Former Australian lawyer Nicola Gobbo represented an infamous list of Australia's most wanted and dangerous criminals before becoming a police informer.
She was channelling information from the underworld back to Victoria Police during the Melbourne gangland violent clashes in the early 2000s.
ABC investigative journalist Josie Taylor talks to Kathryn Ryan about the trail leading to Gobbo, otherwise known as Lawyer X, who passed on information to police between 2005 and 2009 while acting as a legal adviser for some of the most infamous criminals in Victoria.
Her time as a secret police informer, while also acting as a lawyer, was described by the Victorian Court of Appeal as potentially "the greatest scandal of our time".
Taylor says she remembers Gobbo distinctively from her rookie journalist days as the ABC court reporter at the start of Melbourne’s infamous gangland wars.
“The courts were where all this drama converged and there were so many distinctive and quite charismatic players involved in this drama.
“[Nicola] stood out because she was a woman, frankly, in a world of men in suits.
“She was also a big personality as they say. She liked being noticed … She had a very loud presence, in that she wasn’t afraid to talk and have a joke, you’d hear her laugh carrying across the foyer of the magistrates’ court ... And not just me, everyone noticed her.”
In the background, tensions were brewing between gangs over control of the drug trade and money, with police dealing with more fatal shootings.
“They [the gangs] were fighting over who controlled the drug trade … there was a couple of people who rose to prominence, and one was Carl Williams – he was a very larger than life character. He actually involved and engaged with the media which was unusual.”
Taylor says it was also unusual because of how they appeared – with her describing Williams’ look as an affable suburban bloke.
“They were friendly guys, they had this strange presence in that they seemed quite benign… They didn’t seem like gangsters, but in fact that’s what they were. Carl Williams, although he had a nice smile and he would talk very nicely to journalists and say ‘how are you going Josie’ and crack a joke … but underneath that veneer he was actually planning and carrying out and paying his friends to commit lots of murders.”
The beginnings: ‘Her personal life became her work and vice versa’
Meanwhile, Gobbo was rising in the ranks as an ambitious hard-working lawyer who had a particular skill in bail hearings.
Tony Mokbel – one of the big players in Melbourne’s underworld scene and linked to Williams – got Gobbo to take his case after failing to get bail with other lawyers. She brought in the argument his case compromised by issues of police corruption.
“The taint of some of these detectives who had crossed the line, become criminals themselves, and their cases were starting to hit the Melbourne courts as well, and that coincided with all these drug, gangland, murder cases as well. So the two were intertwined and Nicola Gobbo cleverly picked up on that and used it as an argument,” Taylor says.
“As she became to practice as a barrister, she did quickly gain a reputation for being a good one, she worked really hard. She sort of threw herself into her work to the detriment of her personal life – she didn’t have much of a personal life. But this was part of the problem because her personal life became her work and vice versa.”
From there rumours began to surround her as her boss - who applauded her hard work - suspected she may be hanging out with the wrong crowd after work and socialising with police.
“Which is a big no no for a criminal lawyer who is representing criminals - to hang out with the criminals and police … he said he confronted her about it and she assured him that no, everything was above board and she knew what she was doing," Taylor says.
‘She became so enmeshed in this criminal world’
Even after speaking to Gobbo and reviewing evidence to the Royal Commission - which was sparked to investigate her role as an informer - Taylor is still not entirely sure of all the answers of what caused her to turn, but the history speaks for itself.
“She had already dabbled with speaking to police in the past, as a law student, she ran into trouble with basically her housemate, and at some point a boyfriend, who was a drug dealer, and police had found drugs in the house she shared with him. She decided she would speak to police about his involvement and she had concerns about what he was doing.”
She had the propensity from the get-go to play both sides, Taylor says. Gobbo explains in the ABC podcast Trace: The Informer she felt she had no other choice after getting in too deep with the clients.
“She felt she was being threatened by Carl Williams, that he felt he owned her, that she was one of his crew … she said she was only ever his lawyer, that she didn’t feel she crossed the line.”
Williams was murdered in prison later in 2010.
