Way back in the big-hair, greed-is-good 1980s, three Perth brothers were convicted of stealing 49 gold bars from the city’s mint in a slick heist.
It was a scandalous case that aroused passionate debate. Were Ray, Peter and Brian Mickelberg, a rather dashing trio of fishers and fighter pilots, really guilty?
Or had they been stitched up by a coalition of dirty coppers and fat-cat enablers?
Thirty-five years after the Mickelbergs were convicted of defrauding the Perth Mint, and 13 years after their convictions were quashed following seven unsuccessful appeals, the dust has resolutely failed to settle.
Nobody knows this better than Ray Mickelberg, who spoke to me for Earshot’s Wrongful series.
“I would say before you make any judgement, make sure you’ve read all the transcripts. Take with a grain of salt what’s in the media,” he said.
“If you were privy to all that happened, you come away — anyone will come away — unequivocally convinced that we didn’t commit the crime.”
Tracking down Ray Mickelberg
What is clear is the great mint swindle remains a tale without an ending.
The gold, valued at the time at over $650,000, hasn’t been seen since. At least, that’s the story, but even that much remains murky.
One of the two detectives who might know for sure what really happened on that 1982 day was killed in a car-bomb explosion.
The other took his own life after admitting evidence against the brothers was fabricated.
Ray Mickelberg, an SAS pilot-turned-fisherman, was the eldest of the brothers, and is said by some to have been the mastermind of the swindle.
When I eventually tracked him down, I left an awkward voice message (because surely this couldn’t be the R Mickelberg?) — and got a call back within five minutes.
It was Ray and he was happy to talk. Keen as, in fact.
Picked up in the Woolworths carpark
The ramshackle property a few blocks from one of Perth’s pristine northern beaches was not what I was expecting.
There were bits and pieces of heavy machinery and half-finished timber projects littering the front yard. Inside, the home was scrupulously clean, small and modestly furnished.
Against the almost aggressive ordinariness of these surroundings, at age 71 Ray still radiated an unmistakeable charisma.
A storyteller of prodigious power, perceptive, sly and hilariously funny, he looked at least a decade younger and fitter than his years.
He says on the day of his arrest, his brother Peter had gone to the chemist for cold medicine, and never came back. Ray went out to find him.
“Mid-afternoon, I’m driving around all the car parks, thinking maybe his car’s dumped somewhere,” says Ray Mickelberg.
What happened next, Ray says, was “straight out of the movies”.
“I’m doing about 10 kilometres an hour in the big car park near Woolworths shopping centre, and suddenly, cars all round jam me in — one from each side, one from the back, one from the front,” he says.
“About six detectives jump out, surround the car, throw me into another police car, and drive me, at high speed — it was ridiculous — into police headquarters.
“About half an hour later, [two officers] come in either side of Peter, and you could see he’d been bashed.
“I said ‘you low bastards.’ Then we were chucked in a cell, and we were charged.”
A stitch up
Police extracted a series of incriminating statements from Ray, Peter and Brian.
In 1983, the brothers were found guilty of the conspiracy and sentenced in 1983 to 20, 16 and 12 years in jail respectively.
Brian served nine months before his conviction was overturned on appeal, but died in a tragic (and to some minds, highly suspicious) helicopter accident in 1986.
Ray served eight years before being released on parole.
The youngest brother, Peter, who was only 22 at the time of the arrest, served six and a half years. Rumour has it he is now living in the rural south-west of Western Australia, and that his children attend school in Perth under different names.
The remaining convictions were overturned in 2004, following one of WA’s longest-running legal sagas.
It followed an admission from former detective Tony Lewandowski that police had fabricated statements and committed perjury.
WA’s then attorney-general, Jim McGinty, made a damning assessment of the situation:
“What the police officers were found to have done can only be described as a perversion of the system of justice of the worst kind.”
But the Mickelbergs have never fully cleared their names — at least not in the court of public opinion.
Rumours of widespread corruption within the mint continue to circulate even today, but have never been substantiated.
The people closest to the story — from former mint employees to journalists, biographers, elected officials and legal practitioners — are divided into three roughly equal camps: those convinced of the Mickelbergs’ guilt, those convinced of their innocence, and those flummoxed to this day.
What is clear, is that at a certain point, Ray and his brothers were stitched up.
The question remains: can you be stitched up for a crime you actually did commit? In theory, yes.
In practice — in the case of the great Perth mint swindle — we may never know for sure.