Life and crimes of a bank robber

THE car was moving slowly through Swansea when Kevin John Gallagher pointed out the police.

It’s difficult to tell on the recording whether he said ‘‘Look, police,’’ or simply grunted, but the observation was dispassionately delivered. No tension. No hype.

Chilling, really, given that Gallagher was about to storm a building society armed with an M1 carbine semi-automatic rifle known affectionately as ‘‘my baby’’.

It was an overcast morning on May 31, 1997. The police helicopter can be heard descending from the clouds above the stolen Ford Falcon while a crack team of specialist police surrounded the car.

‘‘Park there,’’ Gallagher ordered his driver and accomplice. He then said he’d go out and face the cops alone. After all, it was him they really wanted.

The police moved in, their leader yelled clear instructions and Gallagher and his accomplice, Karl Williams, were arrested without incident.

That exchange was captured by a listening device planted in the car.

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This recording captures the final few minutes of Kevin John Gallagher's most-recent stint as a free man before his arrest on May 31, 1997. In the recording you will hear Gallagher issue his final instructions to driver Karl Williams after Gallagher spots the police while the police helicopter hovers overhead.

He has since served 15 years of an 18-year sentence.

He might be approaching 60, but those who’ve dealt with Gallagher have no doubt that he is still a danger to society.

He headed a team of criminals who were dubbed the Big Nose Gang, which terrorised bank staff and others across the Hunter and Central Coast from 1995 to 1997.

Police initially struggled to identify who was in the gang, but they poured a wealth of resources into the investigation before identifying Gallagher, then building a case against him and prosecuting him.

But that’s not even half the story.

The Newcastle Herald can reveal for the first time some of the tactics police used to catch Gallagher and what went on behind the scenes at a number of trials before Gallagher was finally convicted.

Kevin John Gallagher lived in a modest housing commission unit in Watkins Street, Merewether, after he was released on parole in December 1993.

By then he had spent about 16 years behind bars for a shoot-out with police near the University of Newcastle in the late 1970s and the 1981 murder of a fellow inmate at Parramatta jail.

He had a girlfriend and a relatively new Ford Falcon with a car phone. He had a boat and access to a range of firearms but his partner and a child lived relatively harsh lives in the housing commission flat while Gallagher raked in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

He wasn’t a big bloke, only about five foot six inches in the old scale (1.67metres), but he was hyper-vigilant and a nightmare to keep an eye on. He could spot a cop a mile away and often confronted undercover teams parked in the street. He even lodged a formal complaint against police for harassment.

Despite the attention he knew he was attracting, Gallagher still went about his trade throughout 1996 and 1997. The Big Nose Gang, a group of about five, was so named after the scarf that was covering the face of one of Gallagher’s accomplices, drug addict Gary Clifford Hughes, slipped during the robbery of the Edgeworth branch of the Newcastle Permanent Building Society in October 1996 and exposed Hughes’s distinguishable nose.

Police believe several offenders took part in various jobs over an 18-month period that netted them about $900,000. Not a cent was recovered.

In the end, Gallagher was convicted of robbing Newcastle Permanent Building Society branches at Tuggerah and Mount Hutton and conspiring to rob the building society’s Swansea branch. Police suspect the gang was involved in another six.

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The gang first struck at the New Lambton branch of the Newcastle Permanent on September 16, 1995.

They then hit the National Australia Bank at Warners Bay on December 8, the Greater Building Society at New Lambton on January 25, 1996, the Commonwealth Bank at Edgeworth on March 29, the State Bank at Adamstown on May 20, the Greater Building Society at Warners Bay on October 8, the Newcastle Permanent at Edgeworth on October 17, the Newcastle Permanent at Mount Hutton on January 22, 1997, and the Newcastle Permanent at Tuggerah on May 8.

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Analysis of the bandits’ guns revealed that it was the same group committing the robberies, but security camera analysis of the bandits themselves indicated that a number of men were subbing in and out of the team.

Particularly disturbing was the modus operandi of one of the bandits – Gallagher. He’d terrorise the victims, screaming at them as he ordered them about. He’d stick his gun in their faces and could leap the counter with ease as he ran out to the back of the branch in search of the safe before leaving with bags full of cash. Footage of one job showed Gallagher struggling as he fled, such was the weight of cash in one of his bags.

Detectives, trying to figure out who was in the gang, initially drew up a list of suspects but it was slow going. It wasn’t until late 1996 that strike force detectives came up with an idea.

The release of the nicknames the Big Nose Bandit and the Big Nose Gang was a carefully choreographed tactic to get Newcastle’s crims talking and once it was splashed across the Herald’s pages the crooks couldn’t help themselves.

