The people of Wangaratta might have been excused for thinking a bad element had come to town after a series of bizarre events. But the bad element was home-grown.
THERE was something weird going on in Wangaratta.
You could hardly class one of the fastest growing towns in Victoria as small any more, but it’s a place where everyone still knows everyone.
So people noticed a series of bizarre events in 2012 including gangster-style violence that was occurring at an alarming rate.
It was the sort of violence usually reserved for the 6pm news where folks with warm dinner plates on their laps could shake their heads and think this is why they didn’t live in Melbourne or, God forbid, Shepparton, where that kind of crime had been occurring for years.
In the space of four months, a young butcher was shot at his home in a busy residential street, two homes were firebombed as children slept inside and cars were set alight.
Even then, it was easy to dismiss; they were the acts of the town’s “ferals”, or in cop-speak, it was “shit versus shit”.
But what was bubbling underneath the surface was a poisonous web that had ensnared the children of some of the town’s most respected families.
What was happening in Wangaratta is an example of what methamphetamine, colloquially known as ice, is doing to young people in rural towns across the country.
You can be anonymous in a big city, but country people know when their sons and daughters are in trouble.
“There has always been cannabis in regional Victoria and there wasn’t much heroin, but because ice is so easy to manufacture it’s the first time there’s been a significantly harmful illegal drug that’s gone right across regional and rural areas and it’s gone across in a very rapid timeframe,” said John Ryan, the chief executive of drug policy group Penington Institute.
“Ice is being used by people who are not in work and already vulnerable; it’s being used by white-collar people as well as tradies. It’s incredibly pervasive.”
It all started with Aaron Shane Dalton. The eldest son of an abattoir manager and aged care worker, Dalton was born and bred in Wangaratta, part of a respectable family with strong roots in the area.
His grandfather was a country bookie in the 40s and 50s and was good enough to earn a living trackside, while his younger brother, Joshua Dalton, 27, also had a nose for business and started his own plastering company when he was barely in his 20s.
His father, Shane Dalton, told the Melbourne County Court on Wednesday his son was restless at school, but hoped he would “grow out of it”.
He also probably hoped Aaron would develop his own business nous, just not in the way he did.
His parents thought their son had settled when, at 18, he ditched the marijuana he had been smoking from his mid-teens and got back on the road bike after some success as a junior.
“His father would drive him to the moon and back for them to engage in cycling,” Defence barrister Leonard Hartnett told the court.
Within a year, his father said, Dalton was “right up there”.
Under the guidance of 1984 Olympic gold medallist Dean Woods, Dalton was one of the top 10 riders of his age group in the country and he dreamed of turning professional, vying for a spot with the Australian Institute of Sport.
“It didn’t happen for him,” his father said.
“He was very disappointed after that.”
That disappointment was the catalyst for a spiral of drug-taking and crime; petty damage developed into assaults and trafficking.
“Half the time we didn’t know where he was,” his father said.
“We tried to get him home and snap him out of it.”
But Dalton descended further, his lawyer telling the court how he started selling drugs in 2011 to cope with debt.
And the intelligent, charismatic young man sold in a big way, controlling a syndicate that supplied millions of dollars of ice and ecstasy to buyers in Wangaratta, Wodonga, Yarrawonga, Myrtleford, Shepparton, Rutherglen and across southern NSW.
The young men and women Dalton recruited were mostly “cleanskins” — with no criminal record — and from normal families, but many of them had drug habits that were growing faster than what an apprentice wage could cover.
Some were used as dealers; others, including the young women, were used to book luxury apartments on Lake Hume and Lake Mulwala — as well as a few cheaper motel rooms in Albury and Wodonga — where the ice was packaged before distribution.
Other members were engaged to drive hire cars up the Hume Highway and pick up drugs from Sydney or from a petrol station in Gundagai.
The drugs that weren’t dealt and the cash that wasn’t spent was secreted away, buried in bushland and backyards, including at the home of the Daltons’ grandmother in Wangaratta.
