Underbelly 6, p.1

Underbelly 6, page 1


Underbelly 6

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Underbelly 6

  Allen & Unwin’s House of Books aims to bring Australia’s cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation’s most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers that were published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books that had fallen out of circulation.

  The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia’s finest literary achievements.

  John Silvester has been a crime reporter in Melbourne since 1978. He has co-authored many crime books with Andrew Rule, including the Underbelly series, Leadbelly and Tough: 101 Australian Gangsters. In 2007 he was the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year and Victorian Law Foundation Journalist of the Year. He is currently senior crime reporter for The Age.

  Andrew Rule is a Walkley award-winning reporter who has worked in newspapers, television and radio since 1975. He wrote Cuckoo, the inside story of the ‘Mr Stinky’ case and has co-written, edited and published a number of crime novels, including the Underbelly series. Twice Australian journalist of the year, he is Associate Editor at Melbourne’s Herald Sun.

  The authors’ work has been adapted into the top-rating Underbelly television series.



  John Silvester & Andrew Rule

  This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012

  First published by Floradale Productions and Sly Ink, Melbourne in 2002

  Copyright © Floradale Productions and Sly Ink 2002

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

  Allen & Unwin

  Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London

  83 Alexander Street

  Crows Nest NSW 2065



  (61 2) 8425 0100


  (61 2) 9906 2218





  Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia


  ISBN 9781742699363 (ebook)

  ‘Silvester and Rule have an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime. It is a sickness.’



  1 Beauty and the beast

  2 Cold-blooded murder

  3 Rape and power

  4 Top Gunn

  5 The Mickelberg stitch-up

  6 Thrill killer

  7 Old age and treachery

  8 The fall guy

  9 Greedy is not good

  10 Mr Frank

  11 A juggler who lost his nerve

  12 Occupational hazard

  13 A sashimi deal

  14 The last laugh

  15 The final chapter

  ‘It’s about time law enforcement got as organized as organized crime.’



  Beauty and the beast

  Her story was one of showbusiness, fame, glamour, sex, violence, betrayal, adultery, greed and intrigue.

  VETERAN homicide investigator Charlie Bezzina was on leave and driving towards Gippsland in eastern Victoria when his mobile phone rang.

  The man at the other end didn’t need to introduce himself. They had known each other for almost 10 years, although they would never be friends.

  The caller was Vic Ramchen. He had phoned to say that one of his three gifted children had just won an international maths prize in the United States.

  Bezzina congratulated the proud father and wished his children well. But, as he drove on, he wondered why Ramchen felt compelled to share the news with him.

  The detective knew he would soon charge Ramchen with the murder of his missing wife, a crime the suspect had always denied. He believed Ramchen was giving him a message … but what?

  Was Ramchen saying that whatever had happened in April, 1992, when Jacqui Ramchen disappeared from her South Yarra mansion, it had not harmed the children?

  Did he want the detective to know, despite the police’s belief he was a murderer, that he was still a good father?

  Or was he saying that his children were better off without a mother who could have destroyed his family and their financial security? That, in desperate times, the end can justify the means?

  It is one small mystery wrapped inside the enigma of a murder investigation that remains suspended in time.

  WHEN Jacqueline Mertens returned to Melbourne in 1980 after eight years overseas, she was broke – but the flighty former model had a plan to make sure she would always enjoy the lavish lifestyle she had pursued around the world.

  The 1970s television game show hostess wanted a husband, children, a mansion and money – lots of it.

  To win her version of the jackpot, the 32-year-old planned to use the most ancient method of all. She knew her bankable assets were her stunning looks and smouldering sexuality. The former model on the successful quiz The Price is Right no longer strutted the catwalk, but she still turned heads in the street.

  After her modest television career she had gone to Hong Kong and married. When that relationship failed, she moved to London to work in fashion and modelling before returning to Australia.

  Her plan to find a rich husband was not an original one, but what made Jacqui Mertens different was that she was honest about her intentions and ruthlessly determined in her application.

  She would later confide to friends that she was going to marry for money, and that love would come later.

  One friend told police: ‘She ran out of money and came back to Australia. Jacqui was 32 at the time and she had told her mother that the first man who came along she would marry. She seemed to have set a time limit. She mentioned that the man had to have money.’

  But Jacqui was not prepared to trust fate and initiated her own star search. She remembered a stern-faced civil engineer with a business brain she had met by chance at a Melbourne restaurant eight years earlier.

  They had gone out once when she was about to leave to be married in Hong Kong. Now she wondered whether he was still available.

  She found out within weeks of returning to Melbourne. His name was Slavik Ramchen. He was a hard-working, hard-drinking divorcee, known as Vic.

  Ramchen’s younger sister, Erika, was working as his secretary at his Richmond office when an attractive and confident woman walked in.

