‘If you don’t do a line, I’m going to blow your guts out’
Talking quietly over beers in the Police Bar on the top floor of headquarters, Keith Banks and his work partner Larry did not blend in with the other cops.
They had long, messy hair, battered jeans and beards - the telltale signs of a couple of off-duty undercover officers. Their day-jobs were to pose as drug dealers or users and catch real dealers agreeing to supply or purchase drugs. It was exhausting, lonely, dangerous work.
Back in Brisbane for a rare day in the office, they just wanted to relax.
It didn't take long for the other cops to single them out.
"Probably in hindsight we shouldn't have gone," Banks recalls in the latest episode of podcast I Catch Killers with Gary Jubelin.
"As an undercover, you crave that family of blue again. You crave to be able to sit somewhere with coppers and just not have to watch your back.
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"Three detectives from the drug squad came over and formed a bit of a semicircle around us. The usual pleasantries. And then one of them said: 'Ah, you know, look, we hear you blokes are staunch'."
To Banks, the word 'staunch' was the dictionary definition: loyal, strong, reliable.
"And I said: 'Yeah, I think we're staunch'. And they said 'Good, because we've got a deal for you. We've got a lot of powder that we want to move. Next time you boys are out in the field on a job we'll give it to you. You sell it. We split the profits 50/50."
The powder they were talking about was cocaine.
"That was a conversation happening - it still galls me - in the police club."
Banks, stunned, started muttering excuses: It's a bit risky, there's a lot of heat at the moment.
The response was calm: "Look, we're the drug squad. We'll make sure nothing happens."
Three decades later, Banks is still stunned. The author of new book Drugs, Guns and Lies, he is Queensland's most highly decorated officer, having twice been honoured for extraordinary valour, and newly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder: the legacy of years of undercover and tactical policing in an environment where, he says, senior police often didn't care about the UCs' welfare.
Banks started out as a non-drinking, non-smoking polite country boy who had no intention of using drugs.
After a few months as an undercover officer he could "pull cones with the best of them" and hold his own in a drinking competition, but he'd manage to avoid using hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine by saying he was a dealer who kept himself clean by not actually using drugs himself.
He'd perfected the routine: head to an area where drugs were rife, pick a pub and start hanging around, giving the appearance of a potential drug user, until someone approached him wanting to sell or buy. He learned to play pool and would just wait for an approach.
"I'd met a guy at this notorious little pub called the Royal Exchange in Brisbane, which was where you went to get drugs."
The man approached and after chatting for a while asked: "Interested in speed?" To which Banks replied: "Yeah. Wouldn't mind that."
Banks agreed to visit the dealer at his home that night, a crappy flat in Auchenflower, then a grimy inner Brisbane suburb.
"So I knocked on the door and opened it up and he was sampling his own product, mate," Banks tells Jubelin. "He was away. He was just wild. Goodbye ground, bye-bye honey.
"I (said): "OK mate, yep I want two grams, (he said) yeah, good, good, good, good, good, good - you know, talking a million miles an hour.
"So he gave me the two bags, (I) gave him the money and he goes: "Rightio", and he starts chopping up a line.
"I said: 'Oh, no mate. I don't use.'
"He looked at me and reached down on the floor and pulled out a coach gun. A coach gun was a sawn-off double-barrel shotgun with most of the stock sawn off as well. And he put it on the table. Cocked, both hammers back (and said): 'If you don't do a line with me I'm going to blow your guts out'."
Banks immediately had a flashback to the moment, as a general duties uniformed cop with four weeks' experience, when he'd shown up at a domestic dispute to be confronted with an enraged man pointing a shotgun in his face.
"I'm thinking 'Oh, here we go again.' (I had) no gun, no backup, nothing. And he was off his nut.
"I looked him and said: 'OK mate, where's the straw?'
Banks' new friend was thrilled: "That's the way!"
"So I did two lines of speed (methamphetamine) with him. God knows what was on that table. And then I'm off - bang. And he was happy because he'd had someone to do a line with rather than sit there and do it by himself."
Banks finalised the deal and got out of there, driving the 15-minute journey to his home in Greenslopes.
But it was 1980s Brisbane and for a young man with methamphetamine racing through his veins, there was very little to do.
"So I got home. My pulse rate would have been four thousand an hour. Adrenaline, speed. Going wow. In those days, there was an FM radio station that had just started.
"So I had some music. But then that filtered out after a period of time. Television stopped at midnight. Yeah. So here I was speeding to the eyeballs in a flat. Not brave enough to go outside because I had no idea what I'd get up to or what would happen.
"And a million miles an hour with nothing to do. So that lasted all night. And I was a martial artist then. So I'm doing karate kata, which is, you know, predesigned movements over and over and over and over.
"And then I crashed and went into the office the next morning, the usual, you know, 10 or 11 in the morning, like you see, we'd sneak in the office through the back way.
"I must have looked like a bag of shit. I came in and said to my handler, the guy who was running the operation: 'I scored two grams of speed last night. And he's got a shottie, and he made me do speed'."
Banks' boss was unperturbed. "Oh, he's got a gun. OK, I'll put that on the running sheet."
There was no check on Banks' welfare; no follow-up, no risk assessment.
Banks saw fellow undercover fall victim to this lack of care, combined with the immense temptation of a legal outlaw lifestyle.
He's still haunted by one mate, Harry, who became addicted to heroin as an undercover and was brought back onto general duties and deployed as a court orderly - a dreadfully boring existence that was never going to satisfy him.
After four years in the force, Harry was discharged as medically unfit and given a $120,000 payout, Banks says.
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"He put it all up his arm and started doing stick-ups because the only way to feed his addiction was to do stick-up in Brisbane … he had a Harley, rode his Harley down to Adelaide, did more stick-ups. He always used a replica (gun) because, you know, having spoken to him, he certainly wouldn't hurt anybody; he just needed money. And not that it's any excuse, of course, but I firmly believe that his job contributed to that and the department was never held accountable."
Harry did several years in prison in South Australia before being extradited to Queensland, where he served more time.
"At his trial, a particular detective sergeant gave evidence in his favour. This guy, Stan, was an incredibly honest, principled man. And he actually said Harry developed this (addiction) as a direct result of his undercover work. The judge took that into consideration. Stan's career from that time on was gone because he'd had the audacity to actually speak truthfully about Harry."
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Originally published as 'If you don't do a line, I'm going to blow your guts out'