From an era of larger-than-life cops and crooks, John ‘Bopper’ Mooney will go down as one of the Hunter’s most colourful police officers.
Described as “old school” and “a top crime fighter”, Bopper Mooney spent his four-decade career working on some of the state’s most high profile cases and was linked with many famous and infamous names.
Jailed former detective Roger Rogerson, paedophile priest Vince Ryan, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant, Deputy Commissioner Jeff Loy and the Lees horse racing family all get a mention in the story of Bopper’s life – a life that ended when the 72-year-old suffered a heart attack at a Singleton pub last Saturday.
He was an old school copper who came from a family of coppers...Paul O'Sullivan, long-time friend of John 'Bopper' Mooney.
About 400 people including more than 100 serving and former police officers gathered at St Josephs church at The Junction on Thursday – where Mr Mooney married his wife Gale 46 years earlier – to celebrate the life of the retired Detective Sergeant.
“He was a great mate, an excellent police man who never, ever reached his true potential,” former colleague and close friend John Bourke said in his eulogy.
“Bopper, there’s many things you could say about him, but in my book he’s a legend.”
Those close to Bopper Mooney say he was a colourful and, at times, controversial character.
He once worked with notorious detective Roger Rogerson, who is now in jail serving a life sentence for murder.
Rogerson was one of the first to turn up to drinks at a Newcastle pub a few years ago, shortly after Bopper was diagnosed with cancer.
Mr Mooney was the subject of several internal investigations in the 1980s and 90s, none of which proved to have any foundation.
“He was an old school copper who came from a family of coppers and was challenged by some of the new rules and conventions,” his long-time mate, solicitor Paul O’Sullivan told the Newcastle Herald on Friday.
Mr Mooney joined the NSW Police force in 1963, following in the footsteps of his father Jack who was a Sergeant at Auburn in Sydney’s west.
Bopper rose through the ranks and relocated to the Hunter in 1980, where he remained there until he retired as a Detective Sergeant in 2003.
He received two clasps on his National Medal and was awarded the NSW Police Medal.
Mr Mooney was one of the first members of Newcastle’s regional crime squad when it was formed in the early 80s, which investigated serious offences including murders, frauds and sex crimes.
He also spent a brief period as a motorcycle officer.
“He had the spit-polished boots, the starched sleeves and looked absolutely fabulous – he would tell us how good he looked and how he even got distracted by his own reflection in shop windows,” his nephew Glen Hawke said this week.
“He didn’t last long in the police motorbike [squad] because there was one problem, he wasn’t very good at riding motorbikes.”
In his early days, Bopper Mooney was involved in the arrest of Arthur ‘Neddy’ Smith.
It resulted in the notorious Sydney underworld figure being sent to jail on a rape conviction.
Then, late on the night of September 19, 1979, Bopper was driving along King Street with a fraud squad detective from Sydney when they came across Newcastle’s now infamous Star Hotel riot in full swing.
"I think when the crowd turned on the firies and started pelting them with rocks while they were trying to put out the fires, [that] was the turning point,” he told veteran Herald reporter Greg Wendt in 2009.
"The firies put the hoses on them, soaking them, and eventually the cops managed to get the upper hand.”
In October 1995, Mr Mooney and a young Constable Troy Grant, who would later become NSW Police Minister, knocked on the door of the Catholic presbytery at Taree and arrested Vince Ryan. It led to what’s thought to be one of Australia’s first major paedophile priest cases in the Catholic Church.
Outside major crimes, Bopper Mooney rubbed shoulders with royalty, guarding Prince Charles and Princess Diana during their 1983 visit to Sydney, and was part of the Australian security team sent to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Mr Hawke said his uncle was considered the regional crime squad’s CEO – “chief entertainment officer”.
“Not only was he the region’s top crime fighter by day, but every visiting police man, whether from a neighbouring region, state or country, was wined and dined,” he said.
When he retired in the early 2000s, Mr Mooney took a job as Paul O’Sullivan’s driver.
They spent countless hours and kilometres on the road together over 12 years, travelling regional NSW to visit Mr O’Sullivan’s clients and go to court.
“He always, by my observation, wore the police man’s hat,” he said.
Mr O’Sullivan, one of three people who spoke at the funeral on Thursday, told the gathering about the time Bopper and his mate Jason drove to Tamworth to trade an old car for a camel.
On their way to the Singleton farm that would become the camel’s new home, two highway patrol officers approached the pair, who had the animal in a horse float.
The highway patrol officer asked Mr Mooney if he had a permit for transporting livestock.
“You don’t need one for a race horse,” Bopper told the officer.
“It looks like a camel,” the officer said.
“It’s an Arabian race horse,” Bopper replied, before the officers told them to be quickly on their way.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Jeff Loy was a young homicide detective when he worked with Bopper Mooney, by then an experienced investigator.
“He was a very firm and fair police officer and I’d describe him as a good copper, a good man and he was a good husband to Gale,” Mr Loy told the Herald.
“I’m not flash on the word ‘mentor’ but he was a mentor to a lot of young police.
“He solved many crimes. He was involved with many high profile offenders. He was a good, strong Detective Sergeant leader.”
Top Sydney barrister Clive Steirn, a former police officer, said he was a cadet with Mr Mooney.
“He was a fantastic bloke,” he said. “Not only was he a good police man but he was just good to have around. When you worked with him, you were always part of a team. It was a laugh a minute with him.”
But Bopper Mooney wasn’t just a cop – he and his brother Brian started Newcastle’s annual Variety Bash, which raises thousands of dollars for sick kids every year. The pair drove in 18 bashes in trusty car number 43.
While he was still in the force, he hit the books and earned a social studies degree from the University of Newcastle.
His greatest passion was for the sport of kings.
Aside from hours spent watching track work at Broadmeadow and his strong connection to Hunter trainers, the late Max Lees and his son Kris, horse racing contributed a significant piece of Bopper Mooney’s identity.
Those who knew Mr Mooney say he adopted his nickname as a disguise so he could be an expert radio tipster on 2HD on Saturday mornings – something police officers weren’t allowed to do.
Mr Hawke said he remembered being a child and hearing his uncle phone his tips through each week.
“Bopper here, best bets of the day coming to you from the Acapulco lounge,” a familiar voice would boom through the radio soon after.
Mr Hawke said Bopper was “always larger than life, he was a super hero to us”.
His sense of humour stayed strong to the end.
Mr Hawke said Mr Mooney recently made it known that he wanted James Murray Funeral Directors to organise his send off, when the time eventually came, so he could be taken away in a hearse with ‘JM’ licence plates.
Outside St Joseph’s church on Thursday, a couple of his old mates had a laugh about how the Bopper identity had become part of Mr Mooney’s life.
One of them dialled his mobile number and waited for the voicemail message to play: “Hi, you’ve rung John Mooney but if you’re after the Bopper he’s not available either, call back later.”