By John Silvester
The Gym Gang were behind a string of armed robberies over decades.Credit:Richard Giliberto
Just three days before Christmas in 2006, an armoured van in the old style, white, grey and boxy, pulled up outside a bakery at a shopping centre in Melbourne’s west. Replenishing the Commonwealth Bank ATM was a routine job for Armaguard crews, and the company had a security plan in place, as it did for each of its drops.
Today, the driver was to park nose-in at the loading zone, then open the rear door where the money was kept.
But it turned out this day was far from routine. Today the driver’s partner was the inside man for a gang of armed robbers who were hidden somewhere nearby, within line of sight of the van.
The Armaguard van robbed at Sunshine Plaza in 2006.
The first hint that something might be wrong was how slow the insider was to get out of the truck. When he did, he left the passenger side door slightly ajar – just enough for someone in the know to gain access. Then he gave the prearranged signal that the job was on: he bent to tie his shoelaces.
Shoppers and staff would hardly have noticed a third “guard” walking purposefully towards the van. He was the lead bandit, dressed in a stolen uniform, hiding in plain sight. He walked up to the passenger side, entered the van through the open door, casually threw a red rag over the internal camera, then climbed through a door into the back where the cash was held.
According to the prosecutors in the subsequent court case, he grabbed two slash-proof bags about the size of large sports bags, each bulging with cash, then hopped out the rear door of the truck and walked away, avoiding the gaze of nearby CCTV cameras as he left. It had taken just minutes.
Inside the bags was a cool $1.1 million.
The passenger-side guard was a kickboxer whose trainer, the popular Paul “The Fox” Fyfield, would later be charged – and acquitted – of the robbery.
Following his acquittal, Fyfield is entitled to the presumption of innocence, yet at the time he was charged, police told a court he was a leading figure in an Oceans 11-style crime gang made up of a tight group of Melbourne mates connected to the fight and fitness business, which pulled seven intricately planned and executed jobs over 24 years, starting in the early 1980s, which between them were worth $5 million.
In 2008, detectives launched a cold-case investigation into this so-called “Gym Gang” which concluded that the same group pulled off robberies on an Ascot Vale train (October 1982, $288,000), a Glen Waverley armoured van (October 1991, $185,000), the Myer city store (August 1993, $500,000), a Chadstone armoured van (February 1994, $107,000), the Chadstone Shopping Centre (May 1994, $80,000), a Richmond armoured van (June 1994, $2.3 million) as well as the Sunshine Plaza armoured van (December 2006, $1.1 million).
A number of the suspects in these robberies – not Fyfield – have also been linked to three unsolved murders. But only now, after four decades and multiple criminal trials, can the story be told in full.
The Underworld Gym
The shoelace-tying guard on that December day in 2006 was a powerful middleweight kickboxer who trained under Fyfield at the Underworld Gym in Banana Alley, in the heart of Melbourne. With its dim, sweat-smelling interior and low, curved ceiling, the gym off Flinders Street on the banks of the Yarra River is a favourite haunt of martial artists and boxers, as well as security guards and thugs.
The quietly spoken Fyfield was a super-fit 46-year-old who had schooled boxers and eight world kickboxing champions. At about 180 centimetres tall, with the thin waist and thick arms of a fighter, he is seen as a leader in Australian combat sports. “When he speaks, people listen,” an associate says.
Fyfield has been the subject of police interest for years, though he was never charged over many of the crimes of the Gym Gang and has been convicted of nothing. He may be guilty only of enjoying the company of the type of colourful characters drawn to the fight game, where his profile is that of a leader, a man who is slow to anger and who is rarely flustered.
Unflappable: Paul ‘The Fox’ Fyfield.
At multiple suburban fight nights over three decades, places fuelled by blood, sweat, fear and bourbon, “The Fox” presented a calm figure, counselling his fighters to breathe, stick to the plan, protect themselves and strike quickly. He has trained professionals, taught boxing to office workers seeking a thrill and volunteered his time at a last-chance school. In an industry full of rogues and rip-off merchants, he is known as a straight shooter.
Police investigating this spate of robberies eventually ended up knocking at his door. But that moment came years after the Gym Gang was alleged to have done its first job.
A red wig and a newspaper
At 6.40am on October 21, 1982, just 13 minutes after sunrise, a blue Harris train with 20 passengers on board pulled into the inner-suburban Ascot Vale station. Inside the locked driver’s section in the fourth carriage were two part-time guards and a paymaster who was carrying wages, in cash, for staff at 13 stations along the line.
On this payday, the total amount being carried was nearly $500,000, 25 per cent higher than usual, as it contained a backdated pay rise as well as the usual pay.
In the train’s last carriage, a passenger noticed a man with his head buried in the morning newspaper’s form guide. He had red hair and a beard but, the fellow traveller noticed, black eyebrows. The man in the red wig was one of two members of the Gym Gang on the train that morning. Two more were waiting at the station.
The Age on October 22, 1982, after the first “Gym Gang” robbery.Credit:The Age
When the train pulled in, the fake redhead left by the rear door and started walking in the opposite direction to the station exit, perplexing the observant passenger.
“[That passenger] turned out to be a brilliant witness for us,” says the original investigation leader Adrian Mason, then a detective sergeant with the Armed Robbery Squad.
The red-headed robber approached the train’s guard in the rear carriage and confronted him, using his newspaper to conceal a gun. As he trussed the guard with wire, he placed the newspaper on the seat. At the same time, one of the other bandits bailed up the driver, while two others hit the payroll in carriage four. After the rear guard was freed, he popped redhead’s newspaper inside his uniform, the only souvenir he was going to get of his ordeal – and, it turned out, a valuable piece of evidence.
It emerged later that, just before the train had pulled in, a gang member had placed a call to the Ascot Vale police claiming a man with a gun had “gone berserk” on the other side of the suburb. The distraction meant it was less likely a random patrol would stumble across them as they escaped, giving them a few extra minutes.
The gang grabbed $288,000 that day, money held in a large strong box, but they missed two big briefcases filled with the overflow cash from the back pay. The money was to be delivered, station by station, to staff at 13 stops. At Ascot Vale – the first stop after the cash was loaded into the train at Southern Cross in Melbourne’s CBD – the amount was highest.
It was clear to police from the start that it was an inside job. But who was the mole?
George Zakharia is a rare commodity – brutal in the ring, all brains out of it.
A flyer had been printed by the railways to inform staff when and where they would receive their bigger-than-usual pay packet. The flyer’s printer was former Australian light heavyweight champion Trevor “Stretch” Anderson.
The newspaper left in the guard’s compartment was tested for prints and matched one taken from champion kickboxer George Zakharia, 25, who’d been arrested in Cheltenham stealing from cars a few months earlier. Later raids found an unexplained $14,700 cash in the roof of his home. He was charged and convicted for the robbery, but refused to implicate anyone else.
Zakharia did his time – 12 years, reduced on appeal to 10 and reduced further for good behaviour. Then he rebuilt his life to become an entrepreneur and fight promoter. Former world champion Jeff Fenech once said: “George Zakharia is a rare commodity – brutal in the ring, all brains out of it.”
Then and now, Zakharia and his brother Nick were close friends of Paul Fyfield. Another mate is kickboxer Pasquale “Percy No Mercy” Lanciana.
Once the initial investigators for the Ascot Vale job had George Zakharia’s thumbprint, they started looking at his associates – a group of well-trained security guards who controlled the door at Melbourne’s popular Chasers nightclub in Chapel Street, Prahran. The crew included Lanciana, Zakharia and his brother Nick and “Stretch” Anderson.
Soon, police uncovered photos of the crew together at a remote camp in the Dargo High Plains in Victoria’s snow country, training with firearms, practising martial arts and eating raw offal.
