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Life looks up after descent into hell and back
Russell O'Callaghan. Picture: Lee Griffith/The West Australian

They made a bizarre collection of poker buddies.

Around a table bolted to the ground were an ex-copper, an ex-screw, a drug dealer, a heavily tattooed bikie and the son of the Police Commissioner.

It sounds like fiction but is a real snapshot of day-to-day life behind bars for Russell O'Callaghan - the son of WA's top police officer, Karl O'Callaghan.

It's also one of the less dramatic snapshots from a life that included drug addiction, fatherhood and an illegal drug laboratory explosion.

Mr O'Callaghan described himself as a "socially inept" teenager who first smoked cannabis when he was 15 to fit in with the "cool crowd".

Harder drugs "scared him" and he was unaware of the long-term harm cannabis caused.

Then a wild party with more than 150 people sparked a family feud and Mr O'Callaghan moved away from his parents for the first time to live with his sister in Sydney before he turned 17.

When he returned to WA after a year, cannabis re-entered his life and he was soon into ecstasy.

Through his suppliers, he helped friends buy amphetamines - which at first he resisted using.

"I succumbed to the pressure and decided to give it a go myself," he said.

Mr O'Callaghan performed well at work, though there were concerns about his behaviour.

His boss once handed him a drug pamphlet.

"I was flat out in denial about how serious this problem was going to end up for me over the next 10 years and I sometimes think if I had listened to that subtle advice, things may have turned out different," he said.

Family contact ended and his sole exposure to his father was from news items after he became Police Commissioner in 2004.

"I would hear Dad's name mentioned on the radio and I would just burst out into tears," he said. "I dropped off the face of the earth for six or seven years."

In 2007, Mr O'Callaghan broke-up with his partner and moved in with his grandmother but his behaviour caused concern.

Commissioner O'Callaghan gave his son an ultimatum - speak now or all ties will be cut. The pair met and the son confessed he was a drug addict.

"I don't think he was shocked, I think he may have had suspicions," he said.

Mr O'Callaghan moved back in with his father and sought professional help.

He made progress and, after months of knockbacks from rehabilitation centres, the family decided they could beat the addiction.

He became an apprentice panel beater and was earning good money when he decided it wouldn't hurt to dabble again.

"Behind my parents' backs I was driving out after work and going to an old dealer of mine and getting drugs," he said. "I could see Dad was recognising changes in my behaviour so I started distancing myself from him."

Mr O'Callaghan reconnected with his former partner and she fell pregnant.

They planned to raise their son together and Mr O'Callaghan felt "petrified" and "daunted" at the prospect of becoming a father.

"The day he was born was without a doubt the happiest day of my life," Mr O'Callaghan said.

It prompted him to again try to quit drugs. "That's when you realise how strong it is," he said.

"You have a lovely girlfriend and a beautiful son at home and there is something that is still kind of more important to you."

There were more attempts to reconcile and stay clean, which included a new job on the graveyard shift at a service station.

But that exposed him to users and dealers and before long he was "an absolute addicted mess".

Mr O'Callaghan was at his worst by 2011. He was on fortnight-long benders and spending about $1500 a week on drugs - but his use was much higher.

"It got so bad," he said. "I was in a position where I didn't have any drugs and a couple of mates asked if I wanted to finance a meth cook.

"At first I said, 'no'. The phone calls kept coming and eventually I thought, I'm going to do it."

On March 20 last year, Mr O'Callaghan was involved in drug manufacturing at a State housing home in Carlisle.

"I was watching because I wanted to learn how to do it," he said. "I didn't care about the trail of destruction behind me.

"I was oblivious to it. I had tunnel vision and at the end of the tunnel was a pile of drugs."

That Sunday afternoon a hot water system pilot light ignited gas used in the process, causing an explosion. Five people were hurt and Mr O'Callaghan tried to drive his mates to hospital.

"I was looking at myself thinking, I'm burnt, but one of the guys, his leg was bleeding and another guy looked like he was half dead," he said.

The car ran out of fuel and Mr O'Callaghan ran 1.5km to flee the scene. But he knew he was in trouble - he left his wallet behind - and collapsed on the road before begging a passing motorist for help.

The man packed ice around his wounds and drove him to hospital.

The next morning, the Commissioner revealed his son was involved in the explosion.

Hours later, after waking from sedation and speaking to detectives, the pair had an emotional reunion.

Mr O'Callaghan said his father wasn't angry, just compassionate and emotional and he knew he would do everything he could to help.

He was charged in Royal Perth Hospital and his openness with detectives earned him their respect.

"I made a decision there were going to be no more secrets," he said. "If I was going to change my behaviour and my lifestyle, I needed to make sacrifices and one of those sacrifices was to stop being deceitful and start telling the truth, to be transparent."

After a fortnight in hospital, doctors watched him closely for months. He started drug counselling immediately and his physical recovery was attributed to stability in his life.

He spoke to his father the day before he was sentenced.

He described jail as "the inevitable" and said his family were more worried about prison than he was.

"I remember Dad saying, 'You know I love you, don't you'. That was the first time he said it in 15 years and I said, 'Yeah I know, Dad. I love you too'," Mr O'Callaghan said.

"He said, 'No matter what, you are going to be all right'.

"He wanted to put my mind at ease."

Mr O'Callaghan said Judge Felicity Davis did him a favour sentencing him to jail.

"I believe she wanted to send me a strong message and she also needed to send the community a strong message," he said. Mr O'Callaghan was scared, worried and confused when the van pulled into Casuarina Prison.

"They opened my cell door and there was this massive guy in there," he said.

"I took one look at him and thought this is going to be tough. He was a really nice guy, supportive in my idea to continue my abstinence in prison and him being an ex-police officer didn't tolerate drug use."

Daily jail life was a routine: wake up, go to work, stop at 11am for lunch, lockdown for an hour while the guards ate, more work and then free time, which for high security inmates like Mr O'Callaghan involved snooker and poker because the gym was off-limits.

"Prison taught me one lesson and that is that I value my freedom," he said.

"With that comes family, communication … that's what I missed the most."

On May 1, the jail superintendent spoke to Mr O'Callaghan about a midnight release.

He couldn't sleep that night and his clothes did not fit after he put on 20kg.

"I remember walking down to the gate and this overwhelming feeling of freedom came over me," he said.

"They got me to the front gate, gave me my bags and said I was free.

"I sat at the front gate about 20 minutes, just staring into space, just trying to take it all in. It was a happy moment.

"I felt I had paid my debt to society for the crime I committed. I also felt I was still on track to my main goal."

Four months on, Mr O'Callaghan looks and sounds great.

He inherited his father's height and was well-dressed for his interview at _The Weekend West. _

He spoke for more than two hours and could easily have spoken for another two.

His story is captivating and should resonate with the thousands of families with a loved one who has battled addiction - but now his future looks bright.