Information started to flow about who was in the gang, allowing police to cross out a number of suspects and focus their energy on Gallagher.

As one investigator noted: ‘‘It was a catchy little phrase that gave the crooks a big head and got them talking. In hindsight it was a watershed moment in the investigation and a lot of information flowed from that.’’

They tracked Gallagher, they watched him, they tapped his phones and they sought advice from prosecutors at the Newcastle office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Police had bits and pieces of evidence from each robbery and there was discussion about arresting Gallagher and preparing an enormous conspiracy case against him. But the advice from the DPP was simple: focus on the robberies with the most evidence and build a case around those.

That case eventually included an analysis of fibres that linked the homemade strap on Gallagher’s ‘‘baby’’ to a bag, missing a strip of material, that had been found during a search.

Police even compared paint from one of the getaway cars to paint chips and scratches left on a witness’s car when one of the robbers yanked open a door during a getaway.

‘‘It may seem like we went over the top with some of this stuff, but we had to,’’ one investigator said.

‘‘This was around the time of the Wood Royal Commission [into police corruption] and cops weren’t the flavour of the month.

‘‘We wanted to make sure that everything was above board, watertight.’’

In May 1997 the police were ready.

They were listening and watching as Gallagher prepared for his next job which was a toss-up between the Commonwealth Bank or the Newcastle Permanent at Swansea.

Police recorded conversations in which Gallagher discussed cutting bars over windows at the Commonwealth Bank so the gang could break in at night and lie in wait.

They visited the branches at night and drove around the buildings as part of their reconnaissance before deciding on the building society instead.

Then police got wind that a car had been stolen from the Tuggerah train station car park. Just about every on-duty copper in Newcastle was sent out to find that car, which was later found outside housing commission flats at Hamilton South.

Police then took the extraordinary step of stealing the car for several hours and replacing it with a similar make and model while technicians planted a listening device. They even wound back the odometer so Gallagher wouldn’t twig that the car had been taken. They then returned the car in the early hours of the morning.

Preparations for the arrest were just as exhaustive and expensive. The top brass had supported the lengths detectives went to throughout the investigation because they realised what a danger Gallagher posed running around Newcastle with a semi-automatic rifle he wasn’t afraid to use.

The investigation had already cost a fortune and no expense was spared on Gallagher’s arrest. The police chopper was commissioned, a specialist team of police was sent up from Sydney armed to the teeth and covered in armour while the armed hold-up squad was also fitted out with bullet-proof vests and assault rifles.

‘‘If we’d got a group of uniformed blokes to do it it would have been a blood bath,’’ an investigator said.

While the police lay in wait, Gallagher and Karl Williams drove from Newcastle to Swansea with the radio on and almost no conversation.

NX-FM played Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Man that morning before a couple of love songs and then Oasis’s Wonderwall before the car stopped.

‘‘Might have blown a fuse or something, cos’ nothing’s coming up,’’ Williams said before the car eventually came back to life.

Gallagher and Williams did numerous laps around the building society branch in the car including stops so one of them could get out and check the scene.

The listening device recorded conversations about which bag they would take inside and there are the distinct sounds of guns being loaded and racked, ready to fire.

‘‘Once we knew the guns were in the car ... that was the signal that we were good to go [for the arrest],’’ one officer said.

‘‘We had two blokes in Sydney listening in and once they heard the click-click of the shottie being racked up, that was it.’’

Then, in those final moments of freedom, Gallagher calmly pointed out the police.

‘‘Go up to the supermarket and park in front of the supermarket,’’ he said.

‘‘Bi-Lo or Coles?’’ Williams asked.

‘‘Keep going, keep going ... there. I’ll get out and walk over there.’’

‘‘RAISE YOUR HANDS UP. KEEP YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD.’’

They were the last words Kevin Gallagher heard as a free man.

As well as Gallagher’s ‘‘baby’’, the M1 carbine rifle, police found a Winchester 1200 pump-action shotgun in the car loaded and ready to fire as well as balaclavas, gloves and a knife.

Then came the court case.

Gallagher did everything in his power to avoid conviction and many people endured many sleepless nights trying to ensure that justice was done.

Court security was on high alert, the judge was given a police escort home and people linked to the case discussed plans with their families about moving if they were threatened.

Gallagher didn’t disappoint.

He was an incredibly dangerous man without limits and he commanded a team of thugs he could call on to do just about anything.

The first trial, at Newcastle, was aborted on the eve of the jury beginning its deliberations after about two months of evidence.

Police and prosecutors received intelligence reports throughout the trial that Gallagher was trying to organise something.

He was asking questions, Corrective Services reported, and people linked to the case were warned about maintaining security at their homes.

