Brett Peter Cowan told one of his new friends that he thought Daniel Morcombe was “a f-----’ cute little (thing)” when he spotted the 13-year-old waiting for a bus. He told the friend that he’d had his “man fun” four other times in the abandoned demountable building where he took Daniel. He told him that he knew if Daniel got away he “was f-----”. He told him that he used a shovel to crush up a fragment of Daniel’s skull.
Brett Cowan’s new friend, a man called “Paul Fitzsimmons” or “Fitzy”, told Cowan that he was his mate. “We’re ya family brother.” He told Cowan, a serial paedophile also known as Shaddo N-unyah Hunter, that his new gang would look after him, that honesty was what bonded the gang together. “That’s what it is mate, it’s about brotherhood. ‘Cause if we’re brothers then we don’t f----- do the wrong thing by each other, you rely on each other.” Fitzy told him they’d all done “shit we shouldn’t of” and the gang could make his shit go away.
Brett Peter Cowan with his family. Photo: Supplied
Cowan was oblivious, but “Paul” wasn’t his friend. Paul was a police officer, covert operative 452 in a complex, protracted and costly undercover sting operation that united Queensland and West Australian police forces in one of the most remarkable investigations in Australian policing history and which led to Cowan confessing to the murder of Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe on December 7, 2003.
In the absence of any forensic evidence, the confession was the foundation of the prosecution case against him which on Thursday resulted in the jury returning a guilty verdict against Cowan.
But it’s not just the policing that was remarkable — the fact that so much information has been laid out on the public record about the controversial policing technique, known as the “Mr Big” technique or the “Canadian” technique, is unprecedented.
Victim: Daniel Morcombe. Photo: Andy Zakeli
“Dozens” of police worked “tirelessly” for many months, Chris Dawson, deputy commissioner of West Australian police, told reporters after the verdict was delivered on Thursday. “I don’t propose to comment at all on the methodology.” A Queensland police media spokesperson told Fairfax Media that questions about the operation “stray into areas that we couldn’t comment on for investigative reasons”.
It is believed that during committal proceedings in the Brisbane magistrates court, police made an application for a non-publication order to prevent details of the undercover operation being aired.
“It is a very expensive exercise and quite intense, requiring an enormous amount of resources and controls,” says one former Australian police undercover operative. “This technique has been used in Australia, especially in regards to the infiltration of organised crime syndicates and OMGs (Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs).”
It’s the stuff of lurid crime novels: undercover police groom a suspect to convince them they have what it takes to be part of a successful crime gang with broad networks and rich rewards. But, the suspect is told, the gang is only as strong as its weakest link and honesty is all. Tell us your dirt and we’ll make it go away.
Brett Peter Cowan had inconceivable dirt to divulge, but he didn’t do it in a hurry.
In March 2011, he appeared at an inquest into Daniel Morcombe’s disappearance, giving evidence as “person of interest 7”, or “P7”. “He gives everyone in the courtroom the shivers,” Bruce Morcombe would tell journalists outside the court, where information about Cowan’s history of vile sex offences against small boys was revealed.
It’s not clear whether police had long been planning an undercover operation to try to crack Cowan or whether the inquest spurred them into action but on April 1, 2011, when Cowan was excused and caught a Qantas flight back to Perth where he was living, police hit the “go” button.
Initially, Cowan was suspicious. “It was just like it was a bit sus, I’d just walked out of, um, the Coroner’s Court and shit … this bloke sits beside me on the plane and starts talkin’ and that …,” Cowan would later tell one of his new gangster friends.
But by the end of the flight he had offered to help his flight companion — an undercover officer going by the name “Joseph (Joe) Michael Emery” who said he was moving to Perth — to buy a car and had given him his phone number.
Police script writers were ready to roll out gripping follow-up episodes. The next day, Cowan helped his new friend buy a Ford Fairmont at “Mr Magoo’s Motors”. A few days later they caught up for some sightseeing around the Fremantle foreshore. "At this stage I was still just building rapport and trying to build a relationship with Mr Cowan," “Joe” told the court during the trial.
His efforts were helped along by Cowan’s own down-and-out situation. He’d lost his job, was skint. In early May when Joe introduced Cowan to another mate of his, “Paul”, and they suggested they could help him get some “easy work, easy money”, Cowan was playdough in their hands.
Cowan’s “gang” friends and an extensive and sleazy cast of undercover operatives initiated him through more than 20 escalating criminal scenarios. He helped to get styrofoam boxes of illegal crayfish to Eddie the Chinese restaurateur, picking up about $200 for the job.
He picked up some more cash for helping to collect an outstanding $2000 from a brothel madam called Cassie. In a bid to blackmail a bank manager connected to the gang, Cowan was asked to take photographs of the man with a prostitute at a Scarborough cafe. “He was enthusiastic, saw himself as a photographer,” Paul would later reveal.
He took part in a raid on a customs warehouse to steal cigarettes and was involved in the purchase of illegal firearms. “Mr Cowan made out he had a knowledge of firearms and he handled them,” Paul Fitzsimons told the court. “He told me his Dad was quite high up in the Army and that throughout his childhood he’d had a lot of access to firearms.”
On June 13, he flew to Melbourne with Paul to pick up $40,000 worth of “blood diamonds”. They met “Arnold”, the gang’s “Mr Big”, in the bar of the Hilton Hotel. For Cowan’s benefit, Arnold arrived with an entourage and flashed a large volume of cash.
Paul had become his primary point of contact and hammered into Cowan how vital “loyalty, honesty and respect” were to the gang. Paul told him that the gang had the connections to whitewash his past. “There’s shit that’s been fixed, there’s nothin’ they can’t fix.” He also told Cowan that there was a “big job” coming up and he stood to earn $100,000 from it.
Cowan was thrilled with his new life. “I’ve found my calling, I’ve found the job I’ve been waiting for all these years,” he told his buddy. “I’m happy, and I haven’t been happy like this before. It’s not just the money, it’s ... what I’m getting from youse … the mateship. You know I’m willing to do virtually f---ing anything.”
In early August, police stepped up the operation. Cowan was told that a corrupt copper who was part of the gang had discovered that there was a new subpoena for him to give more evidence at a new inquest about Daniel’s disappearance.
He told Paul he had nothing to do with the case. Paul kept on-message. “We’re the best blokes in the world at cleanin’ up shit you know,” he told Cowan.
On August 9 it was time for another meeting with “Arnold”. In a room at the Hyatt Hotel Arnold told him he was hearing that Cowan was doing some “good stuff” for the gang. But, he said, the information that had come up about Cowan’s past needed to be sorted out. “I don’t care what you’ve done,” Arnold said, sprawling expansively back on a lounge. “You know, I’ve dealt with a lot, lot real bad c----.”
Grainy video records the moment: Cowan’s head is partly severed by the tape but he appears to have dressed up for the occasion. He’s wearing a sports jacket and his hair is tied back in a ponytail. He’s sitting on the arm of a lounge. His left arm is crooked, hand is on hip. With his right he gestures as he speaks.
“No, yeah, I did it,” he tells Arnold. ‘It is my deepest, darkest secret … I’m not proud of it.’’
That Cowan felt comfortable enough to reveal his crime is a testimony to the undercover officers’ extraordinary skills - and to his own twisted sense of standards of normalcy and decency.
Transcriptions of the taped conversations between undercover police and Brett Peter Cowan give a rare and spine-tingling insight into the mind of a serial child sex offender. They also expose more than Australian police would like to be generally known about a controversial policing technique pioneered in Canada.
The “Mr Big” sting technique, known colloquially among Australian police as “the Canadian technique”, has been used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the country’s national police force, for decades.
“There have been a variety of cases to come to public attention in Canada over the years that use the technique,” says Troy Riddell, an associate Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
Professor Riddell, who co-wrote a paper on the technique in 2012, estimates that the Mounties have used it in up to 350 cases with a 90 per cent success rate — “meaning someone is charged or they’ve eliminated someone else as a suspect”.
It is believed that Canadian police officers visited Australia in the 1990s to train Victorian police in undercover scenario techniques.
A former Australian undercover police officer says that the Australian Crime Commission historically has drawn on a pool of undercover operatives from every Australian state. “This is not something learnt in detective school, it’s a specialist area,” he says.
But “Mr Big” is not without its critics. “Some people would prefer to see that kind of sting operation eliminated completely,” says Professor Riddell.
The potential for a false confession followed by a wrongful conviction is the number one concern, he says. “People who have often been targeted in these kinds of stings are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, lower levels of education (or have) a history of alcohol and drug abuse, which all make them more susceptible to this kind of operation.”
"False confessions are actually far more common than people actually ever imagined,” says University of NSW evidence and law expert Professor Gary Edmond. Nevertheless, he says confessions have historically been regarded as the “Queen of evidence”. “In the normal course of events you have to take (a confession) extremely seriously.”
Indeed, Brett Cowan’s defence team tried fiercely to undermine the credibility of his confession to covert operative “Arnold”. “The carrots and the sticks which were offered render his confession entirely unreliable,” defence barrister Angus Edwards told the Cowan trial. "What the gang offered him was not just money, but the chance to be a part of something, part of a national brotherhood of criminals making millions of dollars. Unless he confessed, he was out; out of the dream job, out of the mateship."