In Melbourne this week (July 11), Jason Roberts, now 41, was acquitted on appeal of the 1998 murders of police officers Gary Silk and Rodney Miller, having insisted from the moment of his arrest that he was not at the scene and had played no part in the lethal ambush. An up and coming armed robber at the time of his arrest, he swore his connection was peripheral: he was the teenage apprentice of career criminal and double murderer Bandali Debs, whose daughter was his girlfriend at the time.
Debs testified that Roberts was with him, but also admitted, as the ABC noted in reporting the appeal’s success, how “the Supreme Court heard that after Mr Roberts was granted a retrial, Debs contacted the Homicide Squad and, in exchange for testifying against Mr Roberts, asked them for immunity, a parole date and a way to get back home to Victoria.”
That, however, was but one factor in Roberts’ belated acquittal.
Of greater importance were revelations of improper practices on the part of Victoria Police, not least the alteration, amendment and substitution of witness statements. In this instance, as the Independent Broadbased Anti-Corruption Commission concluded, a statement reporting Officer Miller’s alleged dying words that a gunman — not gunmen, plural — was responsible had been re-written ten months later.
Intriguingly, one of the most senior VicPol detectives involved in the Silk-Miller investigation was Detective Inspector Paul Sheridan.
Is that name familiar? If so, chances are you followed the persecution of Cardinal George Pell and recognise him from that travesty of policing and justice. Now read on as Frank Brennan picks over those IBAC transcripts. — rf
IN JULY 2020, the Independent Broadbased Anti-Corruption Commission of Victoria (IBAC ) published its report on Operation Gloucester: An investigation into improper evidentiary and disclosure practices in relation to the Victoria Police investigation of the murders of Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rodney Miller.
The Lorimer Taskforce was established by Victoria Police in August 1998 to undertake the investigation of the murders of Victoria Police officers, Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rodney Miller. The investigation was known as Operation Lorimer. Bandali Debs and Jason Roberts were found guilty of these murders in 2002. The Lorimer Taskforce comprised officers from the Homicide Squad, the Armed Robbery Squad and other specialist areas of Victoria Police.
Detective Inspector Paul Sheridan, an inspector of the Homicide Squad, was seconded to the Lorimer Taskforce and had overall management responsibility for it. Sheridan told IBAC:
I have been a member of Victoria Police since 1975. I became a Detective Senior Constable in the Homicide Squad in 1980. I have been a member of the Homicide Squad at every level for approximately 15 years. I have been a commissioned officer for over 25 years. I have been involved in countless homicide investigations. I have reported corruption and malpractice in the past. I have charged police officers with criminal offences, resulting in their termination as police officers. I have prided myself on maintaining the highest standards of policing at all levels.
IBAC reported (emphasis added):
Graeme Collins and Paul Sheridan were, respectively, the detective senior sergeant and detective inspector of the Lorimer Taskforce. Both were ultimately responsible for the brief against Mr Debs and Mr Roberts. According to Mr Collins, he and Mr Sheridan became aware of the practice of excluding descriptions from witness statements when examining the initial statements taken from witnesses to the robberies investigated under Operations Hamada and Pigout. Mr Collins’ diary entries confirm this. Mr Sheridan was not prepared to concede he was aware such a practice was used in the Armed Robbery Squad and disputed that it was followed by members of the Homicide Squad.
Mr Collins testified he and Mr Sheridan were concerned that the witnesses’ descriptions had not been recorded in the witnesses’ initial statement, but were recorded elsewhere. Mr Collins thought it probable they both considered what steps Victoria Police might take to address the practice but were too preoccupied with putting the brief together to follow this up. Mr Collins was not aware of any formal or informal direction from Victoria Police Command that such a practice was and is unacceptable.
Mr Sheridan properly conceded, the very process of creating replacement statements which do not disclose the existence of any earlier statements has the potential to pervert the course of justice. It is an improper statement taking procedure.
As senior officers, Mr Sheridan and Mr Collins would have appreciated that the absence of any reference to the parts of Senior Constable Miller’s dying declarations concerning the number and description of the offenders from the original statements by some first responders was a glaring omission.
Notwithstanding evidence to the contrary from Mr Collins, Mr Sheridan denied that he was aware of, or discussed concerns with, Mr Collins as to the practice that had been followed by Armed Robbery Squad investigators of omitting descriptions of offenders from the statements of eye witnesses in Operations Hamada and Pigout.
Mr Sheridan acknowledged he was involved in discussions regarding the enhancement of statements by first responders who had witnessed Senior Constable Miller’s dying declarations. He also said he read every statement on the brief. Mr Sheridan acknowledged in his evidence that he ‘would have thought’ he would have become aware if Mr Buchhorn was correcting statements by replacing them. Despite that acknowledgement, Mr Sheridan otherwise denied that he was aware that Mr Buchhorn was not keeping the original statements. He said he relied upon his sergeants and senior sergeants to manage the Taskforce and report any issues and concerns they had.