Gallagher testified at the trial to try and explain away evidence such as his fingerprints on tape used to wrap up a cylinder that contained firearms and was found buried in one of his associate’s backyards.

He provided a theory about how he’d used the tape or the covering to cover his boat, or something similar.

He was then shown a document.

The document, in Gallagher’s neat handwriting, was a crib sheet on how to rob some of Newcastle’s banks and it was found during a random search of his cell in Long Bay Jail after his arrest.

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The sheet contained a star rating system, comments on security and what days were best to hit the targets as well as a map of Adamstown with arrows pointing to the State and Commonwealth banks.

The star rating system was over three levels – ‘‘joke, easy, hard’’.

Newcastle Permanent Building Society branches at Edgeworth, New Lambton and Swansea were rated as jokes while Mount Hutton was the only hard target on the sheet.

He included notes on ‘‘anti-bandit screens’’, ‘‘time delay locks’’ and hitting the banks on Wednesdays and Thursdays when they would be ‘‘choc ablock full’’.

The sheet also provided estimates on how much money was in each branch from $90,000 at Swansea to $200,000 to $250,000 at Mount Hutton. (Gallagher and Hughes took $188,000 when they robbed the Mount Hutton branch in January 1997.)

While Gallagher was being cross-examined about this document there was a disturbance in the public gallery. A woman appeared to be suffering a fit and everyone in the courtroom was on high alert. The judge fled to his chambers while Corrective Services officers grabbed Gallagher and dragged him downstairs.

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The guards couldn’t figure out why Gallagher repeatedly flushed the toilet in his cell while they waited to return to the courtroom. Only when Gallagher was returned to the witness box and the Crown prosecutor asked to resume his cross-examination were inquiries made about the whereabouts of the crib sheet document.

The Crown prosecutor didn’t have it, he told the court, and it certainly wasn’t in the witness box any more.

Just when they thought a crucial piece of evidence had gone missing, the Crown’s instructing solicitor produced a photocopy. It was the only copy and it had been made the prior evening.

The cross-examination continued and the evidence in the trial came to a close.

The lawyers and judge were in the process of summing up and providing final directions to the jury when one of the jurors reported a death threat.

She was a young woman from Raymond Terrace who had obviously been followed home from the courthouse. She had found a note stuck on the windscreen of her car saying: ‘‘Plead not guilty in the Gallagher trial bitch or you are dead.’’

Despite the threat, the juror appeared relatively unperturbed, but there was no way the trial could proceed and it was aborted.

Both the police and prosecutors believe they know who delivered the threat for Gallagher. They had received information about the suspect during the trial including reports that he had made inquiries about a number of jurors and that he had access to a gun.

They’d also heard that the suspect was planning what police call a ‘‘run-in’’ – a crude home invasion where threats are made before the perpetrator flees. But there was never enough evidence to charge him.

The trial was moved to the secure courtrooms on the lower ground level of Sydney’s Downing Centre. Even with Gallagher and the public gallery behind various layers of perspex and the jury discreetly ushered in and out of the building through various entries and exits, there were still security concerns.

A couple of shady characters in particular sat themselves in the public gallery at one stage during the second trial and appeared to be communicating with Gallagher from afar. When it was brought to the attention of police, two senior officers went in search of the two observers. The observers weren’t found and they weren’t seen again.

The trial itself progressed as planned. It was a largely circumstantial case against Gallagher, but it was a compelling one.

Despite the prosecution’s confidence, a juror later attended Gallagher’s sentencing and volunteered to one observer that they still had a nagging doubt about Gallagher’s guilt – until Gallagher opened his mouth to testify.

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Gallagher might have been a crook since he was 13 and suffered a horrific childhood at the hands of a ‘‘fiery Irish bastard’’ of a father, but he could talk the talk in court.

In the witness box he revealed how calculating and capable he was as well as regularly using police or legal jargon that the average citizen wouldn’t use. Even when he was sentenced he delivered a tirade not befitting a career criminal. Below is an edited version.

‘‘I’m not going to stand here and insult your intelligence,’’ he told the judge. ‘‘You do what you do and I do what I do and that is the bottom line.

‘‘I expect nothing and I dare say that will be the case at the end of the day, but as Mr King [his barrister] has indicated, prison has been my life and my thoughts are as his and your normal and my normal – what the hell is normal?

‘‘And rehabilitation is a joke. There is no such thing. It’s a system of bastardisation and you get psychological scars from it every which way you can imagine and my behaviour, my lifestyle was nothing new in that as you have seen in your years on the bench.