Also buried in their grandma’s backyard were copies of letters given to syndicate dealers that read like the kind of business manual you’d pick up in a bank.
“We are in the business of making money, not power tripping or disrespecting our customers,” they read.
“If there are any complaints about our business ethic or reliability of our services, please pass on the appropriate information to your personal contact.”
The letters also instructed customers which codewords to use when placing an order on the phone; if you were calling to catch up for a “coffee” you were after a stimulant a fair bit stronger than caffeine and if it was “bourbon”, well, you weren’t exactly having a quiet drink.
It would all sound glamorous in a Hollywood crime thriller; if
it wasn’t for the extreme violence, intimidation and fear that was used on young members and those on the periphery, including their families.
“These people were quite prepared to go to extreme lengths to manage, develop and protect their enterprise,” Judge Michael Bourke told the court on Tuesday.
The only syndicate member who left the group felt its explosive wrath. Kruchan Chandler, a 27-year-old electrician and footballer from Benalla, used ice and then started to deal it after Joshua Dalton introduced him to his big brother and regional kingpin Aaron.
“You were attracted by the promise of drugs, money and lifestyle,” Bourke said during the sentencing of Chandler in the Wangaratta County Court in October.
When Chandler broke away, deterred by the violence and intimidation, the syndicate “fined” him $35,000 for leaving and his family were threatened by phone and intimidated at their homes and places of work.
Aaron Dalton, with members Bradley Whinray, Justin Verry and his “muscle”, Muay Thai fighter Dean Griggs, tried to hunt Chandler down, cruelly and brutally interrogating another man living with his cousin in Wangaratta in the process.
“Azza [Aaron Dalton] gave me the look. I knew what the look was for and that he needed a bit of a slap-up,” Griggs told police. The victim suffered fractures to the face and nose.
But the same brutality that was used to recover debt, maintain control of the gang and keep its members in line would eventually bring Aaron Dalton and his colleagues unstuck.
That moment came when a young butcher was shot at his home in Wangaratta in June 2012.
There was a knock at Will Hickmott’s door at 5.30am and when he opened it, he was shot twice in the chest by syndicate dealer Bradley Whinray, either as payback for a drug debt, a beating, or both.
Incredibly, Hickmott, 24, was released from hospital just hours later with shotgun pellets still lodged in his torso.
On top of that, he gave an interview to The Border Mail that same day — which ran with the headline ‘‘Knock knock, bang, bang’’— where he said he was adamant he had no idea who shot him or why anyone would want to hurt him.
The shooting was too public, too brash and it meant Wangaratta detectives began to make quiet inquiries around the edges of what had been brewing in their patch.
Instead of laying low, Dalton, who was affected by his girlfriend leaving him and his ongoing ice usage, became irrational and unpredictable in June and July 2012, and his soldiers followed suit.
There were more acts of public violence (the two homes that were firebombed while children slept inside and the cars set alight), and all the while police were asking who and why and they began surveillance on gang members.
In September 2012, police intercepted a car. Inside were Dalton, syndicate members Dean Griggs and Justin Verry, and a large amount of ice.
It turned out some of those Dalton had lured into the syndicate were relieved to be arrested; it was, they felt, their only way out, and most of them, including Dalton’s brother, ended up co-operating with the police.
Dalton’s father told the County Court on Wednesday that for him as well, it was a relief his eldest son had been arrested.
Barrister Hartnett told the court Dalton had been transformed in Port Phillip Prison, enrolling in a behavioural science degree and achieving distinctions for essays that displayed the “intelligent mind” of someone who is able to understand “serious problems in the community”.
His father said Dalton had stopped talking about “getting people back” and had told him how “bad ice is and what it’s doing to people”.
But in Wangaratta, the scars of the syndicate are still there and even after the arrest of nine of its members in late 2012, people are still scared.
Ice is still readily available and the arson attacks have continued, pointing to the likelihood of another group having taken control of the drug market.
“Ice has already taken over and it’s going to take a genius to get rid of it,” one local user said.
“It’s like cane toads, they were introduced and weren’t expected to grow this big.”