On the afternoon of Sunday March 22, 2009, a group of blinged, buffed and tattooed outlaw bikers stepped off QF430 from Melbourne to Sydney.
“Come on boys, let’s go,” one shouted.
What followed was what a witness described as “a rolling ball of mayhem”, as bikers from the Hells Angels and Comancheros brawled their way through the airport.
Families dived for cover.
The stainless steel bollards used to corral travellers became weapons, wielded with ferocity and deadly accuracy.
Bikers were battered. One young man, Anthony Zervas, died.
What should have been one of the safest places in the nation became a battlefield.
The safety of the public was utterly disregarded by these thugs.
Bombings and toy runs
In the lead up to the melee, the image of outlaw bikers as rogues who may have gotten into a bit of strife but overall weren’t too bad, was tarnishing.
Goodwill from toy runs for children’s charities was overwhelmed by drive-by shootings, beatings, and exposure of their deep involvement in drug and weapons trafficking.
In February 2009, Sydney’s inner west was turned into a war zone when a bomb exploded outside the Hells Angels clubhouse on Crystal Street, Petersham.
It was just plain luck that no one was killed or injured by the flying glass or masonry.
The airport attack a few weeks later was the last straw – the bikers had made themselves public enemy number one.
Enter the biker’s nemesis, the aptly named Strike Force Raptor.
In the decade it’s been operating in New South Wales, Raptor has had a major impact on policing the outlaw gangs, and on the gang’s themselves.
Strike Force Raptor
Detective Chief Inspector David Adney heads Raptor. He spoke exclusively to 7NEWS.com.au.
“Raptor is a high-profile, high impact proactive unit. From the outset, we sent a clear message to the outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs) – their violence, particularly in public on the streets, and threats were not going to be tolerated. Public safety is paramount.”
“Our task was supported by the Government through a range of legislation introduced after consultation with us. Raptor got the tools it needed like anti-consorting laws and firearms prohibition orders to succeed.”
Raptor’s approach was creative and diverse – from major crime arrests to disrupting biker enterprises like illegally selling alcohol and running unlawful raffles.
Police built Raptor as a brand to be recognised and marketed.
An intriguing find
One early discovery was the prevalence of steroids within the gangs.
It presented an opportunity for intelligence gathering and a creative approach to policing.
“In 2010/2011 in almost every search we carried out we found steroids,” Adney said.
“These use import and distribution logistics common to other illicit drugs and are popular with MMA fighters – a sport involving plenty of outlaw bikers and their associates.”
“Back then, the penalty for steroid possession or trafficking was quite light compared to other drugs. We worked with the Government to change the legislation.
“They were supportive and the penalties are now more substantial.”
Divide and conquer
A disturbing fact of outlaw biker gangs is violent events promote rather than discourage membership.
It gives a glimpse into the minds of aspiring bikers.
Dampening enthusiasm for joining, and sowing discord in the membership, was part of Raptor’s strategy.
“Previously they’d ridden around in their colours or gathered in clubhouses with impunity – that’s stopped,” Adney said.
“We want them to weigh up their options – is it really worth staying on as part of the gang?”
“We’ve closed down their clubhouses and arrested, charged and convicted thousands of OMCG members and their associates.”
“Raptor uses ‘consequence-based policing’ with the gang members. Their actions bring intense police focus on the whole gang, not just the individual. It forces the gang to regulate the actions of their members.”
Communication is key
One superiority OMCGs had over police at the close of the 20th century was their reach both nationally and internationally.
They could readily cross borders – police had jurisdictional issues.
That’s changed in the last decade.
“Crime doesn’t just stop at borders,” Adney told 7NEWS.com.au.
“Raptor works with police forces throughout Australia and internationally, sharing intelligence, joint operations and methods. It’s what must be done to be effective against organizations with the reach of OMCGs.”
A national problem
Task Force Morpheus is the national anti-biker task force.
It’s made up of law enforcement organisations from around Australia and targets high-risk OMCG’s.
Morpheus reports that between 2015 and 2018, over 7,500 OMCG members, nominees and associates were arrested and over 18,000 charges laid.
Immigration powers are also in play. Bikers convicted of crimes and aren’t Australian citizens can be deported.
Alex Vella, the driving force behind the Rebels local and global expansion, was denied re-entry into Australia after and overseas trip.
Bikers behind bars
Raptor’s reach extends to prisons.
“We share criminal intelligence with Corrective Services,” Adney said.
“The traditional outlaw bike gang…doesn’t exist today”
“It can be critical in making sure that brewing OMCG troubles outside don’t flow into prisons. One fast result is by moving prisoners from rival gangs to other prisons thus reducing the chance of flashpoints.”
“Raptor is also notified of gang members leaving prison. We keep in contact with them to deter reconnecting with their gang.”
A decade is a long time
One measurement of Raptor’s success in its first decade of operation is the reduction of OMCG homicides and violent attacks, particularly in public.
The gangs have also changed.
“The traditional outlaw bike gang – a band of brothers – doesn’t exist today,” Adney told 7NEWS.com.au.
“A few older members stick to the traditions but they’re a minority. Today’s gangs are organized crime entities using the facade of an OMCG and we treat them as such.”