‘‘So I’m not going to stand here and insult your intelligence ... I can’t equate normal as to the normal you know and my normal. I know what my normal is.’’

Judge: ‘‘What I’m concerned about is you must have reflected on your life while you were in prison?’’

Gallagher: ‘‘I did a course in psychology and a lot of what is going and I have done many courses.

‘‘They are not applicable. All they do is maintain your sanity in that madhouse and the vast majority of my time during my life sentence was done in solitary confinement, in the cage which is condemned by Royal Commission inquiries.

‘‘That is my normal, walking up and down in a cage and year-in and year-out living inside my mind.

‘‘I get out of there and you want normal behaviour? It may be a good PR exercise for the system to promote that as an alternative for the prisoners but it is not.

‘‘You created your monsters and the little monsters get out, so to speak. And compassion, what is that?

‘‘I know what that is by definition and the definition in the dictionary. Do I feel guilt?

‘‘If you want a conscience you won’t get one from me because I don’t know what it is. I don’t.

‘‘These things have never been infused into me ... I am not going to stand here and project myself in an extremely positive way. I won’t do that.

‘‘I would equate it to going to Vietnam. You fight the fight, you come back here and in a 24-hour period they say ‘be normal’ and you are totally disorientated from being normal and same in the prison environment.

‘‘You want me to walk out at 60, years later. I would sooner f---ing die.

‘‘I won’t walk out 60 years later and you talk about quality of life. No. So at the end of the day your sentence will indicate your fear of me going back on the street and that is how I equate that the longer the sentencing the more society fears me and basically I am not quite all right.

‘‘That is your answer and it has always been your answer.’’

He went on.

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Gallagher has been tucked away ever since and failed at his first attempt at parole last year. His current application has been adjourned to July.

He has spent almost 40 of his 58 years behind bars after first coming to the attention of police as a 13-year-old.

He received his first long stint behind bars at 23 when a robbery near the University of Newcastle went wrong and he was arrested after a shoot-out with police.

It was while he was serving that sentence that he killed fellow inmate Edward James Lloyd in Parramatta prison by stabbing him 23 times and bashing him about the head with a metal pole.

Gallagher always maintained his innocence, claiming that another prisoner with the same surname, Arthur Gallagher, was responsible.

He somehow convinced Arthur Gallagher to confess and make a statement to one of Kevin Gallagher’s legal representatives before testifying in the Court of Criminal Appeal.

This is what one of the appeal judges had to say about Arthur Gallagher’s testimony: ‘‘I have the distinct and clear impression that so far from trying to promote the cause of the true administration of justice the witness is seeking to pervert that course in the hope of inducing this court to quash the appellant’s conviction.’’

The High Court had no hesitation in dismissing the appeal.

There was a judicial inquiry on top of that, but Gallagher was released on parole in 1993 regardless after serving 12 years of what was meant to be a life sentence.

He found himself a girlfriend and Gallagher told the judge at his sentencing in 1999 that he led a ‘‘normal’’ life most of the time.

‘‘I have tasted normal,’’ he said. ‘‘I know what normal is.

‘‘My life doesn’t revolve around crime or criminality 24 hours a day, week-in week-out. I am prone to falling, but it doesn’t revolve around that and yes I do know what a normal lifestyle is.

‘‘I go on picnics, I interact with family. I have friends beyond criminals that I associate with and I don’t even bring my past into play.’’

Picnics aside, Gallagher was a full-time criminal and a potentially lethal menace.

He’d fired on police as a young man, he’d killed an inmate and he terrorised bank tellers, managers and bystanders during the robberies.

Judge Barrie Kitchington, when sentencing Gallagher in 1999 for the Mount Hutton and Tuggerah robberies, noted the psychological damage Gallagher inflicted on the victims and witnesses.

‘‘The trauma that you subjected the staff and the members of the public ... is of the highest kind imaginable,’’ Judge Kitchington said.

Gallagher received two sentences of 18 years for the two robberies as well as 10 years for the conspiracy to rob the Swansea branch.

Karl Williams received a six-year sentence and is believed to be still living in the Newcastle area.

Gary Hughes was jailed for 12 years for the Mount Hutton job before he got out and set up a drug-dealing network in the Swansea area. Nine people were arrested in 2009.

Hughes is now serving another 10 years.

Those who dealt with the Big Nose Gang reckon Williams was just a ‘‘dumb shit’’ while Hughes ‘‘wasn’t a bad bloke to deal with in the end’’.

They can even muster kind words about some of Gallagher’s family.

But as for Gallagher himself:

‘‘He’s a sociopath,’’ said another.

‘‘He could stab you in the heart and look you in the eye as you fell to your death. I wouldn’t put anything past him – anything.’’

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