  ‘I thought she was someone wanting to sell carbon paper or something and I asked her why she wanted to see Vic and she stated she was a friend,’ Erika was to recall.

  ‘I don’t think Vic recognised her. Jacqui jogged Vic’s memory and then we all had a drink in the office.’ The two not-so-old friends went out to dinner that night.

  ‘The next morning I learnt that Jacqui had stayed with Vic that night … I thought that it would be a one-night stand,’ Erika said.

  She was wrong.

  The couple began to date and, about a month later, Erika arrived at the home she shared with Vic in Erin Street, Richmond, to find Jacqui ‘sitting out the f
ront of his house on a suitcase’. The next day, she moved in.

  Erika did not trust the younger woman. ‘During this time I saw a great deal of Jacqui as we were living in the same house and it was apparent that Jacqui was persistently asking Vic to marry her. She was constantly trying to project herself as being a potential model wife.’

  Ramchen’s sister was not the only one with doubts. Jacqui’s father, Josephus, said, ‘I first met Victor about a week before Jacqui married. They came to our house in Belgrave. As soon as I met Victor I did not like him. I thought he was too smooth or devious or something like that.’

  In June, 1980, they married at the registry office. It was no society wedding but the model and the businessman seemed happy enough. She was obviously a classic beauty but it would be many years before police would allege he was the classic beast.

  RAMCHEN had built up a strong civil engineering firm and was expanding into property development with projects in Gisborne and Northcote. His work was professional and thorough. He once promised to build 10 shops in 12 weeks for the Gisborne development. He made the deadline.

  In 1979, he had bought a ‘weekender’ – Macedon Grange, a beautiful 100-hectare property near Woodend. In the early 1980s, he built a big bluestone house there. In the late 1980s, the property was valued at almost $1.5 million.

  Property prices were buoyant and life was good. Ramchen was gruff, hard and uncompromising but, according to Erika he wasn’t violent: ‘Vic barks, but does not bite.’

  Business associates say Ramchen was confident to the point of arrogance and bristled with self-belief. ‘Nothing seemed to worry him,’ one said.

  He would leave his shops empty rather than compromise on rent.

  He was rich and getting richer. Jacqui seemed content – but she soon made it clear she wanted more: she wanted to be the model mother as well as a socialite wife. Vic, eight years older, had lingering doubts. ‘I did not really want children … I considered myself too old to be kicking footballs around and other such fatherly activities, but she was young and wanted children.’

  Vic warmed to the idea and the couple had two boys and a girl. All were to become gifted students – despite the trauma they were to endure.

  Friends said Jacqui was a good mother. ‘She and Lev (her eldest) were particularly close. He was very much a mummy’s boy. She was protective of him and the other children,’ former neighbour Christine Mills told police.

  Another neighbour, Elizabeth Farrell, also noticed how close Lev was to his mother ‘back then’.

  After the birth of their third child in 1989, the Ramchens bought the 100-year-old mansion, Fairbairn, in Domain Road, South Yarra, for almost $3 million.

  The once-beautiful two-storey home had been renovated in the 1920s but had been in decline for years. The Ramchens were determined to return it to its prime. It would be the perfect stage for their showcase marriage.

  One business contact remembers going to the house soon after the Ramchens moved in. ‘There were between 40 and 50 tradesmen swarming around. I said it looked like a great place and Vic said, “It will be when I’ve finished”.’

  Jacqui told a friend they were spending ‘hundreds of thousands’ on the renovations. Then came the crash – financial, emotional and physical.

  THE first semi-public fracture in the marriage happened a year after the wedding. The Ramchens, Erika and her husband Michael were having a drink and a chat. Vic Ramchen was holding court, making the point that education was the cornerstone of success. Michael solemnly agreed. According to Erika, ‘With that, Jacqui said that whatever they could get with their education and money she could get “with this” and she pointed to her female part.’

  Vic was shocked and angry at this vulgar display. He stormed out and within a few hours Jacqui moved back to her parents’ home in Belgrave.

  According to Erika, Jacqui was desperate to patch up their problems and went to his office. ‘She was begging and pleading for Vic to take her back and she physically dropped to her knees and continued to beg.’

  The next day she had moved back. Their problems didn’t surface again for another decade.

  Some relationships slowly disintegrate; others explode. Few turn into the running, public battle the Ramchens waged with each other. Even Vic would later say to police that his marriage would, ‘make a bloody good soapie’.

  The big gates and tall spiked fence in front of the mansion could not conceal the ongoing war.

  Marlene Gould lived next door with her husband, Noel, and three adult children. On December 21, 1991, she was cleaning up after her son’s 21st birthday when she heard the Ramchens abusing each other. ‘He was putting his hands on her and she was saying “Leave me alone”.’