With no hard facts to implicate his associates, the buck for the Ascot Vale job stopped with George Zakharia. Investigators worked on, building circumstantial evidence that was never quite enough to stick. And as the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, the robberies continued.
In the 1994 Chadstone Shopping Centre robbery, the bandit shot two guards in the legs on his way to taking $80,000. The robber had ambushed the guards after they had picked up the takings from the Hoyts cinema complex. When a brave shopper followed the gunman, he said calmly: “I told you to keep back” – then shot him in the leg too.
Later that year, on June 23 in Richmond, the team disguised themselves as road workers. Dressed in overalls and hard hats, they stopped an armoured van as it was at a stop light about to drive onto the Monash Freeway. As a small truck slipped in behind to block any escape, they handcuffed the guards and placed bags over their heads, before driving the van to a quiet blind alley. There they opened the back with a pre-cut key to reveal $2.3 million in cash, a mixture of old and new notes.
Police examine the Armaguard van after it was abandoned in the Richmond armed robbery in 1994.Credit:John Woudstra
Unbeknownst to the crooks, behind the brick wall at the end of the lane was the secret office of the police surveillance branch. Bristling with cameras at the front, it had none at the rear. No footage was recorded.
The whole job took just eight minutes. Again, it had all the signs of an inside job. The guard inside the van, John Johnston, said he was traumatised by the robbery, so much so that when he returned to work he only lasted a few hours. He eventually took a less stressful job as a gate guard and received $8000 in crime compensation.
Teased by fellow staff about what he had done with his share of the take, he joked that it was buried under his in-ground swimming pool. Police always wondered how Johnston could afford such a sprawling home and an investment property in St Kilda on a guard’s wages of around $13 an hour.
Tests on the key from the Richmond job led police to a Prahran locksmith. He was a martial arts expert. Phone records showed calls between the locksmith and a key member of the Gym Gang.
When Australia’s best safebreaker, Graham Kinniburgh, was murdered in 2004 outside his Kew home as part of the Underbelly war, there were multiple death notices. One read: “A loved and true friend.” It was from the Prahran locksmith. It remains unknown why a man known to illegally open safes was friends with one supposed to make sure they remained shut.
Again, interesting intelligence, but hardly evidence.
As the investigations ground on, an informer came forward to the Federal Police. He nominated a man – for legal reasons we’ll only call him The Driver – as a key organiser. A career crook and heavy gambler, The Driver had moved from Melbourne to Port Douglas and seemed to be living well beyond his means.
Phone records showed that in the months leading up to the Richmond robbery, The Driver phoned a tyre business in the outer south-western Melbourne suburb of Carrum Downs. Why would a man in Port Douglas want to deal with a tyre business in outer Melbourne? Perhaps because it backed onto a large vehicle compound: Armaguard’s.
It was planned over a considerable period of time and the preparation was meticulous.
For this job to work, the gang needed a key cut from an Armaguard van original. At the Carrum Downs depot, the keys were kept on a piece of string hung from a nail near the door, and the vans were parked in an open area inside the compound. An insider could easily lift one of the keys, have it copied, then test that their freshly cut key fitted the van that was always used for the run.
Members of the Gym Gang trained at various fitness centres around town, and, before the Richmond job, The Driver rented not one but two warehouses near one of them. Inside the warehouses the gang stored equipment and hid getaway cars. A later police search found a milk carton with the same use-by date as the day of the robbery.
In the weeks before the job The Driver’s phone went silent, but his girlfriend’s pinged on local towers several times, placing it near the Carrum Downs Armaguard depot and along the route taken to the Reserve Bank in Melbourne and back again. These, the police believe, were dry runs.
“It was planned over a considerable period of time and the preparation was meticulous,” says the head of the initial investigation, Detective Sergeant Ross McKenzie, a now-retired member of the Armed Robbery Squad. “It was obvious to me this wasn’t the first time they had committed such an offence.”
But still there was never quite enough evidence to bring charges and secure a conviction. Eventually the Richmond investigation stalled and the files were boxed and sent to archives.
Turning the tide
In 2008 a new group of detectives decided to revisit the investigation, not with a tip but with technology. Why not use DNA to check old exhibits? Through meticulous detective work, police eventually found DNA on the Richmond handcuffs matched that on a balaclava at the Glen Waverley job. Game on.
The investigation, codenamed Tideland, would highlight modern police methods and lead to a chess game between the suspects and the detectives where each side tried to infiltrate the other, approached witnesses and used surveillance and counter-surveillance methods straight out of Hollywood.
Some of the suspects and their associates had even moonlighted as actors. Fyfield appeared in the ’80s TV cop drama Special Squad. They were fit young men who looked the part. One associate of the gang’s was heavily involved in the male fashion industry, and police say he did some part-time modelling. A few ended up as extras on the client list of a TV and movie agency.
Fyfield himself appeared with his mate George Zakharia in the 1982 romantic musical comedy The Pirate Movie.
Zakharia played a bearded pirate, Fyfield a policeman. To call it cheesy would be an insult to the dairy industry. The movie included lyrics such as:
We wheel, We deal,
We steal and thunder.
We shoot, we sloot,
We put ’em under.
It would be the only time either Fyfield or Zakharia would sing.
A few hours after the Ascot Vale train robbery in 1982, a telephone operator was asked to put a Melbourne call through to Auckland. As was the habit of the day, she listened to the first 30 seconds to check the connection was clear. “The job’s done, no problems. The boys are right,” the caller said.
The call was from a Melbourne film office to one of the staff from The Pirate Movie. There is no evidence the call was made by Fyfield. As luck would have it, the telephone operator was the wife of a policeman. She told her husband, who reported the call.
“The disguises for the job came from the movie,” one of the original investigators says.
(I once received a call from a man saying his photo at the funeral of gangland murder victim Willie Thompson, another part-time actor connected with combat sports, was in a crime book I co-wrote with Andrew Rule. The cover photo of Leadbelly showed Fyfield and George Zakharia carrying Thompson’s coffin.
Instead of an earful he gave me a pitch. Wouldn’t he be perfect for a role of some sort in the first Underbelly TV series, which covered Melbourne gangland war? I agreed. The producers didn’t.)
The cover photo of Leadbelly showed Paul Fyfield (left) and George Zakharia carrying the coffin of fighter and gangland murder victim Willie Thompson’s coffin.
‘Are we good?’
When George Zakharia was arrested six weeks after the 1982 Ascot Vale armed robbery, police initially concealed the fact that he had been identified from a thumbprint left on a newspaper. Detectives say as a result, some in the gang believed police had a source in the inner sanctum who was talking.
Three weeks after Zakharia’s arrest, one of the crew, “Stretch” Anderson, shot and killed his estranged wife Pam and her friend Jan Toll at the suburban Greensborough Shopping Centre before shooting himself. It is not clear why, but some police believe he (wrongly) thought she was talking to detectives. Two years later, in July 1984, a young mother, 23, was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range while sleeping in her Werribee home in Melbourne’s west. Her 22-month-old son was just a few metres away in his cot. She was Maryanna Lanciana, the wife of “Percy No Mercy” Lanciana. Detectives believe she was murdered because someone in the gang feared she was informing. Police have since revealed she was not.
The night of the murder, Lanciana had been on the door of a city nightclub until 5am and stayed at his parents’ Seddon home in Melbourne’s west. He later offered $55,000 on top of the government’s $50,000 reward to solve the murder.
Whenever Tideland detectives quietly approached potential witnesses, they would receive a visit from one of the gang. One gang member approached his ex-wife with the loaded question: “Are we good?”
A classic ambush
As the investigation expanded, so did a separate cold-case murder probe that would centre on members of the Gym Gang. But that too would go sour.
