There was something weird going on in Wangaratta. You can hardly class one of the fastest growing towns in Victoria as small any more, but it's a place where everyone still knows everyone. So people noticed a series of bizarre events in 2012.
Gangster-style violence was occurring at an alarming rate. It was the sort usually reserved for the 6pm news where folks with warm dinner plates on their laps could shake their heads and think this is why they don't live in Melbourne or, God forbid, Shepparton, where crime like that had been occurring for years.
In the space of four months, a young butcher was shot at his home in a busy residential street, two homes were firebombed as children slept inside and cars were set alight.
Even then, it was easy to dismiss; it was the acts of the town's ''ferals'', or in cop-speak, it was ''shit versus shit''. But beneath the surface a poisonous web was spreading, one that would ensnare the children of some of the town's most respected families. What happened - is happening - in Wangaratta is an example of what methamphetamine, colloquially known as ice, is doing to young people in rural towns across the country.
You can be anonymous in a big city, but country people know when their sons and daughters are in trouble.
''There has always been cannabis in regional Victoria and there wasn't much heroin, but because ice is so easy to manufacture it's the first time there's been a significantly harmful illegal drug that's gone right across regional and rural areas and it's gone across in a very rapid time frame,'' John Ryan, chief executive of drug policy group Penington Institute, said.
''Ice is being used by people who are not in work and already vulnerable; it's being used by white-collar people as well as tradies. It's incredibly pervasive.''
The young woman meeting me in a Wangaratta park is not your cliched methamphetamine addict. She's well-dressed, well-spoken and tells me about her siblings, her work, her life. ''We've got a beautiful house, my parents both work, they did everything they could for me,'' she says.
She is also terrified. Her fears for the safety of both herself and her family if she is identified are well-founded, police tell me. She is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, who bought ice from the most well-organised and sinister syndicate seasoned police had ever seen in Victoria's north-east.
Sitting on a bench in the park, she chooses her words carefully and keeps her sunglasses on, constantly scanning for people she might know.
She began smoking ice with friends on ''special occasions'' like long weekends and New Year's Eve, and before long she was smoking during the week. ''Then because you feel so shit, sorry,'' she says, apologising for swearing, ''you feel so crap the next day that you think, 'I'll just do a little bit just to get me up and doing stuff'. It gradually becomes an everyday thing. You want to use to function, I suppose.''
I talk to another young man from Wangaratta, this time over the phone one recent Saturday night. He says he also cannot be identified; his life, too, would be in danger if syndicate associates found out who he is.
He was working as an apprentice the entire time he used the ice he bought from the group in 2011 and 2012. It was a syndicate, he says, that introduced ice to such an extent that it was normalised for the young people he knew.
''That was what Wang was all about: go get your gear, get off your head and go to the pub, and that was every weekend in Wang, and more people started making money out of it, more and more people were dealing,'' he says.
He says ice is so accessible because it's social. You can be sitting around at a mate's place on a weekend and pass around an ice pipe like it's a cigarette. ''Once I did it, it was like, 'Yeah, that's what it is,' and you're not scared of it any more. You just become in love with the feeling and it becomes a normal thing. It was all fun and games until it turned crazy.''
It all started with a man by the name of Aaron Shane Dalton. The eldest son of an abattoir manager and aged care worker, Dalton was born and bred in Wangaratta to a respectable family with strong roots in the area. His grandfather was a country bookie in the '40s and '50s and was good enough to earn a living trackside, while his younger brother, Joshua Dalton, 27, also had a nose for business and started his own plastering company when he was barely in his 20s.
His father, Shane Dalton, told the Melbourne County Court on Wednesday that his son was restless at school, but hoped he would ''grow out of it''.
He also probably hoped Aaron would develop his own business nous, just not in the way he did. His parents thought their son had settled when, at 18, he ditched the marijuana he had been smoking from his mid-teens and got back on the road bike he had some success on as a junior.
''His father would drive him to the moon and back for them to engage in cycling,'' defence barrister Leonard Hartnett told the court.
Within a year, his father said, Dalton was ''right up there''.
Under the guidance of 1984 Olympic gold medallist Dean Woods, Dalton was one of the top 10 riders of his age group in the country and he dreamed of turning professional, vying for a spot with the Australian Institute of Sport. ''It didn't happen for him,'' his father said.
''He was very disappointed after that.''
It was the catalyst for a spiral of drug-taking and crime; petty damage developed into assaults and trafficking. ''Half the time we didn't know where he was,'' his father said. ''We tried to get him home and snap him out of it.''
But he descended further. His lawyer told the court that Dalton started selling drugs in 2011 to cope with debt.
And the intelligent, charismatic young man sold in a big way, controlling a syndicate that supplied millions of dollars of ice and ecstasy to Wangaratta, Wodonga, Yarrawonga, Myrtleford, Shepparton, Rutherglen and southern New South Wales.
The young men and women Dalton recruited were mostly ''cleanskins'' with no criminal record, from normal families. But many of them had drug habits that were growing faster than an apprentice's wage could cover.
Some were used as dealers, others, like the young women, were used to book luxury apartments on Lake Hume and Lake Mulwala - as well as a few dodgy motel rooms in Albury-Wodonga - where the ice was packaged before distribution.
Other members were used to drive hire cars up the Hume Highway to pick up drugs from Sydney or from a petrol station at Gundagai. Members would leave a hire car with cash stashed under its spare tyre and return an hour later to find ice in its place.
The drugs that weren't dealt and the cash that wasn't spent was secreted away, buried in bushland and backyards, including at the home of the Daltons' grandmother in Wangaratta.
Also buried in grandma's backyard were copies of letters that were given out to syndicate dealers. The letters almost read like the sort of business manual you'd pick up in a bank. ''We are in the business of making money, not power tripping or disrespecting our customers,'' it reads.