  Five days later there was another argument.

  ‘She was saying things like, “I’m sick of you calling me a whore and a prostitute … If I as much as look sideways you think I’m having an affair with everybody … I may as well be dead as living the way you treat me”.

  ‘I heard Vic say, “Why don’t you kill me?” She said, “Stand in front of the car and I’ll run you over.” Vic stood in front of the car, the BMW. Jacqui got in, turned on the motor, opened the door, yelled out: “Get down the driveway further so that I can run at you.” Vic did this, and then Jacqui drove at him quite quickly. When the car got near him Vic jumped out of the way and Jacqui put the brakes on.

  ‘I couldn’t say if the car would have hit Vic if he didn’t move. I didn’t know if Jacqui would have been able to stop. Jacqui screamed out he was a coward, She said, “You won’t even stand there and let me kill you, but you’ll be happy when you kill me”.’

  She heard more arguments and saw Vic’s mother yelling. This wouldn’t happen if you were a good wife … You should be a good wife. You must have sex with your husband.’

  ‘Later that night I heard them out the back. I heard laughing and I think they were playing with the kids, so everything appeared okay to me.’

  It was a pattern that was repeated regularly: moments of insane anger punctuating apparently normal family life. Jacqui’s brother, Jack Mertens, went to the Domain Road house to visit his sister. What followed left the quiet farmer stunned. He later told police that Ramchen ‘started saying that Jacqui was a whore and he was making accusations about her … At one stage Jacqui started slapping Vic across the face and on the chest.’

  Ramchen asked to see Mertens inside and, according to the brother, said: ‘Look, Jack, I don’t know what to do, whether to shoot myself or her.’

  Later, in the backyard, ‘Vic kept calling Jacqui a slut and a whore and Jacqui lost it again and grabbed a ladder and threw it at him. She was calling him a pig. She also threw a glass at Vic but it missed him and hit the wall beside him.’

  Even though her brother suggested she go with him, she remained determined to stay at the mansion. News of the arguments spread. It became the talk of their children’s private school, Christ Church Grammar.

  In 1992, a group of mothers and a teacher were standing together at pick-up time at the school when Vic Ramchen walked past. According to one of the mothers, Maree Turner, he said, ‘How do you do? I’m Vic Ramchen and my wife is a harlot.’

  Jacqui was no more interested in keeping matters private, telling Maree Turner that Vic demanded sex ‘eight times a day’.

  In early 1992, Jacqui saw a woman she knew from when their children had attended the same kindergarten. They went for coffee at the Jam Factory in Prahran.

  As the children drank milkshakes, Jacqui Ramchen unburdened herself to the increasingly embarrassed acquaintance. ‘I was uncomfortable that her children were present when she talked of Vic and the problems they were experiencing.’

  Jacqui talked of their financial problems and said she and her husband began drinking wine and arguing after the morning school run. ‘This was said in front of the children.’

  She told another friend, Helen Grant, that Ramchen was ‘watching her every move. She said th
at Victor was smart but she said that she could outsmart him.’ Grant described Jacqui Ramchen as a sensitive and loving mother.

  Ramchen was known as a quiet and brooding man. As his marriage began to unravel, so did he. Once, when queried over an overdue account at his local service station, Ramchen showed his increasingly bizarre behaviour.

  Manager David Sasse told police that in a shop full of people Ramchen yelled out, ‘I’m experiencing matrimonial difficulties.’

  ‘Everyone’s mouths dropped and (they) looked at him in embarrassment,’ Sasse said.

  The couple yelled in the streets, argued at parties and involved friends, relatives and strangers in their fights. Some were bemused, others horrified, while most were riveted by this real life soap opera.

  Once, Ramchen drove to the school to spy on his wife during a fundraising whist card night. ‘I could see Jacqui and this man and he was definitely paying her much more than friendly attention. I went in and told her to come home with me,’ Ramchen would later tell police.

  On March 20, 1992, police were called to the house for a routine domestic disturbance. Constable Peter Easton said Jacqui Ramchen claimed she was in the ‘process of filing for divorce’ and she had moved to the rear of the house.

  Jacqui told the police she would leave when she was financially stable. ‘She indicated strongly that at this time she would also take the children when she left.’

  As police were talking to Jacqui her husband interjected, saying: ‘You’re nothing but a slut. You’re a whore.’ When police tried to calm him, ‘he then re-directed his hostility towards us,’ Easton said.

  Jacqui started talking to a Catholic nun about her marriage. Victor rang Sister Michele Kennan and asked to see her. The nun was uncomfortable with the meeting but finally agreed after Ramchen persisted.

  He brought two bottles of wine as gifts and ‘evidence’ – a love letter and a bag of his wife’s lingerie – to prove she was sexually promiscuous.

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