Robert “Bluey Bob” Mather was an underworld facilitator who could match up people with particular skills – a gangland version of LinkedIn. When his son Ray was bashed outside a St Kilda nightclub in October 2000 by powerlifter- turned-bouncer George Germanos, police say Mather called in a favour.
A few months after the bashing, Germanos went to his sister, Penny Ziakis, and tried to borrow $5000 to buy a handgun. “He said, ‘I’m in trouble, there’s a hit on me’,” Ziakis told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016. “‘I’ve bashed a kid, I didn’t know who he was’.”
On March 22, 2001, Germanos was lured into Armadale’s Inverness Park for a late-night meeting, almost certainly by a call from a nearby phone box. Someone was there first, almost certainly hiding under a bush near the entrance. Germanos walked in about five metres then turned back, possibly after the hidden person mentioned his name. The last thing Germanos saw was the flash of the barrel as he was shot in his barrel chest. Then the killer shot him four times in the head from point-blank range – a classic underworld ambush.
Another murder connected to the gang is that of Dimitrios Belias, a con artist. It was said he owed “Bluey Bob” $100,000 and had neither the means nor desire to make things right.
He said, ‘I’m in trouble, there’s a hit on me … I’ve bashed a kid, I didn’t know who he was’.
On September 9, 1999, Belias parked outside a Melbourne hotel and at 5.47pm Bluey Bob hopped into his car for a chat. As with Germanos, Belias was lured to a meeting, this time in an underground car park in St Kilda Road, and just before 7pm he was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head.
In 2014 police linked the Germanos and Belias murders to the killing of Maryanna Lanciana, offering three $1 million rewards. The then head of the Homicide Squad, Detective Inspector John Potter, said: “We have information the three murders are connected and there will be people in the community who have associated with a particularly criminal group with information that can assist us.”
Sometimes police offer rewards when they have hit a dead end. Not this time. Nearly two years earlier, Tideland investigators had found a chink in the Gym Gang’s armour: they had convinced a key member to secretly talk to them.
The newly invigorated investigation was split into separate components – follow the money, use modern forensics to refocus on exhibits from the crime scene, eavesdrop on the suspects and recruit insiders to turn on the gang.
Following the money
Six weeks after the $2.3 million Richmond heist in 1994, the brothers who owned a disused tip in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Williamstown were delighted when a suburban solicitor approached them with an offer to buy the sprawling piece of land.
Although it was valued at $595,000 the solicitor, John Anile, who was not himself involved in the robbery, made an “official” offer of $555,000 on the books – $5000 as a deposit and the remainder to be paid by bank cheque about a year later. Off the books, though, there would be an additional cash payment of $400,000 on behalf of his client and good friend: “Percy No Mercy” Lanciana.
Anile signed the contract in a real estate agency and the following day drove to meet the brothers at their home with Lanciana and his sackful of money following in another car.
“The guy counted the cash and they signed the contract at $555,000,” he later said in a bugged conversation.
According to the books, the lawyer owned the land through Anile Residential Pty Ltd, but Lanciana was a silent partner. They subdivided the land into 31 lots and sold the proposed single and double-storey townhouses off the plan before the final payment was due. Three years later the solicitor was squeezed out and Anile Residential was taken over by a company owned by Lanciana.
When he told his wife they were no longer involved in the development, Anile invoked the classic line from The Godfather: “I was made an offer that I couldn’t refuse.”
Disgraced lawyer John Anile.
Tideland detectives sent an informer to see Anile and they met several times in 2013 at the appropriately named Gravy Train cafe in Yarraville. In the bugged conversations, Anile says: “I mean there are things you don’t talk about. I know where the money came from. I know the lot … Let me put it this way, they did something that gave them a lot of cash, you can join the dots if you want. You join the dots, I am not going to say. You join the dots.
“All I can tell you is that the $400,000 cash was a small proportion of it … You don’t have to be a genius. They had a bunch of cash, and they did not work. So, unless they’ve got a money tree, it came from somewhere. I know where it came from, but I’m not going to talk about it.”
Anile was arrested the following year, in 2014, convicted, won a retrial then chose to plead guilty. Earlier this year the well-liked and respected local solicitor, who devoted 25 per cent of his time to pro bono work, was sentenced to a minimum of 21 months in jail.
Following the crooks
Over the decades of the Gym Gang investigation, investigators became familiar with the patterns of the group and its associates. And even though the armed robberies were years in the past, the main suspects always acted as if they were being followed. They would not meet in pubs, clubs or private homes but in public spaces, usually suburban cricket grounds. They rarely stood and chatted but were always on the move and never met at the same spot twice.
One member, a fitness fanatic, travelled most places on his pushbike rather than in a flash car. At one point police saw him at a park eating an ice cream. Even though there was a rubbish bin next to him, he carefully wrapped the stick in the wrapper and put it in his pocket. They suspect he thought it might be grabbed for DNA. Perhaps he just didn’t want to be a litterbug.
Despite the obstacles, detectives kept chipping away, and eventually achieved a number of breakthroughs. A second inside man, this time from the 2006 Sunshine job, talked. In addition, a key player in Melbourne’s money laundering scheme began working for police, the insider in the 1993 Myer robbery confessed and one of the Gym Gang’s closest friends made a statement.
Let me put it this way, they did something that gave them a lot of cash, you can join the dots if you want.
One told of changing notes from the Richmond job at a bank while Lanciana nervously walked up and down outside pushing a pram. So police checked the old security tapes. There is a man fitting Lanciana’s description pushing a pram like any dad on a stroll. In court much later, he would be the one left holding the baby.
Finally, in 2012, came an unexpected breakthrough when NSW Police rang Melbourne to say a man charged with a large number of frauds wanted to make a deal. He claimed he had the story on some of Victoria’s biggest unsolved crimes. He was The Driver.
The Driver identified the members of the Gym Gang who were part of the Richmond heist. He gave details of the planning, how he followed the armoured truck on dry runs and used a van to block it in during the raid. He even starred in a police reconstruction of the crime recorded on video.
Then he volunteered something else: He had been the driver when the hitman arrived to kill Germanos and Belias.
Police sent The Driver overseas for his own protection, but already anxious and isolated, he sank into such a deep depression that his designated minders requested permission to travel to his secret address to support him.
The request was knocked back on cost grounds. It was a dreadful mistake. The Driver took his own life, meaning his statements and video reconstructions would never be presented in court.
Finally, through its combination of forensics and informants, police had sufficient evidence, and 22 years after the Richmond heist, Lanciana was arrested for the crime. As he sat handcuffed in the back of an unmarked police car, waiting at the lights, an Armaguard van pulled up. “That’s ironic,” said one of the Tideland detectives. Lanciana didn’t see the joke.
Pasquale “Percy No Mercy” Lanciana at the time of his arrest in 2016.Credit:Jason South
His trial for armed robbery, false imprisonment and money laundering ended with a hung jury. Prosecutors tried again. In May last year, nearly 27 years after the robbery took place, Lanciana was convicted in the Victorian County Court and sentenced to 14 years, with 10 years non-parole.
In 2016, Paul Fyfield was arrested over the Sunshine robbery. Police had planned to use the Special Operations Group to grab the martial arts expert, but when a lone detective saw him riding his bike he stepped onto the road, raised a hand and told him to stop. Fyfield remained calm and composed – just as he did inside the ring and later inside the court.
In 2020 Fyfield was acquitted of the charge and has returned to fitness training and mentoring struggling kids. He was not charged over any of the Gym Gang’s other robberies
“The Fox” maintains an interest in acting, recently starring in an award-winning documentary about a troubled international student who finds boxing in her quest to become a sponsored athlete.
It’s called Biting the Bullet.
Most Viewed in National
Source: Read Full Article