''If there are any complaints about our business ethic or reliability of our services, please pass on the appropriate information to your personal contact.''
It also instructed its customers what code words to use when placing an order on the phone; if you were calling to catch up for a coffee, you were after a stimulant a fair bit stronger than caffeine, and if it was bourbon, well, you weren't exactly having a quiet drink.
It would all sound very glamorous in a Hollywood crime thriller - if it wasn't for the extreme violence, intimidation and fear used on young members and those on the periphery, including families.
''These people were quite prepared to go to extreme lengths to manage, develop and protect their enterprise,'' Judge Michael Bourke told the court on Tuesday.
The only syndicate member who left the group felt its explosive wrath. Kruchan Chandler, a 27-year-old electrician and footballer from Benalla, used iced and started to deal it after Joshua Dalton introduced him to big brother, regional kingpin Aaron Dalton.
''You were attracted by the promise of drugs, money and lifestyle,'' Judge Bourke said when sentencing Chandler in the Wangaratta County Court in October. When Chandler broke away, affected by the violence and intimidation, the syndicate ''fined'' him $35,000 for leaving and his family was threatened by phone and intimidated at their homes and work.
Dalton, with members Bradley Whinray, Justin Verry and his ''muscle'', Muay Thai fighter Dean Griggs, tried to hunt Chandler down, cruelly and brutally interrogating a man living with his cousin in Wangaratta in the process. ''Azza [Aaron Dalton] gave me the look. I knew what the look was for and that he needed a bit of a slap-up,'' Griggs told police. The victim suffered fractures to the face and nose.
But the same brutality that was used to recover debt, wrestle for control and keep its members in line would eventually bring Dalton and his gang unstuck. That moment came when a young butcher was shot at his home in Wangaratta in June 2012.
There was a knock at Will Hickmott's door at 5.30am and when he opened it, he was shot twice in the chest by syndicate dealer Bradley Whinray, either as payback for a drug debt, a beating, or both. Incredibly, Hickmott, 24, was released from hospital just hours later with shotgun pellets still lodged in his torso.
On top of that, he gave an interview to local paper The Border Mail that same day - which ran with the headline ''Knock knock, bang, bang'' - where he adamantly stated he had no idea who shot him or why anybody would hurt him.
The shooting was too public, too brash and it meant Wangaratta detectives began to quietly nibble around the edges of what had been brewing in their patch.
Instead of lying low, Dalton, affected by his girlfriend leaving him and his ice use, became irrational and unpredictable in June and July 2012, and his soldiers followed suit. There were more acts of public violence (the two homes that were firebombed while children slept inside and the cars set alight), and all the while police were asking who and why and their surveillance on members started.
In September 2012, police intercepted a car that cosily had Dalton, syndicate members Dean Griggs and Justin Verry, and a large amount of ice inside.
It turned out that some of those whom Dalton had lured into the syndicate were relieved to be arrested; it was, they felt, their only way out, and the majority of its members, including Dalton's own brother, ended up co-operating with the police. Dalton's father told the County Court on Wednesday that for him too, it was a relief for his eldest son to be arrested.
Hartnett told the court his client Dalton had transformed in Port Phillip Prison, enrolling in a behavioural science degree and achieving distinctions for essays that displayed the ''intelligent mind'' of someone who is able to understand ''serious problems in the community''.
His father said Dalton has stopped talking about ''getting people back'' and had told him how ''bad ice is and what it's doing to people''.
But in Wangaratta, the scars of the syndicate are still felt sharply. Even after the arrest of nine of its members in late 2012, people are still scared, ice is still readily available and arson attacks have continued, which points to another group taking over control of the drug market.
''Ice has already taken over and it's going to take a genius to get rid of it,'' one local user said.
''It's like cane toads, they were introduced and weren't expected to grow this big.''
Aaron Shane Dalton, 32, of Wangaratta
Boss of the syndicate, a former champion cyclist who closely controlled the group through strict rules, threats and violence. Pleaded guilty, awaiting sentencing.
Jai Trevor Montgomery, 26, of Wangaratta
Nicknamed ‘‘Peg’’ due to a missing leg, friend of Dalton since they were 18. Firebombed a Yarrawonga home while mother and her infant children were inside. Pleaded guilty, awaiting sentencing.
Bradley Whinray, 24, of Wangaratta
Baker with no prior criminal convictions. Shot a butcher at his home and firebombed a house in Wangaratta. Sentenced to a minimum three-and-a-half years.
Dean Griggs, 24, of Melton
A prized Muay Thai fighter, he conducted what Judge Michael Bourke described as a “cruel and brutal” interrogation at the behest of Aaron Dalton of a young man in a Wangaratta home. Sentenced to a minimum two years.
Kruchan Chandler, 27, of Benalla
Football player and electrician, and the only one of the syndicate who chose to leave. Both he and his family became the target of threats and violence. Received a suspended sentence of three years.
Joshua Dalton, 27, of Caulfield South
Plasterer and brother of Aaron Dalton, started dealing for the syndicate to make ‘‘easy money’’. Pleaded guilty, awaiting sentencing.
Justin Huck Verry, 20, of Pascoe Vale
Recruited for his youth and no prior convictions, used as a driver who was less likely to attract police attention. Pleaded guilty, awaiting sentencing.
Sarah Blackman, 23, of Wangaratta
No prior convictions, drawn into the syndicate through ex-boyfriend Bradley Whinray and drug use. Booked accommodation and hire cars, packaged drugs. Received a community corrections order.
Rebecca Howarth, 24, of Erina, NSW
Former girlfriend of Aaron Dalton, no prior convictions. Booked accommodation and hire cars, packaged drugs. Pleaded guilty and awaiting sentencing in the Melbourne County Court.