From Rochester to the homicide squad

Original story 

BETWEEN five and six each weekday morning, Steven Bradley caught the bus to a Brisbane veterinary surgery to groom people's pets and mop the floors. But on Wednesday, March 12, Victoria's best-known homicide cop, Ron Iddles, knocked on the door of the inner-suburban boarding house where Bradley lived and disrupted his early-morning routine.

"Steve, it's Ron," he said. "We need to have another talk."

The 52-year-old - who Ron had interviewed twice before - knew this was no social call.

"No worries," he said, and quietly packed his bag for the flight to Tullamarine.

In Melbourne, Bradley was charged with the murder of 16-year-old Michelle Buckingham, whose battered body was found partially obscured amid long grass at Kialla East, near Shepparton, in October 1983.

The 31-year-old case is the oldest homicide case in Victoria to lead to an arrest, and it seemed fitting that the state's most experienced homicide investigator, Iddles - who is poised to take up the high-profile post of secretary of the Victorian Police Association - go out with a bang.

His colleagues would say an illustrious exit was always on the cards because Iddles has arguably achieved more results than any other homicide cop in the country. Over 25 years in homicide, he has investigated about 300 murders and arrested 95 per cent of suspects in those cases. He has testified in at least 150 murder trials (not all cases go to court).

Not surprisingly, Iddles' colleagues at the homicide squad nicknamed him The Great Man, but not just because of his reputation for catching killers. It's because of the unique way he has gone about the job, and the impact he has had on the families of victims of crime, the legal system, and the killers themselves.

Iddles grew up on a dairy farm in Rochester, 30 kilometres south of Echuca. He has a twin brother, Barry, and a sister, Nancye, two years the twins' senior.

Life in the bush was good and Iddles' parents, Bill and Phyllis, kept the family close. Like a lot of boys in the country, Iddles grew up playing football, first as a ruckman (not surprising given he grew to an imposing 194 centimetres) and later in the forward pocket.

He was no stranger to hard work either. As a teenager, Iddles would milk 120 cows before breakfast, then cycle eight kilometres in his school uniform just to get to the bus stop. "Then on weekends, I'd be cutting hay, carting hay and slashing paddocks with a tractor," he laughs. "My dad always worked hard so I suppose the apple didn't fall far from the tree."

It was that early work ethic that would stand him in great stead in his career. And there was only one thing he ever wanted to be: a policeman. "I know it sounds corny but I used to watch the TV show Homicide,'' he says. "I was always fascinated by it so in 1972 when I finished my leaving [certificate], I joined the police cadets, determined that one day I'd go to homicide."

Soon after leaving Rochester for Melbourne, 17-year-old Iddles met a fetching high school student named Colleen at a church function at Caulfield. Colleen was 16 and told her mother that Iddles was the man she wanted to marry.

The feeling was mutual. When she finished high school, the two started dating. Later this year, Ron and Colleen, who's now a mental health nurse, will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary with their three children, Jo Zammit, 37, Matthew Iddles, 25, and Shae Iddles, 23.

The Iddles' eldest, Jo, remembers her early life as a policeman's daughter. "A lot of my memories of growing up involve listening to Dad on the phone in the middle of the night.

Jane Thurgood-Dove: Gunned down in 1997 in her Niddrie driveway in front of her three children. Case still open.

''He'd be pacing a lot and he'd be calling other people - coroners and his crew. He was on the phone a lot then and still is."

Of course, Iddles didn't start his career at the homicide squad. He spent his first five years on general duties in rough-house, inner-city Collingwood. There, the boy from the bush grew up quickly, and caught the eye of his boss, Ivan Smith. "He was the best thief-catcher I've seen in my whole life,'' the 80-year-old former senior sergeant reveals. "He was fearless. Tireless. It's unbelievable to think someone could be that good."

Sometimes, Iddles would even turn up to work with a crook in tow, having caught them in an illegal act on his way to the station. Smith believes it was the combination of country knowledge and new-found city cunning that made Iddles stand out.

Mersina Halvagis: Murdered 1997 as she visited her grandmother's grave in Fawkner cemetery. Serial killer Peter Dupas was convicted in 2007.

After five years in uniform Iddles transferred to Fitzroy CIB, where he worked on his first murder. Six months later, he was full-time at homicide, where his first case was the frenzied murder of Thornbury bookshop owner Maria James in 1980. James - a mother to two boys - had been stabbed 68 times and her face held down with a potato masher. "It was a pretty horrific scene," Iddles remembers.

