From hold up victim to one of Queensland's top detectives

EXCLUSIVE: Paula Doneman

FIRST ON 7 - Bound, gagged and dragged into a toilet block, the young bank clerk thought his number was up.

He wondered whether his masked assailant was about to cut his throat.

Two offenders, armed with a shot gun, metal pole and knife, had ambushed the clerk and his colleague as they walked to open the bank’s Mermaid Beach branch.

It was July 1975 and the bank junior who was a victim of an armed robbery would become one of Queensland’s most respected and senior detectives.

“They took the teller and myself into the toilet block, bound and gagged us before they stole the money. I really thought as they wrapped the tape around our heads and they were cutting it with a knife, it was really close to our heads, and it was an image that still sits with me, that the next step could have been to cut our throat," outgoing Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett told 7 News.

“I think the advantage for me was it certainly gave me a strong empathy with victims of crime... it’s terrifying, there’s no doubt about it that you have no control. Someone jumps out in front of you who has their face totally covered and you don’t know anything about them, don’t know what their intentions are."

For Mr Barnett the experience has given him more nightmares than when he was shot trying to catch career criminal Harold McSweeney.

“It was a very traumatic experience, particularly given my age. I was 18 and not expecting that, not knowing how it would play out. For anyone in an occupation not trained for or expecting that, it’s really traumatic," he said.

The two near death experiences have stood him in good stead for the robust and unpredictable world of policing.

Mr Barnett spoke exclusively to 7 News on the eve of his resignation from the Queensland Police Service to take up the post of the state’s new Racing Integrity Commissioner.

Article about the hold-up. Source: Outgoing Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett
Article about the hold-up. Source: Outgoing Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett

During his career, he has overseen major investigations including the abduction and murder of Daniel Morcombe, counter-terrorism and headed the team which steered one of the most peaceful G20s in the history of the economic summit.

Mr Barnett is considered a “detective’s detective” and is well-respected throughout the ranks of the Queensland Police.

He is seen as a leader with a strong operational background who made a seamless transition from the coalface to the QPS executive.

The Queensland Police Union described Mr Barnett as a “police officer who can relate to all police”.

“From the general duties constable, detectives and those in management roles, Ross understands what police at the coalface are going through. He can empathise with both police based in the city as well as rural and regional locations. That’s what makes him unique and universally respected," said QPU acting president Shayne Maxwell.

Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said Mr Barnett had served with distinction across investigative, operational and executive portfolios and in national forums.

“Ross is highly respected across the Australasian policing community for his integrity, energy and experience. He leaves the QPS with the respect of his colleagues and the community he has served," Mr Stewart said.

Fellow Deputy Commissoner Brett Pointing described Mr Barnett as highly intelligent and articulate.

“He was not only a brilliant detective but he cared deeply for his people and was a great advocate for police and police professionalism. He was a great ambassador for the QPS working with external agencies and as a key member of the executive in the post-Fitzgerald era," Mr Pointing said.

Ross Barnett joined the Queensland Police in 1976. Source: Ross Barnett.
Ross Barnett joined the Queensland Police in 1976. Source: Ross Barnett.

He said Mr Barnett was also a graduate of the FBI Academy and had been instrumental in the formualtion of the agency’s Asia-Pacific chapter with a focus on national security.

Former Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said Mr Barnett was an outstanding senior manager and highly respected detective.

"The Queensland community is a safer place for his work, leadership and overall contribution," he said.

During his career, Mr Barnett was seconded to the Australian Crime Commission, Queensland Crime Commission and the National Crime Authority.

While at the NCA, he helped uncover a sophisticated methylamphetamine laboratory running in an Brisbane inner-city warehouse.

At the time in 1995, it was the second largest drug seizure in the world and had a street value of between $200 and $400 million.

In 1997, the NCA awarded him the Geoffrey Bowen Memorial Award, their highest individual honour awarded annually, for his role in the investigation.

Many police said Mr Barnett’s leadership and compassion has helped steer the service through some of its toughest times and uncertainty in its history.

This included the unprecedented departure of a quarter of commissioned officers between the ranks of inspector and chief superintendent during the biggest restructure of the service since the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Almost 90 officers took redundancies in a career once thought as a job for life.