Based on the totality of the evidence, it is likely that both Mr Collins and Mr Sheridan were aware that Mr Buchhorn was amending the content of original signed statements by the first responders who witnessed the dying declarations of Senior Constable Miller, and did so by creating a replacement statement rather than a supplementary statement.
The replacement statement then became the witness’s statement on the brief. Mr Collins’s evidence at the committal hearing of Mr Roberts that there were no signed or unsigned statements which had not formed part of the brief or disclosure materials was incorrect.’
IBAC further reported:
According to Mr Collins, and his diary confirmed this, he and Mr Sheridan became aware of the practice of excluding descriptions from witnesses’ initial statements. Mr Sheridan was not, however, prepared to concede, in his evidence or by way of his response to the draft Operation Gloucester findings provided to him, that this practice was obvious from the fact that multiple supplementary statements were obtained which set out a description of the armed robbers which the witness said had been supplied at the time the initial statement was taken. Mr Sheridan’s claim that he did not know of this practice was further contradicted by Mr Collins’ admission that he and Mr Sheridan were concerned about the practice of investigators having failed to record the descriptions by the witnesses in the witnesses’ initial statements.
IBAC reached a damning conclusion about Sheridan, who was obviously much forthcoming with IBAC than his colleague Collins:
The conclusion is inescapable that Mr Sheridan was aware of the content of the prosecution brief. He testified that he read every statement on the brief. Contrary to his response to the draft of this report, the misconduct of Mr Buchhorn was not concealed. IBAC does not accept the contention raised in his evidence and written response that he could not have been aware of the method which Mr Buchhorn employed.
The task of Mr Buchhorn seeking additional information from the responders was undertaken with Mr Sheridan’s knowledge and support. The method Mr Buchhorn employed of adding the new parts to the responder’s statements was evident from the statements which Mr Sheridan read and which were the only statements on the brief of evidence from those responders.
Mr Sheridan would have seen that the new statement now contained the information that he knew was missing from the original statement. Mr Sheridan at one point in his evidence did acknowledge that if Mr Buchhorn was correcting statements by replacing them, he thought he would have become aware of that fact. IBAC agrees.
How Sheridan could hold his head high again in light of this conclusion by IBAC is mystifying:
Having regard to the seriousness of the conclusion being reached, IBAC is satisfied that it is likely that both Mr Sheridan and Mr Collins were aware that replacement statements, purporting to be original statements, then became witness statements on the brief. Mr Collins’s evidence at the committal hearing of Mr Roberts that there were no signed or unsigned statements which had not formed part of the brief or disclosure materials was incorrect. The conduct of both constituted a failure in leadership.
As ever IBAC gave Sheridan the opportunity to respond to its draft report. That self-serving response is published and concludes:
Mr Sheridan says he emphatically denied in evidence that such practices are common practices within Victoria Police, within the Homicide Squad or within the (former) Lorimer Taskforce. Mr Sheridan says he seriously doubts such practices were taught at the Victoria Police Academy, but to the extent that they may have been, they too are an aberration and would never have been part of any formal syllabus. Mr Sheridan says to the extent that these practices occurred within the Lorimer Taskforce, they were an aberration carried out by a small number of individual police officers. He says he does not suggest that the fact that they were an aberration is relevant to the assessment of the seriousness of the matter, or the need to take action to prevent these practices from occurring again – but is relevant to broader conclusions and comments that are made about the operation and functioning of the Lorimer Taskforce and its leadership.
Mr Sheridan says his evidence before Operation Gloucester was that the culture at the Homicide Squad, at all times, was one of attention to detail and a ‘warts and all’ approach to investigation, the collection of evidence and disclosure to prosecution and defence.
ANYONE reading this IBAC report could fairly ask why would someone like Sheridan be handpicked by Graham Ashton to accompany Shane Patton to Rome to interview Cardinal Pell about allegations of child sexual abuse? Why not send someone like Collins instead – at least he was more forthcoming in owning up to the shortcomings in Operation Lorimer? Sheridan may well have had an eye of detail, taking a ‘warts and all’ approach to investigation. But by the time he got to running Operation Lorimer in 1998, he had added other capacities to his armoury of investigation.
And to think that in the five years prior to his Roman trip, Sheridan had been entrusted with another aspect of VicPol’s novel policing techniques. Between 2010 and 2015, he was the Detective Superintendent in charge of the Covert Services Division, which included the Source Development Unit until its closure in 2013. He was involved in discussions about managing Ms Gobbo as a witness in relation to Mr Paul Dale.
On November 7, 2011, Mr Sheridan provided a document outlining Ms Gobbo’s role as a human source to Mr Ashton with a cover note stating: ‘Exposure of Witness F activities within Victoria Police as contained within this summary will have significant impact upon Victoria Police operations, past and present’.
By this stage, Sheridan was much more than an efficient Homicide Squad investigator. He was in the heart of the beast, strategizing how VicPol might navigate difficult new waters.
At the Lawyer X royal commission, more details came to light about the policing techniques of Sheridan in relation to criminal proceedings against reputed gangland figure Zlate Cvetanovski.
The royal commission reported in November 2020:
At Mr Cvetanovski’s first trial, his counsel told the judge that he proposed to ask Mr Cooper as a witness whether he and Ms Gobbo collaborated to secure him a favourable sentence. The prosecutor, Mr John Champion, SC, sought leave to seek instructions from police about this and met with Purana Taskforce officers, Detective Senior Constable Craig Hayes (the informant) and Mr Flynn, along with SDU officer Mr Pearce (a pseudonym), to ascertain the facts.
Mr Pearce emailed his superior, then Inspector John O’Connor with an update from the meeting, indicating that they discussed assertions by the defence that:
♦ Ms Gobbo and Mr Cooper collaborated on statements made by him to get a lesser sentence
♦ Mr Cooper was aware that Ms Gobbo was cooperating with police.
The email also said that Mr Champion expected the defence to paint a picture of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by Victoria Police, and that, if this occurred, the options were to “ask Cooper, ask Flynn or call Gobbo”. Mr O’Connor forwarded this email to then Superintendent Paul Sheridan “for discussion”. It appears the two met later that day regarding Ms Gobbo and the court matter where she may be called. The issue was not raised again in either of Mr Cvetanosvki’s trials, and police did not disclose relevant information to the defence, DPP or court.’
Counsel Assisting suggested that the defence assertion was close to the truth and should have prompted disclosure of Ms Gobbo’s true role, at least to the DPP.
As he did with IBAC, Sheridan provided the royal commission with a responsive statement saying that he was ‘not involved in nor responsible for Mr Cvetanovski’s prosecution or disclosure issues. Mr Sheridan added that at the time he knew little about Ms Gobbo’s informing.’
Here is the finding of the royal commission:
The Commission has considered these responsive submissions and the available evidence and considers that Mr O’Connor and Mr Sheridan seek to abrogate the responsibility that goes with their senior positions. Concerns were escalated to them and had they made enquiries they would have found issues of substance going to the fairness of Mr Cvetanovski’s trial and perhaps other trials. As senior officers, they had a duty to investigate these issues or at least refer them up the chain of command to satisfy themselves that Victoria Police’s disclosure obligations were met; they should have at least informed Mr Champion of all relevant facts. The submissions of Mr Flynn, Mr Hayes, Mr Pearce and Mr Richards have merit, but ultimately the Commission is persuaded that all officers were experienced, intelligent investigators who should have understood the criminal justice system and their disclosure obligations.
The Commission finds that officers Mr Flynn, Mr O’Connor, Mr Hayes, Mr Sheridan, Mr Pearce and Mr Richards should have:
♦ ensured that Ms Gobbo and Victoria Police’s conduct in relation to Mr Cooper’s decision to assist police was disclosed to the prosecutor in Mr Cvetanovski’s trial; or
♦ ensured that the relevant conduct was otherwise disclosed to the court so that a claim of PII could have been heard and determined.
♦ The Court of Appeal decision in Cvetanovksi v The Queen and the concessions made by the prosecution highlights further disclosure failures by Victoria Police and its officers.
By October 2016, Sheridan had quite a deal of form.
It may be sheer coincidence of course, and I may be doing Sheridan a wrong, but in the light of IBAC’s findings many might see him as just the sort of operative best suited to re-jig a police investigation from one posited on an internal procession to one posited on an external procession. This is precisely the way in which the case against Cardinal George Pell was reformulated.
One thing is certain, Mr Sheridan would not be looking forward to a third judicial inquiry highlighting the capacity of him and his underlings to substitute material evidence and to doctor police investigations without making due disclosure to the prosecution, let alone the defence. He may well have been handpicked to nail the killers of Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rodney Miller. So too he may have been handpicked to assist with getting Pell charged. In the former operation, he or his underlings took short cuts of which he should have been aware. I reserve my judgment on his behaviour in the Pell operation. But I would advise caution!
Postscript: On the acquittal of Jason Roberts, ex-commissioner Comrie was quick out of the blocks, issuing this statement:
My absolute confidence in the Lorimer Task Force under the leadership of Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan has never wavered. Their dedication and professionalism in solving these abominable crimes was outstanding. Today’s jury decision does not in any way reduce my respect and confidence in the work of these highly professional investigators.
Perhaps Mr Comrie has not had time to read the relevant IBAC and Royal Commission reports.
Frank Brennan SJ is the author of Observations on the Pell Proceedings