Even though the James case would remain unsolved (and Iddles would continue to work on it until he walked out the door of homicide), he continued impressing his colleagues by cleaning up scores of major investigations through swift action and dogged determination.

Detective Senior Sergeant Darren Humphries remembers what it was like to work for Iddles, first during a stint at the drug squad in 1987, and later at homicide in 1995. "We worked on jobs for over 20, 30, 50 hours straight … cases where we kept going because of his leadership and because we owed it to the victim," Humphries says. "He's a guy who's very ethical and consistent, and that seems to be an attraction of a lot of the guys to him.

''Many of us are grateful to have worked under him because good role models are hard to come by."

And Iddles' dedication and leadership were effective. Of the 150 or so murder trials Iddles has testified in, only three people have been acquitted, making his court conviction rate a staggering 99 per cent. But dealing with murder day in and day out takes its toll on even the most skilled investigator, and Iddles quit the force in October 1989, aged 34. It has been widely reported that he resigned because he was due to give evidence against then detective Denis Tanner, but Iddles says that is a myth. The truth was he'd been on the job for 17 years and had never had time out.

There had also been threats to his life. "There was an incident in '84 where I nearly got shot in St Kilda - I was in a fight for my life," he recalls. And in 1985, police guards were stationed outside the Iddles' family home after a violent escapee threatened to kill him. "[The police] said to me, 'If everything's all right, leave your porch light on. If not turn it off.' I thought, if I'm dead, I can't do either!"

So in October 1989, Iddles left the police force and started a trucking business, moving potting mix and furniture around Victoria. "I always liked getting out and about," he says, "and I used to drive trucks on the farm. I like good machinery."

But it wasn't Iddles' destiny to stay in the trucking game forever. One day in early 1994, then chief inspector Jeff O'Loughlin phoned Iddles' wife, Colleen, and asked: "Do you think I can talk Ron into coming back?"

Realising he could still make a difference and the security of the police was appealing, Ron sold his trucks and after a short retraining course at the Police Academy, he famously returned to the Homicide Squad in April 1994 - as a constable. "Some people didn't like re-appointees," he recalls. "They thought I should have gone back to driving divvy vans. The mentality was, 'He's a retread.' "

But Iddles refused to let negativity get him down. "I never tried to be anything but a constable," he says. "I waited for instruction and I didn't come over the top and say, 'That's a crap idea.'"

Three years later, Iddles had worked his way up to his former rank, detective senior sergeant, and was back leading his own crew. The jobs came thick and fast, and many of the cases he worked on - such as the murders of Elisabeth Membrey and Jane Thurgood-Dove, attracted considerable attention from the media. Journalists - this reporter included - specifically asked to interview Iddles and he fast became a regular on the evening news.

But not everyone in the force liked it. "I didn't go out there to build myself a profile," Iddles says, "but because I worked hard and had been successful and worked on high-profile jobs, the profile came. Some people think it's been about me but it's never been about me. It's about the job and that's all that matters."

"He's a man of great character and the victims' families just love him,'' says Noel McNamara from the Crime Victims Support Association. ''He's solved so many crimes."

Such is the families' devotion to this investigator that as part of this year's Flight of the Angels - a remembrance ceremony in which helium balloons are released into the sky to mark the lives of victims - they asked if they could put a special message on the television news after the ceremony. "We all got together and we called out, 'We love you Ron!'," says Bev McNamara from the association. "But that didn't get on the telly. That was the part they [the families] were waiting on!"

George Halvagis, the father of murder victim Mersina Halvagis, says Iddles did not even work on his daughter's case but made sure it remained active and that the evidence was scrutinised. It paid off because the serial killer Peter Dupas is now serving time for Mersina's murder.

"Ron is a humane and compassionate person who deserves public recognition," Halvagis says. "He's not only a policeman but he's got a heart."

Iddles' reputation meant he became the ''go-to'' guy at homicide; the person who the families of homicide victims would phone when they wanted action on their case. That's what happened when Denis Clarke, the father of six-year-old Bonnie Clarke, phoned Iddles almost 20 years after she was stabbed and strangled in her bed. Iddles was heading up the cold-case team when Clarke explained he was dying of cancer and was desperate for answers.