“The police who were investigating him had other views … and she was being clearly unethical in some of her dealings, and that she was passing on messages, and the she was perhaps actually, in their mind, a criminal figure herself, that she crossed too many lines. She says she never did that and she was just being a good lawyer.
“Whatever the case is, she became so enmeshed in this criminal world … she says she didn’t know how to extricate herself from this, so she felt the safest thing for her to do was to start talking to police, to try and get her own clients locked up to secure her safety.”
Hodson killings: ‘A really dark chapter’
In Royal Commission hearings, police detectives who were dealing with Gobbo all said they believed she might’ve known or suspected, or had some knowledge that Terence Hodson was going to be killed.
Hodson – a middle aged drug dealer - and his wife Christine were killed in what Taylor describes as “one of the most awful and brutal and chilling murders” in Victoria’s history, but remains unsolved.
It all started when Hodson became involved with a corrupt policeman, and they were both caught red-handed after trying to break into a drug safehouse.
Pursued by anti-corruption police and facing charges for the attempted burglary, he agreed to give information. His son recommended none other than Gobbo as his lawyer, but Taylor says she became romantically involved with one of the detectives who was allegedly involved in organising the burglary.
Before Hodson could give evidence, he and his wife were shot dead execution style.
“It was a really messy, and in her words, an unethical situation that she regretted deeply years later.”
Although she denies any prior knowledge of the murders, Gobbo says it was no surprise to her he was murdered given he was talking about police and planned to give evidence.
“That was a really dark chapter, and people who were close to Nicola Gobbo thought that perhaps that chapter did push her into right some wrongs and assist police," Taylor says.
In her years as an informer, police handlers told the Royal Commission she passed on a huge volume of information that overwhelmed them.
“Informers by their very nature are usually criminals who are trying to get out of a sticky situation and their only option is to talk to police. So Nicola Gobbo didn’t fit the mould, she was highly intelligent, charismatic, very confident, out there personality, who was a well-known public figure,” Taylor says.
The police view has often been if they’re getting information that helps lock up criminals, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from, she says.
However, the Royal Commission exposed the dealings as being ethically and, at times, legally very dubious. Police argue they were acting in tough times with more drugs coming in and gang murders.
“The Royal Commission has exposed that in many cases it was not the right thing to do and in fact has unravelled the many convictions that were secured as a result of Nicola Gobbo’s work. Two men have basically had their convictions quashed as a result and many more are appealing.”
‘She was the keeper of so many secrets’
In 2010, Gobbo rang Taylor and outed herself as an informer and told her she would sue the police for failing to protect her as a witness.
“It was all resolved very quickly, which in hindsight, there was a reason for that, because police were desperately trying to protect her status as an informer, and Nicola decided to use this – going public - as leverage against police.”
She won almost $3m in the courts at that time. Her name continued to be suppressed and she was only known as Lawyer X, until the high court in 2019 ruled that it was in the public interest for her identity to be published as the full extent of her involvement began to become clearer.
Taylor says her impression is that Gobbo thrived on the high drama and intensity as it became her new normal, because even after suing the police, she still tried to pass on information even with their pushback. It subsequently has caused her stress-related health problems, she says.
The Victorian Government called for a royal commission. Gobbo says she was advised to not be in Australia at the time and left the country.
Taylor says she lost hope she’d be able to talk to Gobbo again.
“I just assumed she wouldn’t want to be putting her head up and speaking to a journalist … at this stage, her name and face was on every newspaper and TV bulletins – it was a big deal.
“She eventually was in contact and engaged with me again. I have to say, she and I have been in contact - not for a few years leading up to this – but before that.
“I was always wanting to tell her story … I knew she was the keeper of so many secrets and had an amazing, interesting story to tell. I tried to get her on the record many years before, and she never would, it was always not the right time.
“It all became a terrible catastrophe for her personally, and now her life as you can see is in a world of trouble.”
The royal commission, which reported on 30 November, made 111 recommendations – one of which was appointing a special investigator to determine whether Gobbo and police officers broke the law.
Overseeing those recommendations will be former New Zealand judge Sir David Carruthers.