The story that keeps on giving

There’s a saying in the news business about yarns which take on a life of their own and “keep on giving” … oftentimes the “giving” is neither helpful to the story’s trajectory, nor necessarily something anyone expected.

With Betrayed, I anticipated that it would be a book (about a story) that would quite likely keep on giving. But I am not complaining.

Why?

Well, there are still several key unknowns about which only a handful of people alive today have the knowledge, and who would be able to offer the answers that I, and now many readers are seeking.

Before I dive into some recent incoming eMail which has arrived as a result of the book’s publication and the associated media interviews my wonderful publishers Hachette Australia have arranged, let me identify two of the key unknowns.

The first one is anything and everything to do with Vern Todd Jnr, the nephew who set up his aunt Vera (Toddie) and her companion Florice (Beezie) to undertake the campervan odyssey across Europe and Asia, and then onto Australia.

Who tipped off Vern, thus compromising the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ carefully planned Operation Genius surveillance positions in John Street, Woollahra? How did Vern escape Australia: did he sail to freedom on his Hong Kong-built yacht to Norfolk Island, and eventually across the Pacific to South America, before returning to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, having adopted the identity ‘Frank Moloney‘? Or did he fly out of Sydney Airport using any one of his many passports in various names, in an era when iris scans and passport chips didn’t exist, and where border security was, relatively speaking, lax and at times, prone to corruption?

Did high-powered state politicians, NSW Police or members of the state’s legal fraternity aid Vern’s sudden escape? Why did it take until 14 April 1978 before warrants were eventually issued for the arrest of Vern Todd, and his Australian lieutenant (and antiques dealer) Phillip Richard Shine on the basis of their conspiracy with the Drug Grannies to import a trafficable quantity of hashish — 10 weeks after the women had first been apprehended?

The other question I keep getting from journalists and readers is why the women pleaded guilty when they appeared in court. The unspoken undertone of that question is “well, were the women guilty and in on the drug run from the outset, and that’s why they didn’t fight the charge”?

First, let me address the issue of Vern Todd, the nephew who was one of Australia’s drug kingpins in the 1970s before he fled in January 1978. A former Sydney eastern suburbs resident in her pre-teens at the time of Vern Todd’s drug operations in John Street contacted me about her parents’ suspicions in 1975 about Vern.

She says they reported him to police after observing and then photographing Vern storing his drug shipments on the site of “the old unused McCarthy Bros milk yard at 30-32 Wallis Street in Woollahra”. The site is about two blocks from John Street, and is accessible via a laneway.

She said her parents understood NSW Police commenced surveilling Vern but he eventually “skipped town”. A relative of the woman working in the legal sector was told “surveillance had been dropped for 24 hours”, a variation on similar information I was also given, and which I’ve included in my book (see pp113-115). The relative blamed police corruption for the sudden disruption to the surveillance (more or less consistent with what I was told), even though the initial report to police was made through “straight” or trusted police who she knew from her lengthy career as a legal secretary.

A leading national current affairs program has contacted me since the ABC Radio National two-part documentary — Too Old To Run: the Drug Grannies — on The History Listen program was broadcast. They are keen to find out more from Vern’s friends — one of whom I interviewed for the documentary — as well as about the family he abandoned when he fled the country and betrayed his aunt. The extended interview I’ve posted as a podcast with Australian film, TV and stage actor Michael Caton offers further insights into Vern and how he built his drug empire before fleeing the country.

The other issue which ‘keeps on giving’ in this story is of course the mystery around the women’s complicity — if any — in the near two tonne-drug bust. They told me repeatedly — and their documents, diaries, letters and audio cassettes back this up — they never knew Vern’s actual intent when offering them the “trip of a lifetime” was that they undertake what was then to become Australia’s biggest ever drug importation.

A longtime German national and her German husband who settled in Australia in the late 1970s recently contacted me through an intermediary to tell me of their first, and then subsequent encounters with Toddie and Beezie while they were on the road from Stuttgart to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1977.

“The first time we met them was in Erzurum, south Turkey at a camping ground where they needed some help to fix their Mercedes motorhome,” she writes. “Since we had an identical motorhome, it was not such a problem for my husband to fix it. We got to know them a bit and asked them where they were going with such a big vehicle and not being so young anymore. One of them was on a walking stick.” (That was Toddie.)

“We advised them to stay at camping grounds only, or hotels or petrol stations for their safety, and not to do any ‘free’ camping … but they didn’t listen!” she says. “The next night we saw them camping on the side of the road.”

The German couple lost contact with Toddie and Beezie when they visited German friends in Tehran where they remained for several weeks … until they caught up again with the pair in Bombay.

“Our motorhomes were booked on the same vessel going to Australia,” the German woman recalls. “Later when we saw the front page of the Sunday newspapers in Australia months later with the picture of the two women, it suddenly made sense.”

It was at the Bookoccino Bookstore event at the Avalon Bowling Club in Sydney on 30 June that this information came to light, so I am now pursuing this chance discovery of two tourists who travelled part of the near-10,000km trip with the Drug Grannies to find out more about what they know, what they heard, what they saw, and what Toddie and Beezie told them around the campfire.

As I said, it’s a story which keeps on giving.

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