After an intense re-investigation, Iddles was able to arrest one-time Puffing Billy guard Malcolm Clarke, who a jury found guilty in 2004 of little Bonnie's murder. Denis Clarke died soon after and Iddles knew he'd had the rare opportunity of being able to grant a dying man's wish.

The ABC of approaching a homicide investigation according to Ron Iddles is as follows:

■ Assume nothing

■ Believe nothing

■ Check everything

Detective Senior Sergeant Humphries believes one of the reasons Iddles has inspired so many "loyal soldiers" at the homicide squad is his consistency. "He never has a bad day," Humphries says. That and a swag of trusty sayings about the fundamentals of a good investigation.

"The ABC of homicide" is one of them. There's also: "The answer's in the file," which reminds investigators to scour dusty old briefs for clues because often the murderer's name will be inside. Another favourite is "Beware the witness whose memory improves with the passage of time".

Most significantly, Iddles teaches his troops to ask suspects at the outset: "Did you do it?" Surprisingly, many detectives do not ask this question outright but Iddles believes it's vital because it either gives a suspect the chance to confess or an investigator the opportunity to catch their suspect on the hop before they've had time to hatch a story. "And then it's our job to either prove or disprove their version of events.''

Iddles is curiously charismatic for someone who spends his days and relatively sleepless nights pondering some of Australia's most gruesome murders. But he doesn't just know how to comfort families of the victims; he also knows how to talk to the crooks, the late Mark "Chopper" Read included.

"Mark always credited Ron for his big turnaround,'' says Margaret Read, widow of the stand-over man turned author and raconteur. ''I think Ron used to say, 'Keep your head above water,' and Mark would say, 'Yeah, I'm definitely not going back to prison.' He felt that he was so accepted by Ron Iddles.''

Bruce Nichols was convicted, along with two others, of the murder of Garry Jennings and the attempted murder of Tom Kyte at Keilor in 1981, over unpaid drug debts. It was Iddles who charged Nichols, yet remarkably he was the first person Nichols phoned when he was released from Pentridge, 18 years after he was put away. "Even when I was in jail I used to follow his story and think, 'Keep up the good work,' " Nichols says. "When I got out we had a cup of coffee. I took him as a fascinating sort of person."

One might expect that a convicted murderer would never want to see the officer who charged him again, but Nichols, 59, sees Iddles as something of a father figure, even though they are the same age. "I've never held anything against him," says Nichols. "He was only doing his job as far as I was concerned - to get behind the truth of it all."

Iddles has been criticised for affording murderers their dignity but he's known for treating everyone equally. "The greatest gift you can give anyone is the ability to listen," he says. And you never know what someone might tell you. Information about a crime might come to light, or a life may be saved.

That's what happened 13 months ago when Nichols phoned Iddles in the middle of the night to say his best mate's de facto had died of an overdose and was lying dead in her house, her 12-month-old baby nearby.

Nichols' mate feared phoning the police himself because there was an intervention order preventing him from visiting his de facto's home and he didn't want to get into trouble. So Iddles phoned Footscray CIB to tell them about the woman's death - and the helpless baby. "Sometimes I think if I didn't answer that phone call, what would have happened?" he says.

The late underworld identity Carl Williams was also a closet Iddles supporter, because Iddles stuck by his belief that Williams could not possibly have made it across town in time to murder his arch nemesis, Mark Moran, as the Purana taskforce had claimed. "Carl Williams could have been behind it but personally I don't think he pulled the trigger," Iddles says.

Defence solicitor Peter Ward, from Galbally and O'Bryan, believes the secret to Iddles' success is that he never double-crossed the killers he was trying to nail. "His word is his bond, and that is a big thing."

Iddles is so committed to the truth that he once charged a man with murder - then proved he didn't do it. Armed with enough evidence to charge him, Iddles arrested Peter Smith over the brutal 2002 murder of security guard Slawomir Tomczyk. But after the arrest, Iddles had a niggling feeling he'd pinched the wrong bloke. He dug further, realised he'd made a mistake and set about clearing Smith's name. During the 2007 inquest, Coroner Peter White commended Ron for acting "in the best traditions of the force''.

Exonerating Smith took a load off Iddles' shoulders and made The Great Man weep in court. It's well known these days that the homicide veteran can get a little moist-eyed when justice is finally meted out, or when he's talking about a senseless murder. ''I think I'm human,'' he explains. ''There's a misconception that we're all supposed to have some strong, hard-shelled exterior and never show any emotion. But it's a release mechanism instead of bottling it up.''