Hetty Johnson, child protection advocate and founder of Bravehearts, said the QPS was poorer with the departure of Mr Barnett.

“If Queensland Racing needs someone who is strong and plays by the rules, then it will suit Ross Barnett. No matters where he goes, he will give a 100 per cent and his 100 per cent is amazing," Ms Johnson said.

Ms Johnson first met Mr Barnett when he was the inaugural director of the QPS’s Child Safety and Sexual Crime Group.

“We will miss him, he’s one of the good guys and child protection will miss him. His contribution to child protection and to policing generally is extraordinary," she told 7 News.

Ms Johnson said her organisation was grateful for the trusted working relationship she had with Mr Barnett, which was crucial in child abuse investigations.

Trevor O’Hara, CEO of Crime Stoppers Queensland, said Mr Barnett was a strong supporter and key in helping them form a partnership with Brisbane City Council.

“From our perspective he was a director on the Crime Stoppers board from the time he was chief superintendent at State Crime Command to then as an assistant commissioner. He is a wonderful person and we are very grateful to him," Mr O’Hara said.

Mr Barnett said his decision to take the job to head up the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission did not come easily with him experiencing many sleepless nights and separation anxiety.

“It’s certainly not the case that I have lost my passion for the QPS, if anything I love it too much I think and that has become evident to me in this transition period. The separation anxiety has been enormous, a lot of sleepless nights thinking about actually leaving the QPS, it means that much to me particularly with my family history," he said.

Policing is certainly in his DNA – there have been unbroken lines of Barnetts in the Queensand Police since 1930 – his uncle, father and brother and Ross’s wife, Senior-Sergeant Helen Barnett.

Mr Barnett’s departure falls only 56 days short of his 40 year anniversary when he first walked through the doors of the Queensland Police Academy at Oxley on June 26, 1976.

The academy would become a blueprint of achievement for the 19-year-old recruit who graduated as dux of his year and the leadership award.

Mr Barnett’s first posting was Mitchelton police station in general duties and within a month he made his first arrest for fare evasion.

“A cab driver had made a complaint, we went to the man’s house, there was a scuffle and we took him into custody. He pleaded not guilty and we went to trial and he was convicted. It wasn’t for much (money) but it was the principal of it."

Mr Barnett said growing up in a policing family instilled in him a strong sense of right and wrong and that the rule of law was strongly maintained.

“I think people who join the force do so because they want to help people in whatever the circumstances. This cab driver like many other people I would meet through my career had been wronged and he was looking to police to get some justice for him and that remains our job," he said.

Mr Barnett continued his family tradition and became a detective where he spent the next 29 and a half years, hitting every rank from from plain clothes constable to assistant commissioner of the Queensland Police State Crime Command.

Being a detective was what gave Barnett the most satisfaction.

“I loved every minute of it.”

Outgoing Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett with Kay McGrath. Source: Paula Doneman
Outgoing Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett with Kay McGrath. Source: Paula Doneman

His career in plain clothes would take to him regional Criminal Investigation Branches including stints in Bowen and Fortitude Valley and the armed robbery and major crime squads.

While at the armed robbery squad, Mr Barnett and his colleagues were searching for Harold McSweeney, a vicious career criminal who was on the run after escaping from Boggo Road jail in 1991.

“It was a very violent time in Queensland history in the very early 1990s, jail breaks were common, murders in jail were common," he said.

While on the run, McSweeney committed very violent armed robberies which netted him almost $300,000 including hitting an armoured car in the carpark of a busy Brisbane shopping centre.

“He sprayed the carpark with automatic gunfire to stop the armoured car from leaving, so he was getting to that level where someone was going to get hurt," he said.

An informant told police that a heavily armed McSweeney was in the Toowoomba area and would shoot police to avoid capture.

“We found him... we rammed his car into a parked car in the street and we unfortunately ended up side by side with him in the driver’s seat and I was in the passenger’s seat... he just started shooting. He got me once in the hip and missed a couple more times so it was my lucky day.”

McSweeny emptied the .357 into the police car, with one of the bullets missing Mr Barnett’s head by inches.

“It was a very violent time and that was our job and you know not going after McSweeney was not an option because simply if we didn’t capture him there would have been more armed robberies and he would have shot an innocent member of the public," he said.

The shooting was very challenging and difficult for his family, particularly for his two young children when they saw their father lying hurt in hospital.

“I treat it as a positive experience by the fact I survived physically unhurt and I will always be grateful. It’s unfortunately a bad day at the office but with this job, it’s a risk that you do have to confront and every single of the 11,500 Queensland police officers who go to work everyday do confront that possibility," he said.

While recovering from the gunshot at the Armed Robbery Squad, Mr Barnett was given a cold case of a series of 14 armed robberies of banks and armoured cars that had been committed between 1985 and 1991.

All police knew was there were two offenders involved who were becoming increasingly violent and the robberies had netted them $3.2 million in cash – the largest in Queensland’s history at the time.

Mr Barnett’s investigation eventually identified William Orchard and his stepson Gary Sullivan, a rugby league star who had played for Australia.

“They were complete cleanskins who started robbing banks and armoured cars and got very good at it. They also became increasingly violent – in one armoured car robbery they chained the guard to the front of the truck, poured petrol over him and threatened to set fire to him unless the people in the truck handed the money over," Mr Barnett said.

However the pair made a mistake. Detectives traced one of their getaway cars back to a Brisbane car yard.

“That car yard took photographs of customers at the point of sale so there had been a photo taken of (Orchard). When it was originally looked for, the car yard couldn’t find the photo and we suspect they had gone back and had stolen it," he said.

Mr Barnett tracked down the negative of the photo and eventually Orchard was identified.

The pair pleaded guilty and were jailed for 20 years.

Outgoing Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett with Kay McGrath. Source: Paula Doneman
Outgoing Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett with Kay McGrath. Source: Paula Doneman

Mr Barnett was awarded a Commissioner’s certificate, the QPS’s highest honour, for the McSweeney and Orchard and Sullivan investigations.

Looking back on his career, Mr Barnett said the police force he joined in 1976 is “barely recognisable” to the one he leaves behind.

“There have been many improvements, the size of the department, the training and the equipment available to officers. Out on patrol now, police have the Qlight device in the palm of their hand which gives immediate access to intelligence to do their jobs," he said.

One of the greatest improvements, according to Mr Barnett, is the integration of the Special Emergency Response Team in both Cairns and Brisbane into mainstream policing.

It is a change that Mr Barnett has particularly focused on – changing the perception of SERT from being the “break glass in case of an emergency option” to where they are now called on regularly for high risk situations.

“I have tried to actively foster a culture where officers faced with a high risk situation consider calling SERT to do the job on the frontline to ensure that officer’s safety is as high as it possibly can be,’"he said.

“SERT have never been busier in Brisbane and Cairns and I think that if I can have a legacy in the job that will help protect officers’ safety in the future, I would be very happy with that.”

He believes terrorism is one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement and an attack in Australia is inevitable.

“It’s fair to say no one can see the security environment getting better any time soon, in fact I see it getting it worse. The challenges in trying to prevent an attack from someone who isn’t even on the radar are the greatest threats I think,” said Mr Barnett who was the QPS representative on the Australian and New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee.

He believes the QPS is well prepared and counter-terrorism is one test law enforcement cannot fail.

“I think its sadly inevitable that there will be an attack in Australia, whether it’s in Queensland or not who knows. There are obviously matters before the court here I that I cannot comment on where it will be alleged that people in Brisbane were plotting such as an attack.

“We are giving it serious attention, we are well prepared. We are part of national arrangements and have a very strong co-operation between agencies,” he said.

After turning his badge in on Friday, Mr Barnett told 7 News his focus is now on his new role at Queensland Racing and doing his very best.

“It’s not often you get an opportunity like this to go from an organisation with 152 years of history to be given the opportunity to head up an organisation before it’s born, to have an influence on what it does, in setting it up and hopefully impart some of things I have learnt in the past 39 years," he said.

Asked whether he would put his hat in the ring next year for Police Commissioner when Ian Stewart retires, Mr Barnett said he was not ruling it out.

“I never have made any secret of the fact that the commissioner’s job is an aspiration I have held and continue to hold and if that opportunity comes... well it would be an extreme honour. Whether I am the right person for that job is a decision for other people to make," he said.