gone by had grown to a high, and heroin dealings claimed their share of victims. All the while, businesses and individuals were being recruited into their dimly-lit folds, locals unwittingly becoming pawns in what is now referred to as the ‘gangland wars’.
None were affected more so than the local pubs.
“As far as gangster shit goes” is a phrase I never expected to encounter outside the realm of crime drama, but the words of Rick de Leede, former owner and manager of Chippendale’s The Rose Hotel from the mid 80s to early 00s, reveal a web of gang activity that ensnared police, locals and businesses alike.
The Rose is located on Cleveland Street, a five minute walk from Eastern Avenue and a popular watering hole for USyd students and staff alike. Yet what many patrons are unaware of is its history as a hub of criminal activity. In an interview with Honi, de Leede recalled with hair-raising fervour the days of his occupancy and the impact of gang activity on the pub’s day-to-day proceedings.
Some twenty years have passed since de Leede’s time at The Rose came to an end. The years have greyed his hair and rendered his brown eyes a wearied pool of history, containing within them promises of forgotten tales of the depravity of days gone by. His contrastingly youthful, boyish smile and self-declared “inability to shut up” paints a picture of his time behind the bar – it’s easy to imagine him entertaining a crowd of customers while pouring pints.
“In the beginning it was an empty pub, as far as trouble goes I guess we didn’t really have much trouble,” said de Leede.
The trouble began with “basic crime and various dangerous shit”. He was, as yet, unaware of the troubled history of other establishments in the locale, in an era when whistles were yet to be blown, crooked cops were prevalent, and the foundations of our city’s organised crime still held firm. When he first bought the pub, de Leede attributed petty crime to the “really down and out working class” in a “pretty dodgy area”.
Eventually, however, a concerning pattern of crime and torment revealed itself to be a symptom of serious criminal activity. According to de Leede, The Rose was a persistent target for robberies.
“They used to come into the pub quite often. We didn’t have a lot of security early on. You couldn’t catch them and you wouldn’t try,” he said.
De Leede’s then de facto partner, who wishes to remain anonymous, described how they handled the looming pressure of the gangs.
“[They] were taking money off some of the other pubs in order to gain the gang’s protection, we resisted participating but there was a time when we did have a discussion about whether we would need to be paying them,” they said.
Written in a love language of subtle, implicit and untraceable blackmail, threats to these businesses followed along the lines of: if you pay us, we will protect you in case someone ‘throws a brick through your window’. If you refused on account that you didn’t need protection from ‘stray bricks’, the gang would then throw said brick through the window and return to you saying that if you had paid them in the first place, they could have protected you from the outcome — a tactic that proved effective.
The Rose, however, enjoyed a degree of immunity from gang criminality, due to the hoard of police who frequented it.
“We would have about 40 or 50 coppers come up and drink every Tuesday morning after the change of shift. They knew us then and if there was trouble at night, when they were coming to look after it, well we knew them because they had been drinking beers in here the morning before,” said de Leede.
Though it would later come to light that a number of high profile officers were themselves involved in criminal dealings, their mass congregations at The Rose proved vital to its avoidance of targeted attacks.
“It’s handy having all the coppers of Sydney in your pocket, I guess.”
The most notorious crooked cop in Australian history, Roger “the Dodger” Rogerson, is known to have had dealings with prolific gang members in the area and to have committed the very crime, in 1981, that ultimately led to his undoing, within spitting distance from The Rose in the neighbouring Dangar Place.
“Roger Rogerson was quite a renowned crooked cop. He shot a guy dead in the lane behind – Warren Lanfranchi. It was a bit of a gangster area. A few of the gangsters used to have the odd beer in the pub but we didn’t talk much about sort of killing people, they just probably had a couple of beers after they shot someone’s head off. At my joint I probably served them,” de Leede said.
Eventually it would be this murder, unveiled by famed whistleblower Sallie Anne Huckstepp, that brought Rogerson’s long reign as one of NSW Police’s golden boys to an end. Rogerson was also linked to Neddy Smith, a prolific underworld figure involved with armed robbery and mass heroin trade. By age 22, Smith had already amassed eight convictions, including armed robbery and rape. After his release 12 years later, Smith would reengage in the kind of criminal activity that would eventually earn him two life sentences for murders. Smith and Rogerson’s business partnership cost Warren Lanfranchi, an associate of Smith, his life.
Huckstepp’s tell-all 60 Minutes interview, in which she named Rogerson as one of Sydney’s most violent criminals and the murderer of her then partner Lanfranchi, would eventuate in her untimely death five years later. Her murder case is still unsolved to this day.
Though Rogerson remained a free man until 1999 when he was convicted of perverting the course of justice and was removed from the police force in a biting fall from grace over a decade earlier in 1986, he would not be convicted of murder until 2014.
Like The Rose, The Lansdowne Hotel, situated on the corner of Broadway and City Road, a mere stone’s throw from campus, was once a melting pot of criminal activity. This was orchestrated by kingpin heroin dealer and third generation gang leader Barry McCann, who managed the pub at the time. After allegedly murdering gang-implicated ‘Chicka’ Reeves, and stepping on the toes of rival gang member Lennie McPherson, by attempting to expand his dealings into the realm of illegal casinos, McCann was shot dead in a Marrickville park on December 27th 1987. The act was considered not only to be one of the last notable murders of Sydney’s gangland era, but one of the events that catalysed its decline.
McPherson, whose primary illegal dealings involved drug trafficking and the establishment of several illegal casinos, held dominion over Sydney’s felonious side for longer than any other high profile criminal. Neddy Smith himself wrote in his book, Catch and Kill Your Own: ‘McPherson is the man who runs this state and has since 1957 to my knowledge’.
With the Lansdowne’s Barry McCann murdered in late 1987 and Smith behind bars, two of Sydney’s three headlining gangs were leaderless and its most crooked cop brought to his knees. Before he was jailed in 1994, Lennie McPherson would end up the last man standing as Sydney’s gangland glory days came to a close.
As a student and waitress at the now closed Cavill Casino in the 1980s, my mum experienced firsthand the criminal history of the time. In her job, she witnessed guns drawn and fired, and even recalls frequently serving McPherson in his heyday as a gang leader.
“It’s scary looking back at photos, he seemed so much younger than the guy I served drinks to…he was so different in those photos, more menacing. Even as an older guy though, people still called him Mr Big”.
Ever sceptical, I always dismissed her tales as the far-fetched musings of a woman I know to unrestrainedly exaggerate for the sake of a good tale, and so, pushed all thought of my city’s very own Scorsese-esque charm from my mind. With every step however, a new thread unravels, pulling apart the fabric of the Newtown I know, to reveal something more exciting and difficult to believe than I would have thought possible.