In recent weeks, I’ve participated in two writers festivals — one a true crime-specific event on the beautiful south coast of New South Wales, and the other in the nation’s capital with the revival of the Canberra Writers Festival which had been laid low in recent years as a result of COVID. The True Crime in the Vines audience was there for three authors (only two could attend in the end) — and the fine wine — and I could tell they clearly love the genre, and are keenly committed to forensically discovering as much as they can about the key characters in every book they read. They’re almost crime sleuths in a sense, and I so enjoyed their questions and the weekend’s conversations. The latter event in the Australian capital was a panel discussion dubbed Catch Me If You Can, staged in the Museum of Australian Democracy (in Old Parliament House). Award-winning authors Shelley Burr (Wake; Hachette Australia ISBN 9780733647826) and Jack Heath (10 Minutes of Danger; Scholastic Australia ISBN 9781760978792) were impressive fellow panellists, while moderator Tim Ayliffe (The Enemy Within; Simon and Schuster Australia ISBN 9780369377425) deftly moved through questions and answers over the hour which addressed the various challenges in both fiction and non-fiction crime writing. Again, the full house audience had some excellent questions, and many followed up with more queries at the authors’ book-signing tables.
You will recall I have previously blogged (1 July) about readers’ messages and letters in which I have been provided with tidbits of information about Toddie and Beezie, about drug kingpins Philip Shine, Mr X and Vern Todd, and about suspected corruption within the ranks of the New South Wales Police Force in the late 1970s.
One eMail I received resulted in a long follow-up telephone conversation with a German-born woman, now a longtime resident of Australia, who not only travelled the same route as the Drug Grannies across Europe and Asia with her then-husband and two children, but interacted with Toddie and Beezie on several occasions … and get this: the German family also shipped their camper van on the Straat Luanda on the same voyage as the Drug Grannies from Bombay (Mumbai) to Australia! In fact, Federal Bureau of Narcotics intelligence analysts in 1977 at first suspected the second campervan — also a 26-foot long Mercedes-Benz diesel powered vehicle — was potentially a decoy for the ‘motherlode’, the van into which Vern Todd had arranged to pack 1.9 tonnes of Afghan hashish, hoping for a payday down under of anywhere between $12m and $19m. Needless to say, I continue to keep in touch with this contact who is reading Betrayed with keen interest.
Another piece of information which has come to me since the release of the book, the broadcast of the two-part ABC Radio National documentary Too Old To Run: the Drug Grannies, and all of the interviews and media coverage, is the location of one of the two surviving drug kingpins. I am carefully wending my way through layers of sensitivity in an effort to find out more about his activities over the last 40 years. Watch this space!
You may wonder why I am pursuing this angle. I can only plead “guilty” to still having some of the old journalist’s instincts in me, to the extent I want to know more about this story. My book comprehensively tells readers the story from the perspective of the Drug Grannies. As much as I tried to get input from Vern Todd’s family — in Australia and the USA — over the last 40 years, and to track down his two associates — Mr X and Philip Shine — I have either been met with a refusal to engage, or have been unable to sufficiently track people down to the point of securing a current phone number or address.
There is another side to this story: those involved in setting up Vera Hays and Florice Bessire know a lot more than I do about the planning, preparations, the overland journey in Europe, Asia and Australia, the narcotics officers’ cat-and-mouse chase, and finally Vern Todd’s escape from apprehension. I’d like to offer those involved in this historical drug crime an opportunity to tell their side of the story.
Finally, I’m excited to tell you Hachette Australia has entered BETRAYED into the 2022 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism, and specifically in the Longform Journalism — Book Award category. The Walkeys have a long and proud tradition in Australian journalism and I’m honoured to have BETRAYED included in this year’s entries. I’ll know by 3 November whether it has made the shortlist.