Claims, in November last year, that it had been inappropriate for Iddles to show a photograph of Jill Meagher's body at a prostate cancer fund-raiser in Bendigo also upset him deeply. The image was shown on a screen for less than a second and the presentation had the express blessing of Jill Meagher's family in Ireland. ''I've only ever tried to make good out of bad,'' Iddles says.

Iddles' family was particularly aggrieved when they read some people's knee-jerk reactions to the controversy. ''It's hard when you read some of the stuff on social media,'' his daughter Jo Zammit says. ''You think, 'You don't know him. You don't know what he does.' ''

''He's very good to all of us,'' she says. ''He drops everything for his kids and for Mum.''

Zammit's youngest child, two-year-old Darcy Ronald Iddles (named after his grandpa), is the most recent addition to the family, and is the apple of the investigator's eye. ''We often watch Poppy on TV,'' she says. ''And Darcy gets so excited. He calls out, 'Poppy! Poppy!' It's really nice to see that. And nice for Dad because he has the biggest heart of anyone.''

It would seem so, because Iddles has helped raise more than $1 million for charity yet has never charged a fee. He is, as his former crew member Humphries says, ''a walking pin-up boy for Neighbourhood Watch''.

So, not surprisingly, what bothered Iddles the most about the Jill Meagher controversy was that the critics failed to understand he showed her picture in the context of a speech about keeping each other safe.

While he puts the blame for Meagher's demise firmly on the shoulders of predator Adrian Bayley, he wonders if things could have been different that night. ''She had a very high blood-alcohol reading - 0.230,'' Iddles says. ''What about the responsible serving of alcohol? Who put her in that position? Who left her in that position? If we're going to go out and do these things, we've got to look after each other.''

Since the fund-raiser, Iddles has received numerous letters of support. ''I received one letter from a dad saying, 'I go and pick up my daughter from the nightclub now.' ''Who knows - maybe we've saved someone's life.''

If saving lives and catching killers is what Iddles' police career has been about, where to now, as he embarks on his role as secretary of one of the state's most politicised unions? And did he jump or, in light of the Jill Meagher beat-up, was he pushed?

''One month prior to Jill Meagher I'd made a decision to put in for the Police Association job. Why? For seven years we've had a rotation policy [at homicide] and I was the only senior sergeant left out of the original five. Some of the replacements had even been rotated.

''So come April, I'd have been at homicide for 20 years straight. It was getting difficult to leave me there and justify it. A couple of things were said and I made the decision I'd put in for the Police Association job before anything came up.''

It's a job that Ron feels he's up to and he plans to focus on maintaining membership at a time when younger generations don't always see the value of belonging to a union.

''I'm going to be on a steep learning curve and I recognise that the job needs someone who has a profile, who has contact with senior government ministers, the executive command and the media. But I've got all those. I'm ready-made. Now it's a case of fine-tuning those management skills.''

Iddles may already have overcome a hurdle, amid claims former Police Association boss Paul Mullet tried to prevent him from getting the job. But Iddles isn't interested in rumours and what might have been; as he walked out the door of his beloved homicide squad, he knew it was time to look forward, not back.

''Enterprise bargaining starts at the end of 2015 so that will be one of the most important things to focus on at the association,'' he says. ''We're sending out a survey saying, 'What do you want us to look at? What do you want us to deliver?' ''

Police statistics show members no longer stay in the job for the long haul. The average police career is eight or nine years, and Iddles wants to know why. Iddles also plans to address the increasing number of police suicides - an estimated five over the past 22 months. He believes it would help if, when members are charged and suspended over disciplinary matters, they are still paid while awaiting the outcomes.

''People's livelihoods have to be considered,'' he says. ''They might be married and have mortgages. One officer killed herself recently after being charged. She had two children to look after.''

As Iddles officially takes over the chair from Greg Davies on April 7, he will be sadly missed by those whose lives he has touched during his 25 years at homicide. And he will miss them, but in all likelihood ''The Great Man'' will stay in touch.

''The Great Man?'' he says, pondering the title. ''I've always been a bit embarrassed by it, to be honest.

''I'm just an ordinary guy whose been doing an extraordinary job.''

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop